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.

Book of the month: Duong Thu Huong

It’s always a pleasure to hear from other literary explorers. Reading the world is such an enriching and mind-expanding experience that I’m keen for as many people to do it as possible.

Among the numerous things I enjoy when I learn about other international reading quests is finding out what specific parameters the reader in question has set themself. Although many global book projects look similar at first glance, no two are identical because each becomes a reflection of the concerns and interests of the person at the centre of it. People might choose to categorise books by setting, for instance, or to seek out works in a particular genre or from a set time period.

Sometimes, these parameters illuminate important issues about the way stories circulate. Sophie Baggott’s Reading Women Writers Worldwide is a prime example. Having challenged herself to journey through some 200 books by women by 2020, Sophie has shone a light on the serious imbalance in international publishing, which still sees female-authored works making up only around 30 per cent of the books translated into English each year. (This is a problem that a number of campaigners are working to tackle, perhaps most notably translator Meytal Radzinski, who established Women in Translation Month back in 2014.)

Certain that Sophie must have discovered some gems on her literary travels, I contacted her recently to pick her brains for recommendations. She came back with several suggestions, including La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated by Lawrence Schimel, and The First Wife by Paulina Chiziane, translated by David Brookshaw, both of which I have already reviewed enthusiastically on this blog.

One title was completely new to me, however: Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong, translated by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson. I chased down a copy of the controversial Vietnamese novel – banned in the author’s home country – and was quickly hooked.

The story is told from the perspective of Hang, a young woman who is one of the many Vietnamese ‘exported workers’ sent to the Soviet Union in the seventies and eighties. When her Uncle Chinh summons her to Moscow, she embarks on a train ride that unlocks a wealth of memories, enabling the reader to piece together the mystery around her father’s disappearance and fraught relationship with her mother, and ultimately freeing Hang from the historical guilt that has bound her.

Duong Thu Huong has an exceptional instinct for the way that tension fuels a compelling story. Replete with dramatic encounters, this book is a rare beast: a literary novel with a gripping plot. Although many of the most powerful scenes centre on the main characters – with exchanges between Hang, her Aunt Tam, her mother and her uncle all working to reveal the complex web of emotions that snares them – there are some striking cameo appearances too.

In particular, I found myself itching to know more about the married couple who put Hang’s father up for one night and ‘must have been linked by some crime that kept them there, far from their village. Their shadowy past seemed to be both a bond and a yawning chasm between them, wedding their destinies and sundering their souls.’ By the middle of the next page, however, they had been left behind, never to reappear.

This engrossing storytelling also stems from the author’s sharp grasp of the way multiple, and sometimes conflicting, motivations can lead people to act against their better nature. There are numerous examples in the text but one of the most memorable involves the account of the villagers being goaded to turn against their neighbours following the classification designed to root out wealthy landowners. The rapidity with which people denounce their friends is chilling.

In her foreword, co-translator Nina McPherson warns that the Orwellian quality of the Communist rhetoric spouted by certain characters is deliberately satirical, as if worried that such sections might jar or disconcert readers. However, to my eye, the narrative shifts gears smoothly, moving seamlessly between descriptive passages of sometimes spine-tingling beauty to the harsh registers of many of the exchanges.

Nevertheless, the book is not without its flaws. Although for the most part deftly handled, the complex, flashback-laden structure yields the occasional jolt and sag. The device of harnessing something in the present to evoke a past event is a little overused in the early half of the book, with the result that a few of the transitions feel artificial. In addition, with the exception of intriguing figures such as the sinister married couple mentioned earlier, some of the walk-on characters seem redundant, almost as though they are remnants of threads or scenes cut from earlier drafts.

None of this gets in the way of the novel’s brilliance, however. It is at once engrossing and enlightening, a compelling narrative that leads readers through experiences and settings rarely represented in the English-speaking world. When set alongside the equally heart-wrenching yet deeply masculine The Sorrow of War, which was my choice to represent the country back in 2012, it reveals a strikingly different side to Vietnam.

Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong, translated from the Vietnamese by Phan Huy Dong and Nina McPherson (William Morrow, 1993)

Literary adventures in Amsterdam

This week saw me heading to Amsterdam. I went there at the invitation of international bestselling Belgian author Annelies Verbeke. She has been the writer in residence, or Vrije Schrijver, at VU University this year and her final duty in the role was to organise and deliver the Abraham Kuyper Lezing, an annual public lecture built around a theme of the curator’s choosing.

This year’s title was De taal van de wereld (The language of the world). As part of this, Verbeke was keen for me to speak about my journey through international literature.

It was a great pleasure to be back in Amsterdam. It’s a city very close to my heart: I went there to decompress after I finished my year of reading the world back in January 2013 and the main character of my first novel Beside Myself spends her happiest time there. I caught myself half-wondering if I might bump into her in Vondelpark.

The visit was also a lovely opportunity to catch up with writer friend Gaston Dorren. Dorren and I have stayed in touch since we shared a stage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival back in 2015.

My visit coincided with a special day for him: his latest book, Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages, had just come out in his mother tongue, Dutch. When we met for lunch, he had just picked up his copy from his publisher. As you can see, from the photo, however, he was very self-effacing about this achievement.

After a stroll around Amsterdam’s picturesque centre, I met Annelies Verbeke for ginger ale and hot chocolate in a café near to the Zuiderkerk, where the evening event would take place. I was intrigued to hear about her work at VU, which, among other things, has involved gathering volunteer translations of short stories from around the world.

I was also thrilled to discover that Verbeke has been inspired to mount her own international literary quest and has so far read books from 75 countries. We talked enthusiastically about some of the many questions around cultural identity and authenticity that such armchair travels uncover, and I picked her brain for recommendations.

The evening event was an extravaganza. Bringing together performances from intercultural women’s choir Mihira (a group made up of singers from some 20 countries who each contribute music from their cultural tradition to the repertoire), actor Kenneth Herdigein and Friesian poet Tsead Bruinja with talks from Verbeke and several of the university staff, it offered the 200 or so audience members a smorgasbord of cultural delights.

As one of the major themes was the challenge of combatting the spread of English in Dutch culture, I felt rather sheepish when it was my turn to take the stage (my Dutch, I’m afraid, is not equal to delivering a presentation and I was obliged to stick to my mother tongue). Everyone was extremely gracious and welcoming, however, and the staged discussion Verbeke and I had with fellow author and host Abdelkader Benali was fascinating.

Over a drink afterwards, I asked Benali more about his work. Although we English speakers only have access to his first novel, Wedding by the Sea, the Moroccan-Dutch writer is prolific, particularly as a theatre-maker. His explanation of the process he goes through to develop shows and the emotional investment that each of the performances requires was wonderful.

I left the Zuiderkerk impressed once more by the richness that the world’s storytellers have to offer – and how much we English speakers often miss.

Book of the month: Guzel Yakhina

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A little while ago, I was contacted by Anna, a teacher at Go-English language school in Blagoveshchensk city on the border with China in far east Russia – in fact, she tells me, you can see China just across the Amur river (pictured above in one of the photos she sent me).

Anna and her students had been discussing this project and wanted to know about my Russian choices. I sent back a reply and a question – which book would her students choose for me?

FullSizeRender-28-04-19-08-42-4A few days later, I received a response featuring a number of suggestions from Anna’s students, along with explanations for why they recommended each book. The titles they’d picked included Ukrainian author Anastasia Novykh’s Sensei of Shambala (which Evgeniya says completely changed her outlook on life) and Alexander Pushkin’s The Daughter of the Commandant (which describes the ‘Russian soul in every detail’, according to Alina). In addition, Anna had made her own suggestion: The History of a Town by 19th-century author Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, whom she calls ‘the king of Russian satire’.

In the end, however, it was a recommendation for a contemporary novel that caught my eye: the award-winning Zuleikha by Tartar author Guzel Yakhina, translated by Lisa C. Hayden. Irina describes it as ‘a deep thought-provoking book which leaves its positive mark on your heart’, and soon after I started it, I knew it would be my next book of the month.

Set during the period of Soviet dekulakization and collectivization introduced when Stalin came to power in the mid-1920s, Zuleikha tells the story of the nation through the life of the title character. After witnessing the murder of her harsh husband by government forces charged with disenfranchising wealthy peasants (kulaks), Zuleikha is exiled along with thousands of others to a remote region of Siberia. There, the handful of them who survive the cruel journey must build a society from scratch, questioning and overturning many of the assumptions on which their former lives rested in the process.

As with many books that span years and capture the maturing and changing of the central characters, the tone of Zuleikha varies. The grim cruelty of the early chapters recalls other contemporary gulag-related fiction, such as Sofi Oksanen’s Purge, but there are moments of bathos too, as well as arresting imagery. After Zuleikha leaves her hometown and embarks on the punishing six-month train ride around rural Russia that will be the death of many of her companions, a softness creeps in as she begins to forge connections with those around her. This in turn shrinks to baldness in the early days at the settlement, where life is reduced to nothing but a series of punishing tasks necessary for survival, before blossoming to readmit wonder and creativity, seen through the eyes of a child and captured in art.

Tonal shifts notwithstanding, the ingenuity required to survive remains a constant theme. Whether we are witnessing Zuleikha creeping about her husband’s home in an effort to avoid her vicious mother-in-law, or seeing the official put in charge of her train risk arrest with each rare flash of humanity he shows his charges, Yakhina leaves us in no doubt of the precariousness of life in this world. The characters’ physical hardships pale in comparison to the mental suffering they endure and the self-deception they are obliged to practice to negotiate a society hostile to free thought.

Indeed, Yakhina’s ability to depict the collapse of the human psyche under extreme pressure is one of her greatest talents. The supreme example of this involves her portrayal of the breakdown of celebrated medical professor Volf Karlovich, who spends many pages believing that he is insulated from the horrors surrounding him by virtue of the fact that he lives inside an egg, until events force him to break out of his imaginary shell and engage with the real world once more. The unfolding of this episode is exquisite and credit must go to both the author and translator Lisa C. Hayden for the work they have done to imbue it with such tenderness and power.

It’s almost inevitable that in such a sweeping book, some parts drag. Indeed, the nature of the story – in which life is stripped back to its essentials and imagined afresh – necessitates a certain amount of simple, technical description. At points, there is a level of detail and lingering on certain incidental bits of information and action that some anglophone readers may find frustrating, given that such passages would usually be paced differently in comparable English-language novels. There is also a fair amount of recapping, some of which feels redundant.

Overall, however, this is a triumph of a book. It is a masterclass in synthesizing historical research with imagination and insight into how people think and feel. As Irina says, it ‘leaves its positive mark on your heart’. Thanks to Anna and the B2 students at Go-English in Blagoveshchensk for bringing it and the other titles above to my attention.

Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina, translated from the Russian by Lisa C. Hayden (Oneworld, 2019)

Photos courtesy of Anna

My next novel: Crossing Over

One of my earliest memories involves an audiobook. I must have been about three or four when, on a trip to my local library, a cassette of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet caught my eye. My mother let me take it out and I remember sitting upstairs playing it over and over on a huge metal tape recorder. I couldn’t understand most of the words but I remember being impressed by their urgency and rhythm: something powerful was being expressed here.

Over the years that followed I listened to many story tapes. Even after my eyes learned to read words faster than the snappiest narrator could deliver them, I would still sometimes drift off to sleep to the strains of an old favourite. At one stage in my teens, I could often be found sitting in my bedroom knitting (I was an extremely cool kid…) while a classic novel played. Passages of Lorna Doone and The Mayor of Casterbridge still ring in my ears from time to time.

In my thirties, I rediscovered the joy of listening to stories and now frequently take audiobooks with me on my runs – recent highlights have included Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner and Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime.

So it is with great pleasure that I share the news that my next book, a novel called Crossing Over, will be coming out as an Audible Original title this month. Centred around an encounter between 87-year-old dementia sufferer Edie and Jonah, a traumatised Malawian migrant hiding in her barn, the book explores how, though we may never be able to comprehend other people perfectly, our interactions may lead us to a better understanding of ourselves. Bringing in research into British and Malawian history, and my experience of life on the UK’s south coast, where small boats of migrants have been arriving for several years, it builds on my interest in testing how altered mental states can disrupt storytelling, language and memory.

This is a subject I first ventured into with the help of my bi-polar heroine, Smudge, in my debut novel, Beside Myself. Just like that book, Crossing Over owes a great deal to my year of reading the world and the many extraordinary stories I have since read from beyond my national borders, which have taught me to imagine further and take greater risks in my writing than I would ever have otherwise dared. I hope it’s also a jolly good read.

What’s more, I’m thrilled to have a brilliant narrator reading my words. British actress Adjoa Andoh has brought to life parts in everything from Shakespeare plays to Doctor Who. She’s also a star in the world of audiobooks, with such outstanding novels as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and Naomi Alderman’s The Power to her name. I can’t wait to hear what she does with my work.

Crossing Over is available for preorder. If you are able to purchase a copy or tell your friends about it, you’ll make my day.

Book of the month: Shehan Karunatilaka

A few weeks ago, Mohammed left a comment on this site: ‘Ann after these long years did you finish reading all the list?’

He was referring to the lengthy collection of alternative recommendations I received for many countries during and shortly after my 2012 quest to read a book from every country. Although I made one choice for each UN-recognised nation that year, I recorded all the valid suggestions I received on The List so that I – and anyone else who was interested – could refer to them. At the time, I think I did intend to work my way through them all eventually and I have cherry-picked a number of titles in the six years since the end of the original project.

However, I have also found myself tempted away by numerous other intriguing books (many of which have been published since my list was drawn up).

That’s the thing with reading. One book leads to the next. You plunge into a story about a woman’s struggle to relocate to Johannesburg and find that leads you on to an intriguing memoir about growing up under Apartheid. This piques your interest in literature written and spoken in South Africa’s ten other official languages, which in turn leads you to discover a trend for sunshine-noir crime writing. Before you know it, a month has passed and you’re still nowhere near to exhausting the leads that sprouted from that original book.

Small wonder, then, that many of those suggestions I received in 2012 are still waiting their turn.

Sometimes, however, a title on The List gets impatient and seems to reach out from my computer screen to grab me and demand my attention. This happened to me most recently with Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman.

The novel had been a strong contender for my Sri Lankan choice back in 2012. I had heard very good things about it – not least that it had won several awards, including the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and the Commonwealth Book Prize.

There were two sticking points, however. The novel had been written in English (and after my enlightening exchange with Indian journalist Suneetha Balakrishnan I was making a concerted effort to read more translated books) and it was about cricket, of which, I have to confess, I am not a fan. As a result, I jumped another way, picking Sunethra Rajakarunanayake’s Metta as my Sri Lankan choice.

That might have been it for Chinaman. But then, earlier this month, I was invited to take part in several events at the Brahmaputra Literary Festival in Assam. Among the sessions on my schedule was a panel discussion with Shehan Karunatilaka. Clearly, it was time I read his book.

Centred around WG Karunasena, an aging alcoholic journalist trying to track down the elusive Pradeep Mathew – the greatest Sri Lankan spin bowler you’ve never heard of – the novel takes readers into the heart of the nation’s most popular sport. It is, unashamedly, a book about cricket, but, like the best sports writing, it also explores many other things – fanaticism, history, politics, love and hate. What’s more, it makes a bold claim, a ‘Sales Pitch’ appearing in the opening pages:

‘If you’ve never seen a cricket match; if you have and it has made you snore; if you can’t understand why anyone would watch, let alone obsess over this dull game, then this is the book for you.’

Karunatilaka delivers on this promise. He does so by inhabiting his characters’ obsessions – a perspective he says he gained by spending many hours hanging around bars with old, drunk cricket fanatics – so completely that we live and breathe them too. Deftly working in the necessary explanations of cricket’s mechanics alongside numerous quirky facts and pieces of trivia (how test matches came to last five days and the surprising identities of the first teams to play an international game, for example), he opens up a world and invites us in.

The whole thing is achieved with wonderful playfulness. From word-play and witty one-liners through to amusing sleights of hand in the plotting and even jokes at the author’s expense (by the end of the narrative characters have not only criticised the novel as being ‘rubbish’ in places, but also dismissed Karunatilaka’s name as ‘common’), the book sparkles with good humour.

Indeed, it is so enjoyable that it is easy to overlook the virtuosic leaps Karunatilaka makes to propel us between its numerous storylines. It is testament to his ability to draw characters in a line or two that, many times, we find ourselves picking up a thread that was left dangling tens of pages before without hesitation.

Anglophone readers tend to think of humorous books as being towards the lighter end of the spectrum, but Chinaman challenges this assumption. From racism and the violence and injustice that has marked Sri Lanka’s history through to the personal tragedy of being unable to connect with those we love, Karunatilaka presents us with a broad range of human experience and makes us feel its weight.

The result is a reading adventure as gripping and memorable as attending a brilliant test match must be for a cricket fanatic. I marvelled at the technical ingenuity, gasped at the surprises and moments of drama, chuckled at the back and forth between the players and the umpire, and luxuriated in the ability to be taken out of myself by something truly fascinating for a few days. It is a wonderful, joyous book… and a strong argument for digging out a few more of those recommendations from that there list.

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka (Jonathan Cape, 2011)

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Brahmaputra Literary Festival

This project has led to many extraordinary experiences for me. From speaking at TED Global and delivering TEDx talks in Geneva and Hanoi to having a book translated specially for me by a team of volunteers and appearing on a panel with the deputy prime minister of Jordan at the Knowledge Summit in Dubai, my quest has opened up many more things than I could ever have imagined when, one rainy night in October 2011, I decided to try and read a book from every country in the world.

Last weekend brought another first: seeing my face on a large cube sculpture (pictured above). The cube was one of a number of installations at the Brahmaputra Literary Festival in Guwahati, India, where I and some 130 other writers from 20 countries met at the invitation of the Publication Board of Assam to engage in three days of panel discussions about books.

At least, I was supposed to be there for three days. In the event, however, a cancelled flight meant my journey got rather delayed and, after an erratic, three-stop hop across the world (taking in Cairo, Kuwait and Hyderabad), I arrived in Guwahati with just 34 hours to go until I was due to leave again.

The experience was worth the effort, however. From the moment I was met at arrivals and driven through the city, where banners advertising the festival fluttered from almost every hoarding and the faces of the writers taking part smiled at me from giant arches over the road, I knew I had been invited to join in something extraordinary.

The celebratory mood was heightened by the fact that the date of my arrival was a special day in India. As my wonderful guide, Pourshali, one of the many young volunteers helping to make the festival a success, explained, that Sunday was Saraswati Puja, a celebration of the goddess of knowledge. As a result, the women of the city, Pourshali included, were wearing their finest saris.

Along with the occasional glimpses of my face on advertising hoardings, I was delighted and occasionally unnerved by the sight of many exquisitely dressed people in flowing skirts riding pillion and side-saddle on the back of mopeds weaving through the traffic.

Generously, Pourshali gave up her share in the festivities to show me around. Our adventures included trips to the science museum – a thought-provoking monument to the discoveries of the mid-twentieth century, featuring a display of planets minus Pluto – and a mall where, under the bewildered eyes of the shop assistants, she took the role of personal shopper, advising me on purchases. ‘They are thinking, “What are these two people doing together? They look like they’re from different worlds,”‘ she whispered to me with a laugh.

The highlight, though, was the festival itself. Despite my late arrival, I managed to sit in on several fascinating sessions, including a discussion of fictional portrayals of sport, and a consideration of literature by prisoners of conscience, featuring the courageous Burmese writers Dr Ma Thida and Nyi Pu Lay.

The next day, after an evening of chats over dinner with Australia’s YA author Neil Grant and Indonesian novelist Ahmad Fuadi, among many others, it was my turn. My first session brought me into conversation with one of Pan Macmillan India’s senior commissioning editors, Teesta Guha Sarkar, author and editor Sutapa Basu and author and editor KE Priyamvada to discuss why writers need editors. We agreed on the need for trust and respect between writers and editors, and explored the tricks you might use to bring texture to a threadbare manuscript. Chief among these were giving characters quirks and applying fiction techniques to non-fiction.

Fifteen minutes later, I was in the hotseat, moderating a discussion on the role of research in creating fictional worlds. My panel were an international bunch, comprising Latvian bestseller Janis Jonevs, Lithuanian novelist Gabija Grusaite, award-winning Shehan Karunatilaka from Sri Lanka, celebrated and prolific Indian novelist Arup Dutta, and Assamese prizewinner Jayanta Bora.

An hour was only long enough to scratch the surface of the topic. Nevertheless, the discussion generated some excellent insights into the writing process, shared to a packed audience largely made up of students from schools and colleges across the state. While Jonevs talked about the pain of emotional research and the challenge of projecting himself back into his teenage self, Grusaite explained how a new development in a real-life Malaysian murder case had changed the course of her plot. Karunatilaka raised many a laugh with his tales of hanging out with drunk old men and watching cricket, Dutta described observing elephant trapping, and Bora talked about the 25 years of research that went into his debut.

Perhaps the most inspiring talk I participated in, however, was not on stage but during a conversation with festival curator Rahul Jain, during which the reasons for the effort that had gone into arranging and promoting the festival became clear.

‘We don’t have a literary culture,’ he told me. ‘But if these young people come here and see writers being glorified and people running from tent to tent as though literature is their lifeblood, they will realise that writers are important for a civilised society.

‘They can’t all be writers. But they can all be readers.’

Book of the month: Rita Indiana

This book came onto my radar by way of a tweet from Gary Michael Perry, acting head of fiction at the famous Foyles bookshop on London’s Charing Cross Road. Having found translations from the Dominican Republic to be fairly thin on the ground during my quest, I was delighted to have the chance to sample this Caribbean nation’s Spanish-language literature (back in 2012, I read Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which was written in English with elements of Spanglish thrown in).

Roving between an apocalyptic near future, the recent past and distant history, Tentacle, Achy Obejas’s translation of Rita Indiana’s La mucama de Omicunlé, is a bold and startling exploration of many of the big issues facing humanity today, including the role of technology, climate change, religion and colonial legacies. It takes the aftermath of a series of ecological disasters in the 2020s as its starting point and follows the fortunes of maid Acilde and troubled artist Argenis as they travel back and forth between 2037 and 1606, in search of ways to save themselves and head off the catastrophes that precipitate the story’s beginning.

Indiana’s technical ingenuity is this novella’s greatest strength. Rather than simply jumping between narratives in different time periods, she crashes the experiences together, playing out several story lines in one go. The most impressive example is when Argenis, who has been invited to participate in a residency to generate artwork that will hopefully raise funds and awareness to promote oceanic conservation, begins to experience ‘involuntary projections’ in his mind that lead him to function on two planes simultaneously. Indiana manages a rare feat: communicating a coherent experience of confusion, such that readers are able to inhabit Argenis’s bewilderment at being at once in his present and among buccaneers in the distant past without evoking the sort of frustration that would render the story unreadable.

There are also instances of wonderful playfulness. Indiana’s exploration of the possibilities of technology in the near future – where we might, for example, have access to a PriceSpy that will enable us to spot whether someone’s clothes are fake – are joyous, thought-provoking and sometimes alarming. Presenting us with a reality where access to data is as necessary to human survival as food, the author invites us to join her characters in stepping outside the present, so that we can look in and view much of what we take for granted about our contemporary reality with wondering and sometimes wary eyes.

The virtuosity of many of the descriptive passages is striking. The section where one of the characters undergoes an organic sex change as part of the fulfillment of a prophecy stands out for the way Obejas and Indiana find formulations for experiences beyond the reach of common human conception, bringing the seemingly unimaginable into words.

As with most, ambitious works, however, this marvellously inventive novella comes with a few health warnings. It deals with extreme situations and ideas, and its language registers and the events it contains reflect these.

In addition, for all Indiana’s technical ingenuity, Tentacle is not an easy read. Those who venture into it will have to work to keep abreast of its multiple threads, as well as accept that sometimes meaning may drop off a cliff edge, disappearing where we cannot follow. It is perhaps best enjoyed like the ocean that washes through so many of its pages – with a readiness to immerse ourselves, balanced with an awareness of how far we have ventured from the shore.

Tentacle (La mucama de Omicunlé) by Rita Indiana, translated from the Spanish by Achy Obejas (And Other Stories, 2018)

Picture: ‘Bavaro Sunrise, Dominican Republic‘ by Joe deSousa on flickr.com

Book of the month: Yoko Tawada

This last selection of 2018 was made partly in response to a comment on the A Year of Reading the World Facebook page. Reacting to my review of Sofi Oksanen’s harrowing novel Purge, Susan wrote: ‘All your book choices have a “ dark” sad quality to them. I even predicted this one! You need to find someone in the whole wide world that writes with some humor or happiness!’

While my voyage through international literature has taken in some sunny vistas, from the irrepressibly curious and joyful memoir An African in Greenland by Togolese explorer Tété-Michel Kpomassie to the hilarious and thought-provoking Lake Como by Serbian author Srđan Valjarević, it’s fair to say that most of my recent picks have tended towards the darker end of the spectrum. As a result, I decided to take up Susan’s challenge and find something funny with which to see the year out.

It wasn’t as easy as you might think. For a start, humorous translations are relatively thin on the ground. This may be something to do with the fact that, genre fiction aside, a large proportion of the texts that make it into English from other languages tend towards the literary end of the spectrum. In the anglophone world, ‘literary’ tends to equate to ‘serious’.

There’s also the issue that jokes can be difficult to carry from one language to another. Sometimes this is down to the fact that a lot of humour is rooted in word play, but it can also be owing to cultural differences that mean that a sequence likely to have one set of people roaring with laughter may leave another group cold.

As a result, the funny literature in translation tends to fall into three categories – the satirical, the surreal and what I’ll call circumstantial or fish-out-of-water stories, in which we watch an unlikely protagonist thrown into a challenging scenario with, hopefully, hilarious results. I’ve tried several books in all three categories in the last few weeks.

In the satire camp, I was intrigued by Vladimir Lorchenkov’s The Good Life Elsewhere, translated by Ross Ufberg, a biting account of increasingly desperate attempts by a group of villagers in one of Europe’s poorest countries to get to Italy and the better life they imagine they’ll lead there. As so little Moldovan literature comes into English, it was great to see another voice from the country represented in the world’s most published language. However, the bleakness of the humour (featuring suicides, people trafficking and all manner of extreme experiences) was such that I wasn’t convinced the book satisfied my brief.

Among my fish-out-of-water reads, I romped through Nichola Smalley’s translation of Emmy Abrahamson’s How to Fall in Love with a Man who Lives in a Bush, a quirky account of a Swedish woman’s love affair with a homeless man in Austria. There were some particularly amusing scenes set in an English-language school, which played deftly on the malapropisms inevitable when learning a new tongue, and I was interested to discover that the novel was inspired by the author’s relationship with her now-husband. Still, enjoyable though it was, the book felt a little too light for my tastes. I wanted something that would make me think as well as smile.

That left the surreal. Here, I gravitated towards Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear, attracted partly by the name of celebrated translator Susan Bernofsky, who directs the Literary Translation programme at Columbia University in the States. As she translated the work from Tawada’s German manuscript, I’m counting this as a German read, although a separate, earlier version exists in Japanese.

Concepts don’t come much more unusual than the one behind this book. It consists of three interlinked short stories examining the interaction between captive polar bears and the people who work with them, taking in a sweep of twentieth-century history along the way.

Swooping in and out of the heads of the ursine and human figures in its pages, the narrative delights and surprises. Humour comes from crashing the two worlds together – presenting bears holding down administrative jobs, battling writer’s block and crossing picket lines – and the opportunity this gives Tawada to make our world strange to us. Through the eyes of polar bears, the rituals of organisations such as the Young Pioneers and ideas such as make-up are exposed as arbitrary and potentially foolish.

In addition to raising a smile, this oddness enables the author to explore big questions. By bending language and stepping outside the anthropocentric framework most stories take for granted, she and Bernofsky invite a reconsideration of concepts including nature, nationality, art, politics and rights. The human perspective is revealed to be one of many, reminding us that, as Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari has put it, ‘we are living on a tiny island of consciousness within a perhaps limitless ocean of alien mental states’.

Is this the sort of uplifting book Susan had in mind? Perhaps not quite, although it is inspiring in its way. Is it laugh-out-loud funny? No – to be honest, I’m still looking for another one of those. (Please do put any suggestions below.) Is it worth reading? Absolutely.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear (Etüden im Schnee) by Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books, 2016)

Wishing everyone a very happy 2019. Thanks so much for your support and interest in my reading adventures. Check back soon for some exciting news!

Book of the month: Mbarek Ould Beyrouk

This week saw a gap filled in on the literary world map. Yesterday, the first ever novel from Mauritania to be translated into English was published by Dedalus, at last making it possible for anglophone readers to access traditionally published storytelling from Africa’s eleventh-largest sovereign state.

The release of Rachael McGill’s translation of Mbarek Ould Beyrouk’s Amadou-Kourouma prize-winning The Desert and the Drum makes the West African nation the latest of several countries to have a literary work made available for the first time in the planet’s most published language since my 2012 quest to read the world. Other examples include Turkmenistan and Madagascar.

Watching the first of what I hope will be many such works come to market has been a great joy. My project taught me that storytelling is not only a universal human impulse but a vital tool for building understanding across cultural, geographical, political and religious barriers. When countries do not have a presence on the global bookshelf, we all lose. So, when Jethro Soutar, whose translation of the first novel from Guinea-Bissau to be commercially available in English was published last year, got in touch to let me know about The Desert and The Drum, I was of course eager to take a look.

Alternating between past and present, the novel follows Rayhana, a Bedouin girl who has fled her camp, taking with her the ceremonial drum that is her tribe’s most prized possession. As the narrative unfolds, we travel with the fugitive to the author’s home city of Atar, learning what has driven her from her community as we witness her increasingly desperate efforts to recover the only thing that can restore her peace.

The novel was an excellent choice for translation. As a journey narrative, many of the episodes it describes are as unfamiliar and strange to the protagonist as they will probably be to most anglophone readers, making discovery part of the emotional arc of the book.

This means that the rituals and practices described in the text do not have the dutiful, anthropological air that often characterises such passages in translations of literature from less widely known cultures because they play a role in advancing the action. The best example is the extended account of Rayhana’s marriage ceremony, in which the role that the bride is supposed to play – pretending to be indifferent as the groom and his friends try to steal her away – cruelly matches her feelings.

That said, this episode does give rise to what I suspect may be an editorial intervention designed to bridge the gap between western sensibilities and the unsettling nuances of the wedding-night tradition:

‘It was up to the husband to overcome the distance between them, to quell her fears, to oblige the ignorant young girl to receive him. It was a rape of sorts, but it was tradition.’

Unless Beyrouk wrote with an eye to the international market, or unless his urban Mauritanian readership is so utterly divorced from the Bedouin community that their rituals are unknown to them (which I find unlikely having encountered descriptions of similar ceremonies in other West African literature), it seems improbable that this explanation about the ritual being akin to a rape would have featured in the original.* Still, I would be delighted to be corrected – do tell me if you know better!

Such jarring notes are rare. Translator McGill has found a register that is at once simple and precise, conveying images that spark both surprise and recognition. Take the description of Rayhana’s friend regarding her so intently that it seems as if she is trying ‘to mount the horses of [Rayhana’s] words and ride right inside [her]’ or this portrayal of her mother, who ‘had crossed the Sahara of doubt  long ago, never to return’. Such phrases at once root the story in its setting and convey its sense to readers everywhere.

This balancing of the specific and the universal is perhaps the book’s greatest strength. Grounded in the traditions that drive it and yet brimming with observations that are true wherever you read them, the novel bears the hallmark of great literature, making one little corner of the world an everywhere in which all manner of people can meet.

The Desert and the Drum is an exciting and compelling addition to the anglophone library. While it is unreasonable to expect one book to bear the weight of representing an entire nation – and while I hope we will one day look back with amazement on the era when there was only one story available in English from many nations – there is no doubt that this is a great ambassador for Mauritanian literature.

Thanks for giving us the chance to read it, Dedalus. Where next?

The Desert and the Drum (Le tambour des larmes) by Mbarek Ould Beyrouk, translated from the French by Rachael McGill (Dedalus, 2018)

* I would also urge Dedalus to rethink its policy on footnotes. Many of them seemed unnecessary and distracting, and the information they contained would have been better cut or placed in the body of the text, even if that meant dispensing with a few of the original terms.