Macedonia: web of associations

There were several possibilities in the frame for Macedonia. Will Firth, translator of my Croatian pick, Our Man in Iraq, had suggested two options: Luan Starova’s My Father’s Books and Pirey by Petre M Andreevski, both of which sounded tempting.

But it was when I heard about writer Goce Smilevski that my ears really pricked up. His novel Sigmund Freud’s Sister won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2010 and is being published in more than 30 languages. Reaching further back, Smilevski was awarded the Central European Initiative Fellowship for young European authors in 2006 and his book Conversation with Spinoza: a cobweb novel won the 2003 Macedonian Novel of the Year Award. I decided it would be the book for me.

As the subtitle suggests, this is no ordinary novel. In fact, any hopes you might have of following a conventional yarn are quickly dispatched by the ‘Note to the Reader’ on the very first page:

‘The threads of this novel are spun out of conversations between you and Spinoza. So wherever there is an empty space in the words of Spinoza, just say your name and write it in the blank space.’

And that sums up the basic structure: ricocheting back and forth across the space of almost 400 years, the novel is based on a dialogue between the modern reader and the 17th century Dutch philosopher Spinoza – or, rather, two versions of him. The first is the confident young man wedded to his quest for complete freedom by focusing his mind only on eternal things and mastering his emotions. The interlocutor of the second part is the lonely, elderly hermit, looking back with regret on a life lived at arm’s length from the world. Both Spinozas tell the story of their existences, prompted by questions and observations from the reader. In so doing, they set up two markers, between which, as Smilevski spins his narrative, a web of contradictions and connections shimmers.

The author’s attention to detail is extraordinary – so much so that in this ‘cobweb novel’ it sometimes feels as though we are seeing a spider’s-eye view of life. From the trace of a tear on the face of Spinoza’s corpse at the start of the novel, to a drop of blood painted by the 26-year-old Rembrandt – who makes a cameo appearance early on – we find ourselves in a universe where minutiae make all the difference. Smilevski turns this to great effect in the latter sections of the novel, where a speck on a handkerchief comes to symbolise the young Spinoza’s love for his mother and where the philosopher fights his feelings for Clara Maria, the daughter of his mentor, by listing and denying a series of finely observed details about her.

Some unexpected gusts of humour blow through the narrative too. I particularly enjoyed the description of Spinoza’s forebears enlisting people to carry messages to their relatives by way of a series of odd gestures and signs as they fled the Spanish Inquisition: ‘in all of the towns they passed through, Isaac and Mor Alvares left people jumping on one leg in the square, crouching and standing up near the harbor, or clapping their hands in front of the cathedral’. In addition, when we first meet Clara Maria she is lamenting the death of Jesus, only for her father to respond: ‘You can’t do anything about it dear, such is life. […] Think about it, he was very old and all his teeth had fallen out; he couldn’t even eat properly’ – whereupon we learn that Jesus is a dog.

Smilevski’s handling of the question-and-answer structure is impressive. Rarely did I feel resentment at having words put in my mouth in the text because, for the most part, the author anticipates precisely the responses and questions his reader will have. This becomes a powerful tool in the latter stages where a very intimate dialogue evolves with the disappointed Spinoza, centring around his sadness at ‘how forcefully [he has] driven everybody away’.

The treatment of Spinoza’s philosophy in the text, on the other hand, is mixed. While Smilevski provides glimpses of what it’s like to stretch the limits of language and understanding in an effort to advance ideas, the conversations between his protagonist and some of the other characters occasionally become impenetrable. At these points, the meaning disappears behind a swarm of abstract terms, which, not fixed firmly enough with the pin of definition, flit about the text leaving the reader flailing in their wake. Smilevski’s introduction of anachronistic theories about evolution into the story as a way of explaining Spinoza’s rejection by the Jewish community is also problematic. The author seems to feel this too, for he makes the concepts the brainchild of a mysterious Macedonian who appears and disappears quickly and, we later hear, is executed for his dangerous ideas.

All in all, though, this a powerful and moving book. It is, in essence, a portrait of a mind trapping itself in a cage of its own making in the effort to be free. Smilevski’s portrayal of Spinoza’s philosophy may be opaque at times, but there’s surely something we can all take from it.

Conversation with Spinoza (Razgovor so Spinoza) by Goce Smilevski, translated from the Macedonian by Filip Korzenski (Northwestern University Press, 2006)

The Rest of the World poll is now open. Vote to choose my penultimate book of the year!

Tuvalu: how to make it rain

There’s tough and then there’s Tuvalu. The number of messages I’ve sent about this place –the third least populous nation on Earth after Vatican City and Nauru – over the past year is probably nearing the 50 mark. And though many of the people I contacted were willing to help, there was no getting round the fact that there was simply very little to suggest.

Somewhere along the way, however, I got in touch with scholar, writer, photographer, restorer of antique radio equipment, and community volunteer Peter McQuarrie. Though based in New Zealand, McQuarrie is married to a Tuvaluan and has connections with the Tuvaluan community in Auckland. He promised to ask around and duly came back with the suggestion of Tuvalu: a history, a book written by 17 Tuvaluans and published in 1983, a few years after the nation declared its independence.

As I explained to McQuarrie, I have tended to disregard history books so far during this quest, regarding them as being some way out of the scope of literature. However, the collaborative nature of the work, and the fact that it chimed in with the genre of national-identity stories I’d already discovered in Pacific works like Luelen Bernart’s The Book of Luelen and Sethy John Regenvanu’s Laef Blong Mi, made me hesitate. In the end, I decided to give it a go.

Written by people drawn from all walks of life on the nation’s nine islands during a series of workshops run by the University of the South Pacific, this collection of essays and personal accounts paints a picture of Tuvaluan life stretching back as far as folklore, hearsay and patchy historical records allow and reaching up to the time of writing. The pieces are divided by subject, with the writers tackling different aspects of the country’s culture, such as creation, religion, land, singing and dancing, and independence, in an effort to tell the story of their newly minted nation.

As in several other Pacific Island works I’ve read this year, the writers often make little distinction between factual and symbolic truth. The accounts rove back and forth between myth and history, mingling tales about cannibals and magical eels with maps, diagrams, and explanations about the islands’ names, geography and politics. Indeed, the fantastic and the factual sometimes seem to blend together, with anecdotal accounts about chiefs who could charm fish and the story of the old woman who knew how to make it rain:

‘Taia Teuai, an old woman who died in 1982, was generally recognised as having inherited from her grandparents the power to make it rain. Shortly before her death she explained how she did it:

‘”If there is a long drought then I will make the rain fall. First I go to the bush to gather coconut leaves and flowers with which to weave myself a garland. Later, towards sunset, I put oil over my body and wearing a clean dress and with a garland on my head go down to the beach to meet a team of ‘rain-makers’. These are little clouds sailing towards the setting sun. I look at them and dance, and sing a song such as this one:

‘”Little clouds, little clouds!/Bring rain to me,/To moisten my body.

‘”In about three days time there would be heavy rain. This sort of rain can easily be recognised because the drops are much thicker than those of ordinary rain.”‘

This blending of anecdote and historical research gives rise to some wonderful insights into Tuvaluan life. We learn, for example, how to hitch a ride on a turtle’s back – apparently the trick is to hang on without getting your fingers jammed between the neck and the shell or too near the mouth – as well as the islanders’ rather alarming traditional methods of dealing with troublemakers, which involve a leaky canoe without a paddle. We also discover the toll that Western influences have taken on the nation, from the blackbirders who came to kidnap people to work in the Peruvian mines in the 19th century, through to the suppression of dancing and singing by the missionaries, and the ravages of world war two – during which the Americans destroyed 22,000 of Nanumea’s 54,000 coconut trees building their defensive airfield.

The subject matter may be varied, but through all the accounts runs a sense of the gravity of the task the writers are undertaking. This is established from the first page, with the foreword from prime minister Tomasi Puapua, who describes the book as being of ‘considerable significance in the history of the young nation of Tuvalu’ because the accounts are, for the first time, ‘written by Tuvaluans interpreting events as they themselves see them’. This is perhaps most movingly borne out in Enele Sapoago’s brief essay ‘Today and Tomorrow’ at the back of the book, which describes in fresh and passionate terms what independence means.

That said, it’s hard not to feel the hand of the non-Tuvaluan workshop leaders on the shoulders of the writers at points. The essay form becomes stilted and awkward at times, and the later chapters dealing with events leading up to independence feel very dutiful and dense, and are often hard to read. In addition, it is difficult to ignore the fact that most of the historical source material the writers have to work with necessarily comes from the jottings of Western visitors to the archipelago. I sometimes found myself wondering who exactly the writing – carried out in English – was intended for.

Nevertheless, there’s no question that this is an important book. As the first concerted effort of Tuvaluans to tell their story, it is informative, passionate and sometimes surprising. Nearly 30 years on from its publication, it’s surely time we had some more.

Tuvalu: A History by Simati Faaniu, Vinaka Ielemia, Taulu Isako, Tito Isala, Laumua Kofe (Rev), Nofoaiga Lafita, Pusineli Lafai, Kalaaki Laupepa (Dr), Nalu Nia, Talakatoa O’Brien, Sotaga Pape, Laloniu Samuelu, Enele Sapoaga, Pasoni Taafaki, Melei Telavi, Noatia Penitala Teo, Vaieli Tinilau, ed Hugh Laracy (Institute of Pacific Studies, 1983)

Egypt: breaking boundaries

This was another recommendation from Roger Allen, Professor Emeritus of Arabic & Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. His number-one tip for Egypt was Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz – and he should know as he met the great man several times and translated several of his books. However if I were looking for something other than work by the nation’s leading literary giant, he had several more suggestions up his sleeve from among the thousands of excellent Egyptian writers on the market today. Ain Shams University professor Radwa Ashour was one of these.

I thought about it for a while. On one hand, I was very tempted by Mahfouz: several visitors to this blog had written highly of his work and I was sure I’d be in for a treat with practically any of his books. On the other hand, though, I couldn’t help feeling that Mahfouz was a safe choice. This journey was about discovery, after all, and I was eager to see what else was out there by writers I hadn’t heard of before – so I went for Ashour and chose her book Spectres.

Interlacing the lives of two Cairo academics, history lecturer Shagar and literature expert Radwa Ashour, this part-novel, part-autobiography and part-documentary explores the frontiers of storytelling. The two women are born on the same day and grow up during the mid-20th century, witnessing the Suez Crisis and the protests that shook the capital in the decades after it. As each runs up against the limitations of her gender, political sphere and the medium within which the author allows her to exist, the women seek to shape their own narratives out of the shards and fragments that litter their lives.

This is a courageous and often angry book. Whether it deals with the prejudice against women that causes Shagar’s great-grandmother to be viewed with suspicion because she refuses to marry again and Radwa’s children to be held up at passport control, or the political manoeuvres at the university that see one of Shagar’s colleagues hounded out, Ashour’s writing is indignant and powerful.

This is particularly the case when it comes to the central issue that runs through the book and, to a certain extent, shapes the women’s lives: Palestine. Marshalling sources ranging from Mahatma Gandhi’s 1938 claim that ‘Palestine belongs to the Arabs’ through to testimonials from villagers and Israeli officers about the Deir Yassin massacre, Ashour compiles a compelling  array of evidence to support her character’s forthright attacks on Zionist writers such as Elie Wiesel, ‘who wrote volumes against silence and described in detail the ordeal of the Jews in the Holocaust, of which he himself was a survivor, [but] did not see the contradiction in his own total silence in the face of what was happening to the Palestinians’.

However, as Shagar discovers when she attempts to present a paper at a conference organised on the 25th anniversary of Zionist Martin Buber’s death, the Palestinian perspective is one that struggles to find a platform. Vulnerable to accusations of bias and partiality – and the indifference of a West so far removed from Arab concerns that in 1991 an announcer on CNN is able to compare Baghdad under fire to ‘a huge Christmas tree […] “It’s a magical, thrilling sight!”‘ – the issue remains caught in the perennial paradox that in order for Palestinians to debate on equal terms with their opponents they must already have won the argument and proved their sovereignty to those who refuse to accept it.

Faced with the difficulty of constructing a narrative in the face of such powerful counter-narratives, the novel challenges and interrogates itself, oscillating between fact and fiction in search of a middle path that can carry the truth of both. Ashwour’s voice breaks into the text repeatedly, questioning the decisions she has made about characters, discussing her work in relation to her other books, and revealing the dizzying possibilities open to her as a weaver of stories – a sentiment she finds echoed in a translation of Aristotle cited in the text:

‘The work of the poet is not to narrate that which has happened, but rather that which might happen or is possible in accordance with probability or necessity’.

Seen in this light, this novel, first published in 1998, is in the extraordinary position of being able to enter into dialogue not only with the past but also with the future. With its telescoping of time, that sees, for example, Shagar simultaneously engaged with the events of 1946 and 1972 in Tahrir Square – and its swoops into and out of the future tense – the book seems to extend a line forward to the momentous events that shook the country only last year and takes on an eerily prophetic quality.

Entwining these themes, Ashwour delivers a challenging and complex read that tests the boundaries of communication. Bursting with references and the sheer volume of the ideas it explores and conveys, the novel strains at its seams, spilling out into the world beyond its pages and compelling the reader to engage with what it has to say. The result is passionate, rigorous and shaming.

Spectres by Radwa Ashour, translated from the Arabic by Barbara Romaine (Arabia Books, 2010)

Panama: going with the flow

It’s amazing what you can find on Twitter. There are shops, libraries, councils and even whole countries on there all sharing their opinions with the world in bite-size chunks. So when I saw the Panama Canal on the site, I couldn’t resist tweeting at it to ask it what I should read.

This came off the back of a long and surprisingly difficult search for a Panamanian writer with literature available in English. I’d emailed numerous organisations and publications. I’d even got a Panamanian student at Exeter University on the case. She recommended Justo Arroyo, but when I contacted him it turned out he only had one short story available in translation. He suggested Carlos Russell, a bi-lingual poet who has lived in the US for many years and has written some prose narratives too.

I was on the point of contacting Russell when the Panama Canal popped up on a Twitter search and, on a whim, I decided to see what it had to say for itself. The Canal came back very politely and, after a brief exchange, it recommended the writer Juan David Morgan.

I was intrigued by Morgan, not only because the Panama Canal had recommended him and I’d never had the opportunity to gain an insight into a waterway’s literary tastes before, but also because my brother’s name happens to be David Morgan.

Having found Morgan’s website, I sent him an email. It turned out that one of his novels, The Golden Horse, had been translated into English, but it was not published yet. He kindly sent me the manuscript, along with regards to my brother, and I settled down to read.

It’s funny that I found this book by way of the Panama Canal, because the novel is about the construction of the Panama Railroad, the first ever transcontinental railway line, which was completed in 1855, 26 years before work on the Canal began. Telling the story of this most gruelling of human endeavours, which saw thousands of workers from all over the globe lose their lives to disease and despair in the country’s tropical swamps, the novel is a tribute to the bravery, folly and ambition of the people who changed the world forever at the height of the Californian Gold Rush.

The book’s events are related through the eyes and sometimes diaries of a number of Americans connected with Howland & Aspinwall, the New York-based merchant firm that conceived and funded the project. There is the young widow Elizabeth, the travel writer John Lloyd Stephens – who is entrusted with securing governmental permission for the work – and the steamer captain Cleveland Forbes, as well as a large cast of lesser characters whose lives and loves all become entangled in the scramble to capitalise on the rich discoveries out west.

Morgan is skilled at keeping the high stakes foremost in the reader’s mind. From the deadly Chagres fever (malaria) and the crocodiles that lurk in the river, to the constant threats to the project from a rival scheme in Nicaragua and the sinister steamship line owner George Laws, who is determined to either profit from or scupper the venture, we are never allowed to forget the risks the characters are taking. This is coupled with an impressive portrait of the destructive impact of the huge numbers of prospectors or ‘argonauts’ passing through the region and turning Panama’s once-sleepy towns and villages into dens of vice and crime. With no government protection and robbery and murder rife, it falls to Howland & Aspinwall to buy in security in the shape of wild Texan ranger Runnels.

Rigorously researched and plotted, the novel works neatly, with many seemingly incidental characters woven throughout so that we have the sense of their lives unfolding beyond the boundaries of the narrative. There are also some very powerful moments. The brutal robbery of Norwegian hotelier Peter Eskildsen and his struggle to save himself from being pecked to death by vultures is horrifying, while the description of the fate of the Chinese railroad workers will stay with me for years to come.

That said, the novel could do with some tighter editing. While the diary entries allow for a more discursive style than might play comfortably in other forms of narrative, there are some repeated descriptions of events and emotions that could be lost without doing any damage to the work as a whole. I also found a few of the plot twists concerning Elizabeth towards the end of the book a little too convenient.

Overall, though, this is an impressive portrait of a pivotal moment in global history. In amongst the rabble of foreign nationals that bustle through the narrative intent on using the country for their own ends, the character of Panama shines through: wild, beautiful and rich. Let’s hope the translation finds a place on an English-language publisher’s list – it deserves to be widely read.

The Golden Horse (El Caballo de Oro) by Juan David Morgan, translated from the Spanish by John Cullen

Update: The Golden Horse was published by Two Harbors Press in 2014.

Latvia: living with the enemy

Lasītāja emailed me back in April. There wasn’t much Latvian prose available in translation, she said, but she did have a few suggestions: the Latvian Literature Centre had a small database of translations I could search and Guernica Press in Canada had got a grant to publish a short story collection by Nora Ikstena which might be out in time for me to include it in the project (sadly not by the looks of it). However, my best hope was probably European Parliament Member for Latvia Sandra Kalniete’s With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows, a work of literary non-fiction published in English translation by Dalkey Archive Press in 2009.

When I looked it up, I discovered it also happened to be the most translated Latvian title since the work of Vilis Lācis, who died in 1966. What was it, I wondered, that had made the book such a run-away success?

Ranging across the 20th century, With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows reveals the impact of the deportation of Kalniete’s parents from Latvia to Siberia, where Kalniete was born in 1952. One of countless Latvian families to suffer displacement, bereavement and extreme hardship on account of the Soviet occupation of their country, the Kalnietes had to develop great resourcefulness simply to survive decades of persecution that saw many of their closest friends and relatives killed. Through their story, Kalniete traces the history of modern Latvia and reveals the dark mechanisms driving an atrocity that is rarely ever mentioned in the West.

Kalniete sets out her intention to present the facts as openly and honestly as she can from the very first page. Starting with a series of stark potted histories and vignettes, she sketches the circumstances of her relatives’ lives and deaths, together with hints of the long-term impact of their experiences – such as the fact that 44 years after her mother returned from Siberia she was still unable to watch bread being carried away from the table without feeling a degree of panic.

The book that follows reveals the context of these short pieces, both in terms of personal stories and the history of Latvia and its neighbours. As you might expect from a politician (well, some politicians, anyway) Kalniete is rigorous when it comes to state affairs. She provides valuable and detailed accounts of the three successive occupations of Latvia in the early 20th century (twice by the Soviet Union and once by Germany), as well as a chilling insight into how a once-free society can be subjected and controlled by an external power. For the Western reader, there are also some surprising observations which bear witness to how little most of us know of events that took place on the other side of Germany during the world wars: I was staggered to read, for example, that Finland managed to hold out on its own against the Soviet invasion for 105 days in 1939-40, while the accounts of how the Nazi soldiers were initially welcomed by Latvians as liberators are testament to the harshness of the Communist regime.

However, it is her relatives’ stories that bring out Kalniete’s most telling writing. Sparing herself nothing in the effort to get to the heart of what happened, Kalniete reveals the hardships suffered by her parents and grandparents: the deportation train packed with people that sat in a station for three days; the cold, brightly lit cellar where her grandfather was forced to sleep on his back with his hands by his sides in between spells of interrogation; the moss and grass her mother and grandmother had to eat to survive the Siberian ‘Island of Death’; and the tyranny by bureaucracy that saw people trapped in limbo for want of the correct form, condemned for crimes they did not commit, and sentenced to permanent exile from their homeland for owning property or being related to an enemy of the state.

Most moving of all are the moments when the composed demeanour of the professional writer-turned-investigative journalist slips and we see what the telling of this story means to its author. Kalniete’s description of her excitement at holding her grandfather’s case file and putting her hand on his fingerprint, for example, is touching, while her reflections on what allowing their daughter to be indoctrinated with Soviet propaganda for her own safety must have cost her dissident parents are fascinating. And when she recounts the impact of an interview with her mother about what it is like to starve, the full force of emotion breaks through:

‘When I later listened to the taped conversations, their calm flow seemed unbearable to me, so abnormal was their content. The sad story told in my mother’s everyday voice singed me with sudden waves of pain. My body shook and I had to hang onto my desk to contain my uncontrollable sobs. I could not listen to my practical voice repeating a question about how a rat tastes or wondering how mother had not died from eating a horse cadaver.’

Despite its devastating content, the book contains much that is uplifting too. From love stories and small triumphs, to Kalniete’s mother’s dogged-to-the-point-of-irrational determination to dress and educate her daughter in preparation for a return to Latvia – a return that looked impossible for many years, given that the family had been sentenced to exile for life – the book reveals how dignity and the human spirit can endure in the most appalling circumstances. As the dance shoes of the title suggest – which refers to the flimsy shoes in which Kalniete’s mother was arrested and forced to travel to Siberia at the age of 14 – sometimes the smallest details can become a symbol of identity and resistance in the face of those who would extinguish hope. Outstanding.

With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows (Ar balles kurpem Sibirijas sniegos) by Sandra Kalniete, translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailītis (Dalkey Archive Press, 2009)

St Kitts & Nevis: deep roots

For a long time, there was only one name on the table for the tiny Caribbean nation of St Kitts and Nevis: Caryl Phillips. The award-winning playwright and novelist had been suggested by Sue for the list, and his track record was certainly impressive. No doubt if I read one of his 10 novels (and counting), I would find much to admire.

But there was something that made me hesitate: although born to Kittian parents in St Kitts and Nevis, Phillips left the country when he was just four months old and grew up in the UK. He is now Professor of English at Yale University. Phillips’s work certainly had a claim on being considered Kittian – in much the same way that Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is linked to the Dominican Republic – but I couldn’t help wondering what else might be out there from writers who had spent more time living in the country itself.

For a while, the answer seemed to be: not a lot. Much like writing from St Vincent and the Grenadines, books from St Kitts and Nevis seemed to be thin on the ground – at least as far as works that had made into wide enough circulation to reach readers outside the country were concerned.

Then I stoogled upon an article about Bertram Roach, a senior citizen on Nevis, who published his first novel in 2008. The book by the former electrician, who spent some time in the UK as an adult but was raised, educated and trained on the island, was greeted with a great deal of local enthusiasm and government minister Hensley Daniel praised the example Roach’s achievement set for the island’s younger citizens. It sounded like just the thing I’d been looking for.

Inspired by stories heard from the villagers and labourers on the Brown and Bush Hill estates, where Roach’s father was manager in the early decades of the 20th century, Only God Can Make a Tree traces the long shadow of slavery. The narrative focuses on Adrian, the mixed-race son of an Irish immigrant and a local woman, who, because of his light skin, has a degree of social mobility not afforded to many of his peers.

The early 20th century world should be Adrian’s oyster and he gets a good job as an overseer on St Kitts. Yet he finds himself caught between the two communities and, when he starts relationships with both a local Sunday school teacher and his boss’s daughter, it is only a matter of time before disaster strikes, setting off a chain of events that will take a generation to make good.

Roach’s plain style lends itself to his subject matter. Whether he is describing the race-based hierarchy of the society, where gradations of skin colour affect job prospects and status, or the mixture of fear and fascination that leads him to jeopardise his relationship with his true love Julia for the rich and flighty Alice, the author’s clear and direct prose makes his story memorable.

This is particularly the case when it comes to his handling of local traditions and customs. From zombie dances and Easter celebrations, through to curiosities such as the saying that when the sun shines while it is raining ‘the devil is beating his wife’, Roach delights in sharing his knowledge of his country with his readers.

This sense of authenticity is clearly important to him, as he makes clear in his Prologue:

‘Non-Caribbean authors have written books after brief encounters on the islands, taking back a notebook full of local gossip. One, Island in the Sun, was a bestseller and was made into a film.

‘I grew up on a sugar plantation in St Kitts and Nevis. The stories I tell are my real stories.’

In fact, the Prologue reminded me of a piece at the beginning of Cecil Browne’s The Moon is Following Me, my choice for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. At the time I read that, I thought its unusually direct and somewhat declamatory style was peculiar to Browne, but finding a similar introduction at the start of this book makes me wonder whether such pieces might be something of a literary tradition in some Caribbean nations.

Such directness, however, is not always successful in the main body of the book. At times, Roach pushes the narrative aside to expound on topics such as the unscrupulousness of obeah men and his belief that ‘class and colour are the two greatest social evils in most parts of the West Indies’. The plot is also threadbare to the point of reading more like an outline at some points, as though Roach is rattling through it in his impatience to get on to the next episode that sparks his interest.

Nevertheless, there is a lot to like in this book – and much to interest the non-Kittian or Nevisian reader. Roach set out to tell the stories he wanted to in his own way. And, in that sense, the book is a great success.

Only God Can Make a Tree by Bertram Roach (Athena Press, 2008)

Pakistan: the long view

There were lots of choices for Pakistan – and lots of visitors to this blog with opinions about which book I should go for. Writers such as Daniyal Mueenuddin, Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Bapsi Sidhwa came up several times in discussion and I had plenty of possibilities to check out when it came to choosing the work for this post.

However, when I started to research the suggestions, there was one book with such a fascinating story behind it that, when I discovered how it came to be published, I knew I would have to read it. Recommended by both Waqas and blogger Fay, who kindly shared her personal Man Asian Literary Prize shortlist with me, The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad might never have made it into print. In fact, the first draft of the book, which Ahmad wrote in the early seventies, was locked in a trunk for 30 years and presumed lost by its author after it failed to find a publisher in Pakistan. Luckily, as the novelist told Publisher’s Weekly last year, Ahmad’s wife Helga kept the key, and when Ahmad’s brother heard about a literary competition the work was brought out once more and quickly passed to Penguin.

Framed around the life of Tor Baz, an enigmatic nomad living in the border hills of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet during the mid-20th century, the novel reveals a volatile and fragile world. Orphaned young when his parents are killed by their tribe because of their elopement, Baz passes through a range of groups and guardians, eventually carving out a living by selling information to rival factions in the region. Along the way he crosses paths with lonely soldiers, a mad mullah, people traffickers, prostitutes, a naive European in search of his roots and a wife fleeing the tyranny of travelling with her husband’s performing bear. And, as the British Empire retreats and the borders of the region’s newly declared nations take shape and harden, a desperate struggle emerges between the old ways of life and the modern order.

Ahmad’s depiction of the border region’s landscape is extraordinary. Wild, haunting and treacherous, this ‘tangle of crumbling weather-beaten and broken hills’ and the plains beyond it seem to have as much character and agency as the people who make their lives there. The landscape even moulds their personalities, teaching them ‘to be deliberate in their actions and slow in responding to emotions’ with its silence, harsh beauty, 120-day winds, and wide, open spaces across which pursuers can be spotted from miles away.

Yet for all its magnificence and antiquity, the landscape is in many ways little more than a rumpled blanket that can be shaken by external powers, tumbling those upon it into confusion. As a result of the closing of the borders and the political changes in the region in the late fifties, many of the local tribespeople run up against unfamiliar forces with which they must do battle in order to survive. Sometimes, tradition and ancient wisdom gain the upper hand, as when the nameless foreigner ventures into the off-limits Afridi territory of his father’s youth only to die a bewildered death, or the local official sent to challenge the Bhittani tribe over colluding in a kidnapping finds himself locked in a ‘battle of wits’ with the tribesmen and is obliged to give up because ‘he could offer no story to counter the old man’s logic’.

More often though, the traditional ways and those who practise them are warped and broken by the weight of a modern system that leaves no room for ambiguity. As the nomadic, stateless Kharot people discover when they attempt to cross the border to the pastureland their tribe has used for centuries and which their animals need to survive, ‘the pressures were inexorable. One set of values, one way of life had to die’ – and die in the most brutal of circumstances.

Such tragedies bring out Ahmad’s most passionate and beautiful writing. In these moments, his disarmingly stripped-back style – characterised by insights such as ‘hope does not die like an animal – quick and sudden. It is more like a plant, which slowly withers away’ and the description of a murdered Mengal tribesman sliding ‘down in small jerks like a broken doll from the saddle to the ground’ – concentrates itself into powerful direct appeals. Perhaps the most moving of these concerns the execution of seven Baluch tribesmen, who, when asked to explain the murder of some rivals, find that their lengthy discourse on the history of tribal relations in the region holds no power to impress the court. ‘Fables have no use here. They are not evidence,’ says the judge, going on to sentence them to death and paving the way for Ahmad’s most memorable pronouncement on what such decisions cost:

‘What died with them was a part of the Baluch people themselves. A little of their spontaneity in offering affection, and something of their graciousness and trust. That too was tried, sentenced and died with these seven men.’

This is that rare breed of writing that springs from deep love and knowledge of a place and the people who live there. It is not saccharine, picture-postcard sentimentalism, all rose-tinted nostalgia; nor is it explorer’s obsession, tripping over itself in its eagerness to analyse and explain. No: it is a love that has been forged and tempered by years of living in and absorbing a region in all its beauty, brokenness, brutality and brilliance. Astonishing – and well worth the wait.

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad (Penguin, 2011)

Tanzania: family politics

When one publisher recommends the work of another, you know you’re likely to be on to a good thing. And so, when Lynette Lisk, commissioning editor of the Heinemann African Writers Series, told me that she admired the work of Bloomsbury-published Abdulrazak Gurnah, I lost no time in looking him up.

Spanning 100 years, Gurnah’s 2005 novel Desertion weaves together the threads that lead a young Tanzanian man, Rashid, to leave his homeland in the early sixties and make his life in England. It starts in the dying months of the 19th century, with the scandalous love affair of Rashid’s grandparents – an unconventional English traveller and a shy local woman – before darting forward to Rashid’s childhood in the mid-20th century and on past the declaration of Tanzania’s independence to his lonely and wistful middle age. Steered by Rashid himself, who writes much of the story, with an interjection from his brother Amin and a poem from his sister Farida, the narrative brims with questions and observations about identity, nationality, belonging and love.

Gurnah is a writer with an eye for the thousand little human foibles that can combine to clog up and alter the course of a life. Whether he is describing Rashid’s great-grandfather Hassanali’s hesitance and self-effacement, born out of the ridicule he recognises in the eyes of those who visit his shop, the double-think that allows the British colonisers to despise corruption in others and yet practise it themselves, or the rituals and cruelty that stand in for intimacy between siblings, Gurnah is forever revealing the processes that mould and set personalities.

This perceptiveness extends to larger social structures too. Through the patterns Gurnah traces, we learn the limitations of the social codes surrounding courtship marriage that stymie Rashid’s grandmother’s life and the effect of the gross under-provision of schools for girls. Crucially, however, these observations are not delivered through authorial tirades but lived and enacted by the characters so that it is only when we sit back and think about the story that we realise the wider implications of what we are reading.

Alongside this runs a lively discussion about storytelling, which erupts into the narrative as Rashid begins to question the version of events he presents. Speculating, contradicting himself and imagining where he does not know, Rashid rehearses his family’s history, increasingly aware of the possibilities in fiction, both in the choices he makes as a writer and in the scope the form offers to process, assimilate and remake the past.

Fiction also presents Gurnah with the opportunity to unpack the legacy of colonialism in a far more inventive and impactful way than essays might afford. While his portrait of the British Victorians sitting on the veranda swapping racist ideology well into the night ‘to make themselves feel significant and present in the world’ is compelling, his description of Rashid’s lonely arrival in a Britain leaves a lasting impression. It also buys him the leverage to reach forward in time and challenge assumptions that still underpin much of social interaction today:

‘In time I drifted into a tolerable alienness. Living day to day, this alienness became a kind of emblem, indeterminate about its origins. Soon I began to say black people and white people, like everyone else, uttering the lie with increasing ease, conceding the sameness of our difference, deferring to a deadening vision of a racialised world. For by agreeing to be black and white, we also agree to limit the complexity of possibility, we agree to mendacities that for centuries served and will continue to serve crude hungers for power and pathological self-affirmations.’

For all its sociological and historical observations, though, this is first and foremost an engrossing and deeply moving novel. It is a book to get lost in, led by an expert storyteller, who wins our trust and piques our interest from the very first page. I’ll be looking up more of Gurnah’s works when this year’s literary adventures are over. Wonderful.

Desertion by Abdulrazak Gurnah (Bloomsbury, 2005)

St Vincent & the Grenadines: journeys

When it comes to literature from Caribbean nations, it tends to be feast or famine. Either you find yourself overwhelmed by a plethora of books from excellent and exciting writers, as in the case of countries such as Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, or you have to look hard to come up with even one work you can read in English.

All the same, few Caribbean nations have been as tricky to find stories from as the tiny archipelago of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. As writer Adam Lowe of Peepal Tree Press, which published my Grenadian pick, explained when I contacted him to ask for ideas, the literature scene on the smaller island nations is still in its infancy and there is very little support and guidance for aspiring authors. As such, while there are writers from these countries, few will have had the opportunity to develop and publish their work.

Adam might have thought he was delivering bad news, but in actual fact his email spurred me on. There were SVG writers out there, then. I just had to find them.

A bit of frantic googling (froogling, if you will) later, and I landed at the threshold of ‘Writing “D”‘, a blog by debraprovidence, a teacher with a self-confessed interest in exploring the literary landscape of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. I left a message and held my breath.

Debraprovidence replied the very next day with the names of three writers, all of whom, as far as I could make out, emigrated from SVG at a fairly young age. Of these, Cecil Browne’s short story collection The Moon is Following Me caught my eye.

The book is full of tales of longing. Whether they are hankering after sweet coconuts, a secret love or the perfect line up for a local band, Browne’s characters are all driven by a desire to achieve, prove or change something – even if they have to adopt unconventional means to do it. There is the emancipated slave-turned-hawker who challenges a rival to an eating competition in order to defend his pitch, the young man who tries to win his sweetheart’s affections by buying her a wedding dress, and the school-leaver who risks his life for a taste of his favourite fruit.

Their author, too, seems to be unafraid of breaking with tradition. Indeed, when I opened the book and found myself confronting one of the most unusual forewords I have ever read – in which the author assures the reader of his stories’ ‘universal appeal’ – I was rather taken aback. It seemed as though Browne’s query letter to his agent or publisher had somehow got mixed up with the manuscript and published with the book, and I was apprehensive about what the collection had in store.

I quickly relaxed, however, helped by Browne’s quirky humour and delight in subverting expectations. From the moody schoolboy of the title story, who spends his time wishing disaster would strike to relieve his boredom, to the prudish Mrs Goodridge in ‘Action Action’, who is thrown into a panic by the news that her husband of 12 years is finally coming home from England to live with her, Browne delights in making his characters swim against the currents of their lives.

He couples this with a deft turn of phrase and an eye for detail that makes otherwise commonplace moments sparkle. I particularly enjoyed the description of the ‘cylindrical dress, about a metre in diameter’ that Mrs Goodridge fantasizes about making for herself to ward off physical contact. In addition, the stories initiate the reader into the altered sense of scale that comes with living in a small place through incidental details such as bandleader Sister’s ambition ‘to put Fitz-Hughes on the SVG map’ in ‘First, Second, First, Third’.

That said, there are a few technical issues holding some of the early stories back. Several of them take a while to come into focus, as though Browne is casting about looking for his subject well into the second or third page. The prose is also occasionally a bit choppy, as though bits have been missed out, so that odd sentences jump from scene to scene like a scratched record. Perhaps most problematic of all is ‘Spanish Ladies’ – a story close to the author’s heart, judging by his remarks in the foreword – in which Browne seems to have allowed his emotional involvement with the events he describes to override his writing, making for an unusually flat and predictable end.

Overall, though, there is much to like here. The last two stories, ‘Action Action’ and ‘Taste for Freedom’, are particularly strong – my copy has ‘great’ and ‘nice’ scrawled in the margins throughout these. I’d be interested to see what Browne, who left SVG at the age of 13 and is now head of maths at a college in west London, writes next. And I wonder, if he’d stayed in SVG, whether he would have published these stories at all.

The Moon is Following Me by Cecil Browne (Matador, 2010)

Federated States of Micronesia: his story

I was running out of ideas for the FSM. I had been in touch with a whole range of Pacific Island literature experts and academics based at universities in Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand and Guam. I had emailed cultural associations, community radio stations and local celebrities. And I had left messages on every sort of blog to do with Oceania that I could find.

Everyone who got back to me said the same thing: if I was looking for poetry, there would be no problem. There were lots of Micronesian poets knocking around. There was even a Micronesian Poets Club. And of course Emelihter Kihleng represented the country at Poetry Parnassus in London this summer.

But as for prose. Well… from a nation that size I’d be very lucky to find anything at all.

Beginning to despair, I looked Emelihter Kihleng up on Facebook. Perhaps she might be able to suggest something?

Kihleng very kindly replied: there was a creative history of the island of Pohnpei by Pohnpeian Luelen Bernart. It was out of print, but if I dug around online I should be able to find a copy.

I looked the book up. My heart sank slightly when I found that it had been published posthumously in 1977, two years before the formation of FSM’s constitutional government and nine years before the country declared independence from the US. Could it really count as literature from FSM?

However, as I read more about village chief Bernart, who died in 1946, having grown up before the island came under foreign control, I began to feel that there might be a case for relaxing my rule that literature must have been written since the foundation of the country in this instance – particularly as, as an island nation, the boundaries of Pohnpei have in one sense not shifted for hundreds of years. Besides, I was intrigued about what was inside.

Containing spells, songs, legends, lists of plants, tools and star names, and even a potted history of the deaths of the apostles, The Book of Luelen sets out to tell the story of life on Pohnpei from the dawn of creation up until the time of writing. Part mythology, part history and part personal testimony, with a smattering of biblical tropes and stylistic techniques thrown in for good measure, the work is one of the most eclectic and ambitious pieces of prose going.

Bernart’s writing is richest in its handling of lore and mythology. Whether he is describing the underworld beneath the sea, the second heaven or ‘place for people who had poor voices in singing’, or the development of civilization on the land in between, the author is engaging and often surprising. We hear of the battles between the Arem (humans) and the Liat (cannibals), the story of the magic man Taimuan who drops his defects off on surrounding islands in order to trick a woman into marrying him, and the spirit who travels the world and writes a song about his adventures, not to mention a whole host of recipes, tips and explanations for why certain plants, rituals and ceremonies sprang up.

Exhilarating though the sheer scope of the work is, it can also be problematic. Bernart, who worked on the book for 12 years and dictated the closing chapters to his daughters shortly before his death, clearly feels a pressure to get as much down as he can, sometimes at the expense of narrative coherence. As he explains in his preface, the point of the exercise as he sees it is to get the information written in the first place – ‘let those who know hear and correct this later’, he writes.

This impatience manifests itself in a number of ways. From repeated assertions that there is not enough time to explain certain concepts in the text, to pat generalisations that ‘the people of this age are better than those of olden times’, which the author seems to expect us to take on trust, Bernart bustles us along with a briskness that can make for rather bewildering reading. In addition, the sudden introduction of historical dates and statistics when the narrative comes to the events of the 19th century feels rather startling.

It is perhaps only when we understand the context of the work that such anxious haste makes sense. When he penned the book, Bernart was not only up against his own mortality but also the fact that, apart from translations of The Bible and a few religious tracts, no stories had been written in his language (he spoke a Kiti dialect). Using a written system that had itself been developed by American missionaries in the 1850s, his book was the first complete record of the nation’s history according to a Pohnpeian. It was a political act as much as an act of conservation.

And the importance of that act showed: although the work was only formally published in 1977, it was circulated in numerous manuscript versions around the island after Bernart’s death. Even in this edition, with numerous forewords, introductions and notes by Western academics (who even published a supplementary volume of annotations to convey their full interpretation of the text to the English-language reader) the passion of the writer to tell his story his way shines through. In many ways it is an attempt to contain not just a nation but also an entire universe. Marvellous.

The Book of Luelen by Luelen Bernart, translated from the Pohnpeian dialect and edited by John Fishcer, Saul Riesenberg and Marjorie Whiting (Australian National University Press, 1977)

PALAU APPEAL: Do you know anyone who might be able to help me find a book or prose manuscript from Palau, the final Pacific Island nation to solve on my list? Any ideas of writers, bloggers, friends, relatives or other contacts in the region would be brilliant. Leave a comment and let me know…