Mauritania: language barriers


If there were a hall of fame for hardest countries in the world to find literature from in English, Mauritania would be up there with the best of them. The short answer is that there are no commercially published translations of books penned by writers from the country in either Arabic, French, Hassaniya Arabic, Pulaar, Soninke or Wolof – the six most commonly spoken languages in the nation.

As Manuel Bengoéchéa of the Institut français de Mauritanie explained to me, this is partly because Mauritanian novels and other similar works don’t exist in great numbers in the first place. With so many linguistic communities in one place and a strong oral tradition, it is hard to justify putting resources into publishing works that will only be accessible to a fraction of the population. As a result, stories are more often spoken than written in the country.

Nevertheless, there are some published and celebrated Mauritanian novels out there – and several people went to great lengths to try to help me find one that I could read in English. Of these, International Prize for Arabic Fiction administrator Fleur Montanaro deserves a particular mention. Having lived in the country for seven years, she put a huge amount of energy into searching for a title – even scouring a book fair in the UAE for possible leads for getting a novella, L’amour impossible by leading writer Moussa Ould Ebnou, translated specially for the project.

And then, in one of those flukes of googling, where a brief portal seems to open up to the one page on the world’s more than 620 million websites that you need, I chanced upon an article about Mohamed Bouya Ould Bamba. While studying his PhD at Kent State University in the US, the Mauritanian Fulbright scholar has vowed to write, self-publish and make available for free download one novel each summer. His first book, Angels of Mauritania and the Curse of the Language, came out in 2011. A quick search on the title took me to a download site. I clicked on the text and, just like that, Mauritania was solved.

Taking place over four days, Bamba’s novel unfolds a crisis in a nameless family in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott. Having not been paid by his employer for many weeks, the father finds himself struggling to feed his pregnant wife and two daughters. His wife wants to solve the problem by appealing to her rich cousin, but the father has more extreme ideas and, as protests against political corruption flare in the streets, it looks as though the family unit may not survive this latest in a long line of setbacks.

As the title and bombastic prologue – written in the voice of the land of Mauritania – suggest, this is a book with big ambitions. With his anonymous, Everyman characters and lengthy dedication, Bamba seems to feel the need to speak for his entire nation – an understandable aim when you consider that this is in all likelihood the first book by a Mauritanian writer that English-language readers can access.

Coming after such grand beginnings, the domestic setting feels a little cramped at first. Bamba tries to show the link between national and personal events in the narrative, but there is still something of a disconnect, particularly when it comes to the title issue of ‘the curse of the language’ (the numerous people who have lost their native languages in the region), which features heavily in the prologue but barely gets a look in in the main text.

However, as the pages turn, the dramas in the lives of the characters grow to fill the space, providing many fascinating insights into daily life in the Mauritanian capital. While some elements, such as the delight of the male neighbours at the election of Obama over Bush, are disarmingly familiar, others are startlingly strange. For example, the custom of men being able to divorce their wives with a single word is extraordinary, while the wife’s belief that ‘freedoms were an American thing’ provides a fascinating insight into the differences in outlook that fill the novel. In addition, small details, such as the Turkish soap opera that threads through the narrative and the cousin’s daughter’s secret tryst with her boyfriend, bring Bamba’s spare prose to life.

The text contains the typos and slips common in self-published works. On top of this, while Bamba’s English is largely excellent, there are one or two linguistic tics and slight misuses of words that cloud the meaning. Pacing is also an issue: scenes move step by step, lacking the agility and dexterity found in the prose of more experienced writers.

Through it all, however, Bamba’s passion for his country and for telling the world about it shines through. The narrative may be threadbare at points, but its author’s ambition for change and a better life for many of the people in Nouakchott – where wealth and poverty have created a divide more impassable than any country boundary – is admirable. A rare insight into this most mysterious and overlooked of West African nations.

Angels of Mauritania and the Curse of the Language by Mohamed Bouya Bamba (2011)

Honduras: the look of love

This was a recommendation from Kathy. In response to my half-way appeal for countries I had yet to find books from, she contacted her friend Erik, who had spent some time living in Honduras.

The familiar response came back that there wasn’t much literature in translation from the country. Erik’s first choice would have been Ramón Amaya Amador’s Prisión verde but as far as he knew – and as far as I’ve been able to find out – this is not available in English. In the absence of anything by Spanish-language authors that I could read in translation, Erik suggested artist and writer Guillermo Yuscarán, whom he described as a ‘quasi Honduran author’.

The quasi refers to the fact that Yuscarán was actually born in the US with the name William Lewis. It wasn’t until 1972 that he came to Honduras, fell in love with the place and eventually made it his home, even going so far as to take a Honduran name. Given my general rule of thumb that a writer has to have spent enough time in a country for it to be part of their life story in order for their work to be eligible to represent that nation on the list, Yuscarán definitely fitted the bill.

Written during his first visit to Honduras and illustrated by the author, Points of Light paints a disturbing and enchanting picture of the country that stole Yuscarán’s heart. By turns brutal and whimsical, the stories shimmer with the hopes and dreams of a multitude of characters engaged in the struggle to survive. There is the chronically ill boy Raimundo who sings in the town and on the buses to feed himself and his siblings, the prostitute Lia who dies in childbirth on the beach, and the poor child Vicente who wants to reach the moon down from the sky. Through them all, moves the blind man Toribio, a magnetic figure who draws the stories together and provides a series of almost other-worldly insights.

Yuscarán’s direct and often apparently simple style is well-suited to telling the stories of characters who are thwarted by life. His portrait of Miguel, for example, a disabled man who was abandoned in Tela at the age of two – ‘a piece of bait for life to strike at’ – and now lives in a shack on the beach, forever cut off from the girls he would love to get to know, is devastating in ‘The Milk of Human Kindness’. Similarly, the discussions between Toribio and a terminally ill child in ‘Emilio Aguilar’ capture of world of feeling in a very few words.

But that’s not all. A strong artistic sense runs through the book, bringing out the richness, beauty and possibility of even the bleakest existences. We see it in the vivid descriptions of the colours of the natural world – the sunrise’s ‘spidery pattern of oranges and yellows for Lia’s song and Pablito’s dreams to ride on’, for example – and in the awakening sensibility of the many artists who people the narratives. While gringo Memo (a self-portrait, perhaps?) ‘had always wanted only to see what was real, no matter how painful or overwhelming’, Vicente experiences the marketplace as being ‘alive with color […] each person [..] a spark of light leaping in and out of a great painting’. And when the painter Soledad, who sees ‘the truth of colour in all things’, completes his magnum opus of a great bird on a wall looking out to sea, his creation takes on an extraordinary life of its own:

‘That night, The Great Bird moved its head, then blinked one eye; the massive wings fluttered. Far out at sea, a fog bank moved rapidly toward shore, sliding across the water to the sheer cliff walls. As the fog passed, dissipating into mist, Soledad saw the moon over Tela, shining downward like some enormous beacon. His eyes widened as the sphere suddenly became transparent, before filling with liquid colours, shades he saw as his own cosmic fluids – his own blood – in transformation: rich incandescent blues and greens; a kaleidoscope of oranges and yellows becoming livid pink, then violet, then crackling into sprays of porous magenta. Blinded by the brilliance, Soledad closed his eyes.’

Though there are many great moments, some of the stories lack momentum. ‘Dona Lina Catero’, for example, in which an old woman goes about her business, waxing lyrical to the village youngsters, is more of a portrait. Similarly, ‘Son of Esquipulas’, the final story in the collection, feels more like a mosaic of incidents rather than a single coherent piece.

Overall, though, it’s hard not to be struck by the freshness of the vision in the writing. Forty years on, with his place in Honduras’s cultural hall of fame assured, Yuscarán’s first book retains its power to surprise, sadden and transcend. It is in many ways a love letter to the country he would adopt. On the strength of it, it’s hard to see how Honduras could not embrace him.

Points of Light by Guillermo Yuscarán (Nuevo Sol Publicaciones, post 1989)