Book of the month: Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares

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Brazil is certainly not short of stories. When I was collecting recommendations for my year of reading the world back in 2012, many people suggested tempting-sounding titles from South America’s most populous country. Since then, booklovers have continued to get in touch with ideas, leaving comments on the post I wrote about João Ubaldo Ribeiro’s House of the Fortunate Buddhas (the novel I chose for my project), and whizzing over emails and tweets.

Indeed, only this morning, Carlos left a comment to tell me about ‘The Devil to Pay in the Backlands’ (Grande Sertão: Veredas in the original), which he regards as ‘the greatest Brazilian novel’. He went on to say, however, that he believes it’s untranslatable because author João Guimarães Rosa invented many of the words in it, creating ‘a unique reading experience’, which Carlos fears would be lost if the book were converted into another language. (It would be interesting to hear what others think about this.)

Beyond the personal recommendations I’ve been lucky to get from readers, a number of anthologies of Brazilian writing have opened up the work of some of the nation’s newer authors to English-language readers in recent years. Thanks to publications such as Granta’s Best of Young Brazilian Novelists, writers such as JP Cuenca, Vanessa Barbara and Tatiana Salem Levy are on the anglophone radar. Their work (or some of it at least) is accessible to the huge number of people who read in English, the most published language in the world.

As a result, there are thankfully a relatively large number of translated Brazilian works that I could have chosen as November’s Book of the month – both recent novels and fantastic blasts from the past. Over the past year, for example, I’ve found myself enthralled by the writings of Clarice Lispector and could happily have written an enthusiastic post about her wonderfully strange novel Hour of the Star. 

However, in the discussions I’ve had about Brazil recently, one title in particular caught my attention. It was a novella translated by my friend Daniel Hahn for Berlin-based ebook company Frisch & Co: Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares’s Family Heirlooms.

I was intrigued by Frisch & Co and by Hahn’s comment that Tavares was not likely to be known to many English-language readers, despite her being much-lauded at home in Brazil. This month, there was another incentive too. Having spent the last few weeks reading Tolstoy’s magnificent War and Peace, the idea of a book I could finish in a handful of hours was very appealing! So I decided to give the book, which was first published in Portuguese in 1990, a go.

Set in Itaim Bibi, a district in São Paulo, the novella follows Maria Bráulia Munhoz, an elderly, yet formidable, widow who is putting her affairs in order with the reluctant help of her nephew. When one of the pieces in her jewellery collection, a handsome pigeon’s-blood ruby ring, is found to be a fake, the discovery triggers an avalanche of recollections and revelations that uncovers the foundations of the central character and the bourgeois world that is fading with her.

The discrepancy between our private selves and the faces we present to the world is everywhere apparent in the book. From the formal ceremony of the rose-petal-strewn fingerbowl that Maria Bráulia Munhoz insists must follow every meal, to the ritual of her make-up routine and the awkward posturing of her nephew, Tavares captures the thousand ways we shore ourselves up with pretence.

Often, this is very funny. In the description of the nephew’s sensitivity about his thinning hair and the way that he is ‘more afraid of his aunt’s migraines than the movement of shares on the Stock Exchange’, we see the glimmer of Tavares’s sense of the ridiculous. The author (or perhaps more accurately Hahn in his translation) makes rich use of lacunae too, frequently deflating characters’ pretensions by the inclusion of pithy, bracketed dollops of interior monologue.

The writing is inventive. At several points, for example, life itself crops up, personified and spoiling for a fight, ready to beat characters down. And for my money, you have to go some distance to find a simile better than the description of a stroke that afflicts one of the lesser characters towards the end of the book:

‘His words seemed to be coming from very far away, like the roar of the sea – they were transatlantic words – only to die there in the corner of his mouth, forming, in front of his embarrassed friends, a slight layer of froth that took a while to disappear […] All that muted volume, that threat coming from so far away, a thought coming from such a depth, and soon just a little bit of froth, nothing at all, just a little froth, a mere trifle.’

It’s fair to say that not all the devices work as well as this. Labyrinthine sentences leave the reader foundering occasionally. Similarly, some of the imagery cancels itself out by changing tack from one phrase to the next.

All in all, though, this is an enjoyable and illuminating read. It walks the tightrope between humour and insight with aplomb, finishing with a flourish. I found it a joy – and a delightful counterpoint to the Napoleonic wars.

Now, back to Tolstoy’s Moscow, where the enemy has entered the gates…

Family Heirlooms (Jóias de Família) by Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Frisch & Co., 2014)

Picture: São Paulo by Júlio Boaro on Flickr

Book of the month: Alain Mabanckou

James Baldwin with Marlon Brando on a civil rights march in 1963A while ago, I got a message from a reader in the US. In the wake of the recent widely reported police killings of unarmed African-Americans and the unrest that erupted in several cities as a result, she was keen to read something that would help increase her understanding of racial tensions in her home country. Had I encountered any such books on my literary adventures that I could recommend?

Conscious that this was very much not my area of expertise, I made a few tentative suggestions of things I hoped would at least be a starting point. Chief among them were Alex Haley’s reimagining of the experience of slavery, Roots, and the civil rights activist James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

In fact I had read Baldwin’s most famous book only a few months before and my head was still full of its powerful, disturbing and urgent arguments. So, when I heard that leading Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou (who now divides his time between Paris and the US), had written an ode to him, I knew I had to take a look.

Addressed directly to Baldwin, who died in 1987, Letter to Jimmy is a reading of his life and work. Weaving in extracts of his writing and the words of many other important commentators, such as Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X, it follows Baldwin’s life from the streets of Harlem to the French Riviera. In this way, it reveals how Baldwin’s views developed, as well as their significance and resonance in Mabanckou’s own life.

The intimacy of the portrait neatly demonstrates the link between the personal and the political. Through descriptions of photographs of Baldwin, the tensions with his paranoid preacher stepfather and his encounters with homophobia, Mabanckou reveals how our experiences shape our world view and vice versa, and shows how, as he writes in his postscript ‘the life of every author is often its own novel, even a tragic one’.

The narrative bristles with insights. From the different challenges facing migrants in Europe and black Americans, to the ongoing problems in many parts of Africa, where, ‘aid is nothing more than veiled prolonging of enslavement’, Mabanckou engages fully and frankly with many of the passionate and often furious arguments Baldwin made throughout his life.

He has some thought-provoking things to say about African writing too. I was particularly struck by his comments on the rise of what he calls ‘child soldier’ literature – something I encountered several times during my quest – and the pressures he claims that many contemporary authors feel to write exclusively about the negative aspects of their compatriots’ experience. ‘If we are not careful, an African author will be able to do nothing but await the next disaster on his continent before starting a book in which he will spend more time denouncing than writing,’ Mabanckou observes.

These sometimes controversial observations are couched in prose – translated by Sara Meli Ansari – that is often breathtaking in its clarity and beauty. My copy is filled with notes exclaiming ‘yes!’ and ‘wow’ alongside phrases such as this description of Cameroonian author Mongo Beti, who ‘believed that a writer should stand up, place blame where it is due and roar in the face of current events’, or this portrayal of the hidden deprivation a few steps from the bustle of Paris’s prestigious boulevards: ‘behind the thoroughfare, there is always a dark alleyway, a dead end, a cul-de-sac. And at the end of this alley, a man is seated on a bench, a can of beer in his hand.’

That said, the passively sexist slant of the writing is disappointing. With the ubiquitous use of ‘he’ – instead of ‘one’, ‘he or she’, varying ‘he’ with ‘she’, or a plural alternative – and pretty much exclusive reference to works by men, it would be possible to come away from this book thinking that the issues Mabanckou discusses are a purely male preserve.

That would be a shame, because this is a work that deserves to be read widely by people of all genders and ethnicities. A masterclass in the way texts and writers can talk to one another across linguistic, temporal, geographical and political boundaries, it has lessons for everyone – not only on some of the injustices that continue to blight human society, but on writing, storytelling and what words have the power to do. A great and important book.

Letter to Jimmy (Lettre à Jimmy) by Alain Mabanckou, translated from the French by Sara Meli Ansari (Soft Skull, 2014)

Picture: James Baldwin with Marlon Brando on a civil rights march in 1963, from Wikimedia Commons

Book of the month: Pepperpot

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I wrote in my last post about the nervous wait to hear whether or not my forthcoming book will be published in the US. What I didn’t say was that of course I was incredibly fortunate to be in a position to have my work considered by publishers in the first place: for writers in many parts of the world just getting your work onto an editor’s desk can be a struggle because there simply aren’t the publishing networks in place to foster, promote and sell much new material.

The Caribbean is one such place. With hundreds of small islands dotted over more than a million square miles of ocean, the region faces big challenges when it comes to moving goods around – and books are no exception. When you tot up the cost of editing, printing and shipping titles, it’s hard to see how a publisher in the region could make any money. People in the industry seem to agree because, apart from a few hardy enterprises in bigger nations like Jamaica, there are very few publishing houses in the region – in fact one of the most famous companies that deals in Caribbean literature, Peepal Tree Press, operates out of Leeds in Yorkshire, England, thousands of miles away.

Add to this the relatively young literary culture of the islands (until a generation or two ago most books taught in schools were by British and American authors) and the lack of literary agents and, until recently, support programmes for Caribbean writers, and you begin to wonder how an aspiring wordsmith in a place like Barbados could hope to get his or her stories out. So when Antiguan writer and blogger Joanne C. Hillhouse tipped me off about an anthology made up of the best Caribbean entries to the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (for which I was privileged to act as a longlister late last year), I was keen to take a look.

Bringing together work by writers in Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Belize and more, Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean aims to broadcast the region’s literature to a wider audience. It is the first title published under the name Peekash Press, a collaboration between Peepal Tree Press and Akashic Books set up to publish works by writers living in the Caribbean – as opposed to those in the diaspora, who make up the majority of these publishers’ lists.

Just as the collection seeks to bring new work to the wider world, so it also opens up fresh perspectives. If you thought that an anthology of short stories written in the Caribbean might reflect back at you all those tempting clichés of white-sand beaches, piña coladas and long, sleepy afternoons, you can think again. Packed with drama, many of the tales throb with a violent energy and deal with the very darkest human impulses. We read of gang violence, dead children, beatings, abuse and robbery.

Indeed, if you want a masterclass in how to start your stories with a bang, this is the book for you. Memorable first lines abound, perhaps the most striking being the opening of Sharon Leach’s ‘All the Secret Things No One Ever Knows’: ‘Ten years ago, I found out that I wasn’t my father’s only girlfriend.’

There’s also humour. I particularly liked Barbara Jenkins’ ‘A Good Friday’ for this, with its loveable-rogue narrator who gets more than he bargains for when a devout young woman in distress happens by his bar.

The drama and humour are heightened by robust and often very inventive language. At their best, the writers use their imagery not only to illuminate the experiences of their characters but also to share specific details about their worlds. So, for example, we read in Ivory Kelly’s ‘This Thing We Call Love’ of conversations that ‘were like boil-up, with plantains and cassava and other kinds of ground food and salted meat thrown into a pot of water, in no particular order, and boiled until the pot is a steaming, bubbling, savoury cuisine’, or in Joanne C. Hillhouse’s own ‘Amelia at Devil’s Bridge’ about rocks that ‘are sharper than a coconut vendor’s cutlass’.

Many of the stories are brought to life with equally colourful dialogue, although this poses some interesting questions. A number of the writers have chosen to represent the dialects of their characters for a Standard English-speaking reader (so that someone who uses British or American English could pronounce the words phonetically and get them to sound as the characters would say them). While there are practical reasons for this choice, it has the effect of implying a reader who comes from elsewhere, as though the literary legacy of previous generations is still present on some level. It will be interesting to see whether the region’s authors continue to write in this way in years to come.

As is inevitable with anthologies of this kind, the quality of the pieces varies. Structure is shaky in some, while others have a frustrating, unfinished feel, as though they are fragments of larger works. A few fall into the trap of telling rather than showing, or cram so much incident in that they read more like synopses for novels or (in some cases) action films than stories in their own right. There are also instances of overwriting, where tenuous metaphors and similes are heaped onto sentences too flimsy to take their weight.

Taken as a whole, however, this is an exciting and heartening book. It proves – if anyone was in any doubt – that the Caribbean has plenty of homegrown literary talent to draw upon. Congratulations to Peepal Tree Press and Akashic Books for creating a platform for these authors in the shape of Peekash Press. Judging by this collection, there are thrilling things ahead.

PepperPot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean (Peekash Press, 2014)

Book of the month: Alan Cherchesov

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The nation that July’s Book of the Month hails from is not represented on the A Year of Reading the World list of 195 UN-recognised states plus Taiwan. One of the 22 republics representing ethnic minority groups in Russia, the region now known as North Ossetia-Alania was absorbed into the bigger country in the mid-19th century and has been part of it ever since. Had I read this book back in 2012, I would have had to file it under ‘Russia’ or perhaps put it among my ‘Rest of the World’ contenders.

Much like his homeland, novelist Alan Cherchesov, who is also founder and director of the Institute of Civilization in the North Ossetian capital Vladikavkaz, is little-known in the English-speaking world. Indeed, it was only by chance that I heard of him. Having read Andrei Volos’s mini masterpiece Hurramabad – one of the most exquisite books I encountered during my project – for Tajikistan, I received an email from Natasha Perova at the publisher Glas New Russian Writing. She thanked me for my review and suggested a couple of other titles on their list that might interest me.

Two years later, as I began to look around for stories to consider for my Book of the Month slot, I remembered that email and tracked down the works on it. And I’m very glad that I did, because in Cherchesov’s novel, Requiem for the Living, I discovered one of the most extraordinary narratives I have ever read.

Relating the exploits of a mysterious orphan, Alone, who comes to live in a remote mountain aul  (village) as a child and gradually assumes control of the entire community, the novel weaves a haunting and troubling picture. As the population contends with the arrival of the sinister Belgians who are intent on exploiting the region’s resources, the contempt of the ethnic Russians and the locals’ own blind adherence to feuds and traditions, we see the inscrutable protagonist manipulate the course of events ‘twining the multicoloured threads of all these individuals lives together’ in a brave and painful attempt to escape his own dubious past. Part fable, part morality tale and part epic, the novel – narrated by the son of one of the other main characters – reveals how loyalties can at once bind us together and tear us apart.

Cherchesov has a gift for evoking the remote world of his story through succinct descriptions. From the prison cell with ‘two dozen bunks, soiled plasterwork, and a permanent atmosphere of stubborn, lonely fury’ to the powerful narration of a horse and cart careening over a precipice, he brings the strange, dreamlike events of his narrative close to us.

The same is true of his encapsulation of the feelings and anxieties of his characters in small details. The observation, for example, that for an Ossetian villager ‘speaking Russian in front of a crowd of people was almost like stripping naked in public’ tells us all we need to know about the relations between the two ethnic groups.

In particular, Cherchesov is a master of portraying conflicting emotions and reveals again and again how emotional weather can change in the space of a sentence, as rapidly as the mist rolls in to shroud the aul. Using a technique known as free indirect discourse, he plaits the narrative into the thoughts and words of his characters, laying bare the way we buck and struggle under the pull of irreconcilable concerns and desires. Episodes such as the unravelling of a love triangle involving a jealous shopkeeper and the narrator’s father, the morning-after curdling of tenderness between Alone and the prostitute to whom he loses his virginity, and his drunken rant to the narrator after a girl kills herself for love of him come alive because of the inconsistencies that the author threads through them.

For all its brilliance, though, the novel does come with a sizeable health warning. This is not an easy book. Indeed, the word ‘labyrinthine’ might have been coined for it. From the sentence level up, it is intricate and demanding, often switching between time periods and perspectives in a handful of words.

This is made all the more challenging by the fact that there are no section or chapter breaks, so that the narrative is a single 351-page chunk. The reason for this could be, as a German critic writing in Die Welt has suggested, because the work owes a lot to a complex Eastern literary genre known as ‘divan’, in which threads weave together like the patterns of a carpet. While this may be true, it does not make for a relaxing read. In particular, Cherchesov’s tendency to withhold backstory until very late in the narrative can make for moments of extreme bafflement as characters’ carry out seemingly bizarre actions that only make sense much later.

Nevertheless, the book rewards those who persevere. I’ll warrant few of us raised in the Western literary tradition will have come across much like this before. It is certainly one of the strangest and at times most mesmerising stories I have ever read. And, like the region it comes from, it deserves to be more widely known.

Requiem for the Living by Alan Cherchesov, translated from the Russian by Subhi Shervell (Glass New Russian Writing, 2005)

*New* Book of the month: Elena Ferrante

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When I wrote the final post of my Year of Reading the World, back on 31 December 2012, I thought this blog was finished. As the first months of 2013 went by, however, I discovered the world had other ideas.

Not only was I immersed in research about global literature for my forthcoming book, Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer, but I found myself constantly coming into contact with interesting projects and initiatives that I wanted to let you know about.

The book recommendations from readers all over the planet kept coming in too (they still do to this day), so I decided to update the list every now and then to make sure that none of the excellent suggestions go to waste.

But it didn’t stop there: various publishers also jumped on the band wagon, frequently emailing to ask whether they could send me books in the hope that I might blog about them. Even when I explained that I wasn’t reviewing books on this site anymore, some people still posted me their titles.

Such was the case with Daniela Petracco, director of Europa Editions UK. Although I told her that I wouldn’t write about Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, she insisted on sending me a copy along with a glowing description of the work, so convinced was she of its power.

All credit to her, because the novel might have sat on my to-read mountain for a long time had it not been for Petracco’s belief in it. Something about the way she described the story and her enthusiasm for it made it stand out in my memory so that when I came to choose my next read last week, my hand reached for it, bypassing many titles that have been waiting for weeks, months and even years.

What followed was an enthralling reading experience, reminiscent of those childhood immersions in a story that turn the volume of the real world down to a whisper. It impressed and delighted me – and it was powerful enough to make me revoke my decision not to do any more book reviewing on this blog because I simply had to let you know about it (despite her success in Italy, the reclusive Ferrante is very little known in the Anglophone world – last year, the Economist declared that she ‘may be the best contemporary novelist you have never heard of’).

Indeed, reading Ferrante’s novel has inspired me to introduce a regular review slot. From now on, I will choose one ‘Book of the month’ that has stood out from among the titles I’ve read (perhaps recommended by you, stumbled upon by me or sent by a passionate advocate) and publish a post on the last Tuesday of the month about it.

So, without further ado, here’s a little insight into what makes My Brilliant Friend: Childhood, Adolescence such a tour de force.

Charting a close friendship between two girls , Elena and Lila, growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood in 1950s Naples, this, the first volume in a trilogy, depicts the rabble of circumstances, character traits and incidents that conspire to make us dream of a better life while condemning us to be who we are. From the jealousy that steers the central characters between cruelty and fierce loyalty, at once sabotaging and supporting each other, to the bitter realities that blight the hopes of figures such as Lila’s brother, Rino – tormented by visions of a family shoemaking empire but without the focus and application to see it through – and the wretched Melina, driven mad by her love for a philandering poet, Ferrante shows us the levers working the vice that warps and crushes the human soul.

Menace is everywhere. Whether in the childhood imaginings that shape the ogre-like figure of Don Achille or the all-too-real characters of the Solara brothers, terrorising the area with their Camorra connections, violence is only ever a mistimed comment away. Straitjacketed by honour codes that at once protect and hobble them, Elena and Lila must make desperate choices to have a hope of exercising some sort of control over their lives.

Now and then, the narrative doesn’t hold together as tightly as it could. Ferrante gives us a few too many TV-style recaps of events and there are occasional statements that contradict what has gone before – at a wedding towards the end of the book, for example, we read that ‘it was clear no one who had received an invitation wanted to miss it’ shortly after we have just witnessed the local school teacher spurn an attempt to get her to attend.

Some readers may also be frustrated by the mismatch between the prologue, set in the present day presumably some way towards the conclusion of the yet-to-be-published (in English) third book in the trilogy, and the main narrative, which only goes up until the mid-1960s. Unlike works that make up many other literary trilogies, this novel cannot really be said to stand alone.

Nevertheless, if the trade-off is that we have to read on to find all the ends tied up, it’s a sacrifice few are likely to mind making. Hmmn, I wonder if I can persuade Daniela Petracco to send me the next book…

My Brilliant Friend (L’amica geniale) by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2012; 2013)