Book of the month: Tesfaye Gebreab

A few months ago, Delina posted the following comment on this blog:

 I’m from Eritrea. First of all, I LOVED your project, it’s brilliant! And second, I noticed that for Eritrea you read books written by Eritrean diaspora. While that’s interesting too, I want to suggest some books that may provide the perspective of someone who lived most of their lives here. I don’t think you can find them easily in London so I would like to send you copies through some relatives who live in London. I hope that’s ok. The books I have in mind are:

Two weeks in the trenches by Alemseged Tesfai
The Nurenebi File by Tesfaye Gebreab (translated into English by Alemseged Tesfai)

Let me know what you think!

I was intrigued for several reasons: Delina’s kindness and enthusiasm; the idea of reading books rarely available to readers like me; and the fact that, as Delina rightly pointed out, I had found it impossible to find anything I could read by a writer based inside Eritrea back when I read the world in 2012.

There’s a good reason for this: Eritrea has long been one of the globe’s most isolated and restricted countries. Two years before my quest, it was judged by Index on Censorhip to be the country with the least press freedom in the world; even journalists inside North Korea had marginally more leeway than those based in this east African nation. Even now, Reporters Without Borders ranks it second to last in the World Press Freedom Index.

As a result, when Delina’s package arrived, containing copies of the titles she had recommended with personal dedications to me by their authors, along with a postcard from Delina bearing an Eritrean stamp, I lost no time in exploring what I quickly knew would be my next book of the month.

Billed as a novel, The Nurenebi File by Tesfaye Gebreab translated by Alemseged Tesfai is an ambitious work. After a brief prologue describing an encounter that sparked the aim of telling ‘the history of one hundred years spread out […] like the camel caravans of Denkalia, Semhar, Barka, Halhal, Mensa’e, Habab, Senhit…’ the main narrative begins in the famine of 1888, when its title character is a small child. It then follows his fortunes and those of his descendants as they grapple with the many traumas and outrages visited on their region in the following century.

In his foreword, translator and fellow novelist Alemseged Tesfai (author of the other book Delina sent me) describes the hesitation he felt at taking on this project, which required him to work between this third language, Amharic, and his second language, English. His concerns were also echoed by Delina in an email she sent to me after the books arrived, in which she warned me that there may be errors and typos because of the difficulties surrounding publishing in Eritrea and said she hoped I wouldn’t be put off by these.

In actual fact, the text is largely sound. Although there are odd slips and a few word choices that feel questionable (but may of course be accurate reflections of the sense in the original), the narrative is in much better shape than many books I’ve encountered by first-language English speakers.

The challenges The Nurenebi File presents to readers raised on mainstream anglophone literature are of a different order (and say as much about the limited circulation of the world’s stories as they do about this work).

Firstly, this book does not obey the conventions that underpin the majority of novels in the English-speaking world. It veers between registers, plunging into political discussion, picking fights with other accounts and commenting on prevailing assumptions about Eritrean history. Passages that would not be out of place in an academic textbook sit alongside sections that ring with bombastic praise for Eritrea’s resistance fighters. There are photographs of many of the individuals and groups mentioned.

What’s more, although Nurenebi’s disappearance, and the efforts of his descendants to find out what happened to him and carry on his legacy form a guide rope that helps lead the reader through the pages, there is an uncertainty to the status of the narrative that makes it difficult for those unfamiliar with its context to know how to take it. It is unclear whether the prologue is written in Gebreab’s voice, describing a real-world encounter, or from the perspective of an unnamed fictional narrator who takes it upon themself to tell this story.

There are extremely powerful passages that will speaker to any reader. Many of these concern Nurenebi’s personal story, but that is not always the case. The account of the brutal amputation of the right hands and left feet of 461 Medri Bahri (Eritrean) men who fought on the Italian side against Emperor Menelik is extraordinarily harrowing and vivid. What’s more, there are many telling reflections on the effects of colonialism and the way oppressed people can sometimes become conditioned to further their own persecution, welcoming enemies as liberators. Inconsistent though the storytelling style may be, the whole work is charged with an urgency to communicate that bursts through at these key moments, sweeping the reader along.

But perhaps the biggest challenge Anglo-American readers face with this book is something that the story itself exists to challenge: the sheer unfamiliarity of these events to the majority of people around the world. This book, as translator Tesfai states, ‘has brought forward forgotten or shelved chapters from Eritrean history’. If that is true for Eritreans it applies tenfold to readers from other traditions.

Reading it, I was struck anew by how cumulative our sense of history is. We don’t encounter stories about the past in isolation but in the context of thousands of other narratives that have informed our cultural compasses and references throughout our lives. Consequently, when we come across a fact-based account in which none of the figures are familiar, few of the place names call associations to mind, and hardly any of the events connect to episodes we have heard of before, we struggle.

This is precisely why books like this and translations like Tesfai’s are important – and why I am so grateful to Delina for going to such trouble to get this story to me. In a world in which certain narratives are amplified and broadcast ubiquitously while many others are sidelined, silenced or erased, it is vital that accounts such as this expand, challenge and reshape our awareness of events.

This book does not obey the conventions of the European novel form, but then why should it? As the narrative makes clear, European influences have served the community it stems from appallingly. It is surely fitting, then, that in Tesfaye Gebreab’s hands this venerable export from the global north should be twisted, broken and refashioned into something that serves the Eritrean community. If readers like me struggle to keep up, then that is our problem.

The Nurenebi File by Tesfaye Gebreab, translated from the Amharic by Alemseged Tesfai (Books and Media Center, Asmara, 2021)

Book of the month: Sibusiso Nyembezi

One of the great privileges of my 2012 Year of Reading the World was the chance it gave me to read a number of stories not usually available to English-language speakers. Whether these came in the form of pre-existing unpublished manuscripts (as in the case of the books I read for countries such as the Comoros and Turkmenistan) or translations created specially for me by generous volunteers (as with my pick for São Tomé and Príncipe), reading these works was an extraordinary experience, like being granted glimpses of a world those around me couldn’t see.

My latest Book of the month is another such marvel currently off-limits to the English-speaking world. Although it was published by the now-defunct Aflame Books in 2008, it has long been out of print, with only the occasional rare second-hand copy popping up now and then.

I received mine in the armful of books that Aflame’s founder Richard Bartlett generously handed to me in 2012, when he shared with me the manuscript of the astonishing Ualalapi, my pick for Mozambique. Not surprisingly, I didn’t have time to read the extra novels that year, having only 1.87 days for each of the titles I featured in my original quest. And, as so often happens, I shoved the others onto a shelf, with the intention that I would get to them eventually.

They might have stayed there for another ten years had a discussion I am due to take part in next month at the Cheltenham Literature Festival with a little-known author (cough, Booker prize-winner Damon Galgut) not prompted me to go through my collections to remind myself of my other South African reads. There it was, translated from the Zulu by Sandile Ngidi, a novel selected by an international jury as one of Africa’s 100 best books of the 20th century: The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg by Sibusiso Nyembezi.

In many ways, the novel, which was published in its original language in 1961, is a classic stranger-comes-to-town tale. In the remote village of Nyanyadu, Mr Zeph Mkhwanazi receives a letter from a rich man he has never met, who tells him that he plans to visit and asks Mkhwanazi to convene a meeting of his fellow farmers so that the rich man can set out his plans to use his wealth and influence to improve their lives. Consternation, amusement and upheaval ensue: the arrival of the visitor exposes fault lines in the community, throwing Mkhwanazi and his family into crisis, until at last the village bands together to restore equilibrium.

Yet, though the arc of the story may sound familiar to anglophone readers, the way it is told is anything but. For one thing, the pacing is entirely different to that of most English-language novels: the opening pages, for example, focus mostly on the logistical challenges of reaching Nyanyadu and the complicated arrangements for the collection of the post.

There is also a striking approach to dialogue. Conversations stretch for pages, with many of the same facts and opinions rehearsed multiple times.

These things might sound off-putting or even dull, but in Nyembezi’s hands they are a joy. The narrative is sharp and witty, using a roving close third-person voice (not a million miles from the writing style in Galgut’s The Promise) to expose the inconsistencies and absurdities of the characters. What’s more, the repetition of certain details only makes them more amusing – the fact, for example, that the unknown stranger is ‘an esquire’ and the bewilderment caused by his strange name, Ndebenkulu, which, we are told, means ‘the one endowed with long lips.’

All this provides a wonderful build up to the arrival of the rich man himself. His advent is a masterclass in comic writing. Pompous, ridiculous, eager to tell anyone who will listen about his regular correspondence with prominent white people, and appalled by the prospect of having to travel to his host’s house in a ‘makeshift cart’, Ndebenkulu bursts onto the page. Many of his interactions are laugh-out-loud funny.

Yet Nyembezi is too subtle a writer to satisfy himself with merely amusing his reader. The ground is constantly shifting in this story, showing us how self-doubt, pride and half-forgotten grudges fuel suspicion, break and forge allegiances, and open old wounds. As Mkhwanazi’s neighbours and family members pitch in their opinions on the newcomer, Nyembezi traces the threads that bind the community and stress tests them with the application of the kind of financial, political and social pressures that govern all our lives, making this story of the arrival of an oddball in a remote community a universal reflection of humanity.

The book is, in short, a classic: funny, engrossing, wise and timeless. It ought to be available in English and celebrated alongside the works of its author’s more internationally renowned compatriots. Publishers, please, make it so!

The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg (Inkinsela yase Mungungundlovu) by Sibusiso Nyembezi, translated from the Zulu by Sandile Ngidi (Aflame Books, 2008)

Book of the month: Adrienne Yabouza

Firsts can be tricky propositions. Whenever I hear about the first translation into English of a work of literature from a particular country, I am pulled in two directions. On one hand, I’m glad that another nation’s stories are now represented in the world’s most-published language (there were around 11 UN-recognised states with no commercially available literature in English at the time of my 2012 quest).

On the other hand, I feel wary. Making a book the global ambassador for a country’s written works is a lot of weight to place on a single story (a dangerous concept as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has explained). It can also be very unhelpful – a nation, after all, is the sum of numerous, often contradictory narratives. We need a supply of multiple tales told in a range of voices, not a single example that we can showcase like an artefact in a museum.

But publishers love a marketing hook and billing something as the first example of a certain kind of literature seems a good way to attract sales. So it’s hardly surprising that houses big and small make much of such claims.

My latest featured read is not strictly the first book in English translation from its home nation. There was a long-out-of-print children’s book – a sort of Enid Blyton with crocodiles – that I managed to get my hands on from this country during my original quest. But, to my knowledge, publisher Dedalus is correct in describing Rachael McGill’s translation of Adrienne Yabouza’s Co-wives, Co-widows as the first book for adults by a writer from the Central African Republic to come into English.

As the title suggests, the novel follows two women, Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou, married to the same man, Lidou, who dies during the course of the story. Faced with an event that spells disaster in their strongly patriarchal society, where women are routinely turfed out of their homes by their husbands’ families on the death of their spouses, the widows have little option but to rely on each other to secure a future for themselves and their children.

The major challenge for an author writing protagonists in a relatively powerless position is not to make them seem like victims. Yabouza’s solution to this is humour. Her narrative is threaded through with a range of kinds of comedy, revealing everything from the surreality of death to the hypocrisy that underpins the women’s daily reality.

Often, wit glimmers in a single word (credit to McGill here). We learn, for example, that the sun ‘beat down mercilessly and democratically on all citizens’ waiting in the interminable queue to vote. Similarly, Yabouza makes rich capital of free indirect speech to reveal the ways her characters lie to themselves. Here’s Lidou in the run-up to his heart attack: ‘He’d practically given up smoking, he only accepted every other beer these days and he only ever touched kangoya or bili-bili on Sundays, or mostly only then.’

This lightness of touch does not prevent Yabouza from revealing the depths of the injustices that surround Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou. Whether it’s the self-regard of the EU officials monitoring the electoral process or the naked corruption in the legal and political systems, she pulls no punches in laying society’s ills bare – sometimes literally. The widows, for example, receive a brutal beating from their husbands’ relatives when they attempt to attend his funeral.

There is a beautiful directness in the writing, too, particularly when it comes to scene-setting. Take ‘the big eyelid of night closed over Bangui’ or the description of the sky ‘slashed from side to side by the machete strokes of lightning’. This directness adds weight to moments of emotional intensity in the narrative, where Yabouza often excels at capturing deep feelings in simple words.

That said, not every image works smoothly. I found myself tripped up by the phrase ‘deeper in his thoughts than a relative trying to draft an insincere eulogy for a bigwig’s funeral’. It felt as though the writing was trying too hard here – although this may also be a function of cultural difference, which presents some intriguing challenges. For example, the depiction of a new suitor wooing Ndongo Passy by inviting her to cook a meal for him and his friends (much to her delight) will pull many of those raised in the Western tradition up short, as will the proliferation of descriptions comparing her to one of his cows.

The same can be said for the plot. Those looking for a staunchly feminist account of two women breaking free of patriarchal control, will no doubt find the resolution, which relies on the women gaining male support and permission for their plans, frustrating. Unlike the protagonist of Paulina Chiziane’s The First Wife, tr. David Brookshaw, who bands together with other women to transcend the system that has oppressed her, Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou choose to operate within the mechanisms they know. Although the narrative presents strong female agents, such as the lawyer Catherine, it falls short of imagining an upending of the status quo.

But perhaps this is ultimately a more emotionally satisfying, realistic-seeming ending for many of the original readers of this novel. A mirror rather than a beacon, it is a trailblazer in another respect: a translation of a story from the Central African Republic written without regard for European sensibilities (unlike the children’s book published decades before). That alone makes it worth the price of admission. And judging by its wit, insightfulness and passion, it ought to be the first of many more such publications.

Co-wives, Co-widows (Co-épouses, co-veuves) translated from the French by Rachael McGill (Dedalus, 2021)

Picture: ‘Central African women inspecting building for microfinance project’ by hdptcar on flickr.com

Book of the month: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

The author of my latest book of the month has been on my radar for a number of years. She was the winner of the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and her debut novel, Kintu, has been widely praised. The fact that it has taken me so long to get her is probably due to fact that her novels are often talked about as sagas that deal with national history. Having read such a book as my original choice for Uganda back in 2012, I suppose I felt no hurry to read another novel in a similar vein.

I was wrong. From the moment, I started The First Woman, I was hooked into the coming-of-age story of Kirabo, a girl struggling to find a sense of self in the turbulent years during and following Idi Amin’s dictatorship.

Nansubuga Makumbi is an exceptional writer. Drawing on Ganda oral storytelling traditions and myths, her prose shimmers with energy, urgency and fun. There is an extraordinary directness to her descriptions that at times had me gnawing my fists with envy at her talent. From the scornful teenagers whose ‘eyes were slaughter’ and the wealthy student ‘driven everywhere as if he had no legs’ to the neighbour so forbidding that ‘if you saw her coming while you peed by the roadside, you sat down in your pee and smiled’, the characters in this novel leap off the page by virtue of its author’s vibrant writing.

Funny but never caricatured, they reveal multiple sides as the plot plays out. Indeed, one of Nansubuga Makumbi’s many strengths is the way she plays with psychic distance (a concept neatly explained on writer Emma Darwin’s brilliant blog) to reveal the inconsistencies and hypocrisy threaded through human thought.

Culture clashes are a central theme. As Kirabo navigates her way between rural and urban worlds, European and Ganda traditions, and past and present, the narrative sparks off myriad insights. For British readers, the reflections on the ‘disruption of Ganda time’ by colonial rule – which, among many other things, reduced the three-day weekend to two days and imposed the 24-hour clock – may be particularly interesting. Take this description of the protagonist’s efforts to reconcile the two systems:

‘Kirabo had even learnt to balance her mind at that precarious edge where she saw time in its natural, Ugandan mode but articulated it in the upside-down English mode. At first, it had felt schizophrenic as her mind computed ten hours of day but she said four in the afternoon.’

The novel’s discussion of the mechanics and power of storytelling is similarly thought-provoking. Indeed, the book contains some of the most memorable explanations I’ve read of how narratives can be used to acquire wealth and influence, and to subjugate others. ‘Stories are critical,’ as family friend Nsuuta tells Kirabo towards the end of the novel. ‘The minute we fall silent, someone will fill the silence for us.’

Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the novel’s exploration of feminism, or mwenkanonkano in Kirabo’s mother tongue, Luganda. Although many of the issues and struggles portrayed will be familiar to readers in the global North, Nansubuga Makumbi presents a much more holistic, embodied consideration of women’s attempts to assert themselves than many will be used to. Women’s physicality is frankly discussed and menstruation even has a hand in shaping the plot – an approach that feels quite different to that of the more familiar, often rather dry and cerebral, Anglo-American feminist manifestos. The book also throws up some fascinating thoughts on intersectionality and the ways different kinds of privilege and history divide us.

As with all ambitious stories, the book presents some challenges. Perhaps the biggest for Anglo-American readers will be the cultural differences that may make a few of Kirabo’s decisions hard to understand. Chief among them is the fact that, having never met her mother, she resists the temptation to ask her family about her, preferring instead to try witchcraft and put posters up around her school appealing for information. Nansubuga Makumbi does an excellent job of elucidating the power dynamics of the clan system (using the ingenious ploy of having older members explain many of the intricacies to children), but there are moments where this reticence and respect for elders risks feeling a little too much like a plot device. (Although this may be more of a insight into the limitations of this reader’s imagination than any failing of the novel.)

Good writers offer insights into other places and situations. Great writers offer insights into other minds. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a great writer. I’m just sorry it took me so long to read her.

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Oneworld, 2020)

Picture: ‘After the Rainforest, Uganda’ by Rod Waddington on flickr.com

Book of the month: 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

26601200156_fb38342ff7_k

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

Book of the month: Dina Salústio

Firsts are a recurring theme on this blog. This month’s book of the month is a case in point. Not only is it the first novel by a female author to be published in Cape Verde, but it is also the first full-length work of fiction by a woman from that nation to be translated into English.

Such publishing events can be both positive and problematic. On one hand, it is exciting to think that the voice of someone from a previously ignored group can now be heard in the world’s most published language; on the other hand, the unreasonable pressure of requiring one novel to carry the weight of an entire community can have a warping effect on our reading. If we’re not careful, we can lumber the writer in question with unfair expectations, forgetting that they are just a person who decided to write a story, and that they probably never thought of themselves as speaking for their gender, nation or ethnic group. A single story, as the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so eloquently argues, never gives a complete picture.

So what to make of this latest first, The Madwoman of Serrano by Dina Salústio, translated from the Portuguese by Jethro Soutar? How to detach it from the political baggage that comes with the accident of its time and place of publication and translation, and take it on its own terms?

At first glance, the novel seems as though it will be relatively straightforward. The premise, though complicated, contains lots of familiar tropes: a traditional village community (Serrano) under threat of development, a young woman forced to confront a difficult past, family secrets, a curse, the tensions between city and country, modern habits and old customs, now and then.

But when you start to read, it quickly becomes clear that the novel does not conform to many of the conventions of its form – or, at least, the anglophone Western version of it.

For one thing, although many of the elements of the story sound familiar, their handling is not. Realism and myth crash together in a strange and jagged interaction that sees the modern, urban world of microwaves, therapy sessions and business deals grate against ancient rites, hearsay and magic. A death certificate shows that a man has been poisoned by strange thoughts; apparently infertile women go to the city for ‘pharmaceuticals’ that turn out not to be quite what they seem; and the mysterious madwoman of the title makes predictions that play out on city streets, as well as in the rural dreamscape of the village.

This stark juxtaposition is reflected on the linguistic level, with translator Jethro Soutar often reaching for words from diverse registers to capture the story’s massive range. At times you can almost feel the narrative straining with the effort of containing all Salústio wants to say, breaking out into a series of surprising digressions, many of which yield some of the book’s most joyful passages. The small section about the unusual role of cats in Serrano, for example, is as pleasing as it is unexpected, while the various explorations of the role of magic in women’s lives put me in mind of another first book by a woman – Mozambican author Paulina Chiziane’s The First Wife, translated into English by David Brookshaw, which I sent to Donald Trump in celebration of World Book Day a few years back.

As with many books that draw on traditions beyond Western literature, the pacing and structure of The Madwoman of Serrano make it a challenging read for those used to the mainstream output of the anglophone publishing industry. Flashbacks nest within flashbacks, repeated memories create an impression of stagnation at points, and, while a number of major events are dealt with in a handful of sentences, it takes central character Filipa several chapters to cook a turkey.

It would require a more knowledgeable reader than me to unpick the threads of all the different influences at work in this book. While the influence of the Western tradition seems evident to me in the shadowy figure of the detective, who appears in the final quarter to tie up many of the loose ends (sometimes rather abruptly), I have no way of knowing what local storytelling techniques may be at work.

As a result, the reading experience felt patchy. At times I seemed to know exactly where I was and what was going on, only for the author to pull the rug out from under my feet with a swerving digression or unexpected turn of events on the following page.  There were numerous episodes that felt rather loosely plotted or underprepared, with catastrophes often arriving out of the blue to scatter characters’ plans.

However, this response may say more about the expectations that my largely Western literary diet has ingrained in me than it does about this book. Steeped in a tradition built on the assumption that human beings have a relatively large degree of control over their safety, health and happiness, I am used to stories that function with a high level of causality, where the course of events can be traced logically, each human action leading to the next. But such neat storytelling may seem naïve, unrealistic or flawed in parts of the world where life is more precarious and where disaster lurks much closer to the surface.

It’s for this reason that it’s important that publishers persist in broadening the kind of text that is available in the world’s most published language and continue to bring out firsts such as this. While The Madwoman of Serrano won’t be an easy or perhaps even a satisfying read for many English speakers, it tugs at the preconceptions we all carry about how books work and what stories do. It may be that this novel has as much to teach us about Western literature and reading habits as it does about writing by women in Cape Verde.

The Madwoman of Serrano (A louca de Serrano) by Dina Salústio, translated from the Portuguese by Jethro Soutar (Dedalus, 2019)

Book of the month: Ali Zamir

My latest featured read marks another welcome addition to the anglophone literary world: the first commercially available translation of a novel from the Comoro Islands off the coast of Mozambique.

In 2012, when I read my way around the world, there was no longform fiction available to buy in English from this nation of 1 million people and I resorted to reading an unpublished translation of a novel by one of the archipelago’s leading writers. In May this year, that changed with Jacaranda Books’ release of Ali Zamir’s A Girl Called Eel, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins.

Narrated breathlessly and chaotically by the title character, the novel looks back on its protagonist’s life just as she is at the point of leaving it. Over the course of its 271 pages, we accompany Eel through the major events that have shaped her, exploring her internal and external worlds until we come to an uneasy understanding of the forces that have simultaneously made and destroyed her.

The book is a canny choice for English translation. As with many of the most memorable works from nations with little work available in the world’s most-published language – Smile as They Bow and Allah is Not Obliged come to mind – it has a strong and irreverent narrative voice. Although Eel may be at death’s door and has suffered some serious ill-treatment, she is not self-pitying or feeble. She thinks nothing of berating her fellow characters and even her reader, and shows little sympathy for what she perceives as weakness: ‘what is it about death that scares you feeble-minded fools so much,’ she exclaims when people in a sinking boat scream with fear.

This contrarian streak means that Eel is unpredictable and consequently fascinating. By turns alarming, shocking and funny, her voice acts like a hand drawing the reader through the novel’s unfamiliar terrain, pacing and mores. Although Western readers may not share some of Eel’s assumptions and may occasionally find it hard to enter into the emotional reality of the situations she describes, we are prepared to accompany her back and forth through the medina of Mutsamudu because she keeps us entertained.

She also delivers some powerful insights along the way. Words, she tells us, ‘are born free as birds, only if you nourish them with sincerity can you make them your own’.

Zamir and Higgins have clearly taken this advice. The text throbs with striking imagery. Take this description of a small craft battling through a sea storm: ‘the boat had to float through those furious waves and surging tides like an insect creeping over a mad woman’s dress as she thrashed and flung herself about’. Here, the crashing together of two distinct areas of experience – the wetness of the sea and the dryness through which insects usually move – creates a wrenching effect that conveys the violence of the scene.

There are occasions where such unusual images tip over into farce. For example, although it captures some of Eel’s disorientation, her description of vomiting on a woman’s back as being like etching her suffering onto a copper plate feels grotesquely ornate.

The challenges don’t end there. The narrative often rambles. This is no doubt deliberate and a reflection of Eel’s confusion as she drifts in and out of consciousness – indeed, she often scolds herself for digressing. Nevertheless, such apparent aimlessness is risky as it can make readers frustrated and inclined to let go of the narrator’s guiding hand. Occasionally, it’s tempting to wonder whether Eel’s self-admonitions aren’t really directed at her author.

There’s also the stylistic quirk of the text being devoid of all punctuation except commas and a final exclamation mark. The novel is Eel’s ‘furtive last sentence’, the jacket copy explains. But it isn’t really: there are lots of separate sentences in the book. It’s just that they are not demarcated as such but spliced together by one comma after another.

None of this takes away from the fact that this is, however, a very welcome addition to the English-speaking world’s bookshelf. Vivid, striking and surprising, this is an impressive work. That it is the first Comoran novel to be commercially published in English almost feels irrelevant. Whatever its provenance, A Girl Called Eel deserves a global audience.

A Girl Called Eel by Ali Zamir, translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins (Jacaranda, 2019)

Book of the month: Mbarek Ould Beyrouk

This week saw a gap filled in on the literary world map. Yesterday, the first ever novel from Mauritania to be translated into English was published by Dedalus, at last making it possible for anglophone readers to access traditionally published storytelling from Africa’s eleventh-largest sovereign state.

The release of Rachael McGill’s translation of Mbarek Ould Beyrouk’s Amadou-Kourouma prize-winning The Desert and the Drum makes the West African nation the latest of several countries to have a literary work made available for the first time in the planet’s most published language since my 2012 quest to read the world. Other examples include Turkmenistan and Madagascar.

Watching the first of what I hope will be many such works come to market has been a great joy. My project taught me that storytelling is not only a universal human impulse but a vital tool for building understanding across cultural, geographical, political and religious barriers. When countries do not have a presence on the global bookshelf, we all lose. So, when Jethro Soutar, whose translation of the first novel from Guinea-Bissau to be commercially available in English was published last year, got in touch to let me know about The Desert and The Drum, I was of course eager to take a look.

Alternating between past and present, the novel follows Rayhana, a Bedouin girl who has fled her camp, taking with her the ceremonial drum that is her tribe’s most prized possession. As the narrative unfolds, we travel with the fugitive to the author’s home city of Atar, learning what has driven her from her community as we witness her increasingly desperate efforts to recover the only thing that can restore her peace.

The novel was an excellent choice for translation. As a journey narrative, many of the episodes it describes are as unfamiliar and strange to the protagonist as they will probably be to most anglophone readers, making discovery part of the emotional arc of the book.

This means that the rituals and practices described in the text do not have the dutiful, anthropological air that often characterises such passages in translations of literature from less widely known cultures because they play a role in advancing the action. The best example is the extended account of Rayhana’s marriage ceremony, in which the role that the bride is supposed to play – pretending to be indifferent as the groom and his friends try to steal her away – cruelly matches her feelings.

That said, this episode does give rise to what I suspect may be an editorial intervention designed to bridge the gap between western sensibilities and the unsettling nuances of the wedding-night tradition:

‘It was up to the husband to overcome the distance between them, to quell her fears, to oblige the ignorant young girl to receive him. It was a rape of sorts, but it was tradition.’

Unless Beyrouk wrote with an eye to the international market, or unless his urban Mauritanian readership is so utterly divorced from the Bedouin community that their rituals are unknown to them (which I find unlikely having encountered descriptions of similar ceremonies in other West African literature), it seems improbable that this explanation about the ritual being akin to a rape would have featured in the original.* Still, I would be delighted to be corrected – do tell me if you know better!

Such jarring notes are rare. Translator McGill has found a register that is at once simple and precise, conveying images that spark both surprise and recognition. Take the description of Rayhana’s friend regarding her so intently that it seems as if she is trying ‘to mount the horses of [Rayhana’s] words and ride right inside [her]’ or this portrayal of her mother, who ‘had crossed the Sahara of doubt  long ago, never to return’. Such phrases at once root the story in its setting and convey its sense to readers everywhere.

This balancing of the specific and the universal is perhaps the book’s greatest strength. Grounded in the traditions that drive it and yet brimming with observations that are true wherever you read them, the novel bears the hallmark of great literature, making one little corner of the world an everywhere in which all manner of people can meet.

The Desert and the Drum is an exciting and compelling addition to the anglophone library. While it is unreasonable to expect one book to bear the weight of representing an entire nation – and while I hope we will one day look back with amazement on the era when there was only one story available in English from many nations – there is no doubt that this is a great ambassador for Mauritanian literature.

Thanks for giving us the chance to read it, Dedalus. Where next?

The Desert and the Drum (Le tambour des larmes) by Mbarek Ould Beyrouk, translated from the French by Rachael McGill (Dedalus, 2018)

* I would also urge Dedalus to rethink its policy on footnotes. Many of them seemed unnecessary and distracting, and the information they contained would have been better cut or placed in the body of the text, even if that meant dispensing with a few of the original terms.

Book of the month: Trifonia Melibea Obono

August is Women in Translation month. This is an excellent initiative started in 2014 by blogger Meytal Radzinski to highlight the fact that less than a third of the books translated into English each year are written by women. As I realised when I totted up my numbers a couple of years ago, my quest broadly reflected the gender imbalance in publishing in 2012 – only 27 per cent of the books I read that year were by female authors.

As a result, I welcome the continued efforts of bloggers like Radzinski to bring translated work by women to wider audiences and am pleased to see a new reading women writers worldwide project by journalist Sophie Baggott getting off to a flying start. For my own small contribution to the cause, I read only work by women in August.

This year has seen some great additions to the anglophone global bookshelf, including several fascinating reads from underrepresented countries and languages. Examples include Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena, translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis, and Celestial Bodies by Omani author Jokha Alharthi, translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth.

My pick for this month, however, comes not only from a little represented country, but from a minority perspective in that nation. La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel, is not only the first novel by a woman from Equatorial Guinea to be translated into the world’s most published language, but it is also one of the few LGBTQ African novels to have come onto my radar.

The story follows the coming of age of Okomo, a motherless girl who sets out to try to find her father, and in the process discovers some challenging truths about herself and her traditional Fang culture. As she becomes aware of her desires and of the way that people like her and her Uncle Marcelo – a ‘fan e mina’ or ‘man-woman’ – stand outside society’s norms, the protagonist is pushed towards a deeper understanding of the impulses that drive her and the forces that have shaped the world in which she must find a place.

The novel provides fascinating insights into a way of life that feels far removed from Western urban culture. With its glimpses of Fang traditions – including the belief that women can prove their femininity by handling hot pots without cloths and the expectations surrounding polygamous marriages – it will offer rich material for readers hungry for details of places they might never visit in person. The presentation of the LGBTQ elements of the story is also striking. (‘There isn’t a word for it. It’s like you don’t exist,’ explains Uncle Marcelo to Okomo, although translator Schimel does opt to include the English term ‘lesbian’ later in the book.)*

Yet some of the narrative’s most memorable and often funny moments have a ring of universality to them too. Okomo’s grandfather’s misogynistic ramblings about the suitable behaviour of young girls, for example, and her grandmother’s attempts to manipulate her younger relatives feel instantly recognisable. Okomo also displays a deadpan humour that would be authentic in the mouth of a teenager anywhere.

At times, the book almost feels like a fable or fairy tale. Recalling some of the fantastic elements of By Night the Mountain Burns, as well as the Nigerian classic The Palm-Wine Drinkard, the narrative takes flight when Okomo ventures into the forest, a place where restrictive rules fall away and she is free to be herself. As Abosede George writes in her thoughtful Afterword, this use of the setting confronts common claims that LGBTQ issues are ‘unAfrican’ by rooting these characters and their relationships in the soil.

There is no hiding the fact that this book requires work from anglophone readers. Its perspective and cultural references will inevitably have a distancing effect for many. In addition, the differences in approaches to pacing, repetition and taboos may mean a lot of Western readers find the narrative leaping forward when they expect more build up and circling back when they are impatient to press ahead. Characters may also appear coy and blunt by turns as their mores clash with anglophone norms.

Most of these issues, however, have more to do with many English-language readers’ limitations – reinforced by the prevailing trends in publishing – than with La Bastarda itself. It is a significant book. The more such stories we read, the better we will learn to understand them.

La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel (Feminist Press, 2018)

Picture: ‘Bioko_2010_1891‘ by NathanaelStanek on flickr.com

*After I wrote this review, translator Lawrence Schimel explained to me that the Spanish word ‘lesbiana’ is present in two places in the book, hence his inclusion of the English term. There is no word for lesbian in the Fang language. Apparently, the way to approach this was a source of considerable discussion during the editing process.