Book of the month: Mieko Kawakami

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book of the month: Narine Abgaryan

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

© Diego Delso / CC BY-SA 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book of the month: Gaël Faye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book of the month: Boubacar Boris Diop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture by Toon van Dijk on flickr.com

Tips for reading outside your comfort zone

The makeup of bookshelves is changing. Since my 2012 quest to read a book from every country, it’s been great to see many of the nations that had no literature commercially available in English translation back then becoming represented in the world’s most-published language, as well as many other wonderful books being brought to an increasingly enthusiastic anglophone readership.

This year, that much-needed expansion of many people’s reading looks set to accelerate. In response to the #BlackLivesMatter protests that spread around the globe in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in the US, there has been a lot of discussion about diversifying the voices we listen to and the texts we read. Social media has been full of lists of must-read books by writers of colour (including this excellent resource put together by award-winning translator Jennifer Croft), and many people have declared their intention to broaden their cultural intake and seek out works by people from demographics that have traditionally been marginalised in anglophone publishing.

I think this is a great thing. Having discovered how transformative reading books from a multiplicity of communities and perspectives can be during my quest, I am keen to encourage everybody to read widely because I am convinced that sharing stories is one of the most powerful tools we human beings have for fostering understanding, empathy and cooperation across cultural, political, racial, religious, social and geographical divides.

But I’m also aware that reading outside your comfort zone can be challenging. If you’re only used to absorbing certain kinds of stories told in a familiar range of ways (which is what the mainstream anglophone publishing industry – for all the great books it boasts – has tended to produce), it is daunting to try to tackle a novel from an unfamiliar tradition. What if you don’t get it? Or it’s too much like hard work? What if you have to spend half your time looking things up? What if the emotional passages leave you cold and the jokes go over your head?

With this in mind (and as a companion to the blogging guide I wrote at the start of lockdown), I’ve put together a list of some tips for approaching books from unfamiliar traditions gleaned from more than eight years of wide-ranging international literary exploration:

  • Get comfortable with not knowing If you read a book by someone from a community you don’t know well, you are likely to encounter unfamiliar concepts. There may be vocabulary you don’t know or references that you cannot place. There may be symbolism that you can’t unpick or don’t even realise is there. This can be difficult, but it doesn’t mean that you should put the book down. Just as it’s possible to enjoy a television drama even if you miss the odd scene, so you can get a lot out of a novel that you don’t follow perfectly. If the writing is good, the story should sweep you along and you may well find that it answers many of your questions along the way.
  • Get comfortable with being uncomfortable If you read books by people with markedly different beliefs and perspectives to your own, you are going to be challenged. Sometimes – as I found with the many less-than-flattering presentations of the British Empire I have encountered in literature from elsewhere – this may prompt you to re-evaluate your views. On other occasions – as happened to me when characters in several of the novels from countries where homosexuality is illegal expressed homophobic sentiments as though they were universal truths – you will be offended. We all have to decide for ourselves what we’re prepared to entertain and it’s up to you whether you throw a book down in outrage, but I think there can be value in seeing what the world looks like through the eyes of those we disagree with, especially when we’re not quite the reader the author imagines us to be.
  • Get comfortable with making mistakes You’re going to get things wrong. You’re going to misunderstand. You’re going to mispronounce. Sometimes, you’re going to miss the point. At least at first and probably for a long time after that. It’s all right. Discovering that you don’t know something is an opportunity. It’s what you do about it that counts.
  • Be curious There’s no shame in ignorance, but there is shame in complacency. If your reading leads you to discover a blind spot in your thinking, you owe it to yourself to try to address this. It’s not always easy. It can be tiring. And you may find that the path it leads you down takes you some distance from the person you were when you picked up that book. But the view from your new vantage-point will probably be better.
  • Beware knee-jerk reactions It’s a human trait to dismiss as flawed things we don’t understand. In the case of literature from other communities, the instinctive response that something is bad may simply indicate that a technique is unfamiliar to us or point out a glitch in our thinking. Many great novels have been panned by those who don’t know how to read them. If you find yourself taking against a book that has made it through the bottleneck of international publishing to be one of the relatively few titles translated into English each year (or one of the relatively few titles by writers of colour published annually), ask yourself if there may not in fact be something lacking in your own reading. If you’re not sure, give the book the benefit of the doubt.
  • Stay critical Guarding against knee-jerk reactions doesn’t mean you have to switch off your critical faculties. It simply means that you criticise your own responses as well as the book. There are some bad translated books out there. (I’ve read a few of them.) Even great books usually have problems and, as a reader, you are entitled to call them out. You are also entitled not to like things that everyone else agrees are brilliant.
  • Beware cross-cultural parallels When we encounter something new, it’s natural to try to find comparable things in our recollections and experiences. If you have studied literature, you will probably have been encouraged to make connections between texts. However, such impulses should be treated with caution when it comes to books from unfamiliar traditions. While they may be valid in some cases, they may also impose assumptions and frameworks that are alien to the work in question and produce a warped reading as a result. If you find yourself thinking that a book from elsewhere reminds you of the writing of Thomas Hardy or Edith Wharton, for example, notice the observation but don’t let it dominate to the point that it takes over.
  • Treat explanatory material with caution Footnotes and introductions in books from elsewhere can be very helpful in illuminating some of the things most anglophone readers may not know. But they can also be boring, distracting and – in the worst cases – downright wrongheaded (witness the introductory note to the 18th-century translation of The Koran on my bookshelf, in which the translator describes the religious work as a ‘forgery’ and explains that helping Christians find ways to convert Muslims was his motivation for bringing the work into English). My general policy is to leave extraneous material until last (if at all) and to consult footnotes sparingly. Make up your own mind about a book before you allow someone else to tell you what to think.
  • Go at your own pace Faster is rarely better when it comes to reading. On balance, you’ll probably get a lot more from immersing yourself in a handful of texts than skimming thousands.
  • Enjoy yourself You’re a reader, not a martyr. If a book is making you miserable (and not in a good way), put it down. Life is full of enough challenges without making reading a chore. Instead, follow your inclinations. If you like crime novels, start expanding your reading that way – try ‘sunshine noir’, as I once heard Afrikaans author Deon Meyer describe African thrillers, or take a trip through some of the troubling police novels of Latin America. You’ll probably find that, in time, this leads you to other kinds of books as your comfort zone expands to cover more and more of the world’s extraordinary stories.

Photo © Steve Lennon

Book of the month: Bogdan Teodorescu

Translators can often be great guides to interesting new books. Once you get into reading literature originally written in languages other than English, the names of the people who bring it into your mother tongue start to surface – shyly at first, from flyleaves and afterwords more often than book covers – in your awareness.

The more you read, the more you get a sense for the sort of projects a particular translator tends to work on. Just as publishing houses and imprints become known for producing certain kinds of books, so individual translators (who often act as scouts and activists, persuading publishers to acquire books they might otherwise not hear of or might hesitate to bring to the English market) often exhibit a certain consistency of track record that makes their name a kind of endorsement.

These days when I receive news of a novel by an author I’ve never heard of, discovering that the English version is by a translator whose work I have enjoyed in the past can often be the deciding factor that makes me turn to the first page.

So when I heard that one of the book bloggers I most respect, Marina Sofia, was working on a translation from her native Romanian, I was intrigued. All the more so when I learned that the novel was the first publication from newly minted Corylus Books, an outfit that, as it states on its website, aims ‘to take a chance on presenting some of the great European crime fiction that wouldn’t normally make its way into English’.

What was it about Bogdan Teodorescu’s Sword, I wondered, that had convinced a prolific and discerning reader and a new publisher to throw their weight behind it?

Difference is certainly one of its selling points. Although the premise of a serial killer leaving a trail of bodies across the Romanian underworld sounds conventional enough and the first chapter dutifully delivers a corpse for the reader to ponder, the similarities between this novel and the crime fiction with which most English speakers will be familiar end there.

Instead of the graphic, action-packed thriller such books usually provide in the anglophone world, the narrative moves through a series of meetings, phone calls and media broadcasts in which politicians, journalists and bureaucrats weigh up the political implications of a murderer targeting the nation’s much-maligned Roma community. Rather than providing a central figure – usually an emotionally damaged detective – to accompany us through the twists and turns of the plot, the novel sweeps us past a large cast of characters, many of whom have very few distinguishing features. And in place of dwelling on the tribulations of the killer’s human victims, the book presents Romania itself as the hostage whose fate hangs in the balance.

There are striking stylistic, pacing and structural differences too. Dialogue makes up the vast majority of the book, with many pages given over to political speeches and debates. Whole chapters go by without more than a handful of sentences of description. Although the actions of the killer are extreme and brutal (and are captured with powerful economy on several occasions), these account for a tiny proportion of the narrative: most scenes concern men in suits arguing with one another.

This makes for a surprising and sometimes challenging read. With the sort of action-based suspense that keeps the pages turning in many anglophone thrillers largely absent, the book has an oddly static feel. Sometimes, it almost seems as though readers have been left with reams of raw, unedited footage to sift through and shape for themselves.

However, for those willing to read in this way, the novel offers other kinds of intrigue. The preoccupations, prejudices and corruption of Romania’s ruling elite are laid bare as the players work the levers of power and try to turn the increasingly alarming events to their advantage. With a satirical directness that few British writers attempt, Teodorescu lampoons the self-serving nature of those ruining his nation. (That said, I was sure I could see Marina Sofia smiling to herself when at one stage she opted for the phrase ‘the nasty party’ – an appellation that has been associated with the UK’s Conservative party since Theresa May uttered it in 2002.)

It’s also fascinating and thought-provoking to see discrimination and racism handled in a rather different manner to the way in which such issues are usually discussed in the anglophone media. In addition, the much more global perspective that drives many of the Romanian politicians’ domestic decisions, most of which are taken with half an eye on how they might be construed in the West, is illuminating. Reading about these things, which are so rarely portrayed in English, feels like gaining privileged access to a world from which we would normally be excluded.

Sword doesn’t deliver what its cover and title may lead many anglophone readers to expect. I am sure there will be people who will be disappointed by this book. For those willing to set their expectations aside, however, the novel offers a surprising, urgent and little-heard story, told in a voice that English speakers may have to learn to listen to properly.

Sword (Spada) by Bogdan Teodorescu, translated from the Romanian by Marina Sofia (Corylus Books, 2020)

Picture: ‘Bucharest Parliament Building-4’ by John6536 on flickr.com

Book of the month: Elvira Dones

My latest Book of the month came out of a conversation on Twitter in which I and a number of other people were asked for suggestions of books by women from rarely translated countries in south-east Europe. As usually happens in such situations, I learnt far more than I contributed. There were a number of fascinating suggestions, including the delightfully sour short story collection My Husband by Rumena Bužarovska, translated from the Macedonian by Paul Filev.

One title, however, got particularly enthusiastic recommendations: Sworn Virgin by the Albanian writer and documentary maker Elvira Dones, translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford (and made into a film in 2015 – see the trailer above). These were further strengthened by the quote on the cover of the e-version I bought, an endorsement from Albania’s Nobel laureate-in-waiting, Ismail Kadare.

Drawing on a tradition still alive in the north of the country, where blood feuds sometimes wipe out a family’s men (a situation memorably depicted in Kadare’s Broken April), the novel follows one woman caught up in the consequences of this brutal situation as she attempts to reclaim her identity. After years of living as a sworn virgin – a status that grants a woman the rights and protections of a man in return for chastity so that they may take on the patriarchal role in a household devoid of men (explored in a series of striking portraits by photographer Jill Peters) – 35-year-old Hana/Mark leaves her small village for the suburbs of Washington DC. There, living with her sister Lila, she finally has the chance to shrug off the expectations and duties that have weighed on her and explore the femininity she has been forced to deny for so long.

The fact of the novel being built around Hana/Mark’s escape to the US makes it an excellent candidate for translation. As Hana is obliged to explain herself to those she becomes close to, the challenge of elucidating the little-known and complex tradition that has warped her adulthood is overcome relatively easily. Like so many of the most successful novels to travel around the world, the story acts as a bridge, connecting a lesser known culture (to Western minds at least) with more widely familiar, anglophone ways of looking at the world.

The insights that come from this are fascinating. This is particularly true of the book’s treatment of gender identity, which feels startlingly different to the conversations around gender fluidity that have become relatively familiar in the English-speaking world in recent years. Far from something she has embraced gladly, Hana’s male identity, Mark, is ‘a product of her iron will’. Her masculinity is something that she has worked at grimly and resolutely, drinking and smoking heavily and aping male behaviour until even male thought patterns are ingrained in her – ‘It must be a woman thing,’ she tells herself when Lila does something she can’t explain. In the face of such extreme self-denial, her faltering attempts to find her way into her own femininity and sexuality are as moving as they are painful.

The broader insights into rural Albanian society that come through Hana’s recollections are equally compelling. Against the backdrop of a rigid world in which women are ‘made to serve and have children’ and where the young Hana thought nothing of carrying a knife to protect herself from rape when she travelled alone, the decision to eschew your gender and don the mantle of masculinity for strategic reasons ceases to seem quite so strange.

Dones and Botsford’s greatest achievement is taking readers into the emotional implications of the novel’s extraordinary events, often while using language very sparingly. With reticence and silence playing a huge role in conservative Albanian society, words often have to be as muscular and ruthless as the people they describe. The best instances of this are extremely powerful. ‘There are wolves out there, my daughter. This place is full of wolves,’ Hana’s beloved and ailing Uncle Gjergj tells her when she proposes going to fetch the medicine he needs. They both know he is not talking about animals.

All that being said, there are problems with Sworn Virgin. Although elements of Hana’s journey are deeply engrossing, there are less successful parts that feel underdeveloped and thin. Her relationship with the patient American who sits next to her on the plane ride over, for example, never quite comes to life and feels more like a device needed to help demonstrate the protagonist’s progress than a living, true part of the book. Similarly, there are some stilted sections and conversations that appear sketched in rather than fully fleshed out.

As the title implies, Hana remains a representative of her unusual social group and never quite makes the transition to being a fully rounded character. This may be a deliberate choice and a reflection of the emotional stuntedness to which her situation has subjected her, but it could also reveal the difficulty that can come from letting a single issue sit too prominently in a narrative, to the point that characters’ actions become largely tools to explore and elucidate it rather than organic happenings.

As a result, this is a book that is probably more important than it is lovable. But it is nonetheless very much worth the price of admission. Brave, imaginative and thought-provoking, like the best of literature, this novel will require readers to reimagine not only a part of the world about which they may know very little but also their own assumptions.

Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones, translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford (And Other Stories, 2015)

Book of the month: Nino Haratischvili

In the UK, just before the Covid-19 lockdown came into force (an experience I have begun documenting on a new blog), there was a book-buying boom. Forced with the prospect of staying at home for weeks or even months, many people decided to stockpile reading matter. They favoured long reads, from contemporary tomes by authors such as Hilary Mantel and Hanya Yanagihara to epic classics by Leo Tolstoy and George Eliot.

I have another suggestion for those looking for lengthy, quality novels to add to their lists. Tipping the scales at around 940 pages, Hamburg-based Georgian author Nino Haratischvili’s The Eighth Life: (for Brilka), which has won multiple awards and is longlisted for the Booker International Prize, is a formidable text. Its subject matter is equally weighty, for it takes in 20th-century Georgian and Russian history, depicting the events of more than a hundred years through the lives of several generations of a single family.

The reading experience itself is far from heavy, however. Framed as an exploration of family history written by the grudging Niza, who is co-opted into recovering her niece, Brilka, after she tries to run away to Vienna, the book surprises with its playfulness and ingenuity.

This playfulness takes many forms. There are the structural games that see the reader offered multiple beginnings and teased with hints at events that may not unfold for hundreds of pages. There is the blending in of elements of the fantastic, most notably in the form of the devilishly addictive hot-chocolate, the recipe for which is only passed to select family members on account of the belief that it curses those who taste it. There is the frequent subversion of expectations, whereby characters defy their stereotypes, with the old proving to be much sturdier, the beautiful much more ugly, and the strong much weaker than their outward appearances suggest. There is plenty of humour too, at least in the early stages.

Humour in writing, particularly humour that carries through translation (credit here to Ruth Martin and Charlotte Collins), is often a sign that a writer has a sharp eye. This is certainly true of Haratischvili. The book teams with insights and observations about how we humans work that readers everywhere will recognise, making us feel deeply connected to the story.

This is a powerful tool because much of the history presented here will be unfamiliar to many English-language readers. As I found with several of the eastern European books I encountered during my 2012 quest to read the world (among them my Latvian and Armenian titles), exploring books from countries that have had little literature translated into English reveals how partial the prevailing anglophone understanding of political events is. In the case of the 20th century, the British involvement in the First and Second World Wars – and the subsequent focus on the fighting in Western Europe in history teaching and memorialisation – seems to have constructed a mental wall down central Europe, beyond which few people in this country look.

Haratischvili smashes through this barrier. She forces us to feel the personal consequences of Stalin’s reign of terror, Soviet brutality, the War in Abkhazia and the Sukhumi massacre.

In this, the novel’s length assists her. It takes so long to read that, by the time we reach the end, the events of the early volumes – kept alive in our minds by carefully deployed repetitions and references – have passed into our long-term memory. It is as though we, too, have lived through them, been changed by them and are now looking back on them with wiser eyes.

The book is a little patchy. There are some tropes that do not land quite as I suspect the author hopes (the carpet-weaving metaphor wheeled out in the opening chapters to describe the business of storymaking, for example, feels a little tired). There also seems to be some (possibly cultural) discrepancy between the things that Haratischvili feels needs stating and the things an anglophone author might leave implicit in the text. This has the effect of making some of the observations sound a little obvious or unnecessary. Occasionally, the writing is also a little stagey.

But bof! This is nitpicking. The point is: read this book. If you’re cooped up at home at the moment, this novel will provide some much-needed escapism. It will engross and absorb you. It will teach you many things. By the time you emerge, the world may be changed but so will you.

The Eighth Life: (for Brilka) by Nino Haratischvili, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin (Scribe, 2019)

Picture: ‘Tbilisi Old Town’ by Richard on flickr.com

Book of the month: Fernanda Melchor

Mexican stories have been much in the news in recent weeks. The controversy that blew up around US author Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt brought questions of authenticity and who decides which voices are heard in an industry skewed strongly in favour of white, anglophone authors to the forefront of many booklovers’ minds.

As often happens in such situations, the debate pitted two issues connected with freedom of expression against each other: the right of all communities to be heard and to speak for themselves versus the right of individual artists to allow their imaginations to venture into whatever territory they wish to explore.

This is not an easy conflict to resolve. However, it is problematic to make one title the battleground for such far-reaching concerns. Just as writers rarely, if ever, set out to speak on behalf of their nation, ethnicity or other demographic markers, so single novels are hardly ever designed to carry the weight of such issues. It is unfortunate that the way many big publishers and the mainstream media deal with books (giving a handful of titles 90 per cent of the attention and focus) means that these conversations usually remain reactionary and tied to specific events rather than opening up into more thoughtful, meaningful debates.

One positive thing that did come out of the furore, however, was a series of tweets from translators and other Latin American literature aficionados sharing titles by Mexican writers that deserve more attention. As they pointed out, there is an embarrassment of riches to choose from. Favourite names in the frame included Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World (translated by Lisa Dillman), The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana) and Brenda Lozano’s Loop (translated by Annie McDermott) – all of which, I heartily second.

For my money, however, there is one recent Mexican book that stands in a class of its own: Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, translated by Sophie Hughes. Set in motion by the discovery of the body of an ambiguous figure known as ‘The Witch’ in an irrigation canal on the outskirts of the impoverished village of La Matosa, this whirlwind of a novel rampages through an entire community, blowing back curtains, breaking down walls and cracking open skulls to lay bare the secrets within.

Each chapter focuses on the experiences of a different person, plunging into their fears and rifling their memories to reveal the steps that led to the savage killing at the book’s heart. Circling around and around, often rehearsing the same incidents several times in different words, the narrative smashes together intimacy and violence, beauty and filth, creating an accretion of details that coheres into a compelling and disturbing exploration of scapegoating and the legacy of abuse.

The urgency of the subject matter is mirrored stylistically. Each chapter forms a single block of text, often containing sentences that run for a page or more, and, although each one represents a particular characters’ experiences, the narrative perspective swings like a ceiling light in a gale, illuminating now the interior monologue of the character in focus, now the voices of the community, now prejudices internalised below the level of conscious thought. Occasionally, it even casts its glare on the reader, who is at points a bystander, gossip, police officer or other player in the action.

This approach is extremely risky – and in lesser writers’ hands it would be a mess. However, with Melchor and Hughes, the writing pulses with energy. The chaos comes from the sort of virtuosity that arises from painstaking effort; the force and bluster is the result of laser precision.

But the reader is expected to work too. The book is unapologetic in its demands. In addition to assigning the reader roles at various points, it requires intense concentration. The dense weave of the chapters does not support dipping in and out. Distractions must be put aside.

And you can forget about being babied. With song lyrics kept in Spanish and cultural references left largely unexplained, this is not a text that comes meekly to the reader but one that requires its audience to meet it on its own territory, ready or not.

The same goes for the subject matter. This is one of the most explicit books I have read. To me, it never feels gratuitous – indeed, one of its greatest achievements is the way that the events are so richly imagined that Melchor and Hughes manage to take us into extreme mindsets (from murderous frenzies and rank bigotry to fantasies involving bestiality) and show the mechanisms by which love and vulnerability can be sublimated into such things. But there’s no getting away from the fact that, for some readers, this will be too much.

I don’t expect this will do anything to impede Hurricane Season‘s progress to the lasting success it richly deserves, however. It contains that rare energy and vitality that now and then power a story far beyond its beginnings and into the collective imagination. The day I finished reading it, I heard that it had been longlisted for the International Booker Prize. I have a feeling it won’t stop there.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Photo: ‘The Walls Come Tumbling Down’ by Carl Campbell on flickr.com

Book of the month: Bessora / Barroux

And so we come to the last day of 2019 and the final Book of the month of the 2010s, the decade in which reading changed my life.

From the start, this project has been about addressing personal blindspots and exploring what storytelling can do. In that spirit, this last review of the tenties, ventures into new territory for me: the world of graphic novels.

First, a confession: I’m not a very visual person. As a child, comics left me cold. I didn’t much like cartoons. The visions words conjured always seemed much more vivid than illustrations.

Recently, however, I got the chance to interview translator Sarah Ardizzone for the Royal Literary Fund, a wonderful charity of which I’m honoured to be a fellow. I’d been aware of Ardizzone’s work for many years because, among the more than 50 books she has translated, her work includes Faïza Guène’s powerful depiction of a Moroccan teenager’s life in a Parisian high-rise estate, Just Like Tomorrow, which was my French pick during my year of reading the world.

Indeed, as I said to Ardizzone during our discussion, her career has been characterised by translating diverse and non-mainstream voices, often through collaborations with representatives of a range of communities to capture the nuances of particular dialects or argots in French and find equivalencies in English.

Alpha: Abidjan to Gare du Nord is a prime example. The product of a collaboration between award-winning Belgium-born writer Bessora and French illustrator Barroux, the book reflects on the treacherous journeys of many of the undocumented migrants who have attempted to cross the Mediterranean to enter Europe in recent years, condensing extensive research into a single, striking account.

When I spoke to Ardizzone about it, she told me that working on graphic novels like this requires her to translate on another level, allowing the pictures to dictate the palette or moodboard of the words she uses. Following her lead, I am using some of the pictures from the book to direct my review.

The novel follows title character Alpha as he sells his business and sets out to travel to the Gare du Nord in Paris, where he believes he will meet his wife and son. Although the journey only takes a matter of hours by plane, he knows it will be somewhat longer by land and sea. As such, he travels light.

To reflect this, illustrator Barroux, who is known for using strict constraints in his work, opts to present his illustrations as though they are sketches done with felt-tip pens in a cheap exercise book Alpha has taken with him. Mostly black and white, with occasional splashes of colour when he has time for embellishments, they are stark and powerful, with a make-do, hurried air, as though the person drawing them can never be sure when he will next be on the move.

Ardizzone’s translation of Bessora’s words reflects this. The writing is largely functional and direct – in the manner of a journal – with occasional flights of fancy and poetic descriptions.

The depictions of many of Alpha’s fellow travellers are cases in point. There is Antoine from Cameroon, who is so set on making it to Spain to play for F.C. Barcelona that he is already wearing his football boots and gets up before sunrise to jog in the Sahara so as to stay in good physical form.

 

Equally powerful as these small, often funny, human details are the gaps and omissions. Take Abebi, a young woman from Lagos, whose health has been ruined by the physical risks she has been obliged to take to pay for her journey. The spare account of the toiletries she sets out in the corner of her room in one of the camps in an attempt to show potential customers that she is hygienic, coupled beautifully with the image fading into black, is more evocative than pages of detailed description could be.


And then there are the places where language breaks down altogether, as in the case of these pictures capturing Alpha’s terrifying crossing. At these points, with the abandonment of words, Barroux is able to take us into territory to which purely written works can only gesture.

As with all translations, compromises and reimaginings have been necessary to bring Alpha into English, giving this version a distinct character. According to Ardizzone, the most striking difference is the fact that, whereas the text was handwritten in the French original, it is typeset in the English. This change was necessitated by publisher Barrington Stoke’s focus on producing texts for readers with visual challenges and conditions such as dyspraxia. While it means that the English version lacks some of the original’s homespun feel, it does make the graphic novel accessible to more readers.

This can only be a good thing. Powerful, memorable, humane and shocking, this story deserves a large audience. It is the book that Ardizzone says she worked hardest to find a publishing home for in English and I can see why. I read it in one sitting and, generally non-visual though I am, many of its images will stay with me for a long time to come. Heartily recommended.

Alpha: Abidjan to Garde du Nord By Bessora & Barroux, translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone (The Bucket List, 2016)

Wishing all literary explorers a very happy new year and many wonderful reads in the decade ahead. With thanks for your ongoing curiosity, enthusiasm and support!