Book of the month: Shahla Ujayli

Translators have long been my heroes. Almost from the moment I had the eccentric idea to try to read a book from every country in a year back in late 2011, I have found them to be extraordinarily generous, inspiring and wise.

Not only have they helped shaped my understanding of the different ways storytelling works around the globe and revealed many of the blind spots that I continue to challenge myself to overcome in my reading, but they have also repeatedly drawn my attention to writers and trends that I would otherwise have overlooked. Many of the best reads I have featured in this project have come to me by way of a translator’s recommendation.

This is true in the wider book world too. Whether they’re highlighting traditionally overlooked issues, such as the need for more translated titles on children’s bookshelves or the failure to credit translators in reviews and on book covers, translators are often a force for broadening understanding and driving change.

It’s fitting, then, that the final featured title of my first decade of reading the world should be one that a translator fought to bring into the world’s most published language. Sawad Hussain’s ‘Translator’s Note’ at the start of A Bed for the King’s Daughter makes no secret of the struggles she went through to get award-winning Syrian writer Shahla Ujayli’s short story collection an English-language book deal.

In addition to the experimental nature of the writing, one of the major issues Hussain encountered was that the work ‘stepped out of the trope of how Arabic literature is too often digested today’:

‘[The collection] is not an anthropological foray into the heart of Syrian life or history, though it is a “Syrian” short story collection. It is not confined to “women’s issues”, though written by an Arab woman. Rather, the human psyche is explored.

[…]

‘And that is the highest form of literature: not a piece of work that we easily swallow, digest, and after which we rub our bellies gleefully, but rather a body of written work that, rather than giving you the answers, elicits a gut reaction, makes you uncomfortable, puts you on edge and makes you ask (hard) questions. Just as Dena Afrasiabi, the delightful editor of this series, was able to recognize the promise of this collection, I hope that you will also go against the tide, and on a journey of discovery – of the fresh and the possible.’

In short, the writing in this slim volume does not fit into one of the neat marketing categories that publishers often impose on literature from elsewhere, a trend I’ve taken to calling the genrefication of national literatures. In fact, the 22 very short stories in this collection do not conform to many assumptions anglophone readers might have about the short story form itself. I suspect most of the pieces in this volume would not score highly on an English-language creative-writing course.

The maxim ‘show, don’t tell’, for example, has no place in Ujayli’s writing. (Indeed, it has little place in much translated writing because it assumes a shared frame of reference between writer and reader that is unrealistic when it comes to literature from markedly different cultures.) Meanwhile, the author has no hesitation about pulling the rug out from under the reader in the final line, as she does in a number of these pieces, seeming to undermine everything that has gone before. In Ujayli’s world, the experience of waking up to find it has all been a dream seems to be chillingly commonplace.

Instead of the sort of works we might be used to, she presents us with a series of wry, striking shards of writing. Many of them read like parables. Some are more akin to sick jokes. There is the story, for example, of the corrupt police officer who pulls strings to get his brother a gun licence only to be shot by his sibling in the final line. There are the children who Santa fails to visit because of a delay at an Israeli checkpoint.

In such extremely short stories – many of which would fall into the anglophone ‘flash fiction’ category – there is often little room for development or progression. These are largely snapshots rather than short films – a portrait of a dilemma rather than a working through of a problem.

A key to their mechanism seems to glimmer in ‘The Strangest Thing that Happened to Me in 2010’, in which an art-history professor recalls a piece of writing submitted by one of their students in response to the brief: ‘Tell me about Surrealism’. Instead of turning in an essay, the student recounts a bizarre experience. ‘This tale of mine will present surrealism in the way of someone outside the depth of thought, not in the way of someone surrounded by it,’ she writes.

Instinct, mysticism, the crashing together of things that don’t belong – these elements seem threaded throughout this collection. To overthink it, perhaps even to try to explain it, is a mistake. These are works that stand outside the depth of thought, working on the reader as dreams do, defying summation or categorisation.

And like dreams, some will leave us baffled. Some may seem nonsensical or childish. But some will resonate profoundly in a way that cannot quite be captured except in the words as they are presented on the page.

There isn’t much writing like this published in English. Some may say there’s a good reason for that. I say it’s an argument for this book’s existence, and for all the other jagged, unsettling works that don’t fit neatly into bookshop categories. Because, as its translator so eloquently argues, stories like this invite us to journey further, to enlarge our sense of what is possible, to envision other ways of seeing.

A Bed for the King’s Daughter by Shahla Ujayli, translated from the Arabic by Sawad Hussain (Center for Middle Eastern Studies, The University of Texas at Austin, 2020)

Book of the month: Anonymous


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The genrefication of national literatures

A few weeks ago, the tweet above caught my eye. It made me laugh, but it also captured something that has been playing on my mind in recent months: the tendency of English-language publishers to make national literatures genres in their own right.

The pattern tends to go like this: a writer from a particular nation, such as Japan’s Haruki Murakami, becomes a hit in English; other publishers, keen to capitalise on this success, seek out comparable writers and publish them with strong signposting that their work is like the bestseller (or simply get designers to work in the national flag on the cover, as above!); over time, that style of writing becomes synonymous with literature from its home nation. Books in that particular mould cease to represent one of many varieties of work from the country in question and instead come to exemplify its stories in the minds of anglophone readers. We think we know what characterises Japanese literature, when in fact we know only books similar to those that have proved pleasing to English speakers in the past.

In many ways, this model is unsurprising. Long before Amazon’s ‘Books you may like’ bar, booksellers and publishers favoured a ‘like with like’ approach when it came to convincing readers to try new things. Novels by debut English-language authors have long been published with stickers comparing them to and blurbs from authors of similar works. Haunting the aisles of Brent Cross Shopping Centre’s WHSmith in the 1990s, my pocket money clutched in my sweaty palm, my child self would frequently succumb to the logic that I was likely to like a novel because I had liked something like it before.

When this sales technique is applied too aggressively to translated literature, however, it becomes problematic. Just as labels such as ‘women’s fiction’ can be reductive, so using national affiliations in this way can be harmful. Not only does it run the risk of conflating the popular style of writing with the nation’s literature in the minds of many readers (making Argentinian literature synonymous with the fabulous fevered fantasies of Samantha Schweblin, for example), but it also risks reducing the chances of books that do not conform to the anglophone world’s idea of a nation’s literature finding an audience in the world’s most-published language. This is perhaps particularly the case for countries with relatively few books in translation, whose national reputation may rest on a handful of titles.

Taken to extremes, using nationality as a marketing tool narrows, rather than broadens, readers’ access to the world’s stories. Perhaps most worryingly, it does so almost imperceptibly – flattering readers that they are making adventurous choices, while peddling (often excellent) novels that are in fact broadly similar to what has worked in English before.

Meanwhile, the books that do not reflect these trends remain largely untranslated and invisible to readers who they might, given the chance, really transport.

Sourcing translated audiobooks

Last week, Julia left a comment on the List. She is an audiobook listener who is struggling to find recordings of stories from beyond the anglophone mainstream. She wondered if I had any suggestions.

The message got me thinking. I’m a fan of audiobooks. What’s more, having narrated the audio version of The World Between Two Covers myself and published my latest novel as an Audible Exclusive (narrated by the wonderful Adjoa Andoh), I know what great ways they can be of reaching audiences. In some cases, such as Trevor Noah’s brilliant narration of his memoir Born a Crime or the Naxos recording of Ulysses that was my Irish choice during my 2012 Year of Reading the World, audio versions can even bring added layers to a text, allowing listeners to experience accents, rhythms, nuances and occasionally additional material that they wouldn’t get from a printed version.

However, enthusiastic world-reader though I am, my knowledge of the translated audio market is fairly limited. I tend to listen to books when I drive, walk or run – activities that often require me to divert my attention away from the narrative for practical reasons. As such, I favour non-fiction and plot-driven books for listening and tend to tackle more demanding literary works that require unbroken attention with my eyes.

Realising this blindspot – or deaf spot – in my knowledge, I did what this blog has taught me to do when confronted with my own ignorance. I asked fellow readers and booklovers for help.

The recommendations came in thick and fast. I have listed some of the most useful below but I get the feeling this is the tip of the iceberg, so do feel free to share more ideas in the comments.

  • Several people told me about some of their favourite translated titles available through big commercial audio producers such as Audible and Downpour. These included the work of bestselling Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, and Nobel laureates Svetlana Alexievich and Olga Tokarczuk.
  • Others named publishers who offer audioversions of their translated titles, including Orenda Books, which published my most recent Book of the month selection, Bitter Lemon Press and Harper Voyager.
  • For those worried about the impact of audio sales on print book sellers, @Glenwood607 and @getrochelle put me onto the trail of Libro.fm, a fabulous-sounding initiative that allows you to buy audiobooks through your local independent bookshop.
  • Meanwhile, those keen to listen to Chinese literature might want to keep an eye on recently established Silk Gaze Audio. There are only a handful of titles available on the site as yet, but it sounds as though producer Nicola Clayton will be working to bring out more editions in the coming months. Thanks to @TranslatedWorld for tipping me off about this.

I’m sure there are plenty of other great options out there, but I hope the above will give Julia and anyone else who’s interested in listening more widely some places to start.

As for me, I’ve been given plenty of food thought. Hmmn, perhaps some of 2020’s Books of the month should be listens…

Picture: ‘Listen’ by Ky on Flickr.com

Being translated

 

 

 

 

 

Having spent the past five years thinking a lot about translation and how important it is, I’ve been delighted to have a chance to observe the process from a different angle over the past twelve months. My novel Beside Myself has received book deals in around nine language territories, which means that I have had the privilege of seeing my writing translated into other tongues.

This has been a strange experience. As I don’t speak Thai, Polish, Chinese or Italian (some of the languages in which my work now exists), I have no way of knowing how the respective translators have rendered my story. I have had to trust them and my publishers to produce a fair representation of my original work, one that I hope will convey the kernel and spirit of the narrative to readers in their respective language markets.

From my own research and experience with reading translations, I am aware that this might involve a degree of alteration or the inclusion of extra bits of explanation in order to convey concepts that may not be familiar to people in other parts of the world.

As such, the process has brought home to me once more the generosity and fragility of translation – that it is essentially an exercise that relies on strangers reading your work with sympathetic and discerning eyes.

However, although I can’t read the foreign-language versions of my novel (apart from the French – of which more soon!), I have been able to consider the different book jackets and titles that publishers have chosen to give my work. This has been an education in the way that different book markets operate and so I am sharing a selection below. Above, from left to right, are the UK hardback, UK paperback, US hardback and US paperback covers for comparison.

(For those who don’t know, the novel centres around a pair of identical twins who swap places in a game and then get trapped in the wrong lives when one of them refuses to change back.)

 

Vida robada

This is the cover of the Spanish edition. I like the sepia feel of the picture, which harks back to my central characters’ childhoods in the 1980s.

The literal translation of the title is ‘Stolen life’. This is interesting as it makes a more definitive statement about who is to blame for what happens in the novel than the original title. Spanish readers will have the sense that someone has done something wrong before they even begin the first page.

 

 

Moja siostra …czy ja?

The Polish cover is intriguing. We’re in thriller territory here. The mirror gets across the idea of twinship and doubleness. However there is a much darker feel to everything, as though the beautiful woman in the reflection is about to come to serious harm.

The title (‘My sister… or me?’) is much more direct than the English or Spanish versions. In Poland, readers know that this is a story about choosing between sisters as soon as they glimpse the spine of the book.

 

 

Beside Myself

The Taiwanese edition seems like a halfway house between the two previous versions. We have the slightly retro-feeling little girls, but the fragmenting of the picture lends a dark feel as though everything is about to fall apart.

The Taiwanese publisher has kept the English title on the cover (apparently this is common practice in this part of the world), but I’m not sure whether the Chinese characters are a literal translation of it or a different title – can anyone help me out?

 

 

The Person Who Stole My Name 

The Chinese cover is the most unusual of the ones I have seen. In fact, when I was first sent it, I was so intrigued that I asked my agent to find out what the thinking behind it was (in case you were wondering, there aren’t any flamingos in the novel).

The answer came back that the separation of the species – the little girl and the birds – was intended to indicate loneliness. This is a central theme in the novel, so that makes sense to me.

As with the Spanish title, Chinese readers of ‘The person who stole my name’ will have the sense that a wrong has been done to someone before they turn to the first page.

 

À sa place

The French cover also prompted a question, as to my British eyes it seemed to have slightly erotic overtones (again, not a strong feature of the book). My French editor, however, assures me that this is not the case in the French market.

I really like the ambiguity of the title (‘In her place’), which leaves open the question of which twin’s identity is under threat.

As I can read French (very slowly and with a big dictionary), I will be able to see how the story has been carried over into this new language. I’m planning to get stuck in as soon as I finish editing my next novel.

I’ll let you know how I get on…

Postcard from my bookshelf #8

This month, I’ve chosen someone from the publishing world to receive a book. Although the literature of some countries remains unrepresented on anglophone bookshop shelves, the vast majority of the translated books I read during 2012 were commercially available (or at least available to buy secondhand). I could never have completed – or even seriously contemplated – the challenge of reading a book from every country without the army of editors, agents, scouts, rights managers, publicists, production staff and many others who spend their time bringing books to market.

In my experience, these people (particularly those working on translated literature) are deeply devoted bibliophiles who often work long hours for relatively little financial reward. For many of them, publishing the world’s stories is a labour of love.

The entries on the project post bore this out. Among the numerous comments from people working in or  connected to the publishing industry, there was a common theme: passion for literature and a readiness to go beyond the call of duty to share brilliant written works.

I was especially encouraged by the number of publishing students and aspiring editors who participated. It’s great to know that many of the next generation of literary gatekeepers share my enthusiasm for opening up the world’s stories to as many readers as possible. A special mention must go to Sarah, who comes to the UK this month to take up a place on Oxford University’s Columbia Publishing course. I hope it’s the start of a rewarding career!

In the end, however, it was a comment by Juliana Gonçalves that caught my eye:

Hi Ann,
my name is Juliana, and I am a student of Publishing Studies. Your work has been an inspiration to me, and I religiously follow your blog. It makes me feel ever more blessed for choosing the path I did! When I saw your TED video I immediately had a look at my bookshelf and I realized it wasn’t multicultural at all! Not a good sign for someone that wishes to work in the publishing world. Since then I have been trying to change this. A million thanks for opening my eyes! I was amazed to find out you read and loved Paulina Chiziane, because she is an astonishing writer and represents Portuguese language marvelously!

I love your new idea as in fact I love all others you had before, and I would be thrilled to participate too! I am not very picky with books! The last one I read is called Depois de morrer aconteceram-me muitas coisas by Ricardo Adolfo, a Portuguese writer that I am just now discovering and already find to be spectacular! A book I highly recommend, by the way! I am mostly happy when I find out books like this: amazingly written, funny and dramatic at the same time, that conveys deep meaning, but not very well known. These are the books I like to call pearls! Those I feel proud to find out from a million of other books. But I am not picky, as I said before! To receive books, any kind of books, is both a joy and a blessing.

I was drawn to Juliana’s enthusiasm and honesty. It’s always a good sign when someone recommends a book in a way that persuades me to look it up (sadly, my initial searches suggest that Adolfo’s work has yet to make it into English, but maybe this is something you’ll be able to change, Juliana).

In particular, I liked the way Juliana described the sort of books she loves. Her words put me in mind of one of my favourite titles from my quest – Lake Como by the Serbian writer Srđjan Valjarević, translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tošić. Funny, deft and wonderfully written, this seems to me to have all the hallmarks of one of Juliana’s ‘pearls’.

Although the book has been published in English by a small house in Serbia, it is very hard to get. A colleague brought my copy back from Belgrade in 2012. Since then, Valjarević’s Serbian agent has been in touch with me to ask for advice about getting the book a mainstream anglophone publishing deal. (I’d be very happy to connect him with anyone who is interested.)

As such, I had to order a secondhand copy online this time as the English translation no longer seems to be in print. I hope you like it, Juliana – perhaps this is one to add to your list to publish one day!

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next recipient will be announced on September 15.

Book of the month: Elena Varvello

Just over three years ago, an Italian novel tempted me out of book-reviewing retirement and formed the subject of the first of my Book of the month posts on this blog. You might have heard of the author – a reclusive chronicler of Naples life who was rising rapidly to fame in the anglophone world when I encountered her work and has since achieved massive international success.

I’m talking, of course, about Elena Ferrante; it was the first in her Neapolitan series, titled My Brilliant Friend in English and translated by Ann Goldstein, that persuaded me to start posting about books again on this blog. I was sent a copy by Daniela Petracco, tireless champion of great literature originating in languages other than English and UK director of Europa Editions. I loved the book and knew I had to tell people about it (I’ve since read The Days of Abandonment and for my money it’s even better than the Neapolitan novels).

So when I received an advance translation of a new Italian novel and, skimming through the publicity material, saw that one of its supporters was Daniela Petracco, I decided I would have to try it. My resolve strengthened when I turned to the Acknowledgements and saw that, far from simply supporting the novel, Petracco was Varvello’s first reader. The chances were that this book would be good.

At first glance, Elena Varvello’s Can You Hear Me? has all the hallmarks of a commercial thriller. The premise is typically high stakes – a young woman’s disappearance in a remote community, a boy’s murder, and a man losing his mind as his son comes of age. Then there’s the opening sentence: ‘In the August of 1978, the summer I met Anna Trabuio, my father took a girl into the woods.’ So far, so nail-biting.

Yet those who venture further into the pages expecting the novel to be nothing more than a page-turner are in for a surprise. For this book offers so much more.

Varvello has published two collections of poetry and it shows. Not only is her writing (translated here by Alex Valente) taut, but it is also exquisitely precise. Rather than scatter-gunning the reader with details, she selects one telling enough to convey an entire character or mood. From the way a person watches their reflection in a mirror, or the briefest of exchanges, the author conjures entire scenes, imbuing her pages by turns with menace, nostalgia and wistfulness.

This talent for concision enables her to convey profound observations without falling into the trap of expressing points too directly or knowingly. Time and again, characters are able to articulate what they are experiencing with stunning clarity, while remaining locked in the fatal subjectivity that is the essence of human experience and – in this and so many other great stories – prevents them from taking the actions that might avert disaster.

Chief among the cast of blinkered individuals is the narrator, Elia’s, father, whose redundancy and subsequent breakdown are the catalysts for much of the action. Menacingly erratic and yet pitiable, he towers from the page.

Varvello’s play with perspective and timeshift adds another layer of fascination. Exploiting many of the possibilities that telling the story through Elia’s eyes at 30 years’ remove presents, she interlaces different threads, employing several voices to blur the lines between memory and fantasy, empathy and repugnance, innocence and guilt.

While keeping the thread of the plot tightly wound and making heavy use of foreshadowing to sustain readers’ interest, she manages not to strike the nakedly manipulative tone that often topples the backdrop in less sophisticated works. Although some will find the sombre foreboding that suffuses the narrative a little monochrome, there is no doubt that the atmosphere is skilfully created. At points the writing is breathtakingly deft.

The result is an engrossing and troubling book that hangs big questions on the taut wire of a gripping plot. Like her namesake Ferrante, Elena Varvello knows how to keep readers hooked. We shall see more of her work.

Can You Hear Me? (La vita felice) by Elena Varvello, translated from the Italian by Alex Valente (Two Roads, 2017)

Book of the month: Abdulai Silá

Hearing about new translations coming from nations that are underrepresented in the English-language literary world is always exciting. It’s especially pleasing when these titles are from countries whose literature I struggled to access in 2012 – places like Turkmenistan, Panama and Madagascar (which should soon have its first complete translated novel published in English).

You can imagine, then, how pleased I was when I got an email from translator Jethro Soutar a few weeks ago. Seeing Soutar’s name in my inbox was a thrill in its own right: he is the translator of Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s widely acclaimed By Night the Mountain Burns, only the second book to make it into English from Equatorial Guinea and my pick for Book of the month a year or so ago.

When I opened the email, my excitement grew. Soutar wanted to let me know that, in part prompted by discovering through my project that there were no novels available in English by writers from Guinea-Bissau, he had made it his mission to find a work to translate from the nation. He had done so and the resultant book, The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Silá, was being published by Dedalus this April. Would I be interested in seeing an advance copy?

Would I ever! Guinea-Bissau was one of the toughest nations to find something to read from. Back in 2012, I had resorted to a collection of mid-20th-century political writings by the revolutionary thinker Amílcar Cabral – the necessity of this was sadly ironic, as one of the points Cabral makes is how important the exchange of culture and stories across borders is.

Now, at last the first full-length work of Bissauan literature was available to many more of the world’s readers.

Ostensibly, the novel follows the fortunes of Ndani, a teenager who goes to work as a servant in the capital after a local magic man proclaims that she is cursed, only to find that the negative forces governing her existence are more difficult to escape than she hopes. In practice, however, the narrative brings in the stories and perspectives of a number of different characters who Ndani encounters and there are long stretches where we hear nothing about her at all. The tragedy that does ultimately affect the protagonist is a much more diffuse and meandering affair than many of us might be used to seeing in novels – certainly novels written in English.

This is one of several aspects of the book that those used to Western literature may find off-putting at first. Others include a rather unfamiliar approach to pacing – which sees the rapes and deaths of central characters skimmed over in a sentence or two, while football matches and long sessions of soul-searching about seemingly tangential issues can take up several pages – as well as leaps and double-backs in the chronology that can be bewildering.

However, those who persevere will be rewarded. As the pages turn, you begin to find your way into the world of the book. The problem, you come to realise, is not with the writing, as you might have first thought (a common knee-jerk reaction to the unfamiliar that we literary explorers must always be careful to interrogate). Instead, it is we who need to learn how to read it.

Fundamentally, the plot is secondary to the ideas Silá wants to illustrate. Chief among these are the damage wrought by colonialism and the resultant doublethink with which generations of Bissau-Guineans have been indoctrinated. Sometimes these issues are stated explicitly, but often they are woven through the thought processes of the characters. The best example is the ambitious Régulo. Full of plans to get his compatriots to recognise and throw off the shackles of their history, he nevertheless can look at the mixed-race wife of an official and conclude that the man must be a ‘second-rate white’ for marrying her, revealing the way he has internalised the prejudices he rails against. Similarly, though he rages at the atrocities perpetrated by the Europeans, his sexual fantasies about his reluctant sixth wife are riddled with the language of conquest.

The idea-led quality of much of the narrative may make the book sound dry, but that is not the case. Silá delights in using humour to spear hypocrisy and there is some startling imagery at play in many passages. He also demonstrates a flair for technically adventurous storytelling, with the novel featuring one-sided conversations here and deft uses of repetition there. The passages in which Ndani falls in love at last are beautiful and joyous, as are the descriptions of her discovery of sexual fulfillment.

Translator Southar has done deft work to encourage the learning process that this text demands. By choosing to leave numerous words in their original language and trusting to the context to elucidate them, he encourages readers to let go of the guide rope of the narrative and become comfortable with the unfamiliar. In addition, he has woven in some delightful language play. I particularly enjoyed the idea of the story that ‘had nothing to do with Senhor Machado’s work in customs and excise, [but rather] concerned customs exercised in his house’.

Those looking for the smooth, literary narrative beloved of many anglophone book reviewers won’t find it in The Ultimate Tragedy. But nor should they. This is not a Western novel, but a Bissauan one, told on a Bissauan author’s terms. As such, it is an important addition to our bookshelves. Though he would no doubt have been horrified at the thought that it would take until 2017 for a novel by one of his compatriots to be translated into the world’s most published language, I suspect Amílcar Cabral would have approved of this choice.

The Ultimate Tragedy (A última tragédia) by Abdulai Silá, translated from the Portuguese by Jethro Soutar (Dedalus, April 2017)

Turkmen book published in English

the-tale-of-aypi-72dpiI’m often contacted by fellow literary explorers keen to know if the unpublished books I read during my quest are now available so that they can read them too.

Sadly, I frequently have to answer no: the manuscript translations I read from the Comoros and São Tomé and Príncipe, for example, are still unpublished. And although I have heard from several publishers interested in bringing out an English-language version of the Mozambican classic Ualalapi, an anglophone text is yet to appear.

However, there has been some good news this summer when it comes to the book I read from Turkmenistan, the whimsical novel The Tale Aypi by exiled writer Ak Welsapar. This has found an English-language home with Slavic literature press Glagoslav Publications and is on sale now.

This means that Welsapar’s novel, the first book to be translated directly from Turkmen into English, is now accessible in the world’s most-published language. Great news for its author – who lost so much when his work was blacklisted in his home nation – and for curious readers everywhere.

As such, The Tale of Aypi joins The Golden Horse, my then-unpublished Panamanian read (now available on ebook), on the anglophone global bookshelf. Let’s hope we soon see many others follow suit.

The Tale of Aypi by Ak Welsapar, translated from the Turkmen by WM Coulson (Glagoslav Publications, 2016)

WITmonth pick #1: Lena Andersson

4387631819_1155359a48_b

At the start of August, I made a promise. I wrote a post pledging to read lots of translated books by women in a bid to find a truly brilliant female-authored translated title to feature as my book of the month. This was going to be my small contribution to Women in Translation Month, a campaign now in its third year, aiming to tackle the disproportionately small number of books by women that get English-language translation deals.

The first part of the pledge was easy. Drawing on a range of personal recommendations, comments on here, things I’d been wanting to tackle for ages and some excellent lists put together by supporters of the campaign, I read my way through 17 works, tweeting the titles as I went.

In fact, I was reading at roughly the same rate as I did during my original quest to read the world back in 2012. And just like that journey, this challenge took me to some intriguing places. From a remote girls’ boarding school in the mountains of Rwanda to Park Slope in Brooklyn and from 1980s China to 16th-century Peru, I found myself transported beyond the bounds of my imagination by the writers’ skill.

So far, so good. But then I was faced with the second part of the challenge: choosing one title to tell you about.

Here I came unstuck. There were simply too many excellent and extraordinary books among the selection for me to settle for reviewing just one. And so, in recognition of the fact that my original quest featured far more books by men than by women, I have decided to take this opportunity to redress the balance a little. I have selected five titles to review and add to the List over the next couple of weeks (in addition, of course, to redoubling my commitment to seek out great books by writers of all genders to feature at other times).

And so, without further ado, here is the first of the bunch.

If you ever need proof that a story does not need to be original to be powerful, you need look no further than Swedish writer Lena Andersson’s Wilful Disregard. On the face of it, this slender novel tells a story so familiar you could barely call it a plot: Ester, a poet and essayist in her early 30s, falls for Hugo, an older artist, and has to deal with the painful consequences when her passion is not returned.

It sounds mundane. And yet the quotidian nature of the storyline is the secret of this book’s success. With no narratological fireworks to wow readers and no twists to keep the pages turning, it is left to Andersson and her translator Sarah Death to make the novel compelling by use of language and description alone.

And my goodness, they certainly do.

Andersson sets out her stall in the opening pages by showing us what words mean to her poet protagonist. Language, we learn, is only ever ‘an approximation’. As a result, ‘the dreadful gulf between thought and words, will and expression, reality and unreality, and the things that flourish in that gulf, are what this story is about.’ Indeed, at times, the impossibility of capturing things with words almost seems too much for Ester and her creator alike:

‘How can one portray a human being from the inside in language or imagery without the transmission process introducing a false note? That’s the question. Metaphorizing feelings can only lead away from those feelings.’

And yet, as so often happens when a writer expresses her frustrations at the limitations of her art, great writing is frequently in evidence in this book. It takes the form of succinct evocations and spare, precise descriptions amid a welter of rich perceptions about what human beings think and do. Some of these, such as the way obsession unfolds and the means by which we sabotage ourselves in the eyes of those we most want to charm, are timeless, but there are observations that feel very much of the moment too. The reflections on the torments experienced by anyone waiting for a text message from a love interest are particularly telling.

There’s humour in there too. The restaurant scene where Ester finds herself unable to order the same dessert as Hugo because she is cross with him and can’t appear to agree with him about anything is wonderful.

Indeed, the universality of so much of the story can make its local distinctiveness jar when it appears. There are episodes where Ester is direct in a way quite foreign to a British reader, but probably entirely natural to a resident of Stockholm.

And while we’re on the text’s disconcerting aspects, it must be said that not all Andersson’s pared-back descriptions find their mark. A few of the metaphors are distractingly odd and there are occasional word choices and repetitions (whether reflected in the original or introduced at the translation stage) that jolt and tremble the smooth train of the narrative.

But really these quibbles are nothing when set against the pleasure that comes from being absorbed in this story. Some books turn their own pages for you and this is such a one. Please Picador, can we have some more Lena Andersson in English?

Wilful Disregard by Lena Andersson, translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death (Picador, 2015)

Picture: Youthful Romance: The east end of Kungsholmen in Stockholm, Sweden by Let Ideas Compete on Flickr.com