Book of the month: Gaël Faye

One of the issues you encounter when you set out to read the world is the challenge of working out what makes a book ‘from’ a country. Early on in my original 2012 quest, I decided that for me the answer would have to do with author perspective. In order for a book to fit in one of my national categories, it would need to be written by someone who had strong links with the country in question, most often by having been born there and/or lived there for a significant portion of their lives.

Setting, I decided, would not be a central consideration. British writers wrote novels that roamed across the world, so I didn’t see why I should expect writers in other countries to keep their stories within their own borders – particularly when those borders were often contested or had been imposed by external, colonial powers. For me, it would be about finding out what the world looked like through the eyes of authors in different places, rather than dictating where they should direct their gaze.

Even with this rule of thumb, however, the question of classifying books by country remains problematic. The truth is that, much as it would make life easier for people like me, writers have an inconvenient habit of refusing to stay put. Many of the most internationally successful books are by authors who have connections to multiple nations and cultures – indeed, this is often a crucial part of what makes them such skilled chroniclers of human experience. As a result, many of the books that come to us in translation could arguably represent several nations.

My latest book of the month is a case in point. French-Rwandan author Gaël Faye’s semi-autobiographical novel Small Country, translated by Sarah Ardizzone, has intimate connections with three nations. Presenting the recollections of troubled thirty-something Gaby, who is feeling increasingly alienated from his life in a town near Paris, it records the run up to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and Burundi, presenting a profoundly moving, individual account of events that we in western Europe are perhaps more used to hearing of in terms of numbers.

Books like this stand or fall by the author’s ability to bring traumatic events to life on the page. Faye can certainly do this. With a keen awareness of when to reveal and when to withhold, he leads the reader to the brink of the horrors he describes and then steps back, allowing us to make the leap alone. He gauges well how much reader knowledge he can assume and exploits the tension that an awareness of subsequent events creates, imbuing the joyous descriptions of the run up to Burundi’s first democratic elections with dramatic irony and menace.

What makes this book special, however, is not its deft descriptions of atrocities but rather the way its author handles the normal life that surrounds these events. His depictions of experiences that affect children the world over – family break-up, peer pressure, discovering the joy of reading – are extraordinarily touching and engrossing. Although most of the writing is admirably restrained and precise (credit to translator Sarah Ardizzone here), the book abounds with rich details that bring Burundi, where Gaby and the author spent their childhoods, to life. The descriptions of the sellers in Bujumbura are fabulous, while the account of the ‘suicide-bananas’ – delivery cyclists who zip down the mountain roads at breakneck speed – is so vivid that its almost possible to feel the rush of air as they fly past. There is humour, too, and some memorable observations: ‘Suffering is a wildcard in the game of debate, it wipes the floor with all other arguments’; ‘Genocide is an oil slick; those who don’t drown in it are polluted for life.’

That said, there are times when the writing is overly direct. Now and then, Faye feels the need to state explicitly things that he has already demonstrated, almost as if he doesn’t trust the reader to pick up on his implications. This may be symptomatic of the fact that he is clearly writing with more than half an eye to the French publishing scene and the international market beyond it (and he was right to do so: the book has been translated into 36 languages). Just as Gaby scribbles letters to his French penfriend, Laure, explaining events and local news for her enlightenment and amusement, so you get the sense that Faye is interpreting Burundi and Rwanda’s recent past for his French readers, occasionally a little too explicitly. In place of this, I found myself wishing that we could have returned to the adult Gaby, whose disorientation and fragmentation provide such a powerful opening.

Nevertheless, this is a great novel. Instead of presenting genocide as a carnival of horrors so extreme that it feels another world to those of us with the security and leisure to pick up a book, it brings it frighteningly close – to a childhood with which anyone can identify, wherever they grew up. These events are not far away at all, the novel reveals. The potential for them lurks in every society.

I’m listing Small Country under Rwanda, but really it belongs to the whole world.

Small Country (Petit pays) by Gaël Faye, translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone (Vintage, 2018)

Picture: ‘rwanda’ © Jon Evans on flickr.com

Armenia: another side

It’s rare that a writer advises you against reading his or her work. But that’s what happened when Armand Inezian stopped by this blog back in August. Seeing that his collection of short stories, Bringing Ararat, was listed under Armenia, Inezian very honestly said that he didn’t feel his connection with the country was strong enough as, although he comes from an Armenian family, he grew up in Boston and can’t write in Armenian. He added that his work has not been translated into Armenian either.

It was great to have Inezian’s perspective, as the question of exactly where the boundaries of national literatures lie has been a recurring theme in this project. I’ve encountered people who think hugely differently about this: while some are happy to regard books by an author whose parents come from a country as being part of that nation’s literature, others claim that the writer must be born, raised and still living in that country to qualify. There are even those who insist that a book must also be set in the country in question to count.

Personally, I’ve found my perspective on this issue shifting over the year with each tricky dilemma I’ve encountered and I’m still not entirely sure where I stand on it. Still, if Inezian didn’t feel his book was an Armenian work, perhaps I should listen to him.

Nevertheless, I was keen to involve Inezian in some way. If I wasn’t going to read his book (and let’s face it the choice of Armenian literature available in English is not massive), then perhaps I could pick his brains instead. Were there any Armenian writers whose work he could suggest? The answer came in the form of a link to information about Armenian Golgotha by Grigoris Balakian on Goodreads.

I have to confess that my heart sank when my copy arrived. Not only was this, judging by the title and subtitle (A memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918), a very serious book, it was also a very long one. Its 500 or so large pages were covered with dense and relatively small print. The first sentence, too, with its earnest consideration of the political atmosphere of Europe in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, filled me with foreboding. What had Armand Inezian let me in for?

The book records Armenian priest Grigoris Balakian’s experiences during World War I. Having finished his divinity studies at the University of Berlin just as the conflict began, Balakian travelled home to Constantinople in the hope that he could be of service to the Armenian population there. But as the eyes of the world turned to the trenches in Western Europe, Balakian witnessed the Ottoman regime beginning to target the 2 million ethnic Armenians within present-day Turkey’s borders, deporting hundreds of thousands of people to die barbaric deaths along the lonely mountain roads and plains of Asia Minor.

Caught up in this forced exodus, Balakian spent three years travelling and working in constant fear of being executed like the thousands of corpses he encountered en route. With only his ingenuity, determination and faith to guide him, he attempted to shield, hearten and save his Armenian peers, all the while holding on to the hope that he would one day be able to share their story with the rest of the world.

Balakian was an extraordinary individual, whose character shines through on nearly every page. Following the dry political summary of the opening lines, the narrative quickly becomes personal and detailed, bearing witness to its author’s great presence of mind in the face of extreme events. Whether he is using an anti-war rally he attended as an ‘opportunity to study up close the psychology of the organized German working class’, bargaining with the authorities for the lives of his companions, or talking to an official guilty of the deaths of thousands of his countrymen, Balakian displays an uncommon ability to keep his head.

This detachment means that he is able to embark on ‘a process of harrowing mental record-keeping’, remembering and relating details that would be lost to most people and delivering reams of compelling and historically significant descriptions. From his rare, foreigner’s-eye-view  of Berlin in 1914, through to the ‘whirlwind of blood’ he encountered in Asia Minor, Balakian’s accounts are meticulous. He spares nothing in his effort to convey the horrendous sufferings of his friends and compatriots, many of whom he claims were tortured and hacked to death by mobs bearing household and farmyard implements to save the authorities the cost of bullets. ‘If all the seas were ink and all the fields were paper, still it would be impossible to describe, in detail, the reality of the endless tortures of hundreds of thousands of them,’ he writes.

For Balakian, recounting these events is a sacred act. As he explains in his author’s preface, he regards his work as a ‘holy book’ for Armenia, which was first founded in around 600 BC. It is also the fulfilment of a promise made to some of his massacred compatriots and the bedrock of his decision ‘not to die’ during the genocide, which he believes kept him alive.

Inevitably, with so much emotional freight to carry, the narrative occasionally gets bogged down. Some of the writing is overblown and hyperbolic – the author’s repeated laments over the ‘martyrology of Armenian virgins’, for example, stick in the craw. The storytelling also comes second to Balakian’s desire to include everything he remembers, meaning that the latter stages of the book can be hard going and repetitive. In addition, for a reader with no contextual knowledge like me, it’s hard to know how much of the often very anecdotal and partisan accounts to trust.

Nevertheless, this is an important and impressive memoir. It not only opens up a much-neglected chapter in history and challenges Westerners like me to rethink our version of the events of the early 20th century, but it also presents a moving portrait of one man’s survival, patriotism and faith. If you’ve ever questioned the point of storytelling, the answers are in this book.

Armenian Golgotha by Grigoris Balakian, translated from the Armenian by Peter Balakian with Aris Sevag (Vintage, 2010)

Denmark: office politics

The Exception by Christian Jungersen was one of several books suggested by Danish book blogger Christina Rosendahl. I was grateful for the tip-off as Danish-to-English translations are not particularly common and my knowledge of the literary scene in Denmark is, well, probably slightly less extensive than my grasp of 18th century marquetry.

In actual fact, Rosendahl’s words about this novel weren’t the most glowing of recommendations – she said it was ‘quite good’. However, the subject matter intrigued me, and, as it’s a thriller, I thought it might make a welcome contrast with some of the other books I’ve been reading this year.

The story turns around four women working at the Danish Centre of Genocide Information. Tasked with collating, curating and archiving data about the world’s atrocities, they come under strain from a series of pressures to do with budget cuts, politics and their own loyalties and foibles that skew and twist the office dynamics. But when two of them receive death threats, the working environment takes a turn for the poisonous and it’s not long before the barbarity they document comes crashing into their comfortable lives.

Office dynamics are Jungersen’s speciality. Adept at isolating and revealing the mechanisms that enable people to be ‘so dishonest with themselves that they aren’t even aware of what they are doing’, he lays bare the steps by which ordinarily decent people can victimise and bully a colleague, all the while believing they are doing nothing wrong. This is rendered all the more impressive by the split narrative, which sees the story told through the eyes of all four women, and the weaving in of theories about the psychology of those who commit acts of genocide, which enables Jungersen to draw interesting parallels with the mental violence perpetrated in the office.

Jungersen gets round the problem of having to shoehorn a lot of background information and theorising into the novel by having several of the characters write articles about the psychology of genocide. This emphasises the ‘cognitive dissonance’ through which they are able to hold several conflicting ideas in their heads at the same time, acting cruelly while maintaining a belief in their own goodness – just as they write pieces about the mental mechanisms of ‘evil’ without applying them to their own lives.

Nevertheless, he labours the point a little towards the end, even quoting a section from one essay twice in case the reader has somehow missed the comparisons he is drawing. Similarly, although generally well handled, one or two of the more outlandish twists in the plot – which, without giving too much away, brings a Serbian war criminal into the orbit of the women’s workplace – are a little hard to swallow.

By and large, though, this is a gripping, thought-provoking and intelligent piece of work. It makes us question the patterns we  play out in our day-to-day lives and acts as a powerful warning against the sort of lazy pack mentality that can be all too easy to slip into. It was a jolly good pageturner too.

The Exception (Undtagelsen) by Christian Jungersen, translated from the Danish by Anna Paterson (Phoenix, 2007)

Rwanda: the meaning of fate

If British writers had to translate their work into another language in order to get a publisher to consider it, I doubt many would make it into print. But that was the situation 25-year-old Rwandan author Barassa faced when she submitted the French manuscript of the first of her three novels to Real Africa Books. They responded that they didn’t publish books in languages other than English. Nothing daunted, as she and Swedish-born publisher Bjorn Lunden explained in an interview on Burundian blog Ikirundi, Barassa took just a week to convert the narrative into English so that Lunden could launch her work through his new firm.

All the same, despite Barassa’s efforts, the book is still  not very easy for English-language readers to find. In fact if it weren’t for friend and fellow journalist Antonia Windsor picking it up in a Kigali bookshop while she was on assignment in Rwanda last year, I doubt I would ever have heard of Teta:a story of a young girl.

As the title suggests, the novel follows the fortunes of a young Rwandan woman, Teta. Prevented from marrying the man she loves by poverty, she becomes the envy of her friends when one of the region’s richest men, Boniface, asks her father for her hand. But the loveless marriage quickly becomes a hollow sham and, as genocide and AIDS sweep the country, Teta is forced to rely on her own resourcefulness to survive.

The book is at its best when it discusses fate or ‘the law of the stronger and the richer’ as it is more commonly described. At odds with the romantic Western perception of destiny, the driving forces in this novel are stripped back to their components: want, sickness and fear.

In a society where there are no welfare departments, insurance companies, emergency services or safety nets to soften the blows of chance, people are left with no option but enduring the hardships meted out to them. ‘Life itself had decided on my behalf, no one could change the decision,’ shrugs Teta when her father’s cattle die and it is left to her to save the family through her prospective suitor’s wealth.

As in several other African women’s novels I’ve read this year, the skewed power dynamics of relations between the sexes and traditional marriage form the subject of much of the book. Obliged to leave her family and forgo the rituals that give her a sense of identity, Teta finds herself helpless in the face of Boniface’s infidelity. And when the tension between the Hutus and the Tutsis flares up and neighbour turns against neighbour she finds the predatory attitudes of the men around her create an additional threat:

‘Faustin[…] was participating in preparations of the genocide. He was also one of the men that in vain had asked me to become his mistress. The last time I saw him he had told me that I would regret my decision. He might already then have known the power he would gain within some days.’

The language is rough round the edges, with several malapropisms creeping in. Now and then the narrative veers between registers like a van on a potholed road and there is a perfunctory feel to the scene-setting that sees minor characters created and killed off sometimes within the space of two full stops.

However, given the DIY job Barassa had to do on the translation, most of these bumps are hardly surprising. Every jolt is a reminder of the lengths the author was prepared to go to to tell her urgent, angry and touching stories in a country where few writers manage to publish their works even today. Surely reading them is the least we can do?

Teta: a story of a young girl by Barassa (Real Africa Books, 2010)