World bookshopper: #12 Jimbocho, Tokyo

On a recent trip to Tokyo, I had lunch with my Japanese literary agent and Mr Akira Yamaguchi, editor in chief at Hayakawa Publishing Corporation, which will be publishing my novel Beside Myself later this year. Over an array of delicious dishes of tofu, meat, fish, rice and miso soup, I decided to pick their brains about bookshops in the capital.

Both men were in agreement: I should visit Jimbocho. And so that afternoon I lost no time in following up on their suggestion.

Jimbocho is not a single shop but an entire neighbourhood devoted to bookselling. Well over 150 bookstores operate here, catering to the many enthusiastic bibliophiles for whom this city of more than 13 million people is home.

Interestingly for a society in which technology is so seamlessly integrated into many aspects of daily life – from vending-machine ordering systems in many restaurants to washroom facilities – ebooks are not very popular in Japan. Although the nation spawned the cell-phone novel, one of the earliest forms of literature to be widely enjoyed on-screen, most Japanese are apparently reluctant to buy electronic devices purely for reading. As a result, the physical book is still the preferred format for many of the nation’s readers and certainly those in the older generation.

This much is evident is in bustling Jimbocho, where crowds of booklovers throng the new and second-hand shops in search of their latest read. You can find anything you can think of here and a lot more besides.

Although the vast majority of books sold here are in Japanese, anglophone visitors will recognise many of the names and faces peering up from the covers in the shops stocking contemporary fiction. Home-grown superstars such as Murakami rub shoulders with English-language commercial giants, as well as internationally renowned authors working in other languages. Pierre Le Maitre is hugely popular: the Japanese version of his novel Alex has sold more than a million copies and it seems no mystery section is complete without him.

There are also some surprisingly niche titles in the mix. You might not expect sheep farming in the UK’s Lake District to be of much interest to city dwellers on the other side of the world, but you can find new publications on it here.

And there are instances of not particularly well-known writers from elsewhere who have an unusually devoted following in Japan.

I was particularly pleased to spot a novel by the US writer David Gordon prominently placed in one window display. In 2014, Gordon wrote a witty article in the New York Times about the surreal experience of discovering that his modestly successful debut novel The Serialist had become a smash hit in Japan. ‘You might not know me, but I’m famous. Don’t feel bad. Until recently, I didn’t know I was famous either, and most days, even now, it’s hard to tell,’ the feature begins.

But though many of the names in the contemporary-fiction sections may be familiar, the layout of the shops can take some getting used to. Rather than being arranged alphabetically by author name, paperback novels are ordered by publisher, with special tabs for famous writers. As a result, in Japan, authors are particularly reliant on their publisher having strong distribution arrangements with retailers: unless the press releasing your book has good shelf presence, your creation is unlikely to find its way into readers’ hands.

In addition, there are several sections that you would be hard-pushed to find in most English-language bookshops. As well as the extensive manga aisles – featuring strikingly large erotica sections in some stores – there are shelves devoted to a particular kind of Japanese non-fiction (known, as far as I am aware, as shinso), which is written with the aim of helping intelligent readers get to grips with particular topics and issues of the moment. Running to around 200 pages, these books are extremely popular – so much so that it is common for publishers to commission writers specially to produce them. Slender yet thought-provoking, these titles are the perfect companion for commuters braving crush hour – as are small-format versions of longer books, which are often sold split into several volumes, partly for ease of reading in tight spaces.

The new-book trade is just one facet of what Jimbocho has to offer. In fact, most of the stores and stalls you’ll see in the district offer primarily second-hand works. As varied as the titles they sell, many of these places specialise in particular subject areas. There are shops devoted to writing about music or titles from particular language groups.

Here and there, you’ll spot cardboard boxes stuffed with Western classics and contemporary bestsellers. And there are also a number of stores that carry first-edition anglophone books.

Often gleaned from house clearances, these titles offer occasionally mind-boggling insights into the tastes of some of the English speakers to have lived in Tokyo. I spent some time browsing the shelves in Kitazawa Bookstore, a wood-panelled emporium at the top of a curved staircase.

There, along with early editions of works from many famous, largely American, names – Hemingway, Melville and Stein among them – I was intrigued to encounter A History of Secret SocietiesWelsh Folklore and Folk-Custom and WOG Lofts and DJ Adley’s formidable-sounding The Men Behind Boys’ Fiction.

It made me wonder if, long after I have written my last post on this blog and slipped off into virtual oblivion, a UK first edition of Beside Myself might one day find itself here, six thousand miles from home…

Book of the month: Lydie Salvayre

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This is the third French book that I have featured on this blog. It is also the third book by an immigrant or child of immigrants to that nation.

Indeed, when I came to think about where to pigeonhole this review in my country-by-country list of titles, I hesitated. Although Lydie Salvayre was born in France and writes in French, the subject matter of her Goncourt Prize-winning novel, Cry, Mother Spain – which centres around the 1930s Spanish civil war – makes a strong case for the work being considered at least partly as belonging to that nation.

This ambiguity is fitting. Given that the dark side of nationalism drives much of the action in this book –which fuses together history, imagination, quotes from source material and the recollections of Salvayre’s Spanish mother (crossing genre boundaries as much as straddling borders) – it seems right that the narrative resists categorisation by country. Just as its central characters – teenage Montse, her ideological pro-Anarchist brother José and his bourgeois rival Diego – agonise and clash over the sort of Spain they want to live in, so the story that contains them challenges and questions its own identity.

Indeed, though the novel (for want of a better word) is rooted in the events that led up to the start of Franco’s dictatorship, much of this book resonates across the decades. Many readers will find uncomfortable parallels in the chilling way that the presentation of events is manipulated by those in power. We can sympathise with the narrator’s observation that what she discovers in her research stirs ‘fears of seeing today’s bastards revive the noxious ideas [she] thought had been put to rest a long time ago’.

Her 90-year-old mother puts it more bluntly. When asked if Diego’s manipulative speeches to the villagers made him sound like the politicians of today, she replies ‘They’re all the same, […] crooks the lot of them.’

This irreverence, which runs beneath much of the narrative and erupts into humour surprisingly frequently, is one of the things that make the novel a joy to read. There is a delicious archness to Salvayre’s depiction of the hypocrisy of many of the minor characters. The prime example is the pious hypochondriac doña Pura, who bestows her favours ‘with a sort of Christian sweetness thick with threat’.

In addition, the playful fusion of French and Spanish in Montse’s speech makes for some marvellous moments. Translator Ben Faccini must be congratulated for the way he has reflected this ‘cross-bred, trans-Pyrenean language’ in English. As an example, here’s Montse on the throwaway comment that first awoke her to injustice when at the age of 15 she went to interview for a position as a maid and the prospective employer remarked approvingly that she seemed quite humble:

‘For me it’s an insult, a patada in the arse, a kick in the culo, it makes me leap ten metros within my own head, it jolts my brain which had been slumbering for more than fifteen years.’

Salvayre is a psychiatrist and her insight into the workings of the human brain shows. Both in moments of humour and during the narrative’s many darker passages, she delineates the shifts in thinking that steer characters from one course to another, trap them into actions and render certain outcomes inevitable.

Her ability to imagine her way into the thought processes of the diverse characters she portrays is what makes the book such a triumph. At its root, is an awareness of the common humanity that binds us across centuries, borders and historical moments – of the fact that, much as we might like to imagine otherwise, human nature remains the same far more than it alters. In this, Cry, Mother Spain is at once a warning and a rallying call: we are all people, it proclaims. We are all touching and full of marvels and vulnerable to the same delusions that have ensnared so many before us.

Or, as Salvayre’s compatriots might say, plus ça change.

Cry, Mother Spain (Pas pleurer) by Lydie Salvayre, translated from the French by Ben Faccini (MacLehose Press, 2016)

Photo: Antifascist Committee Stamp, Spanish Civil War by Joseph Morris on flickr.com

Postcard from my bookshelf #2

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The second translated book I am sending to a stranger this year goes to someone from a group of people who kept me going during my 2012 quest to read a book from every country in the world. The project was a wonderful voyage of discovery. However, reading and blogging about a book every 1.87 days for 12 months when you’re working five days a week can be tiring and sometimes lonely.

As such, I came to depend on the support of an initially small but growing band of people who helped to cheer me on. These were the folk who followed the project from the early days and let me know through comments, likes, tweets and personal messages that they appreciated what I was trying to do. Many was the morning when I stumbled bleary-eyed to my computer and found welcome words of encouragement from someone I didn’t know waiting to spur me on.

Several of these long-term followers left comments on the Postcards from my bookshelf project post. All of them deserved a book. However, in the end, I decided to choose simonlitton (or Simon, as I’ll call him from now on) because his was one of the names I remembered cropping up several times in the early months of my year of reading the world, in the days when each comment did a huge amount to boost my determination and confidence.

Simon’s Postcard entry didn’t give me much to go on when it came to selecting a book he might like:

I loved AYORTW and would definitely be interested in reading something you sent. My tastes are pretty broad but I’m especially interested in anything which opens a window on another culture. I read fairly regularly in French and Italian too, which gives me more options.

Luckily, however, his name linked to his blog. And there I found a connection to his Goodreads page – a goldmine of information about his reading habits.

As he claims, Simon has extremely broad taste in books. I was delighted to see a good number of African works listed among the nearly 400 titles he has reviewed on the site, along with a range of classics, and a glut of contemporary bestsellers and lesser-knowns, including a healthy spread of translations, as well as the French and Italian works he mentioned. There was also an impressive array of non-fiction books, along with a strong showing of sci-fi and fantasy titles.

What struck me most of all, however, was Simon’s approach to star ratings. A number of internationally acclaimed texts met with relatively short shrift at his hands. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace both scored a middling three stars, as did Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Here, clearly, was not only an adventurous reader, but a bold and independent one too – a person who liked to make up his own mind rather than being led by hype.

I thought long and hard about what to choose for Simon. In the process, I found myself returning repeatedly to what he had said in his comment about books that open windows on other cultures.

Many of the titles I have read during and since my 2012 project could be said to open up insights in this way. Often, they are among the best-written and most compelling books to cross my desk.

This is no coincidence. In my experience, enabling readers to understand societies different from their own requires great storytelling: we need that narrative pull to sweep us over the inevitable bumps and obstacles that arise when we venture into ways of looking at the world that diverge from our own.

Consequently, I had a bewildering wealth of beautifully written works in mind. I might have chosen Burmese writer Nu Nu Yi’s Smile as They Bow with its engrossing depiction of the life of a transgender temple dancer. I could have plumped for Jamil Ahmed’s exquisite The Wandering Falcon, my choice for Pakistan. Or Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s By Night the Mountain Burns – only the second novel from Equatorial Guinea ever to be translated and published in English (the first, by the way, Donato Ndongo’s Shadows of your Black Memory, is also well worth a read).

In the end, however, one book kept nagging at me. Less a window on a culture, it is more like a door blasted open to reveal a post-culture – a portrait of a society destroyed by a catastrophic event that many of us might like to imagine is remote but which affects us all (and which will be evident in the world hundreds of thousands of years after pretty much everything else we know now is gone). A sort of real-life sci-fi, if such a thing were possible.

The book I’m talking about is Chernobyl Prayer by the Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich. I read it and posted about it last year and it has stayed with me ever since. Harrowing, human, insightful and mind-scrambling, it is one of the most powerful texts I’ve ever encountered.

But of course, Simon, you’ll have to make up your own mind. Thank you.

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next recipient will be announced on March 15.

Book of the month: Yan Lianke

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This novel has the distinction of being the first book of the month to come from a country that I have already featured in this slot. My inaugural Chinese BOTM choice was Cao Wenxuan’s delightful children’s story Bronze and Sunflower, which this month won the 2017 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation. Hearty congratulations to its English-language translator, Helen Wang.

My next pick – or rather its author – has been on my radar since my original year of reading the world. Yan Lianke was one of a number of Chinese writers recommended to me by translator Nicky Harman, who kindly undertook to give me some advice on what I might read from the planet’s most populous nation. In the end, I went with a novel translated by Harman – Han Dong’s striking and unjustly overlooked Banished! – however, I was intrigued by what she had told me about controversial Beijing-based satirist Yan and have had it in mind to read his work since then.

So when I happened upon several translations of his novels in Hatchards bookshop on London’s Piccadilly a few weeks back, I decided to pick one out. Several sounded tempting, but it was the premise of Lenin’s Kisses that swung it.

Revolving around Liven, a village populated almost exclusively by disabled people in China’s remote Balou mountains, the narrative follows the unfolding of a plan by ambitious county official Chief Liu. With a view to enriching the region beyond its inhabitants’ wildest imaginings, he resolves to purchase Lenin’s embalmed corpse from Russia and use it as a tourist attraction to draw visitors from all over the world. In order to raise the funds to attempt this, he proposes to use Liven’s residents to stage a travelling freak show, with extraordinary and sometimes alarming results.

If the summary makes you think this is a quirky book, you’d be right. The story is decidedly odd and Yan makes no apology for that. Elements of the fantastic creep in – snow falls in summer, a woman with dwarfism is cured by having sex with a man of normal height, the freak-show performers prove themselves capable of mind-boggling feats.

What’s more, the structure of the book magnifies its strangeness. Weirdly arbitrary footnotes pepper the text, running on for pages and pages, sometimes with notes on the notes, so that the reader is sent hither and thither, as narrative within narrative opens and closes like the petals of rare flowers. This can be irritating at first (and I have to confess I wouldn’t want to attempt this book on an ereader), but when you relax into it, it quickly becomes part of the playfulness in what is at times a very funny book.

It is perhaps this use of humour that allows Yan to get away with some of the more daring political criticisms lodged in the text (unlike several of his other books, Lenin’s Kisses has not been banned in Mainland China and was even given the prestigious Lao She Literary award, although it did cost him his employment as an author for the People’s Liberation Army). Though much of the novel could be read as a criticism of capitalism – the worst events result from the accumulation of obscene wealth by the unexpectedly successful performers – there is no shortage of jibes at ‘higher ups’ closer to home.

Yan, who has admitted self-censoring his work, does a powerful line in pointed observations that could be read several ways. The following is a great example: ‘The government looks after its people and the people should remember the government’s kindness; this is the way things had been for thousands of years.’

Quirky though it is (and by far the funniest Chinese literary work I have read), the novel does share some characteristics with other books I’ve encountered from the nation. The language is earthier and more abrasive than you often see in anglophone literature – expletives abound in some sections and curses are hurled around rather casually. What’s more, descriptions of violence and bodily functions are quite graphic.

That said, the narrative also reflects many of the universal traits found in the world’s best storytelling too. Yan has extraordinary psychological insight and traces the thought processes of his characters with a deftness reminiscent of some of the greatest authors from the home nation of Lenin’s corpse. His depiction of the Hall of Devotion, for example, a room where Chief Liu records (and sometimes embellishes) his achievements alongside those of the world’s great communist leaders is wonderful. Similarly, in Grandma Mao Zhi, the formidable spokeswoman of the people of Liven, he creates an extraordinary portrait of a person spurred on and yet also destroyed by the desire to fulfil a vow.

Clever, daring, amusing and inventive, this is an excellent read. It thoroughly deserves the many accolades it has achieved and is without question a world-class book. The front of my copy features the following endorsement from celebrated Chinese-American writer Ha Jin: ‘The publication of this magnificent work in English should be an occasion for celebration.’ He is right.

Lenin’s Kisses by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (Vintage, 2013)

Korean discoveries

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Kim Yujeong

Some of the highlights of my Year of Reading the World were the unpublished translations of literature from countries with few or no books commercially available in English that people around the planet sent me. These included my Turkmen and Panamanian reads (both of which, I’m pleased to report, have since made it into commercially available English versions, although the Panamanian book is not currently on sale) and a collection of short stories by the Santomean writer Olinda Beja, which was translated especially for me by a team of volunteers.

Reading these works was an enormous privilege. It introduced me to some great writers whose works were off-limits to English speakers and gave me a taste of some of the many wonders that exist outside the anglophone literary sphere. It also filled me with gratitude to the many people who had prepared these manuscripts in their own time purely to share stories that they loved.

So last year when I got a message from Juwon Lee, the vice president of T.I. Time translation club at Gimhae Foreign Language High School (GIMFL) in Jangyu, South Korea, offering to prepare another translation for me, I was intrigued. The students were keen to introduce me to two Korean writers they admired, Kim Yujeong and Hyun Jin-geon. If they translated three short stories, would I be prepared to give them a read?

Of course, I said yes. Duly, towards the end of last year, the manuscripts arrived. And last weekend, I finally sat down with them.

I can certainly see why the GIMFL students are fans of Kim, an early-20th-century Korean writer, who made a lasting impression in his short 29 years of life. Bold and audacious, the writing in the stories feels very fresh and direct.

Both of his works deal with power and powerlessness. In ‘Camellia Flowers’, a 17-year-old faces a dilemma when the daughter of the land manager who oversees his family’s farm persists in making his rooster fight her stronger bird. Meanwhile, in ‘Bombom’, the protagonist grows increasingly resentful of the servitude he has been lured into by a man who has promised him he can marry his daughter when she is grown up (needless to say, every time the prospective son-in-law brings up the possibility of setting a date for the ceremony, her father claims she is not yet tall enough).

My favourite of the three pieces, however, was Hyun’s sardonically titled ‘A Lucky Day’, follows rickshaw man Kim Cheomji as he secures some handsome fares after a spell of getting little work. Yet, as his elation grows at the money he is earning, we learn gradually that his wife is seriously ill. In a very subtle and finely balanced piece of writing, the author shows us how denial and hope conspire within the old man to make him postpone returning home until it is tragically too late.

A passion for exposing injustice and hypocrisy runs through both authors’ writing, making the stories urgent and compelling. These are by no means po-faced rants against the system, however. There is humour and playfulness too. The characters are a vibrant and idiosyncratic bunch, not afraid to express their opinions in language that is often direct, earthy and packed with colloquialisms.

Here, I have to congratulate the T.I Time club members. It is no mean feat to translate into a language that is not your mother tongue. Indeed, most professional translators only work into their first language because of the difficulty of catching nuance precisely in a language that you have not grown up with, no matter how fluent you may be in it.

As such, it is impressive that the students have managed to achieve such consistency of tone and ingenious language use in their renderings of Kim and Hyun’s work. They have certainly achieved their objective of introducing me to his writing and showing me why they like it.

And the good news is that, although the stories by Kim that they prepared for me are not available in English, some of the writer’s other works do seem to have been translated (at least according to Wikipedia). Meanwhile, the online encyclopedia also suggests that some of Hyun’s work has been translated, including a version of ‘A Lucky Day’. So, if you’re interested to sample their work too, you can.*

Thanks very much to all the members of T.I. Time at GIMFL. I wish you great success in everything you go on to do.

* UPDATE: T.I. Time has made its translations available online, free for anyone to view. Thanks again to the students.

Amended on 31/01/2017 to reflect the fact that ‘A Lucky Day’ is by Hyun Jin-geon and not Kim Yujeong.

 

Postcard from my bookshelf #1

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Wow. What a fantastic response there’s been to my pledge to send a translated book to a stranger each month throughout 2017.

To date, nearly 170 people have applied to be part of the project, which marks the fifth anniversary of my year of reading the world. I have heard from fellow literary explorers – among them 13-year-old Aisha in Pakistan and Sally in Maine, US, who is cooking her children meals from the countries she reads books from. There have also been comments left by physical adventurers, such as Michelletrinh9, who is cycling around the globe with her boyfriend.

Teachers and students, librarians and booksellers, bloggers and writers, and teenagers and retired people have all been in touch.

Many have shared powerful accounts of the importance of books in their lives and the difficulty of accessing literature in some parts of the globe. And I have read moving personal accounts from people facing enormous challenges.

Just as in 2012, I have been amazed and humbled by the enthusiasm of booklovers. The experience has reminded me that sharing stories is a universal human activity. It has shown me again the enormous potential of storytelling to connect us across political, social, religious and geographical divides.

Choosing my first recipient has been tricky. For a while, I had no idea how to begin deciding who would get a book. Reading the comments, I wished I could pick out something for everyone.

Then it struck me that many of the messages were from people who represented groups that were essential to the success of my original quest. As Postcards from my bookshelf  is about giving back and saying thank you for the kindness of so many strangers who helped me read the world in 2012, it seemed to make sense to pick an individual from each of these categories to send a book to throughout the year.

And so this is what I have decided to do. There will be a few entirely random selections along the way, so everyone who entered has a chance of winning a book. For the most part, however, the postcards will be sent to people who in some way stand for groups that proved essential in my project to read a book from every country.

As such, my first book goes to a person from a profession that is vital for stories to cross borders: a translator.

I have chosen Laimpresionista, who translates prose and poetry from Spanish, English and occasionally French into Greek, to represent this group. She told me:

I think I would go for a nice thick novel of a Turkish, Syrian or Egyptian writer. I live on a greek island and during these past two or three years, our life has been changing rapidly. War refugees keep arriving in Greece on a daily basis and I feel I should somehow get to know them a bit better. I don’t mean to get political or anything but my daily contact with people from Pakistan or Syria or Afganistan sometimes makes me think that the only thing I know about my new neighbours is the capital city of their country and, maybe, part of their cuisine.

This got me thinking about a lot of the Arabic and Turkish literature I have read in recent years. There are, of course, many marvellous long novels in English and English translation by Turkish and Egyptian writers who are household names in many parts of the world. Authors such as Naguib Mahfouz, Elif Shafak and Orhan Pamuk need little introduction to many people.

However, I was pretty certain that Laimpresionista would already have heard of these writers. I also felt that, while their books are wonderful – as is the work of Rafik Schami, whose Damascus Nights I read as my Syrian choice back in 2012 – they would not necessarily provide insight into the issues she mentioned.

For a while, I thought I might send Khaled Khalifa’s hard-hitting novel In Praise of Hatred. I read this book a couple of years back and, although it is set several decades ago, it was banned in Syria after it was published in 2006 and is felt by many to bear on contemporary events.

But, in truth, the most powerful work I have read about the horrific situation that has displaced millions of Syrians is not fiction, but a non-fiction book: A Woman in the Crossfire by Samar Yazbek (translated by Max Weiss). The journalist and novelist’s account of the collapse of normal society in her home town of Jableh haunts me many months after I read it.

When I looked Yazbek up, I found that another of her more recent works has since made it into English. The Crossing (translated by Nashwa Gowanlock and Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp) draws on a number of secret journeys that the now-exiled Yazbek has made back into Syria to document the ongoing devastation and arrival of ISIS.

I knew it was the book I had to send. And so, hoping that my recipient wouldn’t mind a non-fiction book in place of the novel she asked for, I picked up two copies from the picturesque Hatchards bookshop on London’s Piccadilly – one to send and one for me.

Laimpresionista, I’ll be reading it with you.

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next recipient will be chosen on February 15.

Book of the month: Najwa Barakat

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Since my visit to Dubai at the start of December, I’ve been reading a fair bit of Arabic fiction. The last few weeks have seen me venturing into stories by writers from several of the 22 Arab nations, but particularly from Egypt. These have included popular contemporary titles such as Alaa al-Aswany’s The Automobile Club of Egypt, as well as revered classics like Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley. (Incidentally, Mahfouz, the 1988 Nobel laureate, is one of the writers people contact me about most frequently and after this, my first foray into his acclaimed body of work, I can see why: the man was a consummate storyteller and I have no doubt that I’ll be working my through many of his books in the years to come.)

However, much as I enjoyed these well-known works, I was keen to find something less widely covered to tell you about. And so it was that I picked up Oh Salaam! by the Lebanese writer Najwa Barakat, a title I heard about first through M Lynx Qualey, who runs the Arabic Literature (in English) blog and has just released a tempting list of 15 notable titles appearing in English translation next year.

Set in an unnamed, war-torn city (which many readers will inevitably identify as Beirut), Oh Salaam! follows the fortunes of former bombmaker Luqman and his surviving associates as they try to make the best of an uneasy peace. The game-plan is to capitalise on their killer instincts by setting up shop as rat exterminators – a much-needed service in a city where the destruction of basic infrastructure has created serious vermin problems. But as Luqman, Najeeb and the female title character Salaam attempt to build new lives for themselves, it becomes clear that the devastation surrounding them is only a mild reflection of the ruination of their own minds.

This is a book of wildly contrasting registers. Writer Eyad Houssami has called it ‘pulp fiction’ and it’s easy to see why: there is a rough, picaresque, graphic caste to much of the storytelling. Violence is unflinchingly and copiously described, sex scenes are unapologetically vivid, and there is much greater explicitness around bodily functions than many readers of Anglophone literary fiction will be used to.

However, the novel is much more than the sum of these parts. It is funny, insightful and challenging. Some passages of interior monologue recall the paranoid, self-questioning of the creations of writers such as Salinger, Orwell and, yes, Mahfouz. And amid the narrative’s cacophony and at times almost breathless recounting of incident, there are odd flashes of beauty in the writing.

In many ways, this collision of styles is an entirely fitting way to portray life in this ‘end-times city’. In a place where public executions become the setting for casual sexual encounters and doormen turn blackmailers, where once-grand buildings lie broken and important archaeological sites are threatened by bulldozers, violent juxtaposition is the only constant.

This plays out particularly interestingly in Barakat’s treatment of gender dynamics. Seeing the world at first largely through Luqman’s eyes readers are exposed to a cold, calculating and deeply misogynistic perspective, which is redeemed only by the protagonist’s awareness of his own limitations. However, when the camera shifts, we see something of Salaam’s views on men and discover a much more nuanced and layered reality than the opening chapters might suggest.

Inevitably, however, the hotchpotch nature of the narrative carries risk. At times the plotting feels loose to the point of ragged. There are odd repetitions and overuses of certain phrases that may have been present in the original or may have crept in at the translation stage. Though some of Barakat’s similes spear ideas precisely, others clatter wide of the mark. The swinging between perspectives and registers can also make for a disorientating reading experience, in which it can be hard to know where to pin our sympathies.

Some of this is no doubt deliberate, however. Because Barakat clearly does not intend her book to be a comfortable read; it is too full of urgency, anger and despair at humankind’s inadequacy in the face of great disaster for that. Instead, those who give themselves over to her narrative will be swept into a powerful simulation of the mental havoc that physical violence wreaks and the blinkers that people often have to assume in order to survive. A difficult but vital insight, particularly for those of us sitting in comfort half a world away.

Oh Salaam! by Najwa Barakat, translated from the Arabic by Luke Leafgren (Interlink Books, 2015)

Picture: Bombed commercial centre by M Asser on flickr.com

World bookshopper: #11 House of Prose, Dubai

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I am a little worried when I arrive at Jumeirah Plaza. The first bookshop I find – a small boxy place with transparent walls overlooking the escalators – is empty. There is nothing to it but bare shelves and a sign on the door declaring: ‘Closed. Please call again.’

Given that I have spent 40 minutes finding the mall on Jumeirah Beach Road with the help of Google Maps and a bewildered taxi driver who, when I asked him if he knew where he was going, told me rather mysteriously that he wasn’t a computer, calling again seems unlikely. I wonder if I have made a mistake picking this place to visit from the list of ‘8 Best Bookstores’ listed on LivinginDubai.org.

Luckily, before I lose heart completely, two passersby recognise my dismay and ask if they can help. When I say that I am looking for House of Prose, one points confidently to a space diagonally below us. Two minutes later, I am standing outside the reassuringly book-stuffed House of Prose, a sweet, wood-fronted place with rectangular-paned windows that looks as though it might have been more at home in Diagon Alley than in the glittering mall.

An unattributed quotation on the chalkboard on the door sets a cosy, personal tone: ‘I really like it when a second-hand book I’ve bought has an inscription inside. It makes me feel like I haven’t just purchased a story, but got a tiny piece of another person’s life as well.’

The cosy impression continues inside, where I am greeted by Diana who tells me about the store where she has worked for more than four years (‘I’m not bored yet!’ she says with a twinkle in her eye). Over its nearly two decades in the city, House of Prose has become renowned for the distinctive approach it takes to buying and selling second-hand English-language books.

When the store acquires a title, the assistant stamps the flyleaf with the shop’s mark. This enables the buyer to return the book for a 50 per cent cash refund when they have finished reading it. The volume will then be put back on the shelves to await another purchaser.

The store is able to offer this service because its staff are very selective about the titles they stock. Driven by what is likely to sell well, they generally only accept fiction by big-name authors or novels with a copyright date within the last calendar year. Agatha Christie, Diana tells me, will always find a place on the shelves, whereas little-known authors with books out a few years before are unlikely to be accepted.

Nevertheless, they are sometimes forced to draw a line when their stocks of certain writers’ works become too plentiful. Pointing out two shelves bursting with James Patterson novels, Diana explains that House of Prose is now only accepting his very latest publications for fear of getting inundated with the prolific American author’s books.

While the store’s non-fiction selection tends to skew towards sport, travel and history – I spy books about the Grand Prix and travel memoirs by Michael Palin, as well as Imran Khan’s Indus Journey and The Bombers: The Illustrated Story of Offensive Strategy and Tactics in the Twentieth Century by Robin Cross – certain more specialist genres are surprisingly popular. According to Diana, books about pregnancy and birth are always welcome. The same goes for children’s story books. ‘People will not stop having babies,’ Diana explains.

And though commercial big hitters dominate the shelves, there are some less obvious titles in the mix. You’ll spot more than a few Booker prize winners and shortlisters among the beach reads. And in the biography section books on global figures such as Obama jostle with works on less well-known (usually British) personalities, among them actors Shane Ritchie and David Jason, and the late TV presenter Roy Castle.

Translations are pretty thin on the ground – limited mostly to crime giants such as Jo Nesbø and Deon Meyer – but I do spot some Isabel Allende. I am also very pleased to find English-language versions of both my Saudi Arabian and UAE reads – even if Mohammad Al Murr’s The Wink of the Mona Lisa is filed slightly confusingly under ‘Miscellaneous’, where it rubs shoulders with Anthony Shaffer’s Operation Dark Heart: Spycraft and Special Ops on the Frontlines of Afghanistan – and The Path to Victory. 

And in classics, I find the translation I decide to buy. No, not Don Quixote, although he is there (he does get around, that would-be knight-errant). I plump instead for Dostoevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead. It will plug a notable gap among the Russian greats on my bookshelf – unless, of course, the next time I’m in Dubai, I decide to take advantage of House of Prose’s partial-refund returns policy and trade it in…

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.