Book of the month: Anonymous


Does the identity of an author change how we read a book?

In some cultures, this question would make little sense. In many oral storytelling traditions (with examples on this blog including books I read for the Marshall Islands and Niger during my 2012 quest), the notion of authorship, and the distinction between fact and fiction are fairly irrelevant. 

For those of us immersed in the anglophone tradition, however, these issues often matter a great deal. A few years ago, I found myself sitting on a funding committee trying to decide whether to give a grant to a publisher planning to bring out a translation of a collection of stories thought to have been written by an author inside North Korea. For many around the table, the question of whether the manuscript really had been smuggled out of the totalitarian state was the key factor in deciding whether or not to award the money. (The book got the grant in the end and Deborah Smith’s translation of Bandi’s The Accusation came out in 2017, featuring a note from publisher Serpent’s Tail making it clear that it was impossible to be 100 per cent certain of the book’s origins.)

As a writer, I find this focus on author identity troubling. The purist in me would like to believe that a work speaks for itself. In the Bandi discussion, I was firmly on the side of supporting the grant on the basis that the extract I read was well written, thoroughly imagined and fresh, regardless of who wrote it.

Yet I keep encountering questions books that challenge this approach. And when it comes to stories that are supposed to be factual accounts, things get even more complicated.

My latest Book of the month is a case in point. Published in Philip Boehm’s translation in the early 2000s, more than forty years after it first appeared in the US and then in Germany, the anonymously authored A Woman in Berlin throws up so many questions about identity and the relationship between who we are and what we tell.

On the face of it, the book is a diary, recording the experiences of a thirty-something-year-old Berlin woman between 20 April 1945, shortly before the death of Hitler, and 22 June 1945, by which time life under Allied rule had begun to assume some sort of shape. Written with extraordinary frankness, the text documents the horrors that unfolded over those two months, as Russian troops drew closer and captured Berlin, looting and laying waste, and subjecting hundreds of women to repeated assaults and rapes.

The subject matter is as extraordinary as it is harrowing. The early entries crackle with sickening tension as civilians await their fate. Everyday details about the business of surviving in a besieged, war-torn city under a failing regime – fetching water, scavenging for firewood, finding that tokens have been introduced to make people ineligible to board the collapsing tram system – dominate, making the flashes of foreboding all the more shocking by contrast. Along with the narrator, we live through the tedium and terror of those last few days of life as she’s known it.

When the crisis comes, and the Russians arrive and begin to wreck havoc, the writing rises to meet it. By turns arresting in its frankness and powerful in its omissions, it brings home the full force of the horrors it presents. Unflinching accounts of individual attacks exist alongside euphemistic references to bed sheets needing a wash ‘after all those booted guests’. 

A novel might have stopped there, after the first wave of atrocities, and jumped forward to a later stage in the protagonist’s life, attempting to present some sort of resolution or assimilation of these experiences. But, this being a diary, the entries continue, one horror piling upon another as the weeks grind by. And as they do so, they reveal extraordinary things: humour, resilience, the strange camaraderie that collective trauma brings. The women share jokes and commune with one another’s suffering, often without needing to rehearse what they have been through, and we learn with them how shared experience creates an understanding that transcends words.

There are extraordinary reflections on the human condition and the larger significance of these events too. Consider this passage, in which the narrator writes about the struggle to find meaning and a reason to carry on in the face of the loss of almost all she once held dear:

‘I long ago lost my childhood piety, so that God and the Beyond have become mere symbols and abstractions. Should I believe in Progress? Yes, to bigger and better bombs. The happiness of the greater number? Yes, for Petka and his ilk. An idyll in a quiet corner? Sure, for people who comb out the fringes of their rugs. Possessions, contentment? I have to keep from laughing, homeless urban nomad that I am. Love? Lies trampled on the ground. And were it ever to rise again, I would always be anxious I could never find true refuge, would never again dare hope for permanence.

Perhaps art, toiling away in the service of form? Yes, for those who have the calling, but I don’t. I’m just an ordinary labourer, I have to be satisfied with that. All I can do is touch my small circle and be a good friend. What’s left is just to wait for the end. Still, the dark and amazing adventure of life beckons. I’ll stick around, out of curiosity, and because I enjoy breathing and stretching my healthy limbs.’

The historian Antony Beevor writes in his introduction that the diary’s literary merit has been one of the reasons people have questioned its authenticity, citing the striking images the writer often uses as stumbling blocks that make some readers doubt its provenance. In actual fact, it’s not the images but the perspective that sometimes looms through the writing that is problematic. There is an expansiveness in some of these reflective passages that challenges the notion that they were written day by day in the thick of the events they describe. The level of analysis and self-awareness the writer achieves sits awkwardly with the image of her scribbling frantically in a notebook disguised as an aide-memoire for Russian vocabulary to prevent the conquerors from destroying it.

The afterword from the German editor goes some way to explain this tension: the diary was not published as it was originally written but reworked and edited by its author in the years before its first publication. Many of those more expansive, longer-lensed reflections may well have been developed after the fact. 

Had the author wanted to be involved in the republication of her work, several decades after its initial, patchy reception, it is conceivable that she might have reworked it further into the through-written memoir that seems to hover just below the surface here. Yet, it is understandable that she preferred not to rake over the coals of what must have been a painful publishing experience – although it is a shame she did not live to see the impact her words had on the world when the book was finally rereleased. 

Is the diary genuine? I can’t be sure. But perhaps this is fitting. Maybe a text that goes so much to the heart of identity should not sit snugly in the form assigned to it. Is this what people are? this book asks. Is this is what we turn out to be made of when every last social grace and nicety is stripped away? Maybe no form of storytelling can adequately contain these questions.

A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous, translated from the German by Philip Boehm (Virago, 2018)

Picture: ‘Imagen tomada durante la ocupación soviética de Berlín’ by Claude753 on Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.

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!

Syria: the power of words

 

‘Don’t squander your precious words… Words are responsibility’

I had my doubts about this one. Having picked it up on a whim in Foyle’s (which makes it one of the handful of books I’ll be reading this year that are easily available on the UK high street), I began to question its authenticity as an example of Syrian literature when I realised it had been written in German.

After all, I’d had so many intriguing recommendations for literature written in Arabic that it seemed hard to justify deviating from those for the sake of what may turn out to be a sort of hybrid fiction, caught between the Arab and Western worlds.

In fact award-winning author Rafik Schami, who emigrated from Syria to Germany at the age of 25 and holds dual nationality, makes the difficulty of telling stories across cultures one of the themes of this book. Incorporating the tales told by the seven friends of Salim the coachman, Damascus’s best storyteller, in an effort to lift an enchantment that has struck him dumb, his witty and engrossing narrative includes a discourse from Tuma the emigrant, who, having lived in America for 10 years, attempts to explain his time in the West to his friends.

Describing how he found it difficult to speak in the US (‘How are you going to talk to people who don’t have the faintest idea about the things that really matter to you?’), he then goes on to discover similar difficulties in trying to interpret Western culture for his friends. In the end, frustrated by their repeated dismissal of his words as ‘fairytales’, he decides to lie instead.

At this point, it’s hard not to picture Schami smirking at his typewriter (he wrote this in 1989), and to wonder how much of the colour of the Damascus he describes, ‘a city where legends and pistachio pastries are but two of a thousand and one delights’, is shaded in for the benefit of his European readers.

But what cuts through this playful jousting with truth is a sense of the crucial importance of communication. Storytelling is a vital force in the novel: it’s the way that cafe owners keep their customers coming back each day, how deals are done and friendships cemented and, in many of the stories, a matter of life and death. What matters is not the truth or otherwise of what is related but that it is related.

Set in 1959 against the uneasy backdrop of the United Arab Republic, a union between Syria and Nasser’s Egypt, which saw the region awash with secret police and transistor radios designed to allow the government ‘to proclaim the one and only valid truth’ because ‘governments in Syria, without exception, made a habit of proclaiming peace and order just when they were on the verge of collapse’, the novel’s presentation of the need for a plurality of voices and accounts is deeply moving. It finds its echo in the events of today and deserves to be read in the West, the Middle East and throughout the world.

Damascus Nights by Rafik Schami (translated from the German by Philip Boehm). Publisher (this edition): Arabia Books (2011)