Book of the month: Graeme Armstrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Young Team by Graeme Armstrong (Picador, 2020)

Book of the month: Alicia Yáñez Cossío

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book of the month: Patrícia Melo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book of the month: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book of the month: Sonia Nimr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book of the month: Deepak Unnikrishnan

A few years ago, when I was in UAE for a conference, I took a taxi to check out one of the city’s bookshops. The driver on my return journey was an Indian national who had been in Dubai for more than three decades, having started out on the city’s building sites. As we swept through the sun-bleached streets, past numerous skyscrapers under construction, he painted a picture that jarred sharply with the luxurious surroundings of the hotel to which I was returning.

‘No money, no honey,’ he told me, before explaining the way the average construction worker sweltering on one of the building sites we passed would survive. After rent had eaten up the majority of their income, the worker would have enough to afford to cook some rice and gravy for an evening meal, which they would eke out over several days, taking portions to the building site for lunch. During a 12- or 13-hour shift in temperatures that reach as high as 50 degrees C in the summer, the worker would probably only have one drink, the cost ruling out any more. Any excess money would be sent to family overseas. ‘Life is nothing,’ the driver said. ‘What kind of life can you have like that?’ 

This is one of the questions at the heart of Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People. Stemming from the UAE-born and raised writer’s awareness that the experience of temporary workers (who make up around 80 per cent of the UAE’s population) has rarely been depicted in fiction, the book explores what it means to live at the margins of a society you never have the right to call your home. The many characters who throng the work’s pages vary enormously, from young girls caught up in abuse scandals to would-be dictators, yet they all share the quality of being sidelined, overlooked and denied the space to express themselves and answer their needs.

Language and word play are central. Although writing in English, Unnikrishnan folds terms from tongues including Arabic and Malayalam, as well as a wide array of references (everything from Fawlty Towers to the Ramayana), into the text. In so doing, he creates a series of idiolects informed by the experiences of the characters they depict. Meanwhile, the pointed misspelling of terms such as ‘Amreekun’ and ‘moonseepalty’ in certain mouths, implies a reader fluent in Global English, making many of the speakers outsiders even in their own stories.

The book itself does not fit the form prescribed for it. Although it is set out as a novel and divided into ‘chabter’s, each section presents a new situation and register. Poemlike lists jostle with gritty accounts of police harassment; Kafkaesque depictions of cockroaches becoming increasingly human sit alongside sharp, satirical (and extremely brave) attacks on the regime. There is a hallucinatory quality to much of the writing and yet certain episodes feel startlingly real. The bizarre and the bathetic rub shoulders with the poignant and powerful. There is beauty and humour too.

Inevitably, in such a varied work, some pieces come over more successfully than others. In the case of this book, the resonance and power of many of the ‘chabter’s will depend as much on the knowledge of the reader as on the quality of the writing. With so many references and linguistic games at work, it is nigh-on impossible for anyone to understand everything on a first pass – like the characters on the page, we are excluded from some things too.

The writing is also, at times, disturbingly brutal and graphic. The force of the frustration of so many lives eroded by the perpetual absence of the people and places that define them bursts out in violence and cruelty. From the misogynistic, racist taxi driver whose monologue fills an entire section to the annual purge in the desert (carrying echoes of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’), the text is awash with long-suppressed desires breaking loose with often devastating consequences. For some readers, this will be too much.

But the humanity that flows through the text is ultimately this book’s most powerful force. From the celebration of the ingenuity that allows those denied the space to build a meaningful existence nevertheless to find humour and connection to the possibility of recognition between those coming from entirely different worlds.

Angry and damning though it is, this book is ultimately hopeful. These stories are worth telling, it insists. They are worth recognising and learning from. They deserve to be part of our imaginary universe. They are far from nothing, after all.

Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan (Restless Books, 2017)

Picture: ‘Dubai Marina Construction’ by Anton Bawab on flickr.com

Book of the month: Aleko Konstantinov

One of the extraordinary things about reading books from other cultures is encountering beloved literary figures that have been points of reference for whole nations or language groups but remain unknown to most English speakers. This first happened to me back during my original 2012 quest when I read an unpublished translation of the Mozambican classic Ualalapi and was blown away by its portrayal of the legendary leader Ngungunhane, a towering character with every bit as much tragic power as King Lear or Okonkwo.

Learning about these well-known cultural figures feels a bit like seeing a streetlamp flickering on to reveal a massive monument where before you saw only darkness. It is a startling reminder of how much we miss when we stay within the boundaries of a single language’s literary output.

I had a similar experience reading my latest book of the month, Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian by Aleko Konstantinov, translated by Victor A. Friedman, Christina E. Kramer, Grace E. Fielder and Catherine Rudin. The title came onto my radar when translator Christina E. Kramer, a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Toronto, emailed me about it, mentioning that this was the first English-language version of this nineteenth-century classic, which has long been translated into most other European languages. Intrigued, I plunged in and made the acquaintance of the extraordinary title character some 125 years after he first appeared between the pages of a book.

The work is styled as a novel, but it is really a collection of satirical short stories all featuring the maddening, endearing and sometimes callous rascal Bai Ganyo. Like many nineteenth-century anglophone books, these stories were originally serialised in magazines and newspapers. Indeed, this edition contains several more pieces than appeared in the original collection, published in 1895. As such, an overarching narrative progression is largely absent, although there is a shift in tone, which the translators have recognised by dividing the book into two parts. The first contains a series of light-hearted accounts of Bai Ganyo’s bungling attempts to hawk rose oil in various European cities, narrated by a group of friends vying to amuse one another; the second, much darker section records his cynical attempts to capitalise on corruption when he returns home.

This is an interesting book to read at a time when nationalism is on the rise in many parts of the world because of the way it problematises the concept. While the Bai Ganyo of the first part of the book is staunchly and almost blindly patriotic, the behaviour he and many of the Bulgarians he meets on his travels demonstrate is far from admirable. Indeed, Konstantinov presents many often witty but nonetheless harsh criticisms of national characteristics from jibes at cleanliness and table manners (‘when a Bulgarian slurps, it’s no joke. Three hundred dogs at each other’s throats can’t drown him out’) to portrayals of widespread venality and systemic corruption. Small wonder that while Bai Ganyo and his creator are so celebrated that in 2003 they were depicted on Bulgaria’s 100-lev note, ‘the idea that Bai Ganyo could be construed as representative of a national type is a source of embarrassment,’ as the introduction explains.

It’s often said that humour is hard to translate, yet in this book it comes through loud and clear. As many of the jokes in the first section arise from farcical happenings and physical comedy, there is a universality and immediacy to them that transcends language. Indeed, there is a crudeness to several of the anecdotes (which feature, among other things, a train decked out with soiled nappies instead of flags and an extended search for the toilet) that makes this book seem to come from quite another era than the buttoned-up English-language novels of the late-Victorian period. The most successful passages, however, concern misunderstandings that arise from Bai Ganyo’s naive optimism – as when he pitches up at the house of a world expert on Bulgaria in Prague and presumes he will be welcomed as an honoured guest simply because he hails from the nation.

Many of the later, darker sections will hit home for English speakers too. In an age of fake news and claims of election rigging, it is chilling to read of Bai Ganyo’s nakedly cynical attempts to intimidate voters and found a newspaper for financial gain.

For all its recognisable elements, however, this is not an easy read. The second part becomes relentlessly bleak and cynical at times. There is also the challenge of numerous references to nineteenth-century Bulgarian political and cultural figures whose names will mean nothing to most English speakers. Friedman et al have done their best to elucidate these with footnotes (an understandable choice for a book translated by academics and published by a university press), but these may have an alienating effect for general readers not used to being dragged out of a story to be given context. Even with this background information, the significance of some of the most involved passages may not land for those without detailed knowledge of the Bulgaria of the time.

All the same, readers willing to make the effort (and accept the possibility that some of its elements may not reveal themselves easily, if at all) will find that this book introduces a memorable and striking literary figure whose influence continues to exert itself more than a century after he burst onto the world stage. To make Bai Ganyo’s acquaintance is to come to understand something about the humour and self-image not only of his home country but of humanity as a whole. It’s not an entirely comfortable experience, but memorable encounters rarely are.

Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian by Aleko Konstantinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Victor A. Friedman, Christina E. Kramer, Grace E. Fielder and Catherine Rudin (University of Wisconsin Press, 2010)

Book of the month: Narine Abgaryan

Monasterio Khor Virap, Armenia, 2016-10-01, DD 25

© Diego Delso / CC BY-SA 

This Women in Translation Month, it’s great to be able to feature a female-authored novel from a country that had almost nothing available in English translation when I undertook my 2012 year of reading the world.

Three Apples Fell from the Sky by Moscow-based Armenian writer Narine Abgaryan, translated by Lisa C. Hayden, is a striking and heartwarming read. Set in the remote mountain village of Maran, the novel follows a cast of aging characters facing the slow death of their community and way of life as a series of tragedies and the relentless pull of twentieth-century progress siphon off the young people, leaving the place to decline.

It sounds depressing and yet it isn’t. Although famine, war, domestic violence and natural disasters all feature prominently in the narrative, leaving their scars on the landscape and the characters, life in Maran is studded with moments of joy. Beauty persists in the little things: in homemade bread, a library made bright with flowers and cushions, a friend’s solicitude and the conviction underpinning the novel that ‘life has a way of prevailing against the odds’. Characters who have been laid low by appalling events find themselves taken unawares by kindness, generosity and hope.

There is humour too. Often stemming from bleak events, it is similarly surprising and crystallizes around singular details – fifty-eight-year-old Anatolia’s inability to let go of housekeeping niggles on what she believes is her deathbed, for example, or the way she hides Tolstoy’s books in her library because of his harsh treatment of his female characters. At times, as when a gaggle of villagers have to wrestle a coffin shut because of the corpulence of its occupant, the comedy in the novel can even be grotesque.

Genre-blurring (at least as far as English speakers are concerned) is also a source of surprise in this international bestseller. Much like the rocks beneath Maran’s foundations, the novel shifts ground, moving between a kind of earthy realism, a fable-like timelessness and intense, fantastical episodes that bend the rules of time and space. A white peacock becomes a symbol of wellbeing, a child is able to see angels of death arriving to claim famine victims, and people perform feats far beyond the scope of regular human biology.

Truth marches to an unusual beat in this novel, accompanied by storytelling rhythms that may now and then trip up anglophone readers. The narrative retraces its steps several times over certain key events and the manner in which flashbacks are often introduced may feel jarring to those used to work rooted in Western European traditions. Fittingly for a novel about ‘a place where time had not simply stopped but become confused and dozed off’, the pace is slow, sometimes to the point of being non-existent.

These things make the reading experience challenging at points but ultimately extremely rewarding. They also enable the novel to do two contradictory things: to affirm our common humanity, while revealing and celebrating local distinctiveness and difference. ‘In the end, the sky is always identically blue and the wind blows exactly the same wherever you were lucky enough to be born,’ claims the narrative voice. Well, yes, but as Abgaryan proves in this powerful debut, we don’t all describe these things in the same way – and that is why we need stories.

Three Apples Fell from the Sky by Narine Abgaryan, translated from the Russian by Lisa C. Hayden (Oneworld Publications, 2020)

Book of the month: Gaël Faye

One of the issues you encounter when you set out to read the world is the challenge of working out what makes a book ‘from’ a country. Early on in my original 2012 quest, I decided that for me the answer would have to do with author perspective. In order for a book to fit in one of my national categories, it would need to be written by someone who had strong links with the country in question, most often by having been born there and/or lived there for a significant portion of their lives.

Setting, I decided, would not be a central consideration. British writers wrote novels that roamed across the world, so I didn’t see why I should expect writers in other countries to keep their stories within their own borders – particularly when those borders were often contested or had been imposed by external, colonial powers. For me, it would be about finding out what the world looked like through the eyes of authors in different places, rather than dictating where they should direct their gaze.

Even with this rule of thumb, however, the question of classifying books by country remains problematic. The truth is that, much as it would make life easier for people like me, writers have an inconvenient habit of refusing to stay put. Many of the most internationally successful books are by authors who have connections to multiple nations and cultures – indeed, this is often a crucial part of what makes them such skilled chroniclers of human experience. As a result, many of the books that come to us in translation could arguably represent several nations.

My latest book of the month is a case in point. French-Rwandan author Gaël Faye’s semi-autobiographical novel Small Country, translated by Sarah Ardizzone, has intimate connections with three nations. Presenting the recollections of troubled thirty-something Gaby, who is feeling increasingly alienated from his life in a town near Paris, it records the run up to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and Burundi, presenting a profoundly moving, individual account of events that we in western Europe are perhaps more used to hearing of in terms of numbers.

Books like this stand or fall by the author’s ability to bring traumatic events to life on the page. Faye can certainly do this. With a keen awareness of when to reveal and when to withhold, he leads the reader to the brink of the horrors he describes and then steps back, allowing us to make the leap alone. He gauges well how much reader knowledge he can assume and exploits the tension that an awareness of subsequent events creates, imbuing the joyous descriptions of the run up to Burundi’s first democratic elections with dramatic irony and menace.

What makes this book special, however, is not its deft descriptions of atrocities but rather the way its author handles the normal life that surrounds these events. His depictions of experiences that affect children the world over – family break-up, peer pressure, discovering the joy of reading – are extraordinarily touching and engrossing. Although most of the writing is admirably restrained and precise (credit to translator Sarah Ardizzone here), the book abounds with rich details that bring Burundi, where Gaby and the author spent their childhoods, to life. The descriptions of the sellers in Bujumbura are fabulous, while the account of the ‘suicide-bananas’ – delivery cyclists who zip down the mountain roads at breakneck speed – is so vivid that its almost possible to feel the rush of air as they fly past. There is humour, too, and some memorable observations: ‘Suffering is a wildcard in the game of debate, it wipes the floor with all other arguments’; ‘Genocide is an oil slick; those who don’t drown in it are polluted for life.’

That said, there are times when the writing is overly direct. Now and then, Faye feels the need to state explicitly things that he has already demonstrated, almost as if he doesn’t trust the reader to pick up on his implications. This may be symptomatic of the fact that he is clearly writing with more than half an eye to the French publishing scene and the international market beyond it (and he was right to do so: the book has been translated into 36 languages). Just as Gaby scribbles letters to his French penfriend, Laure, explaining events and local news for her enlightenment and amusement, so you get the sense that Faye is interpreting Burundi and Rwanda’s recent past for his French readers, occasionally a little too explicitly. In place of this, I found myself wishing that we could have returned to the adult Gaby, whose disorientation and fragmentation provide such a powerful opening.

Nevertheless, this is a great novel. Instead of presenting genocide as a carnival of horrors so extreme that it feels another world to those of us with the security and leisure to pick up a book, it brings it frighteningly close – to a childhood with which anyone can identify, wherever they grew up. These events are not far away at all, the novel reveals. The potential for them lurks in every society.

I’m listing Small Country under Rwanda, but really it belongs to the whole world.

Small Country (Petit pays) by Gaël Faye, translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone (Vintage, 2018)

Picture: ‘rwanda’ © Jon Evans on flickr.com

Book of the month: Boubacar Boris Diop

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This book came onto my radar thanks to award-winning translator Jennifer Croft, who mentioned on social media recently that she was obsessed with it. The novel had another claim on my attention too, being the first work to be translated into English from the north-west African language Wolof (although, as co-translator Vera Wülfing-Leckie explains in her introduction, the English version comes from a francophone text also created by celebrated author Boubacar Boris Diop, who usually writes in French rather than his mother tongue).

The premise of Doomi Golo: The Hidden Notebooks is deceptively simple. Coming to the end of his life in Dakar, Senegal, Nguirane Faye sets about recording his thoughts and recollections for the benefit of his absent grandson, Badou, who he hopes will one day return to his native Senegal and unearth his notebooks. What follows, however, is far from straightforward, as time, language and the written form itself bend and snap beneath the weight of Nguirane’s experiences and ideas.

A plethora of techniques are at work here. There are stories within stories, proverbs, voices that interrupt or take over the narrative and digressions galore. Historic events jostle with folklore, hallucinations and memories. Often, Nguirane will pause, mid-flow, to chide or tease his reader for getting exasperated with his meanderings. Sometimes, he will imagine his grandson’s responses and embark on an argument with him – a mechanism that is as touching as it is funny.

At the root of it all, lies the oral tradition (a tradition to which Diop has said he belongs ‘with every fibre of [his] being’). And though the writing is exceptionally deft, sidestepping many of the problems that often beset novels framed as accounts directed at imaginary recipients (which are often weighed down by expository passages too obviously penned for the benefit of the real-world reader), there is a tension between written and spoken that Diop clearly intends us to feel: ‘I would have preferred to talk to you face-to-face, of course, like any storyteller worthy of that name.[…] But, I am writing to you, since that’s my only option,’ laments Nguirane in the opening pages.

This idea of people and stories being forced into frameworks that don’t serve them is a central theme. Time and again, we encounter characters who are obliged to work against their nature and interests, both in terms of the contemporary political system, their own identities and Senegal’s colonial history. ‘Our chains are in our heads, you see,’ cart driver Ousmane Sow tells Nguirane.

With plain speaking often impossible, satire and allegory are the order of the day. Revelling in a mischievousness that once again draws strongly on the oratorical daring of West Africa’s griots, Diop creates a corrupt fictional president, Daour Diagne, only to substitute him with another fictional figure, Dibi-Dibi, who, we are told, will stand in for the former. The implication is clear: by making so much of the fictional figure and its double, Diop is inviting us to draw parallels with Abdoulaye Wade, Senegal’s actual president at the time of the novel’s writing. The double substitution underscores this, while seeming to deny any comparison, thereby emphasising  the threat to free expression that Diop – co-founder of Senegal’s first independent daily newspaper – is keen to highlight. Similar techniques are at work when it comes to Europeans and colonial figures, with monkeys often standing in to bear the brunt of the bitterest truths.

And this is only the start – there are layers within layers in this book. As Wülfing-Leckie explains, many of the incidents and walk-on characters bring with them a train of associations and references to other African novels and key cultural figures. The articulateness of the cart driver Ousmane Sow, for example, is unsurprising when you realise that he is intended to represent the celebrated author and filmmaker Ousmane Sembène.

The genius of this novel, however, is that it does not require you to know any of this to be thoroughly engrossed. The writing is so good – rendered in an accessible, conversational and witty register, with sporadic flights into breathtaking lyricism, by Wülfing-Leckie and El Hadji Moustapha Diop – that it sweeps you along regardless of who or where you are. The storytelling – fractured, thrawn and divorced from its natural framework as it is – keeps the pages flying. Unlike so many clever novels that use their references as barriers to keep out the hoi polloi, this book opens the door to a rich world of ideas and invites the reader in. Marvellous.

Doomi Golo: The Hidden Notebooks by Boubacar Boris Diop, translated from the French/Wolof by Vera Wülfing-Leckie and El Hadji Moustapha Diop (Michigan State University Press, 2016)

Picture by Toon van Dijk on flickr.com