A new work from Turkmenistan

People often ask me about the unpublished manuscripts I encountered during my 2012 quest to read a book from every country in the world. Have they been picked up by publishers? Are they available for other literary explorers to read?

The answer is mixed – while some of the works, such as Juan David Morgan’s The Golden Horsehave appeared (albeit briefly) in English – several deserving books, chief among them Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa’s Ualalapi, remain off-limits to anglophone readers.*

Getting translated works published can be an uphill struggle, so I was very pleased when Glagoslav Publications took on The Tale of Aypi, the first novel ever to be translated from Turkmen into English. Its author, Ak Welsapar, kindly shared it with me in manuscript form during my project and it’s great that it’s now commercially available.

Late last year, I received more news from Welsapar. Glagoslav Publications were bringing out another book by him – a collection of short stories. Would I be prepared to write a foreword for it?

I accepted gladly and am delighted to announce that the collection, Death of the Snake Catcher, translated by Lois Kapila, Yossef Azemoun and Richard Govett, was published last month. Containing stories written during Welsapar’s time in his homeland and over the decades since his exile, the book is an intriguing insight into life in one of the most closed societies on Earth, as I attempted to explain in my foreword:

‘Although the stories may appear very diverse, a closer look reveals a number of common themes and tropes at work. The power of the unexplained is among the most prominent. As in The Tale of Aypi, a book that is haunted by the ghost of a girl who died some centuries before the story takes place, the uncanny has a strong influence. The ground shifts constantly beneath our feet, leaving us uncertain what to expect and what to trust.

[…]

‘In other stories, this sense of uncertainty spreads to engulf everyday objects. People cannot be trusted and neither can things. Even the most innocuous-seeming of occurrences – a love affair, two carts approaching a crossroad, a man writing at a desk – can turn treacherous and become the thing that destroys your life. As Jummi, the luckless team leader in “One of the Seven is a Scoundrel”, says, “these days one of your two eyes can become your enemy.”

‘For readers, these sudden shifts in significance are as instructive as they are unsettling. Faced with a reality that may never be quite what it seems, we find ourselves ill at ease. Like a citizen in a society overseen by a fickle dictator, or a writer working in the shadow of freedom of expression-limiting rules the specifics of which are left at the discretion of individual censors – as was the case in the Soviet era – we can never be sure what is safe. It is as though Welsapar writes us into the world he has left, letting us taste the bitterness of living in constant fear of recrimination for offences, or faults in interpretation, we may not even realise we have committed.

[…]

‘Yet, although the stories frequently tackle dark subject matter, there is a lightness to the writing that lifts it out of the gloom that might otherwise swamp these pages. We see it in the optimism of young lovers and in the determination of many of the characters to achieve the dignity of leading an independent existence – no matter how limited and basic that might be. What’s more, hopefulness pervades the title story, in which two mortal enemies – the snake catcher and his prey – meet and in so doing discover that they have made each other what they are. Although their identities are built at least partly on their mission to destroy one another, the story hints that the world might nevertheless be big enough to contain them both. As Welsapar explained when I asked him about the collection: “People should never forget that we are only part of a great life, a cosmos, and it does not become a person to take living space from other living creatures. Only the weak strive to destroy one another. The strong learn to coexist.”

‘For all the difficulties he and his characters face, the belief that a better reality is possible underpins Welsapar’s writing. Just as he continued to work in the face of what must have seemed like insurmountable obstacles when he was first blacklisted and forced to endure seeing his books destroyed, so the people he portrays retain faith that survival is its own reward and that tomorrow may bring better things. Even if “the most important thing, the secret thing, maybe, slips away as always, and remains unfathomable”, the effort to express what can be expressed and live what can be lived is worthwhile.

It is great to see this second work of fiction from the only Turkmen writer with a voice in English hitting the shelves. Congratulations to Ak Welsapar and to Glagoslav Publications for continuing to champion this author.

* Thanks to Catherine for alerting me to the fact that Ualalapi is now available, published by Tagus in 2017.

Picture: ‘Golden statue of Saparmurat Niyazov, aka Turkmenbashi, first president of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat‘ by David Stanley on flickr.com

Book of the month: Basma Abdel Aziz

An editor once told me that she worked on the basis that a reader has to hear about a book five times before he or she will buy it. April’s Book of the month is a neat demonstration of her theory.

In the two years since Elisabeth Jaquette’s translation of Egyptian writer Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue came out, the book has flashed repeatedly on my radar. It cropped up in several articles about underrated books by women. Marcia Lynx Qualey, tireless champion of Arabic literature, made much of it on her excellent blog. When it made the shortlist for the inaugural TA First Translation Prize, I finally cracked and bought a copy.

The novel centres around Yehya, a man wounded in a political uprising in an unnamed state. Forced to join the static queue at the Gate – the sinister, faceless institution that has assumed power in the wake of the Disgraceful Events – Yehya, his friend Nagy and lover Amani must pit themselves against the system in order to stand a chance of obtaining the operation that will save his life. As they do so, they encounter a host of other characters, including a school teacher barred from practising for allowing a subversive essay to be read in class and a man petitioning for compensation on behalf of a cousin killed in the service of the state, and witness the slow disintegration of society in the face of an increasingly intransigent regime.

Like its author, who is nicknamed ‘the rebel’ in her home country, the novel is unashamedly political. Its ideas lie close to the surface and, although the state in which it is set is unnamed, readers cannot fail to miss the references to the Arab Spring. Whether she is portraying the way that legislation can become weaponised to weaken and even kill citizens by making it impossible for them to obtain the things necessary for their survival, or showing how seemingly innocuous objects such as mobile phones can be used against their owners, Aziz writes with insight and wry humour. The best passages reveal the human toll that such inhuman policies exact. The following is a good example:

‘Everyone was on equal ground. But they all had the same look about them, the same lethargy. Now they were even all starting to think the same way. […] The queue was like a magnet. It drew people toward it, then held them captive as individuals and in their little groups, and it stripped them of everything, even the sense that their previous lives had been stolen from them.’

For obvious reasons, the novel has been compared to works by George Orwell and Franz Kafka and like those books (and the political theatre of Bertolt Brecht), it has a distant, no-man’s-land quality, as though it has tapped into a universal nightmare. Many of the lesser characters remain nameless and are identified only by their clothing or physical characteristics, and the descriptions of the city are mostly stark and spare.

However, a humanity throbs at the heart of Aziz’s writing, indicating a possibility for redemption that other such works sometimes lack. In the face of the cruelty of the state, the friendship between the central characters and the connections between the secondary figures who support and encourage one another to endure the endless waiting persist and even strengthen. Although they may be powerless to ameliorate their material circumstances, individuals in the queue retain control over the expression of their humanity. If not exactly heartening, this observation adds subtlety and depth to the writing. The same is true of the sections that reveal how queue life is liberating in some ways for a number of the characters – particularly the women – because it enables them to break free of social mores and become more assertive.

The book is not always an easy read. Like the queue itself, the plot remains static for long periods before jerking forward suddenly. Occasionally the narrative gets bogged down in logistics and abstractions that are hard to follow – mimicking, perhaps, the legal documents and pronouncements that stymie so many of the characters’ lives. Its abrupt shifts in perspective are sometimes disconcerting and its prose is occasionally simple to the point of being bald.

On the whole, though, the novel is too important for any of this to matter. In capturing a specific moment and using it to express universal truths about freedom and identity, it joins the ranks of great stories that endure across the generations. In twenty years’ time, when the Arab Spring has faded from many memories, readers will still be hearing about this book frequently enough to keep picking it up.

The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Melville House, 2016)

Picture: ‘Once Bank Misr Reopened in February People Queued For Hours To Collect Their Money’ by Alisdare Hickson on Flickr.com.

The joy of book clubs

One of the trickiest things about setting out to explore the world’s literatures is deciding what you’re going to read. There is so much out there that it can feel overwhelming, particularly when most of the works you encounter – at least to begin with – will be by writers you have never heard of. How on Earth do you choose?

I think it’s for this reason that many of the people who contact me to say they have decided to read the world often tell me that they are going to use my list as a guide. I’m more than happy for readers to consult my choices as a starting point, but I always hope they’ll get inspired to do some exploring of their own too – so many wonderful books have been translated into English in the six years since my quest and although I continue to add one new discovery a month to the list, many hundreds of other wonderful titles deserve an audience.

There are a number of ways to find out about some of the best. Awards such as the Man Booker International Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award (the longlist for which is drawn up from nominations supplied by libraries around the globe) highlight many of the most ambitious and popular titles. Meanwhile, funding programmes including English PEN’s PEN Translates help bring brave and exciting works into the world’s most published language.

For those with limited time, there are also subscription schemes. One of the most recently launched is Asymptote Book Club, which sends those who sign up a surprise handpicked work of fiction every month. Drawn from the lists of independent publishers in North America and the UK and selected by the team behind the award-winning world-literature journal Asymptote, the titles promise to be as intriguing as they are diverse. So when  blogger Marina Sofia, who works for the site, contacted me to ask if I would be interested to review their second pick, I wasted no time taking a look.

It’s fair to say that I would probably never have found Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Aranyak (translated by Rimli Bhattacharya) on my own. Indeed, had Seagull Books not released an English version, some eighty years after the Bengali original appeared, it’s likely that the work would have remained forever off-limits to anglophone readers. That would have been a great pity because it is an extraordinary creation.

Told through the eyes of Satyacharan, a young man from Calcutta who accepts a job managing the leasing of land for farming in a remote part of neighbouring Bihar, the book captures a fragile, fading and enchanting world. As he falls in love with the jungle that his work must gradually destroy, Satyacharan records the encounters he has with many of the people and animals who make their lives in this unpredictable environment. In so doing, he reveals the way a place can work itself into the hearts of its inhabitants, changing them as they develop and transform the landscape.

The best English word we have to apply to this book is ‘novel’, but the term does not fit comfortably here. The narrative arc anglophone readers might look for in long-form fiction is largely absent from Aranyak. Instead, the book is a series of loosely threaded episodes that often give rise to musings on humankind’s place in the world. I’ve seen it described as a kind of anthropological monograph – and, indeed, it draws on the author’s observations recorded in his diaries while he performed a role similar to the one his protagonist undertakes. But although that description makes sense, it risks missing the essence of the book, which is its exquisite writing.

Lacking the narrative drive that often keeps pages turning, Aranyak entrances readers by virtue of its vivid and moving descriptions. Although the narrator frequently expresses frustration at his inability to represent ‘the real face of [his] country’ adequately on the page, Bandyopadhyay and Bhattacharya’s work contradicts him.

Spine-tingling evocations abound. Take, for example, this description of a vista the protagonist often catches sight of while out on business:

‘The place is densely shadowed and lonely; from wherever you look, you can see in the far horizon a ring of blue hills like children holding hands and playing a game.’

Just as the narrative shape is unfamiliar, so the way language is used defies anglophone conventions. Although the prologue locates the events of the story firmly in the past, the tenses vary throughout the book, as though the narrator is reliving his memories. The text is also peppered with terms likely to be unknown to most Western readers, although these generally do not obscure the sense (indeed, I am grateful for the editorial decision to keep footnotes to a minimum).

As is so often the case with works from traditions rather different to the anglophone canon, the book requires readers to approach it with openness and a readiness to put things that jar down to their own unfamiliarity with the genre rather than flaws with the work. Those that do so will be richly rewarded: this is a rare and precious glimpse into a kind of storytelling as enthralling as it is strange to Western eyes.

If Asymptote Book Club keeps finding such gems, subscribers are in for a treat.

Aranyak by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, translated from the Bengali by Rimli Bhattacharya (Seagull Books, 2017)

Book of the month: Vivek Shanbhag

Since completing my year of reading the world, I’ve been fascinated by literature translated from the 22 languages other than English that have official status in India. One of the most interesting discoveries I made during my project was when an Indian journalist opened my eyes to the work Malayalam writer, MT Vasudevan Nair. So I was delighted to hear about the publication this year of a novel translated into English from the South Indian language of Kannada, which is still barely represented in the anglophone reading world.

Although Ghachar Ghochar is Vivek Shanbhag’s English-language debut, the book is far from being his first work. The celebrated  author from the Indian state of Karnataka has published eight works of fiction and two plays.

His experience and expertise is quickly apparent when you open this novel. Deceptively simple in its premise – the destabilization of dynamics when a business venture dramatically improves a family’s financial circumstances – this slender work relies on deft writing and keen-eyed observation to carry it along. Shanbhag and his translator Srinath Perur – who worked closely together on the English-language version – provide these in abundance.

In a lesser author’s hands this book might easily be a creaky parable about the threats to traditional hierarchies posed by India’s economic boom, or a rambling disquisition on the discontent of the newly comfortable protagonist Vincent. Instead, although the best elements of both these things are woven neatly into the fabric of the story, it is a vivid and moving portrait of humanity in all its contrariness and perversity.

The delight is in the detail. Domestic objects represent and reveal great emotional shifts. For example, in the revelation that Vincent now feels it would be meaningless to buy his mother the sari he dreamed of getting her as a boy when his family lived in a shack on the other side of Bangalore, we see the price of financial gain.

Similarly, profound truths are expressed in handfuls of everyday words: ‘The well-being of any household rests on selective acts of blindness and deafness’; ‘the last strands of a relationship can snap from a single glance or a moment of silence’; ‘it is one of the strengths of families to pretend that they desire what is unavoidable’.

It is no surprise to discover that, as Shanbhag reveals in an interview on his English-language publisher’s website, the author is a fan of Ernest Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory – ‘that most of the story is beneath the surface’. Indeed, he extends this to translation too, regarding the process as the business of ‘taking what is unsaid in a work from one language to another’.

Yet Shanbhag’s writing is warmer than Hemingway’s usually manages to be. There is humour in the occasionally querulous tone of his narrative and evidence of an eye for the ridiculous in the manner in which he sets out his characters’ quirks – the family’s nearly year-long resistance to buying a new pressure cooker on the off-chance that one might be given away at a conference, for example, and the way Vincent’s father, in his original sales job, would spend evenings going over figures ‘again and again until they gave in and agreed’.

The abruptness of the ending will bring some readers up short. Yet, when considered in light of the novel’s title – a nonsense phrase that, among Vincent’s wife’s relatives, signifies things getting tangled up – it makes a kind of sense. The title becomes a prediction – no sooner do we understand its significance than we see it embodied in the story.

Unlike his novel, though, Shanbhag’s English-language career looks far from ending in a knotted mess. Ghachar Ghochar has garnered rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, and Shanbhag and Srinath Perur are already preparing another of his books for the anglophone market. About time too.

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur (Penguin Random House, 2017)

Picture: ‘Busy busy Brigade Road in Bangalore’ by Ryan on flickr.com

World bookshopper: #12 Jimbocho, Tokyo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book of the month: Yan Lianke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Korean discoveries

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Kim Yujeong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Book of the month: Yoko Ogawa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book of the month: Saneh Sangsuk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo ‘Bangkok, Thailand’ by Simon Marussi on Flickr

Book of the month: Eka Kurniawan

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This was a recommendation from friend and fellow writer, Trilby Kent. She mentioned a few weeks ago that she had just discovered Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan and highly recommended his work.

Kent isn’t the only person to have been wowed by Kurniawan. His latest novel to be translated into English, Man Tiger, recently received a glowing review in the UK Guardian, which described it as a Javanese subversion of the crime fiction genre. Furthermore, when I clicked open my e-copy, I was confronted by another endorsement in the form of an effusive introduction by celebrated scholar Benedict Anderson, who died earlier this month. Despite describing the English translation of the title as ‘slightly awkward’, he was adamant that Kurniawan was Indonesia’s ‘most original living writer of novels and short stories’.

I turned to page one with a sinking heart. Could any novel really live up to such a fanfare?

I’m pleased to report that Man Tiger does so with ease. Opening with the savage murder of an ageing villager by the young man, Margio, who has been dating his daughter, this novel pours forth a stream of delights. As we follow the unfolding of the narrative, watching Kurniawan peel back layer after layer of grudges, half-remembered incidents and surprising events, we meet many characters so vivid and robust that they seem at times to lean from the pages and hoick us bodily into their concerns. There is the major who is convinced that the piece of ground he has been honoured with in the heroes’ cemetery is simply an invitation to die quickly and the elderly woman who would rather poison herself by eating the soil of her land than allow her avaricious children to get their hands on her wealth.

The references to crime fiction that several English-language reviewers have made are understandable, but potentially a little misleading. While the intricate and deftly tuned plot runs like clockwork throughout, keeping us guessing until the last page – not about who did what (we know that in the first sentence), but about why things happened the way they did – this book is so much more than a mere twist on a familiar genre. It brings in huge amounts of other things: myth, oral storytelling techniques and a brand of the fantastic that many will no doubt describe as ‘magical realism’, but which is quite unlike anything else I have read in that category.

The writing reflects the novel’s hybrid nature, shifting between registers with breathtaking dexterity. Moments of brutal matter-of-factness – gritty as anything you’ll find in the pages of Larsson or Nesbø – give way to bathos, flights of lyricism and a beauty that is almost painful.

Indeed, though there are one or two oddities in the text (some of which may of course reflect the original), translator Labodalih Sembiring deserves praise for his part in this extraordinary book. Gems such as ‘the night tumbled upon them, buoying the stars and hanging up a severed moon’, and ‘he gave up on cutting hair, and instead trimmed away at his own soul, snip by snip’ make the text glitter. This is particularly worth noting when you reflect that, as Anderson explains in his introduction, Kurniawan’s work presents great challenges for translators because it ‘includes contemporary coinages as well as many obscure words, still used in remote villages, but absent in present-day urban-centred dictionaries’.

There’s so much more to say. I wanted to tell you about Kurniawan’s extraordinary eye for detail, which brings the novel’s lush settings close enough to touch. I’d love to have written at length about his uncanny understanding of why we do what we do, and the way he portrays human ugliness, vulnerability and tenderness in all their fullness. I’ve got a whole list here of moments that had me chuckling and insights that made me nod in recognition.

But instead of turning this blog post into a dissertation, let me suggest this: give yourself a treat and buy this book or request it from your library. Then you can discover all this and much more for yourself. I can’t think of a better way to start 2016 than in the company of such thrilling writing. Happy New Year.

Man Tiger (Lelaki Harimau) by Eka Kurniawan, translated from the Bahasa Indonesia by Labodalih Sembiring (Verso, 2015)

Picture by Yos C. Wiranata on flickr.com