Qatar: Brits abroad

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Back in May I had an email from Michelle Wallin, an editor at Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing. I’d contacted the four-year-old publisher – which, as its name suggests, came out of a partnership between Bloomsbury Publishing and the Qatar Foundation – to see whether it might have any suggestions of books I could read in translation by Qatari writers.

As it happened, I was in luck. Wallin was editing the manuscript of the translation of a novel that had been very popular in Arabic. It would be one of the first Qatari novels to be published in English and was due out at the end of the year. Would I be interested in that?

I replied that I certainly would, especially if Wallin could send me an advance copy or manuscript so that I could read it in time for the end of the project. She promised to try and impressively, despite the delays that so often hamper the publishing process, a manuscript of The Corsair by Abdul Aziz Al Mahmoud arrived in my inbox a couple of weeks ago.

Set in the early 19th century, when the British Empire was extending its reach across the globe, the novel tells the story of the struggle for control of the trade routes in the Persian Gulf. Spurred into action by the region’s burgeoning number of pirates or corsairs, among them the notorious Erhama bin Jaber, His Majesty’s Government moves to protect its interests, sending figures such as the aristocratic Captain Loch and the awkward Major George Sadleir to the Gulf to safeguard the transport of British cargo through diplomacy or military action. But the British have reckoned without the complex web of rivalries and loyalties that spans the Gulf. As the narrative progresses – roving between Plymouth in the UK, Bombay in India, Bahrain, Qatar, Madeira and many places in between – it becomes clear that the emissaries of the small nation that at one stage controlled a quarter of the planet are out of their depth.

Al Mahmoud’s 19th century Gulf region is a rich, cruel and bewildering place. From the sumptuous palaces of the Sultan of Oman to the barren plains where Ibrahim Pasha prosecutes his brutal wars, it is a world of contrasts and contradictions. Fresh springs bubble under the sea, making it possible for intrepid sailors to dive for drinking water, and lifeless deserts hide secret dens, buzzing with activity – signalling that here very little is what it seems. Relationships in the region are equally fraught, with family betrayal frequent and allegiances between factions and sects shifting with alarming regularity – ‘they pray to the same God and towards the same Kaaba, and yet they butcher each other,’ remarks Sadleir at one point. Through the hubbub and carnage strides the towering figure of Erham bin Jaber: terrifying, enigmatic and fascinating.

Al Mahmoud’s depiction of the British characters is similarly compelling – and one of the most convincing I’ve read all year. None of the false notes that so often strike you when you read the work of a foreign writer trying to describe your countrymen and women to you are present. Instead, his creations are utterly believable, right from the irritable and effete administrative official David Matthews to the governor in Bombay.

This credibility buys the author a lot of leeway when it comes to revealing the flaws in his characters and the national policies driving them. Beginning softly with a few instances of casual racism and ignorant generalisations on the part of the British, as well as some digs at the ill-suitedness of English attire and practices to most of the settings in the novel, he begins to dismantle the pomp and circumstance of empire to show the folly and hypocrisy on which it rests. This gradually moves to more serious matters, with the disgruntled Indian employee Gulap offering one of the first shots across the bows with the observation: ‘many Omanis regard the British as criminals and killers’.

The rest of the novel serves to demonstrate why such a view might well be justified. Welching on deals, commissioning murder, and promising the powerless lackey Abbas his safety only to kill him once he has served his purpose and testified against the Prince of Shiraz’s nephew, the British characters reveal themselves to be the most underhand and treacherous players in the Gulf.

Crucially, however, Al Mahmoud does not himself fall into the trap of generalising. He gives Sadleir a great deal of insight into the thoughtless cruelty of his compatriots, leaving the door open for a friendship between him and the pirate Erhama bin Jaber’s son, Bashir. As Bashir explains, the problem is really a question of perspective: ‘You would think differently if this land was your land and if these people were your people,’ he says. In fact, the author’s skill is such that, in this translation of his work into the language of the former empire, he manages to get readers to experience something of what it means to think differently: by the end I found myself rooting for Erhama bin Jaber and his followers against the Brits.

Although Al Mahmoud navigates well between his large array of settings and characters, there are one or two minor snags in the rigging. The lengthy descriptions of Captain Loch’s aristocratic background and his offhand manner with his crew in the first chapter seem to promise a mutiny which never materialises, as though the author changed his mind about the weighting of the narrative half-way through. Similarly, there are a few places in the book where Al Mahmoud sets up an obstacle only to sweep it away in the next sentence, rather than using the added tension to drive the narrative forward. At one stage, for example, Abu Matar speculates on the whereabouts of Bashir, saying that he hasn’t seen him for ages, only for Al Mahmoud to tell us in the next sentence that ‘they didn’t have to wait long for Bashir’, which has the odd effect of making Abu Matar look like an actor filling time on stage while he waits for a colleague to realise he’s missed his cue.

Overall, though, this is an excellent and fascinating book. Having grown up in the UK, where the history of the British Empire is regarded by many with complacency, I found it liberating, challenging and thought-provoking to read a bit of the narrative from another perspective. This novel, particularly in its translated form, is a reminder that truth is often in the eye of the beholder – and that we must cherish those with the insight to recognise something of the other sides of the story.

The Corsair by Abdul Aziz Al Mahmoud, translated from the Arabic by Amira Nowaira (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2012)

Maldives: free books

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I expected to find getting a book in English by a Maldivian author fairly straightforward. Given the country’s colonial history, I assumed that there would be several things out there and it would just be a case of choosing what to read.

How wrong I was. After weeks of googling around and emailing people, I began to realise that, for some reason, books in English by Maldivian authors were more than a little thin on the ground.

I even tried contacting Robbie Bulloch, the British Deputy High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. It turned out he was one step ahead of me: he’d asked friends in the Maldives for suggestions of translations only the previous week. From their blank looks, he said, it seemed the selection couldn’t be very wide.

He did send a link to a blog by Ibrahim Waheed, a writer who won the National Library of the Maldives’ first ever English Fiction Story Writing Competition in 2007 with what he claimed were the ‘first ever novella-length fictional works published in the English language by a Maldivian author’ (try saying that with a mouthful of marbles). In fact, he’d won not only first prize but also second prize, which made me wonder how many entries the competition had attracted in the first place.

His stories were available to read as pdfs on his site – but they were somewhat short. The search continued.

About this time in the year, I started pestering PhD students. It struck me that the biggest experts on literature from some of the remotest countries on my list might not be thousands of miles away but holed up in university libraries up and down the land. Perhaps they would be able to help?

As it turned out, there weren’t many people doing doctorates on the Maldives. However, I did find one: Mariyam Shiuna, a student exploring ‘Urban violence and disillusionment with democracy in the Maldives’ at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

The discovery was a stroke of luck. Not only was Shiuna researching the Maldives, but she was also a Maldivian national. Two days after I emailed her, she came back with details of a classic she had studied at school, which she described as ‘the Maldivian version of Romeo and Juliet or Layla and Majnun‘. In fact, she went one better than simply telling me about it: she had found a free pdf of an English translation of the work online on a website promoting Maldivian heritage. The hunt was at an end.

Starting several generations before the birth of the title characters, Dhon Hiyala and Ali Fulhu – told in this prose version by Abdullah Sadiq – unfolds a great, royal love affair that stretches across the archipelago. Boasting a large cast of characters, a plethora of incidents and a good dose of myth and magic, the narrative takes readers on a tour of the obstacles, complications and frustrations that stand in the way of happiness.

This is a book of new beginnings. I lost track of the number of times that characters abandoned their old homes and habits and struck out to set up a new life on a different island.  From Raaveri Ali – who, having lost his family because of a rival’s curse, gets on a boat for Komandu island, leaving no trace of himself behind on Maroshi ‘even his smell’ – to his son Moosa, who runs off to live in Malé, the idea of clean breaks drives much of the narrative. This can be disconcerting, particularly when we see how quickly old loves and lives are forgotten, but it also gives rise to great ingenuity. The child Moosa, for example, sets himself up as a Koran tutor in the capital, earning the money that will enable him to start afresh. Indeed, the narrative seems to be shaped as much by the nation’s island geography as by its characters’ desires, and moves in fits and starts between one colourful episode and the next.

Through it all, the diligence of its modern-day author and his desire to do justice to this ancient classic is clear. As he demonstrates in his ‘Author’s Preface’, Sadiq feels a great responsibility to render the character of the original raivaru (song version), expressing his desire to write a prose story ‘that was worthy of such inspiration’. As a result, he includes numerous maps, genealogies, notes and explanatory essays in and at the back of the text, as though anxious that not one ounce of significance should be lost on the reader.

In fact, the story is robust enough to stand on its own, not least because the strangeness of some its episodes is one of its strengths. The curses and magic spells that fill the text, and are often described in elaborate detail, are fascinating – at one point the story even becomes a battle of wits between Ali Fulhu and Hawwa Fulhu, as each hurls fanditha (magic) at the other in an effort to come out on top. The scene where Ali Fulhu summons the great king of the Ocean is marvellous too. In addition, the numerous rituals that surround daily life, from the way to prepare for fishing to the words that should be spoken on the birth of a child are, for the most part, self-explanatory.

That said, Western readers will find some episodes hard to empathise with. Dhon Aisa and Moosa’s sanguine reaction to the discovery that their midwife has murdered seven of their babies is surprising, for example, while some of the reasons for characters to act as they do seem opaque – although this could be as much to do with the age of the story as its cultural setting. In addition, Sadiq’s commitment to use plain language and retain the original form gives rise to a few sequences in which very little seems to happen. Sometimes, reading descriptions of the characters talking about how much sugar they should prepare for toddy and their domestic arrangements, it’s hard not to feel that we are being forced to sit through the dressing-room conversations of actors in between their big scenes on stage.

All in all, though, this is a fascinating book – and one quite different from anything I’ve read before. It sparkles with insights and humour drawn from a time and place quite different from our own. If some of the storytelling techniques and actions of the earlier characters have a distancing effect, the love affair between Dhon Hiyala and Ali Fulhu is utterly believable and engrossing when it comes. Enchanting.

Dhon Hiyala and Ali Fulhu by Abdullah Sadiq, translated from the Dhivehi by Fareesha Abdullah and Michael O’Shea © F Abdullah and M O’Shea, 2004

China: one in 1.3 billion

My knowledge of Chinese literature is pretty non-existent, so I was very grateful when translator Nicky Harman offered to talk me through some of the options last month. We met in a coffee shop in Covent Garden, where, sandwiched between groups of students and tourists planning expeditions to Oxford Street, Harman shared some of her insights into books from the world’s most populous country, which is home to a fifth of the planet’s people.

She said that, while a wide range of literature was published in China, a very narrow spectrum of works were available in English. These tended to be rather depressing, violent and, as she put it, ‘masculine’ books, which often made for heavy-going reading. She hoped that Mo Yan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature this year would start to change this by increasing the appetite for publishing a greater variety of Chinese books around the world.

In the meantime, however, Harman did have some tips for me. If I didn’t mind hard-hitting books, Mian Mian’s Candy was a good bet, while Mo Yan’s short story collection Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh rung the changes, being both comic and tragic. In addition, Yan Ge (not to be confused with Yan Geling), a young, witty, female writer who Harman said was like a modern Jane Austen, was one to watch. Her work was not translated yet, but would hopefully be available in English soon. The same was true of Xu Zechen, whose short story ‘Throwing Out the Baby’ had been published on Words Without Borders.  In terms of non-fiction, the work of Xue Xinran was well worth looking out for.

In amongst Harman’s recommendations, however, one title stood out: Han Dong’s Banished!. Perhaps this wasn’t surprising, given that Harman had translated the novel herself; nevertheless I couldn’t help being intrigued by her description of the book, which, by the sound of it, provided an unusual – even quirky – perspective on the events of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. My interest was also piqued by the translator’s comment that the structure of the book, which reads like a memoir, with each chapter devoted to a different character in the village, reflected a popular tradition in Chinese fiction. I decided it would be the book for me.

Drawing on Han’s personal history, the novel portrays the banishment of the Tao family from the city of Nanjing to the village of Sanyu during the late 1960s. Required to ‘learn from the poorer and lower middle peasants’ as part of Mao Zedong’s attempt to erase capitalism and culture from the country, Grandma and Grandpa Tao, writer Tao and his wife Su Qun, and their son, young Tao, must make new lives for themselves. But, while they try to do the best they can with the meagre resources available to them, they must also take care not to do too well and arouse the jealousy of their impoverished and poorly educated neighbours: as objects of suspicion because of Tao’s intellectual past, their best hope lies in striking root and blending in with their drab, new surroundings.

Sinister undercurrents flow through the novel, bubbling to the surface now and then to flood the characters’ lives. From the bleak prospects Tao foresees for his young son and his fear that his wages might be stopped by the Party, to the investigation that makes Su Qun contemplate suicide and young Tao’s memory of the ransacked buildings he saw in Nanjing, there is an underlying sense of the threat hidden in the smallest and most apparently innocuous of decisions.

Most striking of all, however, is not the precariousness of the Tao’s situation, but its strangeness. Little details, such as the ‘good-news troupe’ marshalled to cheer the banished families on their way and the era’s unfamiliar jargon, reveal the profound oddness of the time, as does six-year-old Tao’s misplaced excitement at the initial hurly-burly of the Revolution and his proud boast that ‘our family’s got a bad egg too, and he’s been struggled against’. Indeed, as the anonymous narrator reminds us, the period is in many ways every bit as strange to contemporary Chinese readers as it is to Westerners:

‘I can only sincerely apologize to my young readers or those from another world. The world I describe here was, after all, a peculiar and transitory one, constructed of language that enshrouded and permeated it with what Buddhists call anitya, a mysterious impermanence.’

In the face of such ephemerality, the Taos ground themselves in the rituals of their new lives, devising strategies for survival. These often involve negotiating their way round the alien traditions of their neighbours – from finding a way to decline a proposal to involve young Tao in a childhood betrothal, to trying to outwit the hungry villagers who want to kidnap and eat their pet dogs. However, there are also moments of joy as we share in young Tao’s adventures in his rural surroundings and the family members’ satisfaction at being able to improve their living conditions through their ingenuity. Indeed, the little domestic triumphs of excluding draughts, drawing water and making adequate sanitary arrangements are so engrossing that we are a long way into the narrative before we realise quite what ‘Mr Tao Peiyi, the professional writer’, now ‘forbidden to write his own books’, has lost in the move to this remote region.

The result is a moving consideration of storytelling and the power of human beings to take charge of their identities in even the bleakest of circumstances. Through watching the Taos carve out a life that allows them to retain something of their sense of dignity and purpose in the face of an attempt to erase individuality, distinctiveness and creativity, we see the marvellous resilience of the human mind. Surprising, and rather wonderful.

Banished! by Han Dong, translated from the Mandarin by Nicky Harman (University of Hawaii Press, 2009)

There is just one day left until the Rest of the World poll closes. Vote now to choose which book I should read!

Turkmenistan: a ghost’s revenge

I first caught wind of my Turkmen book back in July, when the Scottish Poetry Library tweeted that exiled poet Ak Welsapar was popping up to Scotland from Poetry Parnassus in London to do a reading. Ever the opportunist, I fired off a tweet asking Library staff to see whether Welsapar could recommend a Turkmen prose work that I could read in English. A correspondence ensued with Sarah Stewart, manager of the SPL’s excellent Written World project. As far as she knew, Welsapar had a novel in English due out soon. Perhaps I would be able to read that?

I dropped Welsapar a line. Luckily, it turned out his English was much better than my Turkmen, Russian and Swedish (the three languages the author writes in). He told me that he had not one but too novels in translation in the pipeline: Cobra was due to be published by Silk Road Media in London towards the end of the year if everything went to plan, while The Tale of Aypi was being translated in the US with the manuscript scheduled to be ready in the autumn. He kindly agreed to send me a copy of this, the first ever novel to be translated directly into English from Turkmen, when it was done. And so it was that a couple of weeks ago, a rather special attachment arrived in my inbox. I clicked the file open and began to read.

The Tale of Aypi is set in an isolated community of Turkmen fishermen on the coast of the Caspian Sea. With the threat of relocation to the city in order to make way for a lucrative asthma sanatorium looming, the inhabitants face sacrificing their traditions and customs at the dubious altar of progress. But not everyone is prepared to go quietly: loner Araz refuses to leave and flouts the new fishing ban to continue his trade, while, beneath the waters, the ghost of wronged woman Aypi, whose story has haunted the village for centuries, begins to stir and seek revenge.

Welsapar is skilled at making us empathise with a diverse range of viewpoints. At first, in light of Araz’s passionate speeches to his long-suffering wife about what it means to belong to a place and a way of life – ‘If a man can’t follow his father’s trade, what’ll become of him? A man should be able to do what he loves! Is that possible or not?’ – it is hard not to see the rest of the villagers’ acquiescence in the relocation scheme as spineless. Yet, as the novel progresses and we discover the campaign of neglect the authorities have waged in the region, cutting off the most basic services to make life there impossible, and the concerns of the elderly inhabitants about their separation from the urban lives of their children and grandchildren, a more rounded and wistful picture emerges.

The marriage of Mammed Badaly’s son to an influential city worker’s daughter demonstrates this most powerfully. Afraid that his daughter-in-law and her esteemed guests might spurn his home altogether, Badaly waits anxiously for the wedding procession that should by tradition come to his house:

‘Mammed Badaly, though, feared it wasn’t just a matter of setting customs aside, but a grave concern for the present and the future. If the old man’s son and his bride refused to cross the threshold of their own parents’ home on their wedding day, how would it be later on, with their grandchildren? Wouldn’t they repudiate their grandparents entirely?

‘Yes, the village was old; the houses were dilapidated wrecks without polished embellishments and brilliant furnishings of artisan timber like city places had, but the fishermen’s open hearts were here.’

The perils of not finding a way to reconcile outside influences and change with traditions are ever present in the narrative through the spectre of Aypi, the ‘eternally drowned woman’ condemned to death by the community for accepting a ruby necklace from mysterious visitors who arrived on the shore some 300 years before. Fizzing with generations of injustice and repressed anger, the troubled ghost rampages through the streets, whispering feminist manifestos in the ears of men, challenging adulterers and working out a bitter and increasingly indiscriminate revenge.

At times, events take a decided turn for the weird, shuddering the framework of Welsapar’s carefully created world. In addition, the unusual structure of the book – which depends heavily on long dialogues in which points are rehearsed repeatedly – can take some getting used to. It is as though, bustling into the text from the arena of tax returns, tube delays and Twitter feeds, we must adapt to the pace of village life in order to appreciate the narrative to the full.

All in all, though, the quality of the writing and the poet’s exquisite metaphors, which shimmer through the text like jewels glimpsed through water, keep the pages turning. The novel is a striking parable for the incursion of modern life into the world’s remotest places and the havoc that powerlessness wreaks on people’s sense of themselves. Many of its images will stay with me for a good long while to come. Haunting.

The Tale of Aypi by Ak Welsapar, translated from the Turkmen by WM Coulson (currently seeking an English-language publisher)

Update: The Tale of Aypi was published by Glagoslav Publications in 2016.

Azerbaijan: in search of identity

I had hoped this post would be on a book by Emin Milli. I found him on Twitter, describing himself as a ‘dissident writer living in Azerbaijan’ – rather brave from what I’ve heard about the strictness of the regime. In fact, according to his website, Milli is no stranger to this himself: he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison in 2009 and was only released conditionally in November 2010.

Sadly, when I contacted Milli, it turned out that the book of short stories he is working on won’t be ready until next year. He offered to translate and send me a couple of pieces – he works as an interpreter as well as a writer – but as I was really looking for a complete book, I decided not to put him to the trouble of doing that.

In the meantime, a contact at Sheffield Hallam University had sent through a suggestion of Ali and Nino by Kurban Said. This book presented another dilemma: although Azerbaijanis apparently consider it their national novel, at least according to Paul Theroux’s introduction in my edition, the identity of its author has been a mystery for many years. Several non-Azerbaijani writers have been in the frame since the book first appeared in Germany in 1937, alongside Baku-born Islam convert Mohammed Essad Bey (aka Lev Nussinbaum). He is the writer that journalist Tom Reiss concluded was behind the book – Reiss went on to write a biography of Bey, titled The Orientalist, which was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2006. In addition, other scholars argue that Azerbaijani statesman Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli is the main author.

The odds were that the novel is by an Azerbaijani, but there was still room for doubt. Was this enough for me to justify making it my choice for the nation?

Faced with very little else available in translation, I finally decided to go for it when I discovered that the journal Azerbaijan International had dedicated an entire issue to the book. Whatever the truth about its author, it was clear that the novel had had a lasting impact on the nation. And so, at the risk that new evidence emerges that blows all this out of the water, I decided to give it a go.

The novel is set in the early decades of the 20th century, during the turbulent run up to the declaration of a separate Azerbaijani state, and tells the story of a relationship between Christian beauty Nino and Muslim Ali. Caught between the conservative traditions of Asia and the liberal culture of Europe, and with the might of Russia bearing down on the region, the lovers find themselves forced to question their desires and identities. And, as the world plunges into war, they realise that events on battlefields hundreds of miles away will decide whether a society in which their love can thrive will continue to exist.

The conflict between East and West is at the heart of this book. From the very first chapter, in which a geography teacher explains that Baku sits on the cusp of two continents and tells Nino and his classmates that it is partly down to them ‘whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia’, questions of allegiance and identity are at the forefront of the narrative. This plays out on every level, from different ways of eating through to the design of houses – all of which are presented with much affection and wit. I particularly enjoyed Ali’s conservative uncle’s description of his visit to the opera in Berlin:

‘We were taken to an opera, called L’Africaine. On stage stood a very fat woman and sang dreadfully. We disliked the woman’s voice very much. Kaiser Wilhelm noticed this and punished the woman on the spot. In the last act many negroes came and erected a big pyre. The woman was bound hand and foot and slowly burnt to death. We were very pleased about that. Later somebody told us that the fire had been only symbolical. But we did not believe this, for the woman shrieked just as terribly as the heretic Hurriet ul Ain, whom the Shah had had burnt to death in Tehran just before we set out on our journey.’

When it comes to the position of women in society, the contrast between the two cultures couldn’t be more stark. While Nino’s father advises Ali that marriage should be based on equality when he goes to ask for her hand, his own father tells him that ‘women are like children, only much more sly and vicious’ and his friends and other relatives advise him that wives have no souls and should be controlled with violence. And when Nino is kidnapped and Ali is forced to pursue her kidnapper’s car across the desert, the codes of honour by which he and his peers operate look set to have horrific consequences for his love.

It seems impossible that a relationship could bridge such a gulf, but the beauty of the book is that Said is able to reveal the coming together of two people in a way that is utterly believable and compelling. While recognising that culturally and historically they ‘ought to be blood enemies’, Ali and Nino are able to find ways of transcending their backgrounds while holding on to the truth of who they are. This does not come without great pain and sacrifice. In fact, much of the book is concerned with the struggles the lovers face to accommodate each other’s needs and desires – from the miserable months Nino spends walled up in a harem in Persia, to the indignation Ali has to swallow at hearing Europeans praise his beautiful, unveiled wife. However, according to the story at least, such reconciliation is possible, even if much is lost along the way.

As a metaphor for the dawning of the new Azerbaijani nation, which managed a few brave years before being swallowed into the Soviet Union for much of the 20th century, the book is a powerful and memorable one. Written with great humour and beauty, it brims with affection for this nation of contrasts and contradictions. A wonderful read.

Ali and Nino by Kurban Said, translated from the German by Jenia Graman (Vintage 2000)

Philippines: the real story

There’s nothing like getting an enthusiastic recommendation from somebody who loves a particular book. So when Rach stopped by the blog to tell me that I had to read Illustrado by Miguel Syjuco, describing it as ‘a wonderful (funny) exploration of the country, its history, politics and people’, I made a point of looking it up.

Rach wasn’t alone in her appreciation of the novel. It won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008 and was one of the New York Times’s 100 Notable Books of 2010. Clearly a lot of people around the world rated it.

The novel follows Miguel Syjuco (yes, you read that right) as he attempts to get to the bottom of the death of his mentor, famous New York-based Filipino writer Crispin Salvador. Told through extracts from Salvador’s work and his protegé’s biography of him, interviews with the writer, meetings with his relatives, blog posts and comments in web chat rooms, a series of jokes about Filipinos in the West, and a first- and third-person narrative that charts Syjuco’s return to the Philippines in search of clues, the book traces and tangles the threads of Salvador and Syjuco’s histories. And, as the search for answers and identity becomes ever more fraught, it finds an echo in the public life of the nation, where a sleaze scandal, a rebellion and an impending typhoon look set to the shake the country to its core.

This is a novel about the search for authenticity – and one that plays this search out on every level. While Syjuco begins the novel ‘unconvinced’ by the accounts he has read and sets himself the task of sifting through the stories to get to the truth of Salvador’s life and death, readers must contend with the multitude of conflicting voices and sources in the book, as well as the protagonist’s self-confessed tendency to embroider the truth by, for example, fabricating a conversation with his neighbour on the plane home. In addition, the trustworthiness of love comes under scrutiny through the prism of Syjuco’s failed relationship with girlfriend Madison – a pairing based on embracing a series of ill-researched, international good causes and a vague Western guilt quite alien to their Filipino roots.

The result is an impressive and complex array of investigations into truth that can often spill over into the world outside the book. In fact, Salvador, whose work comes complete with footnotes in the novel, is such a convincing creation that for a while some readers even believed he existed in real life.

However, it is when it comes to writing that the questions about authenticity become most intense. Throughout the novel, a debate rages about what it means to be a Filipino author: there is the indignant Manila-based writer who maintains that writing in English is ‘heinous’ (more than a slight irony in this book which won the Grand Prize for the Novel in English at the 2008 Palanca Awards), while Salvador himself is on record advocating for dispensing with country boundaries altogether and aiming to be ‘an international writer’ because ‘your real home country will be that common ground your work plows between you and your reader’.

Yet nationality and cultural authenticity aren’t the only hot potatoes when it comes to writing in the novel. As the title of Salvador’s lost exposé, The Bridges Ablaze, suggests, the simple act of putting words on the page can itself be a violent, destructive thing. Throughout the book, storytelling causes rifts and feuds as people feel betrayed by the truths they are forced to confront. This touches on everything from the ridiculous insistence of Grapes and Granma that all their relatives’ work – no matter how remote from their lives – is about them, through to revelations that divide the nation. To write, then, requires fearlessness and even ruthlessness, as Syjuco finds himself reading, and perhaps also writing, in a dream:

‘Whatever they may say, your story is truly your own. You have a responsibility to it, the way a father has to a child. Damn your detractors, your hurt-faced family. They can’t take it away from you.’

The greatest irony is, of course, that the book’s interrogation of storytelling takes place through the medium of some truly outstanding writing. Funny, dexterous and seemingly effortless, Syjuco’s prose (the author… or are protagonist and author one and the same?) is a joy. Reading it is like skimming over deep waters in a speed boat with an expert pilot at the helm. If there are one or two too many daredevil manoeuvres here and there, the thrill of the overall experience more than makes up for it. Top notch.

Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco (Picador, 2010)

Mongolia: a high point

There were two choices in the frame for Mongolia. One was a collection of folk tales picked up at Chinggis Khaan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar by writer friend Emily Bullock. The other was Galsan Tschinag’s The Blue Sky, a book recommended by fellow literary globetrotter Paul.

The folk tales sounded tempting, particularly as, weighing in at just 119 very small pages and with lots of illustrations, they would probably have taken less than an hour to read. However, when I found out more about Galsan Tschinag’s extraordinary life story, my attention was hooked.

Born as Irgit Schynykbajoglu Dshurukuwaa (his name in Tuvan), Tschinag adopted German as his written language during his time studying at the University of Leipzig in the sixties before becoming a singer, storyteller, poet, shaman and Tuvan chief. Angered by the impact of the Communist regime on his people, he led a huge caravan of Tuvans back to their ancestral home in the Altai Mountains and campaigns for the rights of the group to this day. He also apparently managed to cure himself of a life-threatening heart condition using his shamanic powers.

By the time I’d finished reading about him, I couldn’t help feeling that Galsan Tschinag was running Tete-Michel Kpomassie a close second for the title of ‘writer I’d most like to meet’.

Drawing heavily on Tschinag’s childhood, The Blue Sky is the coming of age story of a young shepherd boy in the Altai Mountains. On the face of it, he and his family pursue the nomadic herding ways of life that Tuvans have practised for generations; yet far away in the interior of Mongolia change is afoot with the influence of the Soviet Union prompting seismic shifts that will ripple out to the farthest corners of the country and alter the boy’s life for ever.

Few writers inhabit their characters’ thoughts as convincingly as Tschinag does. Capturing the wonder and weirdness of childhood, he has a gift for bringing us into his protagonist’s hopes and dreams. We share in the boy’s fantasies of becoming a baj by building up a flock of more than 1,000 sheep and his wacky plan to count to that number by assembling 100 people and ticking off their fingers one by one, and they feel real and immediate, and strangely reminiscent of our own childhood imaginings. In addition, we recognise the quirky literalism of childhood – which leaves the boy watching his relatives in bewilderment for signs of their necks twisting after a comment from his mother that their heads have been turned – and the power of make-believe which transforms an eagle sighting into a full-blown attack when the boy tells his parents about his day.

This sense of recognition helps Tschinag bring us close to customs and practices that might otherwise feel irreconcilably alien and strange. Identifying with the boy, we can inhabit his world, where sniffing people is a way of expressing affection, children smoke pipes and urine is a remedy for sore eyes. As Tschinag describes the family’s formal adoption of the mysterious old lady who declares herself the boy’s grandma and the extraordinary rituals carried out to honour and respect animals and nature, it is as though we are sitting round the fire in the yurt with the characters, swapping stories.

As a result it is impossible not to feel connected to and invested in this world – and to bristle like Arsylang the dog at the approach of the outside influences set to destroy it. From very personal instances – such as the return of the boy’s older brother and sister from boarding school for the holidays and the awkwardness that springs up between the once-inseparable siblings – to news that the Mongolian Old White Man of traditional New Year’s celebrations has morphed into the Russian Father Frost, we see everywhere the erosion of this rare way of life. And when his father’s attempt to embrace modern hunting techniques backfires tragically towards the end of the narrative, we feel the full weight of the boy’s grief, not only for his personal loss, but for the passing of belonging, identity and meaning itself.

Achingly sad and yet passionately life-affirming, this book is up there with the very best. It is an extraordinary achievement by a writer skilled at celebrating both the unique and the universal. To read it is to marvel at the variety, beauty and strangeness of the human race – and to feel privileged to be part of it.

The Blue Sky (Der blaue Himmel) by Galsan Tschinag, translated from the German by Katharina Rout (Milkweed Editions, 2006)

Pakistan: the long view

There were lots of choices for Pakistan – and lots of visitors to this blog with opinions about which book I should go for. Writers such as Daniyal Mueenuddin, Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Bapsi Sidhwa came up several times in discussion and I had plenty of possibilities to check out when it came to choosing the work for this post.

However, when I started to research the suggestions, there was one book with such a fascinating story behind it that, when I discovered how it came to be published, I knew I would have to read it. Recommended by both Waqas and blogger Fay, who kindly shared her personal Man Asian Literary Prize shortlist with me, The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad might never have made it into print. In fact, the first draft of the book, which Ahmad wrote in the early seventies, was locked in a trunk for 30 years and presumed lost by its author after it failed to find a publisher in Pakistan. Luckily, as the novelist told Publisher’s Weekly last year, Ahmad’s wife Helga kept the key, and when Ahmad’s brother heard about a literary competition the work was brought out once more and quickly passed to Penguin.

Framed around the life of Tor Baz, an enigmatic nomad living in the border hills of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet during the mid-20th century, the novel reveals a volatile and fragile world. Orphaned young when his parents are killed by their tribe because of their elopement, Baz passes through a range of groups and guardians, eventually carving out a living by selling information to rival factions in the region. Along the way he crosses paths with lonely soldiers, a mad mullah, people traffickers, prostitutes, a naive European in search of his roots and a wife fleeing the tyranny of travelling with her husband’s performing bear. And, as the British Empire retreats and the borders of the region’s newly declared nations take shape and harden, a desperate struggle emerges between the old ways of life and the modern order.

Ahmad’s depiction of the border region’s landscape is extraordinary. Wild, haunting and treacherous, this ‘tangle of crumbling weather-beaten and broken hills’ and the plains beyond it seem to have as much character and agency as the people who make their lives there. The landscape even moulds their personalities, teaching them ‘to be deliberate in their actions and slow in responding to emotions’ with its silence, harsh beauty, 120-day winds, and wide, open spaces across which pursuers can be spotted from miles away.

Yet for all its magnificence and antiquity, the landscape is in many ways little more than a rumpled blanket that can be shaken by external powers, tumbling those upon it into confusion. As a result of the closing of the borders and the political changes in the region in the late fifties, many of the local tribespeople run up against unfamiliar forces with which they must do battle in order to survive. Sometimes, tradition and ancient wisdom gain the upper hand, as when the nameless foreigner ventures into the off-limits Afridi territory of his father’s youth only to die a bewildered death, or the local official sent to challenge the Bhittani tribe over colluding in a kidnapping finds himself locked in a ‘battle of wits’ with the tribesmen and is obliged to give up because ‘he could offer no story to counter the old man’s logic’.

More often though, the traditional ways and those who practise them are warped and broken by the weight of a modern system that leaves no room for ambiguity. As the nomadic, stateless Kharot people discover when they attempt to cross the border to the pastureland their tribe has used for centuries and which their animals need to survive, ‘the pressures were inexorable. One set of values, one way of life had to die’ – and die in the most brutal of circumstances.

Such tragedies bring out Ahmad’s most passionate and beautiful writing. In these moments, his disarmingly stripped-back style – characterised by insights such as ‘hope does not die like an animal – quick and sudden. It is more like a plant, which slowly withers away’ and the description of a murdered Mengal tribesman sliding ‘down in small jerks like a broken doll from the saddle to the ground’ – concentrates itself into powerful direct appeals. Perhaps the most moving of these concerns the execution of seven Baluch tribesmen, who, when asked to explain the murder of some rivals, find that their lengthy discourse on the history of tribal relations in the region holds no power to impress the court. ‘Fables have no use here. They are not evidence,’ says the judge, going on to sentence them to death and paving the way for Ahmad’s most memorable pronouncement on what such decisions cost:

‘What died with them was a part of the Baluch people themselves. A little of their spontaneity in offering affection, and something of their graciousness and trust. That too was tried, sentenced and died with these seven men.’

This is that rare breed of writing that springs from deep love and knowledge of a place and the people who live there. It is not saccharine, picture-postcard sentimentalism, all rose-tinted nostalgia; nor is it explorer’s obsession, tripping over itself in its eagerness to analyse and explain. No: it is a love that has been forged and tempered by years of living in and absorbing a region in all its beauty, brokenness, brutality and brilliance. Astonishing – and well worth the wait.

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad (Penguin, 2011)

Cambodia: the end of an era

Newspapers are not what they used to be. If you’ve had anything to do with the media in the last ten years, you’ll have heard a lot about dumbing down, loss of quality, the death of print and so on. In fact, depending on who you speak to, you might be forgiven for thinking that the whole industry is choking and dying right before our very eyes as we all stand round snapping photos and tweeting about its last moments.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. In fact the search for my Cambodian book reminded me of one of the most exciting things to happen to journalism in recent years.

I was whiling away a quiet moment or two on the Guardian Books site when an article about the Cambodian genocide by Madeleine Thien caught my eye. Thien is a Canadian novelist, so I couldn’t include her book, Dogs at the Perimeter, on my Cambodian list, however, given her expertise on the country, I decided to leave a comment asking if she could recommend something I could read.

Less than two hours later, Thien replied with a full list of suggestions. I was delighted and more than a little surprised. Despite having written for various publications myself, I realised I’d been used to thinking of journalists as somehow operating in a different, parallel universe, a world that readers could not reach.

And yet here was one of these mysterious beings replying to me out of the blue. All of a sudden the article flickering on the screen in front of me seemed to switch from being a closed, finished thing, to an ongoing, evolving process. It was as though, instead of publishing something that was fixed and definitive, Thien had given a seminar in cyberspace and thrown the floor open to questions from the world.

Thien seemed particularly passionate about In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner, a book that was due to come out that very week. ‘I hope this book will find its way to readers everywhere. It is an astonishing novel, brilliant, heartbreaking, and deeply courageous. A truly unforgettable piece of literature,’ she wrote. That was good enough for me.

Inspired by Ratner’s own childhood, the novel tells the story of seven-year-old Raami, a Cambodian princess who is evicted from her luxurious home in Pnomh Penh along with the rest of her family when the Khmer Rouge seize power in 1975. Caught up in the mass exodus from the cities as the regime seeks to eliminate all traces of education, culture, privilege and power, Raami endures four years of hard labour, starvation, abuse and terror in the party’s brutal new rural order – a world where her imagination is her only escape.

Few writers use imagery more richly than Ratner. Whether she is describing the sun yawning and stretching ‘like an infant deity poking its long multiple arms through the leaves and branches’, the gardener covered in butterflies ‘as if he were a tree stalk and his straw hat a giant yellow blossom’, or the way a marsh shimmers ‘as if at any moment it would spit out the sun’, the writer excels at finding arresting ways of bringing experience to her readers. This stands her in particularly good stead when it comes to the darker elements of the story, where the fear and sadness she builds are almost tangible. It also makes the more whimsical passages, particularly the exchanges between Raami and her haunted poet father, marvellous and engrossing where they might be twee and obvious in another author’s work.

Ratner’s consciousness of the value and weight of words is coupled with a profound sense of the importance of storytelling, which runs through the book. Various characters speak about the power of tales to connect people across time and space. Indeed, Raami’s faith in them is such that, in the final moments before he is taken away, she runs after her father begging for one more story, as though the mere act of narrating might be enough to keep him with her and save his life.

Like the novel itself, this belief in the power of telling is rooted in Ratner’s experience. She writes movingly about her motivations for rehearsing her family’s traumatic history through fiction in her ‘Author’s Note’ at the back of the book. The story is, she tells us, ‘in essence, [her] own […], born of [her] desire to give voice to [her father’s] memory, and the memories of all those silenced’.

As such – and given the unrelenting suffering and misery that makes up much of the book – it is perhaps inevitable that the narrative occasionally gets bogged down in emotion. While no doubt true to the experience of many children in such extreme circumstances, Raami’s repeated assertions that she is responsible for all the bad things that happen become a little wearing. There is also a slight problem with the narratological need to keep raising the stakes and ratcheting up the tension when the family has lost nearly everything from day one.

But these are trifling things by comparison to Ratner’s achievement. Looked at as a whole this is a powerful and beautiful debut from a writer committed to finding new ways of telling stories and taking the reader to heart of the matter. The world can always do with more of those.

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner (Simon & Schuster, 2012)

Brunei: reading between the lines

Brunei was looking tricky. Try what combination of search terms I would, there seemed to be no literature in translation from this small, oil-rich nation on Borneo in the South China Sea. The only suggestion I heard of came in the shape of a collection of Dusun folk tales compiled and translated by UK academic Eva Maria Kershaw. It was recommended by Canadian blogger Paul, who said it was the only Bruneian work he had been able to find for his own global literary quest.

I was on the point of buying the book, but something held me back. Nagging away at me was the thought that there must be someone out there who could help me find a written work by a Bruneian author that I could read in English. It was just a question of tracking them down. What I needed was a group of enthusiastic, English-speaking Bruneians who were passionate about promoting their culture and would have the time to circulate my query and, if I was lucky, do a bit of research on my behalf.

The solution came in a flash: students. A quick bit of googling revealed a surprisingly large number of Bruneian students’ associations dotted around the world’s Anglophone countries. I fired off emails to several of them, hunted down a couple of others through Facebook, and sat back to wait.

It didn’t take long. The very next day I got a message from Zuliza, media communications officer at the Bruneian Students’ Association, New Zealand. She wanted to help and asked for more details about the sort of book I was looking for. I answered as best I could.

The weeks went by. I found myself keying ‘Dusun folk tale collection’ into Google in idle moments. Then, at the beginning of August, Zuliza got back to me. She had some good news: she had found a story in the Brunei Times about a Bruneian author who had taken the step of publishing a novel in English in an effort to attract a wider readership for his work. It was available to buy on Amazon. Would it do?

One air punch and a vigorous Highland jig of delight later, I downloaded the novel on to my Kindle and began to read.

Set in France, Four Kings by Christopher Sun (aka Sun Tze Yun) follows American archaeology professor James Hale as he sets out to solve the murder of his best friend. Accompanied by his friend’s distraught and yet disturbingly attractive daughter, the academic plunges into the dizzying world of fine-art investment in an effort to track down a killer with a penchant for priceless artefacts and a habit of leaving playing cards next to each of his victims. But as riots grip the country and the president is forced to consider extreme measures to prevent anarchy, it becomes clear that the deaths may be part of a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top.

This is a book with a clear idea of what it wants to be. From the sensationalist, blood-smattered cover picture, right through to the vital clue that drops out of a copy of The Da Vinci Code halfway through the novel, Sun makes no secret of the fact that he is out to take on the global blockbusters with this, the first in a pentalogy following the adventures of James Hale. There is even a wry dig at the bestselling US author when, picking up the novel with a laugh, detective Darley remarks: ‘It’s nice to know that even sociopathic killers don’t mind reading trash now and then.’

Sadly, though, I don’t think Dan Brown has much to worry about. Although Sun may have big ambitions, his execution is lacking. The plotting is loose, improbable and heavily derivative, with unlikely religious relics such as ‘Jesus’s denarius’ and ‘the Spear of Longinus’ passed around between shadowy figures who materialise and disappear almost randomly. At times, even the characters themselves seem to feel that there is a ludicrous air to events, as when Hale grumbles to himself: ‘This is crazy […]. Why the hell am I the one finding all the damned bodies around here?’

As in QuixotiQ, my Bahraini pick, the Western setting is problematic. Although Sun has made an effort to ground the novel in France, unlike the mid-Atlantic no-man’s-land of QuixotiQ, the context lacks authenticity. Characters with names like Bruno Culruthers, Hugh Jetter and the unfortunately spelled Rouseeau strut around a faceless world that feels more like an airport terminal than a French city.

As with QuixotiQ, however, there is a serious point here. For the second time this year, I have found that the only work I am able to read from a nation with a written tradition is one by a writer who feels he has no option but to try and write a Western novel in English if he is to reach an audience outside his country. According to his Brunei Times interview, Sun has written and published books, cerpen (short stories) and sajak (poems) in his first language, Bahasa Melayu. Now those I really would like to read.

Four Kings by Christopher Sun and Jimmy Chan (CreateSpace, 2011)