Book of the month: Ivana Sajko

Women in Translation Month is a brilliant time for book recommendations. A cursory search on #WITMonth on Twitter invariably brings up a wealth of tempting suggestions, and that’s even without the list of new releases that WITMonth founder Meytal Radzinksi generously shares every year to help promote the reading of translated literature by women and address the imbalance that sees more than 65 per cent of literary works coming into English authored by men.

So it was that I found my August book of the month after a tweet caught my eye. I can’t say what it was about this particular post, or indeed remember who wrote it, but something in the enthusiasm of the words prompted me to seek out Mima Simić’s translation of the oddly titled Love Novel by Croatian writer, theatre director and performer Ivana Sajko.

In spite of the warmth with which I’d seen the book discussed, I nearly didn’t get past the first chapter. Opening in the middle of a fight between the couple whose troubled relationship it follows, the narrative bristled with fury and violence, striking a sharp, angular tone that I wasn’t sure I had the energy to stick with for a whole book, even one as slender as Love Novel (which weighs in at not much more than 100 pages).

It was only the softening at the end of the first chapter – when the unnamed female protagonist, an out-of-work actress, retreats to her child’s bedroom and tries to soothe the toddler with a string of brittle and whimsical claims, and flights of fancy – that made me think I might be missing something and persuaded me to persevere.

I’m very glad I did. Over the following pages, I discovered that this slight book is a work of enormous range. The emotional intensity that had nearly overwhelmed me in the opening chapter was not the relentless, one-note barrage of anger I’d feared but an illustration of Sajko’s extraordinary capacity to suffuse her narrative with the feelings of those she portrays. From the ludicrous to the poignant and the excruciating to the banal, she inhabits her characters’ realities with a freshness that is at times quite astonishing, rendering this story of a couple pushed to breaking point by circumstances largely beyond their control as gripping and engaging as the most high-stakes thriller.

This power probably doesn’t come from Sajko alone. Mima Simić’s ‘Translator’s Note’ at the end, in which she reveals that this story of poverty and struggle is hers too – one lived by almost all those she knows who grew up in the former Yugoslavia – makes clear how invested she is in this project. ‘The world of Ivana Sajko’s Love Novel is my world,’ she says, going on to reveal that the translation process took her more than a year because ‘every time I opened the book, it was like a punch in the gut. A punch by someone I knew, a family member.’

Simić’s description of how hard she worked to overcome the ‘not-quiteness’ of the story’s expression in another language, and her evident commitment to rendering the work as powerfully as possible in English provide an interesting case study for those considering the issue of the direction in which translation should work. (For a long time, the prevailing assumption in the anglophone industry has been that translators ought to translate into their mother tongues, with the result that native English speakers have largely been the ones who win contracts to bring foreign works into the world’s most-published language. Recently, however, a number of people have begun to query this, rightly demonstrating that this can be limiting and short-sighted, restricting the movement of texts and the opportunities open to those working in different languages.)

Love Novel makes a powerful argument for approaching the question on a case-by-case basis. Not only is the power in the writing impressive (although Simić is quick to stress that she doesn’t believe you have to have lived through an experience to translate it well, and I would say the same is true for writers), but there is a quality in the voice that feels distinctive, and which a first-language English speaker may have hesitated to try to achieve.

It’s hard to know how to write about this – the language we have with which to review translations in English is still very underdeveloped and sparse. But while being entirely grammatically correct (with the flexibility that literary writing allows), the text has a striking timbre that seems to complement its subject matter and place of origin. It’s something to do with the cumulative effect of choices that skew its rhythms in a certain direction, accenting the voice. So it is that, as we read about everything from irreverent reflections on how Jesus milked his crucifixion to a nosy neighbour’s grizzly demise in a wheelie bin, the world in which this is all taking place remains present.

Yet, in the way of the best novels, the writing is universal too. One of Sajko’s key methods for achieving this is reflecting psychology at the sentence level, shifting tenses and tumbling from contemplation into action and even hallucination as scenes become fraught. She knows and shows how we think in extreme moments – that peculiar blend of insight and delusion that at once connects us to and separates us from the rest of the world. What’s more, though the experience portrayed in this novel may feel deeply personal and particular to people who lived through it, like Simić, for those of us staring down the barrel of an economic crisis, much of the book will read as scarily fresh and timely.

Brilliant, strange, funny, angry and sad, this is an extraordinary novel. A welcome addition to the anglophone bookshelves. Highly recommended.

Love Novel (Ljubavni roman) by Ivana Sajko, translated from the Croatian by Mima Simić (V&Q Books, 2022)

Picture: ‘Zagreb graffiti’ by duncan c on flickr.com

*Ukraine special* Book of the month: Oleg Sentsov

This month has been an unusual one in my reading life. Shortly after the news of Russian forces invading Ukraine, I took the decision to spend March exploring Ukrainian literature. With the exception of a few non-fiction titles I’m looking at for other writing projects, I devoted my reading time over the following four weeks to books from the nation, drawing my choices from suggestions shared with me on Twitter, posted on other platforms, and published in a rash of recent articles, such as this.

I think it’s the first time I’ve focused on one country for an extended period since I started reading the world. To date, I’ve tended to skip about between nations as my curiosity, research obligations and other people’s recommendations dictate. It was fascinating to dedicate a period of time to a body of writing from a particular region, and see what connections and thoughts this generated.

First, a couple of caveats. It’s important, particularly when talking about literature in translation, not to fall into the visibility trap – the assumption that what is available in English is a representative spread of a community’s stories. The factors that decide which books travel beyond their country of origin’s borders are complicated, various and shifting. Often (as I have discussed previously), the tiny proportion of stories that make it into the world’s most published language from many parts of the world say more about what feels authentic to commissioning editors in London and New York (and what their marketing departments believe people like you and me want to read) than they do about the breadth and character of a particular region’s literature. (Although it is to be hoped that initiatives such as the recent translation drive spearheaded by Tault may do something to change this, at least in Ukraine’s case.)

Broadbrush generalisations, such as the tendency for Ukrainian literature to contain irreverence, humour and the sort of defiant resilience in the face of oppression we have seen reported in many news stories, are easy to make. Indeed, I have encountered numerous examples in recent weeks – from the contrarian heroine of Tanja Maljartschuk’s A Biography of a Chance Miracle, translated by Zenia Tompkins, and the outrageous gangsters who stalk the pages of Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories, translated by Boris Dralyuk, to the quixotic plot to force the EU to grant Ukraine membership by smuggling the entire population through a tunnel into Hungary that forms the premise of Andriy Lyubka’s Carbide, translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler.

What’s more, it would be tempting to say that works such as Carbide – published with the tagline ‘The much anticipated response to Voltaire’s Candide’ – and Yuri Andrukhovych’s Moscoviad, translated by Vitaly Chernetsky and built around a 24-hour binge in Moscow after the manner of James Joyce’s Ulysses, reveal a streak of audacity in Ukrainian writing. Just as Oksana Zabuzhko deconstructs the novel form and language itself in her groundbreaking Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, translated by Halyna Hryn, so these writers appear unafraid of helping themselves to the world’s classics and turning them to their own ends.

Yet, to make claims like this without knowledge of what hasn’t made it through the translation bottleneck would be foolish. It would be to forget that these themes and characteristics may have been part of what made publishers judge these stories to have international appeal – and that collectively they may present a somewhat distorted picture, one that at least partly reflects anglophone interests and concerns. Reading in English as I do, I could not hope to achieve a balanced, comprehensive survey of Ukrainian literature, even if I devoted a year to the project.

So what was I trying to achieve with this kind of targeted reading? For many of those who have scoured the round-ups of Ukrainian literature shared around the web in recent weeks, a desire to understand the horrors unfolding in the nation will have been a key motivation. This is quite natural and certainly anyone who spends time reading translated literature from Ukraine will be left in no doubt as to the complexity and longevity of the tensions that have fuelled this crisis. Perhaps one of the most nuanced and engrossing depictions can be found in Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees, translated by Boris Dralyuk, which comes out in the US this week.

Taking too anthropological or socio-historical an approach to reading makes me uneasy, however. I have never been comfortable with the idea of books speaking for their communities. I don’t think individual stories can be reliable telescopes through which to view life elsewhere. Nor should they be.

So, I decided to return to first principles and remind myself of the ethos that underpinned this project when I launched it ten years ago: curiosity; exploration; accessing voices; seeing what spoke most powerfully to me.

This month, that turned out to be Life Went on Anyway: Stories by Oleg Sentsov, translated by Uilleam Blacker. Put together over email while celebrated film-maker Sentsov was imprisoned in Russia on dubious terrorism charges (he was released as part of a prisoner exchange in 2019), the translation of the collection contains a series of autobiographical pieces centred largely on childhood, plus an opening biography that, according to Blacker, was originally included by mistake.

The simplicity and directness of the writing is disarming. ‘A bit about my personal life: for more than ten years I’ve been living with the same woman. I’m married to her. I have two little kids with her. I love them all,’ runs a section of the erroneously included ‘Autobiography (In Literary Form)’ – in which Sentsov admits that he didn’t take a nine-to-five job on graduating because he’d have murdered his co-workers and that he spent a year ‘ripping people off’ selling herbal products on a market stall.

When he turns this frankness to childhood, the writing soars. The depiction of the bond between a boy and his pet in ‘Dog’, for example, is deeply moving:

‘It was fun to hang out in a gang, but I preferred walking alone in the forest with my dog. They were unforgettable moments. When he searches for you, after you’ve deliberately stayed behind a bit and hidden in the bushes. Searches for you and finds you. And how happy you are when you find each other again after such a brief parting. The dog is happy that he found his master, and the master is happy that he has such a clever dog, and you’re both happy because you love each other and you’re together again.’

This switch into the present tense is a hallmark of the collection. At such moments, it is as though Sentsov turns to the reader to compare notes, saying: ‘you recognise this, don’t you? You’ve been here.’ And even if you haven’t, the power of the writing – the trust and confidence it contains – is strong enough to sweep you into the vision, so that it is as if you too, in your childhood, walked through the woods with your dog.

Humour works to strengthen this connection. This is less the thrawn, irreverent wit we sometimes see celebrated as being distinctively Ukrainian than an affectionate admission of the ludicrousness of human existence, often linked to an awareness of its fragility. In ‘Testament’, for example, the narrator imagines his funeral and the scattering of his ashes in the rain, with a cheeky grandchild peering into the urn to see a clump of Grandpa still hanging on. Similarly, numerous walk-on characters are endowed with quirks that could easily be handled cruelly and yet, through Sentsov’s eyes, seem oddly precious because of their uniqueness and ephemerality. (Witness: Svetka, the talentless would-be singer who sets her sights on stardom decades before the TV screens are thronged with tone-deaf wannabes.)

At root, the writing is driven by a profound empathy that enables Sentsov to inhabit the rounded, conflicted reality of a huge number of the figures who pass through his pages. As he does in ‘Grandma’, he excels at presenting a situation and then taking the reader inside the truth of it, revealing how far from simple even the most bald of statements may turn out to be. In this way, he reveals the workings of some of humanity’s most profound and problematic experiences – from childhood bullying to the development of social conscience, and from the processing of guilt and loss to the passing of time – using his own life and perspective as the lens through which to focus his vision.

For this – to me, at least – is what great stories are. Not explanations. Not studies of human action. Not definitive representations of the experiences of particular groups. But a person saying: here I am in all my silliness, vulnerability, wonder and mystery. And this is how the world looks to me.

Life Went on Anyway: Stories by Oleg Sentsov, translated from the Russian by Uilleam Blacker (Deep Vellum, 2019)

Picture: ‘A Ukrainian flag in the streets of Berlin-Mitte‘ by Felipe Tofani on flickr.com

Book of the month: Jacqueline Harpman

Getting translated into English is a tricky business. An anglophone book deal represents an opportunity for a writer to access a huge international audience because novels that appear in English have a greater chance of securing other language deals. But, with literary translations making up 3 to 5 per cent of publications in much of the English-speaking world, there is a narrow bottleneck to negotiate to achieve this kind of global reach.

For many books, time is of the essence. Editors love novelty and the idea that they are discovering talent before anyone else. As a result, most novels that don’t get picked up for translation in the year following their first publication are unlikely to make it beyond their original language.

Every so often, however – perhaps because of a news event or the efforts of a particularly tenacious champion – an exception breaks through. And sometimes books get several incarnations. Such is the case with Belgian author Jacqueline Harpman’s classic I Who Have Never Known Men, which was published in French in 1995, and first appeared in Ros Schwartz’s translation as The Mistress of Silence in 1997, before being republished under the more direct translation of its title in 2019, seven years after its author’s death.*

I was lucky enough to interview Ros Schwartz for the Royal Literary Fund’s Writers Aloud podcast some months ago. In a metaphor that feels uncannily resonant for the times we are living through, she used the French word ‘passeur’ to explain what translators do. ‘Passeurs were people who helped refugees escape during the war,’ she told me. ‘[A translator is] a passeur, a ferry if you like, between cultures.’

The image of the passeur is also relevant to Harpman’s novel. Narrated by a nameless girl who is one of 39 female prisoners held in a subterranean cage until the day an alarm sounds, leading the guards to flee while the door is open, the novel explores exile and alienation. Left to wander a deserted landscape that they cannot even be sure is Planet Earth, the women piece together the fragments they discover to try to understand what has happened to them and how to survive until the bitter truth finally reveals itself.

The richness and depth with which Harpman inhabits her narrator’s experience is astonishing. Indeed, it is no surprise that she was a psychoanalyst, for she presents the psychological shifts with which the protagonist encounters her predicament incredibly vividly. Those of us who have lived through lockdowns will recognise the truth in the heightened sensitivity you develop and the greater significance small events and objects take on when your world shrinks. Similarly, it is fascinating how thoroughly Harpman brings to life the experience of living without timekeeping devices and the ingenious way the narrator adapts to this.

The novel is also a powerful portrait of how we try to make sense of things – the ways we attempt to read situations we lack the necessary contextual information to understand. As so many of us do when confronted with texts that work differently to the kinds of stories we are used to, the women in the novel draw on their own limited knowledge to plug the gaps in their comprehension of this strange new world.

In the case of the narrator, who has been imprisoned since she was an infant and knows little of adult human civilization, this tendency is particularly clearly demonstrated in the naive fantasies she constructs around the young guard who keeps watch over the cage. Ignorant of the mechanics of sexual relationships, she tells herself stories that blend scraps of information with instinct and guesswork to bring about a mysterious ‘eruption’ in her maturing body. ‘This was extremely difficult because I was simultaneously the inventor of the story, the narrator and the listener awaiting the shock of the unexpected.’

Indeed, exploring the potential and purpose of storytelling forms an increasingly urgent theme. Repeatedly, along with questions about what defines human existence, the novel invites us to consider what a text is and what it does. Towards the end of the book, the narrator, who, we learn, is writing the account we’re reading, reflects on the strange alchemy that happens when someone reads a story: ‘The reader and I thus mingled will constitute something living, that will not be me, because I will be dead, and will not be that person as they were before reading, because my story, added to their mind, will then become part of their thinking.’

Yet, even as she examines storytelling, Harpman resists many of its conventions. There is a playful irreverence at work sometimes in the text: ‘Underneath, there were several items,’ writes the narrator at one point. ‘[…] But I shan’t go into the difficulties I had in identifying and naming all these things because that would be too tedious and I wouldn’t enjoy it.’ The reader’s curiosity is just one factor in the crafting of this story; this text must also serve its author’s pleasure.

At other points, the narrative seems to critique itself: ‘So few things happened during all those years of walking. I found the bus, I lost the road, I arrived here.’ It is almost as though Harpman is taunting the reader with her refusal to bow to plot conventions by withholding the revelations and resolutions the setup seems to demand. Indeed, on the face of it, this is a profoundly bleak and open-ended book.

To read it this way, though, would be to miss the subtleties at work beneath the surface that bring about the very transformation the protagonist claims reading is capable of effecting. For in being worked upon by Harpman and Schwartz’s fine words, we find ourselves changed from passive bystander to active participant. The story we hold in our hands may be a lonely one. But the fact that we are able to read it and enter into its protagonist’s strange experiences conveys a message of profound hope.

I Who have Never Known Men (Moi qui n’ai pas connu les hommes) by Jacqueline Harpman, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz (Vintage, 2019)

Picture: ‘Tundra Landscape‘ by Alaska Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on flickr.com

*Corrected on 1 March 2022 to include details of the earlier edition.

Book of the month: Anonymous


Does the identity of an author change how we read a book?

In some cultures, this question would make little sense. In many oral storytelling traditions (with examples on this blog including books I read for the Marshall Islands and Niger during my 2012 quest), the notion of authorship, and the distinction between fact and fiction are fairly irrelevant. 

For those of us immersed in the anglophone tradition, however, these issues often matter a great deal. A few years ago, I found myself sitting on a funding committee trying to decide whether to give a grant to a publisher planning to bring out a translation of a collection of stories thought to have been written by an author inside North Korea. For many around the table, the question of whether the manuscript really had been smuggled out of the totalitarian state was the key factor in deciding whether or not to award the money. (The book got the grant in the end and Deborah Smith’s translation of Bandi’s The Accusation came out in 2017, featuring a note from publisher Serpent’s Tail making it clear that it was impossible to be 100 per cent certain of the book’s origins.)

As a writer, I find this focus on author identity troubling. The purist in me would like to believe that a work speaks for itself. In the Bandi discussion, I was firmly on the side of supporting the grant on the basis that the extract I read was well written, thoroughly imagined and fresh, regardless of who wrote it.

Yet I keep encountering questions books that challenge this approach. And when it comes to stories that are supposed to be factual accounts, things get even more complicated.

My latest Book of the month is a case in point. Published in Philip Boehm’s translation in the early 2000s, more than forty years after it first appeared in the US and then in Germany, the anonymously authored A Woman in Berlin throws up so many questions about identity and the relationship between who we are and what we tell.

On the face of it, the book is a diary, recording the experiences of a thirty-something-year-old Berlin woman between 20 April 1945, shortly before the death of Hitler, and 22 June 1945, by which time life under Allied rule had begun to assume some sort of shape. Written with extraordinary frankness, the text documents the horrors that unfolded over those two months, as Russian troops drew closer and captured Berlin, looting and laying waste, and subjecting hundreds of women to repeated assaults and rapes.

The subject matter is as extraordinary as it is harrowing. The early entries crackle with sickening tension as civilians await their fate. Everyday details about the business of surviving in a besieged, war-torn city under a failing regime – fetching water, scavenging for firewood, finding that tokens have been introduced to make people ineligible to board the collapsing tram system – dominate, making the flashes of foreboding all the more shocking by contrast. Along with the narrator, we live through the tedium and terror of those last few days of life as she’s known it.

When the crisis comes, and the Russians arrive and begin to wreck havoc, the writing rises to meet it. By turns arresting in its frankness and powerful in its omissions, it brings home the full force of the horrors it presents. Unflinching accounts of individual attacks exist alongside euphemistic references to bed sheets needing a wash ‘after all those booted guests’. 

A novel might have stopped there, after the first wave of atrocities, and jumped forward to a later stage in the protagonist’s life, attempting to present some sort of resolution or assimilation of these experiences. But, this being a diary, the entries continue, one horror piling upon another as the weeks grind by. And as they do so, they reveal extraordinary things: humour, resilience, the strange camaraderie that collective trauma brings. The women share jokes and commune with one another’s suffering, often without needing to rehearse what they have been through, and we learn with them how shared experience creates an understanding that transcends words.

There are extraordinary reflections on the human condition and the larger significance of these events too. Consider this passage, in which the narrator writes about the struggle to find meaning and a reason to carry on in the face of the loss of almost all she once held dear:

‘I long ago lost my childhood piety, so that God and the Beyond have become mere symbols and abstractions. Should I believe in Progress? Yes, to bigger and better bombs. The happiness of the greater number? Yes, for Petka and his ilk. An idyll in a quiet corner? Sure, for people who comb out the fringes of their rugs. Possessions, contentment? I have to keep from laughing, homeless urban nomad that I am. Love? Lies trampled on the ground. And were it ever to rise again, I would always be anxious I could never find true refuge, would never again dare hope for permanence.

Perhaps art, toiling away in the service of form? Yes, for those who have the calling, but I don’t. I’m just an ordinary labourer, I have to be satisfied with that. All I can do is touch my small circle and be a good friend. What’s left is just to wait for the end. Still, the dark and amazing adventure of life beckons. I’ll stick around, out of curiosity, and because I enjoy breathing and stretching my healthy limbs.’

The historian Antony Beevor writes in his introduction that the diary’s literary merit has been one of the reasons people have questioned its authenticity, citing the striking images the writer often uses as stumbling blocks that make some readers doubt its provenance. In actual fact, it’s not the images but the perspective that sometimes looms through the writing that is problematic. There is an expansiveness in some of these reflective passages that challenges the notion that they were written day by day in the thick of the events they describe. The level of analysis and self-awareness the writer achieves sits awkwardly with the image of her scribbling frantically in a notebook disguised as an aide-memoire for Russian vocabulary to prevent the conquerors from destroying it.

The afterword from the German editor goes some way to explain this tension: the diary was not published as it was originally written but reworked and edited by its author in the years before its first publication. Many of those more expansive, longer-lensed reflections may well have been developed after the fact. 

Had the author wanted to be involved in the republication of her work, several decades after its initial, patchy reception, it is conceivable that she might have reworked it further into the through-written memoir that seems to hover just below the surface here. Yet, it is understandable that she preferred not to rake over the coals of what must have been a painful publishing experience – although it is a shame she did not live to see the impact her words had on the world when the book was finally rereleased. 

Is the diary genuine? I can’t be sure. But perhaps this is fitting. Maybe a text that goes so much to the heart of identity should not sit snugly in the form assigned to it. Is this what people are? this book asks. Is this is what we turn out to be made of when every last social grace and nicety is stripped away? Maybe no form of storytelling can adequately contain these questions.

A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous, translated from the German by Philip Boehm (Virago, 2018)

Picture: ‘Imagen tomada durante la ocupación soviética de Berlín’ by Claude753 on Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.

Book of the month: Graeme Armstrong

Earlier this month, I had the honour of being Literary Explorer in Residence at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, one of the biggest events in the UK’s literary calendar. Created as part of a three-year focus on the theme ‘Read the World’, my role saw me taking part in 18 events over five days, including launching my new Incomprehension Workshop for adventurous readers and delivering a keynote speech, which you can catch on the #CheltLitFest Player until the end of this year.

The experience led to many memorable moments and fascinating conversations. These included a discussion about crime fiction around the world with international bestseller Ragnar Jónasson, Indian mystery writer Manjiri Prabhu and crime-writing critic and novelist Joan Smith, and an event on what reading the world means with novelist Clare Clark, academic Helen Vassallo, who writes the brilliant Translating Women blog, and translator and social researcher Gitanjali Patel.

I was also delighted to catch up with teams from several of the small publishers my reading adventures have brought me into contact with over the years. Representatives from Istros Books, Charco Press and Europa Editions UK all joined me on the stage in the Huddle to talk about their work championing literature from elsewhere (indeed, the Europa team are in many ways responsible for the continuation of this blog, having prompted me to start my Book of the month slot by persuading me to read the work of a little-known – in English – Italian writer called Elena Ferrante back in 2014).

Of all the conversations I had at Cheltenham, however, one in particular stands out in my mind. It was with Scottish writer Graeme Armstrong, author of the bestselling and award-winning novel The Young Team, only the third UK title I’ve featured in ten years of writing this blog.

Drawing on Armstrong’s experience of gang culture in North Lanarkshire, Scotland, The Young Team tells the story of Azzy Williams, who grows up in a post-industrial wasteland of deprivation, addiction, sectarianism and violence. Narrated by Azzy at the age of 14, 17 and 21, it charts his rise through and eventual fall out of the ranks of the Young Team, taking the reader into the heart of a cycle of neglect and abuse that most mainstream storytelling prefers to ignore.

The book is not an easy read in many senses. In addition to the profanity and violence that fill its pages, it is written in dialect – something that was a key factor in the book being rejected some 300 times before it found a publishing deal. Armstrong explores his desire to write in this way powerfully in his article ‘Standard English is oor Second Language’.

Comparisons to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting are obvious – and indeed Armstrong cites reading that book as one of the key inspirations that prompted him to leave gang life and study to be a writer. However, it’s important not to let the Welsh parallel detract from Armstrong’s achievement: in finding a written framework for his mother tongue (as opposed to the east Scottish dialect of Welsh’s novels), he has not only created a new mode of expression but breathed fresh poetry into written English, even as the language strains and cracks to contain the narrative’s voice. (The audiobook, narrated by Armstrong, adds another level to this, even featuring lusty renditions by the author of several Orange marching songs.)

The writing has an extraordinarily compelling, immersive quality. Whether he’s describing tripping at a rave, acting up in school or beating up members of a rival gang, Armstrong captures all the colours of the experiences he portrays. We feel not only the pain and the pity of many of the situations he presents but the humour too, and even the thrill. (‘That was our Vietnam,’ Armstrong told me someone he knows once said, looking back on their shared years in the gang.)

For Armstrong, though, storytelling is about more than simply evoking experience. Now involved with anti-violence and addiction-recovery campaigns, he makes no secret of his ambition to use his writing to effect change. The novel declares this too: each section begins with a striking statistic or piece of research focusing on violence, suicide, deprivation or addiction levels in his home region. At times, it almost has an essay-like quality, with points made, and then illustrated and backed up by the events that follow.

As a result, the pacing takes on an unusual quality in the second half of the book. The fizz and thrill of the early chapters, as we see the young Azzy embrace gang life, dissipate. Instead of the ratcheting up of tension and pace we might expect in a more traditionally plotted book, the narrative takes on a heavier, more contemplative tone. Armstrong has no intention of providing a neat pay off. We are forced to confront the messy consequences of what has gone before and to dwell with Azzy in the aimless brokenness that leads many in his community to be drained of all hope and vitality at 21, whether we like it or not.

This book is not an easy read, but it was never meant to be. As with the first UK book I featured on this blog back in 2012, albeit in a very different way, it forced me to confront the glaring disparity between my reality and the lives of those only a few hundred miles from my front door – the many worlds my nation contains. Its message is too urgent to be anything but uncomfortable. After all, as someone remarked after my conversation with Armstrong in Cheltenham, not many book festival events end with the sentence: ‘Literature saved my life.’

The Young Team by Graeme Armstrong (Picador, 2020)

Book of the month: Aleko Konstantinov

One of the extraordinary things about reading books from other cultures is encountering beloved literary figures that have been points of reference for whole nations or language groups but remain unknown to most English speakers. This first happened to me back during my original 2012 quest when I read an unpublished translation of the Mozambican classic Ualalapi and was blown away by its portrayal of the legendary leader Ngungunhane, a towering character with every bit as much tragic power as King Lear or Okonkwo.

Learning about these well-known cultural figures feels a bit like seeing a streetlamp flickering on to reveal a massive monument where before you saw only darkness. It is a startling reminder of how much we miss when we stay within the boundaries of a single language’s literary output.

I had a similar experience reading my latest book of the month, Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian by Aleko Konstantinov, translated by Victor A. Friedman, Christina E. Kramer, Grace E. Fielder and Catherine Rudin. The title came onto my radar when translator Christina E. Kramer, a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Toronto, emailed me about it, mentioning that this was the first English-language version of this nineteenth-century classic, which has long been translated into most other European languages. Intrigued, I plunged in and made the acquaintance of the extraordinary title character some 125 years after he first appeared between the pages of a book.

The work is styled as a novel, but it is really a collection of satirical short stories all featuring the maddening, endearing and sometimes callous rascal Bai Ganyo. Like many nineteenth-century anglophone books, these stories were originally serialised in magazines and newspapers. Indeed, this edition contains several more pieces than appeared in the original collection, published in 1895. As such, an overarching narrative progression is largely absent, although there is a shift in tone, which the translators have recognised by dividing the book into two parts. The first contains a series of light-hearted accounts of Bai Ganyo’s bungling attempts to hawk rose oil in various European cities, narrated by a group of friends vying to amuse one another; the second, much darker section records his cynical attempts to capitalise on corruption when he returns home.

This is an interesting book to read at a time when nationalism is on the rise in many parts of the world because of the way it problematises the concept. While the Bai Ganyo of the first part of the book is staunchly and almost blindly patriotic, the behaviour he and many of the Bulgarians he meets on his travels demonstrate is far from admirable. Indeed, Konstantinov presents many often witty but nonetheless harsh criticisms of national characteristics from jibes at cleanliness and table manners (‘when a Bulgarian slurps, it’s no joke. Three hundred dogs at each other’s throats can’t drown him out’) to portrayals of widespread venality and systemic corruption. Small wonder that while Bai Ganyo and his creator are so celebrated that in 2003 they were depicted on Bulgaria’s 100-lev note, ‘the idea that Bai Ganyo could be construed as representative of a national type is a source of embarrassment,’ as the introduction explains.

It’s often said that humour is hard to translate, yet in this book it comes through loud and clear. As many of the jokes in the first section arise from farcical happenings and physical comedy, there is a universality and immediacy to them that transcends language. Indeed, there is a crudeness to several of the anecdotes (which feature, among other things, a train decked out with soiled nappies instead of flags and an extended search for the toilet) that makes this book seem to come from quite another era than the buttoned-up English-language novels of the late-Victorian period. The most successful passages, however, concern misunderstandings that arise from Bai Ganyo’s naive optimism – as when he pitches up at the house of a world expert on Bulgaria in Prague and presumes he will be welcomed as an honoured guest simply because he hails from the nation.

Many of the later, darker sections will hit home for English speakers too. In an age of fake news and claims of election rigging, it is chilling to read of Bai Ganyo’s nakedly cynical attempts to intimidate voters and found a newspaper for financial gain.

For all its recognisable elements, however, this is not an easy read. The second part becomes relentlessly bleak and cynical at times. There is also the challenge of numerous references to nineteenth-century Bulgarian political and cultural figures whose names will mean nothing to most English speakers. Friedman et al have done their best to elucidate these with footnotes (an understandable choice for a book translated by academics and published by a university press), but these may have an alienating effect for general readers not used to being dragged out of a story to be given context. Even with this background information, the significance of some of the most involved passages may not land for those without detailed knowledge of the Bulgaria of the time.

All the same, readers willing to make the effort (and accept the possibility that some of its elements may not reveal themselves easily, if at all) will find that this book introduces a memorable and striking literary figure whose influence continues to exert itself more than a century after he burst onto the world stage. To make Bai Ganyo’s acquaintance is to come to understand something about the humour and self-image not only of his home country but of humanity as a whole. It’s not an entirely comfortable experience, but memorable encounters rarely are.

Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian by Aleko Konstantinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Victor A. Friedman, Christina E. Kramer, Grace E. Fielder and Catherine Rudin (University of Wisconsin Press, 2010)

Book of the month: Bogdan Teodorescu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book of the month: Bessora / Barroux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

Book of the month: Antti Tuomainen

I heard about my latest featured read through book blogger Marina Sofia. If you don’t know her blog, Finding Time to Write, I’d recommend checking it out. Not only does she read extremely widely and rapidly, but she writes exceptionally perceptively about books. Her site is a treasure trove for those keen to find compelling stories, often from beyond the anglophone sphere.

Browsing the blog a few weeks ago, a post mentioning Finnish writer Antti Tuomainen caught my eye. Marina Sofia had particularly enjoyed the crime writer’s recent forays into black comedy, she wrote. Indeed, his ability to uncover the humour in dark situations was something she was keen to emulate in her work.

Intrigued, I checked out Tuomainen’s back catalogue. Several of the titles piqued my interest, but in the end The Man Who Died, translated by David Hackston, snared me with a killer premise: on a visit to his doctor, 37-year-old mushroom entrepreneur Jaakko discovers that not only is he dying but that his death is the result of a long campaign of poisoning that will soon cause his organs to shut down. Determined to find his murderer before he is silenced forever, he embarks on an investigation into everyone and everything he thinks he knows.

Tuomainen writes in the acknowledgements that the novel marked a turning-point in his career when, after five very dark books, he felt the need to lighten the mood and set out to write something that would enable him to ‘laugh a bit’. He certainly didn’t hold back: brimming with bizarre twists and grotesque incidents, the novel is in many ways an unashamed farce. Credibility is quickly left far behind but that hardly matters – we are swept on by a lovely playfulness, almost as if, with each turn of the screw, we can see Tuomainen rubbing his hands in glee at the thought of what comic incident he can cook up next.

The comedy works at the sentence-level too. Sly jabs at pretensions and hypocrisy abound, and there are some deliciously absurd descriptions. We learn, for example, that Jaakko’s wife Taina’s meals ‘aren’t the kind in which a teaspoon of celery purée stares dejectedly across the plate at a solitary sprig of wheatgrass’, while one of the henchman of a business rival appears to have discovered a way to body-build his own head. The narrator also maintains a thrawn detachment from events – a function perhaps of his shock confrontation with his mortality – which enables him to step back and see the silly side even in extreme circumstances.

It’s no surprise to learn that Tuomainen was a copywriter before he turned his hand to fiction. There is a lovely clarity and precision to Hackston’s translation that points to the sort of economy of expression that often comes from being paid by the word. (British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie is the exception that proves the rule here – he cut his teeth coming up with phrases such as ‘naughty but nice’ and Aero’s ‘irresistibubble’ but his novels, while they are many things, certainly cannot be called concise!)

Nevertheless, this is not a perfect book (if such a thing exists). Clear and direct as it often is, the prose sometimes tends towards the bald and obvious. Tuomainen also seems to struggle a little with portraying physical movement – many of the more violent episodes are tricky to follow not simply because of their outlandish nature but because of the awkwardness with which they are described. Some of the justifications, transitions and resolutions are also a little convenient, cursory or abrupt, as though, in his impatience to get to the next reveal or belly laugh, Tuomainen cannot be bothered with boring authorial housework.

But who needs perfection when you can have fun, compulsion and plenty of surprises along the way? If you’re looking for an entertaining read to make the long winter evenings fly by, this is one for you.

The Man Who Died (Mies joka kuoli) by Antti Tuomainen, translated from the Finnish by David Hackston (Orenda, 2017)

Picture by Aleksey Gnilenkov on Flickr.com

Book of the month: Juan Marsé

I love meeting translators. Having built their careers around enabling people to access the work of other writers – lending readers their eyes, as I describe it in my book Reading the World – they are often very generous, knowledgeable and fascinating.

Nick Caistor is a case in point. With a string of famous works to his name, including novels by Paulo Coehlo, José Saramago and Dominique Sylvain, this three-time Premio-Valle-Inclán-winner and former BBC World Service Latin America editor is a mine of insights and stories. When I met him to record a (yet-to-be-released) podcast for the Royal Literary Fund this month, we had a wonderful discussion about the frustrations and joys of helping literature to travel, topped off by a delicious lunch from a Brazilian stall on the street market near his London flat.

Caistor’s kindness didn’t end there. A few days later, a package dropped onto my doormat: his recent translation of Spanish Cervantes prize-winner Juan Marsé’s Esa puta tan distinguida (or The Snares of Memory, as Caistor has rendered it in English).

The premise is intriguing. In 1980s Barcelona, a writer is hired to create a film script based around the murder of a prostitute in a cinema projection booth more than thirty years before. In his efforts to achieve authenticity, the writer seeks out the convicted murderer, one Fermín Sicart, and, over the course of a series of taped discussions, attempts to get to the bottom of the crime. There is a problem, however. Though Sicart accepts his guilt, he cannot recall why he killed his victim. As the writer tries to grope his way towards an understanding of his subject, he is forced to interrogate his own motives and methods for translating this gruesome episode to the silver screen.

The book is surprisingly funny. Helped along by abrupt shifts in register that reliably undercut the writer’s loftier reflections, a strong current of bathos and formidable housekeeper Felisa, who has no compunction about interrupting the narrator’s work to harangue him about his unhealthy habits, offer her opinions or subject him to another of her ‘riddles’ taken from classic films, the narrative is extremely entertaining.

This is nowhere more true than during the passages in which the writer reflects on the difficulties and compromises of the creative process. For a fellow novelist, the section describing five hours spent crossing out sentences in a handful of barely legible pages is particularly enjoyable (not to say reassuring!). There is also a lot of fun in the passages that skewer the Spanish film industry. Beholden to politics and funding issues, the project lurches from one director and producer to another, morphing dramatically with each shift so that the writer is constantly obliged to reframe his vision in light of considerations that have nothing to do with the quality of the work.

The humour in no way detracts from the rigour and beauty of the prose, however. Indeed, Marsé and Caistor’s descriptions of writing and the mechanisms of self-censorship are among the most memorable I’ve read. In showing how ‘the story came to me from an undeniable personal tragedy, but was also rooted in the fraught memory of the dark days of the dictatorship, the resentment, humiliation, pain and desire for revenge that still persisted in many different guises in the collective subconscious’, the narrative makes the particular universal – one of the hallmarks of great literature.

Rather than getting in the way, the human elements of the story – the writer’s fretting about money, Sicart’s flashes of forgetfulness, and Felisa’s complaints about clearing up cigarette butts – elevate the work. They imbue the novel with life, allowing us to experience the emotional reality of the ideas it explores rather than simply presenting them on the page, while the intrigue of the plot draws us on.

‘Haven’t I told you a thousand times that the black or noir novel as they call it in French is the best way to investigate social conflicts, explore the human condition, to denounce implacably the injustices and corruption of our society?’ remarks an incidental character in a doctor’s waiting room midway through the book. In Marsé’s hands, this is certainly true.

The Snares of Memory (Esa puta tan distinguida) by Juan Marsé, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor (MacLehose Press, 2019)