San Marino: castles in the air


I always knew this little enclave in northern Italy was going to be tricky – and it did not disappoint me. In fact this post is the result of months of emails, phone calls, appeals to anyone I know with any connection to Italy, wishing on several stars and a good deal of luck.

This frantic activity threw up several leads. The first of these was Milena Ercolani, the Sammarinese poet at this summer’s Poetry Parnassus event in London. After googling around a bit, I found her through La Sammarina, the cultural association she founded, and got in touch to ask for her help. As it turned out, Ercolani had written two novels of her own, but neither had been translated yet. There were plans to create an English version of one of them but so far nothing was available.

I went back to the drawing board. An Italian literature research student friend of mine kindly got on the case and asked around. His inquiries turned up the suggestion that Italian-born crime writer and journalist Carlo Lucarelli might live in the Republic. Between us, we concocted an email asking Lucarelli if any of his novels were available in translation (or rather, I wrote something in English and my friend translated it) and fired it off. Sadly, there was no response.

About that time, I heard from Paul, a Canadian blogger also engaged in a round-the-world quest. Despite not being able to read Italian, he was translating a short story from San Marino to read for his own project, having been unable to find anything to read from the nation in English.

With around 1.87 days to read each book in order to get round the world  in a year, DIY translation was not an option for me. However, I was beginning to realise that San Marino might require a pretty radical solution.

An Italian contact of mine in Brussels gave me the number for the Sammarinese ministry of culture. I called it up, only to be told, amid much laughter and muffled discussion, that no-one was sure who the current minister of culture was. My best bet, apparently, was to ask the last minister of culture who he thought it was. Hopefully whoever he or she was would be able to help me.

The phone number for the last-known Sammarinese minister of culture took a long time to dictate, partly because of a lively debate about the translation for certain digits in Italian. When I finally put the phone down and tried to call it, it didn’t work.

The weeks went by and I continued to fire off emails to anyone and everyone I could think of in and around San Marino. Steve, my fiancé, joked that I had probably contacted nearly all of the Republic’s 30,000 inhabitants. I even tried emailing the writer Umberto Eco, who has strong links with the university there (I received a nice but non-committal response from his assistant).

And then, in reply to my deluge of messages, an email arrived. It was from Tina at the University of San Marino. A friend of hers had suggested The Republic of San Marino, a short history by a Sammarinese professor of Italian literature, Giuseppe Rossi, which had been translated into English.

At first, I wasn’t convinced. Histories weren’t really something I’d been in the market for throughout the year: I was looking for stories. However, when I thought about it and when a copy arrived and I looked at it, I realised that the account was not a million miles from the books I’d read from places such as the Federated States of Micronesia and Tuvalu. Much like those works from some of the world’s youngest countries, this publication from the planet’s arguably oldest sovereign state was an attempt to tell the story of the nation. Perhaps it counted after all.

Part guidebook, part manifesto and part good, old-fashioned PR, the illustrated Republic of San Marino takes the reader around the streets of the state, explaining the country’s traditions and idiosyncracies as we go. It begins with the arrival of Saint Marinus in the region and traces the development of the state from there, leading right up to the 1970s, when the pamphlet was published.

There are some fascinating insights along the way. The democratic process that sees a new pair of national captains elected every six months, for example – allegedly making it possible for citizens of all ranks to have a turn at being head of state – is intriguing. In addition, the numerous photographs of views, buildings and artefacts – which would no doubt have made this a very glossy and lavish publication in its day – add a rich sense of the character of the country, albeit a rather dated one.

Far more interesting than the information the book contains, however, is its tone, which veers wildly between factual and fanciful – with plenty of opinionated digressions thrown in along the way. We hear, in all seriousness, the reasons why San Marino decided against joining the nuclear arms race (apparently it would be too expensive and besides the Sammarinese have never been ones to pick fights), as well as a series of reflections on modern art and cars, ‘the latest and most forceful expression of civilization and progress’. There are also numerous references to San Marino’s peacefulness and its ‘noble, untarnished tradition’, which the author claims is the reason the state has never been tempted to try to expand its territories – all 24 square miles of them. This, despite a fearsome collection of ancient armaments, and a picture of a man aiming a crossbow on the cover.

The wheels come off occasionally in the syntax stakes and the anonymous translator has coined a few interesting words. We read, for example, that the layout of the national exhibition of weaponry allows ‘a careful visit and a noticement of this appendix’, while visitors climbing the parliament building’s ‘maiestic [sic] stone staircase’ will find themselves ‘staring, with some surprised, into the stern efficy of Abraham Lincoln’.

Much of this simply adds to the book’s interest, however. Whether intentionally or not, a story emerges from the gaps between the facts, from what is said and what is assumed, and from the preoccupations of the author. The work is a portrait of pride in a specific place at a particular point in history – and a lesson that we all tell stories in almost anything we do.

The Republic of San Marino by Giuseppe Rossi (The Governmental Tourist Body Sport and Spectacle of the Republic of San Marino, 1976)

Azerbaijan: in search of identity

I had hoped this post would be on a book by Emin Milli. I found him on Twitter, describing himself as a ‘dissident writer living in Azerbaijan’ – rather brave from what I’ve heard about the strictness of the regime. In fact, according to his website, Milli is no stranger to this himself: he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison in 2009 and was only released conditionally in November 2010.

Sadly, when I contacted Milli, it turned out that the book of short stories he is working on won’t be ready until next year. He offered to translate and send me a couple of pieces – he works as an interpreter as well as a writer – but as I was really looking for a complete book, I decided not to put him to the trouble of doing that.

In the meantime, a contact at Sheffield Hallam University had sent through a suggestion of Ali and Nino by Kurban Said. This book presented another dilemma: although Azerbaijanis apparently consider it their national novel, at least according to Paul Theroux’s introduction in my edition, the identity of its author has been a mystery for many years. Several non-Azerbaijani writers have been in the frame since the book first appeared in Germany in 1937, alongside Baku-born Islam convert Mohammed Essad Bey (aka Lev Nussinbaum). He is the writer that journalist Tom Reiss concluded was behind the book – Reiss went on to write a biography of Bey, titled The Orientalist, which was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2006. In addition, other scholars argue that Azerbaijani statesman Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli is the main author.

The odds were that the novel is by an Azerbaijani, but there was still room for doubt. Was this enough for me to justify making it my choice for the nation?

Faced with very little else available in translation, I finally decided to go for it when I discovered that the journal Azerbaijan International had dedicated an entire issue to the book. Whatever the truth about its author, it was clear that the novel had had a lasting impact on the nation. And so, at the risk that new evidence emerges that blows all this out of the water, I decided to give it a go.

The novel is set in the early decades of the 20th century, during the turbulent run up to the declaration of a separate Azerbaijani state, and tells the story of a relationship between Christian beauty Nino and Muslim Ali. Caught between the conservative traditions of Asia and the liberal culture of Europe, and with the might of Russia bearing down on the region, the lovers find themselves forced to question their desires and identities. And, as the world plunges into war, they realise that events on battlefields hundreds of miles away will decide whether a society in which their love can thrive will continue to exist.

The conflict between East and West is at the heart of this book. From the very first chapter, in which a geography teacher explains that Baku sits on the cusp of two continents and tells Nino and his classmates that it is partly down to them ‘whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia’, questions of allegiance and identity are at the forefront of the narrative. This plays out on every level, from different ways of eating through to the design of houses – all of which are presented with much affection and wit. I particularly enjoyed Ali’s conservative uncle’s description of his visit to the opera in Berlin:

‘We were taken to an opera, called L’Africaine. On stage stood a very fat woman and sang dreadfully. We disliked the woman’s voice very much. Kaiser Wilhelm noticed this and punished the woman on the spot. In the last act many negroes came and erected a big pyre. The woman was bound hand and foot and slowly burnt to death. We were very pleased about that. Later somebody told us that the fire had been only symbolical. But we did not believe this, for the woman shrieked just as terribly as the heretic Hurriet ul Ain, whom the Shah had had burnt to death in Tehran just before we set out on our journey.’

When it comes to the position of women in society, the contrast between the two cultures couldn’t be more stark. While Nino’s father advises Ali that marriage should be based on equality when he goes to ask for her hand, his own father tells him that ‘women are like children, only much more sly and vicious’ and his friends and other relatives advise him that wives have no souls and should be controlled with violence. And when Nino is kidnapped and Ali is forced to pursue her kidnapper’s car across the desert, the codes of honour by which he and his peers operate look set to have horrific consequences for his love.

It seems impossible that a relationship could bridge such a gulf, but the beauty of the book is that Said is able to reveal the coming together of two people in a way that is utterly believable and compelling. While recognising that culturally and historically they ‘ought to be blood enemies’, Ali and Nino are able to find ways of transcending their backgrounds while holding on to the truth of who they are. This does not come without great pain and sacrifice. In fact, much of the book is concerned with the struggles the lovers face to accommodate each other’s needs and desires – from the miserable months Nino spends walled up in a harem in Persia, to the indignation Ali has to swallow at hearing Europeans praise his beautiful, unveiled wife. However, according to the story at least, such reconciliation is possible, even if much is lost along the way.

As a metaphor for the dawning of the new Azerbaijani nation, which managed a few brave years before being swallowed into the Soviet Union for much of the 20th century, the book is a powerful and memorable one. Written with great humour and beauty, it brims with affection for this nation of contrasts and contradictions. A wonderful read.

Ali and Nino by Kurban Said, translated from the German by Jenia Graman (Vintage 2000)

Germany: now and then

The question of who decides which of the many millions of books in other languages make it into English has fascinated me since I started to plan this project to read a book from every country in the world in 2012. As confirmed by a recent seminar on ‘Gatekeepers’ at the London Book Fair’s Literary Translation Centre, it’s a complex chicken-and-egg sort of issue that depends on who you think drives trends in publishing – publishers, readers, critics, translators or someone else entirely?

One person who was also at the Gatekeepers seminar was translator Katy Derbyshire (although I didn’t know this until a former colleague, translator Cathy Kerkhoff-Saxon, introduced us a few weeks later and we made the connection). Based in Berlin, Derbyshire has recently set up a book group for publisher And Other Stories, a small indie house that prides itself on sourcing great literature from some way off the beaten track.

The purpose behind the group, as she explained to me, is to use German literature fans to assess titles and recommend which ones the company should sign up for English translation. And Other Stories is, as far as she knows, the first publisher to work in this way and since the company was founded in 2010 it has built a reputation for putting out high-quality and innovative titles. Now Derbyshire hopes that her group of around 13 exchange students, translators and writers (most of them not native German speakers) will contribute to the growth of the company’s list by picking out works different to the clichéd German ‘Nazi novels’ that many UK publishers lean towards.

The connection with Derbyshire was doubly surprising because And Other Stories had sent me one of the first books she translated for them only a few weeks prior to the London Book Fair. With the powers that be seemingly conspiring to steer me towards this particular title, it seemed perverse to choose anything else.

Peopled with outsiders and underdogs, Clemens Meyer’s Leipzig Book Fair Prize-winning short story collection All the Lights puts society’s misfits centre stage. From the boxer on a losing streak to the unemployed loner whose world has shrunk to the letters he receives describing a long-lost friend’s adventures in South America, the characters in Meyer’s universe are all diminished, saddened versions of their younger selves, often set against the unforgiving backdrop of post-unification East Germany.

Many have retreated into paranoia, as in ‘The Shotgun , the Street Lamp and Mary Monroe’, in which a mentally ill addict mutters to himself in the living room up the hall from the bedroom where his girlfriend lies, ominously still:

‘I need a strong heart so I don’t go back to my shoes. In my shoes, out in the hall. I’ve hidden something in there under the orthopaedic insole, it’s a sort of emergency supply, but I don’t need it anymore, I’ll chuck it down the toilet later and flush it away, but actually an emergency supply’s only for a real emergency, and I’m sure that won’t happen now, and if it does I’ll stick it out, so I might as well just leave the stuff in my shoe.’

Meyer’s minimalist style (rendered through Derbyshire’s deft translation) enables him to cram words with significance, changing the mood in a clause and sketching a backstory in a sentence. This means that he can evoke extremely powerful and often surprising responses in the reader. ‘Of Dogs and Horses’, for example, in which we spend the story anticipating one kind of disaster only for the rug to be pulled from under us in quite another way in the final ten words, is devastating. Similarly, in ‘Fatty Loves’, we find ourselves in the unusual position of pitying a middle-aged teacher dismissed for an inappropriate relationship with a young girl.

This minimalism combines with a jagged chronology in which time jumps like a scratched record, hurling the characters back and forth between the present and the years gone by. With hints of missed connections between the stories – the same description of a girl’s teeth cropping up twice leading us to wonder whether the adult in one story is the same as the girl in ‘Fatty Loves’, familiar hints of the school sports field, and the humming of fridges in several lonely flats – this creates a powerful sense of wistfulness, as though other, better possibilities are forever unfolding slightly out of reach.

Once or twice the structure becomes a tad baggy as a result, as in ‘Riding the Rails’, the least successful story in the collection, in which a pair of ex-cons lose themselves in a rent-boy scam. For the most part though, it is incredibly skilfully handled.

Stuart Evers writes in his introduction that the stories reveal ‘the terrifying possibility of now’, but there is a sepia tint to Meyer’s lens that undercuts this statement. These tales take place in a world where people are woken by digital clocks rather than mobile phone alarms, where they make calls from phone boxes, write letters, and think in Deutschmarks, and where the tentacles of the internet have yet to penetrate. Seen in this light, the works are more about the tragic properties of ‘then’ than the possibilities of now. But Meyer’s achievement is to make that ‘then’ belong to all of us, whether we lived through it or not. Outstanding.

All the Lights by Clemens Meyer, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (And Other Stories, 2011)

Greece: child’s play

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But when I saw Clockroot Books’ 2009 edition of Margarita Karapanou’s 1974 classic Kassandra and the Wolf, complete with Ihrie Means’s disturbing cover art — a woman’s body topped with a wolf’s pelt and reflected in a mirror — I had to take a closer look.

One of literature’s youngest child narrators, six-year-old Kassandra is also one of its most unsettling. In fact, with her detached, vicious and sometimes bizarre accounts of life at her grandmother’s home in Athens, she often seems every bit as embattled as Birahima, the former child soldier in Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah is not Obliged. 

Too young to feel obliged to present a socially acceptable persona to the world, Kassandra is unfailingly frank. Whether she is describing her torture and killing of the kitten ‘Borrowedy’, who is lent to her for a week, or her sexual abuse at the hands of grandmother’s chauffeur Peter — ‘He panted and sweated. I didn’t mind it too much’ — she overturns society’s tacitly agreed modes of talking about things again and again.

Even the favourite authorial trick of getting the reader onside by making the protagonist a book lover is disregarded here, with Kassandra declaring: ‘I don’t want to learn reading and writing’.

Sometimes, this unchecked verbalisation has great comic effect, as in the case of the PhD or ‘doctor’s desertation’, as explained by Kassandra’s acquaintance France:

‘Well, you see, you take a book and go to the middle of a desert or something and then you bury it in the sand for a long time and then you dig it up again and you find that all the words have got mixed up like the sand and then you put them all back in place only this time you put them back any way you like.’

Yet for all her frankness, Kassandra finds herself repeatedly sidelined, silenced and misunderstood. Where she releases outbursts of oddities or obscenities that reflect the troubling associations of her mother’s distance and her inner world, her refined relatives see only naughtiness and disrespect. Repeatedly chastened and instructed on ladylike behaviour, she develops a stammer before retreating into silence — ‘But I do talk to them, only I don’t use words’, she tells the specialist hired to assess her.

The danger of failed communication is made clear in the sad fate of Uncle Harilaos, who, having declared his desire to kill himself on several occasions, takes his own life.

Society, it seems, is not set up to accommodate so naked an expression of needs and longings. If Kassandra is to survive, she must learn to disguise and smother her impulses and join in with fashioning the conversational cat’s cradles the adults spin over her head. She will gain her place in the world this way. But she will also lose something too.

Compelling, strange and savage, this is a rare example of how a book’s cover can reflect the contents within.

Kassandra and the Wolf by Margarita Karapanou, translated from the Greek by NC Germanacos (Clockrootbooks, 2009)