Book of the month: Eduardo Halfon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book of the month: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

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One of the delights of this project – and a key reason that I continue the blog more than three years after my year of reading the world came to an end – is the fact that I still receive large numbers of book recommendations from bibliophiles all over the planet.

It’s a great joy to hear from enthusiastic readers and to learn about so many tempting stories. However, because I sometimes get several such messages a day, it means that the already gargantuan list of reading suggestions that I gathered during my project is still growing faster than I can tackle it (and that’s not to mention all the books that I have to read for research and reviewing, as well as those titles that sometimes leap out from bookshop shelves, grab me by the scruff of the neck, march me to the checkout and force me to read them there and then).

All the same, the recommendations do not go to waste. I often check back through them and select titles to buy. And so it was that, a few weeks ago, I came upon Dust by Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, my latest book of the month.

The novel was suggested in 2015 by Kerem_Kerem, who also recommended Taiye Selasi’s excellent Ghana Must Go. Having read each of them, I’m not surprised that this reader liked them both – they share several plot devices and themes, not least the ambition to diffract national stories through the prism of a single family’s experience. Indeed, there’s even an endorsement from Selasi on the cover of my edition of Dust, which was published in 2014.

Both novels have received considerable praise from critics. But it seems to me that Owuor is less well-known in the UK than Selasi. As a result, I decided to write about her book.

As in Ghana Must Go, the narrative of Dust is kickstarted by a death. In this case, it’s the violent death of Odidi, a man in the prime of his life, who is shot in the street in Nairobi on the night of the 2007 elections. Bewildered by the news, his fragmented family reconvenes at Wuoth Ogik, the remote farm in northern Kenya where he and his sister, Ajany, grew up. There too, appears Isaiah William Bolton, the son of a British man who knew Odidi’s parents. What follows is a troubling, moving and engrossing story, in which the characters attempt to piece together the shards of what they know into a picture of the past that they can all recognise.

This is a book in which multiple stories are told on almost every page. One of Owuor’s greatest achievements is that she reveals repeatedly how multi-faceted human beings and the things they create are. This is nowhere more evident than in her presentation of Kenya, a place that is at once the site of great suffering and corruption, but also of extraordinary love, forbearance, beauty and humour.

Insights leap from the page, frequently launched from only a handful of well-chosen words: ‘After Mboya, Kenya’s official languages: English, Swahili, and Silence’; ‘as long as there was enough to move the day, beyond a grumble, people really didn’t care to know why their lives had become harder’; in the wake of the violence that splintered it, Kenya is a nation ‘that is gluing its cracked shell together again’.

The book is often very funny too. Owuor is a great conjurer of characters, from the ever-hopeful Babu Chaudhuri, who continues to advertise for a shop manager 46 years after he first intended to pack it in and move to England, to the wily Trader who circulates around the country, bartering stories, information and whatever comes to hand. My favourite is Aaron, a police officer posted to an isolated station in the rural north, and made at once ridiculous and pitiable through his loneliness.

Owuor’s writing is at its most beautiful when it treats of the desert landscape, where the ‘wind lumbers past like an ancient wizard’ and the dusk comes ‘plodding in and scarring the sky with yellow-orange trails’. The place is soaked in imagination. Indeed, as we follow the characters over the rocky terrain, it often seems as if we are wandering through a vast psyche rather than a physical region.

That said, the writing isn’t always this good. Poorly rendered similes and unfortunate word choices crop up here and there, and at times the prose seems as uneven as the landscape it describes. In addition, the multiplicity of stories and ideas Owuor explores occasionally clogs the text, giving odd passages a congested and sometimes confusing feel.

In the final analysis, though, I can’t help but admire Dust. Its scope is impressive, its revelations frequently breathtaking and its perspective unfailingly humane. It is a rich, slow read – one to savour over a number of days rather than to race through in an evening. But if you invest the time, the novel will reward you. I’m very glad Kerem_Kerem recommended it.

Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Granta Books, 2014)

Picture by Enzinho83 on Flickr.com

Book of the month: Yoko Ogawa

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I wasn’t sure whether to write about this book. I’ve read some marvellous novels this month – among them Angolan novelist José Eduardo Agualusa’s Man Booker International Prize-shortlisted A General Theory of Oblivion (trans. Daniel Hahn), Brazilian star Alexandre Vidal Porto’s Sergio Y. (trans. Alex Ladd) and Taiye Selasi’s powerful Ghana Must Go. With such a strong selection of titles to choose from, it wasn’t easy to single out one to review.

When it came to Japanese writer Yōko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris (trans. Stephen Snyder), however, there was an additional reason to be uncertain. Brilliant though it is, the book made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure how to feel about the way it treats its dark themes or how to describe its strange and unsettling plot.

But if this project has taught me anything, it’s that when I identify a personal limitation or blind spot, I ought to confront it head-on. And so, erhem, here goes.

Like Manazuru, the Japanese book I read for this project back in 2012, Hotel Iris takes place largely by the sea. The protagonist-narrator is 17-year-old Mari, the daughter of an overbearing hotelier who requires her to work long hours to keep the business afloat. But when a middle-aged guest is caught up in a scandalous scene after a prostitute refuses to comply with his wishes, Mari finds her world shifting. Drawn to the man’s voice, she seeks him out and fosters a friendship with him that quickly turns to something much deeper and darker, testing the boundaries of her being, releasing her from her mother’s rules, and allowing her to explore the nature of pain, pleasure, humiliation and desire.

The summary makes the book sound sensationalist and even trashy (I defy you not to think of EL James), but this couldn’t be further from the truth. For one thing, there’s the writing: a spool of precise sentences consisting of descriptions of small details that hint at the calibration and adjustments going on beneath the surface. The succinct simplicity of Ogawa’s (and Snyder’s) writing about Mari’s mother’s obsessive styling of her daughter’s hair or the snatches of music that drift through the hotel from the rehearsals of a visiting choir, for example, belies the sophistication of this multi-layered text.

There is humour and there is beauty, too, evoked through neat flashes of insight that net a moment, a character, a view in a handful of words. The kleptomaniac maid who nearly betrays Mari’s secret, for example, only appears on a handful of pages, and yet she feels like a familiar figure when she stumps into view, swigging beer and helping herself to unsupervised trinkets.

We see intimacy and vulnerability in both Mari and her partner, but we also hear a frightening clarity in her words. Time and again, she smashes open her descriptions with a final jab or last detail that lays bare the darkness beneath.

This is particularly true when the narrative spirals in on the violence and humiliation Mari silently wills the man, who we learn is a translator, to inflict on her. Here, the shock is often delayed, just like the translator’s blows, to fall all the heavier when it comes, as in this sentence, capturing the narrator’s anticipation of the physical engagement to come: ‘The fingers clutching the pen would grasp my breast, the lips pursed in thought would probe my ribs, the feet hidden under the desk would trample my face.’

Reading Mari’s frank descriptions and her admission that ‘only when I was brutalized, reduced to a sack of flesh, could I know pure pleasure’ is troubling. The violence is one thing, but what lingers long after the final page is an uncertainty about how to view the events described.

Should we see this as an account of a vulnerable young person groomed and seduced by a ‘pervert […] not fit for a cat in heat’, as the prostitute calls the translator in the opening chapter? Or does Mari’s pleasure in and desire for what befalls her turn the story into something else, regardless of the fact that – as far as she tells us – Mari never openly expresses her longing or consent so that for all her partner knows she may be enduring his ministrations under duress.

Is Mari, in fact, another kind of victim – warped in her sexuality by her mother’s control and the sad deaths of her father and grandfather? And does the fact that Hotel Iris is written by a woman have any bearing on how we answer these questions?

Honestly, I don’t know. But I think that this may be part of the point. In allowing all these possibilities and questions to co-exist between its covers, this novel pulls off quite a feat. Not only does it make us question human nature, sexuality, power and agency, but it also forces us to examine the way we respond to narratives, make choices and give credence.

In short, Hotel Iris makes us explore how we read.

Hotel Iris by Yōko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (Picador, 2010)

Book of the month: Gail Jones

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The morning I started reading this month’s book of the month, a woman sitting opposite me on the London Overground leaned across. ‘Excuse me,’ she said. ‘Could you tell me about that book? You see, I’m moving there tomorrow.’

I glanced at the cover of Gail Jones’s A Guide to Berlin and smiled. ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘It’s not a guide to the city. It’s a novel by an Australian writer… But good luck with the move. From what I hear, it’s an amazing place.’

The fact that a coincidental encounter attended my reading of this Stella prize-longlisted book turned out to be quite fitting because chance connections play an uncanny role in the story. Told through the eyes of Cass, a young Australian woman who rents a bedsit in Berlin to try to write and falls in with a group of foreign nationals living in the city, the novel explores the surprising, strange and sometimes terrible things that link us.

The new friends – Yukio and Mitsuko from Tokyo, Gino and Marco from Rome, and Victor from New York – are brought together by a shared love of the work of Nabokov (the book’s title is also the name of one of his short stories). They use this common interest as a launchpad for a series of ‘speech-memory disclosures’, meeting regularly and taking turns to tell the others the story of how they came to be who they are. Yet, as the stories unfold, more comes out than the group could have imagined, leading to a violent climax that leaves each of the six central characters changed.

In many ways, it’s just as well that my fellow passenger didn’t have time to read this novel before she moved to Berlin: Cass’s first impressions of the city, which strikes her as ‘stiff and dead’, are far from inviting. Yet, as the pages turn, a rich, layered collage builds up, with Jones sending us whizzing along the lines of the U-Bahn and S-Bahn, stumbling over Stolpersteinen, walking in Nabokov’s footsteps and blundering into the makeshift shanty town established by African asylum seekers at Oranienplatz.

This mining of ‘remnant presences and the traces of suffering lives’ takes place against some of the most deliciously evocative descriptions of winter and snow that I have had the pleasure of encountering. Not since I read the Belarusian classic King Stakh’s Wild Hunt, has cold seemed to billow from the page in the way it does in the ‘scintillating night and […] smothered calm’ of Jones’s Berlin.

Yet, while the German capital may be a focus in the novel, the speech-memory disclosures remind us that each of us carries something of the places we come from. As a result, we learn about the hikikomoris and Lolita girls of Yukio and Mitsuko’s Japan, and the fallout of a bomb blast in Rome, as well as Cass’s ambivalent feelings about her homeland and the way outsiders regard it – her shame at the ‘government policy of hard hearts’ in relation to immigration, for example, and the idea that ‘in Europe, Australia is regarded as a fiction of beautiful lies’. In this way, the narrative plays with the mirage-like quality of national identity, a concept that seems to dissolve the closer you get to it.

Jones’s eye for the minutiae and hidden workings of human interactions is one of her major strengths. Time and again, the narrative mines the insecurities and foibles of its characters, bringing arresting truths to the surface. To read this book is to recognise repeatedly what it is to be a person. From the snags and spools in conversation, to the way we fictionalise our lives and concerns, editing and embellishing our histories as we go.

For the most part, these insights are delivered in stunningly precise prose. In the early chapters, a few metaphors misfire and adverbs clog odd sentences, making some passages feel awkward and self-conscious. By 20 or 30 pages in, however, these hiccups are mostly gone. It is as though Jones writes her way into the book, just as her heroine explores her way into Berlin.

Some readers, Reading Matters book blogger Kim Forrester among them, have criticised the dramatic events of the closing chapters as rushed and inauthentic, particularly after the slow drift of a narrative that, until that point, largely consists of people talking in a series of rooms. Credulity certainly creaks here and this abrupt turn of events will no doubt break the spell for some.

For me, however, the book has so much to offer that I was more than prepared to brush this aside. As a writer, I found this an extraordinarily nourishing read – a novel that inspires me to push my craft further, to write better, to imagine my way more fully into things. I was right to tell my fellow passenger that it is not a guide to the German capital. Instead, as the best books do, A Guide to Berlin reveals something about all of life and the whole world.

A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones (Vintage, 2015)

World bookshopper: #5 Word on the Water, London (various locations)

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So far, I’ve had to go to all the bookshops I’ve featured in this series. But this week, a bookshop came to me.

I was doing some work for a client in Haggerston in east London, a stone’s throw from the Regent’s Canal. The weather’s been pretty miserable lately, so I decided to take advantage of a dry spell to go for a lunchtime walk beside the water in the company of an audiobook (Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street – such an enjoyable listen).

No sooner had I ventured onto the towpath than I heard it: orchestral jazz drifting over the water, lending the Watchmaker a jaunty backing track. Once I’d walked over a humpback bridge, it came into view: a barge topped with a sail-like canopy and bristling with shelves of books. I knew what it was before I was close enough to read the sign outside: this was Word on the Water.

I’d heard of London’s only floating bookshop before. Chuntering up and down the Regent’s Canal for the past six years, it has become something of a (shifting) local landmark. There was a petition to save it when it lost its mooring last year (the campaign won and the barge will soon be moving to a permanent site near Granary Square).

In fact, I’d even seen it once or twice during my time working at the Guardian offices near King’s Cross in 2012. Back then, I’d been too absorbed in reading and blogging about one book every 1.87 days to be able to spare the time to venture aboard.

Luckily, this week was a different story.

An eclectic array of secondhand titles awaits me on the shelves and ledges on the outside of the boat. The Illustrated Guide to Egyptian Mythology rubs shoulders with a book about Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief. There are novels by Anne Enright, William Faulkner, Will Self, Annie Proulx, Sena Jeter Naslund and Dave Eggers. Studies in European Realism, a biography of Federico García Lorca and Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City Bombay peer up at me, while the obligatory Jo Nesbø stares out from a shelf. Things are kept simple by a flaking sign, which informs me that all paperbacks are £3 or two for a fiver.

Inside, the arrangement of the barge’s deceptively extensive stock is more regimented. The fiction bookcases run alphabetically, with a separate section for classics. Meanwhile, the Harry Potters have a shelf all to themselves, nestled beneath a window, through which I watch a shoal of learner canoeists windmill past.

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Small though it is, the bookbarge feels homely and inviting. There is a corner sofa on which you can imagine whiling away an hour or two as the woodburner crackles nearby (sadly, I don’t have this luxury, being on my lunch break).

Quirky antiques and ornaments nestle in odd spaces: a typewriter here, an old telephone there. Up near the entrance, a statue of the Buddha presides over the steps down into the belly of the barge.

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As is the case with many secondhand bookshops that rely on the cast-offs of anglophone readers, who often don’t read many translations, for their stock, the selection of books originating from other languages isn’t massive. However, I do happen upon Nick Caistor’s translation of The Hare by Argentine writer César Aira in the fiction section.

What Word on the Water may lack in international literature, however, it easily makes up for in passion. When I go to pay for the Aira, co-owner Jonathan Privett talks warmly about his experience co-running the barge. He tells me that sourcing titles from charity shops and house clearances is one of his favourite parts of the enterprise, and that he wouldn’t change his 20 years in the book trade for anything – even if the rewards are rarely financial.

‘I love doing this,’ he says. ‘If it was about making money, I would have got a job.’

Before I leave, Jon kindly poses for a photo with his dog, Star, who has been punctuating our conversation with some enthusiastic barks as she waits for Jon to play fetch with her on the towpath.

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As I climb out of the boat, he invites me to come back and do a reading from my novel, Beside Myself, sometime. I might just have to do that.

Then again, perhaps Word on the Water will come to me…

World bookshopper: #4 Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, Bath

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Picture a classic, old-fashioned bookshop: square-paned windows, handsome wooden bookcases, lots of nooks and crannies in which to escape into stories. Now imagine that this space has been given over to a lovable eccentric with a penchant for rare and quirky things.

If you concentrate hard enough, what you come up with may be something approaching Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. That’s the bookshop I found myself in this week. And it is quite simply one of the most charming wordmonger’s I’ve had the pleasure of visiting to date.

Mr B’s is in Bath, a handsome city in south-west England that was the site of elaborate Roman baths and became a popular spa town in Georgian times (many of Jane Austen’s characters frequent the place). Like St George’s in Bermuda – the home of my previous World bookshopper store – it’s a World Heritage Site.

I was at Mr B’s to meet six other novelists, all of us published by Bloomsbury, in advance of a joint event we were doing at the Bath Literature Festival. I was excited to chat to these writers – among them Natasha Pulley, author of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, David Savill (They are Trying to Break Your Heart), Ali Shaw (The Trees – such a great premise) and Paul M M Cooper, who wrote the achingly beautiful River of Ink. But the shop was so fascinating that, while the others made their introductions and swapped anecdotes about their journeys, I found myself irresistibly drawn away to explore its three floors.

There were unexpected delights round every corner. An antique Remington typewriter perched nonchalantly on a step. One wall of the staircase up to the top floor was papered with pages from a comic. A bath filled with books nestled under one of the windows. In the basement, the ceiling was covered with cloth tote bags from other indie bookshops around the world.

But perhaps the crowning glory was the upstairs Bibliotherapy Room, an idyllic space, complete with a complimentary coffee pot and a modern take on a roaring fire (a clever, gas-fired gizmo, glazed in so as to keep the books and their prospective buyers safe). No doubt, had one of Austen’s heroines wandered in from the narrow street outside, she would have felt right at home whiling away an hour or two here.

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This attention to detail is backed up by a rich and full selection of merchandise, with sections including ‘Books about Books’, ‘Graphic Novels’, ‘Food & Drink’ and a case of ‘Livres, Bücher, Livros’ (titles in French, German and Spanish).

The extensive fiction section bristles with tempting translations, alongside anglophone big hitters. The usual suspects are there – Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 hovers a shelf above a rabble of Jo Nesbøs, while a Sofi Oksanen stares up winningly nearby. Nobel laureates are out in force too, with strong showings from Orhan Pamuk and Naguib Mahfouz.

However, the selection is easily broad enough to allow for new discoveries. I was particularly pleased to spot a handwritten staff recommendation for Danish author Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned. Although this book was hailed as an instant European classic when it was published a few years back, I had not come across it before (needless to say, it is now on my lengthy to-read list).

This sort of personal touch is Mr B’s strongest suit of all. While I am browsing, several customers come in and ask for particular titles or genres. The staff respond enthusiastically, revealing not only extensive knowledge of the bibliouniverse, but also a profound love of books. As I listen, I discover a little heart-shaped wire frame on the wall, full of cards on which visitors have recommended their favourite books – titles by Helen Dunmore, JK Rowling, Brady Udall and Richard Yates all feature.

Clearly, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights is not just a place to buy books, but to share and cherish them too. Small wonder that in 10 years of trading, it has twice been named the UK’s Independent Bookshop of the Year.

Do pop along if you get the chance.

Book of the month: Fariba Hachtroudi

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A few weeks ago, I had a rather dramatic flying experience. Travelling from New York to a mystery destination (which will be revealed in the next World bookshopper post), I ended up having to take three flights in place of one when my plane was unable to land because of high winds. We were sent back to JFK and flew back for a second (successful) landing attempt later the same day.

Spending seven hours doing a journey that you had expected to take less than two is rarely fun. Luckily for me, the silver lining in this – rather turbulent – cloud was that I had an excellent novel with me that managed to keep me enthralled for much of the journey. The book was The Man Who Snapped His Fingers, the English-language debut from French-Iranian author Fariba Hachtroudi – and it impressed me so much that when I finally got off that third flight, not only shaken by the journey but very much stirred by what I’d read, I knew that I wanted to tell you about it.

Premises don’t come much more gripping than this one: years after a brief encounter in a torture chamber, a former senior official of a tyrannical Theological Republic and a woman who was one of the regime’s myriad victims come face to face. This time, the power balance is reversed. The former colonel is in the final stages of a last-ditch attempt to secure asylum in a northern European state; the erstwhile victim is his translator, and his only hope of winning the visa that will save his life.

As the translation angle might suggest, this is a book about words and storytelling, and the power they have to free, enslave and condemn. As the narrative alternates between the perspectives of the asylum seeker and the translator, gradually revealing their troubled and intertwined histories, we witness the way that human beings construct accounts in an attempt to establish and preserve their identities. With the drip, drip, drip of what happened comes the erosion of the concept of objective truth.

The writing, translated by Alison Anderson, ably reflects and develops this theme. The descriptions are sharp, vivid and brutal. Calling to mind some of the best passages of works such as Jérôme Ferrari’s Where I Left my Soul and Jáchym Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop, they stretch language on the rack of human experience, testing its limits to contain and express suffering and trauma.

As a result, this is not a book for the fainthearted. It is also not a book for readers who prioritise plot over substance.

When I started it shortly after take-off, I half expected the narrative to pursue a sensationalist line, with the translator exploiting her power to twist and shape the asylum seeker’s story as a means of exacting revenge. In fact, Hachtroudi’s choices are much more interesting than that and the novel is much richer and more thought-provoking as a result. Instead of events, ideas take centre stage – from the ways we construct ourselves, to conflicting notions of love.

This may mean that the The Man Who Snapped His Fingers is too diffuse and slow-moving for some tastes. Indeed, Europa Editions has done well not to jump on the thriller marketing bandwagon with this one. (The grabby premise is only loosely described in the jacket copy, with the emphasis placed instead on the sifting of the past that the character’s encounter provokes – a much more accurate reflection of the book than a campaign focusing on the opening hook would probably achieve.)

All the same, from where I was sitting (in seat 17C or thereabouts), the slower pace and looser-than-anticipated plot only heightened the novel’s appeal. I was gripped, through three rather bumpy attempted landings, a return flight, an hour’s wait and yet another take-off. I’m not sure many books would stand up to such a test.

The Man Who Snapped His Fingers (Le Colonel et l’appât) by Fariba Hactroudi, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (Europa Editions, 2016)

World bookshopper: #2 Rizzoli Bookstore, NYC

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At first glance, there’s a huge contrast between Rizzoli Bookstore on Broadway and the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, which was the subject of my first world bookshopper review. Where HW is charmingly quirky and a little worn round the edges, much like many of the titles on its shelves, Rizzoli gleams. And while a large part of the fun of visiting the former has to do with the fact you never know what lucky finds might leap out at you from the donated titles ranged on the shelves, curatorial flair and selectivity are the name of the game at Rizzoli, which reopened at 1133 Broadway last year, after closing its previous store on 57th Street.

On the day I go, the main window is given over to one title alone: Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom. Copies of this lavish book – created to tie in with an eponymous exhibition, which was showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – are deftly stacked and propped to catch the eye of people passing along the snow-heaped sidewalk. Their uniformity is broken only occasionally by a Lonely Planet guide to Africa, several blue ceramic animals, a book on African art and a copy of Alaa Al Aswany’s The Automobile Club of Egypt – stylish touches that set off the handsome hardback admirably.

The same keen aesthetic sense is apparent when I get inside. Black pillars flank a harlequin marble floor. The wooden bookshelves shine warmly, proclaiming the subject matter of their contents in tasteful, serif font. Above them, a mural showing clouds against an azure sky softens the effect of the monochrome stone. Small wonder that the shop’s website proclaims it ‘the most beautiful bookstore in New York’ – someone has given its interior a lot of thought.

This appreciation of the visual finds its echo in the store’s merchandise. Substantial sections are given over to architecture, art, photography and design. Audrey Hepburn gazes coolly from the covers of many of the books devoted to fashion.

Similar care and taste goes into the selection of titles in the new fiction and new non-fiction sections too. I spot the latest offerings from international names such as Leila Aboulela, Per Petterson, Orhan Pamuk and Kenzaburō Ōe, as well as books by Stephen King, Sally Mann and Patti Smith.

There are also collectors’ items, such as the awesome The Complete Works of Primo Levi, edited by translation celebrity Ann Goldstein (she of Elena Ferrante fame). Housed in a glossy casing, this handsome three-volume celebration of the Italian holocaust survivor’s extraordinary oeuvre seems to demand lofty surroundings. I decide that if I wanted to buy it and own it, I would first have to sell my little flat and purchase somewhere much bigger, with a library handsome enough to do it justice.

Opposite the new fiction and non-fiction area, a literature section contains collections of essays – or what are described on the shelf as ‘belles lettres’ – as well as poetry and more paperback fiction. Allen Ginsberg rubs shoulders with Lena Dunham, and there are works by Mikhail Bulgakov and Peter Carey too.

Nearby, a stand of Italian- and French-language fiction tempts me for a moment to dust off my A-level French and try something in the original.

In the end, though, my head is turned by Nigerian-American writer and photographer Teju Cole’s novel, Every Day is for the Thief. (On the flight out of New York – during which I devour this novel in one go – I’m very grateful for this decision. Not only is this novel about a Nigerian man’s return to Lagos after years in the States exceptional – seriously, you should read it – but it occurs to me that I wouldn’t have been able to fit a French dictionary into my hand luggage. I resolve to schedule my next bout of French-language reading for a time when I am not in transit.)

As I queue to pay for the Cole and pick up a postcard bearing a tasteful photograph of the bookstore at the counter, I am struck by a thought. The care and attention that goes into choosing and presenting books beautifully at Rizzoli actually has a lot in common with the come-one-come-all eclecticism of Housing Works.

In their contrasting ways, both these distinctive stores are physical embodiments of a love of books and a desire to create a good environment in which to share them. At root, the people behind them share many of the same beliefs – that the written word is important and necessary, that it has power to make the world better, and that it should be showcased in a joyful space where people relish spending time.

I step out through the stylish glass door into the chill of the Manhattan winter. Already, I am eager to see where my world bookshopping will take me next…

Book of the month: Saneh Sangsuk

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Experts have been a great help to me since I decided to try to read the world. Many of the books I read for my original project in 2012 were recommended by people who had devoted decades of their lives to studying or translating literature from particular regions or languages. My Chinese and UAE choices were two very good examples – in both cases, the advice of people with in-depth knowledge of the books of those nations directed my attention to fascinating titles that I may well not have considered otherwise.

So when Sutida Wimuttikosol, a Thai literary critic and lecturer at Thammasat University,  introduced herself to me at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I lost no time in asking for her suggestions for literature from her homeland. Wimuttikosol emailed me details of three writers with work available in English translation: Khamsing Srinawk, Prabda Yoon and Saneh Sangsuk.

I tracked down work by all of them and can second Wimuttikosol’s recommendations – they are all, in their different ways, intriguing authors. However, the book that grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and has colonised a large swathe of my imaginary universe this month is The White Shadow by Saneh Sangsuk, and that’s the title I’m going to write about today.

In many ways, Sangsuk was a controversial writer for a Thai literary critic to recommend. Although his talent has long been recognised outside Thailand (the French government even made him a chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2008), the wordsmith’s work has historically had a less-than-glowing reception in his own nation.

According to the biographical note at the end of my edition of The White Shadow, in Thailand the author ‘raises twice as many jeers than cheers’. The novel was struck off the 1994 SEA Write Award pre-selection list and sold less than 1,000 copies, forcing its author (who had funded its publication himself) to survive ‘with no computer, no phone, no TV, but books from floor to ceiling in his rented room, writing in longhand […] and occasionally being treated to lunch at the market by his friends after he helps them sweep the floor’.

The eccentricity and single-mindedness the description above suggests is reflected amply in The White Shadow. As its subtitle – ‘portrait of the artist as a young rascal’ – suggests, it is an autobiographical coming-of-age novel. Looking back on the excesses, cruelties and bad choices of his youth, the narrator, who has retreated to a ramshackle house in the rural north to try to write, oscillates between self-loathing and self-pity, with numerous flights into mania, fantasy and humour along the way.

It’s subject matter that thousands of bildungsromans around the world – from Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and JM Coetzee’s Youth to MT Vasudevan Nair’s Kaalam, not to mention the James Joyce book referenced in the English-language title – have tackled over the centuries. Yet no-one has done it quite like Sangsuk. Extraordinarily inventive, merciless and sometimes offensive, his writing zeroes in on the smallest dust mote before spiralling out to look at the world from the perspective of outer space. All of life is here – digressions on Western art and Eastern mysticism, dissections of music and scientific theory, ponderings on philosophy, politics and psychology. You name it; you’ll find it in these pages.

In addition, the narrative bristles with lush descriptions of Thailand in many of its guises. The seedy underbelly of Bangkok and the wild splendour of the jungle all appear in lavish detail. We trail through the slums and universities, and jostle against the hawkers and hoodlums in the markets and on the beaches. Beauty and brokenness abound.

The same can be said of the writing. Some passages are astonishingly virtuosic and playful. Nevertheless – whether through glitches in the translation or quirks in Sangsuk’s style – there are odd turns of phrase and the occasional malapropism.

The book is also not an easy read from a liberal Western standpoint. Its questionable handling of gender issues and the unabashed misogyny of its protagonist make for some very uncomfortable moments.

For all that, though, this is an extraordinary performance. Whether its compatriots own it or not, the novel has things to say to readers everywhere. It will delight, challenge, unsettle and move.

Pleasingly, more than 20 years after this book met with the opprobrium of many of his peers, Sangsuk does seem to be getting more homegrown recognition. In 2014, his collection Venom and Other Stories won the SEA Write Award denied to his earlier work.

If The White Shadow is anything to go by, the accolade was richly deserved. The author, however, with the directness that makes that book so powerful, wasn’t convinced that his new work deserved the recognition. ‘It’s readable, I’d give it B+,’ he told the Bangkok Post.

The White Shadow: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Rascal (Ngao See Khao) by Saneh Sangsuk, translated from the Thai by Marcel Barang (Thaifiction Publishing, 2009)

Photo ‘Bangkok, Thailand’ by Simon Marussi on Flickr

Twin literature audiobook giveaway

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As some of you know, my first novel, Beside Myself, was published worldwide in English by Bloomsbury last week. It’s a psychological drama about twins who swap places in a childhood game and get trapped in the wrong lives (you can read about how I came to write it here).

The publishing industry being what it is these days, the book already exists in several different forms: handsome hardback editions with equally striking covers designed for the US and UK markets, a trade paperback for people passing through airport bookshops, an ebook, and an audiobook narrated by British actress Lisa Coleman.

I listened to an extract as soon as it came out and was thrilled with the way that Coleman has brought the story to life. Having narrated the audiobook of The World Between Two Covers myself, I know just how difficult the process can be.

I’d love for you to hear it too and it turns out we’re in luck because Audible has given me some codes that can be used to download the audiobook for free. I’ve got two to give away here.

The response to the children’s literature giveaway  I ran last month was so good that I’ve decided to repeat it, but this time for books about twins. If you’d like to be in with a chance of winning one of these codes, simply leave a comment below telling me in around four sentences about your favourite book that features twins.

I’m particularly interested in books originally written in languages other than English. A good example would be Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin, which was my Dutch choice during my Year of Reading the World.

But if you have a burning recommendation for a book that was written in English, feel free to share it.

The competition will run until midday (UK time) on Friday February 12. After that, I will read through the entries and pick two winners.

And to help get those ideas flowing, here’s a piece I wrote for the Guardian newspaper about why twins are useful in storytelling.

Good luck!

Picture by ethermoon on Flickr

Competition now closed. Check back for results soon.

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