Elena Ferrante translates beautifully to TV

I owe a lot to Italian literary sensation Elena Ferrante (and her English-language translator Ann Goldstein). Had it not been for the first of her Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend, I might not have continued to review international literature on this blog after my 2012 year of reading the world came to an end.

The fact that I did so is testimony to the power of Ferrante’s work. I encountered it when Daniela Petracco at Ferrante’s English-language publisher, Europa Editions, contacted me about the Neapolitan series in 2014. I tried the first novel and was hooked. More, I knew I had to tell people about the books. And so my regular Book of the Month slot was born.

Last night, I had another Ferrante-related treat. I got the chance to preview the first episode of the eight-part adaptation of My Brilliant Friend in advance of its release on Sky Atlantic next week. I loaded up the episode and sat down on the sofa with that mixture of excitement and trepidation that reimaginations of loved books often inspire. Would this new incarnation do justice to Ferrante’s masterpiece? Would the onscreen world match my picture of it? And would the spirit of the story of the friendship between Lila and Elena in the brutal world of mid-20th century Naples thrive in this new medium?

Yes, is the short answer. The menace that so absorbed me in my first encounter with My Brilliant Friend is very much in evidence. Director Saverio Costanzo expertly captures the sense of threat woven through Ferrante’s story, using darkness, stillness and silence interspersed by short bursts of violent action and noise. Many of the most memorable episodes, such as Melina’s breakdown during the departure of her married lover and the savage punishment meted out by Don Achille to a man who speaks against him, throb with vitality.

This power is augmented by the use of observation and overlooking in the episode. The apartment building that provides the setting for much of the action is brilliantly chosen: from its small metal balconies, as in Ferrante’s novel, the inhabitants watch, hear and comment upon their neighbours’ dramas, providing an arresting visual metaphor for the claustrophobic poverty in which they live.

The quieter moments are compelling too. Some of the most striking scenes occur in the classroom, where Lila’s brilliance and unruliness make her at once powerful and vulnerable, particularly when she is obliged to pit her wits against rivals. Here, scenes often run longer than they might in other series, relying on Ludovica Nasti and Elisa Del Genio, the superbly cast child actors, to hold viewers’ attention.

It is also a delight to witness the story unfolding in its original language (with English subtitles). Although I imagined my way into Lila and Elena’s world through Goldstein’s translation, there was a magic in hearing the events presented in Italian. This was particularly true for the voiceover sections, which in common with many novel adaptations, such as Bruce Miller’s recent version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, are lifted, at least partly, from the book.

Four years after I first visited Ferrante’s Naples, I found myself falling in love with it all over again. I’ll certainly be tuning in for episode two.

Episode one of My Brilliant Friend, directed by Saverio Costanzo, airs on Sky Atlantic on 19 November at 9pm.

Book of the month: Sofi Oksanen

This book has been on my radar for a long time. I almost wrote that it has been on my TBR mountain since Lola Rogers’s English translation first came out in 2010, but of course that isn’t the case. Back then, when my reading was limited almost exclusively to the products of anglophone writers, this novel would have passed me by.

Still, it was one of the recommendations I got when I asked the world to give me its book suggestions back in 2012. Nearly seven years later, with the help of a nudge from simonlitton on Twitter, I finally got round to Purge by Sofi Oksanen.

The story starts in 1992 when elderly Estonian villager Aliide Truu finds a bedraggled young woman, Zara, in her yard. Against her better judgement, and in spite of her fear that she could be the victim of a trick, she takes the visitor in. The uneasy interaction that follows initiates a slow unfolding of painful personal and national histories, revealing the loyalties and betrayals that link the two characters and making possible a kind of redemption that they might never have been able to achieve individually.

At its best, Oksanen and Rogers’s writing is powerful and spare. Using details adroitly, the narrative sweeps readers back and forth over decades, delivering some profoundly evocative scenes along the way. There are moments of great poignancy, as when we read about Aliide catching sight of the man she falls in love with, in the instant before he sets eyes on her beautiful older sister.

There is also horror. The description of the way trafficked girls passing out of service become canvases for the aspiring tattoo artist who controls them inks itself onto the imagination. Similarly, Oksanen presents the process by which victims internalise abuse and can grow to hate others who have experienced such violations with memorable clarity.

Often the source of the book’s power lies in Oksanen’s awareness of when to stop writing. The most shocking scene in the novel works by galloping the reader towards its terrible conclusion and then stopping just short of the brutal act towards which it has been racing, like a horse refusing a jump, so that the reader is bucked into the hideous conclusion of the scene alone. Reticence also adds a great deal to the account of the following day, when the traumatised women and Aliide’s young niece return home to eat ‘their pancakes with rubber lips, glass eyes shiny and dry, waxed cloth skin dry and smooth’. By refusing to address what has happened directly, Oksanen conveys the ruination of their domestic peace much more effectively than a frank explanation could do.

This approach also works when it comes to the numerous historical events upon which the narrative touches. The Chernobyl disaster is a good example. Although it is  a relatively small component in the overall narrative arc, Oksanen makes it count by seizing on a few arresting details to bring home its monstrous impact:

‘Later Aliide heard the stories of fields covered in dolomite and trains filled with evacuees, children crying, soldiers driving families from their homes, and strange flakes, strangely glittering, that filled their yards, and children trying to catch them as they fell, and little girls wanting to wear them in their hair for decoration, but then the flakes disappeared, and so did the children’s hair.’

The writing is not always this good. There are some questionable adjectives and places where repetitions feel clumsy (impossible for me to know whether this was the case in the original). There are also a few too many similes that don’t work hard enough to earn their place. In addition, Oksanen (and I’m pretty certain this must be down to her unless Rogers did some substantial rewriting when she translated the novel) has a habit of finishing scenes with a single-sentence detail about an insect or bird on the fringes of the action. It can be very effective, but she uses this device a little too often and by the middle of the book it’s rather wearing.

The structural daring of the book also makes for the occasional wobble. Now and then, cutting back and forth across the decades necessitates the inclusion of some expository passages that jar with the narrative’s usual reticence. In particular, the extracts from the notebook of Aliide’s brother-in-law Hans feel bald to the point of functional a lot of the time.

Issues like this are almost inevitable, however, in books of such ambition. They certainly don’t spoil the ride. This novel is as engrossing as it is important, shedding light on a side of history too often neglected in the English-speaking world. Oksanen should be congratulated for the risks she takes – when they pay off, as they do most of the time, she is hard to beat.

Purge (Puh-distus) by Sofi Oksanen, translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers (Atlantic, 2011)

Picture: ‘Room III Patarei Prison’ by Raimo Papper on flickr.com

Book of the month: Tarjei Vesaas

Another recommendation from blog visitors provided September’s book of the month. Back in 2017, CJ Fearnley left a comment alerting me to Norwegian poet and novelist Tarjei Vesaas’s 1963 classic The Ice Palace and sharing a link to an essay he had written about it. A year later, Ragnhild nudged me about it again in response to my review of the work of another Nynorsk writer, Carl Frode Tiller.

Impressed that two visitors should have been moved to recommend the work of a novelist writing half a century ago in a language form that is the official written system for only around twelve per cent of Norway’s population, I resolved to check out Vesaas’s most famous work.

Charting the effect of a young girl’s disappearance on a rural community, The Ice Palace is, on the surface, a very simple book. It is told largely from the perspective of eleven-year-old Siss, who begins to befriend the oddly self-sufficient Unn after she moves in with her aunt and begins to attend Siss’s school. But when Unn ventures off to visit the palace of the title – a fantastical natural construction that forms around a nearby waterfall each winter – and fails to return, questions about her whereabouts and the conversation she had with Siss the evening before she disappeared start to show up cracks in the smooth surface of village life.

At first, the book’s simplicity can make it seem a little underwhelming. Opening with Siss’s first visit to Unn’s aunt’s house, the novel consists for some pages of little more than awkward conversations and false starts as the two girls struggle to navigate the strange affinity that they feel – so much so that Siss is sometimes ‘forced to talk nonsense in her perplexity’. Although the dynamics are beautifully judged, there is an oddly aimless feel to the narrative, as though the story is drifting along in spite of itself.

However, just as the lake water gathers pace as it is sucked towards the waterfall, so the story gains momentum as the book advances. As soon as Unn wanders off and discovers the dazzling and treacherous ice palace, Vesaas has us firmly in his thrall. The writing here, as the little girl ventures further into the labyrinth and begins to succumb to hypothermia and its attendant hallucinations is extraordinary. Readers will find elements of nightmarish dream sequences, fables and their own fears refracted through the glittering walls – Bluebeard meets Alice in Wonderland amid the weird manoeuvres of the subconscious. Through it all, the terrible allure of self-destruction shimmers, making the impossible contradictions that lie at the heart of human existence plain.

Much like the story, the novel’s language is deceptively simple. Although the writing is often spare, it frequently stretches words in surprising ways in an effort to contain its subject matter. Credit must go here to translator Elizabeth Rokkan for the work she has done to produce a text that is compelling and urgent even as it veers between tenses and perspectives, and sometimes flouts rules for good writing.

Whereas many writers strive to avoid tautology, repetition and double negatives, Vesaas and Rokkan use them as tools, often to communicate characters’ mental tics or patterns of thinking. This sentence from the section where Unn wanders off is a good example:

‘Her words seemed like fences alongside the road to school; it was difficult to climb over them, and they led straight to school.’

Here, the repetition of ‘school’ deftly conveys the way that Unn’s thoughts are dragged back and back to place she is avoiding.

It is a neat, microcosmic example of currents that run throughout the book, drawing all the elements of the opening chapters to tumble and churn in the plunge pool of the trauma at the novel’s heart before passing into the relative tranquility of the river beyond. A masterpiece.

The Ice Palace (Is-slottet) by Tarjei Vesaas, translated from the Nynorsk by Elizabeth Rokkan (Penguin, 2018)

Picture: ‘DSCF5384‘ by subflux on flickr.com

Book of the month: Esther Gerritsen

Some books stay with you. I wasn’t going to feature another Dutch novel for a while, having written about Herman Koch’s Dear Mr M relatively recently. But then I got sucked into reading Esther Gerritsen’s Craving (translated by Michele Hutchison) after World Editions sent it to me along with a couple of other titles to mark Boekenweek (an annual festival of literature in The Netherlands). Four months later, it’s still on my mind.

In fact, Craving is one of several memorable Dutch novels I’ve read in recent years, among them Sam Garrett’s long-anticipated translation of Gerard Reve’s classic The Evenings and Jaap Robben’s You Have Me to Love, brought into English by David Doherty. Powerful and atmospheric though these books are, however, they didn’t quite get their claws into me in the way that Craving managed to do.

On the face of it, this is a very simple novel. The erratic Coco returns home to live with her terminally ill mother after years of estrangement. Their renewed proximity forces a re-examination of their troubled relationship and something of a rapprochement that sheds fresh light on both their lives.

As with several other contemporary Dutch novels, including Robben’s and Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin (translated by David Colmer), Craving focuses on filial relationships. It has the feel of a film shot exclusively in close-up, with small details representing dramatic shifts. This means that although Craving does not share the isolated settings of Robben’s and Bakker’s books, it possesses a similar quiet intensity, which comes from the narrative containing a minimal amount of background noise.

The words work hard here. Credit is due to Michele Hutchison for the way she has managed to present text that is as powerful as it is spare, where almost every phoneme seems to perform multiple functions – conveying the action, revealing specific emotional truths and acting as broader statements about the human experience. Even the comma splices that would usually have pedants bristling seem to work within the context of the narrative voice.

The efficiency of the dialogue is testament to the power of the language. Normally, I get frustrated by reams of unattributed statements and struggle to remember who is saying what without a reminder every three or four lines. In Craving, however, the character of each speaker comes across so clearly that I barely noticed the lack of signposts.

The economy of expression allows for some great comic moments too. Bathos and distraction are favourite devices for Gerritsen, who delights in reminding us how the monumental and banal coexist and colour one another, gilding significant moments with foolishness and elevating mundane happenings to precarious importance.

Through it all, Gerritsen never loses sight of the pattern she is weaving. She threads story deftly through the text, so that the whole picture comes into focus gradually. Instead of the neat reveal common in more commercial books, the central meaning emerges in such a way that it cannot be condensed or explained but can be comprehended only by reading the words set out in precisely the order the author has chosen. No more, no less.

Craving (Dorst) by Esther Gerritsen, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison (World Editions, 2015)

Book of the month: Robert Seethaler

Book titles containing the word ‘life’ can often be deceptive. Hanya Yanagihara’s award-winning A Little Life, for example – which you might expect to be rather modest in length – tips the scales at 737 pages.

It’s perhaps fitting, then, that bestselling Austrian author Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, translated by Charlotte Collins, skews the other way. Played out in a mere 161 sides, this slip of a novel weighs little. However, as I discovered a few weeks back, it leaves a lasting impression.

The premise is simple: the narrative presents the life of Andreas Egger, a manual worker living in the Austrian Alps over the course of much of the twentieth century. Told largely chronologically, with occasional flashes forward and backwards to illuminate particular events, it reveals the joys and losses that shape an individual who is, on the surface at least, unremarkable.

In the absence of the grabby hook so often required to sell books to big English-language publishers these days, it falls to Seethaler’s writing (and Collins’s translation) to make the novel stand out. This they do in spades. Although it gets off to an uneven start, seeming to pitch us into the realm of the uncanny with its portrayal of Egger’s weird encounter with his reclusive goatherd neighbour, the narrative quickly assumes a serenity as majestic and awe-inspiring as the mountains among which it is set.

There is a lovely reticence to the work. For the most part, the story is conveyed in plain words with the occasional detail, such as the peening anvil used to dispatch a wounded dog, keeping the story grounded. Against this spare linguistic backdrop, occasional descriptive flourishes peep out like edelweiss blooms: the priest whose cassock flaps ‘around his body like the dishevelled plumage of a jackdaw’; the shell-fire blossoming ‘like blazing flowers over the mountain crests’.

There is also humour. In particular, a wry tone suffuses the portrayal of many of the hardships of Egger’s early life, almost as though it has been filtered through the gossip of relatives and neighbours. Take this description of the death of Egger’s mother: ‘she had led an irresponsible life, for which God had recently punished her with consumption and summoned her to his bosom.’ The distance and lightness at work here give the central character a complexity and dignity where another author might have been tempted to make him simply pitiable.

Seethaler’s confidence in allowing tiny observations to bear the weight of great events, gives the novel its power. There are moments of supreme beauty – Egger’s proposal to his sweetheart Marie is one of the most romantic scenes I’ve ever read. Meanwhile the losses that besiege the protagonist are rendered almost unbearable by what is left unsaid, allowing the author to exploit dramatic irony to its fullest as we watch Egger stumble to confront tragedies for which he never quite finds the words.

In many ways, A Whole Life is a marketing department’s nightmare. A man lives and then he dies. On the face of it, there is nothing to set this story apart. But in the hands of a writer like Seethaler, that is precisely what makes it special.

A Whole Life (Ein ganzes Leben) by Robert Seethaler, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins (Picador, 2015)

Book of the month: Tiphaine Rivière

In my previous post on book clubs, I mentioned that international literary prizes can often be a good source of reading suggestions. February’s Book of the month is a neat demonstration of that. Indeed, in this case a literary award encouraged me to discover not just an author I’d never read before, but a whole new genre.

Francesca Barrie’s translation of Tiphaine Rivière’s Carnets de thèse (Notes on a Thesis to you and me) is one of six books on the inaugural shortlist of the TA First Translation Prize. Set up and endowed by writer, editor and translator Daniel Hahn, the annual award recognises outstanding debut translations published in the UK, with the first winner announced tomorrow (March 1).

The award is unusual in that, unlike most comparable honours, the original author of the book does not receive part of the prize money. Instead, the  credit goes entirely to the person who rewrote their words in English.

The presence of Notes on a Thesis on the shortlist marks the award out in another way too. It is rare to see a graphic novel in contention for a prize like this. Although the art form is taken very seriously in many parts of the globe, books that use pictures to tell stories tend not to get much attention from the English-speaking literary establishment. As a result, they don’t come onto the radars of many anglophone readers.

This was certainly true for me. Being a wordy person with relatively poor visual sense, I’ve never really ventured into the genre. Had it not been for the presence of Notes on a Thesis on the TAFTP shortlist, the work would almost certainly have passed me by.

However, when I looked it up, the premise struck me as irresistible. Told through the eyes of a young woman, Jeanne, who gets accepted to do a PhD in Paris, the book sets out to satirise the university system. Sparked off by a blog Rivière started after three years working on a thesis herself, it is, according to the blurb on the back, ‘a wickedly funny graphic novel about academic life, for anyone who’s ever missed a deadline.’

I snapped up a copy and took it with me to the University of Kent, where, in between seeing students (many of them working on PhDs) in my capacity as a Royal Literary Fund fellow, I quickly fell under the spell of Rivière’s craft.

‘Wickedly funny’ does not begin to cover it. This is a book that will have readers laughing out loud and rushing to share the jokes. The observations are precise and devastating. A range of killer characters comes to life in a handful of sentences – from the secretary with ‘a secret tactic: feigning gross incompetence to wear down her adversaries, until they eventually stop asking her to do anything at all’ to the PhD supervisor who prescribes reading the complete works of Schopenhauer as a way of getting rid of his charge.

One of the great joys of the book is the way Rivière’s illustrations not only portray but also advance the story. Take this series of ID card snapshots revealing the toll Jeanne’s thesis takes on her over the course of four years.

Or this spread capturing the experience of giving a paper and then waiting nervously for questions at the end.

The publisher’s decision to market Notes on a Thesis at the academic community is understandable, but people from all walks of life will find much to recognise and chuckle at here. Whether it’s the excruciating family Christmas where well-meaning relatives unwittingly rip apart your ambitions, or the irrational, middle-of-the-night heart-to-heart with the partner who has been forced to ride the roller-coaster of your dreams with you, the pages brim with telling and hilarious details.

Although books about writing are common, it is unusual to see the business of trying to put pen to paper captured in pictures. Notes on a Thesis is both a joy and a surprise, richly deserving of literary recognition even as it pokes fun at much of the paraphernalia associated with that world.

If this is an example of what graphic novels have to offer, I have got a lot to learn.

Notes on a Thesis (Carnets de thèse) by Tiphaine Rivière, translated from the French by Francesca Barrie (Jonathan Cape, 2016)

Book of the month: Jana Beňová

August is Women in Translation month. The initiative was started four years ago by translator Meytal Radzinski to challenge the gender imbalance in the anglophone publishing industry. This sees works by women making up only around 30 per cent of books originally written in other languages that make it onto English-language bookshop shelves.

As such, I knew I wanted to review a book by a woman writer this month (although I haven’t gone to the same lengths as last August, when I read 17 translated works by women and featured five on this blog in an effort to start to redress the gender imbalance in my own original project). And as #WITmonth (for the Twitterate among you) is all about championing underrepresented voices, it seemed to make sense to seek out a title from a country that is relatively poorly served for translation overall.

Slovakia is such a nation. Although a relatively wide selection of Czech literature is available in English, there is surprisingly little to sample from the country that made up the other half of Czechoslovakia until its dissolution in 1993. Certainly, back in 2012, I found there were very few titles to choose from (although I did enjoy the novel by Peter Pišťánek that I ended up reading).

So I was intrigued to hear about Seeing People Off, the first English-language translation (done by Janet Livingstone) of the work of European Union Prize for Literature-winner Jana Beňová, whose writing, according to US publisher Two Dollar Radio, bears comparison with the Brazilian great Clarice Lispector. Here, surely, was an exciting title to get my teeth into.

At a mere 126 pages, Seeing People Off might seem to be a sliver of a book. Its contents, however, are far from lightweight. Centred around Elza and her partner Ian, who live in a large apartment block in a district of Bratislava, ‘a place where time plays no role’, the narrative consists of telling fragments of their experiences and of the lives that surround them. We hear snatches of their neighbours’ arguments, as well as lines from the conversations of people at nearby tables in the cafés they frequent. Elements of the main characters’ backstories and those of their friends crop up unannounced, crowbarring themselves into the pages in a way that might at first seem chaotic but quickly creates an arresting whole.

The similarities to Lispector’s work are obvious for, as in The Hour of the Star, the story is told in short bursts, giving the text the appearance of a series of feverish notes on existence. There is the same playful oddness that runs through the Brazilian writer’s work: a river swells its banks and threatens to overwhelm the city; childhood imaginary friends tumble into the narrative and begin to act independently; and Elza, who is writing Seeing People Off and reads out extracts from it to her contemporaries now and then, comments wryly on her reasons for cutting down the space she gives to certain people in the tale and the frustrations of the Slovakian publishing industry.

There are oddball comparisons too. We read, for example, that forlorn figures wandering around a half-closed fun fair remind Elza ‘of England in times when they used children as chimney sweeps’.

Much of this quirkiness is funny, but it can be alarming too. Discussions surrounding a reality TV show set in a concentration camp and cold – almost clinical – accounts of violence and suicide inspire unease as the narrative lurches between what is acceptable and what is not, inviting readers to acknowledge and test this boundary within themselves.

The result is a book that seems to operate partly on the subconscious level, dredging up, inverting and reconfiguring ideas, themes and images. As such, it requires careful reading for, suspended on the finest of threads, the narrative is always only an attention lapse or two away from tumbling into nonsense.

For those who persevere, however, the rewards are great. In a very few words, Beňová tugs at the strings that bind conventional narratives, testing the knots and exposing the weaknesses. In so doing, she reveals that sometimes the point of reading might be to lose the thread.

Seeing People Off  by Jana Beňová, translated from the Slovak by Janet Livingstone (Two Dollars Radio, 2017)

Book of the month: Elena Varvello

Just over three years ago, an Italian novel tempted me out of book-reviewing retirement and formed the subject of the first of my Book of the month posts on this blog. You might have heard of the author – a reclusive chronicler of Naples life who was rising rapidly to fame in the anglophone world when I encountered her work and has since achieved massive international success.

I’m talking, of course, about Elena Ferrante; it was the first in her Neapolitan series, titled My Brilliant Friend in English and translated by Ann Goldstein, that persuaded me to start posting about books again on this blog. I was sent a copy by Daniela Petracco, tireless champion of great literature originating in languages other than English and UK director of Europa Editions. I loved the book and knew I had to tell people about it (I’ve since read The Days of Abandonment and for my money it’s even better than the Neapolitan novels).

So when I received an advance translation of a new Italian novel and, skimming through the publicity material, saw that one of its supporters was Daniela Petracco, I decided I would have to try it. My resolve strengthened when I turned to the Acknowledgements and saw that, far from simply supporting the novel, Petracco was Varvello’s first reader. The chances were that this book would be good.

At first glance, Elena Varvello’s Can You Hear Me? has all the hallmarks of a commercial thriller. The premise is typically high stakes – a young woman’s disappearance in a remote community, a boy’s murder, and a man losing his mind as his son comes of age. Then there’s the opening sentence: ‘In the August of 1978, the summer I met Anna Trabuio, my father took a girl into the woods.’ So far, so nail-biting.

Yet those who venture further into the pages expecting the novel to be nothing more than a page-turner are in for a surprise. For this book offers so much more.

Varvello has published two collections of poetry and it shows. Not only is her writing (translated here by Alex Valente) taut, but it is also exquisitely precise. Rather than scatter-gunning the reader with details, she selects one telling enough to convey an entire character or mood. From the way a person watches their reflection in a mirror, or the briefest of exchanges, the author conjures entire scenes, imbuing her pages by turns with menace, nostalgia and wistfulness.

This talent for concision enables her to convey profound observations without falling into the trap of expressing points too directly or knowingly. Time and again, characters are able to articulate what they are experiencing with stunning clarity, while remaining locked in the fatal subjectivity that is the essence of human experience and – in this and so many other great stories – prevents them from taking the actions that might avert disaster.

Chief among the cast of blinkered individuals is the narrator, Elia’s, father, whose redundancy and subsequent breakdown are the catalysts for much of the action. Menacingly erratic and yet pitiable, he towers from the page.

Varvello’s play with perspective and timeshift adds another layer of fascination. Exploiting many of the possibilities that telling the story through Elia’s eyes at 30 years’ remove presents, she interlaces different threads, employing several voices to blur the lines between memory and fantasy, empathy and repugnance, innocence and guilt.

While keeping the thread of the plot tightly wound and making heavy use of foreshadowing to sustain readers’ interest, she manages not to strike the nakedly manipulative tone that often topples the backdrop in less sophisticated works. Although some will find the sombre foreboding that suffuses the narrative a little monochrome, there is no doubt that the atmosphere is skilfully created. At points the writing is breathtakingly deft.

The result is an engrossing and troubling book that hangs big questions on the taut wire of a gripping plot. Like her namesake Ferrante, Elena Varvello knows how to keep readers hooked. We shall see more of her work.

Can You Hear Me? (La vita felice) by Elena Varvello, translated from the Italian by Alex Valente (Two Roads, 2017)

Postcard from my bookshelf #2

img_0699-001

The second translated book I am sending to a stranger this year goes to someone from a group of people who kept me going during my 2012 quest to read a book from every country in the world. The project was a wonderful voyage of discovery. However, reading and blogging about a book every 1.87 days for 12 months when you’re working five days a week can be tiring and sometimes lonely.

As such, I came to depend on the support of an initially small but growing band of people who helped to cheer me on. These were the folk who followed the project from the early days and let me know through comments, likes, tweets and personal messages that they appreciated what I was trying to do. Many was the morning when I stumbled bleary-eyed to my computer and found welcome words of encouragement from someone I didn’t know waiting to spur me on.

Several of these long-term followers left comments on the Postcards from my bookshelf project post. All of them deserved a book. However, in the end, I decided to choose simonlitton (or Simon, as I’ll call him from now on) because his was one of the names I remembered cropping up several times in the early months of my year of reading the world, in the days when each comment did a huge amount to boost my determination and confidence.

Simon’s Postcard entry didn’t give me much to go on when it came to selecting a book he might like:

I loved AYORTW and would definitely be interested in reading something you sent. My tastes are pretty broad but I’m especially interested in anything which opens a window on another culture. I read fairly regularly in French and Italian too, which gives me more options.

Luckily, however, his name linked to his blog. And there I found a connection to his Goodreads page – a goldmine of information about his reading habits.

As he claims, Simon has extremely broad taste in books. I was delighted to see a good number of African works listed among the nearly 400 titles he has reviewed on the site, along with a range of classics, and a glut of contemporary bestsellers and lesser-knowns, including a healthy spread of translations, as well as the French and Italian works he mentioned. There was also an impressive array of non-fiction books, along with a strong showing of sci-fi and fantasy titles.

What struck me most of all, however, was Simon’s approach to star ratings. A number of internationally acclaimed texts met with relatively short shrift at his hands. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace both scored a middling three stars, as did Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Here, clearly, was not only an adventurous reader, but a bold and independent one too – a person who liked to make up his own mind rather than being led by hype.

I thought long and hard about what to choose for Simon. In the process, I found myself returning repeatedly to what he had said in his comment about books that open windows on other cultures.

Many of the titles I have read during and since my 2012 project could be said to open up insights in this way. Often, they are among the best-written and most compelling books to cross my desk.

This is no coincidence. In my experience, enabling readers to understand societies different from their own requires great storytelling: we need that narrative pull to sweep us over the inevitable bumps and obstacles that arise when we venture into ways of looking at the world that diverge from our own.

Consequently, I had a bewildering wealth of beautifully written works in mind. I might have chosen Burmese writer Nu Nu Yi’s Smile as They Bow with its engrossing depiction of the life of a transgender temple dancer. I could have plumped for Jamil Ahmed’s exquisite The Wandering Falcon, my choice for Pakistan. Or Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s By Night the Mountain Burns – only the second novel from Equatorial Guinea ever to be translated and published in English (the first, by the way, Donato Ndongo’s Shadows of your Black Memory, is also well worth a read).

In the end, however, one book kept nagging at me. Less a window on a culture, it is more like a door blasted open to reveal a post-culture – a portrait of a society destroyed by a catastrophic event that many of us might like to imagine is remote but which affects us all (and which will be evident in the world hundreds of thousands of years after pretty much everything else we know now is gone). A sort of real-life sci-fi, if such a thing were possible.

The book I’m talking about is Chernobyl Prayer by the Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich. I read it and posted about it last year and it has stayed with me ever since. Harrowing, human, insightful and mind-scrambling, it is one of the most powerful texts I’ve ever encountered.

But of course, Simon, you’ll have to make up your own mind. Thank you.

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next recipient will be announced on March 15.

Book of the month: ed. Nikesh Shukla, The Good Immigrant

9472442758_d9b4938821_o

One of the main points of this project has always been accessing voices that we don’t hear enough of in the anglophone world. Often, these voices are quite remote: stories by writers in minority languages and marginalised groups from distant regions where little gets picked up for publication and even less makes it through the translation bottleneck into the planet’s most-published language.

However, it’s often easy to forget that there are plenty of underrepresented voices closer to home, such as people writing in languages other than the dominant tongue (like Welsh writer Caryl Lewis, whose novel Martha, Jack and Shanco I read as my UK choice) or those from communities that rarely get the opportunity to tell their stories in their own words.

This is a problem that my November book of the month pick, The Good Immigrant, sets out to tackle head-on. Bringing together essays, think pieces and life writing by 21 black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) writers working in or connected to Britain today, the crowd-funded collection builds a compelling case for the importance of diverse storytelling. It is, as Nikesh Shukla states in his editor’s note, ‘a document of what it means to be a person of colour’ in the UK, assembled in response to ‘the backwards attitude to immigration and refugees, the systemic racism that runs through this country to this day’.

As Shukla’s comments suggest, much of this book does not make for comfortable reading – nor is it meant to. Many of the contributors narrate harrowing incidents that they or their family members have experienced, from being held at knifepoint by skinheads, as has happened to actor Riz Ahmed on several occasions, to receiving a prescription for drugs from a child psychologist in response to suffering racist bullying, as Daniel York Loh recalls.

Many of the anecdotes contain unpleasant surprises for white British readers like me. For example, I was unaware of the extreme abuse often experienced by people of Chinese ethnicity in the UK, but Wei Ming Kam and Vera Chok bring this home memorably, with Chok’s discussion of the sinister objectification of Asian women being particularly powerful.

Alongside these personal and specific examples, a number of the writers expand on larger themes that illuminate the mechanisms of the blindspots and doublethink that make such inhumanity possible. Reni Eddo-Lodge, whose forthcoming Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race promises to be brilliant, is great on the UK’s collective forgetting of black British history, while Sarah Sahim has thought-provoking things to say on Britain’s role in entrenching and solidifying the Hindu caste system.

And lest you get the impression that an uncomfortable read equates to an unpleasant one, it’s important to point out that the book has plenty of beauty, generosity and humour too. Stand-up comedian Nish Kumar’s account of his discovery that his photograph had been appropriated for an internet meme about Muslims (he’s Hindu by origin) is both funny and insightful. In addition, Salena Godden’s wry observations on the illogic of half the world spending money on skin-bleaching while white Brits strip off at the sight of sunlight in hope of a tan in ‘Shade’ – which also contains some of the collection’s most lyrical and playful writing – will no doubt raise a smile.

Perhaps the most important point, however, concerns the significance of complex, diverse storytelling and the role this has in allowing people to imagine and thereby appreciate the humanity and varied difference of those too often squashed into a box labelled ‘other’. This argument is made in many of the pieces, but most strikingly in the several accounts in which BAME actors share their experiences of typecasting and limited opportunity because of the paucity of roles available for people of colour in mainstream British culture. Miss L, for example, describes the day she waited along with her fellow drama students to be told what type of role was likely to be the mainstay of her career. ‘Wife of a terrorist’ was the verdict, a prediction that proved largely accurate, alongside a number of roles as powerless women in arranged marriages.

Representation, these accounts show us, is not enough. The mere tokenistic inclusion of a person from an ethnic minority in a well-worn, two-dimensional role does nothing to enlarge viewers’ or readers’ perspectives. Instead, we need to break free of those familiar narratives – those single stories as Chimanda Ngozi Adichie so memorably dubbed them – and push for a vast array of complex, challenging and even conflicting accounts.

This is important within nations like Britain, as much as across borders, because, as Bim Adewunmi puts it in ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Tokenism’, the superficial and inadequate representation of minorities in the stories we consume ‘leaks into the everyday too – if you cannot bring yourself to imagine us as real, rounded individuals with feelings equal to your own on screen, how does that affect your ability to do so when you encounter us on the street, at your workplace, in your bed, in your life?’

And if you wanted an example of the real-life consequences of such tokenism, the final piece in the book by British-Ugandan writer Musa Okwonga provides a salutary vision of the harm that insufficiently diverse representation can cause. As one of a handful of black students at the elite schools and university he attended, Okwonga felt an ‘ambassadorial responsibility’ to represent not simply himself but all those who shared his ethnicity to his white peers, holding himself to impossible standards in an exhausting effort to be a walking billboard for his race.

The encouraging news is that most of the writers of The Good Immigrant appear to believe that change is possible, that Britain for all its flaws and challenges has the potential to do better in the way it treats and values its citizens. Although many are saddened by the events of recent years – Okwonga, for example recounts his decision to leave the UK for Germany in search of greater tolerance and inclusiveness – the contributors seem to have faith in the power of storytelling and the healing quality of human connection, a sentiment Salena Godden expresses beautifully towards the end of her piece:

‘Human colour is the colour I’m truly interested in, the colour of your humanity. May the size of your heart and the depth of your soul be your currency. Welcome aboard my Good Ship. Let us sail to the colourful island of mixed identity. You can eat from the cooking pot of mixed culture and bathe in the cool shade of being mixed-race. There is no need for a passport. There are no borders. We are all citizens of the world. Whatever shade you are, bring your light, bring your colour, bring your music and your books, your stories and your histories, and climb aboard.’

The Good Immigrant, ed. Nikesh Shukla (Unbound, 2016)

Picture: ‘Know Your Rights’ by alister on flickr.com