Book of the month: Gerty Dambury

One of the first problems I had to solve when I set myself the madcap challenge of reading a book from every country in 2012 was to decide exactly how many countries my world contained (not something on which everybody agrees). Given the premise of the project, it was logical to order the quest by nation and, to this day, the titles on this blog are categorised by the UN-recognised state with which they are most closely aligned.

As the years have gone by, however, those country categories have begun to chafe. The perennial problem of what makes a book ‘from’ a particular nation – little to do with setting, and mostly to do with author heritage and perspective for me, though there are exceptions on the list – is just the start. There is the issue of the genrefication of national literatures – often a side effect of the marketing efforts of big western publishers, which, at its worst, means our ideas of the sort of writing that comes from particular regions is heavily skewed by a handful of breakout bestsellers. And there’s the problem that many territories fall under the umbrella of former colonial powers, meaning that their works can easily be overlooked.

My latest book of the month is a good example. Written by Guadeloupian theatre director, poet and novelist Gerty Dambury, and translated from the French by Judith G. Miller, The Restless will sit under ‘France’ on my list. Yet its authors and subject matter hail from the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Spanning the run up to an outbreak of violence when talks failed between management and a construction-workers union in May 1967, the novel centres around Émilienne as she waits for her father to come home and grows increasingly anxious that her schoolteacher, Madame Ladal, has disappeared. The narrative is directed by Émilienne’s eight siblings, who take on the role of callers in a Caribbean quadrille, ushering forward an increasingly rebellious gaggle of characters – living and dead – to present their versions of what is going on. As the story whirls faster and order breaks down, Dambury reveals the interconnectedness of events and the way that injustice echoes down the decades, loading seemingly inconsequential details with meaning.

Voices are at the heart of this narrative. With so many characters clamouring to have their say, it is testament to Dambury and Miller’s skill that it is usually easy to know who is narrating. Indeed, in the case of the irreverent Nono, a dead, nonagenarian who remains peeved that one of her legs was removed before she was put in her coffin and spends a lot of time looking for it, you often recognise the voice from the first few words.

Yet, though the text abounds with rulebreakers and even descends into near-anarchy at certain points, the writing is tightly controlled. Reticence has as much power here as eloquence, with the gaps left for the reader to infer cruelties in the margins revealing something of what it is like to live in the shadow of monstrous injustices that have never been acknowledged or addressed. This technique is neatly mirrored in Miller’s decision to explain some but not all of the Creole dialogue in the book – this is a text of half-heard whispers, of stories muffled in the telling.

When Dambury chooses to articulate something, the writing is astonishingly precise. Take this beautiful reframing of old people’s habit of repeating themselves as ‘work that starts when we turn sixty’:

‘We take apart the seams; we unroll the balls of yarn. Other people think we’re just repeating ourselves, rehashing and rambling, but the truth is, nature doesn’t give us a choice. It’s as though everything is hardwired in our genes; you have to travel back in time.’

Or this consideration of why many of the characters hold back from challenging the status quo until violence becomes their only option:

‘If you really dig into this story, you’ll see that everyone has a hell of a burden to carry, just getting up in the morning and continuing to live their lives[…] – and that impression of never quite getting on top of things, that blacks are damned for all eternity, from century to century.

‘They have to be clever, tricky, and act like a fox – but all that leaves scars on the spirit. You can’t forget the other side of the coin: hating yourself for what you’ve become, for constantly questioning your life. You can end up detesting yourself, imagining what others think of you, and then rebelling violently. You demand respect by brandishing a knife, consideration by carrying a revolver. You take revenge for slights you’ve only invented in your mind.’

With so much pain and injustice underlying this narrative – drawn from real-world events, many of the facts of which have only recently come to light – it would be easy for Dambury’s novel to leave us with anger. But Dambury is too large-hearted a writer for this. Although the outrage these events call forth is justified and necessary, her novel looks beyond this, to a time ‘when the fury started to abate, when people could start seeing each other again’.

The recognition of one another’s common humanity is the key to resolution, she suggests. And the secret to this recognition? Storytelling. ‘When you’re human, you just can’t stop yourself from telling your own story.’

If I had to sum up nearly ten years of international literary exploration and what I’ve learnt from the hundreds of books classified by country on this blog, that would be my conclusion too.

The Restless (Les rétifs) by Gerty Dambury, translated from the French by Judith G. Miller (Feminist Press, 2018)

Picture: Guadeloupe_Février_2018_157 by Michel Marie on flickr.com

Book of the month: Anke Stelling

This month, I faced a difficult decision. There were two titles that I would have loved to feature on this blog.

The first was Argentinian writer Federico Falco’s exquisite short-story collection, A Perfect Cemetery, featuring a wonderful postscript by its translator Jennifer Croft. Quite apart from the stories themselves (mini-novellas, really, given their depth and complexity), this essay ‘On Conversation’ contains some of the most illuminating writing about the translation process that I have read.

‘Translation is an encounter between two human beings that takes place in words that belong to different systems,’ writes Croft. ‘I have intuitively recreated on the page in English what I have seen in the movie versions of these stories in my mind. Falco wrote the screenplay, but I was the director of these sweeping films, just as you have been – as every reader will be. I hear the characters as I must, informed by all the people I have known and loved in all the places I have lived.’

Phew. With writing as powerful as that, authors of fiction had better watch out: there’s a risk that some stories might be overshadowed by the translators’ notes that follow them (although in Falco’s case, the primary text more than holds its own, it has to be said, and is well worth seeking out).

In the end, however, I plumped for reviewing Higher Ground, the first novel by the award-winning German writer Anke Stelling to appear in English, translated by Lucy Jones. The novel follows middle-aged writer Resi as she grapples with the news that she, her artist husband and their four children are soon to be evicted from a Berlin flat controlled by a friend. Struggling to face up to the implications of this bombshell, she sets out to try to write a warts-and-all portrayal of life for her teenage daughter, Bea. In so doing, she reveals cracks stretching back across the decades that threaten to yawn wide enough to engulf the whole family.

Mothers in literature often fall into one of two camps: they are either saints or witches. Stelling neatly sidesteps this. By having Resi narrate in a semi-stream-of-consciousness style, which more than once made me think of Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, she is able to portray both the horrors and beauties of the maternal condition. ‘Let me hold you close to my breast. And remember – you have to get away,’ Resi writes to Bea in the opening chapter, and the novel leaves us in no doubt as to the truth of this statement.

This is an extremely funny book. All credit to translator Lucy Jones here, for the humour is largely in the writing, with rhythms, bathos and the subversion of expectations all delivering laughs. Stelling is an expert on the ways human beings deceive themselves and how we often betray these lies unconsciously. Time and again, we witness Resi self-sabotaging and setting herself up to fail even as she pledges to do better – an endearing trait that serves to counteract some of her more obnoxious flights of arrogance.

Nowhere is this dishonesty more evident than when it comes to issues of class and privilege, which form central threads in the narrative. Beholden to her more affluent friends, Resi is forced time and again to confront the limits of fellow feeling where money and life chances are concerned. Cleverly, Stelling resists the temptation purely to punch upwards, choosing instead to reveal hypocrisy and blind spots on both sides. Resi, we learn, might not be so hard pressed if she were able to unbend a little; but then, of course, she would not be Resi.

There is also much joyous material connected to the business of being a writer and the strange, destabilising experience of watching your work go out into the world. Again, Resi’s struggle to comprehend her friends’ indignation at her published criticism of their lifestyle makes a nice foil for the book’s reflections on readers’ often wrongheaded engagement with texts.

‘I am sorry that everything is so disjointed. I’d like to be stricter, have a more straightforward narrative, and be a comfort for all those in need. But I am who I am, and I won’t pretend that I have the same conditions as, say, Martin Amis.[…] That’s why this is exactly the opposite of a well-formed, elegantly written novel,’ laments Resi.

Of course, the lady protests too much. Higher Ground is a deftly structured, ingenious piece of fiction that manages not to advertise its cleverness in the way that some books by writers with more favourable conditions than Resi might now and then have done. What starts as a seemingly random swirl of reflections, circles ever more closely around the same themes, drawing the threads tighter until the web appears.

The result is a hugely entertaining, satisfying and thought-provoking novel. A really wonderful read.

Higher Ground (Schäfchen im Trockenen) by Anke Stelling, translated from the German by Lucy Jones (Scribe, 2021)

Picture: ‘Berlin’ by Patrick Nouhailler on flickr.com

Book of the month: Véronique Tadjo

Some books find you at the right time. My latest featured novel is a good example. Coming into my hands shortly before the year anniversary of the first UK coronavirus lockdown, In the Company of Men by the Côte d’Ivorian poet, novelist and artist Véronique Tadjo, translated by Tadjo with John Cullen, offers a salutary reading experience and sheds fresh light on the pandemic.

First published in French in 2017, the book centres on the Ebola epidemic that swept through Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2014-16, claiming thousands of lives. Told in multiple voices – from those of medics and aid workers, through victims, to trees in the forest and even the virus itself – it provides a startling, holistic and shaming look at the way human beings use and abuse the natural world, forcing the reader to acknowledge the role of the resultant imbalance in causing sickness.

Novel is really the wrong word for this book: it is an ecosystem of a narrative. Registers vary from the mythic to the mundane. Reportage runs alongside the prophetic pronouncements of the baobab tree, which sits in judgement on the arguments of the virus and the bat, as each puts forward its view on where the blame should lie for the catastrophe the book portrays.

It could feel bitty, but Tadjo’s skill shines through in the way she makes each segment contingent and connected. Just as ‘Humans need to recognize that they’re part of the world, that there’s a close bond between them and all other living creatures, great and small,’ so each account exists in relation to those around it, informed, enriched and sometimes undermined by what follows or goes before.

There are plenty of shocks along the way. From the accounts of the Ebola orphans shunned by their communities to the practical and psychological difficulties of dealing with infectious corpses, not to mention hospital doctors reduced to asking patients to go out and buy their own medical supplies, this book does not pull its punches. The passages concerning the financial roadblocks on vaccine development, when considered against the lightning-fast response to a virus menacing the affluent global north, make for particularly uncomfortable reading.

However, perhaps the greatest jolts come not from what is strange but rather what is familiar in the experiences described. So much of what we have all lived through over the past twelve months is present in this pages – economic upheaval, the lottery of how someone will respond to treatment, conspiracy theories, the concern for children missing out on education. When reading this book, what has felt like a voyage into the unknown for many of us reveals itself to be a path already trodden by millions – a realisation that makes the following appeal by a regional governor particularly chilling:

‘If I, as someone on the ground, were asked to make a comment, I would address the international community. I’d tell them that fear can provoke a strong reaction, which will in turn free up enormous resources and placate public opinion. But the outcome will not necessarily be the best in the long run. […] Are we better prepared if disaster strikes again, or has everything fallen into oblivion already, crowded out by the thick bustle of our days?’

This book will present challenges for readers used to anglophone novels. Tadjo does not give us individual characters to latch onto through the course of the narrative: humanity, rather than a particular person, is the protagonist here. What’s more, she is her use of citations is more expansive than many might be used to. Among other things, this novel contains the longest Bible quote I have yet to encounter in fiction.

Still, the humaneness of this piece of writing wins through. Humankind is presented in all its ugliness, beauty, generosity and vulnerability. In spite of the damage we have done, Tadjo tells us, we are worth saving. ‘The life of humans is a story we haven’t yet finished telling.’ Perhaps, if we follow this novel’s prescriptions, we may yet have some wonderful chapters to enjoy.

In the Company of Men (En compagnie des hommes) by Véronique Tadjo, translated from the French by the author with John Cullen (Other Press/Hope Road Publishing, 2021)

Book of the month: Nathacha Appanah

One of the mind-expanding things about reading literature from elsewhere is seeing historical events presented from unfamiliar angles. When you read novels and memoirs that touch on things that have strong prevailing narratives in your home country (British Empire, I’m looking at you), it can be illuminating, thought-provoking and challenging to encounter perspectives that turn what you thought you knew on its head. Sometimes, stories from other traditions can reveal episodes of which you may have been entirely ignorant.

My latest Book of the month, The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, translated by Geoffrey Strachan, is a good example. Telling the story of an unlikely friendship, it is built around the tragic, true-life story of a boatload of Jewish refugees who, having been refused entry to Palestine after fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe, were detained on Mauritius for most of the second world war. The novel is narrated by Raj, who, in old age, looks back at the brief but life-changing bond he formed with David, a young boy in the prison camp at which his violent father got a job in 1944, when Raj was nine. Grieving for the siblings he lost in a natural disaster, Raj comes to look on his new friend as a replacement brother – feelings that give rise to consequences it takes him a lifetime to lay to rest.

The narrative voice is beguiling. Laying bare the ‘electric shock of memories’, it weaves between the present day and the past that forms the bulk of the action, finding deft ways to make long ago feel fresh and immediate. A forest path now buried beneath an apartment block serves as a symbol for the hidden influence of past events, while Raj’s reflections on his relationship with his son provide a powerful comparison for his cruel treatment at his own father’s hands.

There is a lovely reticence to much of the writing, which renders it very moving. The novel is so full of tragedy that it could easily be relentlessly sad. Instead, Appanah and Strachan hold back at the most traumatic moments, allowing spare language, rhythms and dramatic irony to do the heavy lifting. Insights into the way human beings change and the impact of violence are delivered with such beautiful simplicity that it is often as though the writing is transparent, letting us look straight through into the truths it contains. Instead of detailing Raj’s family’s poverty, the author allows us to glimpse it through his surprise at the smart, white building described as a ‘HOUSE’ on his reading card at school and how different this is from what he understood the term to mean.

There is some lovely playfulness too. Raj’s childhood naivety, which, among many other things, leads him to assume for a while that David’s hometown of Prague must be somewhere on Mauritius, is very endearing and makes the denouement all the more poignant.

These disarming elements allow Appanah to play with some radical notions. With Mauritius’s usual racial power dynamics subverted by virtue of David’s prisoner status – ‘We did not mix with the white people of our country, we hardly ever saw them,’ explains Raj – the novel is able to explore notions of cultural appropriation in a fresh and thought-provoking way. We see Raj agonising about whether he has the right to tell his white friend’s story and his uneasiness about his lack of entitlement to draw conclusions about his feelings and suffering. In this, Appanah neatly dramatises the dilemma so often faced by authors when they contemplate writing stories involving traumas they have not experienced, particularly those of people from more marginalised groups.

There are some abrupt transitions that may seem jarring. Similarly, although reticence pervades the narrative, there are moments when things are stated explicitly that another writer might have left readers to infer. The deftness of the writing in much of the book, however, suggests that these potential trip-hazards for anglophone readers may well be indicative of cultural differences in approaches to pacing and what needs to be explained rather than unintended flaws.

Overall, this is a moving and engrossing exploration of grief, survivor’s guilt and the way that global history touches individual lives. Poetic writing and sharp insights simply delivered make this a surprising, important and memorable book. Well worth a read.

The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan (MacLehose Press, 2011)

Picture: ‘Jewish Cemetery, Mauritius’ by Phoebe Epstein 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: Mieko Kawakami

There are novels that force you to recommend them. My latest featured title is a case in point.

I first heard about Sam Bett and David Boyd’s translation of Japanese author Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs several months before it was published. A number of writers and readers whose opinions I respect were buzzing about it on Twitter and their enthusiasm for what was billed by its British publisher Picador as a ‘radical and intimate portrait of contemporary working class womanhood in Japan, recounting the heartbreaking journeys of three women in a society where the odds are stacked against them’ was enough to persuade me to preorder it.

Something in the pre-publicity hype clearly stuck because, by the time the title spiralled down onto my e-reader in late August, I was eager to get into it. As soon as I did, I became engrossed in protagonist Natsu’s account of her tortuous search for fulfilment over years spent carving out a career as a writer in Tokyo.

Had this novel been written and edited in English, I suspect it would have been slanted rather differently. Given the anglophone market’s preoccupation with story hooks, I think it’s likely that, if it had been written by a British or American author, this book would have been presented not as a portrayal of the heartbreaking journeys of three working-class women but rather as an account of the struggle of a sexophobic single woman to have a child (which it also is). That more sensational and grabby premise would have been front and centre in an effort to tempt readers to pick the work off the shelves.

Instead, however, the novel starts slowly with a series of meandering encounters. Perhaps partly because the first half was originally published as a novella in its own right, the threads connecting the various elements and characters are so fine as to be almost imperceptible. Indeed, there are times when it feels as though we might be reading a collection of interlinked short stories, with intense accounts of experiences erupting for a few pages only for their subjects to disappear never to be referred to again. There are elements of the surreal and the random in the mix too – weasels drop from the ceiling of a restaurant and the three central characters finish one evening cracking eggs over one another. Through it all, however, Kawakami remains in control, drawing the threads ever tighter until at last she reveals the rich tapestry of the conclusion.

One of the author’s many gifts is her skill at depicting relationships that cannot easily be categorised. She gives us professionalism blurred with friendship; romance without sex; love in a range of hard-to-define forms. These ambiguous connections allow her to shine a light on the cracks and gaps in human society, interrogating – sometimes shockingly – many of the actions and processes most people take for granted. Yet there is a wonderful warmth underlying even the most clear-eyed of these explorations, coupled with a poignant awareness of the fleetingness of the opportunity we have to make sense of our surroundings. ‘We’re all so small, and have such little time, unable to envision the majority of the world,’ as Natsu puts it.

As a writer, I particularly enjoyed the novel’s exploration of creativity and the publishing world. From Natsu’s time in obscurity keeping a blog ‘collecting dust in a corner of the internet’, through her struggles with writing and dealing with feedback, to the outrageous behaviour of the literati at book-world parties, Kawakami’s insights are witty and illuminating. (Indeed, they made me rather sorry that I only had lunch with my Japanese publisher when I met him a few years ago in Tokyo!)

The irony is, of course, that all these struggles are captured in compulsively readable prose, flexible enough to be by turns hilarious, thought-provoking, moving and beautiful (credit to translators Bett and Boyd here). ‘We’d like to think that the books that merit attention find a readership – but after what happened with my collection, it felt safe to say that merit had nothing to do with it,’ reflects Natsu. It’s a sentiment that I’m sure writers the world over share. However, Breasts and Eggs, which was a bestseller in Japan, is proof that sometimes wonderful novels do get the recognition they heartily deserve.

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami, translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Picador, 2020)

Picture: ‘Bookstore in Tokyo. They are not extinct!’ by chewy travels on flickr.com

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)