Book of the month: ed. Nikesh Shukla, The Good Immigrant

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One of the main points of this project has always been accessing voices that we don’t hear enough of in the anglophone world. Often, these voices are quite remote: stories by writers in minority languages and marginalised groups from distant regions where little gets picked up for publication and even less makes it through the translation bottleneck into the planet’s most-published language.

However, it’s often easy to forget that there are plenty of underrepresented voices closer to home, such as people writing in languages other than the dominant tongue (like Welsh writer Caryl Lewis, whose novel Martha, Jack and Shanco I read as my UK choice) or those from communities that rarely get the opportunity to tell their stories in their own words.

This is a problem that my November book of the month pick, The Good Immigrant, sets out to tackle head-on. Bringing together essays, think pieces and life writing by 21 black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) writers working in or connected to Britain today, the crowd-funded collection builds a compelling case for the importance of diverse storytelling. It is, as Nikesh Shukla states in his editor’s note, ‘a document of what it means to be a person of colour’ in the UK, assembled in response to ‘the backwards attitude to immigration and refugees, the systemic racism that runs through this country to this day’.

As Shukla’s comments suggest, much of this book does not make for comfortable reading – nor is it meant to. Many of the contributors narrate harrowing incidents that they or their family members have experienced, from being held at knifepoint by skinheads, as has happened to actor Riz Ahmed on several occasions, to receiving a prescription for drugs from a child psychologist in response to suffering racist bullying, as Daniel York Loh recalls.

Many of the anecdotes contain unpleasant surprises for white British readers like me. For example, I was unaware of the extreme abuse often experienced by people of Chinese ethnicity in the UK, but Wei Ming Kam and Vera Chok bring this home memorably, with Chok’s discussion of the sinister objectification of Asian women being particularly powerful.

Alongside these personal and specific examples, a number of the writers expand on larger themes that illuminate the mechanisms of the blindspots and doublethink that make such inhumanity possible. Reni Eddo-Lodge, whose forthcoming Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race promises to be brilliant, is great on the UK’s collective forgetting of black British history, while Sarah Sahim has thought-provoking things to say on Britain’s role in entrenching and solidifying the Hindu caste system.

And lest you get the impression that an uncomfortable read equates to an unpleasant one, it’s important to point out that the book has plenty of beauty, generosity and humour too. Stand-up comedian Nish Kumar’s account of his discovery that his photograph had been appropriated for an internet meme about Muslims (he’s Hindu by origin) is both funny and insightful. In addition, Salena Godden’s wry observations on the illogic of half the world spending money on skin-bleaching while white Brits strip off at the sight of sunlight in hope of a tan in ‘Shade’ – which also contains some of the collection’s most lyrical and playful writing – will no doubt raise a smile.

Perhaps the most important point, however, concerns the significance of complex, diverse storytelling and the role this has in allowing people to imagine and thereby appreciate the humanity and varied difference of those too often squashed into a box labelled ‘other’. This argument is made in many of the pieces, but most strikingly in the several accounts in which BAME actors share their experiences of typecasting and limited opportunity because of the paucity of roles available for people of colour in mainstream British culture. Miss L, for example, describes the day she waited along with her fellow drama students to be told what type of role was likely to be the mainstay of her career. ‘Wife of a terrorist’ was the verdict, a prediction that proved largely accurate, alongside a number of roles as powerless women in arranged marriages.

Representation, these accounts show us, is not enough. The mere tokenistic inclusion of a person from an ethnic minority in a well-worn, two-dimensional role does nothing to enlarge viewers’ or readers’ perspectives. Instead, we need to break free of those familiar narratives – those single stories as Chimanda Ngozi Adichie so memorably dubbed them – and push for a vast array of complex, challenging and even conflicting accounts.

This is important within nations like Britain, as much as across borders, because, as Bim Adewunmi puts it in ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Tokenism’, the superficial and inadequate representation of minorities in the stories we consume ‘leaks into the everyday too – if you cannot bring yourself to imagine us as real, rounded individuals with feelings equal to your own on screen, how does that affect your ability to do so when you encounter us on the street, at your workplace, in your bed, in your life?’

And if you wanted an example of the real-life consequences of such tokenism, the final piece in the book by British-Ugandan writer Musa Okwonga provides a salutary vision of the harm that insufficiently diverse representation can cause. As one of a handful of black students at the elite schools and university he attended, Okwonga felt an ‘ambassadorial responsibility’ to represent not simply himself but all those who shared his ethnicity to his white peers, holding himself to impossible standards in an exhausting effort to be a walking billboard for his race.

The encouraging news is that most of the writers of The Good Immigrant appear to believe that change is possible, that Britain for all its flaws and challenges has the potential to do better in the way it treats and values its citizens. Although many are saddened by the events of recent years – Okwonga, for example recounts his decision to leave the UK for Germany in search of greater tolerance and inclusiveness – the contributors seem to have faith in the power of storytelling and the healing quality of human connection, a sentiment Salena Godden expresses beautifully towards the end of her piece:

‘Human colour is the colour I’m truly interested in, the colour of your humanity. May the size of your heart and the depth of your soul be your currency. Welcome aboard my Good Ship. Let us sail to the colourful island of mixed identity. You can eat from the cooking pot of mixed culture and bathe in the cool shade of being mixed-race. There is no need for a passport. There are no borders. We are all citizens of the world. Whatever shade you are, bring your light, bring your colour, bring your music and your books, your stories and your histories, and climb aboard.’

The Good Immigrant, ed. Nikesh Shukla (Unbound, 2016)

Picture: ‘Know Your Rights’ by alister on flickr.com

Book of the month: Saskia De Coster

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Moving house is a chance to reflect on many things. As I wrote in my post about packing up my year of reading the world bookshelf, my recent change of address led me to ponder this project and the many different people and ideas to which it introduced me anew.

I also found that it reintroduced me to a lot of other books – not least some of the many volumes on my to-read mountain. Since 2012, this has grown to a massive size. Barely a days goes by without someone contacting me or leaving a comment here suggesting another intriguing book.

Publishers are no exception. I often get emails from presses keen to send me copies of their latest releases in the hope that I might write about them on this blog. I’m always glad to hear about great books, but I’m also very honest with companies that contact me like this: because I only choose one book to feature each month, I am unlikely to review most of the books publishers send me. Indeed, I can count on one hand the number of review copies I have written about here.

Still, last month, as I was packing up, I happened upon an uncorrected proof sent to me by World Editions earlier this year. It was for the English-language version of Wij en ik (We and Me) by Belgian writer Saskia De Coster, translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier.

The accompanying publicity material was impressive. This was, according to World Editions, ‘a brilliant, incisive novel’. Indeed, they went so far as to call it a European response to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

If that weren’t curiosity-piquing enough, the cover of the proof bore a ringing endorsement from Dutch author Herman Koch, whose Summer House with Swimming Pool I read recently and enjoyed. And so, taking the book up from the stack on which it had languished for half a year, I put the packing on hold for a bit and began to read.

The novel follows the fortunes of the Vandersanden family, spanning more than three decades from 1980 until almost present-day. Living in a housing estate high up a mountain, megalomaniac Mieke, her taciturn husband Stefaan and their increasingly wilful and non-communicative daughter Sarah move through their days in isolation, caught in a web of silence that threatens to strangle them all. Through their stories and those of the community around them, De Coster paints a devastating picture of the modern-day nuclear family, revealing how loneliness can be threaded through the most intimate relationships of all.

The comparison of De Coster to Franzen is understandable, but somewhat limited. Although the two share an expansiveness to their writing and a willingness to devote pages to teasing out minutiae that most writers would baulk at for fear of readers’ ever-shrinking attention spans, the Belgian author’s prose has a quality all its own.

At her best she gets inside the heads of her characters to the extent that the whole world and the images used to portray it are coloured and slanted by their specific neuroses and concerns. When we look through the eyes of Mieke – whose days consist of an obsessional round of domestic chores – life explains itself by way of housework metaphors, whereas increasingly paranoid Stefaan sees reality in terms of political plots and intrigues.

There are some lovely instances of humour too. De Coster delights in bathos, frequently undercutting her creations’ pretensions or delusions with sharp one-liners that stay just the right side of bitter.

In time, however, this falls away and in the second half of the book the narrative takes flight, steering an exhilarating course between the peaks and valleys of the emotional landscape, revealing stunning vistas and terrifying cliffs.

This is not a perfect novel. There are some clunky word choices and overworked imagery. Observations such as the would-be bon mot that ‘rain in Belgium is like the great leader in a dictatorship: it pops up everywhere’ feel laboured and unnecessary.

At times the pacing jolts, jerking us abruptly from one scene to the next. And although the shifts of perspective from one character’s mind to the next often feel natural and fluid, there are points at which they bewilder.

The biggest issue concerns the mysterious ‘we’ of the title – a strange disembodied consciousness that creeps into the story at odd moments, commenting on the action in the manner of a Greek chorus. Although this occasionally adds a nice sense of mystery, it is not developed enough to merit its place and feels rather like scaffolding that may have helped in the construction of the narrative but would have been best taken down to show off the finished work.

These near misses are symptomatic of the risks writers must take to do exciting, new things, however. And there can be no doubt that, for all its imperfections, this is a bold and daring book. The epigraph from Virginia Woolf is a key to De Coster’s ambitions for her story: ‘To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face.’

For my money, she has achieved this. Uneven though it may be, We and Me contains startling truths about the way we live and die. To read this story is to be changed by it.

Thanks for sending me the proof, World Editions. I wonder what other delights are lurking in my mountains of unread books…

We and Me (Wij en ik) by Saskia De Coster, translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier (World Editions, 2016)

By the way, it’s been great to see such a brilliant response to Postcards from my bookshelf – nearly 120 entries in the week since it went live. If you haven’t applied yet but would like to be in with a chance of receiving a book chosen by me next year, visit the post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read.

Book of the month: Roland Rugero

 

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It’s always a joy to hear of new publications of works from countries that have little or no commercially available literature in English translation.

The east African nation of Burundi is a prime example. Back during my project to read a book from every country in the world in a year, I could find no fiction translated from either French or Kirundi, the nation’s two official languages at the time (English was made an official language in 2014). In the end, I was indebted to the Burundian academic Marie-Thérèse Toyi, who generously couriered me a copy of her self-published English-language work Weep Not, Refugee so that I could read a novel from her homeland.

Until this month, that book was the only fiction I had read from Burundi. But now, thanks to a new publication brought out by Phoneme Media, that has changed.

Christopher Schaefer’s translation of Roland Rugero’s second novel Baho! is, according to its publisher, the first full-length work of fiction by a Burundian author to be translated into English. Certainly my research supports this claim (although I’d love to hear from you if you know differently). As such, the book is something of a landmark and another welcome step in the much-needed drive to bring more Francophone African literature into the world’s most-published language.

The novel centres around a misunderstanding in a fictional rural region, called Kanya. When mute teenager Nyamuragi’s attempts to ask directions are misunderstood as an attempt to rape a local girl, his community is thrown into uproar. As feelings spill over into a desire for mob justice, the fragile peace of the area is shattered, revealing the fault lines left by the nation’s recent traumatic past.

This is a striking and surprising book. With snatches of story and backstory told from diverse perspectives, as well as numerous digressions on big questions such as the purpose of art and how the fact that Kirundi has the same word for ‘tomorrow’ and ‘yesterday’ may elucidate the characters’ relationship with time, the book bristles with insights into the culture in which it is set. I was particularly struck by a passage that explores how the violent events of the recent past have ruptured and warped the language, making people reach for ever more outrageous things to swear by because ‘with all this death among us, […] speech has become divided, multiplied, and fragmented. Its unity has been irreparably shattered. So we no longer believe in the curse or the consequences it invokes.’

There is a directness and freshness to some of the writing, which reminds me of certain passages of Weep Not, Refugee in which Toyi, much like Rugero, seems to reach from the text to grab readers by the shoulders and make us listen. Although the 1993 genocide is not much mentioned and, as Schaefer points out in his ‘Translator’s Note’, the words ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’ appear only once in the book, the sense that trauma has remoulded society underpins each page. We see it in the way people’s judgment is ‘clouded by the violence’ and ‘the obsessive fear of rape has haunted this country’s women’.

Other historical influences pervade the text too. We see the fusion of colonial and indigenous culture in the way Rugero weaves and sometimes smashes together the French literary tradition, Biblical references, and Burundian oral tales and proverbs. Kirundi peppers the text and numerous passages reveal an inventive approach to structure and narrative – an example being the chapter at the market, which is told purely in unattributed dialogue, so that it seems that we as readers are standing in the press of the crowd, able only to make out a series of disembodied shouts and comments.

That said, not all of the book is successful. Even taking into account the author’s assertion to Schaefer that he has deliberately mimicked the Burundian oral tradition of shifting perspectives and the trait of sometimes overwhelming listeners with contradictory information in conversation, the narrative makes for a patchy and sometimes frustrating read.  Although some of the imagery is arresting, there are a number of odd descriptions and awkward word choices (whether Rugero’s or Schaefer’s) that obscure and muddy the sense. A number of sentences are so cluttered with adjectives that it feels like trying to pick your way through an obstacle course. The ending is also a little bald.

But perhaps much of this is fitting in a novel that centres around a misunderstanding, in which communication is examined and found wanting. In testing the limits of the novel form with the weight of structures it does not often bear, Rugero is doing important work – and it is inevitable that there will be a few creaks and cracks along the way.

Problems aside, there is no question that this book is a welcome addition to the English-language world. By virtue of its very existence, it opens the way for the creation and dissemination of more stories from regions and communities that are too often overlooked. As I know from my conversations with writers like Marie-Thérèse Toyi , the mere existence of books by a compatriot can give an aspiring storyteller courage to try to express themselves in words. May there soon be many more.

Baho! by Roland Rugero, translated from the French by Christopher Schaefer (Phoneme Media, 2016)

WITmonth pick #5: Lina Meruane

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When I tweeted that I was reading Seeing Red by Chilean writer Lina Meruane last month, @infinitetexts responded: ‘hold on tight. It’s a brilliant ride!’ It turned out to be good advice because this slender work, my fifth and last pick of the 17 books I read during Women in Translation month, is a roller coaster of a story.

The autobiographical novel follows the fortunes of Lina, a doctoral student in New York who loses her sight after a stroke. Forced to depend more and more on her boyfriend, Ignacio, and relatives back in Chile, the fiercely intelligent, ambitious and self-reliant protagonist has to renegotiate her relationships with those around her and the world. As she does so, she is obliged to look at life, humanity, the body and science afresh.

Meruane’s ability to take readers into the experience of sight loss is extraordinary. Her descriptions are fresh, immediate and memorable, inviting comparisons with passages from Nobel Prize winner José Saramago’s great novel Blindness. Although the catastrophe that Meruane evokes is private and individual, as opposed to the public and universal breakdown of society that Saramago depicts, it is every bit as engrossing and devastating. In this narrative we discover that to lose your sight is to risk losing your self – an eventuality which could cost you the world as utterly as any mass outbreak of sightlessness might.

At root, this is a book about what happens when the familiar suddenly becomes strange, rendering the methods by which we have known and judged the things around us useless. It reveals what happens when the known is made mysterious – when simple acts such as moving around your apartment or recognising an acquaintance turn into minefields, when the street ceases to be a place and becomes instead ‘a crowd of sounds all elbowing and shoving’. In showing us life through a scuffed lens, the novel helps us to look at everyday occurrences differently.

The idea that blindness opens up alternative channels of vision and insight is hardly new – storytellers have been playing with it since the creation of the first Ancient Greek myths involving the blind prophet Tiresias and probably long before that. Yet, in Meruane’s hands, the familiar trope takes on a fresh urgency, helped by startling language use and imagery that makes the text leap from the page. Indeed, praise is due to translator Megan McDowell, who has not only managed to deliver an English version full of surprising and challenging repurposements of words, but also had to contend with a scene in which Lina and Ignacio try to do a crossword – surely no easy thing to bring successfully from one language to another.

The consequence of the odd brilliance of the prose, which is sometimes bewildering in its breathlessness, is that it makes reading itself strange. Much like the protagonist, who has to remake her interaction with texts by way of audiobooks, we also have to relearn to read in order to inhabit this novel. And just as Lina stumbles over the once mundane objects of her life, we may find ourselves blundering between sentences, having to stop now and then to reorientate ourselves and ensure that our interpretation is on track.

The result is powerful and memorable. Although I wish Meruane had opted for a different final sentence (the existing one being a little on-the-nose for my liking), there is no doubt that this book is a valuable addition to the literature of blindness, as well as an excellent read. It is exhilarating – a brilliant ride as @infinitetexts said. I came away with my vision sharpened and my head spinning.

Seeing Red (Sangre en el ojo) by Lina Meruane, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Deep Vellum, 2016)

Picture: ‘Blurred vision’ by Judy on flickr.com

WITmonth pick #4: Abnousse Shalmani

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There can be few more striking juxtapositions than the one found in the title of Abnousse Shalmani’s memoir Khomeini, Sade and Me. Indeed, it’s unlikely that the names of the ultra-conservative founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the notorious French aristocrat who penned some of the most violent and explicit literature ever published have ever found themselves staring at each other over a comma before.

The jarring effect of the title is entirely fitting, however, for it encapsulates the gulf that its author has crossed in the course of her life – a feat that forms the basis of this, her first book. Jumping from her childhood to her present-day existence, as well as to many incidents in between, the narrative records the reasons for and consequences of Shalmani’s atheist family’s decision to leave Iran for France a few years after the 1979 revolution. In so doing, it provides a framework for the writer to set out and interrogate the conflicting forces that shaped her, as well as to explore the immigrant experience, and build passionate arguments for equality and free expression.

The controversy inherent in the title is reflected on every page. This is an angry book and Shalmani pulls no punches in pillorying Khomeini and the fundamentalist men and women – dubbed ‘Beards’ and ‘Crows’ – who champion a creed to which she cannot subscribe. Many of her arguments, such as her vehement opposition to Muslim women wearing the veil, make for challenging reading – particularly in light of France’s recent burkini scandal.

Shalmani is well aware of this. For many, she writes, she will be ‘just a woman that comes off as a racist when she fears for the future of other women’, yet she will not give ground in the face of those for whom ‘open-mindedness is just a way of washing their hands of the matter’. Indeed, she makes no attempt to help her case or soften her words, thinking nothing of dismissing those who disagree as ‘idiots’.

The reasons for Shalmani’s vehemence are two-pronged and have their roots in the men featured in the title of her book. On the one hand, there is the extreme suffering that she and her family went through when their values clashed with those of their homeland’s new regime; for Shalmani this plays out particularly strongly in gender issues and the attempt to police women’s bodies not just in Iran but throughout the world because ‘each culture has its own women’s prison’. On the other hand, there is the ‘divine Marquis’, whose writings remade her and changed her thinking for good.

The most extraordinary passages are those in which Shalmani writes about her encounters with libertine literature – which she accessed first, surprisingly, with the help of her father who ‘firmly believed that there is no crime worse than censorship’. When writing about how reading Sade’s scenes of unparalleled depravity made her fearless and free in her thinking, staunch in her defence of free expression, and exhilarated about what words can do to expand horizons and change minds, she is magnificent. (Indeed, she is a much bolder reader than I am: I once opened The 120 Days of Sodom in a bookshop and had to put it back on the shelf after a paragraph because I was feeling sick…)

With such a literary hero, it is small wonder that Shalmani does not shrink from causing offence and expressing herself as powerfully as she can. This does her work a disservice occasionally. At points, it makes her writing seem as dogmatic as the teachings of those she attacks. In addition, the fervour with which she expresses love and admiration for her adopted country, France, can sometimes sound a little naive.

On the whole, though, her passion is compelling. Many readers will not agree with all she says and some may be offended, but that is, in a way, the point: this book is a reminder that outrage should be part of the reading experience. It demonstrates that words ought to stretch, challenge and unsettle us. And it is a stark demonstration of the terrible things that can happen when there is no space left in which to question or offend.

Khomeini, Sade and Me (Khomeini, Sade et moi) by Abnousse Shalmani, translated from the French by Charlotte Coombe (World Editions, 2016)

Picture: (TEDxParis Nov2015) Abnousse Shalmani (2) by Olivier Ezratty on flickr.com

WITmonth pick #3: Svetlana Alexievich

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When Swedish chemist, engineer and armaments manufacturer Alfred Nobel left money in his will for the establishment of an annual literary prize at the end of the 19th century, he stipulated that the award should recognise an author who has produced ‘the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’. Since the Nobel prize in Literature was first awarded in 1901, various winners have proved controversial, with some commentators and interested parties objecting to the decisions of the Swedish Academy.

For example, when Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk won the accolade in 2006, not long after charges that his work was guilty of ‘insulting Turkishness’ were dropped, there was uproar in his homeland. Similarly, when exiled Chinese writer Gao Xingjian received the honour in 2000, China congratulated France on the news, pointedly disowning the first ever literary Nobel laureate born within its borders.

Indeed, when you think about it, such controversy is unsurprising: with so many exceptional writers working away around the globe, the idea that it should be possible to pick one a year to honour as outstanding is problematic. Whoever the Swedish Academy chooses, it’s likely that someone will have other ideas.

Or so I thought, until I read Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future by Belarusian investigative journalist and writer Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year.

Twenty years in the making, this extraordinary book consists of the curated accounts of many of those who lived through (and continue to feel the effects of) the Chernobyl disaster. It was in part prompted by the fact that, although the nuclear-power plant where the accident happened was in Ukraine, a combination of meteorological, geographical and political factors meant that Belarus suffered terribly, such that at the time Alexievich wrote the book, one in five Belarusians lived in the contaminated zone and only one in four died of old age.

Through her conversations with people involved with the incident at every level – from local villagers and clean-up workers to scientists, lecturers and former officials, as well as returnees, outlaws and immigrants now deliberately living in the affected area, and even herself – Alexievich presents a powerful document that uses the horror of what happened to interrogate identity, history and the way that this event has shaken and reshaped the future not only of her nation, but of the world.

The secret to the book’s power is its focus on the personal and the specific. Opening with a lengthy and heartrending account by Lyudmila, the widow of a fireman sent to tackle the blaze at the power plant in nothing but his shirt sleeves with the result that his body disintegrated over the weeks that followed, the narrative sets out insight after insight into the painfully inadequate responses we human beings exhibit in the face of the unthinkable. Through this, we see delineated our reluctance to accept catastrophic change – as revealed by the fact that shops continued to set out trays of pastries as the dust cloud blew over and in the initial excitement of evacuees at the thought of a weekend away – and the distressing ubiquity of selfishness that led many to barter the safety of others in their own interests. In addition, the terrible resignation of a generation of children robbed of their futures speaks plainly in anecdotes such as the account of the young boy who, when chided by a fellow bus passenger for not giving up his seat with the warning that if he does not do so he will have to stand in his dotage, replies coldly that he knows he will never be old.

There is humour in the midst of the bleakness. I defy you not to smile at the story of the success of ‘Chernobyl produce’ in the markets of surrounding cities, where allegedly contaminated apples get snapped up as gifts for bosses and mothers-in-law.

And powerful though the human stories are, some of the most disturbing passages are those that reveal how nature itself was thrown out of whack by the accident. Details such as the revelation that flowers lost their scent and bees stayed in their hives for several days after the blasts are chilling.

These observations – testament to Alexievich’s skill in winning her subjects’ time and trust – ground the narrative, engross the reader and provide the author with the foundation to build some devastating arguments that the text’s emotional clout makes it impossible to ignore. There are many of these – including fascinating explorations of self-sacrifice and the tragic consequences of the Soviet ideal of putting the collective before the individual, which may have led some to take suicidal risks out of a misplaced desire to be heroic.

However, the most compelling points for many readers who, like me, are hundreds of miles from the scene of the accident, must be the passages that show how Chernobyl has changed the lives of everyone around the world. For all that foreign journalists arrived to cover the incident swathed in protective clothing, what happened has got under everyone’s skin, Alexievich contends. This is true not only because of the radionuclides the explosions spread across the globe, which will endure for 200,000 years, but also because ‘in the space of one night we shifted to another place in history’.

In this new place, ‘near’ and ‘far’ are redundant terms because we have been revealed to be vulnerably interconnected. It is a world where traditional concepts of evil fall apart and the language we have to describe disaster crumbles because the greatest threat comes not from an external enemy, but from something we have created ourselves. It is a reality that our brains are not fully equipped to comprehend, an existence where home can become uninhabitable, where trees can groan under the weight of toxic fruit, and where the damage from a single event is inflicted not all at once, but over time, spooling on to warp the lives of those not yet born.

That Svetlana Alexievich manages to get us to appreciate so much about what Chernobyl means – that she enables us to contemplate the unimaginable – marks her out as a truly great writer. This work is outstanding. Were he able to look forward into the future, the inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel, would probably have shuddered at the sort of explosions human beings acquired the power to create a few decades after his death. But I believe he would have found the author of this exceptional work well worthy of the prize to which he gave his name.

Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future by Svetlana Alexievich, translated from the Russian by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait (Penguin Classics, 2016)

Picture: ‘Libro abandonado en Chernóbil‘ by tridecoder on flickr.com

WITmonth pick #2: Paulina Chiziane

Woman voters stand on line at a rural polling station in Catembe on the second day of the elections. 28/Oct/1994. Catembe, Mozambique. UN Photo/Pernaca Sudhakaran. www.unmultimedia.org/photo/

I have been wanting to read this book for more than four years. It came onto my radar during my Year of Reading the World in 2012, when I was finalising my choice for Mozambique. As I wrote in my post at the time, I had actually just read a novel by Mozambican writer Mia Couto and was planning to post about it, when a comment from Miguel made me think twice.

Mia Couto was a literary cliché, he said. I should try to find something else – and Niketche by Paulina Chiziane, the nation’s first-published female novelist, would be a good starting point.

Loathe to be thought to have plumped for a cliché, I embarked on a quest to find an English version of Niketche, which did seem to have been published in translation. But when I contacted the publisher, it turned out that the firm had folded before it was able to release the book. A finished English-language version did not exist.

All was not lost as far as a good alternative to Mia Couto was concerned, however, as this conversation led to the manuscript translation of the extraordinary Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa, an amazing book that richly deserves an English-language deal.

Yet, while Ualalapi still awaits an anglophone publisher, the last few years have brought good news for Chiziane’s novel. This summer, Archipelago Books launched a version titled The First Wife, translated by David Brookshaw, and I lost no time in snapping up a copy.

As the title suggests, the novel is about marriage – albeit in a rather different form to that which many of us in the English-speaking world are used to, at least at first glance. When Rami discovers that her husband of 20 years, police chief Tony, has been secretly conducting a series of concurrent, long-term extra-marital relationships – effectively practising a form of polygamy – she reacts furiously. Yet her anger quickly gives way to a desire to understand and challenge the warped gender dynamics that have seen her and so many women like her marginalised and silenced across the generations.

Embarking on a journey of personal discovery that leads her to question the traditions and assumptions that have shaped her life, Rami visits dubious love counsellors and wizards, and eventually joins forces with her husband’s unofficial wives to right the wrongs they suffer. In so doing, she reveals the extraordinary potential of female solidarity and exposes the hollowness of patriarchal power – uncovering a self-perpetuating system, in which those who appear to wield influence and to gain from inequality are often the most deluded and damaged of all.

This is a powerful and angry book. Portraying the myriad injustices to which Rami and her contemporaries are subject – from a welter of myths about women’s evilness and tendency to precipitate natural disasters, through cultural rules that dictate men should receive the best parts of the chicken to eat, to the appalling treatment of widows, whose possessions can be appropriated by their in-laws and whose bodies can be commandeered by their brothers-in-law for ‘sexual purification’ – Chiziane reveals the ‘litany that has sent women to sleep down the ages’.

Yet, for all its fury, the narrative is underpinned by an appreciation of the interconnectedness of the human experience. To Chiziane, the suffering experienced by her female characters is part of a loop of wrongdoing and hurt, in which all people are implicated. Rather than women against men, or them and us, gender inequality as seen through this author’s eyes is part of a wider, skewed system, which it behoves all humankind to correct. This is neatly summed up in the description of the ‘cycle of subordination’:

‘The white man says to the black man: It’s your fault. The rich man says to the poor man: It’s your fault. The man says to the woman: It’s your fault. The woman says to her son: It’s your fault. The son says to the dog: It’s your fault. The dog barks furiously and bites the white man, and the white man once again angrily shouts at the black man: It’s your fault. And so the wheel turns century after century ad infinitum.’

This clear-eyed evaluation of the causes of subjection makes Rami’s discovery of her own agency and worth deeply touching. I was moved to tears by several passages towards the end of the novel, in which she and her friends revel in their femininity and celebrate womanhood – free at last from the mental fetters that formerly made them resent their gender.

The writing is urgent and surprising. As in Ualalapi, there are images that leap from the page and delight with their freshness. That said, there are a number of mixed metaphors that obstruct the sense. In addition, some English-language readers may struggle with the unfamiliar pacing, which makes some events seem rather abrupt, while other minor incidents stretch on for pages. Similarly, several episodes and thought processes are recounted on more than one occasion, which can be a little discombobulating.

These niggles are really beside the point, though. In addition to being a work of great imagination and creativity, this is an important book. As well as setting out a story that enables readers to feel the necessity of challenging patriarchal norms, it provides a compelling comment on the long shadow of colonialism and telling insights into the way tradition moulds minds.

Hats off to Archipelago Books for bringing this towering work to the English-speaking world. Might I persuade you to take on Ualalapi next?

The First Wife (Niketche) by Paulina Chiziane, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw (Archipelago Books, 2016)

Picture: ‘Elections in Mozambique’ by United Nations Photo on flickr.com

WITmonth pick #1: Lena Andersson

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At the start of August, I made a promise. I wrote a post pledging to read lots of translated books by women in a bid to find a truly brilliant female-authored translated title to feature as my book of the month. This was going to be my small contribution to Women in Translation Month, a campaign now in its third year, aiming to tackle the disproportionately small number of books by women that get English-language translation deals.

The first part of the pledge was easy. Drawing on a range of personal recommendations, comments on here, things I’d been wanting to tackle for ages and some excellent lists put together by supporters of the campaign, I read my way through 17 works, tweeting the titles as I went.

In fact, I was reading at roughly the same rate as I did during my original quest to read the world back in 2012. And just like that journey, this challenge took me to some intriguing places. From a remote girls’ boarding school in the mountains of Rwanda to Park Slope in Brooklyn and from 1980s China to 16th-century Peru, I found myself transported beyond the bounds of my imagination by the writers’ skill.

So far, so good. But then I was faced with the second part of the challenge: choosing one title to tell you about.

Here I came unstuck. There were simply too many excellent and extraordinary books among the selection for me to settle for reviewing just one. And so, in recognition of the fact that my original quest featured far more books by men than by women, I have decided to take this opportunity to redress the balance a little. I have selected five titles to review and add to the List over the next couple of weeks (in addition, of course, to redoubling my commitment to seek out great books by writers of all genders to feature at other times).

And so, without further ado, here is the first of the bunch.

If you ever need proof that a story does not need to be original to be powerful, you need look no further than Swedish writer Lena Andersson’s Wilful Disregard. On the face of it, this slender novel tells a story so familiar you could barely call it a plot: Ester, a poet and essayist in her early 30s, falls for Hugo, an older artist, and has to deal with the painful consequences when her passion is not returned.

It sounds mundane. And yet the quotidian nature of the storyline is the secret of this book’s success. With no narratological fireworks to wow readers and no twists to keep the pages turning, it is left to Andersson and her translator Sarah Death to make the novel compelling by use of language and description alone.

And my goodness, they certainly do.

Andersson sets out her stall in the opening pages by showing us what words mean to her poet protagonist. Language, we learn, is only ever ‘an approximation’. As a result, ‘the dreadful gulf between thought and words, will and expression, reality and unreality, and the things that flourish in that gulf, are what this story is about.’ Indeed, at times, the impossibility of capturing things with words almost seems too much for Ester and her creator alike:

‘How can one portray a human being from the inside in language or imagery without the transmission process introducing a false note? That’s the question. Metaphorizing feelings can only lead away from those feelings.’

And yet, as so often happens when a writer expresses her frustrations at the limitations of her art, great writing is frequently in evidence in this book. It takes the form of succinct evocations and spare, precise descriptions amid a welter of rich perceptions about what human beings think and do. Some of these, such as the way obsession unfolds and the means by which we sabotage ourselves in the eyes of those we most want to charm, are timeless, but there are observations that feel very much of the moment too. The reflections on the torments experienced by anyone waiting for a text message from a love interest are particularly telling.

There’s humour in there too. The restaurant scene where Ester finds herself unable to order the same dessert as Hugo because she is cross with him and can’t appear to agree with him about anything is wonderful.

Indeed, the universality of so much of the story can make its local distinctiveness jar when it appears. There are episodes where Ester is direct in a way quite foreign to a British reader, but probably entirely natural to a resident of Stockholm.

And while we’re on the text’s disconcerting aspects, it must be said that not all Andersson’s pared-back descriptions find their mark. A few of the metaphors are distractingly odd and there are occasional word choices and repetitions (whether reflected in the original or introduced at the translation stage) that jolt and tremble the smooth train of the narrative.

But really these quibbles are nothing when set against the pleasure that comes from being absorbed in this story. Some books turn their own pages for you and this is such a one. Please Picador, can we have some more Lena Andersson in English?

Wilful Disregard by Lena Andersson, translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death (Picador, 2015)

Picture: Youthful Romance: The east end of Kungsholmen in Stockholm, Sweden by Let Ideas Compete on Flickr.com

Book of the month: Vladimir Bartol

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Some books stay with you. Slovenian writer Vladimir Bartol’s Alamut is a good example. It was recommended to me back in February 2013 by oblakales, who left a comment saying that ‘If you’re fond of historical novels I would strongly recommend the novel Alamut by Vladimir Bartol. I think it’s the most widely translated Slovenian novel. It’s about a group of soldiers in medieval middle east and the entire novel serves as an allegory of Fascism in Europe.’

I have to confess I’m not overly fond of historical novels, however I try to keep an open mind about these things and so, when I was rooting through blog visitors’ comments for new things to read early last year, I resolved to get myself a copy. I did this partly because I liked oblakales’s enthusiasm and partly because English translations of Slovenian novels are pretty thin on the ground. Given how unusual the novel I’d read from Slovenia during my quest was, I was curious to see what else the nation’s literature had in store.

As I had been with Luka Novak’s The Golden Shower or What Men Want (trans. Urška Charney), I was in for a surprise. When I started to read Alamut, I found myself plunged into an entirely unexpected world: an 11th-century Persian fortress, where the leader of an Islamic sect has come up with an ingenious and disturbing strategy for brainwashing his soldiers (or fedayeen): recreating paradise on earth.

A second surprise came when I started to research the book. Not only was the novel the most internationally renowned of Slovenia’s titles, as oblakales had suggested, but it was also the inspiration for the hit computer game Assassin’s Creed.

This was not what I might have expected from a Slovenian novel published in 1938 on the brink of the second world war, but it was intriguing. I read on, absorbed, finished the book and moved on to the next title on the to-read mountain.

In the months that followed, however, I found the story surfacing again and again in my mind. When the Huffington Post invited me to share some reading recommendations, I included it in my list. When I was invited to contribute to Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created, a book about imaginary dystopian societies being published by Hachette this November, I decided to write about the nightmarish, yet weirdly alluring fortress of Alamut.

Then, when I was pondering which title to feature this month, the novel popped up again. ‘Pick me! Pick me!’ it seemed to whisper from the stack of books heaped above my desk. I could tell by the way it looked at me that if I didn’t write about it, I would get no peace. And so, here goes…

There’s no question that the staying power of Bartol’s novel is the result of its rich, engrossing and terrifying world. Home to ‘an experiment in altering human nature’, the fortress allows its author to test human nature to its limits. As its frighteningly persuasive ruler probes and manipulates the desires of the youths under his control, steeling them to fight to the death, we witness the mechanisms of radicalisation first hand.

This is especially striking because, at the same time as laying bare Sayyiduna’s sinister methods, Bartol reveals how enticing his ideology is. He does this by showing it to us initially through the eyes of two newcomers, harem initiate Halima and aspiring warrior ibn Tahir. From their perspective the fort is, at least at first, a place of intrigue and delight. Wandering through its secret tunnels with them, discovering all the twists in Sayyiduna’s terrible scheme, we are at once charmed and appalled. Alamut (the book and the place) is a marvellous creation, in which we luxuriate, lulled by Bartol’s lavish descriptions and masterful use of suspense, reading on in spite – or perhaps because – of the unease that seeps through the cracks. Radicalisation, we learn, is at its most terrifying when it wears a smiling face.

Small wonder then that oblakales – along with many others – reads the novel as an allegory for the Fascism that was sweeping Europe at the time its author retreated to a mountain hideaway to write. And it’s little surprise, too, that others have found elements of the story echoed in Tito’s Yugoslavia and the Balkan war. No doubt, many 21st-century readers in their turn will identify parallels with other forms of ideological coercion and control exerted over impressionable young people today.

The fact that we can read the novel in so many ways points us towards its central message: more frightening than any particular ideology is the human willingness to follow charismatic rulers unquestioningly. As Sayyiduna recognises, his power consists in the fact that ‘people wanted fairy tales and fabrications and they were fond of the blindness they blundered through’.

Ultimately, this is a book about the power of stories to control and remake us. There can be few themes more calculated to obsess a writer than that.

Alamut by Vladimir Bartol, translated from the Slovenian by Michael Biggins (North Atlantic Books, 2011)

Book of the month: Eduardo Halfon

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It’s been a difficult week here in the UK and for many of us there is great uncertainty about the future. One thing I am sure of, however, is that – now more than ever – we English speakers must read and listen to the stories of people who use other languages. From what I have learnt over more than four years of global literary exploration, this is one of the surest and best ways to further our understanding and appreciation of the way those in other places see the world.

Translation gives us the gift of looking through the eyes of all humanity. By borrowing others’ perspectives, in the special way that stories allow us to do, we enlarge and enrich our seeing. We will need that vision more profoundly than ever in the challenging months ahead.

With that in mind, it’s my pleasure to share a wonderful novel from a nation that, to date, has had almost none of its literature translated into English. Back in 2012, when I was deep in my quest to read a book from every country in the world in a year, the pickings from Guatemala were slim. I went with The President by Miguel Angel Asturias (translated from the Spanish by Frances Partridge), a book first published in Mexico in 1946. At the time, it was the only novel from the nation that I could find in English translation.

So you can imagine my delight when Guatemalan author Eduardo Halfon’s The Polish Boxer came onto my radar. Published in the final months of my quest, this translation of a slim collection of interlinked short stories put together by a team of five translators – Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead and Anne McLean – brings an exciting Central American voice into the Anglophone arena.

The narratives follow Eduardo Halfon, a literature professor who shares his author’s name and is spurred into action when a promising student in his class leaves the university without explanation. Thereafter, we follow Halfon through a series of quests, experiences and discoveries – to a remote village, to an academic conference on Mark Twain, to a music festival and in search of a concert pianist-turned-gypsy-musician in Belgrade. Disparate though they are, the narratives circle around the narrator’s memory of his grandfather’s account of meeting a Polish boxer in Auschwitz and how that fleeting encounter saved his life.

As you might expect from a novel in which the protagonist shares the author’s name and is a literature professor, there is quite a bit of play with the idea of what a story is or isn’t in the book. We read numerous pronouncements on the art of storytelling – ‘that the visible narrative always hides a secret tale’; ‘that literature is a deceit in which he who deceives is more honest than he who does not deceive’; that ‘the only way to tell a story is to stutter it eloquently’. In another writer’s hands this self-conscious and occasionally defensive kind of discussion might be irritating – and, indeed, it does occasionally lean that way – but Halfon’s wry, self-deprecating manner saves it, making it largely thought-provoking and playful instead.

Coupled with this are some fabulous descriptions and observations. For my money, the evocation of rural Guatemala is hard to beat. Raw beauty drips from the pages in which Halfon travels into the countryside in search of his erstwhile student to a place where the term for poetry in the local language, Cakchikel, means ‘braid of words’. But it is the title story of the Polish boxer, when at last it comes, that takes the prize. In its stark force and spare, telling details, this tale recalls Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, perhaps the most powerful piece of literature dealing with the Holocaust that I have read.

The narratological fencing and playfulness extend to the linguistic level. Dialogue bleeds into description with nothing to separate the two, so that it is as though we are looking out at the world from the inside of Halfon’s mind. At times, the meandering of the narrative makes us question the solidity of the ‘I’ narrating it – are we still with Halfon or has someone else crept in and taken over under the cover of a turning page? And although I can’t read the original to compare, the virtuosity of the translators is apparent in the skill with which they judge how much to explain and how much to trust the reader to cope with culturally specific terms: the book never falters while a helpful hand reaches in to push us in the right direction and yet it never trips over its laces either. Instead, it runs over unfamiliar terrain at an elegant, even pace.

That’s not to say that the novel is perfect. A hackneyed turn of phrase creeps in here and there, and the fragmentation and meandering will be too much for some readers. (*Spoiler alert* There’s a lot that never gets resolved and that is kind of the point.)

But if you are able to able to trust it, this book will sweep you up and bear you away through a host of specific times and places towards a universal vision of the things that make us who we are. Maybe, in the final analysis, that is what a story is really meant to do.

The Polish Boxer (El boxeador polaco) by Eduardo Halfon, translated from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead and Anne McLean (Pushkin Press, 2012)

Picture: Santiago – Lago de Atitlan – Guatemala-81 by Christopher William Adach on Flickr.com.