Philippines: the real story

There’s nothing like getting an enthusiastic recommendation from somebody who loves a particular book. So when Rach stopped by the blog to tell me that I had to read Illustrado by Miguel Syjuco, describing it as ‘a wonderful (funny) exploration of the country, its history, politics and people’, I made a point of looking it up.

Rach wasn’t alone in her appreciation of the novel. It won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008 and was one of the New York Times’s 100 Notable Books of 2010. Clearly a lot of people around the world rated it.

The novel follows Miguel Syjuco (yes, you read that right) as he attempts to get to the bottom of the death of his mentor, famous New York-based Filipino writer Crispin Salvador. Told through extracts from Salvador’s work and his protegé’s biography of him, interviews with the writer, meetings with his relatives, blog posts and comments in web chat rooms, a series of jokes about Filipinos in the West, and a first- and third-person narrative that charts Syjuco’s return to the Philippines in search of clues, the book traces and tangles the threads of Salvador and Syjuco’s histories. And, as the search for answers and identity becomes ever more fraught, it finds an echo in the public life of the nation, where a sleaze scandal, a rebellion and an impending typhoon look set to the shake the country to its core.

This is a novel about the search for authenticity – and one that plays this search out on every level. While Syjuco begins the novel ‘unconvinced’ by the accounts he has read and sets himself the task of sifting through the stories to get to the truth of Salvador’s life and death, readers must contend with the multitude of conflicting voices and sources in the book, as well as the protagonist’s self-confessed tendency to embroider the truth by, for example, fabricating a conversation with his neighbour on the plane home. In addition, the trustworthiness of love comes under scrutiny through the prism of Syjuco’s failed relationship with girlfriend Madison – a pairing based on embracing a series of ill-researched, international good causes and a vague Western guilt quite alien to their Filipino roots.

The result is an impressive and complex array of investigations into truth that can often spill over into the world outside the book. In fact, Salvador, whose work comes complete with footnotes in the novel, is such a convincing creation that for a while some readers even believed he existed in real life.

However, it is when it comes to writing that the questions about authenticity become most intense. Throughout the novel, a debate rages about what it means to be a Filipino author: there is the indignant Manila-based writer who maintains that writing in English is ‘heinous’ (more than a slight irony in this book which won the Grand Prize for the Novel in English at the 2008 Palanca Awards), while Salvador himself is on record advocating for dispensing with country boundaries altogether and aiming to be ‘an international writer’ because ‘your real home country will be that common ground your work plows between you and your reader’.

Yet nationality and cultural authenticity aren’t the only hot potatoes when it comes to writing in the novel. As the title of Salvador’s lost exposé, The Bridges Ablaze, suggests, the simple act of putting words on the page can itself be a violent, destructive thing. Throughout the book, storytelling causes rifts and feuds as people feel betrayed by the truths they are forced to confront. This touches on everything from the ridiculous insistence of Grapes and Granma that all their relatives’ work – no matter how remote from their lives – is about them, through to revelations that divide the nation. To write, then, requires fearlessness and even ruthlessness, as Syjuco finds himself reading, and perhaps also writing, in a dream:

‘Whatever they may say, your story is truly your own. You have a responsibility to it, the way a father has to a child. Damn your detractors, your hurt-faced family. They can’t take it away from you.’

The greatest irony is, of course, that the book’s interrogation of storytelling takes place through the medium of some truly outstanding writing. Funny, dexterous and seemingly effortless, Syjuco’s prose (the author… or are protagonist and author one and the same?) is a joy. Reading it is like skimming over deep waters in a speed boat with an expert pilot at the helm. If there are one or two too many daredevil manoeuvres here and there, the thrill of the overall experience more than makes up for it. Top notch.

Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco (Picador, 2010)

Cambodia: the end of an era

Newspapers are not what they used to be. If you’ve had anything to do with the media in the last ten years, you’ll have heard a lot about dumbing down, loss of quality, the death of print and so on. In fact, depending on who you speak to, you might be forgiven for thinking that the whole industry is choking and dying right before our very eyes as we all stand round snapping photos and tweeting about its last moments.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. In fact the search for my Cambodian book reminded me of one of the most exciting things to happen to journalism in recent years.

I was whiling away a quiet moment or two on the Guardian Books site when an article about the Cambodian genocide by Madeleine Thien caught my eye. Thien is a Canadian novelist, so I couldn’t include her book, Dogs at the Perimeter, on my Cambodian list, however, given her expertise on the country, I decided to leave a comment asking if she could recommend something I could read.

Less than two hours later, Thien replied with a full list of suggestions. I was delighted and more than a little surprised. Despite having written for various publications myself, I realised I’d been used to thinking of journalists as somehow operating in a different, parallel universe, a world that readers could not reach.

And yet here was one of these mysterious beings replying to me out of the blue. All of a sudden the article flickering on the screen in front of me seemed to switch from being a closed, finished thing, to an ongoing, evolving process. It was as though, instead of publishing something that was fixed and definitive, Thien had given a seminar in cyberspace and thrown the floor open to questions from the world.

Thien seemed particularly passionate about In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner, a book that was due to come out that very week. ‘I hope this book will find its way to readers everywhere. It is an astonishing novel, brilliant, heartbreaking, and deeply courageous. A truly unforgettable piece of literature,’ she wrote. That was good enough for me.

Inspired by Ratner’s own childhood, the novel tells the story of seven-year-old Raami, a Cambodian princess who is evicted from her luxurious home in Pnomh Penh along with the rest of her family when the Khmer Rouge seize power in 1975. Caught up in the mass exodus from the cities as the regime seeks to eliminate all traces of education, culture, privilege and power, Raami endures four years of hard labour, starvation, abuse and terror in the party’s brutal new rural order – a world where her imagination is her only escape.

Few writers use imagery more richly than Ratner. Whether she is describing the sun yawning and stretching ‘like an infant deity poking its long multiple arms through the leaves and branches’, the gardener covered in butterflies ‘as if he were a tree stalk and his straw hat a giant yellow blossom’, or the way a marsh shimmers ‘as if at any moment it would spit out the sun’, the writer excels at finding arresting ways of bringing experience to her readers. This stands her in particularly good stead when it comes to the darker elements of the story, where the fear and sadness she builds are almost tangible. It also makes the more whimsical passages, particularly the exchanges between Raami and her haunted poet father, marvellous and engrossing where they might be twee and obvious in another author’s work.

Ratner’s consciousness of the value and weight of words is coupled with a profound sense of the importance of storytelling, which runs through the book. Various characters speak about the power of tales to connect people across time and space. Indeed, Raami’s faith in them is such that, in the final moments before he is taken away, she runs after her father begging for one more story, as though the mere act of narrating might be enough to keep him with her and save his life.

Like the novel itself, this belief in the power of telling is rooted in Ratner’s experience. She writes movingly about her motivations for rehearsing her family’s traumatic history through fiction in her ‘Author’s Note’ at the back of the book. The story is, she tells us, ‘in essence, [her] own […], born of [her] desire to give voice to [her father’s] memory, and the memories of all those silenced’.

As such – and given the unrelenting suffering and misery that makes up much of the book – it is perhaps inevitable that the narrative occasionally gets bogged down in emotion. While no doubt true to the experience of many children in such extreme circumstances, Raami’s repeated assertions that she is responsible for all the bad things that happen become a little wearing. There is also a slight problem with the narratological need to keep raising the stakes and ratcheting up the tension when the family has lost nearly everything from day one.

But these are trifling things by comparison to Ratner’s achievement. Looked at as a whole this is a powerful and beautiful debut from a writer committed to finding new ways of telling stories and taking the reader to heart of the matter. The world can always do with more of those.

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner (Simon & Schuster, 2012)

Serbia: cultural exchange

Colleagues are wonderful things: you can have a casual conversation in passing one morning and suddenly discover that the person you catch sight of every so often in the canteen or say hello to on the stairs is an expert in a whole host of subjects you know nothing about. Over my time freelancing at newspaper and magazine offices in and around central London, I’ve shared water coolers with salsa dancers, filmmakers, fell runners, actors, poets, and many more besides.

In a place like London, colleagues can also be a great source of information about books from other countries. And so, when I discovered that Tijana who sat behind me for a time at the Guardian was Serbian and a booklover to boot, I lost no time in asking her for suggestions.

Tijana went one better than simply giving me a list of recommendations. On a trip home a few months later, she picked out a translation of a book she had enjoyed and posted it to me. And so it was that I found myself clutching a copy of Srđjan Valjarević’s intriguingly titled Lake Como.

The novel follows a Serbian writer who takes up a Rockefeller scholarship for a month-long residency at the luxurious Villa Maranese by Lake Como in Italy. Surrounded by academics, thinkers and artists on similar bursaries, the protagonist, who is there on the pretext of writing a novel, spends his days sleeping, getting drunk, watching football and chatting up a waitress in a local bar. He seems destined to fritter his time away, yet as the weeks pass his observations and interactions with the people around him take on a meaning that in many ways transcends the work he might have done on his own.

Frank, irreverent and at ease with his shortcomings, Valjarević’s protagonist is an extremely likeable character. Whether he is describing his part in the application process for the scholarship – ‘I was drinking beer as I wrote a short outline of the novel, I made it all up, and my friend Vlada translated it into English and then corresponded with them for a while instead of me’ – or the fabrications he uses to get out of the centre’s dreary cultural evenings and concerts, the hero is refreshingly honest and often very funny.

Such humour is just the tool Valjarević needs to puncture the earnestness of the Villa Maranese and reveal the absurdity of much that goes on there. Whether he is dodging the fierce questions of the Kyrgyz literature expert determined to press-gang him into giving a lecture, sympathising with the Nigerian poet who has travelled all the way from Africa only to spend his residency laid up with back pain, or taking advantage of his peers’ simplistic assumptions about the horror of his life back in Belgrade, the hero’s interactions show up the surreal elements and contradictions that lie beneath the worthy veneer of life at the Villa Maranese. Perhaps most telling of all is the chapter where the writer invites the waitress and his other friends from the village to dinner at the house and discovers that, despite living next door to the fabulous grounds, they have never before been able to go inside.

Yet the novel is far from a hatchet job on pompous cultural schemes. Indeed, the paradox at the heart of the book is that, despite his ostensible abuse of the terms of his scholarship, the writer gains much of value during his residency: he makes meaningful connections, both with people in the village and with several fellow guests; he has moments of transcendent experience, from seeing a golden eagle to hearing the tune of bells in a town he can no longer visit played by another resident; and he begins to re-evaluate the way he lives.

The result is a moving and surprisingly searching consideration of nationality, art, identity, culture and human endeavour. It is at once one of the funniest books I’ve read this year and one of the most profound. If you can get your hands on a copy, it’s well worth the effort.

Lake Como (Komo) by Srđjan Valjarević, translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tošić (Geopoetika Publishing, Belgrade, 2009)

Somalia: digging deep

This novel has been sitting on my to-read pile since January. It was one of the books that Steve and I picked out on a frenzied afternoon in New York City when the reality of what this project would involve was just sinking in. That day, we descended on indie bookshop McNally Jackson and, under the bewildered gaze of the staff, spent several hours rifling through the world-literature section and building big piles of possible prose works I could read from some of the most far-flung destinations on the map.

Several of the books I bought that holiday became blog posts earlier in the year, others were shuffled on to my ‘2013-and-beyond’ pile when more intriguing recommendations came in, and yet others still sit biding their time on one of the many heaps of undecided books dotted around our living room as I write. In fact, when I picked up Nuruddin Farah’s Secrets the other week, I couldn’t remember anything about it. It was only when I cast an eye over the blurb that the reason the book appealed to me that blundering January day came flooding back.

Having been exiled from Somalia since the 1970s, multi-award-winning author Farah was finally able to return to his homeland in 1996. Secrets, which came out the year its author won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, is his first novel since that trip.

The book tells the story of Kalaman, a self-made computer company owner in Mogadiscio, who is forced to confront some devastating home truths when his childhood sweetheart Sholoongo returns from America and elbows her way back into his life. Outside Somali society is crumbling as the civil war takes hold, but inside the tried and tested structures of family and friendship are cracking too, as Kalaman, Sholoongo, his mother and grandfather dredge up recollections and revelations that will shake his sense of identity to the core.

Right from the very first sentence, which is hurled out with the flair of a master magician adept at winning the attention of the crowd – ‘One corpse, three secrets!’ – we know we are in the hands of a great storyteller. Yet, as the novel unfolds and the narrators cut in, querying, contradicting and rubbishing one another’s words, Farah reveals himself as not simply a conjuror, but an alchemist, aware of the conditions that transform the essence of stories and truth into startlingly different forms.

Whether ‘shapeshifter’ Sholoongo is picking Kalaman up on his account of their relationship, which he presents as being dominated by her but she portrays quite differently, or Nonno is unmaking and remaking his grandson’s recollections of his childhood, there are always conflicting and often diametrically opposed versions of events that must be assimilated. Secularism jostles with spiritualism; Islamic teachings rub shoulders with folklore; and the contemporary, naturalist novel finds itself hijacked by superstition, sorcery and a woman with the power to will herself into people’s dreams. As Kalaman reflects, ‘truth, after all, has its dynamism, and memory its momentary lapses’. It is up to each person to ‘inquire into the meaning of truth, and how to distinguish our find from other categories of truth’.

In the face of such multivalency, there is no place for trite simplifications. The inadequacy of the assumptions by which we all too often navigate our way through the world is perhaps most keenly shown in Kalaman’s reflection on common perceptions of the Somali conflict:

‘I let it go as I often have let go foreigners’ throwaway remarks spoken in ignorance, foreigners who held the view that “Somali politics is clan politics”. It would take me years to convince them otherwise.’

The novel does come with a health warning, though: its continual deconstruction of truth and reality can be tiring. Occasionally in the ‘Interlude’ chapters, which feature some of the book’s densest and most opaque writing, I found myself feeling as though I were waiting by the door at a party where an intense philosophical debate had erupted late in the evening, when I was ready to get my coat.

But this probably says more about me than it does about the novel. Overall, this is a rigorous, gripping and intriguing work. It challenges, shocks, delights and entertains in equal measure. An excellent find.

Secrets by Nuruddin Farah (Penguin, 1999)

Saint Lucia: a formidable legacy

Look up the words ‘Saint Lucia’ in any work on world literature and you’ll find the name Derek Walcott somewhere nearby. Celebrated as one of the Caribbean’s foremost literary figures, the Nobel prize-winning poet and playwright is the go-to writer for literature from and about his island home. For my purposes, Walcott’s epic poem Omeros would technically have fitted the bill – when I set out on this quest, I planned to allow myself to include narrative poetry if prose stories were hard to find, although I have not done so as yet.

But I was curious to see what else Saint Lucia had to offer. What other literary flowers flourished in Walcott’s formidable shadow? And what prose stories might this nation famed for its poetry have to offer me?

After a few fruitless searches, I was delighted to stoogle upon an article on the website of Jako Productions, an organisation seeking to promote the artistic expression of Saint Lucian culture. Written by Modestes Downes and Anderson Reynolds, ‘A Synthesis of Three St Lucian Novels: Neg Maron: Freedom Fighters, Season of Mist, Death by Fire is essentially a potted history of Saint Lucian novel-writing. The island’s prose works are by no means as numerous or celebrated as its poetry, the article’s authors acknowledge, but they do exist. Indeed, the early 21st century apparently saw a relative explosion in Saint Lucian prose publishing, with the three novels named in the piece’s title expanding the country’s prose canon to nine works.

Of these, I decided that Neg Maron: Freedom Fighter by Saint Lucia’s former director of culture Michael Aubertin was the book for me. Taking place in the space of a single trip to the cinema, the novel records 19-year-old history enthusiast James’s daydream vision of the events that rocked Saint Lucia more than two centuries ago. With the British and French battling over the island and slavery rife, the only hope for the nation’s black population lies in joining the Neg Maron, a community of escaped slaves in the heart of the rainforest. But when Golang runs away to live with them, he realises that existing in secret is not enough: if his people are ever to achieve real freedom they must take back  their independence by force and with it the pride, self-esteem and dignity that have been denied them for so long.

Aubertin’s writing is best when it is passionate. This comes across most strongly in the passages where Golang realises the danger of his fellow slaves internalising false assumptions about their own inferiority and sets out to rally them. In particular, a speech in which fellow revolutionary La Croix exposes the hypocrisy of their colonial masters in light of the French Revolution fizzes with rhetoric:

‘We must challenge the veracity of their watch-words. They cannot cry “Liberté!” and have us in chains. They cannot cry “Egalité!” and feel we are not equal. They cannot cry “Fraternité!” and not realise the truth about the brotherhood of all men. The true testing ground of the revolution is not France, but right here in the colonies! They have no option but to make us free!’

In addition to such stirring speeches, Aubertin engineers several moments of great tension in the narrative. The sections where Golang hides and protects a British deserter and where the Neg Maron set out to capture the governor’s canoe are gripping.

The plotting isn’t consistently taut, however. The time shifts are awkward and Aubertin neglects to round out some of the lesser characters in his impatience to tell the story. There is also a degree of self-consciousness in the writing, which makes some of the exchanges, particularly those involving the British soldiers, rather stilted.

All in all, though, I was glad I read it. As one of nine published novels produced by this nation of fewer than 180,000 people, at least up until 2005 (if you know of any more, I’d love to hear about them), it provides a thought-provoking insight into the island’s past and how it might inform its society today. I’d be intrigued to see how the other works compare. Ah well, maybe next year…

Neg Maron: Freedom Fighter by Michael Aubertin (Caribbean Diaspora Press, 2000)

Dominican Republic: home and away

This book was given to me by Jimena, a Mexican woman who attended the English PEN ‘Free Speech: found in translation’ night-class course I finished a few weeks back. She looked apologetic as she got The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao out of her bag and handed it over.

‘I’m not sure if you’ll want to include it,’ she said. ‘You see, he writes in English.’

A discussion ensued about whether Junot Diaz, now a creative writing professor at MIT, was an acceptable Dominican Republic choice. My classmates wanted to know where he was born (Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic), where he lived now (the US), and how much of his childhood he’d spent in the country (four years plus holiday visits to relatives from what I can make out). It seemed each one of us had slightly different criteria for judging Diaz’s pedigree.

Personally, I wasn’t sure I would include Diaz. I had several other names in the frame for the Dominican Republic and, excellent though I was sure the Pulitzer prize-winning novel was, I was intrigued to find out about them.

Then two things happened: quite by chance, our course leader Sophie Mayer referred to Diaz’s novel during the session, a coincidence which appealed to my sense of serendipity, and I discovered that the prose work of the other Dominican Republic writers on the list, including Arambilet and Pedro Mir, was by no means readily available in English. Time being of the essence, I decided to give the Diaz a go. It would be a sort of test of where that mysterious boundary line of nationality goes in literature, I thought.

Roving back and forth between the US and the Dominican Republic, the novel follows Oscar, a sci-fi and fantasy nerd and son of a Dominican mother, growing up in the eighties in a rough neighbourhood in New Jersey. Overweight, lonely and desperate for attention from girls, Oscar embarks on a series of excruciating attempts to win the favours of the local beauties, watched first by his rebellious sister Lola and later his college room-mate Yunior.

But it turns out that Oscar’s misery is by no means a one-off. As he unfolds his family’s backstory, Diaz reveals an intricate tale of torture, betrayal, murder and shattered dreams that stretches all the way up to the Dominican Republic’s erstwhile dictator Trujillo and will, quite literally, blow Oscar’s mind.

It’s interesting that a discussion of nationality nearly turned me off reading this book, because the relationship of the individual to cultural identity is one of its central themes. Right from its Derek Walcott epigraph, ending ‘either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation’, the novel explores how heritage informs, shapes and constrains our choices. Everything from the family fear of being under an old Fuku (curse) and the fact that ‘in Santo Domingo a story is not a story unless it casts a supernatural shadow’, through to Lola’s fraught relationship with her mother and Oscar’s relatives’ scorn at his failure with girls can be traced back to a sense of what Dominican life is or should be.

The threads weaving together the personal and national are further tightened by a series of zestful footnotes that run through the book, giving the narrator’s personal gloss on history. Describing aspects of Trujillo’s reign of terror, ‘one of the longest, most damaging US-backed dictatorships in the Western Hemisphere (and if we Latin types are skillful at anything it’s tolerating US-backed dictators, so you know this was a hard-earned victory, the chilenos and the argentinos are still appealing)’, they present a furiously witty engagement with the way politics impacts on individual lives. Feisty, shocking and only occasionally annoying, they grab the predominantly American readers Diaz clearly has in mind by the scruff of the neck and make them acknowledge what has happened, often giving them a parting jab in the ribs – ‘You didn’t know we were occupied twice in the twentieth century? Don’t worry, when you have kids they won’t know the US occupied Iraq either’.

Although Jimena was worried that the fact the  novel was written in English rather than Spanish might weaken its DR claims, the language of the book is shot through with a sense of Dominican heritage. Packed with Spanish slang and even complete sentences in the language, the narrative is raucous with the richness of its cultural references and the conflicts and contradictions these create.

The result is a powerful, irreverent and thoroughly engrossing exploration of identity and how the particular time and place we are born and grow up in shape who we are. If anything, Diaz’s exposure to both US and Dominican society sharpens his perception of the DR. It is as though for both him and his characters, the transition between the two cultures is only truly possible once they have immersed themselves in, understood and made peace with their Dominican heritage. As Lola puts it, ‘you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in.’

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Faber, 2009)

Central African Republic: tales of yore

I knew this was going to be tricky when Catherine Teya, president of the Central African Republic Association of Europe (SEWA Europe), struggled to suggest a book from CAR that I could read in English. However, it wasn’t until I did a bit more detailed research into the state that I began to understand quite what the challenges were.

Riddled with unrest and pockets of lawlessness since it gained independence from France in 1960, CAR is one of the planet’s least developed and most isolated countries. Indeed, as award-winning photojournalist Spencer Platt explains in his 2008 dispatch from the country, it has to all intents and purposes been abandoned and forgotten by the rest of the world. With frequent coups and attempted coups forcing crisis after crisis on its impoverished citizens, most of whom will not live to see their 45th birthdays,  it’s small wonder that very few books by writers in the country have made it into print in recent decades, let alone been translated into English.

However, although she was unable to recommend anything directly, Catherine Teya was nothing if not helpful. She sent me a number of links that might assist me in my quest, among them the website of Solidarité Franco Africaine, which features an overview of Central African writers. Perhaps one of these might have been translated in to English, she suggested.

As luck would have it, sloshing about in Amazon’s dankest recesses, I stumbled on a 1970 translation of a novel by Pierre Makombo Bamboté, one of the writers on Solidarité Franco Africaine’s list. There was no information, no summary and no picture. The book was in an ‘unknown binding’ and I could tell nothing about it beyond the date the English version was published, its title and the number of pages it had. Still, given the lack of anything else to go on, it had to be worth a shot.

First published in French in 1966, Les Randonnées de Daba (or Daba’s Travels from Ouadda to Bangui as the English version has it) follows young Daba as he leaves his parents’ village to visit friends and relatives around CAR and further his education. Moving between the Westernised milieu of his French boarding school and the rich rural traditions of the communities he stays with during his holidays, Daba develops a love for his country, as well as a desire to explore the rest of the world – and has some gripping adventures along the way.

Daba’s is a culture where storytelling is part of the furniture. From the very opening lines, in which Daba’s mother tells the tale of the will-o’-the-wisp bird, fielding her son’s comments and chiding him for questioning her skill as a narrator, the power of the oral tradition is clear. This comes across in the novel too: the text is frequently interspersed with stories told by adults the boy meets and the narrative itself has an organic feel, as though Bamboté is sitting just across from us, developing the story as he goes along.

This instinct for storytelling also manifests itself in the evocative descriptions that fill the book. Whether he is describing the ‘sparkling white wings of insects, looking like thousands of stars, [that] glittered in the headlights’ on a drive through the jungle, the way a crocodile’s tail ‘would suddenly spank the water and send a great sheet of white spray up into the air’, or Daba’s eerie sense of being followed when returning home from a day spent tracking lions with his friends, Bamboté is a master of transporting his readers into the midst of the places he describes.

Indeed, for all its exotic crocodile hunts and days off school because of prowling panthers, the book has a profoundly nostalgic feel. This is partly down to the author’s skill, which makes us yearn for a place we have probably never been (the presence of Daba’s French penfriend Guy throughout much of the book suggests that it was probably aimed at a European rather than a CAR readership), but it is also because of the look and feel of the book. With its illustrations sprawling over the pages like jungle creepers and the smell of its old pages, it reminded me of the books my mother gave me from her own childhood.

Now, 42 years after it was published, Daba’s Travels from Ouadda to Bangui and the handful of Bamboté’s other translated novels offer a rare window on a much-neglected and surely now much-changed corner of the globe. I wonder how long it will be before English-language readers get a chance to take another look.

Daba’s Travels from Ouadda to Bangui (Les Randonnées de Daba) by Pierre Makombo Bamboté, translated from the French by John Buchanan-Brown (Pantheon, 1970)

Myanmar: all that glitters…

One of the great things about embarking on a world literature adventure like this is all the fellow literary globetrotters you meet along the way. There are lots of projects out there and each of them is slightly different, shaped by the personality and interests of the reader behind them.

Some people are only reading books set in particular countries; others are including poetry, plays and factual history books. Some are travelling from state to state as you would on a map, while others are leaping around all over the shop. And in addition to the hardcore nutters among us who set ourselves numerical and, in my case, time limits, there are many people who intend that the adventure should take them several years, if not decades.

It’s always a pleasure to hear from other literary explorers, not least because they can often be a great source of ideas for countries I’ve yet to tackle. So when Paul in Canada responded to my Halfway Appeal with some suggestions from his own Reading Around the World project, I was intrigued to hear about them. In particular, his Myanmar choice, Smile As They Bow by Nu Nu Yi – the first novel by a writer living in the country to have been translated and published in the US, and shortlisted for an international literary prize, despite the best efforts of the Myanmar authorities to suppress it – sounded fascinating. I decided it was the book for me.

Set around the Taungbyon Festival, a massive celebration of nats (spirits) that happens in a small village near Mandalay three times a year, the novel follows Daisy Bond, one of the event’s most famous transgender natkadaws (spirit mediums), as he sets out to make the most of the extravaganza. A master at parting gullible and superstitious visitors from their money, the aging dancer puts on the performance of his life, ably assisted by his very much younger bodyguard and lover Min Min. But when his partner begins to fall for a beggar girl at the festival, Daisy’s precarious existence looks as though it may be about to crumble once and for all.

Yi’s sensuous descriptions of the hurly-burly of the event are a joy to read. Bustling with the interior monologues of a whole host of people – from the rich woman seeking spiritual guidance on what to do about her husband’s mistress and the elderly devotee fretting about the cost of the flowers she has had to offer, to the pickpockets moving through the crowds – the narrative bumps and jostles the reader so that you feel as though you are in the midst of the action.

Into this vibrant scene bursts the voice of Daisy Bond, easily one of the most irreverent and fabulous literary creations you are ever likely to meet. Buzzing with expletives, contradictions and fears, his distinctive interior monologue paints a complex and moving picture of a lifestyle that is at once based around a sham and yet a source of fulfillment and meaning. Bluntly honest about the fact that natkadaws such as he ‘deal in lies and pushing people to offer animals’ and ‘cook up crazy hopes ’cause we have to eat’, Daisy’s descriptions of his love of performing and the self-expression he finds as a transgender medium reveal that for all the cynicism of the cons he peddles, what he is doing has surprising value and significance – much like the festival itself, which though reinstated by the British ‘to create a diversion’ in colonial times has become a source of hope and a way of making a living for thousands of people.

This duality is particularly apparent in Daisy’s illicit relationship with Min Min (homosexuality is still illegal in Myanmar). Despite his frequent abuse and humiliation of the youth whom he bought as a teenager seven years previously, Daisy’s dependence on and feelings for the young man are clear. It is testament to Yi’s skill as a writer that, even though we want to see Min Min break free and follow his own desires, we cannot help feeling pity for Daisy, for whom ‘the gay life carries such heavy karma’ and who is perpetually haunted by the thought that his love is ‘going to leave [him] for a real woman’.

The result is a powerful, moving and memorable work that more than deserves its place on the Man Asia Literary Prize 2007 shortlist. It is an insight into a world of extremes, where conflicting truths weave together and catch the eye like spangles on a spirit dancer’s costume. Highly recommended.

Smile as they Bow by Nu Nu Yi, translated from the Burmese by Alfred Birnbaum and Thi Thi Aye (Hyperion, 2008)

Colombia: the crazy truth

When it comes to South American literature, Colombia is definitely one of the hot spots. Birthplace and stomping ground of the great Gabo (Gabriel García Márquez to you and me), the country boasts a talented crop of writers, despite a tradition of rigorous government censorship – according to the File Room100 Years of Solitude was itself banned by the Colombian authorities in the 1970s.

Among this group of authors, Laura Restrepo caught my eye. An outspoken political journalist, Restrepo spent six years in exile in Mexico after receiving death threats because of her work. Her novels, which have won numerous awards, are known for mixing the insights she gained into Colombia’s criminal underworld as a reporter with elements of the fantastic or uncanny. It sounded like a compelling combination.

Restrepo’s 2004 novel Delirium starts with a bang. Middle-aged lecturer-turned-dog-food-delivery man Aguilar arrives home from a short trip to see his children to find that his young wife Agustina has gone mad. The rest of the novel – which weaves together four narratives and draws the reader through a involving in Bogota’s drug-trafficking network, clairvoyance, sadism, murder, and a tortuous family history stretching back two generations – pieces together the reasons why.

If you want an example of lean, powerful storytelling, then Restrepo is the writer for you. Working dramatic irony, time shifts, character voice and objective correlatives the way a gymnast moves through positions on the parallel bars, she delivers a mesmerising performance that will have you gripped right from the realisation that ‘something irreparable had happened’ in the first sentence to the breathtaking dismount of the final chapters.

Restrepo couples this narratological agility with a dexterous empathy that enables her to present both the inner workings of mental breakdown and the toll such events take on those closest to the sufferers. Whether she is leading us through the dark lair of Agustina’s childhood demons or Aguilar’s uneasiness about her sudden unpredictability and sense of ‘not knowing what bubbles are bursting inside her, what poisonous fish are swimming the channels of her brain’, the writer is committed to finding new routes by which to bring us close to the experiences she portrays. Her description of Aguilar’s fears about how Agustina’s illness has affected her feelings for him is particularly vivid and inventive:

‘I was afraid that if I could enter into her head, like a doll’s house, and walk through the compressed space of the various rooms, the first thing I’d see, in the main room, would be candles the size of matches lit around a little coffin holding my own corpse, me dead, forgotten, faded, stiff, a Ken-size doll in Barbie’s all-pink house, a ridiculous Ken abandoned in his tiny moss-green living room, I myself moss-green, too, because I’ve been dead for a while.’

The author’s talent for presenting thoughts and emotions in striking ways pays dividends when it comes to tracing the twisted strands of family history that have led to the tangle of the present. What might be an unwieldy and dry chronicle in the hands of another writer is immediate, troubling and strange in Restrepo’s work, with each character, no matter how peripheral, picked out in arresting detail. There is the obsessive musician grandfather who goes out walking wearing two hats and the mother who speaks to Aguilar on the phone as if he is a care assistant rather than her daughter’s partner.

The result is a compelling novel about consequence; about the way what we think of as our private quirks and imperfections can bounce and ricochet off others sending them careening down a giddy slope to their ruin. It is a gripping and haunting piece of work. Oh, and it’s a jolly good yarn too…

Delirium (Delirio) by Laura Restrepo, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (Vintage, 2008)

Papua New Guinea: novel techniques

This was one of several recommendations from Bernard Minol at the University of Papua New Guinea Press and Bookshop. Although I had not found many Papuan books in my initial searches, he was keen to stress that there is a thriving publishing scene on PNG – and the large number of recommendations that he and his colleagues gave me certainly seems to bear this out.

Mata Sara (Crooked Eyes) by Regis Tove Stella follows Perez, a young Papuan man, as he arrives in the Australian capital to take up a postgraduate scholarship. Disorientated and homesick, he sets up home with three other wantoks (literally ‘one talks’ – speakers of the same language in Tok Pisin) and the friends set about making a new life in a culture very different from their own.

But as the days go by, they become increasingly uneasy. Ghostly presences in their flat and rumours of a murder there in years gone by set them on edge. More suspicious still, there seems to be an odd connection between the dimdim (white person) Kate who befriends Perez, her friend Wilmott and life back home…

The clash between Western culture and traditional Papuan life is the central theme of the book. Coming from a place where ‘the belief in ghosts and spirits is part of daily existence’ and ‘women fly at night’ to 21st century Sydney – where CCTV cameras capture every move, homosexuality is accepted and immigrants are treated with suspicion and sometimes downright racism – the students discover much to challenge, unsettle and alarm them. Sometimes this can be very funny, as when Perez dreads meeting an anthropologist because of his memories of the Western academics he encountered back home:

‘Since a child, I had always dreaded anthropologists with their long white beards, round-shaped glasses which conjured up an image of a white monster, watching every move ready to pounce on you. Whenever I saw photos of Father Christmas, I immediately connected them to anthropologists and gradually I also dreaded Father Christmas.’

Such light-hearted observations, however, are indicative of a much deeper sense of disenfranchisement born of a conviction that Papuan culture is treated as little more than a specimen by much of the rest of the world – something to be prodded at, picked over and interpreted in Western terms. ‘It is through their eyes that the world sees us, not our own eyes’, says Perez, explaining to Kate: ‘Many outsiders have written about my country out of their private visions […]. They just want their friends to believe they are great explorers and discoverers.’

This leads to a great deal of resentment, which is articulated through lengthy passages of conversation between the friends in which they frequently express (sometimes unjustified) criticisms against the Western world. While Stella tries to balance this by having Perez emphasise that the concept of ‘crooked eyes’ – or skewed perspective – is common to all people, and therefore likely to be true of them too, the lack of characters or events to counteract the accusations is problematic. The dialogue is also frequently repetitive and stilted, as though the friends are talking purely for the benefit of the reader peering in on their cosy world.

It’s a shame, because when events drive the narrative forward, the book is compelling. The early section, where Perez moves into the flat on his own and experiences some uncanny occurrences is gripping. Sadly, though, this momentum is not carried through into the latter half of the book. Here, the increasingly labyrinthine plot, which takes in tribal chiefs, lesbian abuse, long-lost relatives and a paedophile ring, becomes ever more difficult to buy into. This is not helped by shaky motivation for some of the characters’ decisions. Some readers will also find the male characters’ casual expressions of misogyny and homophobia difficult, although they may of course be further evidence of the young men’s ‘crooked eyes’.

Perhaps the issue goes back to the central theme of the book. By using the Western novel form to tell a Papuan story, Stella may have highlighted the limitations of the ‘dimdim  way of doing things’ when it comes to cultures where storytelling is predominantly oral. Significantly, as has been the case in several other novels I’ve read from countries that were colonised by Western powers in the past, Stella puts some of the dialogue in the latter stages of the book in the characters’ mother tongue, Tok Pisin, thereby shutting the English-language reader out from these exchanges. It’s as though the novel form itself is an imperialist throwback, which exerts rules and constraints that writers from countries where it is not the traditional form of storytelling may prefer to disobey or subvert.

‘That’s what’s wrong with you dimdims. You don’t believe in other cultures,’ says Perez. Perhaps he’s got a point.

Mata Sara by Regis Tove Stella (University of Papua New Guinea Press and Bookshop, 2010)