Book of the month: Jacqueline Harpman

Getting translated into English is a tricky business. An anglophone book deal represents an opportunity for a writer to access a huge international audience because novels that appear in English have a greater chance of securing other language deals. But, with literary translations making up 3 to 5 per cent of publications in much of the English-speaking world, there is a narrow bottleneck to negotiate to achieve this kind of global reach.

For many books, time is of the essence. Editors love novelty and the idea that they are discovering talent before anyone else. As a result, most novels that don’t get picked up for translation in the year following their first publication are unlikely to make it beyond their original language.

Every so often, however – perhaps because of a news event or the efforts of a particularly tenacious champion – an exception breaks through. And sometimes books get several incarnations. Such is the case with Belgian author Jacqueline Harpman’s classic I Who Have Never Known Men, which was published in French in 1995, and first appeared in Ros Schwartz’s translation as The Mistress of Silence in 1997, before being republished under the more direct translation of its title in 2019, seven years after its author’s death.*

I was lucky enough to interview Ros Schwartz for the Royal Literary Fund’s Writers Aloud podcast some months ago. In a metaphor that feels uncannily resonant for the times we are living through, she used the French word ‘passeur’ to explain what translators do. ‘Passeurs were people who helped refugees escape during the war,’ she told me. ‘[A translator is] a passeur, a ferry if you like, between cultures.’

The image of the passeur is also relevant to Harpman’s novel. Narrated by a nameless girl who is one of 39 female prisoners held in a subterranean cage until the day an alarm sounds, leading the guards to flee while the door is open, the novel explores exile and alienation. Left to wander a deserted landscape that they cannot even be sure is Planet Earth, the women piece together the fragments they discover to try to understand what has happened to them and how to survive until the bitter truth finally reveals itself.

The richness and depth with which Harpman inhabits her narrator’s experience is astonishing. Indeed, it is no surprise that she was a psychoanalyst, for she presents the psychological shifts with which the protagonist encounters her predicament incredibly vividly. Those of us who have lived through lockdowns will recognise the truth in the heightened sensitivity you develop and the greater significance small events and objects take on when your world shrinks. Similarly, it is fascinating how thoroughly Harpman brings to life the experience of living without timekeeping devices and the ingenious way the narrator adapts to this.

The novel is also a powerful portrait of how we try to make sense of things – the ways we attempt to read situations we lack the necessary contextual information to understand. As so many of us do when confronted with texts that work differently to the kinds of stories we are used to, the women in the novel draw on their own limited knowledge to plug the gaps in their comprehension of this strange new world.

In the case of the narrator, who has been imprisoned since she was an infant and knows little of adult human civilization, this tendency is particularly clearly demonstrated in the naive fantasies she constructs around the young guard who keeps watch over the cage. Ignorant of the mechanics of sexual relationships, she tells herself stories that blend scraps of information with instinct and guesswork to bring about a mysterious ‘eruption’ in her maturing body. ‘This was extremely difficult because I was simultaneously the inventor of the story, the narrator and the listener awaiting the shock of the unexpected.’

Indeed, exploring the potential and purpose of storytelling forms an increasingly urgent theme. Repeatedly, along with questions about what defines human existence, the novel invites us to consider what a text is and what it does. Towards the end of the book, the narrator, who, we learn, is writing the account we’re reading, reflects on the strange alchemy that happens when someone reads a story: ‘The reader and I thus mingled will constitute something living, that will not be me, because I will be dead, and will not be that person as they were before reading, because my story, added to their mind, will then become part of their thinking.’

Yet, even as she examines storytelling, Harpman resists many of its conventions. There is a playful irreverence at work sometimes in the text: ‘Underneath, there were several items,’ writes the narrator at one point. ‘[…] But I shan’t go into the difficulties I had in identifying and naming all these things because that would be too tedious and I wouldn’t enjoy it.’ The reader’s curiosity is just one factor in the crafting of this story; this text must also serve its author’s pleasure.

At other points, the narrative seems to critique itself: ‘So few things happened during all those years of walking. I found the bus, I lost the road, I arrived here.’ It is almost as though Harpman is taunting the reader with her refusal to bow to plot conventions by withholding the revelations and resolutions the setup seems to demand. Indeed, on the face of it, this is a profoundly bleak and open-ended book.

To read it this way, though, would be to miss the subtleties at work beneath the surface that bring about the very transformation the protagonist claims reading is capable of effecting. For in being worked upon by Harpman and Schwartz’s fine words, we find ourselves changed from passive bystander to active participant. The story we hold in our hands may be a lonely one. But the fact that we are able to read it and enter into its protagonist’s strange experiences conveys a message of profound hope.

I Who have Never Known Men (Moi qui n’ai pas connu les hommes) by Jacqueline Harpman, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz (Vintage, 2019)

Picture: ‘Tundra Landscape‘ by Alaska Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on flickr.com

*Corrected on 1 March 2022 to include details of the earlier edition.

Book of the month: Namwali Serpell

Some weeks ago, I had an email from R. Like many over the past couple of years, they’d had a tough time and found solace in reading. Having been keen to expand their horizons, they had embarked on an international quest, using the List on this blog as a source of ideas and supplementing these with their own discoveries when they felt like it or didn’t like my choices (the best way to use this website, if you ask me).

Their favourite read not featured on my list was The Old Drift by Zambian author Namwali Serpell. I decided to give it a try.

Spanning more than a century, a large cast of characters and numerous countries, The Old Drift is a proudly ambitious book. Similar in scope to The Eighth Life, which R also enjoyed, the novel begins in 1904 with a small pioneer settlement near Victoria Falls, and traces how the connections and traumas forged in that messy collision of people ricochet down the generations. Over its course we meet, among many others, blind British tennis player Agnes who marries across the colour bar, a philandering doctor intent on finding a vaccine for AIDs, the Zambian astronaut who never was, and a woman covered in hair.

Stylistically, the novel is something of a Trojan horse. On the face of it, the form and storytelling are familiar, recalling many of the sweeping, colonial narratives authored in decades past in the global north. Yet this one has a difference: there is a bite to the tone and a zing to the wit that undermines that familiar structure and forces the reader to look again at many of the prejudices and assumptions that might have passed unexamined in such stories before now.

Recalling the telling historical commentary of writers such as Abdulrazak Gurnah, Serpell explodes any notions of glory that may yet be attached to empire in the reader’s mind. The pioneers in her book are a ragtag, brutal bunch, most of whom, having failed elsewhere, decided to ‘go where pale skin and a small inheritance went further’.

The risk with big-canvas stories such as this is that the scale overwhelms the individual elements; yet Serpell does not fall into this trap. She inhabits her vast range of characters – even the unsympathetic ones – with powerful humanity. Her depiction of Agnes’s sight loss is moving, as is her portrayal of the way her husband, Ronald, edits his homeland’s history to present the version he believes she wants to hear:

‘During his time at university, Ronald had learned that “history” was the word the English used for the record of every time a white man encountered something he had never seen and promptly claimed it as his own, often renaming it for good measure. History, in short, was the annals of the bully on the playground. This, he knew, was what Agnes would expect to hear. So Ronald skipped the real story: the southern migration of the Bemba tribe from the north in the seventeenth century, the battles with other tribes and the bargains with Arab slave traders that had left only a straggling group of warriors wandering the great plateau with its many lakes, carting around a wooden carving of a crocodile, their chitimukulu’s totem, until one day, in the valley at the base of a circle of rocky hills, they came across a sapphire lake, shiwa, with a dead crocodile, ng’andu, on its shores – a sign that they should settle there. Instead Ronald began the story with a white man, one he knew Agnes would recognise from her Grandpa Percy’s stories.

‘”No!” she exclaimed. “The most famous man who ever lived in Africa? He died there?”‘

Serpell is well versed in the challenges of blending history and fiction: it’s astonishing how many national events she weaves through the narrative, from the painful struggle towards independence and the subsequent oppression under Kenneth Kaunda’s United National Independence Party to democratisation and economic struggles, before stretching forward into a nightmarish near-future where the very notion of independence itself is under threat.

Occasionally the research sits a little too close to the surface of the narrative (although when it comes to episodes such as Edward Makuka Nkoloso’s Zambian Space Programme – complete with training techniques such as rolling aspiring astronauts downhill in oil drums – it is joyous). Partly, this is because the book appears to be outward-facing – written for readers beyond Zambia’s borders – with the result that Serpell sometimes explains customs, attitudes and context that she would probably leave unglossed for those closer to home. It would be nice to see her demand a little more of her readers instead of taking such good care not to leave us confused.

This generosity can sometimes slow the pacing, particularly in the final chapters when events seem to demand an acceleration in the telling (at least according to the norms of European novel structure). The mosquito chorus that punctuates each section, though witty and playful, also sometimes slows the pace.

At its best, however, the novel is sublime. Absolutely engaging, mightily imagined, funny, heartfelt and fearless. Thanks, R, for this worthy and welcome addition to my list!

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell (Hogarth Books, 2019)

Picture: ‘Safari on Rails, met Rovos Rail dwars door Afrika …’ by Martha de Jong-Lantink

Book of the month: Shahla Ujayli

Translators have long been my heroes. Almost from the moment I had the eccentric idea to try to read a book from every country in a year back in late 2011, I have found them to be extraordinarily generous, inspiring and wise.

Not only have they helped shaped my understanding of the different ways storytelling works around the globe and revealed many of the blind spots that I continue to challenge myself to overcome in my reading, but they have also repeatedly drawn my attention to writers and trends that I would otherwise have overlooked. Many of the best reads I have featured in this project have come to me by way of a translator’s recommendation.

This is true in the wider book world too. Whether they’re highlighting traditionally overlooked issues, such as the need for more translated titles on children’s bookshelves or the failure to credit translators in reviews and on book covers, translators are often a force for broadening understanding and driving change.

It’s fitting, then, that the final featured title of my first decade of reading the world should be one that a translator fought to bring into the world’s most published language. Sawad Hussain’s ‘Translator’s Note’ at the start of A Bed for the King’s Daughter makes no secret of the struggles she went through to get award-winning Syrian writer Shahla Ujayli’s short story collection an English-language book deal.

In addition to the experimental nature of the writing, one of the major issues Hussain encountered was that the work ‘stepped out of the trope of how Arabic literature is too often digested today’:

‘[The collection] is not an anthropological foray into the heart of Syrian life or history, though it is a “Syrian” short story collection. It is not confined to “women’s issues”, though written by an Arab woman. Rather, the human psyche is explored.

[…]

‘And that is the highest form of literature: not a piece of work that we easily swallow, digest, and after which we rub our bellies gleefully, but rather a body of written work that, rather than giving you the answers, elicits a gut reaction, makes you uncomfortable, puts you on edge and makes you ask (hard) questions. Just as Dena Afrasiabi, the delightful editor of this series, was able to recognize the promise of this collection, I hope that you will also go against the tide, and on a journey of discovery – of the fresh and the possible.’

In short, the writing in this slim volume does not fit into one of the neat marketing categories that publishers often impose on literature from elsewhere, a trend I’ve taken to calling the genrefication of national literatures. In fact, the 22 very short stories in this collection do not conform to many assumptions anglophone readers might have about the short story form itself. I suspect most of the pieces in this volume would not score highly on an English-language creative-writing course.

The maxim ‘show, don’t tell’, for example, has no place in Ujayli’s writing. (Indeed, it has little place in much translated writing because it assumes a shared frame of reference between writer and reader that is unrealistic when it comes to literature from markedly different cultures.) Meanwhile, the author has no hesitation about pulling the rug out from under the reader in the final line, as she does in a number of these pieces, seeming to undermine everything that has gone before. In Ujayli’s world, the experience of waking up to find it has all been a dream seems to be chillingly commonplace.

Instead of the sort of works we might be used to, she presents us with a series of wry, striking shards of writing. Many of them read like parables. Some are more akin to sick jokes. There is the story, for example, of the corrupt police officer who pulls strings to get his brother a gun licence only to be shot by his sibling in the final line. There are the children who Santa fails to visit because of a delay at an Israeli checkpoint.

In such extremely short stories – many of which would fall into the anglophone ‘flash fiction’ category – there is often little room for development or progression. These are largely snapshots rather than short films – a portrait of a dilemma rather than a working through of a problem.

A key to their mechanism seems to glimmer in ‘The Strangest Thing that Happened to Me in 2010’, in which an art-history professor recalls a piece of writing submitted by one of their students in response to the brief: ‘Tell me about Surrealism’. Instead of turning in an essay, the student recounts a bizarre experience. ‘This tale of mine will present surrealism in the way of someone outside the depth of thought, not in the way of someone surrounded by it,’ she writes.

Instinct, mysticism, the crashing together of things that don’t belong – these elements seem threaded throughout this collection. To overthink it, perhaps even to try to explain it, is a mistake. These are works that stand outside the depth of thought, working on the reader as dreams do, defying summation or categorisation.

And like dreams, some will leave us baffled. Some may seem nonsensical or childish. But some will resonate profoundly in a way that cannot quite be captured except in the words as they are presented on the page.

There isn’t much writing like this published in English. Some may say there’s a good reason for that. I say it’s an argument for this book’s existence, and for all the other jagged, unsettling works that don’t fit neatly into bookshop categories. Because, as its translator so eloquently argues, stories like this invite us to journey further, to enlarge our sense of what is possible, to envision other ways of seeing.

A Bed for the King’s Daughter by Shahla Ujayli, translated from the Arabic by Sawad Hussain (Center for Middle Eastern Studies, The University of Texas at Austin, 2020)

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