A library visit

Libraries have been going through a tough time in the UK in recent years. In the last decade, more than 700 have closed, with scores of others under threat because of funding cuts. As I write, a high-profile, author-led campaign is under way to fight plans to shut 14 libraries in Hampshire, the county in which Jane Austen was born and lived for most of her life.

Many people have written much more eloquently than I could about why places where people can gather to access books for free are vital. Their role in stretching the human imagination and changing lives is a recurring theme in stories around the planet. From Roald Dahl’s Matilda to Tayeb Salih’s Mustafa Sa’eed, literature abounds with characters shaped by hours spent in public spaces lined with books.

However, this week, I got a powerful, practical reminder of why these places matter when I took up an invitation to speak to Sandgate library book club.

The only library in Kent to be managed by a parish council on behalf of the county council, Sandgate library sits a street away from the English Channel on the UK’s south coast. It is run by a mixture of paid staff and volunteers who make it possible to offer longer opening hours and a regular programme of events.

Chief among the volunteers is retired teacher Liz, who I know from the regular Read and Rhyme sessions my daughter and I have attended. Liz also runs the book club and, when she discovered I was a writer, she very kindly put my novel Beside Myself on the schedule and invited me along some months later to talk to the group.

I arrived a little early to find the members – all women and most retired – engaged in a lively discussion of their latest read, which the librarian had ordered in from libraries across the county to ensure that everyone had a copy.

Each took it in turns to share her assessment, finishing with a mark out of ten that averaged out to around 5. (I resisted the temptation to ask what Beside Myself had scored when it was up for discussion some months before.)

The comments were refreshingly frank. Although the novel under examination was by a celebrated household name, the members – quite rightly – had no compunction in calling out passages that had bored, irritated or baffled them, alongside sharing the aspects they had enjoyed.

After this, it was my turn. Following an introduction from Liz, I launched into an informal talk about my year of reading the world and novel writing, answering questions as they arose. The discussion was warm and friendly. We covered some familiar ground, including several of the topics listed in the FAQs on this site, as well as some more unusual queries to do with the writing process I don’t think I’ve ever been asked how to turn a school essay into a novel before!

The hour was up in no time. Before I knew it, a get-well-soon card for an absent member was circulating for people to sign, and we were shrugging on our coats and saying our goodbyes.

What lasted much longer – and will no doubt outlive the beautiful bunch of flowers the book club gave me as a thank you for my visit was the sense of welcome that surrounded the library. A thriving centre for friendship, shared interests and fun in this little village on the edge of the land. A precious community built around books.

Meeting Siphiwo Mahala

The first full week of the new decade brought a treat for me: a chance to meet Siphiwo Mahala, author of the short-story collection African Delights, which was my South African pick during my 2012 year of reading the world.

Mahala was in London to interview one of a handful of surviving friends and associates of the dissident writer Can Themba, who died in the late 1960s. Having written his doctorate on Themba’s work, Mahala is now preparing a biography of the great man – the first of its kind.

We walked to Waterstones bookshop in Gower Street. On the way, I pointed out the University of London’s Senate House Library, where I did a lot of research for my book Reading the World (called The World Between Two Covers in the US), and Mahala told me about his research into Themba, which had thrown up some fascinating stories about mixed-race relationships that flouted South Africa’s former morality laws.

This put me in mind of Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s brilliant account of growing up with mixed parentage under Apartheid. When I mentioned it, I was thrilled to find that Noah is an old friend of Mahala’s – yet another reminder of the web of connections that books spin between readers and writers around the world.

Over frothy coffee in the bookshop’s café, Mahala filled me in on his writing over the past eight years. He’s been busy. Despite working full-time for the government and completing his doctoral thesis, he has found time to write a play, The House of Truth. Also based on Themba’s life, it was a run-away success when it opened in South Africa in 2016 and is now being developed into a film.

Meanwhile, he has continued to work on short-form fiction. Last year, he published Red Apple Dreams & Other Stories, a collection combining some of his favourite pieces from African Delights with new work. He’d generously brought a copy for me, in which he wrote a beautiful dedication, and he is keen to find a European outlet for his work. Publishers, take note!

However, Mahala’s enthusiasm really caught fire when I asked him for recommendations of other contemporary South African writers whose work I should explore. Seizing my notebook, he quickly filled a page with a list of the following names: Zakes Mda, Masande Ntshanga, Nthikeng Mohlele, Thando Mgqolozana, Cynthia Jele, Angela Makholwa, Zukiswa Wanner, Mohale Mashigo, Niq Mhlongo and Fred Khumalo.

Always intrigued to test bookshops’ international mettle, I proposed that we see if we could find them on the shelves. The results were disappointing, although, to her credit, the bookseller who helped us did suggest a novel by another young South African writer in the absence of any of Mahala’s picks. This was Evening Primrose by Kopano Matlwa.

The suggestion flummoxed Mahala at first. Although he knew of the author, he had not heard of this book. In the end, however, he solved the mystery – in South Africa, the novel had been published with a much more direct title: Period Pain.

Although none of Mahala’s suggestions were readily available, I did spot a familiar name during our search. Tucked amid the Ms was a copy of my debut novel, Beside Myself. I bought this as a gift for Mahala and we persuaded another member of staff to snap the picture at the start of this post: two authors brought together across thousands of miles, holding each other’s stories.

Book of the month: Bessora / Barroux

And so we come to the last day of 2019 and the final Book of the month of the 2010s, the decade in which reading changed my life.

From the start, this project has been about addressing personal blindspots and exploring what storytelling can do. In that spirit, this last review of the tenties, ventures into new territory for me: the world of graphic novels.

First, a confession: I’m not a very visual person. As a child, comics left me cold. I didn’t much like cartoons. The visions words conjured always seemed much more vivid than illustrations.

Recently, however, I got the chance to interview translator Sarah Ardizzone for the Royal Literary Fund, a wonderful charity of which I’m honoured to be a fellow. I’d been aware of Ardizzone’s work for many years because, among the more than 50 books she has translated, her work includes Faïza Guène’s powerful depiction of a Moroccan teenager’s life in a Parisian high-rise estate, Just Like Tomorrow, which was my French pick during my year of reading the world.

Indeed, as I said to Ardizzone during our discussion, her career has been characterised by translating diverse and non-mainstream voices, often through collaborations with representatives of a range of communities to capture the nuances of particular dialects or argots in French and find equivalencies in English.

Alpha: Abidjan to Gare du Nord is a prime example. The product of a collaboration between award-winning Belgium-born writer Bessora and French illustrator Barroux, the book reflects on the treacherous journeys of many of the undocumented migrants who have attempted to cross the Mediterranean to enter Europe in recent years, condensing extensive research into a single, striking account.

When I spoke to Ardizzone about it, she told me that working on graphic novels like this requires her to translate on another level, allowing the pictures to dictate the palette or moodboard of the words she uses. Following her lead, I am using some of the pictures from the book to direct my review.

The novel follows title character Alpha as he sells his business and sets out to travel to the Gare du Nord in Paris, where he believes he will meet his wife and son. Although the journey only takes a matter of hours by plane, he knows it will be somewhat longer by land and sea. As such, he travels light.

To reflect this, illustrator Barroux, who is known for using strict constraints in his work, opts to present his illustrations as though they are sketches done with felt-tip pens in a cheap exercise book Alpha has taken with him. Mostly black and white, with occasional splashes of colour when he has time for embellishments, they are stark and powerful, with a make-do, hurried air, as though the person drawing them can never be sure when he will next be on the move.

Ardizzone’s translation of Bessora’s words reflects this. The writing is largely functional and direct – in the manner of a journal – with occasional flights of fancy and poetic descriptions.

The depictions of many of Alpha’s fellow travellers are cases in point. There is Antoine from Cameroon, who is so set on making it to Spain to play for F.C. Barcelona that he is already wearing his football boots and gets up before sunrise to jog in the Sahara so as to stay in good physical form.

 

Equally powerful as these small, often funny, human details are the gaps and omissions. Take Abebi, a young woman from Lagos, whose health has been ruined by the physical risks she has been obliged to take to pay for her journey. The spare account of the toiletries she sets out in the corner of her room in one of the camps in an attempt to show potential customers that she is hygienic, coupled beautifully with the image fading into black, is more evocative than pages of detailed description could be.


And then there are the places where language breaks down altogether, as in the case of these pictures capturing Alpha’s terrifying crossing. At these points, with the abandonment of words, Barroux is able to take us into territory to which purely written works can only gesture.

As with all translations, compromises and reimaginings have been necessary to bring Alpha into English, giving this version a distinct character. According to Ardizzone, the most striking difference is the fact that, whereas the text was handwritten in the French original, it is typeset in the English. This change was necessitated by publisher Barrington Stoke’s focus on producing texts for readers with visual challenges and conditions such as dyspraxia. While it means that the English version lacks some of the original’s homespun feel, it does make the graphic novel accessible to more readers.

This can only be a good thing. Powerful, memorable, humane and shocking, this story deserves a large audience. It is the book that Ardizzone says she worked hardest to find a publishing home for in English and I can see why. I read it in one sitting and, generally non-visual though I am, many of its images will stay with me for a long time to come. Heartily recommended.

Alpha: Abidjan to Garde du Nord By Bessora & Barroux, translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone (The Bucket List, 2016)

Wishing all literary explorers a very happy new year and many wonderful reads in the decade ahead. With thanks for your ongoing curiosity, enthusiasm and support! 

Sourcing translated audiobooks

Last week, Julia left a comment on the List. She is an audiobook listener who is struggling to find recordings of stories from beyond the anglophone mainstream. She wondered if I had any suggestions.

The message got me thinking. I’m a fan of audiobooks. What’s more, having narrated the audio version of The World Between Two Covers myself and published my latest novel as an Audible Exclusive (narrated by the wonderful Adjoa Andoh), I know what great ways they can be of reaching audiences. In some cases, such as Trevor Noah’s brilliant narration of his memoir Born a Crime or the Naxos recording of Ulysses that was my Irish choice during my 2012 Year of Reading the World, audio versions can even bring added layers to a text, allowing listeners to experience accents, rhythms, nuances and occasionally additional material that they wouldn’t get from a printed version.

However, enthusiastic world-reader though I am, my knowledge of the translated audio market is fairly limited. I tend to listen to books when I drive, walk or run – activities that often require me to divert my attention away from the narrative for practical reasons. As such, I favour non-fiction and plot-driven books for listening and tend to tackle more demanding literary works that require unbroken attention with my eyes.

Realising this blindspot – or deaf spot – in my knowledge, I did what this blog has taught me to do when confronted with my own ignorance. I asked fellow readers and booklovers for help.

The recommendations came in thick and fast. I have listed some of the most useful below but I get the feeling this is the tip of the iceberg, so do feel free to share more ideas in the comments.

  • Several people told me about some of their favourite translated titles available through big commercial audio producers such as Audible and Downpour. These included the work of bestselling Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, and Nobel laureates Svetlana Alexievich and Olga Tokarczuk.
  • Others named publishers who offer audioversions of their translated titles, including Orenda Books, which published my most recent Book of the month selection, Bitter Lemon Press and Harper Voyager.
  • For those worried about the impact of audio sales on print book sellers, @Glenwood607 and @getrochelle put me onto the trail of Libro.fm, a fabulous-sounding initiative that allows you to buy audiobooks through your local independent bookshop.
  • Meanwhile, those keen to listen to Chinese literature might want to keep an eye on recently established Silk Gaze Audio. There are only a handful of titles available on the site as yet, but it sounds as though producer Nicola Clayton will be working to bring out more editions in the coming months. Thanks to @TranslatedWorld for tipping me off about this.

I’m sure there are plenty of other great options out there, but I hope the above will give Julia and anyone else who’s interested in listening more widely some places to start.

As for me, I’ve been given plenty of food thought. Hmmn, perhaps some of 2020’s Books of the month should be listens…

Picture: ‘Listen’ by Ky on Flickr.com

Book of the month: Antti Tuomainen

I heard about my latest featured read through book blogger Marina Sofia. If you don’t know her blog, Finding Time to Write, I’d recommend checking it out. Not only does she read extremely widely and rapidly, but she writes exceptionally perceptively about books. Her site is a treasure trove for those keen to find compelling stories, often from beyond the anglophone sphere.

Browsing the blog a few weeks ago, a post mentioning Finnish writer Antti Tuomainen caught my eye. Marina Sofia had particularly enjoyed the crime writer’s recent forays into black comedy, she wrote. Indeed, his ability to uncover the humour in dark situations was something she was keen to emulate in her work.

Intrigued, I checked out Tuomainen’s back catalogue. Several of the titles piqued my interest, but in the end The Man Who Died, translated by David Hackston, snared me with a killer premise: on a visit to his doctor, 37-year-old mushroom entrepreneur Jaakko discovers that not only is he dying but that his death is the result of a long campaign of poisoning that will soon cause his organs to shut down. Determined to find his murderer before he is silenced forever, he embarks on an investigation into everyone and everything he thinks he knows.

Tuomainen writes in the acknowledgements that the novel marked a turning-point in his career when, after five very dark books, he felt the need to lighten the mood and set out to write something that would enable him to ‘laugh a bit’. He certainly didn’t hold back: brimming with bizarre twists and grotesque incidents, the novel is in many ways an unashamed farce. Credibility is quickly left far behind but that hardly matters – we are swept on by a lovely playfulness, almost as if, with each turn of the screw, we can see Tuomainen rubbing his hands in glee at the thought of what comic incident he can cook up next.

The comedy works at the sentence-level too. Sly jabs at pretensions and hypocrisy abound, and there are some deliciously absurd descriptions. We learn, for example, that Jaakko’s wife Taina’s meals ‘aren’t the kind in which a teaspoon of celery purée stares dejectedly across the plate at a solitary sprig of wheatgrass’, while one of the henchman of a business rival appears to have discovered a way to body-build his own head. The narrator also maintains a thrawn detachment from events – a function perhaps of his shock confrontation with his mortality – which enables him to step back and see the silly side even in extreme circumstances.

It’s no surprise to learn that Tuomainen was a copywriter before he turned his hand to fiction. There is a lovely clarity and precision to Hackston’s translation that points to the sort of economy of expression that often comes from being paid by the word. (British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie is the exception that proves the rule here – he cut his teeth coming up with phrases such as ‘naughty but nice’ and Aero’s ‘irresistibubble’ but his novels, while they are many things, certainly cannot be called concise!)

Nevertheless, this is not a perfect book (if such a thing exists). Clear and direct as it often is, the prose sometimes tends towards the bald and obvious. Tuomainen also seems to struggle a little with portraying physical movement – many of the more violent episodes are tricky to follow not simply because of their outlandish nature but because of the awkwardness with which they are described. Some of the justifications, transitions and resolutions are also a little convenient, cursory or abrupt, as though, in his impatience to get to the next reveal or belly laugh, Tuomainen cannot be bothered with boring authorial housework.

But who needs perfection when you can have fun, compulsion and plenty of surprises along the way? If you’re looking for an entertaining read to make the long winter evenings fly by, this is one for you.

The Man Who Died (Mies joka kuoli) by Antti Tuomainen, translated from the Finnish by David Hackston (Orenda, 2017)

Picture by Aleksey Gnilenkov on Flickr.com

Book of the month: Dina Salústio

Firsts are a recurring theme on this blog. This month’s book of the month is a case in point. Not only is it the first novel by a female author to be published in Cape Verde, but it is also the first full-length work of fiction by a woman from that nation to be translated into English.

Such publishing events can be both positive and problematic. On one hand, it is exciting to think that the voice of someone from a previously ignored group can now be heard in the world’s most published language; on the other hand, the unreasonable pressure of requiring one novel to carry the weight of an entire community can have a warping effect on our reading. If we’re not careful, we can lumber the writer in question with unfair expectations, forgetting that they are just a person who decided to write a story, and that they probably never thought of themselves as speaking for their gender, nation or ethnic group. A single story, as the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so eloquently argues, never gives a complete picture.

So what to make of this latest first, The Madwoman of Serrano by Dina Salústio, translated from the Portuguese by Jethro Soutar? How to detach it from the political baggage that comes with the accident of its time and place of publication and translation, and take it on its own terms?

At first glance, the novel seems as though it will be relatively straightforward. The premise, though complicated, contains lots of familiar tropes: a traditional village community (Serrano) under threat of development, a young woman forced to confront a difficult past, family secrets, a curse, the tensions between city and country, modern habits and old customs, now and then.

But when you start to read, it quickly becomes clear that the novel does not conform to many of the conventions of its form – or, at least, the anglophone Western version of it.

For one thing, although many of the elements of the story sound familiar, their handling is not. Realism and myth crash together in a strange and jagged interaction that sees the modern, urban world of microwaves, therapy sessions and business deals grate against ancient rites, hearsay and magic. A death certificate shows that a man has been poisoned by strange thoughts; apparently infertile women go to the city for ‘pharmaceuticals’ that turn out not to be quite what they seem; and the mysterious madwoman of the title makes predictions that play out on city streets, as well as in the rural dreamscape of the village.

This stark juxtaposition is reflected on the linguistic level, with translator Jethro Soutar often reaching for words from diverse registers to capture the story’s massive range. At times you can almost feel the narrative straining with the effort of containing all Salústio wants to say, breaking out into a series of surprising digressions, many of which yield some of the book’s most joyful passages. The small section about the unusual role of cats in Serrano, for example, is as pleasing as it is unexpected, while the various explorations of the role of magic in women’s lives put me in mind of another first book by a woman – Mozambican author Paulina Chiziane’s The First Wife, translated into English by David Brookshaw, which I sent to Donald Trump in celebration of World Book Day a few years back.

As with many books that draw on traditions beyond Western literature, the pacing and structure of The Madwoman of Serrano make it a challenging read for those used to the mainstream output of the anglophone publishing industry. Flashbacks nest within flashbacks, repeated memories create an impression of stagnation at points, and, while a number of major events are dealt with in a handful of sentences, it takes central character Filipa several chapters to cook a turkey.

It would require a more knowledgeable reader than me to unpick the threads of all the different influences at work in this book. While the influence of the Western tradition seems evident to me in the shadowy figure of the detective, who appears in the final quarter to tie up many of the loose ends (sometimes rather abruptly), I have no way of knowing what local storytelling techniques may be at work.

As a result, the reading experience felt patchy. At times I seemed to know exactly where I was and what was going on, only for the author to pull the rug out from under my feet with a swerving digression or unexpected turn of events on the following page.  There were numerous episodes that felt rather loosely plotted or underprepared, with catastrophes often arriving out of the blue to scatter characters’ plans.

However, this response may say more about the expectations that my largely Western literary diet has ingrained in me than it does about this book. Steeped in a tradition built on the assumption that human beings have a relatively large degree of control over their safety, health and happiness, I am used to stories that function with a high level of causality, where the course of events can be traced logically, each human action leading to the next. But such neat storytelling may seem naïve, unrealistic or flawed in parts of the world where life is more precarious and where disaster lurks much closer to the surface.

It’s for this reason that it’s important that publishers persist in broadening the kind of text that is available in the world’s most published language and continue to bring out firsts such as this. While The Madwoman of Serrano won’t be an easy or perhaps even a satisfying read for many English speakers, it tugs at the preconceptions we all carry about how books work and what stories do. It may be that this novel has as much to teach us about Western literature and reading habits as it does about writing by women in Cape Verde.

The Madwoman of Serrano (A louca de Serrano) by Dina Salústio, translated from the Portuguese by Jethro Soutar (Dedalus, 2019)

Book of the month: Juan Marsé

I love meeting translators. Having built their careers around enabling people to access the work of other writers – lending readers their eyes, as I describe it in my book Reading the World – they are often very generous, knowledgeable and fascinating.

Nick Caistor is a case in point. With a string of famous works to his name, including novels by Paulo Coehlo, José Saramago and Dominique Sylvain, this three-time Premio-Valle-Inclán-winner and former BBC World Service Latin America editor is a mine of insights and stories. When I met him to record a (yet-to-be-released) podcast for the Royal Literary Fund this month, we had a wonderful discussion about the frustrations and joys of helping literature to travel, topped off by a delicious lunch from a Brazilian stall on the street market near his London flat.

Caistor’s kindness didn’t end there. A few days later, a package dropped onto my doormat: his recent translation of Spanish Cervantes prize-winner Juan Marsé’s Esa puta tan distinguida (or The Snares of Memory, as Caistor has rendered it in English).

The premise is intriguing. In 1980s Barcelona, a writer is hired to create a film script based around the murder of a prostitute in a cinema projection booth more than thirty years before. In his efforts to achieve authenticity, the writer seeks out the convicted murderer, one Fermín Sicart, and, over the course of a series of taped discussions, attempts to get to the bottom of the crime. There is a problem, however. Though Sicart accepts his guilt, he cannot recall why he killed his victim. As the writer tries to grope his way towards an understanding of his subject, he is forced to interrogate his own motives and methods for translating this gruesome episode to the silver screen.

The book is surprisingly funny. Helped along by abrupt shifts in register that reliably undercut the writer’s loftier reflections, a strong current of bathos and formidable housekeeper Felisa, who has no compunction about interrupting the narrator’s work to harangue him about his unhealthy habits, offer her opinions or subject him to another of her ‘riddles’ taken from classic films, the narrative is extremely entertaining.

This is nowhere more true than during the passages in which the writer reflects on the difficulties and compromises of the creative process. For a fellow novelist, the section describing five hours spent crossing out sentences in a handful of barely legible pages is particularly enjoyable (not to say reassuring!). There is also a lot of fun in the passages that skewer the Spanish film industry. Beholden to politics and funding issues, the project lurches from one director and producer to another, morphing dramatically with each shift so that the writer is constantly obliged to reframe his vision in light of considerations that have nothing to do with the quality of the work.

The humour in no way detracts from the rigour and beauty of the prose, however. Indeed, Marsé and Caistor’s descriptions of writing and the mechanisms of self-censorship are among the most memorable I’ve read. In showing how ‘the story came to me from an undeniable personal tragedy, but was also rooted in the fraught memory of the dark days of the dictatorship, the resentment, humiliation, pain and desire for revenge that still persisted in many different guises in the collective subconscious’, the narrative makes the particular universal – one of the hallmarks of great literature.

Rather than getting in the way, the human elements of the story – the writer’s fretting about money, Sicart’s flashes of forgetfulness, and Felisa’s complaints about clearing up cigarette butts – elevate the work. They imbue the novel with life, allowing us to experience the emotional reality of the ideas it explores rather than simply presenting them on the page, while the intrigue of the plot draws us on.

‘Haven’t I told you a thousand times that the black or noir novel as they call it in French is the best way to investigate social conflicts, explore the human condition, to denounce implacably the injustices and corruption of our society?’ remarks an incidental character in a doctor’s waiting room midway through the book. In Marsé’s hands, this is certainly true.

The Snares of Memory (Esa puta tan distinguida) by Juan Marsé, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor (MacLehose Press, 2019)

Book of the month: Helga Flatland

This Women in Translation month (#WITMonth), or August as it’s known in some parts of the world, I’ve been rather spoilt for choice. Although the number of female-authored books being translated into English is still low in comparison to those by men, the awareness-raising efforts of recent years have seen a glut of fabulous titles by women made available to anglophone readers.

Those keen for recommendations now have a wonderful resource in the shape of blogger and #WITMonth founder Meytal Radzinski’s freshly compiled list of ‘The 100 Best Books by Women Writers in Translation.’ Drawn up from nominations from readers around the world, this is an attempt, in Radzinski’s words, ‘to create a new canon of sorts’. I for one shall be mining it for suggestions.

Even without this wonderful list, many of the best titles I have read so far this year have been works in translation by women. Favourites have included Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby, translated from the French by Sam Taylor; Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline, translated from the Italian by Tim Parks; Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff; and Annelies Verbeke’s Thirty Days, translated from the Dutch by Liz Waters, which was my June Book of the month.

My selection for this month, however, came onto my radar by way of another blogger, John Fish of The Last Word Book Review. I saw him tweeting about Helga Flatland’s A Modern Family and was inspired to try out this celebrated Norwegian writer’s English-language debut for myself.

The premise is simple enough. Adult siblings Liv, Ellen and Håkon find their lives thrown into confusion when, just shy of their father’s seventieth birthday, their parents break the news that they are planning to divorce. This revelation sparks an intense period of questioning and insecurity, in which the assumptions on which their lives rest are tested and the ties between them stretched out of shape.

Flatland has the gift that I most often covert in the work of other writers: the ability to make everyday events compelling. Whereas my two published novels and the one I am working on now all feature characters pushed to breaking point by extraordinary events – my way of cracking people open to get at the workings within – Flatland finds the drama in the quotidian and makes us see how even something as mundane as clearing the table can be fraught with meaning and tension.

Flatland operates on the level of fine detail. Alive to the minute adjustments that switch the points of conversation and send exchanges careening off along unexpected tracks, she gives us characters who are perpetually frustrated in their attempts to live up to their own and one another’s standards by insecurities and shared history. We feel Liv’s exasperation at her tendency to regress in the face of her mother’s disapproval and cringe at Ellen’s boyfriend Simen’s inability to read the family dynamics so that he keeps chuckling long after a conversation has taken a sombre turn. This precision makes the novel deeply synecdochic, with almost every small exchange and event standing for momentous shifts below the surface.

The drama also lives in the gaps between its personages’ perceptions. With multiple episodes narrated several times from the viewpoint of the three main characters, we see the sometimes funny and sometimes tragic discrepancy that can often exist between people’s readings of the same events.

There are also a few wry interjections from Flatland. Although the comments nominally come from the narrators, there is too much knowingness in the gripes about novels in which characters end up at meaningful locations without being aware how they got there and the tendency to belittle women’s fiction for them not to carry some authorial weight.

This knowingness is occasionally a problem. The articulateness with which Håkon – the least successful of the three narrators – explains his motivations, for example, strains credulity. His insights into his predicaments sometimes feel too precise to be quite real.

Overall, though, this masterful Norwegian writer’s anglophone debut is an utterly compelling and satisfying read. It reminds us how full and rich life is, how the quietest existence can brim with urgency and drama – and how much wonderful writing we English speakers have yet to discover.

A Modern Family by Helga Flatland, translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger (Orenda, 2019)

Book of the month: Ali Zamir

My latest featured read marks another welcome addition to the anglophone literary world: the first commercially available translation of a novel from the Comoro Islands off the coast of Mozambique.

In 2012, when I read my way around the world, there was no longform fiction available to buy in English from this nation of 1 million people and I resorted to reading an unpublished translation of a novel by one of the archipelago’s leading writers. In May this year, that changed with Jacaranda Books’ release of Ali Zamir’s A Girl Called Eel, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins.

Narrated breathlessly and chaotically by the title character, the novel looks back on its protagonist’s life just as she is at the point of leaving it. Over the course of its 271 pages, we accompany Eel through the major events that have shaped her, exploring her internal and external worlds until we come to an uneasy understanding of the forces that have simultaneously made and destroyed her.

The book is a canny choice for English translation. As with many of the most memorable works from nations with little work available in the world’s most-published language – Smile as They Bow and Allah is Not Obliged come to mind – it has a strong and irreverent narrative voice. Although Eel may be at death’s door and has suffered some serious ill-treatment, she is not self-pitying or feeble. She thinks nothing of berating her fellow characters and even her reader, and shows little sympathy for what she perceives as weakness: ‘what is it about death that scares you feeble-minded fools so much,’ she exclaims when people in a sinking boat scream with fear.

This contrarian streak means that Eel is unpredictable and consequently fascinating. By turns alarming, shocking and funny, her voice acts like a hand drawing the reader through the novel’s unfamiliar terrain, pacing and mores. Although Western readers may not share some of Eel’s assumptions and may occasionally find it hard to enter into the emotional reality of the situations she describes, we are prepared to accompany her back and forth through the medina of Mutsamudu because she keeps us entertained.

She also delivers some powerful insights along the way. Words, she tells us, ‘are born free as birds, only if you nourish them with sincerity can you make them your own’.

Zamir and Higgins have clearly taken this advice. The text throbs with striking imagery. Take this description of a small craft battling through a sea storm: ‘the boat had to float through those furious waves and surging tides like an insect creeping over a mad woman’s dress as she thrashed and flung herself about’. Here, the crashing together of two distinct areas of experience – the wetness of the sea and the dryness through which insects usually move – creates a wrenching effect that conveys the violence of the scene.

There are occasions where such unusual images tip over into farce. For example, although it captures some of Eel’s disorientation, her description of vomiting on a woman’s back as being like etching her suffering onto a copper plate feels grotesquely ornate.

The challenges don’t end there. The narrative often rambles. This is no doubt deliberate and a reflection of Eel’s confusion as she drifts in and out of consciousness – indeed, she often scolds herself for digressing. Nevertheless, such apparent aimlessness is risky as it can make readers frustrated and inclined to let go of the narrator’s guiding hand. Occasionally, it’s tempting to wonder whether Eel’s self-admonitions aren’t really directed at her author.

There’s also the stylistic quirk of the text being devoid of all punctuation except commas and a final exclamation mark. The novel is Eel’s ‘furtive last sentence’, the jacket copy explains. But it isn’t really: there are lots of separate sentences in the book. It’s just that they are not demarcated as such but spliced together by one comma after another.

None of this takes away from the fact that this is, however, a very welcome addition to the English-speaking world’s bookshelf. Vivid, striking and surprising, this is an impressive work. That it is the first Comoran novel to be commercially published in English almost feels irrelevant. Whatever its provenance, A Girl Called Eel deserves a global audience.

A Girl Called Eel by Ali Zamir, translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins (Jacaranda, 2019)

Book of the month: Annelies Verbeke

One of the joys of this project has been the opportunity it’s given me to interact with authors around the world. From Turkmen author Ak Welsapar, who graciously asked me to write the preface to the latest English-language translation of his work, to Suchen Christine Lim from Singapore, who sent me a copy of her most recent novel only a few months back, I’ve really enjoyed learning about the lives and processes of so many wonderful writers. Given the geographic spread of the people whose work I’ve read for this project, however, it’s unusual that I meet them face to face.

The author of my latest book of the month is a rare exception. Having shared a stage with Annelies Verbeke at Vrije Universiteit’s Abraham Kuyper Lecture in Amsterdam last month (you can see us in the picture above in conversation with moderator Abdelkader Benali), I was delighted to receive a copy of her novel Thirty Days, translated from the Dutch by Liz Waters. I dived in and was quickly absorbed in what has turned out to be one of my favourite reads of the year so far.

Taking place in the space of a month, the novel follows the experiences of Alphonse, a musician-turned-decorator who has moved with his girlfriend to the rural district of Belgian Westhoek. Discovering that his work and manner often encourage clients to open up to him, Alphonse is quickly immersed in a web of personal tragedies, comedies and intrigues that spreads out across the pages of the novel, binding together everyone he meets and leaving no-one, but especially the protagonist, unchanged.

This is an immensely stylish book. With a strong instinct for the loose connections and quirks in human interaction, Verbeke presents a large cast of memorable and compelling characters. No matter how slight their involvement in the narrative, each of them feels rounded and finely drawn, and comes to us in the midst of pressing dilemmas. From the furious, butterfly-obsessed translator Alphonse encounters at a retreat building he is contracted to paint to the kebab-shop worker with a penchant for ice sculpture who slices off his finger in the process of preparing a shawarma, they all command attention and convey the impression that what we see of them is the merest tip of a deep iceberg of experience and feeling.

This is particularly true of the protagonist, Alphonse. The manner in which his history is revealed is incredibly skilful and invites readers to interrogate their assumptions. Having spent a long time imagining my way into the mindset of a person with markedly different life experiences and cultural markers to my own for my second novel, Crossing Over – which features an illegal Malawian migrant as one of its main characters – I was awed by Verbeke’s ability to take us into her hero’s universe. What’s more, I was envious of the facility with which she is able to make telling points without ever allowing the issues she explores to hi-jack the narrative and render her characters cardboard cut-outs acting in the service of ideas.

Verbeke’s control of the many elements of the story is hugely impressive. Wide-ranging though the narrative is – touching on the First World War, West African music and agricultural history, among many other things – the novel wears its author’s extensive research lightly. All the facts it features have an impact on the story and the writing hardly ever feels showy.

The result is a profoundly moving, insightful and witty piece of work, a book that has the capacity to make readers laugh and cry. It is, quite simply, fantastic. ‘Without a doubt, Verbeke is the greatest talent of her generation,’ proclaims a quote from the Flemish newspaper De Standaard on the front cover of my copy. I can well believe it.

Thirty Days (Dertig dagen) by Annelies Verbeke, translated from the Dutch by Liz Waters (World Editions, 2016)

Picture courtesy of Vrije Universiteit.