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

Free Chinese literature

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As those of you who’ve followed this project for a while will know, China is very poorly represented in terms of the number of its books that make it into English. According to Chinese translator collective Paper Republic, only 20 fiction and poetry books were published anywhere in the world in English in 2013.

So it’s great to hear of an initiative by Paper Republic to try to broaden anglophone readers’ access to literature from the world’s most populous country. Starting last week, the collective has promised to publish one translated short story on its website every Thursday for the next year.

The stories will be freely available. And if the first two pieces – a witty and touching sketch of the power dynamics in a romantic relationship by novelist A Yi, and wistful ‘The Road to the Weeping Spring’ by Li Juan – are anything to go by, they promise to be a weekly highlight.

The first two stories are also refreshingly short, making them the perfect tasters for anyone keen to sample writing with a view to discovering authors whose books they might like to try. Ideal companions for the morning commute, a quick cup of tea or a soothing ten-minute read before bed.

Photo: ‘relics’ © Mart

Book of the month: Cao Wenxuan

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It’s always a pleasure to hear from fellow literary explorers. Since I began my year of reading the world in January 2012, I have come into contact with a large number of people who have embarked on projects to read more widely and discover what stories from other places have to offer.

I’ve heard from people reading their way around continents and language groups, as well as others armchair travelling through time, sampling one text from each year. By far the most popular notion, however, seems to be the idea of travelling the world through children’s books. To date, I know of at least five people who are doing or plan to do this and I’m sure there are many more out there.

So when I heard that author and translator Helen Wang (one of the many kind people who shared their expertise with me while I was researching my book) had translated a children’s story by the Chinese author Cao Wenxuan, I was intrigued to read it.

My interest grew when I read a little more about Cao and the story, Bronze and Sunflower, in the notes at the back of the book. According to them, Cao is often described as China’s Hans Christian Andersen. What’s more, the story was inspired by the childhood experience of a friend of his during the Cultural Revolution, but didn’t fall into place for a long time until Cao had a vision of the Chinese characters for ‘Bronze’ and ‘Sunflower’ one Chinese New Year.

The result is a moving account of two children brought together by loneliness, and bound to each other through familial affection and the determination to survive. Sunflower is the daughter of an artist banished to do hard labour at a rural cadre school and Bronze is the mute son of impoverished villagers who live nearby. After Sunflower’s father dies, Bronze persuades his parents to take her in and the family devotes itself to giving her a decent life in the face of extreme hardship that threatens repeatedly to destroy them.

Bleak though the premise may sound, the book is in fact extraordinarily beautiful. In addition to the touching affection Cao creates between the children and the other family members, his (and Wang’s) vivid, lyrical and sometimes startling descriptions shimmer from the page. From the way Sunflower’s father’s ‘cardboard folder flapped like the wings of a giant bird and released his paintings to the sky’ to the plague of locusts ‘swirling and thrashing like an army of screaming black demons, their mouths gaping, their tongues flicking’, the book is a masterclass in the pictures words can paint.

The story is engrossing too. With Bronze and Sunflower battling to survive and thrive, the stakes could not be higher. As a result, Cao is able to weave in some sophisticated observations about the realities of poverty. He also powerfully portrays the experience of living in a place where services like health care and education are seen as privileges and not rights – thought-provoking stuff for children in many parts of the English-speaking world, who may be more used to grumbling about than begging to go to school.

Gender roles are a little problematic in the book: although Sunflower is full of gumption, she almost always blunders and has to be rescued from her scrapes by the more ingenious Bronze. The situation is rarely reversed, although Sunflower does teach Bronze to read and write, making for one of the most triumphant moments of the book, when Bronze silences the sneers of a crowd by stepping forward and painting his name on a wall.

In addition, it is slightly difficult to know what age range of children would get most out of the book. The publisher, Walker Books, recommends it for children aged nine and over, and says that it can be read independently by confident readers or read aloud by parents, but certain aspects of it feel better suited to children of other ages. While the narrative’s somewhat graphic descriptions of violence and suffering, and sophisticated vocabulary would test most nine-year-olds, the somewhat naive, innocent tone of the story makes it feel more appropriate for younger children.

From conversations I’ve had with Wang, I understand that this is a common challenge when it comes to bringing Chinese children’s literature into English – an interesting insight, perhaps, into the different expectations of childhood in Chinese and Western culture.

All the same, this is an absorbing and beguiling book. Despite being nearly 25 years outside the target readership age, I found myself gripped by many of its episodes and moved by its clear, elegant and often beautiful descriptions. However old you are, this book will expand your horizons – whether you’re engaged in a reading quest or not.

Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan, translated from the Chinese by Helen Wang (Walker Books, 2015)

Rest of the World: revealed

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So there it is, up there on the star in the top left of the picture: the 53rd – and last – book I’ve read on my Kindle for this project. But which of the shortlisted places and peoples not featured on the main list did it come from? Basque Country, Bermuda, Catalonia, Faroe Islands, Kurdistan or Native America?

Well, the voting was fierce. Nearly 400 of you took part in the poll and there was plenty of passionate campaigning along the way. You can see the full breakdown of results on the Rest of the World page, but the headline news is that it came down to a two-horse race between Jaume Cabré’s Winter Journey from Catalonia and Jalal Barzanji’s The Man in Blue Pyjamas from Kurdistan. Cabré held the lead for a long time, but in the end, thanks to some vigorous lobbying on the part of #TwitterKurds, Barzanji romped home to secure the A Year of Reading the World wild-card spot.

Written after its author was named PEN Canada’s first ever Writer-in-Exile in 2007, The Man in Blue Pyjamas tells the story of poet and journalist Jalal Barzanji’s life in Iraqi Kurdistan, his three years of imprisonment and torture under Saddam Hussein’s regime – throughout which he remained in the night-clothes in which he was arrested – and the lengths he went to to secure a future for himself and his family on the other side of the world. It weaves together Barzanji’s memories, the experiences of people he met along the way, historical events and Kurdish traditions to present a compelling picture of the contested homeland that both shaped and nearly destroyed the writer.

With its account of what it means to grow up in a nation that does not fit into the neat country borders most of us use to organise the planet, the memoir is in many ways a very fitting ‘Rest of the World’ choice. Opening with a map showing Kurdistan spread across portions of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran, the book owes its structure to the sense of fragmentation that Barzanji grew up with – ‘I must present my story in small pieces because my life has been in pieces,’ he writes before going on to leap between past, present, ancient history and future, like a spider spinning a web between far-distant points.

Yet the struggle for national and cultural autonomy is only part of the story: for Barzanji the battle to make a life as a writer is every bit as fraught. Born in a house with no books or pens, the writer had to contend with his family’s incomprehension of his ambitions, draconian and often bewildering censorship laws, and the challenges of funding and publishing his own work. Crucially, it was not his years of imprisonment by the Iraqi regime nor atrocities like the attack on Halabja, but the infighting between different Kurdish factions that made Barzanji decide he had to flee his homeland and throw himself on the mercy of smugglers, as he explained to his wife Sabah: ‘”I have to go to a place where I can continue to be an independent writer. I do not want to take sides in this civil war.”‘

In the face of such huge obstacles, under a regime that transformed the library in which he first discovered his love of words into the prison where he was tortured, Barzanji’s dedication to his craft is deeply moving. His portrayal of the stories of his fellow Kurds – from the waggish Ako’s account of the difficulty of consummating his marriage because of his family’s cramped sleeping arrangements, to the devastating drowning of Shwan in a bungled people-smuggling attempt – lays bare the sense of duty that drove the author to risk everything for the sake of reaching a country where these experiences could be written. Not that Barzanji is quick to take credit for this – ‘that’s the way writers are: they seldom think about the consequences of what they do or write,’ he claims, seeming to shrug at us from the page.

Indeed, Barzanji’s style is so unassuming that you only realise the scale of what he has achieved in this book gradually. His skill shines through from page to page in the details that bring the experiences described home to the reader: the blood on the prison walls, the dyed moustache of the torturer, the boyhood trick of placing a flis coin on the railway track and waiting for a train to squash it into something resembling a more valuable coin, and the terrifying darkroom and stick reserved for the mentally ill at the sheikh’s house. It also appears in his endearing honesty about his shortcomings – his social awkwardness at parties, his habit of losing his luggage, his daydreaming.

Only when you step back from these intimate and immediate observations and survey the fragmented narrative in its entirety do you realise the extent of its power. Taking us to a place that many refuse to accept exists, Barzanji reveals what it means to be forced to weigh freedom, self-expression and survival against belonging, duty and the law. Seen from the final page, the story in pieces transforms itself into a beautiful and beguiling whole. A humbling read.

The Man in Blue Pyjamas by Jalal Barzanji, based on a translation from the Kurdish by Sabah Salih (University of Alberta Press, 2012)