The joy of book clubs

One of the trickiest things about setting out to explore the world’s literatures is deciding what you’re going to read. There is so much out there that it can feel overwhelming, particularly when most of the works you encounter – at least to begin with – will be by writers you have never heard of. How on Earth do you choose?

I think it’s for this reason that many of the people who contact me to say they have decided to read the world often tell me that they are going to use my list as a guide. I’m more than happy for readers to consult my choices as a starting point, but I always hope they’ll get inspired to do some exploring of their own too – so many wonderful books have been translated into English in the six years since my quest and although I continue to add one new discovery a month to the list, many hundreds of other wonderful titles deserve an audience.

There are a number of ways to find out about some of the best. Awards such as the Man Booker International Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award (the longlist for which is drawn up from nominations supplied by libraries around the globe) highlight many of the most ambitious and popular titles. Meanwhile, funding programmes including English PEN’s PEN Translates help bring brave and exciting works into the world’s most published language.

For those with limited time, there are also subscription schemes. One of the most recently launched is Asymptote Book Club, which sends those who sign up a surprise handpicked work of fiction every month. Drawn from the lists of independent publishers in North America and the UK and selected by the team behind the award-winning world-literature journal Asymptote, the titles promise to be as intriguing as they are diverse. So when  blogger Marina Sofia, who works for the site, contacted me to ask if I would be interested to review their second pick, I wasted no time taking a look.

It’s fair to say that I would probably never have found Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Aranyak (translated by Rimli Bhattacharya) on my own. Indeed, had Seagull Books not released an English version, some eighty years after the Bengali original appeared, it’s likely that the work would have remained forever off-limits to anglophone readers. That would have been a great pity because it is an extraordinary creation.

Told through the eyes of Satyacharan, a young man from Calcutta who accepts a job managing the leasing of land for farming in a remote part of neighbouring Bihar, the book captures a fragile, fading and enchanting world. As he falls in love with the jungle that his work must gradually destroy, Satyacharan records the encounters he has with many of the people and animals who make their lives in this unpredictable environment. In so doing, he reveals the way a place can work itself into the hearts of its inhabitants, changing them as they develop and transform the landscape.

The best English word we have to apply to this book is ‘novel’, but the term does not fit comfortably here. The narrative arc anglophone readers might look for in long-form fiction is largely absent from Aranyak. Instead, the book is a series of loosely threaded episodes that often give rise to musings on humankind’s place in the world. I’ve seen it described as a kind of anthropological monograph – and, indeed, it draws on the author’s observations recorded in his diaries while he performed a role similar to the one his protagonist undertakes. But although that description makes sense, it risks missing the essence of the book, which is its exquisite writing.

Lacking the narrative drive that often keeps pages turning, Aranyak entrances readers by virtue of its vivid and moving descriptions. Although the narrator frequently expresses frustration at his inability to represent ‘the real face of [his] country’ adequately on the page, Bandyopadhyay and Bhattacharya’s work contradicts him.

Spine-tingling evocations abound. Take, for example, this description of a vista the protagonist often catches sight of while out on business:

‘The place is densely shadowed and lonely; from wherever you look, you can see in the far horizon a ring of blue hills like children holding hands and playing a game.’

Just as the narrative shape is unfamiliar, so the way language is used defies anglophone conventions. Although the prologue locates the events of the story firmly in the past, the tenses vary throughout the book, as though the narrator is reliving his memories. The text is also peppered with terms likely to be unknown to most Western readers, although these generally do not obscure the sense (indeed, I am grateful for the editorial decision to keep footnotes to a minimum).

As is so often the case with works from traditions rather different to the anglophone canon, the book requires readers to approach it with openness and a readiness to put things that jar down to their own unfamiliarity with the genre rather than flaws with the work. Those that do so will be richly rewarded: this is a rare and precious glimpse into a kind of storytelling as enthralling as it is strange to Western eyes.

If Asymptote Book Club keeps finding such gems, subscribers are in for a treat.

Aranyak by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, translated from the Bengali by Rimli Bhattacharya (Seagull Books, 2017)