World bookshopper: #2 Rizzoli Bookstore, NYC

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At first glance, there’s a huge contrast between Rizzoli Bookstore on Broadway and the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, which was the subject of my first world bookshopper review. Where HW is charmingly quirky and a little worn round the edges, much like many of the titles on its shelves, Rizzoli gleams. And while a large part of the fun of visiting the former has to do with the fact you never know what lucky finds might leap out at you from the donated titles ranged on the shelves, curatorial flair and selectivity are the name of the game at Rizzoli, which reopened at 1133 Broadway last year, after closing its previous store on 57th Street.

On the day I go, the main window is given over to one title alone: Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom. Copies of this lavish book – created to tie in with an eponymous exhibition, which was showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – are deftly stacked and propped to catch the eye of people passing along the snow-heaped sidewalk. Their uniformity is broken only occasionally by a Lonely Planet guide to Africa, several blue ceramic animals, a book on African art and a copy of Alaa Al Aswany’s The Automobile Club of Egypt – stylish touches that set off the handsome hardback admirably.

The same keen aesthetic sense is apparent when I get inside. Black pillars flank a harlequin marble floor. The wooden bookshelves shine warmly, proclaiming the subject matter of their contents in tasteful, serif font. Above them, a mural showing clouds against an azure sky softens the effect of the monochrome stone. Small wonder that the shop’s website proclaims it ‘the most beautiful bookstore in New York’ – someone has given its interior a lot of thought.

This appreciation of the visual finds its echo in the store’s merchandise. Substantial sections are given over to architecture, art, photography and design. Audrey Hepburn gazes coolly from the covers of many of the books devoted to fashion.

Similar care and taste goes into the selection of titles in the new fiction and new non-fiction sections too. I spot the latest offerings from international names such as Leila Aboulela, Per Petterson, Orhan Pamuk and Kenzaburō Ōe, as well as books by Stephen King, Sally Mann and Patti Smith.

There are also collectors’ items, such as the awesome The Complete Works of Primo Levi, edited by translation celebrity Ann Goldstein (she of Elena Ferrante fame). Housed in a glossy casing, this handsome three-volume celebration of the Italian holocaust survivor’s extraordinary oeuvre seems to demand lofty surroundings. I decide that if I wanted to buy it and own it, I would first have to sell my little flat and purchase somewhere much bigger, with a library handsome enough to do it justice.

Opposite the new fiction and non-fiction area, a literature section contains collections of essays – or what are described on the shelf as ‘belles lettres’ – as well as poetry and more paperback fiction. Allen Ginsberg rubs shoulders with Lena Dunham, and there are works by Mikhail Bulgakov and Peter Carey too.

Nearby, a stand of Italian- and French-language fiction tempts me for a moment to dust off my A-level French and try something in the original.

In the end, though, my head is turned by Nigerian-American writer and photographer Teju Cole’s novel, Every Day is for the Thief. (On the flight out of New York – during which I devour this novel in one go – I’m very grateful for this decision. Not only is this novel about a Nigerian man’s return to Lagos after years in the States exceptional – seriously, you should read it – but it occurs to me that I wouldn’t have been able to fit a French dictionary into my hand luggage. I resolve to schedule my next bout of French-language reading for a time when I am not in transit.)

As I queue to pay for the Cole and pick up a postcard bearing a tasteful photograph of the bookstore at the counter, I am struck by a thought. The care and attention that goes into choosing and presenting books beautifully at Rizzoli actually has a lot in common with the come-one-come-all eclecticism of Housing Works.

In their contrasting ways, both these distinctive stores are physical embodiments of a love of books and a desire to create a good environment in which to share them. At root, the people behind them share many of the same beliefs – that the written word is important and necessary, that it has power to make the world better, and that it should be showcased in a joyful space where people relish spending time.

I step out through the stylish glass door into the chill of the Manhattan winter. Already, I am eager to see where my world bookshopping will take me next…

Book of the month: Zoe Whittall

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The internet is a wonderful thing. As this project has demonstrated many times, the unprecedented access the world wide web gives us to information and each other enables all sorts of connections and discoveries that would not have been possible – or at least nowhere near as easy – in centuries gone by.

October’s Book of the month is a good example. I found it through, of all things, accommodation site Airbnb, after Steve and I used it to book a place to stay in Toronto a couple of weeks back. Our host turned out to be a friend of a friend, TV and film producer Michelle Mama, who, among many things, made the award-winning documentary 21 Days to Nawroz about the lives of three women in Kurdistan.

Michelle and I got on well and had a great time discussing our various projects, so when she told me about a Canadian novel that she had bought the film rights for and offered to lend me a copy, I was keen to take a look. She disappeared upstairs and returned with Torontonian author Zoe Whittall’s Bottle Rocket Hearts, one of the Globe and Mail newspaper’s top 100 books of 2007 and, I soon realised, an engrossing read.

Set around the time of the 1995 Quebec referendum, the novel follows 19-year-old Eve as she seeks to move out of her parents’ house and establish herself and her sexual identity in downtown Montreal. There she meets and falls for ardent separatist and non-monogamous older woman Della, who sweeps her into a world of sensation and experience she could barely have imagined before. As their volatile relationship shatters and remakes her, Eve finds her way into an urban family consisting of her new housemates, aspiring novelist Rachael and the flamboyant Seven. They ride the waves of politics, violence and homophobia that surge through the city’s streets with her, seeking true independence, even at the ultimate price.

Like many of the best writers I’ve encountered during my literary travels, Whittall has the knack of taking us into unfamiliar worlds. Despite being a stranger to both the independence question and Montreal’s ‘queer’ – as Whittall’s characters call it – scene, I quickly found myself drawn into Eve’s milieu. I felt with her the threat lurking in the gaze of neo-Nazi skinheads and the aggressive advances of the men she encounters in the street late at night, as well as the unease sparked by the passionate debates around Quebec’s bid for sovereignty, and the way expectations – heteronormative or otherwise – risk crushing and warping who we are.

This sense of immersion in Eve’s world is helped by the deft succinctness of Whittall’s language: the cold air that ‘hits [her] like a punch of new ideas’, the room so colourful ‘it’s like living in the middle of an exploding comet’. Time and again the author’s images snare experience and bring it home, fresh and twitching.

Whittall’s eye for quirkiness is a source of joy too and leads to funny moments in what might otherwise be an overly heavy book. Through odd details such as Eve’s stubborn belief that she can perform a handstand on two fingers to the curse that Della claims has led to all the women in her family dying by their 30th birthday, the characters come alive. In addition, there are wicked cameos, such as my favourite, the over-discerning customer who comes into the healthfood cafe where Eve works and asks, ‘Umm, what exactly is in the tofu carrot mushroom miso stew?’

The structure creaks a little now and then. After a punchy, filmic opening that, using the technique deployed in many episodes of subsequent blockbusters such as Breaking Bad, starts with the end crisis and then winds back to take us through what led up to it, the book is a little slow to get going. There’s also a risky section towards the end where Seven stages a play to reveal his responses to the events they have lived through. Some readers may find this hard to swallow.

Overall, though this novel is a great achievement. Unlike the maudlin, coming-of-age accounts many other Anglophone writers produce, in which boredom and drifting are the order of the day, things really happen in this book. Survival is at stake, people change and Whittall knows how to make us care. The story should make an absorbing film. I hope it won’t be too long before we can all go and see it.

Bottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whittall (Cormorant Books, 2007)

Picture by Josh Graciano

US publication day

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It’s official: The World Between Two Covers is published in the US. Huzzah!

To celebrate the occasion, Steve and I returned to Coney Island’s Steeplechase Pier in New York this morning to restage the photo at the top of this blog. That original snap was taken in January 2012, a few days after I’d embarked on my quest to read a book from every country in a year.

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Today, the weather is rather nicer, the boardwalk has been refurbished and my hair is longer. Oh, and the books I’m reading have changed too…

IMG_9193Photos by Steve Lennon

US book deal with Norton

Celebration near Ground Zero

The last month or so has been a strange time for me. On the one hand, there was the euphoria of getting to the end of the stack of edits I showed you on the penultimate draft of Reading the World and knowing that the book I’d been writing on and off for 18 months was done. But on the other, there was the knowledge that this meant I was entering a whole new phase of the publishing process with challenges of its own.

For me, finding out whether the book would get a publisher in the US was top of the pile. With the manuscript finished, Sarah Levitt at the Zoë Pagnamenta Agency in New York (who often works with my agent Caroline Hardman in the UK) was able to swing into action, pitching the project to editors Stateside.

A nervous wait ensued. I tried not to think about it too much. I reminded myself that it’s rare for a British debut author to get taken on in the US, where publishers have their pick of tens of thousands of homegrown wordsmiths. And I consoled myself with the thought that, whatever happened, my book was going to be published in the UK in early 2015 by Harvill Secker/Random House – and that was far more than I had ever dreamed would happen when I first embarked on the madcap adventure of reading a book from every country in the world in a year. A deal in the US would be the icing on the cake, I told myself.

But the truth was, no matter how sanguine I tried to be about it, I cared very much about whether or not the book would come out in America. Having spent the first few weeks of my Year of Reading the World in the States (the picture at the top, in case you haven’t spotted it, was taken on the pier at Coney Island), I feel that the project has a particular connection with the place – several of the stories I read in those early stages were picked off the shelves at McNally Jackson. What’s more, given that over a third of total views of this blog have come from the US, I was keen to share the book with the nation that has been this venture’s most enthusiastic supporter.

So you can imagine my excitement when Sarah Levitt got in touch this week to confirm that we had a deal with editor Elisabeth Kerr at W.W. Norton & Co. The fact that the publisher is Norton and that the book will be coming out under its Liveright imprint (or trade name) makes the news all the sweeter – relaunched in 2012, Liveright sets out to publish ‘outstanding works that define and redefine our culture’. Its historic list is a literary hall of fame, with William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Bertrand Russell, Sigmund Freud and T.S. Eliot accounting for just some of its impressive names.

I was particularly delighted to discover that one of Liveright’s first publications after its relaunch was George Orwell’s Diaries. Orwell has always been a bit of a hero of mine and, like me, he started out as a sub-editor on British newspapers (although, much as I might like to think otherwise, the similarities between us probably end there).

The book is set to come out in the US in summer 2015 (probably in May, but I’ll let you know once the date is confirmed). However, if I thought my writing work on it was done, it turns out I can think again: Norton is publishing an anthology called Reading the World soon, so Elisabeth and I will need to think of another title for the US edition. Any suggestions gratefully received…

Photo by Jens Schott Knudsen

Canada: inside story

This book had lots going for it. The British Centre for Literary Translation’s director Dr Valerie Henitiuk, a Canadian national, told me it was one of the best translations she’d come across. In addition, as a Quebecois classic, it would be the first French-Canadian novel I’d ever read. And it was feminist literature – something I’ve had a fascination with ever since my year of reading women opened my eyes to some of the riches in this frequently overlooked field of writing. Nevertheless, even with all this promise, I could not have imagined the treat I had in store.

Split into three parts, Nicole Brossard’s Mauve Desert takes storytelling and translation apart from the inside. The first section follows 15-year-old Mélanie as she speeds across the Arizona desert in her mother’s car, ‘moving forward in life, wild-eyed with arrogance’, while also fleeing the insecurity, awkwardness and tenderness of life at her lesbian mother’s motel. Next, the middle part catalogues the experience of Maudes Laures, who finds Mélanie’s story in a second-hand bookshop and spends two years obsessing over its meaning and the actions of its characters and author, Laure Angstelle. The final section is Maudes Laures’s translation of Mauve Desert, which is at once similar to and very different from the original text.

Rich, ambiguous and fluid, Brossard/Angstelle’s writing sweeps the reader into the heart of teenage longing, using fine details to evoke intense experience. Long, sultry afternoons around the pool consist in the glint of wet tiles and the snaking of a hose pipe, while the rush of speeding through the desert shimmers on the horizon and in the dizziness of dehydration. Deliberately ambiguous, ‘both in focus and out of the frame’ as Mélanie describes her driving experiences, the narrative opens up a vast landscape of multivalency so that we can often never be sure exactly what is taking place. ‘Reality had a meaning, but which one?’ reflects Mélanie at one point.

As Maude Laures discovers, this confusion is precisely the point. While she strives to get to the heart of the text that has obsessed her, picking apart places, characters and events, and even at one stage imagining an encounter with Laure Angstelle herself in which she berates and interrogates the author over her treatment of one character, she finds herself dazzled by ‘the inexorable light that transforms lives of flesh into the bare bones of narrative’. As she records and analyses conflicting assertions that she finds in the text and her discourse with it, some sort of truth emerges like a line drawn through a cluster of points on a graph, tying trends and outliers together into a kind of coherent whole.

Yet, as Laures’s translation in the final section shows, this whole will not be the same for any two readers. Filtered through her consciousness and the result of her interaction with the novel, Laures’s rendering of the text (here of course given another layer by virtue of having been translated in reality by Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood), is a new work. It picks up fresh angles and possibilities in the story and even adds things not in the original, as well as sometimes making passages awkward and stilted. Mélanie’s brush with some aggressive road-users is a good example:

Original: ‘At the junction of Route 10 and Route 25 are dozens of motorcycles, guys smoking as they look at the sky. Two girls are talking. One of them flashes me a peace and love sign while the other one, barely set back in the spatial plane, gives me a violent f**k with her finger, then with her fist. I press on the accelerator. I know reality. Fear, it doesn’t matter when you accelerate; fear vanishes like a dark spot in the rearview mirror.’

Translation: ‘At the junction of Route 10 and Route 25, a gang of bikers are smoking with their noses in the air. Two girls are talking, a bottle of beer in hand. One of them flashes me a victory sign and the other one, barely set back in the spatial plane, violently “up-yours” me with her middle finger, then the whole fist up. I accelerate. I know reality. Fear is nothing, it’s nothing when one is fast so fast. Fear faints dark spot in the rearview mirror.’

This exploration of the mysterious alchemy of translation and the anxieties around the authenticity of such renderings – as Laure Angstelle puts it in her imaginary dialogue with Maude Laures: ‘How am I to believe for a single moment that the landscapes in you won’t erase those in me?’ – is utterly engrossing. It is without question one of the most innovative things I’ve ever read.

However, it does come with a health warning for e-reader fans. While normally a Kindle enthusiast, I would encourage anyone planning to read this to do so on paper. Flicking back and forth between the third and first sections to compare the two versions of the novel is maddening on-screen, whereas it would be a breeze in a hard copy.

Alternatively, of course, you could buy yourself an e-version and a paperback and read it like that. It’s certainly worth it.

Mauve Desert (Le Désert Mauve) by Nicole Brossard, translated from the French by Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood (Coach House Books, 1990, 2010)

Barbados: rum and water

I was very tempted to read a book by George Lamming as my Bajan choice. He’d been recommended by Trinidadian writer Vahni Capildeo, who I got in touch with through London-based literary organisation, Exiled Writers Ink. ‘Perhaps it’s just being from the region,’ she told me, ‘but I find some of the newer generation of Caribbean international prose writers like rum and water whereas he’s the rough spirit itself…’

This got me wondering about this next wave of Caribbean writers. Who where they and what were they writing about? Why did some of their work strike Capildeo as watered down?

While thinking about this, I stoogled (stumbled while googling – or should that be gumbled?) upon Glenville Lovell. Born and brought up in the Bajan village of Parish Land, Christ Church, this dancer-turned-writer had leapt on to the world literary scene in 1995 with his first novel Fire in the Canes to wide critical acclaim. He clearly set a lot of store by the tradition of storytelling he’d grown up with and I was intrigued to read that his performance background meant that he sometimes used music and choreography to develop his works. Perhaps I would come to regret this, but I was going to take a closer look.

Lovell’s second novel Song of Night unpicks the aftermath of a crime of passion from the perspective of the killer’s daughter. Ostracized by her small community of Bottom Rock, Cyan, or ‘Night’, must draw on her own resourcefulness and tenacity to survive. But in a society eroded by the tides of rich tourists that sweep through it, it’s difficult for a lone young woman to fend for herself without surrendering much of her pride and identity.

For all its tough subject matter – murder, prostitution, arson, drug use, domestic abuse, abortion and rape all have a part to play in the narrative – this is an extraordinarily beautiful book. Much of this comes from Lovell’s, use of imagery and fine ear for voices, which creates some taught dialogue. The text also bustles with anonymous commentators who gossip about the book’s spiralling events, conjuring a powerful sense of village life, a technique Marlon James would later use in John Crow’s Devil (my Jamaican book).

The focus of the novel is by no means parochial, though. Indeed, in many ways this is a book about the relation of Barbados to other nations and in particular the US. After decades of independence from British rule, the island seems to be sinking under another more insidious form of colonialism:

‘The once-colonized were free and willing to be colonized again by the burnt smell of suntan lotion, by the sight of broiling white flesh oozing green in the midday sun […] the businessmen and women, lonely housewives, schoolteachers, and policemen turned pleasure-seekers. They brought with them a sense of ownership, of the world belonging to them. And why not? The world spun on the edge of the American dollar.’

With this influx of rich Americans and Europeans comes the dilution of local identity, pride and purpose. Making money at any cost is the priority for many, while Bajans who aspire to more than a life of servicing the needs and desires of the world’s wealthy folk dream of emigrating to the US – although as rich African-American Koko points out, the land of the free has its own restrictions and limitations.

Nevertheless, there is no question that a lot of the richest Bajan culture now exists far from the island’s shores.  ‘All the writers live overseas,’ observes Koko, inviting the reader to look through her to Lovell, sitting in his New York apartment, writing passionately, sadly and angrily about a country he himself has left.

Playing these issues out in the plot, Lovell brings Night’s story to a gripping and bitter climax. He creates a powerful and memorable allegory for the wave of change overwhelming the island, while keeping all his characters, with the possible exception of the preacher who tries to save Night, vibrant, individual and strong. If this work feels watered down in comparison to  books by previous generations of Bajan writers, that may be precisely the point. But if that’s the case, Lamming must be strong stuff indeed.

Song of Night by Glenville Lovell (Soho Press, 1998)

Cuba: stellar work

One of the strange things about translated books is that they reach us quite a while after they were written. Sometimes, as in the case of smash hits like Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, this might be only a matter of a few months. More often than not it takes several years.

Then there are books like Lydia Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Tales, which was published in Spanish in 1940 and only made it into English 64 years later. These burst into an era very different from the moment in history in which they were created, a bit like light reaching us from extinct stars.

The book was a recommendation from David Iaconangelo, the founder of Zafra Lit, a bilingual blog dedicated to new Cuban short fiction. He described the stories as so well-written and original that they were ‘somewhere between a work of anthropology and fiction’, and said Cabrera’s work documenting the way various African and Cuban cultures fused in the tales she recorded had had a major influence on later writers such as Alejo Carpentier. I was also intrigued to see from Fernando Ortiz’s introduction to the Spanish edition that this is apparently the first book ever published by a Havana-born woman. Clearly, I was going to have to take a look.

Iaconangelo was certainly right about the originality: I’ve never come across stories more extraordinary than these. Operating in a universe of turtle-men, tiger-men and elephant-men, where stags ride horses, fishermen negotiate with their prey and earthworms compete for the hands of beautiful heroines, these tales pull apart the threads of reality’s backdrop and invite the reader to step through to the weird, cruel and magical cosmos beyond.

Language itself buckles, blends and warps in its attempt to contain the vibrant currents that flow through these tales, with the cultural fusion reflected by the inclusion of utterances from the now extinct creolized dialect Bozal, as well as phrases from Lucumi, Congo and Abakua tongues. As one footnote explains, ‘the original meaning of many of the African words in this book has been lost’, giving a lot of them the mysterious quality of magical incantations, for which they were used in some Afro-Cuban circles.

In addition, the stories themselves test the limits of the language in which they are couched: in ‘Bregantino Bregantin’, for example – in which men are banished and women live along with a single male bull – communication changes so that ‘all masculine words not directly related to the bull were eliminated from the language’. The effect of reading this in the original, gendered Spanish must be particularly striking.

For all their strangeness, however, the stories nevertheless manage to comment on the world around them. Indeed, the distance that some of the more surreal episodes create probably grants the narratives more leverage to attack racism and the hypocrisy of institutions like the Church – ‘all of us are children of saints, and all of our meanness and the pleasure we take in sinning comes directly from them,’ begins one particularly mordant tale.

There are also moments of exceptional beauty, as in the opening paragraph of ‘The Mutes’:

‘On the first night, the moon looked like a thin strand of hair. On the next, like the edge of a transparent sickle. Next it looked like a slice of juicy honeydew melon, and then like a round millstone. Finally it dropped off into the night’s deep mouth, where the Eternally Hidden, the person whom no one has ever seen and who lives at the bottom of the bottomless, smashes up all the old moons with a stone to make stars while another moon is on its way.’

Brave, beautiful, weird and maddening, the stories that Lydia Cabrera gathered and filtered through her own writerly imagination are a lesson in how to break the rules and create something astonishing. As a collection, this book shouldn’t work: it’s inconsistent and erratic; characters stroll on half way through narratives and divert them another way; some stories peter out and the voice varies wildly between tales. But then, superficial logic would also tell us we shouldn’t be able to see light from stars that no longer exist.

Afro-Cuban Tales (Cuentos negros de Cuba) by Lydia Cabrera, translated from the Spanish by Alberto Hernandez-Chiroldes and Lauren Yoder (University of Nebraska Press, 2004)

Jamaica: divine retribution

This was a recommendation from novelist and blogger Stephanie Saulter. She said that as I’d enjoyed Gaiman’s American Gods she thought I might like this ‘wonderfully dark fantasy that weaves folk tales and superstition into a real-life story of betrayal, deprivation and alienation’. I was intrigued.

Set in the fantastical town of Gibbeah – where birds attack humans and certain houses assume magical powers – Marlon James’s debut novel John Crow’s Devil examines the lengths that fear and hearsay will drive people to. When the self-proclaimed ‘Apostle’ York strides into the midst of a church service to drag the drunkard Hector Bligh, known as ‘the Rum Preacher’, from the pulpit, many see it as the wake-up call their sleepy community needs. But as the Apostle assumes control and begins to preach an erratic gospel of fire, brimstone, vengeance and violence for all those who do not stick to the path of righteousness, a darker truth emerges that tips the town into a spiral of hell.

James excels at portraits of outsiders. All his major characters harbour some secret suffering that sets them apart from the community and on course for the collision that blows the narrative into the stratosphere in the closing stages of the book. There is the self-loathing and prudish church administrator Lucinda, the fanatical and warped Apostle, the lonely widow who harbours the Rum Preacher, and of course guilt-ridden Bligh himself.

James puts these individual stories against a backdrop of suspicion and narrow-mindedness – ‘a town that preferred things black or white’ where ‘church people, through their stares, created a boundary of shame that few climbed over’. Oscillating between a more detached third-person narrative style and a collective, community voice, he weaves a web of whispers that evokes small-town gossip-mongering in all its terrifying yet seductive fullness:

‘Yes baba! Rumour jump from her yard and race down the street and stop at Mrs Fracas house, then Mrs Smithfield house where it pick up two more story, then it hop and skip and jump from one yard to the next, then it race to the grocery shop where it bounce and bounce like American ball. And every time rumour bounce, the story pick up something new.’

This use of multiple, characterful voices combines with superlative, supple writing that is more than equal to the horrors it unfolds – among them one of the most graphic and powerful flogging scenes going. What in another writer’s hands might descend into cheap sensationalism here grows in stature and subtlety with every twist of the knife. An outstanding piece of work. Thanks for the tip-off, Stephanie.

John Crow’s Devil by Marlon James (Macmillan Caribbean, 2008)

Grenada: a class act

As the UK and Commonwealth mark Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, here’s a book from one of the 16 sovereign states around the world that still count her as their constitutional monarch.

I heard about writer Merle Collins through the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, an annual literary festival that takes place in Trinidad & Tobago, which writer Vahni Capildeo tipped me off about. Now in its second year, the event is home to the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature and Collins’s short story collection The Ladies are Upstairs was on the 2012 shortlist.

The characters in Collins’s stories are people caught between worlds. Whether she’s describing the elderly woman Rain, ‘still lost in a childhood she couldn’t forget’, or the young man trapped between the strange disappearance of the woman hitchhiker he picks up on a lonely road and the conclusions of his rational mind, the author delights in pitting conflicting influences against one another in the rugged terrain of the psyche.

As the title suggests, class has a considerable part to play. Several of the characters, in particular Doux, who links the majority of the stories together, run up against the limits imposed by station. ‘You Should See Them in Church with Glasses on!’, in which the young Doux is unjustly accused of stealing during her first job as a maid, is particularly memorable.

In addition, Collins’s fascination with psychogeography and the pull of the supernatural makes for several deliciously spooky tales. ‘Big Stone’, an account of a midwife’s eerie encounter with a child during a walk home at dusk, is the best of these. Telling the story exclusively through reported speech, which gives the narrative a weird and distant feel, the writer draws on the atrocities buried in the Isle of Spice’s colonial past to create a compelling and unnerving backdrop:

‘What kind of night? Well, you know how those old estate places were. Those places used to have a lot of pain and wickedness in the past, but she wanted to emphasise that they were not like that today.’

The shared cast of characters, myths and memories that tie many of the stories together, give much of the work a familiar feel, so that by the final tales you feel as though you are part of the community, with a stake in the common heritage on which they rest. This makes the last piece – in which Doux, now an old woman living in an alarmed granny flat with her daughter in the USA, contemplates her loss of independence and approaching death – particularly moving.

Seen in the context of the celebration of one woman’s 60-year stint at the head of an association of a quarter of the world’s nations, this striking yet subtle collection of stories from one of its remotest corners reveals powerful truths about the common traits that link its subjects and the rest of the world.

The Ladies are Upstairs by Merle Collins (Peepal Tree Press, 2011)

Haiti: am I being stupid?

The question of what counts as ‘national literature’ is a tricky one. As I’ve found during the first four months of this project, lots of people have very different ideas about what it means.

Some people say it’s all about books by people from particular countries. Others think it has to be set in a certain place. The real hardliners claim it’s both, while another contingent argues that it’s more about what stories countries consider to be part of their national literature.

As the months have gone on, I’ve found myself leaning towards a definition involving books written by people with strong connections to particular nations. Usually these will be people with citizenship, but at the very least they’ll be writers who have lived in a country long enough for it to be woven into the story of who they are.

However, the protagonist of Dany Laferrière’s novel I am a Japanese Writer, which is on the shortlist for the 2012 Best Translated Book Award, would probably disagree. Having bagged an advance for his next novel on the strength of the title alone – it’s also called I am a Japanese Writer – the Haitian-Canadian struggles to get started on the manuscript. Claiming to be ‘tired of cultural nationalism’ and wanting to ‘show that borders have disappeared’, he attempts to immerse himself in whatever Japanese culture he can find in his home town of Montreal in the hope that a story will emerge from it. But when news of the book sparks a cultural movement in Japan and the Japanese embassy wants to involve him in all sorts of literary ventures and events, the writer finds he may have bitten off more than he can chew.

As the subject matter suggests, the book unpicks what makes up works of art. For my purposes, the meditations on cultural identity – from comments highlighting the oddness of concepts such as the ‘French kiss’, which ‘exists everywhere but France’, to full-blown discussions of nationality – were particularly fascinating. I couldn’t help but be challenged by one particular passage early in the narrative:

‘I don’t understand all the attention paid to a writer’s origins. […] Very naturally, I repatriated the writers I read at the time. All of them: Flaubert, Goethe, Whitman, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Cervantes, Kipling, Senghor, Césaire, Roumain, Amado, Diderot – they all lived in my village. Otherwise, what were they doing in my room? Years later, when I became a writer and people asked me, “Are you a Haitian writer, a Caribbean writer or a French-language writer?” I answered without hesitation: I take on my reader’s nationality. Which means that when a Japanese person reads me, I immediately become a Japanese writer.’

Where did this leave A Year of Reading the World then? Was I being foolish to even contemplate something so reductionist as trying to read a book from every country? Was I one of the ‘space police’ the protagonist describes, grimly shoehorning writers into boxes they would never choose? What if, as Laferrière’s protagonist would have it, I was simply assembling piles of British books on the shelf in my living room because, being British, I was unable to read books on any other terms?

These weighty discussions are offset by the narrator’s self-deprecating humour as he repeatedly dismantles his soap boxes and shifts ground. The witty portrayal of writer’s block and the protagonist’s ham-fisted attempts to immerse himself in Japanese culture – at one stage he bombards a bewildered Korean with questions on the assumption that the two countries are ‘the same thing’ – are great fun.

In addition, the arguments are undercut by the way Laferrière circles his readers, Sumo-wrestler-style, daring us to make the false move of conflating his protagonist with him. The writer may be a Haitian-Canadian living in Montreal and working on a novel with the same title as his creator’s, but he is of course not Laferrière. Or is he? And would it add any more authenticity and credibility to his arguments if the two were one and the same?

Ultimately, of course, the protagonist’s self-deterministic approach to his own work is blown apart by the wild reaction of the Japanese. Whether he likes it or not, the work he produces (or, in this case, has yet to produce) can not be controlled. As this fiendishly clever and enjoyable book demonstrates, the act of publishing is about setting a work free for others to criticise, categorise and cannibalise as they chose. Cultural nationalism may be a construct, but it is a construct to which the vast majority of the world subscribes.

Does that make it true? I don’t know. But hey, if all I’m doing here is assembling a library of British books, novels like this mean it’s definitely my most interesting and diverse collection to date.

I am a Japanese Writer by Dany Laferrière, translated from the French by David Homel (Douglas & McIntyre, 2011)

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