On the trail of international crime writers

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This weekend, I went undercover. Officially, I was hosting one of the tables at the ‘Kill Me Quick’ author dinner as part of Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, one of the biggest events dedicated to crime and thriller writing in the world.

That was my alibi for being at the Old Swan Hotel, the handsome hostelry where, in 1926, murder mystery queen Agatha Christie was discovered hiding out after she disappeared for 10 days, sparking a massive search. However, as regular readers of this blog will appreciate, I had ulterior motives for lurking at the scene of the crime: with the schedule promising events involving some of the leading genre writers from around the world, I was eager to do a spot of literary spying.

And so it was that I caught an earlier train up to Yorkshire than I needed and, flashing my author pass and a smile, slipped into two Saturday sessions dedicated to crime writing from beyond the Anglo-American world.

The first was ‘Murder Out of Africa’, a discussion bringing together several writers of novels set in the continent. Something of a mystery emerged when the panel, chaired by prolific British novelist NJ Cooper, walked in, however: with the exception of Nigerian writer Leye Adenle, everyone else taking seats on the stage was white. Indeed, had it not been for the last-minute withdrawal of Margie Orford, whom Adenle had replaced at short notice, the participants would all have been Caucasian.

This, Cape Town-set thriller author Paul Mendelson explained when an audience member raised the question towards the end of the session, was to do with what London-based publishers selected for release. Nevertheless, Adenle was quick to point out that a number of black African authors are making names for themselves and that the African crime fiction becoming available to Western audiences is increasingly diverse.

The representation problem aside, the discussion was fascinating and wide-ranging, taking in a number of issues specific to writing murder mysteries in the continent, as well as challenges that all novelists face. Afrikaans author Deon Meyer spoke about his sense of the perception among many Western readers that African crime writing cannot be entertaining because the setting has so much darkness and violence. This was not true, he said: he and his peers did everything to make their books as thrilling and suspenseful as any comparable work (and judging by Meyer’s sales figures and the fact that his books have been translated into 28 languages, he is certainly doing something right).

Indeed, if anything, Meyer felt readers should be a little wary of the much-vaunted craze for Nordic noir. ‘Just ask yourself how much credibility do crime writers have from countries that have no murders,’ he quipped.

The question of misogyny came up (barring NJ Cooper, the panel was all male, although this would not have been the case had Orford been there). Cooper challenged Mendelson to speak about the extreme violence against women in The Serpentine Road and opened the question up to consider whether misogyny was a common theme in African crime writing.

Adenle was quick to counter this. Such misogyny as does exist in African writing and cultures, he said, was the result of the introduction of Christianity, with its teaching that the man is the head of the household. Prior to this, many African cultures were matriarchal. Polyandry was practised in some tribes and there are historical accounts of powerful queens, such as the Hausa Muslim warrior Amina. One of the many consequences of colonialism had been the swapping of one set of myths for another, with the attendant blind spots and prejudices.

A question on process brought a fascinating insight into the working methods of writing duo Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, aka Michael Stanley. Having started out as academics, the pair were used to writing collaboratively with other colleagues and so, when they came up with the idea for a crime novel, it seemed only natural to work in that way, with one drafting a section for the other to edit and visa versa. Now living on different continents, they find the time difference particularly useful: ‘We can write 24 hours a day,’ said Sears.

Next up, came ‘France Noir – Le Roman Policier’, another panel discussion bringing together thriller heavyweight Pierre Lemaitre, award-winning translator Frank Wynne (who interpreted where necessary), prize-winner Bernard Minier and SJ Parris (aka Stephanie Merritt), whose Conspiracy is set in 16th-century Paris. Funnily enough, Merritt’s memoir The Devil Within, was one of the books I drew on during my research into bipolar disorder for my novel, Beside Myself, so it was fascinating to see her speaking on quite another topic.

As with the previous event, the discussion covered a lot of ground. An interesting revelation came when Frank Wynne observed that he had been largely responsible for the English-language titles of Lemaitre’s works, several of which diverge from the French originals. I wanted to ask him about his reasons for settling on Blood Wedding for the most recently published book. While it’s no doubt arresting, the phrase has strong associations with the Lorca play of the same name and I wondered whether this was deliberate.

The forest of hands that went up at the end meant I didn’t get the opportunity to find out at the time, but this morning on Twitter Wynne gave me this explanation: ‘yes, very cheeky but deliberate. Not that it refers to anything in the text – the French title couldn’t easily be translated. In Robe de marié the missing final E means it’s not wedding dress but bridegroom’s dress – the 1st is subtle, the 2nd clunky.’

Lemaitre provided a powerful insight into the importance of anglophone publishing deals. His international success took off when he signed his English-language contract, with numerous other foreign-rights sales following. ‘For any French writer, the most important translation is English,’ he said. ‘Even if you never sell a single book to an English reader. Much better to have failure in English than a roaring success in another language.’

Countering the suggestion that French noir books are particularly gruesome, Minier, whose 2011 novel The Frozen Dead starts with the grotesque murder of a horse, pointed out that nothing could be more violent than some of the things found in Shakespeare. ‘It’s a question of degree,’ agreed Lemaitre. ‘My wife has been asked how she could have married a man who could write such horrible things. The response is: how can you buy a book by a man who can write such horrible things.’

The discussion also brought up a contrast in the way that crime fiction is perceived in the anglophone and francophone worlds. In France, it seems, there is a less sharp divide between literary and genre fiction, with authors of crime books often scooping prestigious awards. Indeed, Lemaitre himself has won the Prix Goncourt. This, the writers agreed, was due to the legacy of authors such as the Belgian creator of the detective Maigret, Georges Simenon. His simple style was praised by André Gide, who claimed Simenon had raised crime writing to the status of great literature and, in so doing, had revealed something missing in French literary works.

I could have stayed listening to the discussion for hours, but time was marching on and as the dinner hour approached, I was obliged to slip away to my room and wriggle into my thriller-writer disguise for the evening. Forty-five minutes later, I slunk into the green room and stood looking round at the cluster of well-known authors – Christobel Kent, MJ Carter, Joanne Harris and James Runcie to name but a few. I hoped none of them would finger me for a spy.

World bookshopper: #8 Altaïr, Barcelona

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If Stanfords travel bookshop had a Catalan cousin, it would look a lot like Altaïr. On the day I go, wandering in off the Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes and away from the Sant Jordi crowds, I find myself confronted with a treasure trove for those who enjoy combining literary exploration and jet-setting.

Like Stanfords, the bulk of the three-storey emporium is given over to country-by-country sections where the curious reader or would-be adventurer can find factual books and fictional works from the regions in question. The choices can be surprising. Look up Serbia and, alongside Lago de Como (the Spanish translation of the book I read from the nation) you’ll find an English-language copy of American novelist David Leavitt’s The Page Turner. In the Scottish section, you can pick up work by French writer Jules Verne.

As in similar English-language shops, setting rather than author nationality seems to be the deciding factor in the categorisation of texts. But unlike their Anglophone counterparts, Altaïr customers seem to be willing to cross linguistic as well as national boundaries.

When it comes to the shelf labelled ‘Regne Unit’ (that’s United Kingdom to you and me), a varied selection awaits. Books by Charles Dickens feature, alongside offerings from James Herriot, Mark Haddon, Hilary Mantel and Doris Lessing. I was particularly pleased to see a copy of El Relojero de Filigree Street, the Spanish incarnation of the international bestseller by Natasha Pulley, whom I met at the Bath Literature Festival earlier this year.

The lack of translation and distribution opportunities for works from some of the world’s more deprived countries – one of the major challenges during my quest to read a book from every country – seems to hold as true in Spanish and Catalan as it does in English. While most European nations boast their own sections in the store, several African countries are lumped together in the basement with only maps and factual histories by foreign writers to represent a number of them. By contrast, feted authors such as the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz have their own mini-sections.

International publishing challenges notwithstanding, the shop must be applauded for the range of its selection. In the section marked Kosovo – a fiendishly difficult nation to find any work in English from – I was delighted to discover Travels in Blood and Honey by Elizabeth Gowing, a British translator, NGO worker and beekeeper, who has lived and worked in the country for much of the past decade.

And the offering doesn’t stop at country-by country. If you’re interested in mountains, you’ll find an area catering for that. If the polar regions capture your imagination, you can while away a good hour or so browsing the explorer memoirs on display. There is an impressive array of photography books, a handsome wall of maps, a collection of publisher-specific stands from which classics by global notaries such as Ferrante, Carver and Marquez can be snapped up, and a swathe of bookcases devoted to the latest smash hits – thrillers and tearjerkers ripe for stuffing into your backpack to beguile those long-haul flights.

Meanwhile, for those who prefer the world to come to them, there are cases of trinkets, scarves and ornaments from different corners of the globe. In addition, Catalonians keen to add a bit of local polish to their English without getting on a plane have the option of resorting to the intriguing volume Laura Lips en habla como los Ingleses.

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This comes with a word of warning, however: when I flick through, I find a few rather eccentric suggested phrases. In particular, attempts to describe a scolding as ‘a tongue-lashing’, to tell someone to ‘keep your hair on’ or to say that ‘my computer is having a bad hair day’ would be more likely to make most native English speakers I know raise their eyebrows rather than invite you down the pub for a pint.

It seems there are some aspects of travel with which books can’t quite compete…

Book of the month: Eduardo Halfon

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It’s been a difficult week here in the UK and for many of us there is great uncertainty about the future. One thing I am sure of, however, is that – now more than ever – we English speakers must read and listen to the stories of people who use other languages. From what I have learnt over more than four years of global literary exploration, this is one of the surest and best ways to further our understanding and appreciation of the way those in other places see the world.

Translation gives us the gift of looking through the eyes of all humanity. By borrowing others’ perspectives, in the special way that stories allow us to do, we enlarge and enrich our seeing. We will need that vision more profoundly than ever in the challenging months ahead.

With that in mind, it’s my pleasure to share a wonderful novel from a nation that, to date, has had almost none of its literature translated into English. Back in 2012, when I was deep in my quest to read a book from every country in the world in a year, the pickings from Guatemala were slim. I went with The President by Miguel Angel Asturias (translated from the Spanish by Frances Partridge), a book first published in Mexico in 1946. At the time, it was the only novel from the nation that I could find in English translation.

So you can imagine my delight when Guatemalan author Eduardo Halfon’s The Polish Boxer came onto my radar. Published in the final months of my quest, this translation of a slim collection of interlinked short stories put together by a team of five translators – Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead and Anne McLean – brings an exciting Central American voice into the Anglophone arena.

The narratives follow Eduardo Halfon, a literature professor who shares his author’s name and is spurred into action when a promising student in his class leaves the university without explanation. Thereafter, we follow Halfon through a series of quests, experiences and discoveries – to a remote village, to an academic conference on Mark Twain, to a music festival and in search of a concert pianist-turned-gypsy-musician in Belgrade. Disparate though they are, the narratives circle around the narrator’s memory of his grandfather’s account of meeting a Polish boxer in Auschwitz and how that fleeting encounter saved his life.

As you might expect from a novel in which the protagonist shares the author’s name and is a literature professor, there is quite a bit of play with the idea of what a story is or isn’t in the book. We read numerous pronouncements on the art of storytelling – ‘that the visible narrative always hides a secret tale’; ‘that literature is a deceit in which he who deceives is more honest than he who does not deceive’; that ‘the only way to tell a story is to stutter it eloquently’. In another writer’s hands this self-conscious and occasionally defensive kind of discussion might be irritating – and, indeed, it does occasionally lean that way – but Halfon’s wry, self-deprecating manner saves it, making it largely thought-provoking and playful instead.

Coupled with this are some fabulous descriptions and observations. For my money, the evocation of rural Guatemala is hard to beat. Raw beauty drips from the pages in which Halfon travels into the countryside in search of his erstwhile student to a place where the term for poetry in the local language, Cakchikel, means ‘braid of words’. But it is the title story of the Polish boxer, when at last it comes, that takes the prize. In its stark force and spare, telling details, this tale recalls Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, perhaps the most powerful piece of literature dealing with the Holocaust that I have read.

The narratological fencing and playfulness extend to the linguistic level. Dialogue bleeds into description with nothing to separate the two, so that it is as though we are looking out at the world from the inside of Halfon’s mind. At times, the meandering of the narrative makes us question the solidity of the ‘I’ narrating it – are we still with Halfon or has someone else crept in and taken over under the cover of a turning page? And although I can’t read the original to compare, the virtuosity of the translators is apparent in the skill with which they judge how much to explain and how much to trust the reader to cope with culturally specific terms: the book never falters while a helpful hand reaches in to push us in the right direction and yet it never trips over its laces either. Instead, it runs over unfamiliar terrain at an elegant, even pace.

That’s not to say that the novel is perfect. A hackneyed turn of phrase creeps in here and there, and the fragmentation and meandering will be too much for some readers. (*Spoiler alert* There’s a lot that never gets resolved and that is kind of the point.)

But if you are able to able to trust it, this book will sweep you up and bear you away through a host of specific times and places towards a universal vision of the things that make us who we are. Maybe, in the final analysis, that is what a story is really meant to do.

The Polish Boxer (El boxeador polaco) by Eduardo Halfon, translated from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead and Anne McLean (Pushkin Press, 2012)

Picture: Santiago – Lago de Atitlan – Guatemala-81 by Christopher William Adach on Flickr.com.

Messages from authors


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One of the great things to have come out of this project is the fact that I have been in touch with many of the authors of the works I have read during and since 2012. Some of these people, like Juan David Morgan (whose novel, The Golden Horse, I picked for Panama) and Ak Welsapar (whose Tale of Aypi was my read from Turkmenistan), sent me unpublished translations of books not available to buy in English.

Others, including Marie-Thérèse Toyi (Burundi), Hamid Ismailov (Uzbekistan) and Cecil Browne (St Vincent and the Grenadines), were gracious enough to allow me to interview them at length for Reading the World, the book I wrote to explore some of the bigger themes and stories behind this quest.

In a number of cases, these contacts have led to lengthy correspondences and friendships. Pictured above is a collection of postcards showing the artwork of Honduran writer Guillermo Yuscarán. He posted these to me after I wrote about his short-story collection, Points of Light, along with a letter telling me that if I ever wanted to visit him, all I needed to do was get the bus to his town and ask for ‘El gringo Yuscarán’.

As time has gone by, the dynamic has shifted slightly. Whereas I contacted most of the people above during or shortly after my project, in the years that have followed more and more authors have found their way to me. Often, they do this by leaving comments on the posts about their books. For example, Barbadian author Glenville Lovell popped up with the following: ‘Wow! Thank you! I think I’m going to read my novel again.’

Then there was this from the writer of Kenya, Will You Marry Me?: ‘Philo Ikonya the author here, i saw this review months after it was published. Time flies… I enjoyed it and the fact that this project found my book! No greater thing than feedback! Thank you. :-).’

Luís Cardoso from East Timor left a note in his native Portuguese: ‘Ann, gostei imenso da tua apreciação. Muito obrigado. Eu sou o autor.
Luis Cardoso.’

And Olinda Beja (whose short-story collection A casa do pastor was translated by nine volunteers especially for this project so that I could read something from the tiny island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe) contacted me to tell me about a new volume of tales set in her birthplace.

There have also been some touching interactions with people connected to the authors of many of the books I’ve read. As recorded in Reading the World, I spent a moving hour sharing a drink with Jens Nielsen, the former partner of Swiss author Aglaja Veteranyi, who drowned in Lake Zurich in 2002. Unfailingly open and generous, Nielsen told me about their extraordinary relationship, the trauma of Veteranyi’s depression and suicide, and the work he has done as executor of her estate. Once Reading the World was published, he even arranged for a copy to be deposited in Veteranyi’s collection of work in the Swiss National Archive, where my writing will stay alongside hers for at least the next 300 years.

Now and then, comments from authors’ and translators’ friends and acquaintances pop up on this blog too. I was delighted with the following message from Ahmed in response to my Maldivian read: ‘Hi, Ms Morgan, I am from the tiny islands of Maldives. You chose one of the best books to read about our beliefs, culture and lifestyle. Just now informed Mr. Abdulla Sadiq of your choice. He was delighted. What a great idea!’

And this note from the tiny island of Vanuatu, left under my post on Sethy John Regenvanu’s wonderfully exuberant memoir Laef Blong Mi, made me smile: ‘He’s still as young as ever.’

Given that it’s now more than three years since I officially stopped reading the world (although I continue to read widely and select one book to review here each month), I had assumed that these comments had probably come to an end. It turns out I was wrong. A couple of weeks ago, the following message was left by author Sarah Mkhonza under my post on Weeding the Flowerbeds, my pick from Swaziland:

Thanks for the review. The school and mission were celebrating 100 years and I felt compelled to write about their contribution to our lives. I am grateful that you were able to give the book an honest review. I never really thought it would be read beyond Swaziland and the mission. Most of the teachers have passed away. It makes more sense to have written something about their contribution to our lives I am grateful that you were able to have something to read on a country which is struggling to create writers and give the people a voice. Political parties are still banned and journalists are still being imprisoned. Thanks for mentioning some of these facts in the review.

Nearly four years after this project began, its ripples continue to spread.

Book of the month: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

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One of the delights of this project – and a key reason that I continue the blog more than three years after my year of reading the world came to an end – is the fact that I still receive large numbers of book recommendations from bibliophiles all over the planet.

It’s a great joy to hear from enthusiastic readers and to learn about so many tempting stories. However, because I sometimes get several such messages a day, it means that the already gargantuan list of reading suggestions that I gathered during my project is still growing faster than I can tackle it (and that’s not to mention all the books that I have to read for research and reviewing, as well as those titles that sometimes leap out from bookshop shelves, grab me by the scruff of the neck, march me to the checkout and force me to read them there and then).

All the same, the recommendations do not go to waste. I often check back through them and select titles to buy. And so it was that, a few weeks ago, I came upon Dust by Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, my latest book of the month.

The novel was suggested in 2015 by Kerem_Kerem, who also recommended Taiye Selasi’s excellent Ghana Must Go. Having read each of them, I’m not surprised that this reader liked them both – they share several plot devices and themes, not least the ambition to diffract national stories through the prism of a single family’s experience. Indeed, there’s even an endorsement from Selasi on the cover of my edition of Dust, which was published in 2014.

Both novels have received considerable praise from critics. But it seems to me that Owuor is less well-known in the UK than Selasi. As a result, I decided to write about her book.

As in Ghana Must Go, the narrative of Dust is kickstarted by a death. In this case, it’s the violent death of Odidi, a man in the prime of his life, who is shot in the street in Nairobi on the night of the 2007 elections. Bewildered by the news, his fragmented family reconvenes at Wuoth Ogik, the remote farm in northern Kenya where he and his sister, Ajany, grew up. There too, appears Isaiah William Bolton, the son of a British man who knew Odidi’s parents. What follows is a troubling, moving and engrossing story, in which the characters attempt to piece together the shards of what they know into a picture of the past that they can all recognise.

This is a book in which multiple stories are told on almost every page. One of Owuor’s greatest achievements is that she reveals repeatedly how multi-faceted human beings and the things they create are. This is nowhere more evident than in her presentation of Kenya, a place that is at once the site of great suffering and corruption, but also of extraordinary love, forbearance, beauty and humour.

Insights leap from the page, frequently launched from only a handful of well-chosen words: ‘After Mboya, Kenya’s official languages: English, Swahili, and Silence’; ‘as long as there was enough to move the day, beyond a grumble, people really didn’t care to know why their lives had become harder’; in the wake of the violence that splintered it, Kenya is a nation ‘that is gluing its cracked shell together again’.

The book is often very funny too. Owuor is a great conjurer of characters, from the ever-hopeful Babu Chaudhuri, who continues to advertise for a shop manager 46 years after he first intended to pack it in and move to England, to the wily Trader who circulates around the country, bartering stories, information and whatever comes to hand. My favourite is Aaron, a police officer posted to an isolated station in the rural north, and made at once ridiculous and pitiable through his loneliness.

Owuor’s writing is at its most beautiful when it treats of the desert landscape, where the ‘wind lumbers past like an ancient wizard’ and the dusk comes ‘plodding in and scarring the sky with yellow-orange trails’. The place is soaked in imagination. Indeed, as we follow the characters over the rocky terrain, it often seems as if we are wandering through a vast psyche rather than a physical region.

That said, the writing isn’t always this good. Poorly rendered similes and unfortunate word choices crop up here and there, and at times the prose seems as uneven as the landscape it describes. In addition, the multiplicity of stories and ideas Owuor explores occasionally clogs the text, giving odd passages a congested and sometimes confusing feel.

In the final analysis, though, I can’t help but admire Dust. Its scope is impressive, its revelations frequently breathtaking and its perspective unfailingly humane. It is a rich, slow read – one to savour over a number of days rather than to race through in an evening. But if you invest the time, the novel will reward you. I’m very glad Kerem_Kerem recommended it.

Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Granta Books, 2014)

Picture by Enzinho83 on Flickr.com

Death of a Thousand Cuts

 

Rewriting and editing are often two of the biggest challenges for would-be authors. They certainly were for me. During the many years I spent trying (and failing) to write a novel, I struggled with how to get my manuscripts into publishable shape.

I could discipline myself to get up early, sit at my desk and churn out a certain number of words each day. But once I had those words, I was at a bit of a loss as to how make them better.

I know from discussions with many authors all over the world that I’m not alone in this. Whatever language you write in, it can take years to discover the process by which you hone and craft a raw splurge of text into a story that someone else might want to read.

This is one of the reasons that I’ve long been a fan of the blog and now podcast ‘Death of a Thousand Cuts’ by poet, author and musician, Tim Clare. Tim and I studied on the UEA creative writing master’s course together in the early 2000s and his first novel, The Honours, was published to great acclaim in 2015.

Some years before this, Tim spent time working for a literary consultancy (one of those companies that provides editorial feedback on manuscripts). In the blog and podcast, he uses the editorial skills he sharpened doing this and through working on his own writing to critique the first page of an unpublished novel sent to him by an aspiring wordsmith.

What I particularly like about Tim’s approach is that while he pulls no punches – and his comments about manuscripts’ weaknesses are often extremely funny – he is always kind. His blog is not about ripping someone’s work to shreds but about showing them (and everyone else reading or listening in) how to make it better. As a result, his posts are not only entertaining, but also full of valuable insights for writers of all levels of experience.

So when Tim mentioned that he would be inviting some authors to guest host ‘Death of a Thousand Cuts’ with him, I lost no time in raising my hand. A few weeks ago, we met in a studio in central London to record ourselves discussing two opening pages. You can hear what we made of the first submission through the SoundCloud link above.

And in case you want to see the extract we’re discussing, here it is:

Clear (by Dan)

They don’t even have magazines any more, just pamphlets smeared with filth. I can smell the mother with wide, sun-cracked shoulders, fat kid lolling in her arm pit. Girl next to me looks vegan, pale and pointy. No smell.

My jeans haven’t dried properly and I smell like a banana.

I try to pull into myself, tighter and tighter, but I bend back to shape like a coat hanger. Another fat mum, pushchair too big. Not regular either: tubes, pipes, a machine for God’s sake. Baby seems chirpy though, gurgling into its raw pink chin. Try to look normal.

I’ve been rehearsing my script. I can’t tell them what it is and admit I’ve been googling gloopy wreckages of flesh since 4am. Last week it was Impetigo, so she said. But it’s…

Tom Creckan, room 6

Polite knock. He actually gets up and meets me at the door. Normally just a sullen clack of the keyboard, whiff of mint. New and keen. And clean. Creamy hand-soap hand-shake. Hint of acne himself if you peer close enough, gnawing at the corners. No hair gel/wax/crème, just a breezy morning fluff. Shirt well ironed. This man is a fucking morning.

I start my tale. Just throw it right in.

‘I get these cold sores.’

He stares, unflinching, bobbing my reflection in his spectacles.

‘Last week…your colleague said it was Impetigo…I mean, not that I’d question…but…’

He’s about to stop me. Smother me, politely, with a creamy palm.

World bookshopper: #8 Voltaire & Rousseau, Glasgow

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I was up in Scotland a few weeks ago as a guest speaker at a Gliterary Lunch, alongside Laura Barnett, author of The Versions of Us. If you haven’t heard of Gliterary Lunches – and particularly if you’re a bookloving professional woman in the UK with female clients to entertain – you might want to check them out. It was certainly one of the most fun and interesting events I’ve been involved with.

As Glasgow’s Grand Central Hotel is rather a long way from my flat, I decided to travel up the night before. This left me an hour or so to play with on the morning of the event. And what better way to fill the time than with a jaunt to one of the city’s many intriguing bookshops?

After a bit of research online, I plumped for Voltaire & Rousseau, described as an ‘established secondhand store selling academic books, fiction, literary criticism and rare editions’. And while many Glaswegians made their way to work through a beautifully sunny morning, I betook myself to Kelvinbridge to see what I could find…

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When I first arrive in Otago Lane, I worry that I must have taken a wrong turning. The place does not look terribly promising: a cobbled back street flanked by rather battered buildings, on most of which, the shutters seem to be pulled down. A small sign reading ‘Voltaire and Rousseau’ is the only thing that stops me from turning round and retracing my steps.

On reaching the entrance, I find that the shop is in fact open. The door stands ajar, sporting a notice that informs me that all the books in the first room cost a pound a piece or less.

This might sound like a steal for bibliophiles, but, stepping over the threshold, I quickly realise that if the shop sells all these books, it will make a lot of money. The room is packed with stock. Not only are the shelves heaving – titles wedged in to fill almost all available space – but books are heaped up waist-high on the floor, leaving only a narrow walkway. It is as though a tidal wave of reading matter has swept through the building, silting every nook and cranny up with stories.

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There are paperbacks with creased spines and hardbacks from decades past. The obscure and the literary jostle with the mass market. Forgotten Edwardian novels rub shoulders with the likes of Sebastian Faulks and Stephen King; Anthony Trollope makes small talk with Agatha Christie and Henning Mankell.

Indeed, the room is so full of books that there is space for very little else, beyond a ladder to help intrepid customers reach those titles teetering on the top shelves, a coat stand, part of a table and a couple of cardboard boxes that must have got caught up in the book tsunami, and a few pro-independence posters tacked up here and there. ‘Scotland. The only country in the world that found oil and got poorer. VOTE YES‘, reads one.

Wandering through, I find that the shop’s main room is similarly stuffed to the gunnels. A man nods hello to me from a counter heaped with books (I presume there is a till hiding in there somewhere). I look around the space and it dawns on me that the hour I have is not even going to be enough to scratch the surface.

Still, I forge on. As I wander between the stacks, glancing up, down and sideways, it becomes apparent that there is a degree of order here. At some stage, the shelves have been divided into sections, with yellowing handwritten signs explaining what each of them is supposed to contain. There is the ‘Classic literature’ bookcase, which boasts an impressive array of secondhand hardbacks, and an area devoted to Greek and Roman greats. You can find shelves dedicated to ‘Cookery’, ‘Irish history’, the ‘American civil war’ and even musical scores – I narrowly avoid kicking a Christmas Oratorio on my way past.

Over time, however, as subsequent waves of books have washed in, the categories have been challenged and in some cases compromised, presumably as the need for spaced trumped the desire for order. I wonder with a chuckle what Dante, Copernicus, Newton and Einstein would make of finding themselves in what seems to be the ‘Crime fiction’ section, as they do here. Perhaps the owners of Voltaire & Rousseau know something I don’t.

Although anglophone literature dominates, there are translations swirled through the mix for those with the patience to look for them. As in many secondhand bookshops, which often reflect the reading habits of previous book buyers, the crime section has one of the strongest offerings, with the usual Scandi suspects well-represented. You’ll find foreign visitors in the literary fiction section too – I spy a Lampedusa and an Anne Frank, along with Deireadh An Fhoghair (or The End of Autumn, as someone has helpfully written on its cover in black biro), a Gaelic-language title by Tormod Caimbeul.

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Inspired by the proud Scottish-nationalist bent of the owners, I decide to see if the store has any books by Gaelic writers that I can read in English. The man at the counter advises me to look for Fiona Macleod. After a few minutes of scouring the Scottish literature section, I find two battered hardbacks bearing the name, a secret pseudonym of the Glaswegian writer William Sharp.

As I queue up to pay, the phone rings. The man behind the counter roots it out from under a heap of books and conducts a lengthy conversation, during which he arranges to go and inspect the library at a house that is being emptied somewhere in the city.

Soon, it seems, there will be another wave of titles pouring into Voltaire & Rousseau.

A translation joust

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One of the most popular suggestions during my year of reading the world was that I should read Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote for Spain. Although I didn’t choose it for the project (I felt tackling Ulysses for Ireland was challenge enough given the average pace I had to maintain of reading one book every 1.87 days), I did tuck into the 1,000-page classic the following year, while on holiday in Priorat – near some of the regions through which the would-be knight-errant passes on his adventures.

I read Edith Grossman’s translation and very much enjoyed the book, finding the descriptions surprisingly fresh and vivid. Still, full of derring-do though the narrative is, I never imagined it would lead me to witness a real-life battle. Until yesterday.

Last night, in a packed room at the British Library’s Conference Centre, award-winning translators Margaret Jull Costa (who generously volunteered to help translate a book from São Tomé and Principe for me during my quest) and Peter Bush met for a ‘translation joust’, the latest in a series of such duels that various translators have staged in recent years. The pair had produced rival English versions of the famous windmill scene from Cervantes’ masterpiece and, with the prompting of chair and fellow translator Daniel Hahn, set out to defend their choices.

The results were fascinating. Going line by line – and sometimes comma by comma – the wordsmiths challenged one another’s decisions, revealing some powerful insights into their working methods as they did so.

As a comparison of the opening lines of the translations shows, the two versions were strikingly different:

Just then, they spotted thirty or forty windmills on that same plain, and the moment Don Quijote saw them, he said to his squire: ‘Fortune is directing our affairs far better than we could have wished, because look, friend Sancho, there before us stand thirty or more fearsome giants, with whom I intend to do battle and to slay each and every one of them.

And with their spoils we will begin to grow rich, for this is a just war and we are doing God a great service in removing such a plague from the face of the Earth. MJC

With that they spotted thirty or forty windmills in the nearby field and Don Quixote immediately said to his squire: “Sancho, my friend, Lady Luck has sorted things better than we could have ever hoped.

Just take a look at those thirty or so humungous giants I shall attack and obliterate in a moment and the ensuing spoils will be the start of good times for us, because mine is a just war, and I’m doing God a great service by wiping such an evil horde off the face of this earth.” PB

What emerged from the discussion was that, while Jull Costa had endeavoured to get as close to Cervantes’ original as modern English would allow and wanted to preserve Don Quixote’s high-flown way of speaking, Bush had set out to create a version that would be different from all previous translations. In part as a reaction against what has gone before, his Don Quixote is not above slang and colloquialisms.

It was, as one audience member observed, as though Jull Costa had built the sense of the absurd inherent in the original, whereas Bush had reflected the novel’s humour by taking a more directly comic approach. This sort of distinct character to a text, Jull Costa said, was essential for a translation to live.

An interesting insight into the process came when the pair considered how they had arrived at rather different descriptions for the location of the windmill-giants – Jull Costa has them ‘on that same plain’, whereas Bush situates them ‘in the nearby field’. It transpired that, rather than seeking a literal translation of the Spanish ‘en aquel campo’, each had pictured what they read the original to mean and then found a way to render the image in English.

The questions did not only come from the chair. At several points, audience members pitched in with sometimes rather passionate objections or challenges. The word ‘desaforados’ proved particularly controversial. Although both translators had focused on its connotations of scale – rendering it as ‘fearsome’ (MJC) and ‘humungous’ (PB) – one native Spanish speaker felt that it would have been more appropriate to translate it as ‘rampaging’.

‘I don’t know what it means in any dictionary. I tell you what it means to me!’ she said.

For me, as a writer, it was also fascinating to hear the translators talk about their approach to creating a finished written piece. Peter Bush revealed that he had produced 10-12 drafts of his extract, while Margaret Jull Costa said that for a joust like this she would normally do nine or 10. These would include a careful first draft, a second draft read against the original, a period of leaving the text, and a session of reading the translation out loud to catch any repetitions and clunky rhythms.

Though not everyone in the room may have agreed on the interpretation of ‘desaforados’, there can be no doubt that our enjoyment of the evening was unanimous. With last week’s good news that translations made up five per cent of printed fiction sales in the UK in 2015 (a 96 per cent rise in volume on the figures from 2001), let’s hope we will see many more such events.

Picture by Oren neu dag (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

World bookshopper: #7 Diada de Sant Jordi, Barcelona (various locations)

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Last week, I had a stroke of luck. A friend had invited me for a weekend away in Barcelona and when I checked out the dates, I realised something very exciting: our visit would coincide with Diada de Sant Jordi, the festival day of Catalonia’s patron saint and one of the biggest book parties on the planet.

Dating back to the Middle Ages, the celebration originally centred around lovers giving each other roses, drawing on the legend of Sant Jordi and the dragon, from whose blood a rosebush is said to have sprung. Then, in the 1920s, a member of the literary community in Barcelona (can anyone tell me his or her name?) noticed that the death dates of Shakespeare and Cervantes also fell on April 23. Inspired by this coincidence, the wordsmith encouraged people also to exchange books on this day – an idea which rapidly caught on.

The rest, as they say, is history. These days, thanks to the hundreds of stalls set up in the streets each Diada de Sant Jordi, the festival accounts for as much as 8 per cent of the book sales that take place in the region every year. The extravaganza has been such a success that it even inspired UNESCO’s World Book and Copyright Day.

You can imagine my excitement at being in the midst of it. While my companions slept off the journey, I was up early and out exploring the streets.

Even at 8am, many parts of the city were buzzing. On Rambla de Catalunya – one of the major centres of the festival – two rows of stalls stretched at least a quarter of a mile, laden with roses and books.

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All the major booksellers and publishers in the city had a presence. Wandering through, I spotted impressive spreads from Altaïr, BCN Books and La Central, to name but a few, as well as numerous stands devoted to specialist areas – from cookbooks to crime.

The offerings were extensive, featuring huge numbers of works by local and international authors. Titles by the celebrated Catalan writer Jaume Cabré were much in evidence, but I also saw numerous Spanish and Catalan versions of a number of old favourites and familiar faces from further afield.

There was Pétronille by Amélie Nothomb and La perla by John Steinbeck; both La noia del tren and La chica del tren by Paula Hawkins, and Roald Dahl’s Charlie y la fábrica de chocolate. Bestselling Italian writer Umberto Eco’s Il nome della rosa appeared here as El nombre de la rosa, while Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk was reconfigured as H de halcón (the Catalan version, which renders the title F de falcó, has just come out). And on several stands there teetered stacks of translations of the works of Jo Nesbø and EL James – some of them easily high enough to kill a toddler should they happen to fall.

Perhaps the most surprising title I saw was a Spanish translation of London Mayor Boris Johnson’s biography of Winston Churchill. No book, it seemed was too niche for Sant Jordi.

By contrast, the small handful of second-hand English-language titles I discovered on one table, looked rather sad. Although I did find the presence of Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, his memoir of the time he spent observing bullfighting in Spain, rather fitting. (The selection of ‘Livros en alemán’ was rather better.)

In addition to the books, authors were out in force too – or were certainly scheduled to be, judging by the number of boards promising signings later in the day.

There was no doubt about it: literature was a major focus here. However, seasoned literature professionals were by no means the only ones plying their wares.

I spied a stand devoted to books of piano scores – including the soundtrack for Frozen – and another offering colouring books. There were significant numbers of political organisations peddling texts supporting Catalan independence. Some even had televisions broadcasting their messages into the street. There was a stand run by a youth organisation that looked very much like the scouts, and numerous stalls raising money for charities such as Oxfam, the Red Cross and Save the Children.

Manning and womanning many of the stalls – and sometimes dashing out into the thoroughfare to thrust roses and leaflets at passers-by – were various costumed figures. I lost count of the number of dragons I saw and there was a healthy showing of Sant Jordis and princesses too. Other folk had gone for a more minimalist approach, simply draping themselves in the Senyera (Catalonia’s flag).

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The roses were by no means all orthodox either. They came in a huge variety of shapes, sizes and materials. There were rose lollipops and pendants. There were key rings and desk tidies. By one crossroad, I spotted a woman selling some intricate, free-standing blooms sculpted out of metal. Nearby, another vendor was driving a hard bargain for flowers fashioned from tiny bits of coloured plastic melted together in the oven.

Overall, the experience was exhilarating (although I was pleased to have got there early and beat the crowds, which made browsing the stalls very difficult later in the day). I made my way back to our apartment in time for brunch, sporting a handful of bookmark roses and a very large grin.

Feliç Diada de Sant Jordi!

Book of the month: Yoko Ogawa

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I wasn’t sure whether to write about this book. I’ve read some marvellous novels this month – among them Angolan novelist José Eduardo Agualusa’s Man Booker International Prize-shortlisted A General Theory of Oblivion (trans. Daniel Hahn), Brazilian star Alexandre Vidal Porto’s Sergio Y. (trans. Alex Ladd) and Taiye Selasi’s powerful Ghana Must Go. With such a strong selection of titles to choose from, it wasn’t easy to single out one to review.

When it came to Japanese writer Yōko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris (trans. Stephen Snyder), however, there was an additional reason to be uncertain. Brilliant though it is, the book made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure how to feel about the way it treats its dark themes or how to describe its strange and unsettling plot.

But if this project has taught me anything, it’s that when I identify a personal limitation or blind spot, I ought to confront it head-on. And so, erhem, here goes.

Like Manazuru, the Japanese book I read for this project back in 2012, Hotel Iris takes place largely by the sea. The protagonist-narrator is 17-year-old Mari, the daughter of an overbearing hotelier who requires her to work long hours to keep the business afloat. But when a middle-aged guest is caught up in a scandalous scene after a prostitute refuses to comply with his wishes, Mari finds her world shifting. Drawn to the man’s voice, she seeks him out and fosters a friendship with him that quickly turns to something much deeper and darker, testing the boundaries of her being, releasing her from her mother’s rules, and allowing her to explore the nature of pain, pleasure, humiliation and desire.

The summary makes the book sound sensationalist and even trashy (I defy you not to think of EL James), but this couldn’t be further from the truth. For one thing, there’s the writing: a spool of precise sentences consisting of descriptions of small details that hint at the calibration and adjustments going on beneath the surface. The succinct simplicity of Ogawa’s (and Snyder’s) writing about Mari’s mother’s obsessive styling of her daughter’s hair or the snatches of music that drift through the hotel from the rehearsals of a visiting choir, for example, belies the sophistication of this multi-layered text.

There is humour and there is beauty, too, evoked through neat flashes of insight that net a moment, a character, a view in a handful of words. The kleptomaniac maid who nearly betrays Mari’s secret, for example, only appears on a handful of pages, and yet she feels like a familiar figure when she stumps into view, swigging beer and helping herself to unsupervised trinkets.

We see intimacy and vulnerability in both Mari and her partner, but we also hear a frightening clarity in her words. Time and again, she smashes open her descriptions with a final jab or last detail that lays bare the darkness beneath.

This is particularly true when the narrative spirals in on the violence and humiliation Mari silently wills the man, who we learn is a translator, to inflict on her. Here, the shock is often delayed, just like the translator’s blows, to fall all the heavier when it comes, as in this sentence, capturing the narrator’s anticipation of the physical engagement to come: ‘The fingers clutching the pen would grasp my breast, the lips pursed in thought would probe my ribs, the feet hidden under the desk would trample my face.’

Reading Mari’s frank descriptions and her admission that ‘only when I was brutalized, reduced to a sack of flesh, could I know pure pleasure’ is troubling. The violence is one thing, but what lingers long after the final page is an uncertainty about how to view the events described.

Should we see this as an account of a vulnerable young person groomed and seduced by a ‘pervert […] not fit for a cat in heat’, as the prostitute calls the translator in the opening chapter? Or does Mari’s pleasure in and desire for what befalls her turn the story into something else, regardless of the fact that – as far as she tells us – Mari never openly expresses her longing or consent so that for all her partner knows she may be enduring his ministrations under duress.

Is Mari, in fact, another kind of victim – warped in her sexuality by her mother’s control and the sad deaths of her father and grandfather? And does the fact that Hotel Iris is written by a woman have any bearing on how we answer these questions?

Honestly, I don’t know. But I think that this may be part of the point. In allowing all these possibilities and questions to co-exist between its covers, this novel pulls off quite a feat. Not only does it make us question human nature, sexuality, power and agency, but it also forces us to examine the way we respond to narratives, make choices and give credence.

In short, Hotel Iris makes us explore how we read.

Hotel Iris by Yōko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (Picador, 2010)