WITmonth pick #5: Lina Meruane


When I tweeted that I was reading Seeing Red by Chilean writer Lina Meruane last month, @infinitetexts responded: ‘hold on tight. It’s a brilliant ride!’ It turned out to be good advice because this slender work, my fifth and last pick of the 17 books I read during Women in Translation month, is a roller coaster of a story.

The autobiographical novel follows the fortunes of Lina, a doctoral student in New York who loses her sight after a stroke. Forced to depend more and more on her boyfriend, Ignacio, and relatives back in Chile, the fiercely intelligent, ambitious and self-reliant protagonist has to renegotiate her relationships with those around her and the world. As she does so, she is obliged to look at life, humanity, the body and science afresh.

Meruane’s ability to take readers into the experience of sight loss is extraordinary. Her descriptions are fresh, immediate and memorable, inviting comparisons with passages from Nobel Prize winner José Saramago’s great novel Blindness. Although the catastrophe that Meruane evokes is private and individual, as opposed to the public and universal breakdown of society that Saramago depicts, it is every bit as engrossing and devastating. In this narrative we discover that to lose your sight is to risk losing your self – an eventuality which could cost you the world as utterly as any mass outbreak of sightlessness might.

At root, this is a book about what happens when the familiar suddenly becomes strange, rendering the methods by which we have known and judged the things around us useless. It reveals what happens when the known is made mysterious – when simple acts such as moving around your apartment or recognising an acquaintance turn into minefields, when the street ceases to be a place and becomes instead ‘a crowd of sounds all elbowing and shoving’. In showing us life through a scuffed lens, the novel helps us to look at everyday occurrences differently.

The idea that blindness opens up alternative channels of vision and insight is hardly new – storytellers have been playing with it since the creation of the first Ancient Greek myths involving the blind prophet Tiresias and probably long before that. Yet, in Meruane’s hands, the familiar trope takes on a fresh urgency, helped by startling language use and imagery that makes the text leap from the page. Indeed, praise is due to translator Megan McDowell, who has not only managed to deliver an English version full of surprising and challenging repurposements of words, but also had to contend with a scene in which Lina and Ignacio try to do a crossword – surely no easy thing to bring successfully from one language to another.

The consequence of the odd brilliance of the prose, which is sometimes bewildering in its breathlessness, is that it makes reading itself strange. Much like the protagonist, who has to remake her interaction with texts by way of audiobooks, we also have to relearn to read in order to inhabit this novel. And just as Lina stumbles over the once mundane objects of her life, we may find ourselves blundering between sentences, having to stop now and then to reorientate ourselves and ensure that our interpretation is on track.

The result is powerful and memorable. Although I wish Meruane had opted for a different final sentence (the existing one being a little on-the-nose for my liking), there is no doubt that this book is a valuable addition to the literature of blindness, as well as an excellent read. It is exhilarating – a brilliant ride as @infinitetexts said. I came away with my vision sharpened and my head spinning.

Seeing Red (Sangre en el ojo) by Lina Meruane, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Deep Vellum, 2016)

Picture: ‘Blurred vision’ by Judy on flickr.com

WITmonth pick #1: Lena Andersson


At the start of August, I made a promise. I wrote a post pledging to read lots of translated books by women in a bid to find a truly brilliant female-authored translated title to feature as my book of the month. This was going to be my small contribution to Women in Translation Month, a campaign now in its third year, aiming to tackle the disproportionately small number of books by women that get English-language translation deals.

The first part of the pledge was easy. Drawing on a range of personal recommendations, comments on here, things I’d been wanting to tackle for ages and some excellent lists put together by supporters of the campaign, I read my way through 17 works, tweeting the titles as I went.

In fact, I was reading at roughly the same rate as I did during my original quest to read the world back in 2012. And just like that journey, this challenge took me to some intriguing places. From a remote girls’ boarding school in the mountains of Rwanda to Park Slope in Brooklyn and from 1980s China to 16th-century Peru, I found myself transported beyond the bounds of my imagination by the writers’ skill.

So far, so good. But then I was faced with the second part of the challenge: choosing one title to tell you about.

Here I came unstuck. There were simply too many excellent and extraordinary books among the selection for me to settle for reviewing just one. And so, in recognition of the fact that my original quest featured far more books by men than by women, I have decided to take this opportunity to redress the balance a little. I have selected five titles to review and add to the List over the next couple of weeks (in addition, of course, to redoubling my commitment to seek out great books by writers of all genders to feature at other times).

And so, without further ado, here is the first of the bunch.

If you ever need proof that a story does not need to be original to be powerful, you need look no further than Swedish writer Lena Andersson’s Wilful Disregard. On the face of it, this slender novel tells a story so familiar you could barely call it a plot: Ester, a poet and essayist in her early 30s, falls for Hugo, an older artist, and has to deal with the painful consequences when her passion is not returned.

It sounds mundane. And yet the quotidian nature of the storyline is the secret of this book’s success. With no narratological fireworks to wow readers and no twists to keep the pages turning, it is left to Andersson and her translator Sarah Death to make the novel compelling by use of language and description alone.

And my goodness, they certainly do.

Andersson sets out her stall in the opening pages by showing us what words mean to her poet protagonist. Language, we learn, is only ever ‘an approximation’. As a result, ‘the dreadful gulf between thought and words, will and expression, reality and unreality, and the things that flourish in that gulf, are what this story is about.’ Indeed, at times, the impossibility of capturing things with words almost seems too much for Ester and her creator alike:

‘How can one portray a human being from the inside in language or imagery without the transmission process introducing a false note? That’s the question. Metaphorizing feelings can only lead away from those feelings.’

And yet, as so often happens when a writer expresses her frustrations at the limitations of her art, great writing is frequently in evidence in this book. It takes the form of succinct evocations and spare, precise descriptions amid a welter of rich perceptions about what human beings think and do. Some of these, such as the way obsession unfolds and the means by which we sabotage ourselves in the eyes of those we most want to charm, are timeless, but there are observations that feel very much of the moment too. The reflections on the torments experienced by anyone waiting for a text message from a love interest are particularly telling.

There’s humour in there too. The restaurant scene where Ester finds herself unable to order the same dessert as Hugo because she is cross with him and can’t appear to agree with him about anything is wonderful.

Indeed, the universality of so much of the story can make its local distinctiveness jar when it appears. There are episodes where Ester is direct in a way quite foreign to a British reader, but probably entirely natural to a resident of Stockholm.

And while we’re on the text’s disconcerting aspects, it must be said that not all Andersson’s pared-back descriptions find their mark. A few of the metaphors are distractingly odd and there are occasional word choices and repetitions (whether reflected in the original or introduced at the translation stage) that jolt and tremble the smooth train of the narrative.

But really these quibbles are nothing when set against the pleasure that comes from being absorbed in this story. Some books turn their own pages for you and this is such a one. Please Picador, can we have some more Lena Andersson in English?

Wilful Disregard by Lena Andersson, translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death (Picador, 2015)

Picture: Youthful Romance: The east end of Kungsholmen in Stockholm, Sweden by Let Ideas Compete on Flickr.com

On the trail of international crime writers


This weekend, I went undercover. Officially, I was hosting one of the tables at the ‘Kill Me Quick’ author dinner as part of Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, one of the biggest events dedicated to crime and thriller writing in the world.

That was my alibi for being at the Old Swan Hotel, the handsome hostelry where, in 1926, murder mystery queen Agatha Christie was discovered hiding out after she disappeared for 10 days, sparking a massive search. However, as regular readers of this blog will appreciate, I had ulterior motives for lurking at the scene of the crime: with the schedule promising events involving some of the leading genre writers from around the world, I was eager to do a spot of literary spying.

And so it was that I caught an earlier train up to Yorkshire than I needed and, flashing my author pass and a smile, slipped into two Saturday sessions dedicated to crime writing from beyond the Anglo-American world.

The first was ‘Murder Out of Africa’, a discussion bringing together several writers of novels set in the continent. Something of a mystery emerged when the panel, chaired by prolific British novelist NJ Cooper, walked in, however: with the exception of Nigerian writer Leye Adenle, everyone else taking seats on the stage was white. Indeed, had it not been for the last-minute withdrawal of Margie Orford, whom Adenle had replaced at short notice, the participants would all have been Caucasian.

This, Cape Town-set thriller author Paul Mendelson explained when an audience member raised the question towards the end of the session, was to do with what London-based publishers selected for release. Nevertheless, Adenle was quick to point out that a number of black African authors are making names for themselves and that the African crime fiction becoming available to Western audiences is increasingly diverse.

The representation problem aside, the discussion was fascinating and wide-ranging, taking in a number of issues specific to writing murder mysteries in the continent, as well as challenges that all novelists face. Afrikaans author Deon Meyer spoke about his sense of the perception among many Western readers that African crime writing cannot be entertaining because the setting has so much darkness and violence. This was not true, he said: he and his peers did everything to make their books as thrilling and suspenseful as any comparable work (and judging by Meyer’s sales figures and the fact that his books have been translated into 28 languages, he is certainly doing something right).

Indeed, if anything, Meyer felt readers should be a little wary of the much-vaunted craze for Nordic noir. ‘Just ask yourself how much credibility do crime writers have from countries that have no murders,’ he quipped.

The question of misogyny came up (barring NJ Cooper, the panel was all male, although this would not have been the case had Orford been there). Cooper challenged Mendelson to speak about the extreme violence against women in The Serpentine Road and opened the question up to consider whether misogyny was a common theme in African crime writing.

Adenle was quick to counter this. Such misogyny as does exist in African writing and cultures, he said, was the result of the introduction of Christianity, with its teaching that the man is the head of the household. Prior to this, many African cultures were matriarchal. Polyandry was practised in some tribes and there are historical accounts of powerful queens, such as the Hausa Muslim warrior Amina. One of the many consequences of colonialism had been the swapping of one set of myths for another, with the attendant blind spots and prejudices.

A question on process brought a fascinating insight into the working methods of writing duo Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, aka Michael Stanley. Having started out as academics, the pair were used to writing collaboratively with other colleagues and so, when they came up with the idea for a crime novel, it seemed only natural to work in that way, with one drafting a section for the other to edit and visa versa. Now living on different continents, they find the time difference particularly useful: ‘We can write 24 hours a day,’ said Sears.

Next up, came ‘France Noir – Le Roman Policier’, another panel discussion bringing together thriller heavyweight Pierre Lemaitre, award-winning translator Frank Wynne (who interpreted where necessary), prize-winner Bernard Minier and SJ Parris (aka Stephanie Merritt), whose Conspiracy is set in 16th-century Paris. Funnily enough, Merritt’s memoir The Devil Within, was one of the books I drew on during my research into bipolar disorder for my novel, Beside Myself, so it was fascinating to see her speaking on quite another topic.

As with the previous event, the discussion covered a lot of ground. An interesting revelation came when Frank Wynne observed that he had been largely responsible for the English-language titles of Lemaitre’s works, several of which diverge from the French originals. I wanted to ask him about his reasons for settling on Blood Wedding for the most recently published book. While it’s no doubt arresting, the phrase has strong associations with the Lorca play of the same name and I wondered whether this was deliberate.

The forest of hands that went up at the end meant I didn’t get the opportunity to find out at the time, but this morning on Twitter Wynne gave me this explanation: ‘yes, very cheeky but deliberate. Not that it refers to anything in the text – the French title couldn’t easily be translated. In Robe de marié the missing final E means it’s not wedding dress but bridegroom’s dress – the 1st is subtle, the 2nd clunky.’

Lemaitre provided a powerful insight into the importance of anglophone publishing deals. His international success took off when he signed his English-language contract, with numerous other foreign-rights sales following. ‘For any French writer, the most important translation is English,’ he said. ‘Even if you never sell a single book to an English reader. Much better to have failure in English than a roaring success in another language.’

Countering the suggestion that French noir books are particularly gruesome, Minier, whose 2011 novel The Frozen Dead starts with the grotesque murder of a horse, pointed out that nothing could be more violent than some of the things found in Shakespeare. ‘It’s a question of degree,’ agreed Lemaitre. ‘My wife has been asked how she could have married a man who could write such horrible things. The response is: how can you buy a book by a man who can write such horrible things.’

The discussion also brought up a contrast in the way that crime fiction is perceived in the anglophone and francophone worlds. In France, it seems, there is a less sharp divide between literary and genre fiction, with authors of crime books often scooping prestigious awards. Indeed, Lemaitre himself has won the Prix Goncourt. This, the writers agreed, was due to the legacy of authors such as the Belgian creator of the detective Maigret, Georges Simenon. His simple style was praised by André Gide, who claimed Simenon had raised crime writing to the status of great literature and, in so doing, had revealed something missing in French literary works.

I could have stayed listening to the discussion for hours, but time was marching on and as the dinner hour approached, I was obliged to slip away to my room and wriggle into my thriller-writer disguise for the evening. Forty-five minutes later, I slunk into the green room and stood looking round at the cluster of well-known authors – Christobel Kent, MJ Carter, Joanne Harris and James Runcie to name but a few. I hoped none of them would finger me for a spy.

Book of the month: Eduardo Halfon


It’s been a difficult week here in the UK and for many of us there is great uncertainty about the future. One thing I am sure of, however, is that – now more than ever – we English speakers must read and listen to the stories of people who use other languages. From what I have learnt over more than four years of global literary exploration, this is one of the surest and best ways to further our understanding and appreciation of the way those in other places see the world.

Translation gives us the gift of looking through the eyes of all humanity. By borrowing others’ perspectives, in the special way that stories allow us to do, we enlarge and enrich our seeing. We will need that vision more profoundly than ever in the challenging months ahead.

With that in mind, it’s my pleasure to share a wonderful novel from a nation that, to date, has had almost none of its literature translated into English. Back in 2012, when I was deep in my quest to read a book from every country in the world in a year, the pickings from Guatemala were slim. I went with The President by Miguel Angel Asturias (translated from the Spanish by Frances Partridge), a book first published in Mexico in 1946. At the time, it was the only novel from the nation that I could find in English translation.

So you can imagine my delight when Guatemalan author Eduardo Halfon’s The Polish Boxer came onto my radar. Published in the final months of my quest, this translation of a slim collection of interlinked short stories put together by a team of five translators – Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead and Anne McLean – brings an exciting Central American voice into the Anglophone arena.

The narratives follow Eduardo Halfon, a literature professor who shares his author’s name and is spurred into action when a promising student in his class leaves the university without explanation. Thereafter, we follow Halfon through a series of quests, experiences and discoveries – to a remote village, to an academic conference on Mark Twain, to a music festival and in search of a concert pianist-turned-gypsy-musician in Belgrade. Disparate though they are, the narratives circle around the narrator’s memory of his grandfather’s account of meeting a Polish boxer in Auschwitz and how that fleeting encounter saved his life.

As you might expect from a novel in which the protagonist shares the author’s name and is a literature professor, there is quite a bit of play with the idea of what a story is or isn’t in the book. We read numerous pronouncements on the art of storytelling – ‘that the visible narrative always hides a secret tale’; ‘that literature is a deceit in which he who deceives is more honest than he who does not deceive’; that ‘the only way to tell a story is to stutter it eloquently’. In another writer’s hands this self-conscious and occasionally defensive kind of discussion might be irritating – and, indeed, it does occasionally lean that way – but Halfon’s wry, self-deprecating manner saves it, making it largely thought-provoking and playful instead.

Coupled with this are some fabulous descriptions and observations. For my money, the evocation of rural Guatemala is hard to beat. Raw beauty drips from the pages in which Halfon travels into the countryside in search of his erstwhile student to a place where the term for poetry in the local language, Cakchikel, means ‘braid of words’. But it is the title story of the Polish boxer, when at last it comes, that takes the prize. In its stark force and spare, telling details, this tale recalls Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, perhaps the most powerful piece of literature dealing with the Holocaust that I have read.

The narratological fencing and playfulness extend to the linguistic level. Dialogue bleeds into description with nothing to separate the two, so that it is as though we are looking out at the world from the inside of Halfon’s mind. At times, the meandering of the narrative makes us question the solidity of the ‘I’ narrating it – are we still with Halfon or has someone else crept in and taken over under the cover of a turning page? And although I can’t read the original to compare, the virtuosity of the translators is apparent in the skill with which they judge how much to explain and how much to trust the reader to cope with culturally specific terms: the book never falters while a helpful hand reaches in to push us in the right direction and yet it never trips over its laces either. Instead, it runs over unfamiliar terrain at an elegant, even pace.

That’s not to say that the novel is perfect. A hackneyed turn of phrase creeps in here and there, and the fragmentation and meandering will be too much for some readers. (*Spoiler alert* There’s a lot that never gets resolved and that is kind of the point.)

But if you are able to able to trust it, this book will sweep you up and bear you away through a host of specific times and places towards a universal vision of the things that make us who we are. Maybe, in the final analysis, that is what a story is really meant to do.

The Polish Boxer (El boxeador polaco) by Eduardo Halfon, translated from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead and Anne McLean (Pushkin Press, 2012)

Picture: Santiago – Lago de Atitlan – Guatemala-81 by Christopher William Adach on Flickr.com.

Book of the month: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor


One of the delights of this project – and a key reason that I continue the blog more than three years after my year of reading the world came to an end – is the fact that I still receive large numbers of book recommendations from bibliophiles all over the planet.

It’s a great joy to hear from enthusiastic readers and to learn about so many tempting stories. However, because I sometimes get several such messages a day, it means that the already gargantuan list of reading suggestions that I gathered during my project is still growing faster than I can tackle it (and that’s not to mention all the books that I have to read for research and reviewing, as well as those titles that sometimes leap out from bookshop shelves, grab me by the scruff of the neck, march me to the checkout and force me to read them there and then).

All the same, the recommendations do not go to waste. I often check back through them and select titles to buy. And so it was that, a few weeks ago, I came upon Dust by Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, my latest book of the month.

The novel was suggested in 2015 by Kerem_Kerem, who also recommended Taiye Selasi’s excellent Ghana Must Go. Having read each of them, I’m not surprised that this reader liked them both – they share several plot devices and themes, not least the ambition to diffract national stories through the prism of a single family’s experience. Indeed, there’s even an endorsement from Selasi on the cover of my edition of Dust, which was published in 2014.

Both novels have received considerable praise from critics. But it seems to me that Owuor is less well-known in the UK than Selasi. As a result, I decided to write about her book.

As in Ghana Must Go, the narrative of Dust is kickstarted by a death. In this case, it’s the violent death of Odidi, a man in the prime of his life, who is shot in the street in Nairobi on the night of the 2007 elections. Bewildered by the news, his fragmented family reconvenes at Wuoth Ogik, the remote farm in northern Kenya where he and his sister, Ajany, grew up. There too, appears Isaiah William Bolton, the son of a British man who knew Odidi’s parents. What follows is a troubling, moving and engrossing story, in which the characters attempt to piece together the shards of what they know into a picture of the past that they can all recognise.

This is a book in which multiple stories are told on almost every page. One of Owuor’s greatest achievements is that she reveals repeatedly how multi-faceted human beings and the things they create are. This is nowhere more evident than in her presentation of Kenya, a place that is at once the site of great suffering and corruption, but also of extraordinary love, forbearance, beauty and humour.

Insights leap from the page, frequently launched from only a handful of well-chosen words: ‘After Mboya, Kenya’s official languages: English, Swahili, and Silence’; ‘as long as there was enough to move the day, beyond a grumble, people really didn’t care to know why their lives had become harder’; in the wake of the violence that splintered it, Kenya is a nation ‘that is gluing its cracked shell together again’.

The book is often very funny too. Owuor is a great conjurer of characters, from the ever-hopeful Babu Chaudhuri, who continues to advertise for a shop manager 46 years after he first intended to pack it in and move to England, to the wily Trader who circulates around the country, bartering stories, information and whatever comes to hand. My favourite is Aaron, a police officer posted to an isolated station in the rural north, and made at once ridiculous and pitiable through his loneliness.

Owuor’s writing is at its most beautiful when it treats of the desert landscape, where the ‘wind lumbers past like an ancient wizard’ and the dusk comes ‘plodding in and scarring the sky with yellow-orange trails’. The place is soaked in imagination. Indeed, as we follow the characters over the rocky terrain, it often seems as if we are wandering through a vast psyche rather than a physical region.

That said, the writing isn’t always this good. Poorly rendered similes and unfortunate word choices crop up here and there, and at times the prose seems as uneven as the landscape it describes. In addition, the multiplicity of stories and ideas Owuor explores occasionally clogs the text, giving odd passages a congested and sometimes confusing feel.

In the final analysis, though, I can’t help but admire Dust. Its scope is impressive, its revelations frequently breathtaking and its perspective unfailingly humane. It is a rich, slow read – one to savour over a number of days rather than to race through in an evening. But if you invest the time, the novel will reward you. I’m very glad Kerem_Kerem recommended it.

Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Granta Books, 2014)

Picture by Enzinho83 on Flickr.com

Death of a Thousand Cuts


Rewriting and editing are often two of the biggest challenges for would-be authors. They certainly were for me. During the many years I spent trying (and failing) to write a novel, I struggled with how to get my manuscripts into publishable shape.

I could discipline myself to get up early, sit at my desk and churn out a certain number of words each day. But once I had those words, I was at a bit of a loss as to how make them better.

I know from discussions with many authors all over the world that I’m not alone in this. Whatever language you write in, it can take years to discover the process by which you hone and craft a raw splurge of text into a story that someone else might want to read.

This is one of the reasons that I’ve long been a fan of the blog and now podcast ‘Death of a Thousand Cuts’ by poet, author and musician, Tim Clare. Tim and I studied on the UEA creative writing master’s course together in the early 2000s and his first novel, The Honours, was published to great acclaim in 2015.

Some years before this, Tim spent time working for a literary consultancy (one of those companies that provides editorial feedback on manuscripts). In the blog and podcast, he uses the editorial skills he sharpened doing this and through working on his own writing to critique the first page of an unpublished novel sent to him by an aspiring wordsmith.

What I particularly like about Tim’s approach is that while he pulls no punches – and his comments about manuscripts’ weaknesses are often extremely funny – he is always kind. His blog is not about ripping someone’s work to shreds but about showing them (and everyone else reading or listening in) how to make it better. As a result, his posts are not only entertaining, but also full of valuable insights for writers of all levels of experience.

So when Tim mentioned that he would be inviting some authors to guest host ‘Death of a Thousand Cuts’ with him, I lost no time in raising my hand. A few weeks ago, we met in a studio in central London to record ourselves discussing two opening pages. You can hear what we made of the first submission through the SoundCloud link above.

And in case you want to see the extract we’re discussing, here it is:

Clear (by Dan)

They don’t even have magazines any more, just pamphlets smeared with filth. I can smell the mother with wide, sun-cracked shoulders, fat kid lolling in her arm pit. Girl next to me looks vegan, pale and pointy. No smell.

My jeans haven’t dried properly and I smell like a banana.

I try to pull into myself, tighter and tighter, but I bend back to shape like a coat hanger. Another fat mum, pushchair too big. Not regular either: tubes, pipes, a machine for God’s sake. Baby seems chirpy though, gurgling into its raw pink chin. Try to look normal.

I’ve been rehearsing my script. I can’t tell them what it is and admit I’ve been googling gloopy wreckages of flesh since 4am. Last week it was Impetigo, so she said. But it’s…

Tom Creckan, room 6

Polite knock. He actually gets up and meets me at the door. Normally just a sullen clack of the keyboard, whiff of mint. New and keen. And clean. Creamy hand-soap hand-shake. Hint of acne himself if you peer close enough, gnawing at the corners. No hair gel/wax/crème, just a breezy morning fluff. Shirt well ironed. This man is a fucking morning.

I start my tale. Just throw it right in.

‘I get these cold sores.’

He stares, unflinching, bobbing my reflection in his spectacles.

‘Last week…your colleague said it was Impetigo…I mean, not that I’d question…but…’

He’s about to stop me. Smother me, politely, with a creamy palm.

A translation joust


One of the most popular suggestions during my year of reading the world was that I should read Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote for Spain. Although I didn’t choose it for the project (I felt tackling Ulysses for Ireland was challenge enough given the average pace I had to maintain of reading one book every 1.87 days), I did tuck into the 1,000-page classic the following year, while on holiday in Priorat – near some of the regions through which the would-be knight-errant passes on his adventures.

I read Edith Grossman’s translation and very much enjoyed the book, finding the descriptions surprisingly fresh and vivid. Still, full of derring-do though the narrative is, I never imagined it would lead me to witness a real-life battle. Until yesterday.

Last night, in a packed room at the British Library’s Conference Centre, award-winning translators Margaret Jull Costa (who generously volunteered to help translate a book from São Tomé and Principe for me during my quest) and Peter Bush met for a ‘translation joust’, the latest in a series of such duels that various translators have staged in recent years. The pair had produced rival English versions of the famous windmill scene from Cervantes’ masterpiece and, with the prompting of chair and fellow translator Daniel Hahn, set out to defend their choices.

The results were fascinating. Going line by line – and sometimes comma by comma – the wordsmiths challenged one another’s decisions, revealing some powerful insights into their working methods as they did so.

As a comparison of the opening lines of the translations shows, the two versions were strikingly different:

Just then, they spotted thirty or forty windmills on that same plain, and the moment Don Quijote saw them, he said to his squire: ‘Fortune is directing our affairs far better than we could have wished, because look, friend Sancho, there before us stand thirty or more fearsome giants, with whom I intend to do battle and to slay each and every one of them.

And with their spoils we will begin to grow rich, for this is a just war and we are doing God a great service in removing such a plague from the face of the Earth. MJC

With that they spotted thirty or forty windmills in the nearby field and Don Quixote immediately said to his squire: “Sancho, my friend, Lady Luck has sorted things better than we could have ever hoped.

Just take a look at those thirty or so humungous giants I shall attack and obliterate in a moment and the ensuing spoils will be the start of good times for us, because mine is a just war, and I’m doing God a great service by wiping such an evil horde off the face of this earth.” PB

What emerged from the discussion was that, while Jull Costa had endeavoured to get as close to Cervantes’ original as modern English would allow and wanted to preserve Don Quixote’s high-flown way of speaking, Bush had set out to create a version that would be different from all previous translations. In part as a reaction against what has gone before, his Don Quixote is not above slang and colloquialisms.

It was, as one audience member observed, as though Jull Costa had built the sense of the absurd inherent in the original, whereas Bush had reflected the novel’s humour by taking a more directly comic approach. This sort of distinct character to a text, Jull Costa said, was essential for a translation to live.

An interesting insight into the process came when the pair considered how they had arrived at rather different descriptions for the location of the windmill-giants – Jull Costa has them ‘on that same plain’, whereas Bush situates them ‘in the nearby field’. It transpired that, rather than seeking a literal translation of the Spanish ‘en aquel campo’, each had pictured what they read the original to mean and then found a way to render the image in English.

The questions did not only come from the chair. At several points, audience members pitched in with sometimes rather passionate objections or challenges. The word ‘desaforados’ proved particularly controversial. Although both translators had focused on its connotations of scale – rendering it as ‘fearsome’ (MJC) and ‘humungous’ (PB) – one native Spanish speaker felt that it would have been more appropriate to translate it as ‘rampaging’.

‘I don’t know what it means in any dictionary. I tell you what it means to me!’ she said.

For me, as a writer, it was also fascinating to hear the translators talk about their approach to creating a finished written piece. Peter Bush revealed that he had produced 10-12 drafts of his extract, while Margaret Jull Costa said that for a joust like this she would normally do nine or 10. These would include a careful first draft, a second draft read against the original, a period of leaving the text, and a session of reading the translation out loud to catch any repetitions and clunky rhythms.

Though not everyone in the room may have agreed on the interpretation of ‘desaforados’, there can be no doubt that our enjoyment of the evening was unanimous. With last week’s good news that translations made up five per cent of printed fiction sales in the UK in 2015 (a 96 per cent rise in volume on the figures from 2001), let’s hope we will see many more such events.

Picture by Oren neu dag (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Twin audiobook giveaway results


Many thanks to those who took the time to tell me about their favourite twin novels. As always happens when I ask readers for advice, there were some thought-provoking suggestions.

Familiar English-language titles, such as Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl, featured alongside several other world classics. I was particularly grateful to Barbara for recommending Erich Kästner’s Das doppelte Lottchen. I watched the 1961 The Parent Trap recently, but hadn’t appreciated that it was an adaptation of this German novel.

I was also pleased to see that Dutch novelist Tessa de Loo’s The Twins appeared among the tips. I came across it some years ago and can agree with Betsy that it is a very worthwhile read.

Several of the titles you suggested were unfamiliar to me. I was particularly intrigued by Hungarian author Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook, which Sabina brought to my attention. From what I’ve read about it online, it sounds like a fabulous book – even if, as Gremrien warned, it is rather dark.

In the end, though, I could only pick two winners to receive an audiobook of my own twin novel, Beside Myself. After much deliberation, I plumped for two commenters who had not only suggested tempting titles that were new to me, but had also described them in intriguing ways that have already sent me scampering off to track them down. They are Lizsmithtrailingspouse, for her suggestion of Italian classic The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, and Gremrien, who suggested Anatoly Pristavkin’s The Inseparable Twins.

Congratulations to them and very many thanks to everyone else. Winners, I’ll be in touch.

Book of the month: Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares


Brazil is certainly not short of stories. When I was collecting recommendations for my year of reading the world back in 2012, many people suggested tempting-sounding titles from South America’s most populous country. Since then, booklovers have continued to get in touch with ideas, leaving comments on the post I wrote about João Ubaldo Ribeiro’s House of the Fortunate Buddhas (the novel I chose for my project), and whizzing over emails and tweets.

Indeed, only this morning, Carlos left a comment to tell me about ‘The Devil to Pay in the Backlands’ (Grande Sertão: Veredas in the original), which he regards as ‘the greatest Brazilian novel’. He went on to say, however, that he believes it’s untranslatable because author João Guimarães Rosa invented many of the words in it, creating ‘a unique reading experience’, which Carlos fears would be lost if the book were converted into another language. (It would be interesting to hear what others think about this.)

Beyond the personal recommendations I’ve been lucky to get from readers, a number of anthologies of Brazilian writing have opened up the work of some of the nation’s newer authors to English-language readers in recent years. Thanks to publications such as Granta’s Best of Young Brazilian Novelists, writers such as JP Cuenca, Vanessa Barbara and Tatiana Salem Levy are on the anglophone radar. Their work (or some of it at least) is accessible to the huge number of people who read in English, the most published language in the world.

As a result, there are thankfully a relatively large number of translated Brazilian works that I could have chosen as November’s Book of the month – both recent novels and fantastic blasts from the past. Over the past year, for example, I’ve found myself enthralled by the writings of Clarice Lispector and could happily have written an enthusiastic post about her wonderfully strange novel Hour of the Star. 

However, in the discussions I’ve had about Brazil recently, one title in particular caught my attention. It was a novella translated by my friend Daniel Hahn for Berlin-based ebook company Frisch & Co: Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares’s Family Heirlooms.

I was intrigued by Frisch & Co and by Hahn’s comment that Tavares was not likely to be known to many English-language readers, despite her being much-lauded at home in Brazil. This month, there was another incentive too. Having spent the last few weeks reading Tolstoy’s magnificent War and Peace, the idea of a book I could finish in a handful of hours was very appealing! So I decided to give the book, which was first published in Portuguese in 1990, a go.

Set in Itaim Bibi, a district in São Paulo, the novella follows Maria Bráulia Munhoz, an elderly, yet formidable, widow who is putting her affairs in order with the reluctant help of her nephew. When one of the pieces in her jewellery collection, a handsome pigeon’s-blood ruby ring, is found to be a fake, the discovery triggers an avalanche of recollections and revelations that uncovers the foundations of the central character and the bourgeois world that is fading with her.

The discrepancy between our private selves and the faces we present to the world is everywhere apparent in the book. From the formal ceremony of the rose-petal-strewn fingerbowl that Maria Bráulia Munhoz insists must follow every meal, to the ritual of her make-up routine and the awkward posturing of her nephew, Tavares captures the thousand ways we shore ourselves up with pretence.

Often, this is very funny. In the description of the nephew’s sensitivity about his thinning hair and the way that he is ‘more afraid of his aunt’s migraines than the movement of shares on the Stock Exchange’, we see the glimmer of Tavares’s sense of the ridiculous. The author (or perhaps more accurately Hahn in his translation) makes rich use of lacunae too, frequently deflating characters’ pretensions by the inclusion of pithy, bracketed dollops of interior monologue.

The writing is inventive. At several points, for example, life itself crops up, personified and spoiling for a fight, ready to beat characters down. And for my money, you have to go some distance to find a simile better than the description of a stroke that afflicts one of the lesser characters towards the end of the book:

‘His words seemed to be coming from very far away, like the roar of the sea – they were transatlantic words – only to die there in the corner of his mouth, forming, in front of his embarrassed friends, a slight layer of froth that took a while to disappear […] All that muted volume, that threat coming from so far away, a thought coming from such a depth, and soon just a little bit of froth, nothing at all, just a little froth, a mere trifle.’

It’s fair to say that not all the devices work as well as this. Labyrinthine sentences leave the reader foundering occasionally. Similarly, some of the imagery cancels itself out by changing tack from one phrase to the next.

All in all, though, this is an enjoyable and illuminating read. It walks the tightrope between humour and insight with aplomb, finishing with a flourish. I found it a joy – and a delightful counterpoint to the Napoleonic wars.

Now, back to Tolstoy’s Moscow, where the enemy has entered the gates…

Family Heirlooms (Jóias de Família) by Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Frisch & Co., 2014)

Picture: São Paulo by Júlio Boaro on Flickr

Book of the month: Bina Shah


It’s been a month of great reading. Funnily enough, through no deliberate intention, many of my favourite reads of the past few weeks have been novels about women in different parts of the planet. From Chantel Acevedo’s scintillating evocation of Cuba’s past in The Distant Marvels to Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman – an engrossing exploration of the consequences of a lifetime’s bibliophilia in contemporary Beirut – I have found myself wowed by stories revealing the world through women’s eyes. I also took a detour into 20th-century writing to spend a few hours pinioned to my sofa by Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House – a chilling masterclass in how to construct a gripping plot.

Those in the UK keen to get their hands on a good read might find it easier to choose one of the titles mentioned above as, although March’s book of the month is published in the US, it isn’t out in the UK – yet – (although you can get it online). In fact, my copy of A Season for Martyrs was sent to me from Karachi by the author herself.

As you can see from the photo above, it came in an envelope covered in stamps. Inside was the beautifully colourful book, signed with a personal message from Bina Shah, who was one of the Pakistani writers readers recommended to me back in 2012. The novel’s vibrant jacket wasn’t the only striking thing about it: the edges of the pages were rough from where the paper had been cut to make the copy (see below).


The pages of my edition may be rough, but the same is certainly not true of the novel. At the heart of the book is ambitious student-cum-TV-news-researcher Ali, who is caught up in covering the controversial return to Pakistan of exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007. As he struggles to reconcile his liberal political beliefs and secret relationship with his Hindu girlfriend with his feudal Sindhi family’s views and fraught history, we see something of the national tussle for control and identity played out on the personal level. With myths and episodes from Sindh province’s long, rich and turbulent past interspersing the narrative, what emerges is a powerful and complex picture of contemporary Pakistan.

Shah’s tone is one of the first things that draw you in. Whether she is portraying the health gripes of a British Empire functionary, capturing the patter of a bus conductor in Islamabad, or describing the travails of tenth century Sufi saints – ‘even if you were regarded as the guardian of all waterways […] you could tire of riding a palla fish’ – her prose is engaging, funny, direct and refreshing. It makes her well-equipped to unmask and send up the ‘etiquette of hypocrisy’ that influences much of what goes on in the novel.

Yet satire is just one element in this novel. There are flashes of beauty in Shah’s writing and succinct insights that leave you marvelling at her skill for wrapping human emotions in words. When Ali contemplates his dysfunctional home life, for example, Shah finds a powerful simile in the buildings where he grew up:

How many other houses in their sedate neighborhood, with its old houses built in the seventies, its overgrown trees lining the zigzag streets that flooded during every monsoon season, were like theirs: genteel on the outside, wasting away from neglect on the inside? How many other families lived like fractured glass, cracked but still holding up within the constraints of their frames?

In addition, the novel contains some extraordinarily gripping episodes. From the account of Jeandal Shah’s fight to the death with a cheetah in 1827 and the night-long chess tournament between the young jailer Ahmed and a condemned Pir hours before the overlord’s execution in 1943, to the violent protest that leads to Ali to witness the injustice of the police firsthand, the book brims with urgent and troubling events.

Very occasionally there is a slight self-consciousness to the telling as Shah seems to try to explain historical context or 21st-century Pakistani politics – perhaps to English-language readers in other parts of the world. Now and then, as a character steps forward with a suspiciously slick explanation of events or a chunk of exposition bobs to the surface of the narrative, it is as though the author and her protagonist glance towards the camera, briefly breaking the spell.

(That said, the issue of how much cultural knowledge to assume in readers who may be far removed from the events described is a fine balancing act. Had Shah, who is well-versed in writing about Pakistan for readers elsewhere through her journalism for publications such as The New York Times and The Guardian, included less overt explanation she may well have run the risk of leaving people behind.)

Quibbles aside, though, this is a powerful and engrossing book. It has drama, beauty, wit, characters to care about and important things to say. It is, as Ali puts it himself, a story about what it’s like ‘to be lost and adrift and struggling at sea, and then, finally, to see the shore and begin swimming toward it with all one’s might’.

Now that it’s reached the US, I very much hope a British publisher picks it up so that A Season for Martyrs makes it to the shores of the UK soon too.

A Season for Martyrs by Bina Shah (Delphinium Books, 2014)