I have a bit of news. I have a book coming out in September. Actually, it’s a new edition of my first book, Reading the World – seven years after the original UK hardback and ten years since my 2012 quest.
In that time, this blog and has changed from a quirky, yearlong project to a lifelong endeavour – one that strangers still contact me about almost every day. It has had some extraordinary highs (from my delivering my TED and TEDx talks, speaking on BBC Radio 4 and meeting my hero Tété-Michel Kpomassie over Zoom to taking up the role of Literary Explorer in Residence at the UK’s Cheltenham Literature Festival).
But it has also been challenging and I have had to work hard to keep it sustainable and worthwhile alongside my other work and writing projects. One of the ways I have tried to do this is by continually developing my reading and reviewing practice, most recently launching the first of what I hope will eventually be a series of workshops for curious readers (more information here).
The fact that I have kept going is largely down to you and the thousands of intrepid readers around the world like you who contact me about books. Your enthusiasm, and the wonderful recommendations and information you send, continue to inspire and intrigue me, and keep me excited about the extraordinary power of stories to connect us across all sorts of divides. Thank you.
It’s been great to have a chance to reflect on all this – and on how storytelling and our world have changed in the past ten years – in a new foreword. I’ve also enjoyed catching up with some of the writers and translators I featured in the original edition and adding to their stories, as well as updating a lot of the facts and figures in the original manuscript. And I rather like the new subtitle – How I Read a Book from Every Country – too. I hope this edition will be of interest to anyone who loves reading widely and wants to understand more about how stories travel, and how they shape us.
Preorders make a massive difference to a book’s success, so if you don’t have a copy, would like another, know someone who might enjoy it, or simply need a doorstop, please do place an order. Your support will mean a lot and will help me keep this blog free for people everywhere keen to explore the world’s books. Thanks so much.
Firsts can be tricky propositions. Whenever I hear about the first translation into English of a work of literature from a particular country, I am pulled in two directions. On one hand, I’m glad that another nation’s stories are now represented in the world’s most-published language (there were around 11 UN-recognised states with no commercially available literature in English at the time of my 2012 quest).
On the other hand, I feel wary. Making a book the global ambassador for a country’s written works is a lot of weight to place on a single story (a dangerous concept as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has explained). It can also be very unhelpful – a nation, after all, is the sum of numerous, often contradictory narratives. We need a supply of multiple tales told in a range of voices, not a single example that we can showcase like an artefact in a museum.
But publishers love a marketing hook and billing something as the first example of a certain kind of literature seems a good way to attract sales. So it’s hardly surprising that houses big and small make much of such claims.
My latest featured read is not strictly the first book in English translation from its home nation. There was a long-out-of-print children’s book – a sort of Enid Blyton with crocodiles – that I managed to get my hands on from this country during my original quest. But, to my knowledge, publisher Dedalus is correct in describing Rachael McGill’s translation of Adrienne Yabouza’s Co-wives, Co-widows as the first book for adults by a writer from the Central African Republic to come into English.
As the title suggests, the novel follows two women, Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou, married to the same man, Lidou, who dies during the course of the story. Faced with an event that spells disaster in their strongly patriarchal society, where women are routinely turfed out of their homes by their husbands’ families on the death of their spouses, the widows have little option but to rely on each other to secure a future for themselves and their children.
The major challenge for an author writing protagonists in a relatively powerless position is not to make them seem like victims. Yabouza’s solution to this is humour. Her narrative is threaded through with a range of kinds of comedy, revealing everything from the surreality of death to the hypocrisy that underpins the women’s daily reality.
Often, wit glimmers in a single word (credit to McGill here). We learn, for example, that the sun ‘beat down mercilessly and democratically on all citizens’ waiting in the interminable queue to vote. Similarly, Yabouza makes rich capital of free indirect speech to reveal the ways her characters lie to themselves. Here’s Lidou in the run-up to his heart attack: ‘He’d practically given up smoking, he only accepted every other beer these days and he only ever touched kangoya or bili-bili on Sundays, or mostly only then.’
This lightness of touch does not prevent Yabouza from revealing the depths of the injustices that surround Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou. Whether it’s the self-regard of the EU officials monitoring the electoral process or the naked corruption in the legal and political systems, she pulls no punches in laying society’s ills bare – sometimes literally. The widows, for example, receive a brutal beating from their husbands’ relatives when they attempt to attend his funeral.
There is a beautiful directness in the writing, too, particularly when it comes to scene-setting. Take ‘the big eyelid of night closed over Bangui’ or the description of the sky ‘slashed from side to side by the machete strokes of lightning’. This directness adds weight to moments of emotional intensity in the narrative, where Yabouza often excels at capturing deep feelings in simple words.
That said, not every image works smoothly. I found myself tripped up by the phrase ‘deeper in his thoughts than a relative trying to draft an insincere eulogy for a bigwig’s funeral’. It felt as though the writing was trying too hard here – although this may also be a function of cultural difference, which presents some intriguing challenges. For example, the depiction of a new suitor wooing Ndongo Passy by inviting her to cook a meal for him and his friends (much to her delight) will pull many of those raised in the Western tradition up short, as will the proliferation of descriptions comparing her to one of his cows.
The same can be said for the plot. Those looking for a staunchly feminist account of two women breaking free of patriarchal control, will no doubt find the resolution, which relies on the women gaining male support and permission for their plans, frustrating. Unlike the protagonist of Paulina Chiziane’s The First Wife, tr. David Brookshaw, who bands together with other women to transcend the system that has oppressed her, Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou choose to operate within the mechanisms they know. Although the narrative presents strong female agents, such as the lawyer Catherine, it falls short of imagining an upending of the status quo.
But perhaps this is ultimately a more emotionally satisfying, realistic-seeming ending for many of the original readers of this novel. A mirror rather than a beacon, it is a trailblazer in another respect: a translation of a story from the Central African Republic written without regard for European sensibilities (unlike the children’s book published decades before). That alone makes it worth the price of admission. And judging by its wit, insightfulness and passion, it ought to be the first of many more such publications.
Co-wives, Co-widows (Co-épouses, co-veuves) translated from the French by Rachael McGill (Dedalus, 2021)
Picture: ‘Central African women inspecting building for microfinance project’ by hdptcar on flickr.com
My featured read from April sparked an interesting discovery. Shortly after starting it, I found myself brought up short by something on the page: a section of dialogue featuring the response, ‘…’.
I was struck by seeing ‘…’ as it was a formulation I had recently started to experiment with in my own fiction. Making the choice to use it had felt like a bit of a leap. It wasn’t a construction that had been part of the written English I had grown up with and wasn’t something I was conscious of having seen in prose books until relatively recently.
Encountering a conversational ellipsis in a work translated from Korean raised a question for me. Where had it come from? Was it present in the original or had the translator introduced it in lieu of writing: ‘X said nothing’? Did other languages have this formulation before it started to have a presence Anglophone writing?
Intrigued, I turned to Twitter. Responses from translators including Sawad Hussain, Frank Wynne and Lucy North quickly established that ‘…’ features in Japanese, Arabic, French and Spanish. Given the relatively recent emergence of this construction in English, it was beginning to sound as though translators may have been instrumental in introducing it to the world’s most published language – an instance of translation not only conveying meaning but also enlarging modes of expression.
Then, in a delightfully serendipitous turn of events, Anton Hur, the translator of the book I was reading, joined the discussion.
‘I’ve wondered the same thing,’ he wrote. ‘Frank’s answer makes me think it was invented in Europe and came over to Korea through Japan (which readily absorbed European practices) in the Modernist era. Edmund White uses it in THE BEAUTIFUL ROOM IS EMPTY (1988) and he studied Chinese lit.’
When I revealed that the book that had made me ask the question was his translation of Kyung-Sook Shin’s Violets, he responded: ‘AAAAHHHHH thank you for reading! Yes, there is A LOT of implied silence in VIOLETS, and many more “…” in the source than what made it into the translation (I changed it to “Silence” or “She was silent” etc.). Many Kyung-Sook Shin characters express themselves silently. A style!’
It certainly is. Written more than 20 years ago, Violets, as Shin explains in her 2021 afterword to the English translation, is a story that aims to speak for ‘women all around us who exist in silence’. It follows the fortunes of San, a neglected young woman who comes to Seoul and takes a job at a florist’s only for her new life to be derailed by a violent obsession with a man who comes into the shop one day.
Silence is just one of the tools used to express the reticence that underpins and ultimately drives the story. A profound succinctness in the writing works to convey an emotional detachment that reveals the heartbreaking disassociation San has been obliged to go through in order to survive. Without the connective tissue often used to embed a character’s thoughts in third-person narratives, impressions arrive as though they are occurring organically so that it often seems as though the reader is experiencing and thinking in step with San.
Credit must also go to Hur for his deft handling of cultural exposition. Issues such as name order and informal and formal voice can often creak in English language versions. But his presentation of San and her friend Namae’s outsider status in her home village – because they are Sur Namae and Oh San rather than members of the Yi family – is disarmingly unfussy and clear. (Slightly confusingly, Kyung-Sook Shin’s family name is given last in the English edition, although in South Korea she is known as Shin Kyung-Sook.)
What makes this all the more impressive is the depth of the immersion in San’s world Shin and Hur achieve in so few words. It’s no surprise to learn from the afterword that Shin spent six months working on a flower farm while she wrote the novel because there is an almost tangible quality to the depiction of San’s daily life in the florist’s, where small details speak loudly and feelings can swell ‘like a cloud of tadpoles rising up from muddy water’.
The surface tranquility of much of the narrative makes the moments of violence and rupture all the more shocking. It would have been easy to present San purely as a victim, but Shin is careful not to do so: even as she self-sabotages and runs up against systemic misogyny, San fights to act on her own terms, freeing herself from a would-be attacker in one particularly memorable sequence.
What undoes her is not her weakness but the universal inability of human beings to look at lived experiences objectively. Locked in her present, San is unable to appreciate the layeredness Shin reveals in moments and the way actions are rarely a response to the contemporary situation but to events that stretch back through and beyond the limits of an individual’s existence – impulses that have ‘lain in wait for millennia before bursting forth’. The rare moments of self-insight – the realisation that her loneliness has its roots in her rejection by her childhood companion Namae, the understanding that she is misremembering a significant encounter by picturing herself wearing a plum-coloured blouse she doesn’t own – are not enough to stem this tide.
Quiet novels can struggle to be heard in the clamour of today’s literary market. But Violets makes a strong case for the importance of making space for narratives that don’t shriek for attention. Though couched in silence, ellipses and the unsayable, this is a story that builds to a roar.
Violets by Kyung-Sook Shin, translated from the Korean by Anton Hur (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2022)
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)
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)
Yesterday, however, I got to realise my dream (virtually at least) and spent 40 minutes talking to the intrepid explorer, whose extraordinary journey across the world to live with the Inuit in the 1960s has long been an inspiration for me.
The call came about after I heard the wonderful news that Kpomassie’s groundbreaking memoir, An African in Greenland, translated by James Kirkup, was being reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic, with a new afterword, translated by Ros Schwartz. When Penguin contacted me about it, I seized the opportunity to ask to speak with the great man, who is now 80 and lives in France.
It turned out to be one of the most joyful, thrilling and thought-provoking conversations of my life. I was humbled to hear Kpomassie say that he saw parallels between our quests because they both came out of a desire to push beyond received notions and meet the world on our own terms. And my delight knew no bounds when, holding up the beautiful new English-language edition of his book, I saw Kpomassie raise a copy of my novel, Beside Myself, in reply.
We covered many things. I asked Kpomassie how he maintained so much energy and enthusiasm after living with the aftermath of his life-defining journey for so many decades. ‘It’s easy,’ he told me. ‘I am still the same person.’
He went on to explain that, for him, the extraordinary adventure he began as a teenager has always had the quality of a mission – a calling entrusted to him by the surprising collision of many factors (the appearance of the python that gave him his fear of snakes; the baffling presence of a book about Greenland in a shop in rural Togo; the fact that his six years of education gave him just enough French to understand the text and conceive his ambition to run away to this treeless, snake-free land).
A big part of this mission involves opening up the minds of young Africans to the wider world. ‘I think Africans should learn many languages and travel,’ he told me. But he is clear that this must work both ways. There should be greater prominence for and celebration of African culture internationally.
For Kpomassie, language is central to this. ‘We have more than 100 languages in Togo, yet if a young boy can’t speak French perfectly, he cannot succeed. That’s ridiculous,’ he told me, going on to say that it was similarly outrageous that African nations are among the few that don’t speak their own languages when they go to international conventions such as those at the UN.
He would like to see a Pan-African language chosen as the continent’s lingua franca – whether Swahili, Wolof or another widely spoken tongue. This, he says, would play a powerful role in evening up international relations and cultural exchange: people around the world would learn it in much the same way as many European languages are studied, thereby opening up opportunities for African linguists and translators.
The point, he stressed, was to be respectful and evenhanded. ‘No culture is better than another.’
Kpomassie has seen firsthand the damage favouring one culture over another can do. He still remembers the outrage and confusion the European missionaries caused when they tried to convince his father to abandon seven of his eight wives and marry one in a Christian ceremony, an action that would have spelled disaster for many of his brothers and sisters, and could have started a feud with neighbouring villages.
Yet it wasn’t until he reached Greenland that the extent of the wrongs done by colonial evangelism became clear to Kpomassie. ‘They changed the words [of the Lord’s Prayer] to “Give us this day our daily seal”,’ he told me. ‘But no-one gives you a seal at minus 40 degrees. You have to work really hard for it. I realised then that “Give us this day our daily bread” was a lie used to control us.’
Different though they were in so many ways, Kpomassie found parallels between the animism of the Inuit and the traditional beliefs of his community. There was a respect for nature and a sense of oneness with the environment that he found lacking in many European settlers, who made handbags out of the pythons that were sacred to locals in Togo.
This is one of the reasons that, as he writes in the afterword of the new edition of Michel the Giant: An African in Greenland, on some level, he never really left Greenland. And it is why he will move back there later this year. After a lecture tour, he plans to live out his days reading and writing in the country that won his heart more than 50 years ago. ‘This time,’ he says, ‘I will not return.’
Some weeks ago, I had an email from R. Like many over the past couple of years, they’d had a tough time and found solace in reading. Having been keen to expand their horizons, they had embarked on an international quest, using the List on this blog as a source of ideas and supplementing these with their own discoveries when they felt like it or didn’t like my choices (the best way to use this website, if you ask me).
Their favourite read not featured on my list was The Old Drift by Zambian author Namwali Serpell. I decided to give it a try.
Spanning more than a century, a large cast of characters and numerous countries, The Old Drift is a proudly ambitious book. Similar in scope to The Eighth Life, which R also enjoyed, the novel begins in 1904 with a small pioneer settlement near Victoria Falls, and traces how the connections and traumas forged in that messy collision of people ricochet down the generations. Over its course we meet, among many others, blind British tennis player Agnes who marries across the colour bar, a philandering doctor intent on finding a vaccine for AIDs, the Zambian astronaut who never was, and a woman covered in hair.
Stylistically, the novel is something of a Trojan horse. On the face of it, the form and storytelling are familiar, recalling many of the sweeping, colonial narratives authored in decades past in the global north. Yet this one has a difference: there is a bite to the tone and a zing to the wit that undermines that familiar structure and forces the reader to look again at many of the prejudices and assumptions that might have passed unexamined in such stories before now.
Recalling the telling historical commentary of writers such as Abdulrazak Gurnah, Serpell explodes any notions of glory that may yet be attached to empire in the reader’s mind. The pioneers in her book are a ragtag, brutal bunch, most of whom, having failed elsewhere, decided to ‘go where pale skin and a small inheritance went further’.
The risk with big-canvas stories such as this is that the scale overwhelms the individual elements; yet Serpell does not fall into this trap. She inhabits her vast range of characters – even the unsympathetic ones – with powerful humanity. Her depiction of Agnes’s sight loss is moving, as is her portrayal of the way her husband, Ronald, edits his homeland’s history to present the version he believes she wants to hear:
‘During his time at university, Ronald had learned that “history” was the word the English used for the record of every time a white man encountered something he had never seen and promptly claimed it as his own, often renaming it for good measure. History, in short, was the annals of the bully on the playground. This, he knew, was what Agnes would expect to hear. So Ronald skipped the real story: the southern migration of the Bemba tribe from the north in the seventeenth century, the battles with other tribes and the bargains with Arab slave traders that had left only a straggling group of warriors wandering the great plateau with its many lakes, carting around a wooden carving of a crocodile, their chitimukulu’s totem, until one day, in the valley at the base of a circle of rocky hills, they came across a sapphire lake, shiwa, with a dead crocodile, ng’andu, on its shores – a sign that they should settle there. Instead Ronald began the story with a white man, one he knew Agnes would recognise from her Grandpa Percy’s stories.
‘”No!” she exclaimed. “The most famous man who ever lived in Africa? He died there?”‘
Serpell is well versed in the challenges of blending history and fiction: it’s astonishing how many national events she weaves through the narrative, from the painful struggle towards independence and the subsequent oppression under Kenneth Kaunda’s United National Independence Party to democratisation and economic struggles, before stretching forward into a nightmarish near-future where the very notion of independence itself is under threat.
Occasionally the research sits a little too close to the surface of the narrative (although when it comes to episodes such as Edward Makuka Nkoloso’s Zambian Space Programme – complete with training techniques such as rolling aspiring astronauts downhill in oil drums – it is joyous). Partly, this is because the book appears to be outward-facing – written for readers beyond Zambia’s borders – with the result that Serpell sometimes explains customs, attitudes and context that she would probably leave unglossed for those closer to home. It would be nice to see her demand a little more of her readers instead of taking such good care not to leave us confused.
This generosity can sometimes slow the pacing, particularly in the final chapters when events seem to demand an acceleration in the telling (at least according to the norms of European novel structure). The mosquito chorus that punctuates each section, though witty and playful, also sometimes slows the pace.
At its best, however, the novel is sublime. Absolutely engaging, mightily imagined, funny, heartfelt and fearless. Thanks, R, for this worthy and welcome addition to my list!
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell (Hogarth Books, 2019)
Translators have long been my heroes. Almost from the moment I had the eccentric idea to try to read a book from every country in a year back in late 2011, I have found them to be extraordinarily generous, inspiring and wise.
Not only have they helped shaped my understanding of the different ways storytelling works around the globe and revealed many of the blind spots that I continue to challenge myself to overcome in my reading, but they have also repeatedly drawn my attention to writers and trends that I would otherwise have overlooked. Many of the best reads I have featured in this project have come to me by way of a translator’s recommendation.
It’s fitting, then, that the final featured title of my first decade of reading the world should be one that a translator fought to bring into the world’s most published language. Sawad Hussain’s ‘Translator’s Note’ at the start of A Bed for the King’s Daughter makes no secret of the struggles she went through to get award-winning Syrian writer Shahla Ujayli’s short story collection an English-language book deal.
In addition to the experimental nature of the writing, one of the major issues Hussain encountered was that the work ‘stepped out of the trope of how Arabic literature is too often digested today’:
‘[The collection] is not an anthropological foray into the heart of Syrian life or history, though it is a “Syrian” short story collection. It is not confined to “women’s issues”, though written by an Arab woman. Rather, the human psyche is explored.
‘And that is the highest form of literature: not a piece of work that we easily swallow, digest, and after which we rub our bellies gleefully, but rather a body of written work that, rather than giving you the answers, elicits a gut reaction, makes you uncomfortable, puts you on edge and makes you ask (hard) questions. Just as Dena Afrasiabi, the delightful editor of this series, was able to recognize the promise of this collection, I hope that you will also go against the tide, and on a journey of discovery – of the fresh and the possible.’
In short, the writing in this slim volume does not fit into one of the neat marketing categories that publishers often impose on literature from elsewhere, a trend I’ve taken to calling the genrefication of national literatures. In fact, the 22 very short stories in this collection do not conform to many assumptions anglophone readers might have about the short story form itself. I suspect most of the pieces in this volume would not score highly on an English-language creative-writing course.
The maxim ‘show, don’t tell’, for example, has no place in Ujayli’s writing. (Indeed, it has little place in much translated writing because it assumes a shared frame of reference between writer and reader that is unrealistic when it comes to literature from markedly different cultures.) Meanwhile, the author has no hesitation about pulling the rug out from under the reader in the final line, as she does in a number of these pieces, seeming to undermine everything that has gone before. In Ujayli’s world, the experience of waking up to find it has all been a dream seems to be chillingly commonplace.
Instead of the sort of works we might be used to, she presents us with a series of wry, striking shards of writing. Many of them read like parables. Some are more akin to sick jokes. There is the story, for example, of the corrupt police officer who pulls strings to get his brother a gun licence only to be shot by his sibling in the final line. There are the children who Santa fails to visit because of a delay at an Israeli checkpoint.
In such extremely short stories – many of which would fall into the anglophone ‘flash fiction’ category – there is often little room for development or progression. These are largely snapshots rather than short films – a portrait of a dilemma rather than a working through of a problem.
A key to their mechanism seems to glimmer in ‘The Strangest Thing that Happened to Me in 2010’, in which an art-history professor recalls a piece of writing submitted by one of their students in response to the brief: ‘Tell me about Surrealism’. Instead of turning in an essay, the student recounts a bizarre experience. ‘This tale of mine will present surrealism in the way of someone outside the depth of thought, not in the way of someone surrounded by it,’ she writes.
Instinct, mysticism, the crashing together of things that don’t belong – these elements seem threaded throughout this collection. To overthink it, perhaps even to try to explain it, is a mistake. These are works that stand outside the depth of thought, working on the reader as dreams do, defying summation or categorisation.
And like dreams, some will leave us baffled. Some may seem nonsensical or childish. But some will resonate profoundly in a way that cannot quite be captured except in the words as they are presented on the page.
There isn’t much writing like this published in English. Some may say there’s a good reason for that. I say it’s an argument for this book’s existence, and for all the other jagged, unsettling works that don’t fit neatly into bookshop categories. Because, as its translator so eloquently argues, stories like this invite us to journey further, to enlarge our sense of what is possible, to envision other ways of seeing.
A Bed for the King’s Daughter by Shahla Ujayli, translated from the Arabic by Sawad Hussain (Center for Middle Eastern Studies, The University of Texas at Austin, 2020)
Exactly ten years ago I was preparing to set out on what would turn out to be a lifechanging quest: spending 2012 trying to read a book from every country in the world. The bookshelf in the living room in my small south London flat was clear, ready to receive the first of the 144 hard copies and manuscripts, and 53 ebooks I would make my way through that year.
By this stage, I already had suggestions for books from around 110 countries and a sense of some of the challenges my project would entail. I had already been amazed by the enthusiasm the idea had been met with, prompting strangers around the globe to send me recommendations, advice, books and words of encouragement. However, as this short recording by producer Chris Elcombe showed, I had no concept of what was about to happen to me.
As I waited to open the first page, I knew nothing then of how the extraordinary books I encountered would change my thinking, enlarge my perspective and teach me to reimagine not only my world but also myself. I had no clue that this project contained the seeds of my first book, Reading the World, and that the lessons it taught me would unlock my dream of becoming a published novelist. I couldn’t imagine that this eccentric personal quest would lead to speaking invitations and media appearances all over the planet, TEDx and TED talks, hundreds of connections and friendships, and a steady trickle of messages from curious readers. And I was ignorant of the fact that, far from a year-long experiment, A Year of Reading the World would become a lifelong endeavour.
Next year brings some more exciting developments. I’m not able to talk about them yet, but as soon as I can, I’ll let you know.
In the meantime, as 2021 ticks through its final 100 hours, I look back on the past decade with gratitude and wonder. The world can be a dark place at times and the last couple of years have been especially challenging. Yet our love of storytelling and the power it has to connect us – made so stunningly clear to me back in 2012 – remain undimmed.
Thanks to everyone who has made this quest what it is. Thanks for writing. Thanks for reading. May 2022 bring us all some excellent stories.
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)