Book of the month: Anonymous


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)

Picture: ‘Imagen tomada durante la ocupación soviética de Berlín’ by Claude753 on Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.

Book of the month: Graeme Armstrong

Earlier this month, I had the honour of being Literary Explorer in Residence at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, one of the biggest events in the UK’s literary calendar. Created as part of a three-year focus on the theme ‘Read the World’, my role saw me taking part in 18 events over five days, including launching my new Incomprehension Workshop for adventurous readers and delivering a keynote speech, which you can catch on the #CheltLitFest Player until the end of this year.

The experience led to many memorable moments and fascinating conversations. These included a discussion about crime fiction around the world with international bestseller Ragnar Jónasson, Indian mystery writer Manjiri Prabhu and crime-writing critic and novelist Joan Smith, and an event on what reading the world means with novelist Clare Clark, academic Helen Vassallo, who writes the brilliant Translating Women blog, and translator and social researcher Gitanjali Patel.

I was also delighted to catch up with teams from several of the small publishers my reading adventures have brought me into contact with over the years. Representatives from Istros Books, Charco Press and Europa Editions UK all joined me on the stage in the Huddle to talk about their work championing literature from elsewhere (indeed, the Europa team are in many ways responsible for the continuation of this blog, having prompted me to start my Book of the month slot by persuading me to read the work of a little-known – in English – Italian writer called Elena Ferrante back in 2014).

Of all the conversations I had at Cheltenham, however, one in particular stands out in my mind. It was with Scottish writer Graeme Armstrong, author of the bestselling and award-winning novel The Young Team, only the third UK title I’ve featured in ten years of writing this blog.

Drawing on Armstrong’s experience of gang culture in North Lanarkshire, Scotland, The Young Team tells the story of Azzy Williams, who grows up in a post-industrial wasteland of deprivation, addiction, sectarianism and violence. Narrated by Azzy at the age of 14, 17 and 21, it charts his rise through and eventual fall out of the ranks of the Young Team, taking the reader into the heart of a cycle of neglect and abuse that most mainstream storytelling prefers to ignore.

The book is not an easy read in many senses. In addition to the profanity and violence that fill its pages, it is written in dialect – something that was a key factor in the book being rejected some 300 times before it found a publishing deal. Armstrong explores his desire to write in this way powerfully in his article ‘Standard English is oor Second Language’.

Comparisons to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting are obvious – and indeed Armstrong cites reading that book as one of the key inspirations that prompted him to leave gang life and study to be a writer. However, it’s important not to let the Welsh parallel detract from Armstrong’s achievement: in finding a written framework for his mother tongue (as opposed to the east Scottish dialect of Welsh’s novels), he has not only created a new mode of expression but breathed fresh poetry into written English, even as the language strains and cracks to contain the narrative’s voice. (The audiobook, narrated by Armstrong, adds another level to this, even featuring lusty renditions by the author of several Orange marching songs.)

The writing has an extraordinarily compelling, immersive quality. Whether he’s describing tripping at a rave, acting up in school or beating up members of a rival gang, Armstrong captures all the colours of the experiences he portrays. We feel not only the pain and the pity of many of the situations he presents but the humour too, and even the thrill. (‘That was our Vietnam,’ Armstrong told me someone he knows once said, looking back on their shared years in the gang.)

For Armstrong, though, storytelling is about more than simply evoking experience. Now involved with anti-violence and addiction-recovery campaigns, he makes no secret of his ambition to use his writing to effect change. The novel declares this too: each section begins with a striking statistic or piece of research focusing on violence, suicide, deprivation or addiction levels in his home region. At times, it almost has an essay-like quality, with points made, and then illustrated and backed up by the events that follow.

As a result, the pacing takes on an unusual quality in the second half of the book. The fizz and thrill of the early chapters, as we see the young Azzy embrace gang life, dissipate. Instead of the ratcheting up of tension and pace we might expect in a more traditionally plotted book, the narrative takes on a heavier, more contemplative tone. Armstrong has no intention of providing a neat pay off. We are forced to confront the messy consequences of what has gone before and to dwell with Azzy in the aimless brokenness that leads many in his community to be drained of all hope and vitality at 21, whether we like it or not.

This book is not an easy read, but it was never meant to be. As with the first UK book I featured on this blog back in 2012, albeit in a very different way, it forced me to confront the glaring disparity between my reality and the lives of those only a few hundred miles from my front door – the many worlds my nation contains. Its message is too urgent to be anything but uncomfortable. After all, as someone remarked after my conversation with Armstrong in Cheltenham, not many book festival events end with the sentence: ‘Literature saved my life.’

The Young Team by Graeme Armstrong (Picador, 2020)

Book of the month: Alicia Yáñez Cossío

This was a recommendation from Fran, an Ecuadorian who stopped by this blog a few weeks ago to add some suggestions to the list.

First published in 1985 and brought into English by translator Amalia Gladhart some twenty years later, The Potbellied Virgin follows the political wrangles surrounding a small wooden icon in an unnamed town in the Andes. This strangely shaped representation of the Mother of the Christian God is the repository of local pride and virtue (as well as a secret that comes to light in the course of the novel) and is controlled by a group of local matriarchs from the landowning Benavides clan. Led by the formidable Doña Carmen, president of the Sisterhood of the Bead on the Gown of the Potbellied Virgin, these women watch over the virgins nominated to dress and prepare the icon for each of the many festivals and rituals built around it. But when communism begins to sweep neighbouring regions, stirring up dissent among the less fortunate residents of the town, the women will need more than prayer to maintain their dominance.

This is a book about female power warped and poisoned by a patriarchal, classist and racist system. The narrative refers at one point to the Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba and the parallels between the play’s eponymous heroine and Doña Carmen are clear. The same dessication of youth and cramping of development that plagues Bernarda Alba’s captive daughters shows in the frustrated virgins who fall under her sway. Similarly, the deployment of proverbs, which  run through the narrative like a kind of psychic chorus, creates a memorable impression of the internalised, punitive voices that limit and direct women’s actions.

Unlike Bernarda Alba, however, Yáñez Cossío’s matriarch does not focus on shutting the world out but on subverting and controlling it. The author shows this in astonishing detail, swooping in on the key moments in which characters manipulate and better one another to show minds shifting and changing beat by beat. Time and again, we see the downtrodden tempted to act against their best interests in the name of short-term security, exhaustion and disillusionment.

What’s more, we feel it too. Yáñez Cossío and Gladhart’s writing is so precise and vivid that, within a handful of sentences, we are taken into the deepest concerns and emotions of figures who often appear only fleetingly in the narrative. The death of the new magistrate at the hands of his former friends is a particularly striking piece of writing. This account of some of his final thoughts is a powerful sample:

‘… he sees with his own bulging eyes the bad movie of his life, its grotesque presence in full color. And he wants to cry because it is a ridiculously sad movie, it’s an interminable melodrama, and the protagonist is a small-town man who would have liked to have had so many things, and would have liked to live in a different fashion and to have died in his own bed with that unknown something that he never had and which is now set aside and he needs it. And he is filled with shame and nostalgia at never having had it, not because he didn’t want it, but because he was never allowed, because if he had had that which is called dignity, he wouldn’t be stretched out on the strangely fresh grass now, although he thinks at the same time that with dignity he and his children would have starved to death.’

Although it centres on life in a small, nameless town, the narrative has an epic quality. It sweeps across the decades in a single piece, unbroken by chapters, like the train of a richly embroidered gown, snagging now and then just long enough for particular details to catch the eye before jerking forward again. This grand quality has the effect of augmenting the bathos of some of the novel’s more ignominious and ridiculous episodes, but it also lends the work a timeless, majestic air.

For readers from other traditions, some of the rhetoric  (in particular, the habit of rehearsing the same mechanism of undercutting expectations over a series of consecutive paragraphs) may feel overblown. It is also intriguing to note which terms the publisher chose to italicise and explain in the glossary, and which they left undefined (often a keen tell on who the production team envisages the reader to be). I found myself having to freewheel over passages with extensive lists of local foodstuffs, materials and practices, although this may not be such an issue for readers in Texas, who may well have more knowledge of Latin American traditions than I do.

Luckily though, this book is more than equal to accommodating sporadic, superficial slippages in comprehension. The narrative glides along like the current of a mighty river, carrying readers with it, however they flail. Irresistible and powerful.

The Potbellied Virgin (La cofradía del mullo del vestido de la Virgen Pipona) by Alicia Yáñez Cossío, translated from the Spanish by Amalia Gladhart (University of Texas Press, 2006)

Book of the month: Patrícia Melo

This #WITMonth, my reading has had a particular flavour. In October, I’ll be the inaugural Literary Explorer in Residence at the Cheltenham Literature Festival (theme: ‘Read the World’). One of the events I’ll be involved in is chairing a discussion about ‘Crime Fiction Around the World’ between celebrated writers Ragnar Jónasson, Mark Sanderson and Manjiri Prabhu.

As a result, I’ve been using the summer holiday to catch up on some of the world’s most intriguing who/how/whydunnits, with the help of recommendations gleaned from social media and more knowledgeable bloggers in this field, among them Marina Sofia, a contributor to Crime Fiction Lover and one of the driving forces behind Corylus Books. Female-authored highlights from recent weeks include: The Aosawa Murders by Ritu Onda, translated by Alison Watts, and Divorce Turkish Style by Esmahan Aykol, translated by Ruth Whitehouse.

For me, one of the fascinating things about crime stories that travel is the contrasting ways that regional norms around criminality, detection and punishment shape page-turners based on concepts of right and wrong. A murder mystery set in a country with the death penalty may land awkwardly for readers unused to the idea of criminals being executed; an investigation proceeding in a city where limitations on resources or infrastructure mean that the sort of forensic techniques commonly available in the global North are off-limits presents an author with contrasting choices to those confronting, say, Jo Nesbø. Meanwhile, varied conventions around interrogation practices and the handling of evidence may mean that the unravelling of a particular crime has the potential to play out rather differently depending on where it takes place and who is telling the story.

Bestselling Brazilian author Patrícia Melo embraces this issue in The Body Snatcher, translated by Clifford Landers. Presenting a narrator-protagonist who considers himself morally ‘neutral, to tell the truth’ and is well aware that ‘we’re not in Sweden, the police here are corrupt’, she unravels the mystery not of how a crime is solved but how it is committed and the ways a human mind must contort itself in order to do and try to get away with despicable things.

The premise is outlandish: out fishing one day in rural Corumbá, near the Bolivian border, the cash-strapped narrator witnesses a fatal light-aircraft crash. Discovering that the pilot is the son of one of the region’s wealthiest families and that his backpack contains a large packet of cocaine, he hits on the idea of selling the drugs and ultimately extorting money from the dead man’s parents as they grow desperate to recover their son’s body. What follows is a deft, fast-moving story full of twists and surprises.

Melo and Landers’ writing carries the day. While some of the set up and events, particularly in the early part of the story, would probably feel a little heavy-handed or convenient in another author’s hands (the protagonist wangling a job as the wealthy family’s chauffeur, for example, or his girlfriend having recently started working at the mortuary), this novel sweeps us over bumps in the road with an engaging, witty and beguiling narrative voice that can’t help but fascinate. Reading it is like watching a high-wire act – part of the enjoyment comes from the knowledge that the performer could tumble and seeing the flare and skill with which Melo dodges one pitfall after another.

Spare rather than bald, the writing bristles with beautifully succinct descriptions and observations. Consider this depiction of the pilot’s mother ‘being eaten alive by the worms of [her] son’s death’:

‘Every day there was a new health problem, a neck pain, another in the temples, in the neck and temples at the same time, her arms numb, tingling in the legs, tachycardia, vomiting, always some new symptom. And new doctors. If Junior were to appear, even dead, I knew the illness would go away. The same thing happened with my mother. At first the sickness is just a fiction, a kind of blackmail the body uses against the mind, and then, over time, it becomes a true cancer.’

These insights into human psychology are one of the keys to the novel’s success. With an uncanny sense of how the mind moves, Melo is careful to sweep us along in the currents of her narrator’s obsession. Starting with the revelation of a few shabby but relatable traits in her narrator – drawing comfort from disaster headlines because of the satisfaction of being outside the events, for example – she brings us along on his journey towards the unforgiveable, taking us through the loops of rationalisation and justification by which almost any act can be made acceptable to the doer.

Except that in the world Melo presents, the acts are not quite as unforgiveable as they might appear in some other places. With corruption revealed at every turn – indeed, with double-dealing repeatedly offered as the only way to afford a decent standard of living – the moral compass swings increasingly wildly as we journey through the book. By the end, the question is not so much whether the protagonist will be found out but whether we would want him to be. What makes this novel great is that rather than leave us on the outside, looking at the conundrum through the prism of our own society’s conventions about law enforcement and justice, it draws us into its centre, filling us with the same doubts and contradictions that besiege its characters.

A novel about a plane crash leading to an extortion attempt set in the British countryside might take very different twists and turns. And that’s precisely the point. This is a story that is the product both of its characters and of the world in which it takes place. In great writing, the two are inextricable.

The Body Snatcher (Ladrão de cadáveres) by Patrícia Melo, translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers (Bitter Lemon Press, 2015)

Picture: ‘Pantanal, Corumbá/MS’ by Coordenação-Geral de Observação da Terra/INPE on flickr.com

Book of the month: Nanjala Nyabola

Although most of the books I feature on this blog are fiction, one of the titles I refer to most often from my 2012 quest to read a book from every country is a travel memoir: An African in Greenland by the Togolese explorer Tété-Michel Kpomassie, translated by James Kirkup. This joyful account of teenage Kpomassie’s real-life odyssey through Africa and Europe to go and live with the Inuit never fails to bring a smile to my face when I think of it, and I can still feel all the enthusiasm that went into my initial review nine years ago. I loved its curiosity and fearlessness, the optimism with which Kpomassie pursued his goal, and the humour with which he exposed the quirks of the people and societies he encountered.

Recent years have seen some welcome additions to travel writing in English by authors with similarly illuminating and underrepresented perspectives. Two of my favourites are Afropean: Notes from Black Europe by Johnny Pitts and Winter Pasture: One Woman’s Journey with China’s Kazakh Herders by Li Juan, translated by Jack Hargreaves and Yan Yan. Nevertheless, non-white and non-Western accounts of travelling are still relatively rare in mainstream anglophone publishing – something that my latest Book of the month makes a powerful case to change.

As its subtitle makes clear, Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move by Kenyan writer and activist Nanjala Nyabola is not a memoir but rather a collection of think pieces inspired by the author’s journeys through some 70 countries. Although a number of the chapters centre around particular trips – to Burkina Faso, to the DRC, to Botswana in search of the legacy of Bessie Head (whose A Question of Power also featured in my 2012 quest) – this is a book about the larger questions that arise from moving through the world. In particular, it focuses on what that experience is like when you come from a demographic that is commonly restricted and denied the rights granted freely to those in more privileged groups.

Nyabola’s arguments are as fearless and intrepid as her journeys have been. She has no hesitation in taking down some of the world’s most powerful players – exposing everything from the hypocrisy at the heart of the sort of aid organisations she used to work for, and the racism embedded in the visa system, to the rottenness of an international news industry predicated upon representing black and brown people in ways ‘at odds with how the communities in question may see themselves’, alongside the complacency of many of us who imagine ourselves to be anti-racist.

Her femaleness and blackness sit at the heart of the collection. Being different to the default world traveller can be a double-edged sword. While the frustration and exhaustion that constantly running up against people’s assumptions causes is clear, Nyabola’s reflections on the access that her appearance sometimes gives her to experiences and neighbourhoods that white-orientated guidebooks would brand no-go areas are thought-provoking.

Nor does she exempt herself from criticism when it comes to the problematic stereotypes that often attend international travel. ‘I am no better than those I would challenge,’ she writes in her account of her summer in Haiti. ‘I take pictures that I probably shouldn’t take. I am afraid of the water coming from the tap. I surreptitiously glance over my shoulder when I am on my long, lonely walks.’ Even in her home continent, she often used to find herself in the grip of extreme wariness: ‘I’m ashamed to admit that I was even afraid of Africa: the Africans of CNN, warring Africans who killed each other on a whim, who hated women and did violence to them, who ate monkeys and spread Ebola, whose bodies were ravaged with AIDS, and who were always waiting to steal from each other.’

The unpicking of the reasons for these assumptions is one of the sources of the book’s great power. ‘I started to appreciate that, because I had been uncritically consuming other people’s versions of Africa – shaped by particulars of those people’s existence – I had learnt to be afraid of it. […] Later, I would go back to my travel guides and realise something that today seems so painfully obvious: the vast majority of guidebooks, especially those written about Africa, are written by white men for white men.’

As a result of her almost exclusive exposure to a certain kind of narrative, to ‘the dominance of a normative standard determined by a certain eye’, the view Nyabola had internalised not only of the world but also of herself and those around her was slanted, problematic, incomplete. Her description of her journey to free herself from this and see the world in terms more reflective of her lived reality is a masterclass in self-awareness, curiosity, questioning and personal growth.

We can’t all travel as widely as Nyabola has done. Most of us will never spend more than a decade hitching our way to Greenland like Kpomassie, or pass months living with nomadic herders in the manner of Li Juan. That’s why we need writers like this and why we need more of their stories in the world’s most published language. Because, as Nyabola so clearly demonstrates, when it comes to living well in the world, it is not what you see but how you see that matters most of all. ‘We are bigger than what we hear about each other,’ writes Nyabola, reflecting on the way different black communities’ views of one another are diminished by being filtered through prevailing white narratives. How might things be different if we all read about travelling the world through various eyes?

Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move by Nanjala Nyabola (Hurst, 2020)

Picture: ‘airport‘ by whity on flickr.com

Book of the month: Nathacha Appanah

One of the mind-expanding things about reading literature from elsewhere is seeing historical events presented from unfamiliar angles. When you read novels and memoirs that touch on things that have strong prevailing narratives in your home country (British Empire, I’m looking at you), it can be illuminating, thought-provoking and challenging to encounter perspectives that turn what you thought you knew on its head. Sometimes, stories from other traditions can reveal episodes of which you may have been entirely ignorant.

My latest Book of the month, The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, translated by Geoffrey Strachan, is a good example. Telling the story of an unlikely friendship, it is built around the tragic, true-life story of a boatload of Jewish refugees who, having been refused entry to Palestine after fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe, were detained on Mauritius for most of the second world war. The novel is narrated by Raj, who, in old age, looks back at the brief but life-changing bond he formed with David, a young boy in the prison camp at which his violent father got a job in 1944, when Raj was nine. Grieving for the siblings he lost in a natural disaster, Raj comes to look on his new friend as a replacement brother – feelings that give rise to consequences it takes him a lifetime to lay to rest.

The narrative voice is beguiling. Laying bare the ‘electric shock of memories’, it weaves between the present day and the past that forms the bulk of the action, finding deft ways to make long ago feel fresh and immediate. A forest path now buried beneath an apartment block serves as a symbol for the hidden influence of past events, while Raj’s reflections on his relationship with his son provide a powerful comparison for his cruel treatment at his own father’s hands.

There is a lovely reticence to much of the writing, which renders it very moving. The novel is so full of tragedy that it could easily be relentlessly sad. Instead, Appanah and Strachan hold back at the most traumatic moments, allowing spare language, rhythms and dramatic irony to do the heavy lifting. Insights into the way human beings change and the impact of violence are delivered with such beautiful simplicity that it is often as though the writing is transparent, letting us look straight through into the truths it contains. Instead of detailing Raj’s family’s poverty, the author allows us to glimpse it through his surprise at the smart, white building described as a ‘HOUSE’ on his reading card at school and how different this is from what he understood the term to mean.

There is some lovely playfulness too. Raj’s childhood naivety, which, among many other things, leads him to assume for a while that David’s hometown of Prague must be somewhere on Mauritius, is very endearing and makes the denouement all the more poignant.

These disarming elements allow Appanah to play with some radical notions. With Mauritius’s usual racial power dynamics subverted by virtue of David’s prisoner status – ‘We did not mix with the white people of our country, we hardly ever saw them,’ explains Raj – the novel is able to explore notions of cultural appropriation in a fresh and thought-provoking way. We see Raj agonising about whether he has the right to tell his white friend’s story and his uneasiness about his lack of entitlement to draw conclusions about his feelings and suffering. In this, Appanah neatly dramatises the dilemma so often faced by authors when they contemplate writing stories involving traumas they have not experienced, particularly those of people from more marginalised groups.

There are some abrupt transitions that may seem jarring. Similarly, although reticence pervades the narrative, there are moments when things are stated explicitly that another writer might have left readers to infer. The deftness of the writing in much of the book, however, suggests that these potential trip-hazards for anglophone readers may well be indicative of cultural differences in approaches to pacing and what needs to be explained rather than unintended flaws.

Overall, this is a moving and engrossing exploration of grief, survivor’s guilt and the way that global history touches individual lives. Poetic writing and sharp insights simply delivered make this a surprising, important and memorable book. Well worth a read.

The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan (MacLehose Press, 2011)

Picture: ‘Jewish Cemetery, Mauritius’ by Phoebe Epstein on flickr.com

Book of the month: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

The author of my latest book of the month has been on my radar for a number of years. She was the winner of the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and her debut novel, Kintu, has been widely praised. The fact that it has taken me so long to get her is probably due to fact that her novels are often talked about as sagas that deal with national history. Having read such a book as my original choice for Uganda back in 2012, I suppose I felt no hurry to read another novel in a similar vein.

I was wrong. From the moment, I started The First Woman, I was hooked into the coming-of-age story of Kirabo, a girl struggling to find a sense of self in the turbulent years during and following Idi Amin’s dictatorship.

Nansubuga Makumbi is an exceptional writer. Drawing on Ganda oral storytelling traditions and myths, her prose shimmers with energy, urgency and fun. There is an extraordinary directness to her descriptions that at times had me gnawing my fists with envy at her talent. From the scornful teenagers whose ‘eyes were slaughter’ and the wealthy student ‘driven everywhere as if he had no legs’ to the neighbour so forbidding that ‘if you saw her coming while you peed by the roadside, you sat down in your pee and smiled’, the characters in this novel leap off the page by virtue of its author’s vibrant writing.

Funny but never caricatured, they reveal multiple sides as the plot plays out. Indeed, one of Nansubuga Makumbi’s many strengths is the way she plays with psychic distance (a concept neatly explained on writer Emma Darwin’s brilliant blog) to reveal the inconsistencies and hypocrisy threaded through human thought.

Culture clashes are a central theme. As Kirabo navigates her way between rural and urban worlds, European and Ganda traditions, and past and present, the narrative sparks off myriad insights. For British readers, the reflections on the ‘disruption of Ganda time’ by colonial rule – which, among many other things, reduced the three-day weekend to two days and imposed the 24-hour clock – may be particularly interesting. Take this description of the protagonist’s efforts to reconcile the two systems:

‘Kirabo had even learnt to balance her mind at that precarious edge where she saw time in its natural, Ugandan mode but articulated it in the upside-down English mode. At first, it had felt schizophrenic as her mind computed ten hours of day but she said four in the afternoon.’

The novel’s discussion of the mechanics and power of storytelling is similarly thought-provoking. Indeed, the book contains some of the most memorable explanations I’ve read of how narratives can be used to acquire wealth and influence, and to subjugate others. ‘Stories are critical,’ as family friend Nsuuta tells Kirabo towards the end of the novel. ‘The minute we fall silent, someone will fill the silence for us.’

Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the novel’s exploration of feminism, or mwenkanonkano in Kirabo’s mother tongue, Luganda. Although many of the issues and struggles portrayed will be familiar to readers in the global North, Nansubuga Makumbi presents a much more holistic, embodied consideration of women’s attempts to assert themselves than many will be used to. Women’s physicality is frankly discussed and menstruation even has a hand in shaping the plot – an approach that feels quite different to that of the more familiar, often rather dry and cerebral, Anglo-American feminist manifestos. The book also throws up some fascinating thoughts on intersectionality and the ways different kinds of privilege and history divide us.

As with all ambitious stories, the book presents some challenges. Perhaps the biggest for Anglo-American readers will be the cultural differences that may make a few of Kirabo’s decisions hard to understand. Chief among them is the fact that, having never met her mother, she resists the temptation to ask her family about her, preferring instead to try witchcraft and put posters up around her school appealing for information. Nansubuga Makumbi does an excellent job of elucidating the power dynamics of the clan system (using the ingenious ploy of having older members explain many of the intricacies to children), but there are moments where this reticence and respect for elders risks feeling a little too much like a plot device. (Although this may be more of a insight into the limitations of this reader’s imagination than any failing of the novel.)

Good writers offer insights into other places and situations. Great writers offer insights into other minds. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a great writer. I’m just sorry it took me so long to read her.

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Oneworld, 2020)

Picture: ‘After the Rainforest, Uganda’ by Rod Waddington on flickr.com

Book of the month: Sonia Nimr

Full disclosure: I had quite a different title lined up as my final book of the month of 2020. I was going to write a glowing response to the startling and compelling It Would Be Night in Caracas by Venezuelan author-journalist Karina Sainz Borgo, brought into English by Elizabeth Bryer. That book, with its chilling depiction of a society in freefall from a country with relatively little literature available in the world’s most published language, would have been an extremely worthy addition to my list.

But with so much darkness and uncertainty threatening so many at the moment, I found my appetite for writing about this disturbing novel waning. Absorbing though it is, I felt I needed something more hopeful to close out the year.

A few days before Christmas, I put a call out on Twitter for uplifting novels in translation. A number of familiar recommendations rolled in – among them the The Elegance of the Hedgehog and The Good Soldier Švejk – along with several newer YA works, which reinforced my sense that the anglophone market tends to favour more lightness in titles aimed at younger readers than it might often accept in translations for adults.

Then I received a tip-off that intrigued me: a link to details of a novel that Marcia Lynx Qualey, the writer, editor and founder of ArabLit, had recently translated. A few messages later and an e-version of Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands by Palestinian author Sonia Nimr was in my inbox.

Presented as the contents of a manuscript entrusted to a Palestinian academic at a conference, the novel follows the adventures of intrepid bibliophile Qamar. Despite being born a girl hundreds of years ago and orphaned young, this courageous and quick-witted protagonist manages to give free reign to her desire to see the world, spurred on by a book from her parents’ collection. Joining caravans and ships, and sometimes posing as a man and living as a pirate, she travels to destinations including Abyssinia, Andalusia, India and the Yemen, using her skills as a narrator and the herbal medicine she learnt from her mother to get her out of many a tight corner.

Few books beat this one for pure storytelling delight. Packed with fantastical encounters and the uncovering of secrets, this novel is deliciously absorbing. The settings are alluring – ranging from a maharaja’s sumptuous palace to a remote mountain village cut off by flood waters for most of the year – yet presented without the cloying exoticism that often accompanies such depictions in Western literature. Similarly, the balance of the magic and the human is finely struck so that, although the narrative often feels fable-like, we never lose sight of the rounded, multifaceted Qamar at its heart.

Making your protagonist a booklover is a trick employed by novelists the world over – what better way, after all, to invite your reader’s empathy than by providing instant common ground between them and the main character? Here, though, Nimr adds extra layers to the familiar device. With reading proscribed for women and all book purchases having to be approved by the elders in the village where Qamar grows up, her reading is a subversive, daring act. It marks her (and by association, the reader) out as a rebel – one unlikely to accept the limits the world places on her.

The same goes for storytelling: frequently asked to account for herself by those she encounters on her travels, Qamar is in the habit of offering false histories because, as she repeatedly explains, she doesn’t expect those she meets to believe the strange truth. This, coupled with the fact that the book that inspires her wanderlust is also called Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands, sets up interesting questions about fact and fiction. Truth, it seems, can operate on multiple levels: like good novels, fabrications can feel real and can answer human needs. Something doesn’t necessarily have to have happened in order to contain emotional veracity.

Perhaps partly because of its positioning as a YA crossover novel, Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands presents an unusually sunny world. Qamar’s universe is much more benign than, say, Sainz Borgo’s Caracas. Although she frequently faces danger, Nimr’s protagonist almost always lands on her feet. She is rarely without a friend or protector, and at most of the points where many writers would be tempted to twist the knife and ramp up the tension, a lucky coincidence or happy twist of fate saves her. It’s testament to the power of the storytelling and the appeal of Qamar that what might feel like missed opportunities in another novel generally feel acceptable here.

It’s also testament to the power of the central story that the lack of a return to the framing narrative at the end doesn’t jar. Had this novel been written and edited in English, it’s likely that a publisher would have insisted on a final section bringing us back to the Palestinian academic to reveal some transformation wrought by the reading of the manuscript. Instead, the academic disappears without comment, having provided a lens through which adult (and possibly male) readers can peruse Qamar’s story without feeling that it isn’t for them.

The anglophone publishing world is full of labels that can often exclude as much as they invite. I’m not sure that YA crossover is helpful here. This is, first and foremost, a great story – one that has the power to draw in readers of any age. It is one of those that reaches across time, space and cultural barriers to take us to the heart of the human experience. By enabling us to escape, it brings us to the source of what we are. Pure magic.

Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands by Sonia Nimr, translated from the Arabic by Marcia Lynx Qualey (Interlink Books, 2020).

Picture:  al-Idrisi world map in Arabic from ‘Alî ibn Hasan al-Hûfî al-Qâsimî’s 1456 copy, made at Cairo and now preserved at Oxford’s Bodleian Library (Public Domain).

Book of the month: Deepak Unnikrishnan

A few years ago, when I was in UAE for a conference, I took a taxi to check out one of the city’s bookshops. The driver on my return journey was an Indian national who had been in Dubai for more than three decades, having started out on the city’s building sites. As we swept through the sun-bleached streets, past numerous skyscrapers under construction, he painted a picture that jarred sharply with the luxurious surroundings of the hotel to which I was returning.

‘No money, no honey,’ he told me, before explaining the way the average construction worker sweltering on one of the building sites we passed would survive. After rent had eaten up the majority of their income, the worker would have enough to afford to cook some rice and gravy for an evening meal, which they would eke out over several days, taking portions to the building site for lunch. During a 12- or 13-hour shift in temperatures that reach as high as 50 degrees C in the summer, the worker would probably only have one drink, the cost ruling out any more. Any excess money would be sent to family overseas. ‘Life is nothing,’ the driver said. ‘What kind of life can you have like that?’ 

This is one of the questions at the heart of Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People. Stemming from the UAE-born and raised writer’s awareness that the experience of temporary workers (who make up around 80 per cent of the UAE’s population) has rarely been depicted in fiction, the book explores what it means to live at the margins of a society you never have the right to call your home. The many characters who throng the work’s pages vary enormously, from young girls caught up in abuse scandals to would-be dictators, yet they all share the quality of being sidelined, overlooked and denied the space to express themselves and answer their needs.

Language and word play are central. Although writing in English, Unnikrishnan folds terms from tongues including Arabic and Malayalam, as well as a wide array of references (everything from Fawlty Towers to the Ramayana), into the text. In so doing, he creates a series of idiolects informed by the experiences of the characters they depict. Meanwhile, the pointed misspelling of terms such as ‘Amreekun’ and ‘moonseepalty’ in certain mouths, implies a reader fluent in Global English, making many of the speakers outsiders even in their own stories.

The book itself does not fit the form prescribed for it. Although it is set out as a novel and divided into ‘chabter’s, each section presents a new situation and register. Poemlike lists jostle with gritty accounts of police harassment; Kafkaesque depictions of cockroaches becoming increasingly human sit alongside sharp, satirical (and extremely brave) attacks on the regime. There is a hallucinatory quality to much of the writing and yet certain episodes feel startlingly real. The bizarre and the bathetic rub shoulders with the poignant and powerful. There is beauty and humour too.

Inevitably, in such a varied work, some pieces come over more successfully than others. In the case of this book, the resonance and power of many of the ‘chabter’s will depend as much on the knowledge of the reader as on the quality of the writing. With so many references and linguistic games at work, it is nigh-on impossible for anyone to understand everything on a first pass – like the characters on the page, we are excluded from some things too.

The writing is also, at times, disturbingly brutal and graphic. The force of the frustration of so many lives eroded by the perpetual absence of the people and places that define them bursts out in violence and cruelty. From the misogynistic, racist taxi driver whose monologue fills an entire section to the annual purge in the desert (carrying echoes of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’), the text is awash with long-suppressed desires breaking loose with often devastating consequences. For some readers, this will be too much.

But the humanity that flows through the text is ultimately this book’s most powerful force. From the celebration of the ingenuity that allows those denied the space to build a meaningful existence nevertheless to find humour and connection to the possibility of recognition between those coming from entirely different worlds.

Angry and damning though it is, this book is ultimately hopeful. These stories are worth telling, it insists. They are worth recognising and learning from. They deserve to be part of our imaginary universe. They are far from nothing, after all.

Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan (Restless Books, 2017)

Picture: ‘Dubai Marina Construction’ by Anton Bawab on flickr.com

Book of the month: Aleko Konstantinov

One of the extraordinary things about reading books from other cultures is encountering beloved literary figures that have been points of reference for whole nations or language groups but remain unknown to most English speakers. This first happened to me back during my original 2012 quest when I read an unpublished translation of the Mozambican classic Ualalapi and was blown away by its portrayal of the legendary leader Ngungunhane, a towering character with every bit as much tragic power as King Lear or Okonkwo.

Learning about these well-known cultural figures feels a bit like seeing a streetlamp flickering on to reveal a massive monument where before you saw only darkness. It is a startling reminder of how much we miss when we stay within the boundaries of a single language’s literary output.

I had a similar experience reading my latest book of the month, Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian by Aleko Konstantinov, translated by Victor A. Friedman, Christina E. Kramer, Grace E. Fielder and Catherine Rudin. The title came onto my radar when translator Christina E. Kramer, a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Toronto, emailed me about it, mentioning that this was the first English-language version of this nineteenth-century classic, which has long been translated into most other European languages. Intrigued, I plunged in and made the acquaintance of the extraordinary title character some 125 years after he first appeared between the pages of a book.

The work is styled as a novel, but it is really a collection of satirical short stories all featuring the maddening, endearing and sometimes callous rascal Bai Ganyo. Like many nineteenth-century anglophone books, these stories were originally serialised in magazines and newspapers. Indeed, this edition contains several more pieces than appeared in the original collection, published in 1895. As such, an overarching narrative progression is largely absent, although there is a shift in tone, which the translators have recognised by dividing the book into two parts. The first contains a series of light-hearted accounts of Bai Ganyo’s bungling attempts to hawk rose oil in various European cities, narrated by a group of friends vying to amuse one another; the second, much darker section records his cynical attempts to capitalise on corruption when he returns home.

This is an interesting book to read at a time when nationalism is on the rise in many parts of the world because of the way it problematises the concept. While the Bai Ganyo of the first part of the book is staunchly and almost blindly patriotic, the behaviour he and many of the Bulgarians he meets on his travels demonstrate is far from admirable. Indeed, Konstantinov presents many often witty but nonetheless harsh criticisms of national characteristics from jibes at cleanliness and table manners (‘when a Bulgarian slurps, it’s no joke. Three hundred dogs at each other’s throats can’t drown him out’) to portrayals of widespread venality and systemic corruption. Small wonder that while Bai Ganyo and his creator are so celebrated that in 2003 they were depicted on Bulgaria’s 100-lev note, ‘the idea that Bai Ganyo could be construed as representative of a national type is a source of embarrassment,’ as the introduction explains.

It’s often said that humour is hard to translate, yet in this book it comes through loud and clear. As many of the jokes in the first section arise from farcical happenings and physical comedy, there is a universality and immediacy to them that transcends language. Indeed, there is a crudeness to several of the anecdotes (which feature, among other things, a train decked out with soiled nappies instead of flags and an extended search for the toilet) that makes this book seem to come from quite another era than the buttoned-up English-language novels of the late-Victorian period. The most successful passages, however, concern misunderstandings that arise from Bai Ganyo’s naive optimism – as when he pitches up at the house of a world expert on Bulgaria in Prague and presumes he will be welcomed as an honoured guest simply because he hails from the nation.

Many of the later, darker sections will hit home for English speakers too. In an age of fake news and claims of election rigging, it is chilling to read of Bai Ganyo’s nakedly cynical attempts to intimidate voters and found a newspaper for financial gain.

For all its recognisable elements, however, this is not an easy read. The second part becomes relentlessly bleak and cynical at times. There is also the challenge of numerous references to nineteenth-century Bulgarian political and cultural figures whose names will mean nothing to most English speakers. Friedman et al have done their best to elucidate these with footnotes (an understandable choice for a book translated by academics and published by a university press), but these may have an alienating effect for general readers not used to being dragged out of a story to be given context. Even with this background information, the significance of some of the most involved passages may not land for those without detailed knowledge of the Bulgaria of the time.

All the same, readers willing to make the effort (and accept the possibility that some of its elements may not reveal themselves easily, if at all) will find that this book introduces a memorable and striking literary figure whose influence continues to exert itself more than a century after he burst onto the world stage. To make Bai Ganyo’s acquaintance is to come to understand something about the humour and self-image not only of his home country but of humanity as a whole. It’s not an entirely comfortable experience, but memorable encounters rarely are.

Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian by Aleko Konstantinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Victor A. Friedman, Christina E. Kramer, Grace E. Fielder and Catherine Rudin (University of Wisconsin Press, 2010)