Costa Rica: searching for solutions

This book was one of a pile of tempting-looking titles that Richard from now-defunct Aflame Books very kindly gave me earlier this year. I had originally been planning to try to source some other recommendations for Costa Rican literature and had in fact had some leads from Cherie at Palabras Errantes. She suggested Anacristina Rossi and Carmen Naranjo as two respected writers from the country.

However, when I tried to track down their books, there was a problem: translations by these writers are extremely thin on the ground. Only a couple of Carmen Naranjo’s short stories seem to be available in English, while Anacristina Rossi’s work is either untranslated or prohibitively expensive – the English translation of her novel The Madwoman of Gandoca that I finally managed to track down would have cost me more than £100 to buy and ship.

That was a bridge too far for me, particularly when I already had a Costa Rican novel peering down at me from the shelf above my desk. Cadence of the Moon by Óscar Núñez Olivas it would be.

Based on the crimes of Costa Rica’s first recorded, and as yet unidentified, serial killer, the novel follows young journalist Maricruz and jaded, divorced police detective Gustavo as they ply the tools of their respective professions to try to solve the case. The extreme sadism and skill of the murderer and the compromised nature of the organisations in which they work test their ingenuity, endurance and professional ethics to breaking point. With only their intelligence and consciences to guide them, do Gustavo and Maricruz have what it takes to find the killer and see justice done?

Gender politics play a huge part in the book. From the ‘game of Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf’ Maricruz is forced to play to win her male colleagues’ cooperation every day of her working life, through to the gruesome, female-focused mutilation rituals of the murderer, this is a novel about how men and women interact. Some of the observations can feel a little two-dimensional and cliched, as when Maricruz’s gay friend Pedro launches into a lecture about the narrowness of straight men, however there are some nice touches that lift the narrative and the handling of the relationship between the two central characters is generally good.

Olivas also does tension well. While working a series of outlandish elements into the story – among them the occult, an underground political movement, and the symbolic significance of the phases of the moon – he manages to keep the plot moving and make it believable. Nevertheless, readers (at least those who can get hold of a copy of this now out-of-print translation) will probably find the ending surprising, given that here the narrative veers sharply away from the conventions of the murder-mystery form, having adhered to most of them throughout the book.

This is probably due to the fact that the things Olivas seems most interested in as a writer are only tangentially connected to the murder case. In many ways, the real focus of the novel is on the politics and compromises that riddle big organisations, such as Maricruz’s newspaper and the police. During the course of the story, both of these come under pressure from outside influences, ranging from advertisers and funders in the case of the newspaper, through to public opinion and government interests in the case of the police – although it must be said that some of the ethical dilemmas Olivas poses his characters are a little underwhelming. Maricruz’s initial reluctance to cultivate Gustavo as an off-the-record source because she believes she should publish everything she discovers, for example, comes across as more than a little naive.

Interestingly, while Olivas, himself a journalist, is relentlessly scathing about the European publisher Mr Grey – who makes crass pronouncements about the ineffectualness of Costa Ricans and all but strangles the newspaper in his desire to micromanage it – the writer is more chary when it comes to the police. Alongside the FBI expert who sweeps in to draw up a psychological profile of the killer, Gustavo and his colleagues appear bumbling and crude in their methods. Whether this is a reflection of the status quo or not I don’t know, but it seems odd that Olivas does not try to balance the exposure of the Costa Rican police force’s weak points with some observations about how its methods might compare favourably with the clinical, anonymous approach of the US agent.

All in all, however, it was a pleasant surprise to find that this book was more than it was cracked up to be. From the cover picture of a gagged woman on a full-moon night, I assumed I’d be getting a brutal and sensationalist whodunnit. In fact, the contents where a lot more subtle and thought-provoking. Hmmn. What’s that old adage about books and covers again?

Cadence of the Moon (En Clave de Luna) by Óscar Núñez Olivas, translated from the Spanish by Joanna Griffin (Aflame Books, 2007)

Brunei: reading between the lines

Brunei was looking tricky. Try what combination of search terms I would, there seemed to be no literature in translation from this small, oil-rich nation on Borneo in the South China Sea. The only suggestion I heard of came in the shape of a collection of Dusun folk tales compiled and translated by UK academic Eva Maria Kershaw. It was recommended by Canadian blogger Paul, who said it was the only Bruneian work he had been able to find for his own global literary quest.

I was on the point of buying the book, but something held me back. Nagging away at me was the thought that there must be someone out there who could help me find a written work by a Bruneian author that I could read in English. It was just a question of tracking them down. What I needed was a group of enthusiastic, English-speaking Bruneians who were passionate about promoting their culture and would have the time to circulate my query and, if I was lucky, do a bit of research on my behalf.

The solution came in a flash: students. A quick bit of googling revealed a surprisingly large number of Bruneian students’ associations dotted around the world’s Anglophone countries. I fired off emails to several of them, hunted down a couple of others through Facebook, and sat back to wait.

It didn’t take long. The very next day I got a message from Zuliza, media communications officer at the Bruneian Students’ Association, New Zealand. She wanted to help and asked for more details about the sort of book I was looking for. I answered as best I could.

The weeks went by. I found myself keying ‘Dusun folk tale collection’ into Google in idle moments. Then, at the beginning of August, Zuliza got back to me. She had some good news: she had found a story in the Brunei Times about a Bruneian author who had taken the step of publishing a novel in English in an effort to attract a wider readership for his work. It was available to buy on Amazon. Would it do?

One air punch and a vigorous Highland jig of delight later, I downloaded the novel on to my Kindle and began to read.

Set in France, Four Kings by Christopher Sun (aka Sun Tze Yun) follows American archaeology professor James Hale as he sets out to solve the murder of his best friend. Accompanied by his friend’s distraught and yet disturbingly attractive daughter, the academic plunges into the dizzying world of fine-art investment in an effort to track down a killer with a penchant for priceless artefacts and a habit of leaving playing cards next to each of his victims. But as riots grip the country and the president is forced to consider extreme measures to prevent anarchy, it becomes clear that the deaths may be part of a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top.

This is a book with a clear idea of what it wants to be. From the sensationalist, blood-smattered cover picture, right through to the vital clue that drops out of a copy of The Da Vinci Code halfway through the novel, Sun makes no secret of the fact that he is out to take on the global blockbusters with this, the first in a pentalogy following the adventures of James Hale. There is even a wry dig at the bestselling US author when, picking up the novel with a laugh, detective Darley remarks: ‘It’s nice to know that even sociopathic killers don’t mind reading trash now and then.’

Sadly, though, I don’t think Dan Brown has much to worry about. Although Sun may have big ambitions, his execution is lacking. The plotting is loose, improbable and heavily derivative, with unlikely religious relics such as ‘Jesus’s denarius’ and ‘the Spear of Longinus’ passed around between shadowy figures who materialise and disappear almost randomly. At times, even the characters themselves seem to feel that there is a ludicrous air to events, as when Hale grumbles to himself: ‘This is crazy […]. Why the hell am I the one finding all the damned bodies around here?’

As in QuixotiQ, my Bahraini pick, the Western setting is problematic. Although Sun has made an effort to ground the novel in France, unlike the mid-Atlantic no-man’s-land of QuixotiQ, the context lacks authenticity. Characters with names like Bruno Culruthers, Hugh Jetter and the unfortunately spelled Rouseeau strut around a faceless world that feels more like an airport terminal than a French city.

As with QuixotiQ, however, there is a serious point here. For the second time this year, I have found that the only work I am able to read from a nation with a written tradition is one by a writer who feels he has no option but to try and write a Western novel in English if he is to reach an audience outside his country. According to his Brunei Times interview, Sun has written and published books, cerpen (short stories) and sajak (poems) in his first language, Bahasa Melayu. Now those I really would like to read.

Four Kings by Christopher Sun and Jimmy Chan (CreateSpace, 2011)

Sudan: the outsider

There were several great contenders in translation for Sudan. What swung it for Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North was the fact that it was named the most important Arab novel of the 20th century by a panel of Arab writers and critics in 2001.

My curiosity was further piqued by the author’s introduction in my Penguin Modern Classics edition. Far from the usual mixture of modest thank yous and self-deprecation, his discussion of ‘this onerous and not entirely felicitious [sic] pursuit of novel writing’ was more than a little disgruntled in tone.

Salih had good cause for feeling peeved: despite the recognition his novel has received in recent years, its journey into the world-literature canon was by no means straightforward. Banned in many Arab countries because of its graphic scenes, the 1966 book got a patchy reception – the Times Literary Supplement ‘haughtily dismissed the novel as “episodic” which the reviewer said was a common weakness in all Arab writing’. Worse still for Salih’s purposes, the book was published in many countries without a single royalty being paid to the author. A million copies were printed in Russia, for example, but, because the country was not a signatory to the Berne convention at the time, the writer did not see a single rouble of the profits.

Not surprisingly, such injustice left Salih with a rather ambivalent attitude to the experience of being published:

‘And so the book went on its way, as books do, almost separate from me. It gets banned from time to time in this country or that and then it is unbanned; it is permanently banned in all the Gulf States. It is loved and hated and attacked and praised. It is taught in universities and doctoral and masters theses are written on it. That ought to make me happy and so it does in a way.’

Beginning with the return home of a young Sudanese man after seven years studying English literature in Europe, the novel tells the story of Mustafa Sa’eed, a strangely charismatic figure who has moved into the village while the narrator was away. Claiming to come from humble beginnings somewhere near Khartoum, Mustafa displays unusual astuteness in village affairs. But it isn’t until the narrator hears him let slip a line of English poetry late one night that he begins to uncover Mustafa’s mysterious past, unfolding a tale of murder, passion, alienation and rootlessness that will consume him and shake the village to its core.

Salih is one of those rare writers who can combine the specific and the universal in a single, compelling whole. Whether he is sending up the villagers’ naive questions about the cultural quirks of Europeans or capturing the arrogance of the young narrator, convinced that ‘the 10 million inhabitants of the country had all heard of [his academic] achievement’, he constructs characters and situations that are at once individual and yet recognisable to readers everywhere.

This comes to a head in Mustafa Sa’eed, an extraordinary creation who is at once a product of his time and influences and a unique person, moving through the world and making his own sometimes brutal and perverse choices. Indeed, the narrative is careful to resist any pat generalisations the reader may be tempted to draw from the story about the interaction of Arab and Western culture. ‘Whatever my life has been it contains no warning or lesson for anyone,’ says Mustafa, recalling how he wanted to jump up to contradict his advocate’s conclusion at his Old Bailey murder trial that he was ‘a noble person whose mind was able to absorb Western civilization but it broke his heart’.

In fact this human tendency to read people of other cultures too simplistically is something Mustafa boasts of having exploited during his many liaisons with women in London. He reveals that he encouraged them to think of him as Othello and related ‘fabricated stories about deserts of golden sands and jungles where non-existent animals called out to one another’. ‘My store of hackneyed phrases is inexhaustible,’ he tells the narrator.

Ironically, of course, while pulling the stuffing out of the quest for the essence of a culture, the novel is hugely evocative of both 20th century Britain and Sudan. Whether he is describing a student party in Chelsea or an impromptu desert feast on the road to Khartoum, Salih’s writing is arresting, inventive and rich. In addition, the insights the book provides into issues such as female circumcision, delivered during an earthy discussion with the fearless village gossip Bint Majzoub, and the legacy of colonialism which has turned the population into ‘lies of [their] own making’, are fascinating.

Occasionally the time shifts and narration-within-narration mean that it is hard to locate yourself in the flow of the story. However, far from seeing this as the ‘episodic’ problem that so irritated the TLS reviewer, I found it complemented the sense of rootlessness that colours many of Mustafa’s choices.

Put simply, this is a towering achievement: a mirror-world where lies are truth, destruction is tenderness, and home is alien territory. It’s the sort of book that makes you wish the author were still alive so that you could go and find him and shake his hand. Brilliant.

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih, translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies (Penguin, 2003)

Barbados: rum and water

I was very tempted to read a book by George Lamming as my Bajan choice. He’d been recommended by Trinidadian writer Vahni Capildeo, who I got in touch with through London-based literary organisation, Exiled Writers Ink. ‘Perhaps it’s just being from the region,’ she told me, ‘but I find some of the newer generation of Caribbean international prose writers like rum and water whereas he’s the rough spirit itself…’

This got me wondering about this next wave of Caribbean writers. Who where they and what were they writing about? Why did some of their work strike Capildeo as watered down?

While thinking about this, I stoogled (stumbled while googling – or should that be gumbled?) upon Glenville Lovell. Born and brought up in the Bajan village of Parish Land, Christ Church, this dancer-turned-writer had leapt on to the world literary scene in 1995 with his first novel Fire in the Canes to wide critical acclaim. He clearly set a lot of store by the tradition of storytelling he’d grown up with and I was intrigued to read that his performance background meant that he sometimes used music and choreography to develop his works. Perhaps I would come to regret this, but I was going to take a closer look.

Lovell’s second novel Song of Night unpicks the aftermath of a crime of passion from the perspective of the killer’s daughter. Ostracized by her small community of Bottom Rock, Cyan, or ‘Night’, must draw on her own resourcefulness and tenacity to survive. But in a society eroded by the tides of rich tourists that sweep through it, it’s difficult for a lone young woman to fend for herself without surrendering much of her pride and identity.

For all its tough subject matter – murder, prostitution, arson, drug use, domestic abuse, abortion and rape all have a part to play in the narrative – this is an extraordinarily beautiful book. Much of this comes from Lovell’s, use of imagery and fine ear for voices, which creates some taught dialogue. The text also bustles with anonymous commentators who gossip about the book’s spiralling events, conjuring a powerful sense of village life, a technique Marlon James would later use in John Crow’s Devil (my Jamaican book).

The focus of the novel is by no means parochial, though. Indeed, in many ways this is a book about the relation of Barbados to other nations and in particular the US. After decades of independence from British rule, the island seems to be sinking under another more insidious form of colonialism:

‘The once-colonized were free and willing to be colonized again by the burnt smell of suntan lotion, by the sight of broiling white flesh oozing green in the midday sun […] the businessmen and women, lonely housewives, schoolteachers, and policemen turned pleasure-seekers. They brought with them a sense of ownership, of the world belonging to them. And why not? The world spun on the edge of the American dollar.’

With this influx of rich Americans and Europeans comes the dilution of local identity, pride and purpose. Making money at any cost is the priority for many, while Bajans who aspire to more than a life of servicing the needs and desires of the world’s wealthy folk dream of emigrating to the US – although as rich African-American Koko points out, the land of the free has its own restrictions and limitations.

Nevertheless, there is no question that a lot of the richest Bajan culture now exists far from the island’s shores.  ‘All the writers live overseas,’ observes Koko, inviting the reader to look through her to Lovell, sitting in his New York apartment, writing passionately, sadly and angrily about a country he himself has left.

Playing these issues out in the plot, Lovell brings Night’s story to a gripping and bitter climax. He creates a powerful and memorable allegory for the wave of change overwhelming the island, while keeping all his characters, with the possible exception of the preacher who tries to save Night, vibrant, individual and strong. If this work feels watered down in comparison to  books by previous generations of Bajan writers, that may be precisely the point. But if that’s the case, Lamming must be strong stuff indeed.

Song of Night by Glenville Lovell (Soho Press, 1998)