Book of the month: Fernanda Melchor

Mexican stories have been much in the news in recent weeks. The controversy that blew up around US author Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt brought questions of authenticity and who decides which voices are heard in an industry skewed strongly in favour of white, anglophone authors to the forefront of many booklovers’ minds.

As often happens in such situations, the debate pitted two issues connected with freedom of expression against each other: the right of all communities to be heard and to speak for themselves versus the right of individual artists to allow their imaginations to venture into whatever territory they wish to explore.

This is not an easy conflict to resolve. However, it is problematic to make one title the battleground for such far-reaching concerns. Just as writers rarely, if ever, set out to speak on behalf of their nation, ethnicity or other demographic markers, so single novels are hardly ever designed to carry the weight of such issues. It is unfortunate that the way many big publishers and the mainstream media deal with books (giving a handful of titles 90 per cent of the attention and focus) means that these conversations usually remain reactionary and tied to specific events rather than opening up into more thoughtful, meaningful debates.

One positive thing that did come out of the furore, however, was a series of tweets from translators and other Latin American literature aficionados sharing titles by Mexican writers that deserve more attention. As they pointed out, there is an embarrassment of riches to choose from. Favourite names in the frame included Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World (translated by Lisa Dillman), The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana) and Brenda Lozano’s Loop (translated by Annie McDermott) – all of which, I heartily second.

For my money, however, there is one recent Mexican book that stands in a class of its own: Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, translated by Sophie Hughes. Set in motion by the discovery of the body of an ambiguous figure known as ‘The Witch’ in an irrigation canal on the outskirts of the impoverished village of La Matosa, this whirlwind of a novel rampages through an entire community, blowing back curtains, breaking down walls and cracking open skulls to lay bare the secrets within.

Each chapter focuses on the experiences of a different person, plunging into their fears and rifling their memories to reveal the steps that led to the savage killing at the book’s heart. Circling around and around, often rehearsing the same incidents several times in different words, the narrative smashes together intimacy and violence, beauty and filth, creating an accretion of details that coheres into a compelling and disturbing exploration of scapegoating and the legacy of abuse.

The urgency of the subject matter is mirrored stylistically. Each chapter forms a single block of text, often containing sentences that run for a page or more, and, although each one represents a particular characters’ experiences, the narrative perspective swings like a ceiling light in a gale, illuminating now the interior monologue of the character in focus, now the voices of the community, now prejudices internalised below the level of conscious thought. Occasionally, it even casts its glare on the reader, who is at points a bystander, gossip, police officer or other player in the action.

This approach is extremely risky – and in lesser writers’ hands it would be a mess. However, with Melchor and Hughes, the writing pulses with energy. The chaos comes from the sort of virtuosity that arises from painstaking effort; the force and bluster is the result of laser precision.

But the reader is expected to work too. The book is unapologetic in its demands. In addition to assigning the reader roles at various points, it requires intense concentration. The dense weave of the chapters does not support dipping in and out. Distractions must be put aside.

And you can forget about being babied. With song lyrics kept in Spanish and cultural references left largely unexplained, this is not a text that comes meekly to the reader but one that requires its audience to meet it on its own territory, ready or not.

The same goes for the subject matter. This is one of the most explicit books I have read. To me, it never feels gratuitous – indeed, one of its greatest achievements is the way that the events are so richly imagined that Melchor and Hughes manage to take us into extreme mindsets (from murderous frenzies and rank bigotry to fantasies involving bestiality) and show the mechanisms by which love and vulnerability can be sublimated into such things. But there’s no getting away from the fact that, for some readers, this will be too much.

I don’t expect this will do anything to impede Hurricane Season‘s progress to the lasting success it richly deserves, however. It contains that rare energy and vitality that now and then power a story far beyond its beginnings and into the collective imagination. The day I finished reading it, I heard that it had been longlisted for the International Booker Prize. I have a feeling it won’t stop there.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Photo: ‘The Walls Come Tumbling Down’ by Carl Campbell on flickr.com

A library visit

Libraries have been going through a tough time in the UK in recent years. In the last decade, more than 700 have closed, with scores of others under threat because of funding cuts. As I write, a high-profile, author-led campaign is under way to fight plans to shut 14 libraries in Hampshire, the county in which Jane Austen was born and lived for most of her life.

Many people have written much more eloquently than I could about why places where people can gather to access books for free are vital. Their role in stretching the human imagination and changing lives is a recurring theme in stories around the planet. From Roald Dahl’s Matilda to Tayeb Salih’s Mustafa Sa’eed, literature abounds with characters shaped by hours spent in public spaces lined with books.

However, this week, I got a powerful, practical reminder of why these places matter when I took up an invitation to speak to Sandgate library book club.

The only library in Kent to be managed by a parish council on behalf of the county council, Sandgate library sits a street away from the English Channel on the UK’s south coast. It is run by a mixture of paid staff and volunteers who make it possible to offer longer opening hours and a regular programme of events.

Chief among the volunteers is retired teacher Liz, who I know from the regular Read and Rhyme sessions my daughter and I have attended. Liz also runs the book club and, when she discovered I was a writer, she very kindly put my novel Beside Myself on the schedule and invited me along some months later to talk to the group.

I arrived a little early to find the members – all women and most retired – engaged in a lively discussion of their latest read, which the librarian had ordered in from libraries across the county to ensure that everyone had a copy.

Each took it in turns to share her assessment, finishing with a mark out of ten that averaged out to around 5. (I resisted the temptation to ask what Beside Myself had scored when it was up for discussion some months before.)

The comments were refreshingly frank. Although the novel under examination was by a celebrated household name, the members – quite rightly – had no compunction in calling out passages that had bored, irritated or baffled them, alongside sharing the aspects they had enjoyed.

After this, it was my turn. Following an introduction from Liz, I launched into an informal talk about my year of reading the world and novel writing, answering questions as they arose. The discussion was warm and friendly. We covered some familiar ground, including several of the topics listed in the FAQs on this site, as well as some more unusual queries to do with the writing process I don’t think I’ve ever been asked how to turn a school essay into a novel before!

The hour was up in no time. Before I knew it, a get-well-soon card for an absent member was circulating for people to sign, and we were shrugging on our coats and saying our goodbyes.

What lasted much longer – and will no doubt outlive the beautiful bunch of flowers the book club gave me as a thank you for my visit was the sense of welcome that surrounded the library. A thriving centre for friendship, shared interests and fun in this little village on the edge of the land. A precious community built around books.

Meeting Siphiwo Mahala

The first full week of the new decade brought a treat for me: a chance to meet Siphiwo Mahala, author of the short-story collection African Delights, which was my South African pick during my 2012 year of reading the world.

Mahala was in London to interview one of a handful of surviving friends and associates of the dissident writer Can Themba, who died in the late 1960s. Having written his doctorate on Themba’s work, Mahala is now preparing a biography of the great man – the first of its kind.

We walked to Waterstones bookshop in Gower Street. On the way, I pointed out the University of London’s Senate House Library, where I did a lot of research for my book Reading the World (called The World Between Two Covers in the US), and Mahala told me about his research into Themba, which had thrown up some fascinating stories about mixed-race relationships that flouted South Africa’s former morality laws.

This put me in mind of Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s brilliant account of growing up with mixed parentage under Apartheid. When I mentioned it, I was thrilled to find that Noah is an old friend of Mahala’s – yet another reminder of the web of connections that books spin between readers and writers around the world.

Over frothy coffee in the bookshop’s café, Mahala filled me in on his writing over the past eight years. He’s been busy. Despite working full-time for the government and completing his doctoral thesis, he has found time to write a play, The House of Truth. Also based on Themba’s life, it was a run-away success when it opened in South Africa in 2016 and is now being developed into a film.

Meanwhile, he has continued to work on short-form fiction. Last year, he published Red Apple Dreams & Other Stories, a collection combining some of his favourite pieces from African Delights with new work. He’d generously brought a copy for me, in which he wrote a beautiful dedication, and he is keen to find a European outlet for his work. Publishers, take note!

However, Mahala’s enthusiasm really caught fire when I asked him for recommendations of other contemporary South African writers whose work I should explore. Seizing my notebook, he quickly filled a page with a list of the following names: Zakes Mda, Masande Ntshanga, Nthikeng Mohlele, Thando Mgqolozana, Cynthia Jele, Angela Makholwa, Zukiswa Wanner, Mohale Mashigo, Niq Mhlongo and Fred Khumalo.

Always intrigued to test bookshops’ international mettle, I proposed that we see if we could find them on the shelves. The results were disappointing, although, to her credit, the bookseller who helped us did suggest a novel by another young South African writer in the absence of any of Mahala’s picks. This was Evening Primrose by Kopano Matlwa.

The suggestion flummoxed Mahala at first. Although he knew of the author, he had not heard of this book. In the end, however, he solved the mystery – in South Africa, the novel had been published with a much more direct title: Period Pain.

Although none of Mahala’s suggestions were readily available, I did spot a familiar name during our search. Tucked amid the Ms was a copy of my debut novel, Beside Myself. I bought this as a gift for Mahala and we persuaded another member of staff to snap the picture at the start of this post: two authors brought together across thousands of miles, holding each other’s stories.

Book of the month: Dina Salústio

Firsts are a recurring theme on this blog. This month’s book of the month is a case in point. Not only is it the first novel by a female author to be published in Cape Verde, but it is also the first full-length work of fiction by a woman from that nation to be translated into English.

Such publishing events can be both positive and problematic. On one hand, it is exciting to think that the voice of someone from a previously ignored group can now be heard in the world’s most published language; on the other hand, the unreasonable pressure of requiring one novel to carry the weight of an entire community can have a warping effect on our reading. If we’re not careful, we can lumber the writer in question with unfair expectations, forgetting that they are just a person who decided to write a story, and that they probably never thought of themselves as speaking for their gender, nation or ethnic group. A single story, as the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so eloquently argues, never gives a complete picture.

So what to make of this latest first, The Madwoman of Serrano by Dina Salústio, translated from the Portuguese by Jethro Soutar? How to detach it from the political baggage that comes with the accident of its time and place of publication and translation, and take it on its own terms?

At first glance, the novel seems as though it will be relatively straightforward. The premise, though complicated, contains lots of familiar tropes: a traditional village community (Serrano) under threat of development, a young woman forced to confront a difficult past, family secrets, a curse, the tensions between city and country, modern habits and old customs, now and then.

But when you start to read, it quickly becomes clear that the novel does not conform to many of the conventions of its form – or, at least, the anglophone Western version of it.

For one thing, although many of the elements of the story sound familiar, their handling is not. Realism and myth crash together in a strange and jagged interaction that sees the modern, urban world of microwaves, therapy sessions and business deals grate against ancient rites, hearsay and magic. A death certificate shows that a man has been poisoned by strange thoughts; apparently infertile women go to the city for ‘pharmaceuticals’ that turn out not to be quite what they seem; and the mysterious madwoman of the title makes predictions that play out on city streets, as well as in the rural dreamscape of the village.

This stark juxtaposition is reflected on the linguistic level, with translator Jethro Soutar often reaching for words from diverse registers to capture the story’s massive range. At times you can almost feel the narrative straining with the effort of containing all Salústio wants to say, breaking out into a series of surprising digressions, many of which yield some of the book’s most joyful passages. The small section about the unusual role of cats in Serrano, for example, is as pleasing as it is unexpected, while the various explorations of the role of magic in women’s lives put me in mind of another first book by a woman – Mozambican author Paulina Chiziane’s The First Wife, translated into English by David Brookshaw, which I sent to Donald Trump in celebration of World Book Day a few years back.

As with many books that draw on traditions beyond Western literature, the pacing and structure of The Madwoman of Serrano make it a challenging read for those used to the mainstream output of the anglophone publishing industry. Flashbacks nest within flashbacks, repeated memories create an impression of stagnation at points, and, while a number of major events are dealt with in a handful of sentences, it takes central character Filipa several chapters to cook a turkey.

It would require a more knowledgeable reader than me to unpick the threads of all the different influences at work in this book. While the influence of the Western tradition seems evident to me in the shadowy figure of the detective, who appears in the final quarter to tie up many of the loose ends (sometimes rather abruptly), I have no way of knowing what local storytelling techniques may be at work.

As a result, the reading experience felt patchy. At times I seemed to know exactly where I was and what was going on, only for the author to pull the rug out from under my feet with a swerving digression or unexpected turn of events on the following page.  There were numerous episodes that felt rather loosely plotted or underprepared, with catastrophes often arriving out of the blue to scatter characters’ plans.

However, this response may say more about the expectations that my largely Western literary diet has ingrained in me than it does about this book. Steeped in a tradition built on the assumption that human beings have a relatively large degree of control over their safety, health and happiness, I am used to stories that function with a high level of causality, where the course of events can be traced logically, each human action leading to the next. But such neat storytelling may seem naïve, unrealistic or flawed in parts of the world where life is more precarious and where disaster lurks much closer to the surface.

It’s for this reason that it’s important that publishers persist in broadening the kind of text that is available in the world’s most published language and continue to bring out firsts such as this. While The Madwoman of Serrano won’t be an easy or perhaps even a satisfying read for many English speakers, it tugs at the preconceptions we all carry about how books work and what stories do. It may be that this novel has as much to teach us about Western literature and reading habits as it does about writing by women in Cape Verde.

The Madwoman of Serrano (A louca de Serrano) by Dina Salústio, translated from the Portuguese by Jethro Soutar (Dedalus, 2019)

Book of the month: Duong Thu Huong

It’s always a pleasure to hear from other literary explorers. Reading the world is such an enriching and mind-expanding experience that I’m keen for as many people to do it as possible.

Among the numerous things I enjoy when I learn about other international reading quests is finding out what specific parameters the reader in question has set themself. Although many global book projects look similar at first glance, no two are identical because each becomes a reflection of the concerns and interests of the person at the centre of it. People might choose to categorise books by setting, for instance, or to seek out works in a particular genre or from a set time period.

Sometimes, these parameters illuminate important issues about the way stories circulate. Sophie Baggott’s Reading Women Writers Worldwide is a prime example. Having challenged herself to journey through some 200 books by women by 2020, Sophie has shone a light on the serious imbalance in international publishing, which still sees female-authored works making up only around 30 per cent of the books translated into English each year. (This is a problem that a number of campaigners are working to tackle, perhaps most notably translator Meytal Radzinski, who established Women in Translation Month back in 2014.)

Certain that Sophie must have discovered some gems on her literary travels, I contacted her recently to pick her brains for recommendations. She came back with several suggestions, including La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated by Lawrence Schimel, and The First Wife by Paulina Chiziane, translated by David Brookshaw, both of which I have already reviewed enthusiastically on this blog.

One title was completely new to me, however: Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong, translated by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson. I chased down a copy of the controversial Vietnamese novel – banned in the author’s home country – and was quickly hooked.

The story is told from the perspective of Hang, a young woman who is one of the many Vietnamese ‘exported workers’ sent to the Soviet Union in the seventies and eighties. When her Uncle Chinh summons her to Moscow, she embarks on a train ride that unlocks a wealth of memories, enabling the reader to piece together the mystery around her father’s disappearance and fraught relationship with her mother, and ultimately freeing Hang from the historical guilt that has bound her.

Duong Thu Huong has an exceptional instinct for the way that tension fuels a compelling story. Replete with dramatic encounters, this book is a rare beast: a literary novel with a gripping plot. Although many of the most powerful scenes centre on the main characters – with exchanges between Hang, her Aunt Tam, her mother and her uncle all working to reveal the complex web of emotions that snares them – there are some striking cameo appearances too.

In particular, I found myself itching to know more about the married couple who put Hang’s father up for one night and ‘must have been linked by some crime that kept them there, far from their village. Their shadowy past seemed to be both a bond and a yawning chasm between them, wedding their destinies and sundering their souls.’ By the middle of the next page, however, they had been left behind, never to reappear.

This engrossing storytelling also stems from the author’s sharp grasp of the way multiple, and sometimes conflicting, motivations can lead people to act against their better nature. There are numerous examples in the text but one of the most memorable involves the account of the villagers being goaded to turn against their neighbours following the classification designed to root out wealthy landowners. The rapidity with which people denounce their friends is chilling.

In her foreword, co-translator Nina McPherson warns that the Orwellian quality of the Communist rhetoric spouted by certain characters is deliberately satirical, as if worried that such sections might jar or disconcert readers. However, to my eye, the narrative shifts gears smoothly, moving seamlessly between descriptive passages of sometimes spine-tingling beauty to the harsh registers of many of the exchanges.

Nevertheless, the book is not without its flaws. Although for the most part deftly handled, the complex, flashback-laden structure yields the occasional jolt and sag. The device of harnessing something in the present to evoke a past event is a little overused in the early half of the book, with the result that a few of the transitions feel artificial. In addition, with the exception of intriguing figures such as the sinister married couple mentioned earlier, some of the walk-on characters seem redundant, almost as though they are remnants of threads or scenes cut from earlier drafts.

None of this gets in the way of the novel’s brilliance, however. It is at once engrossing and enlightening, a compelling narrative that leads readers through experiences and settings rarely represented in the English-speaking world. When set alongside the equally heart-wrenching yet deeply masculine The Sorrow of War, which was my choice to represent the country back in 2012, it reveals a strikingly different side to Vietnam.

Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong, translated from the Vietnamese by Phan Huy Dong and Nina McPherson (William Morrow, 1993)

Book of the month: Shehan Karunatilaka

A few weeks ago, Mohammed left a comment on this site: ‘Ann after these long years did you finish reading all the list?’

He was referring to the lengthy collection of alternative recommendations I received for many countries during and shortly after my 2012 quest to read a book from every country. Although I made one choice for each UN-recognised nation that year, I recorded all the valid suggestions I received on The List so that I – and anyone else who was interested – could refer to them. At the time, I think I did intend to work my way through them all eventually and I have cherry-picked a number of titles in the six years since the end of the original project.

However, I have also found myself tempted away by numerous other intriguing books (many of which have been published since my list was drawn up).

That’s the thing with reading. One book leads to the next. You plunge into a story about a woman’s struggle to relocate to Johannesburg and find that leads you on to an intriguing memoir about growing up under Apartheid. This piques your interest in literature written and spoken in South Africa’s ten other official languages, which in turn leads you to discover a trend for sunshine-noir crime writing. Before you know it, a month has passed and you’re still nowhere near to exhausting the leads that sprouted from that original book.

Small wonder, then, that many of those suggestions I received in 2012 are still waiting their turn.

Sometimes, however, a title on The List gets impatient and seems to reach out from my computer screen to grab me and demand my attention. This happened to me most recently with Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman.

The novel had been a strong contender for my Sri Lankan choice back in 2012. I had heard very good things about it – not least that it had won several awards, including the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and the Commonwealth Book Prize.

There were two sticking points, however. The novel had been written in English (and after my enlightening exchange with Indian journalist Suneetha Balakrishnan I was making a concerted effort to read more translated books) and it was about cricket, of which, I have to confess, I am not a fan. As a result, I jumped another way, picking Sunethra Rajakarunanayake’s Metta as my Sri Lankan choice.

That might have been it for Chinaman. But then, earlier this month, I was invited to take part in several events at the Brahmaputra Literary Festival in Assam. Among the sessions on my schedule was a panel discussion with Shehan Karunatilaka. Clearly, it was time I read his book.

Centred around WG Karunasena, an aging alcoholic journalist trying to track down the elusive Pradeep Mathew – the greatest Sri Lankan spin bowler you’ve never heard of – the novel takes readers into the heart of the nation’s most popular sport. It is, unashamedly, a book about cricket, but, like the best sports writing, it also explores many other things – fanaticism, history, politics, love and hate. What’s more, it makes a bold claim, a ‘Sales Pitch’ appearing in the opening pages:

‘If you’ve never seen a cricket match; if you have and it has made you snore; if you can’t understand why anyone would watch, let alone obsess over this dull game, then this is the book for you.’

Karunatilaka delivers on this promise. He does so by inhabiting his characters’ obsessions – a perspective he says he gained by spending many hours hanging around bars with old, drunk cricket fanatics – so completely that we live and breathe them too. Deftly working in the necessary explanations of cricket’s mechanics alongside numerous quirky facts and pieces of trivia (how test matches came to last five days and the surprising identities of the first teams to play an international game, for example), he opens up a world and invites us in.

The whole thing is achieved with wonderful playfulness. From word-play and witty one-liners through to amusing sleights of hand in the plotting and even jokes at the author’s expense (by the end of the narrative characters have not only criticised the novel as being ‘rubbish’ in places, but also dismissed Karunatilaka’s name as ‘common’), the book sparkles with good humour.

Indeed, it is so enjoyable that it is easy to overlook the virtuosic leaps Karunatilaka makes to propel us between its numerous storylines. It is testament to his ability to draw characters in a line or two that, many times, we find ourselves picking up a thread that was left dangling tens of pages before without hesitation.

Anglophone readers tend to think of humorous books as being towards the lighter end of the spectrum, but Chinaman challenges this assumption. From racism and the violence and injustice that has marked Sri Lanka’s history through to the personal tragedy of being unable to connect with those we love, Karunatilaka presents us with a broad range of human experience and makes us feel its weight.

The result is a reading adventure as gripping and memorable as attending a brilliant test match must be for a cricket fanatic. I marvelled at the technical ingenuity, gasped at the surprises and moments of drama, chuckled at the back and forth between the players and the umpire, and luxuriated in the ability to be taken out of myself by something truly fascinating for a few days. It is a wonderful, joyous book… and a strong argument for digging out a few more of those recommendations from that there list.

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka (Jonathan Cape, 2011)

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Brahmaputra Literary Festival

This project has led to many extraordinary experiences for me. From speaking at TED Global and delivering TEDx talks in Geneva and Hanoi to having a book translated specially for me by a team of volunteers and appearing on a panel with the deputy prime minister of Jordan at the Knowledge Summit in Dubai, my quest has opened up many more things than I could ever have imagined when, one rainy night in October 2011, I decided to try and read a book from every country in the world.

Last weekend brought another first: seeing my face on a large cube sculpture (pictured above). The cube was one of a number of installations at the Brahmaputra Literary Festival in Guwahati, India, where I and some 130 other writers from 20 countries met at the invitation of the Publication Board of Assam to engage in three days of panel discussions about books.

At least, I was supposed to be there for three days. In the event, however, a cancelled flight meant my journey got rather delayed and, after an erratic, three-stop hop across the world (taking in Cairo, Kuwait and Hyderabad), I arrived in Guwahati with just 34 hours to go until I was due to leave again.

The experience was worth the effort, however. From the moment I was met at arrivals and driven through the city, where banners advertising the festival fluttered from almost every hoarding and the faces of the writers taking part smiled at me from giant arches over the road, I knew I had been invited to join in something extraordinary.

The celebratory mood was heightened by the fact that the date of my arrival was a special day in India. As my wonderful guide, Pourshali, one of the many young volunteers helping to make the festival a success, explained, that Sunday was Saraswati Puja, a celebration of the goddess of knowledge. As a result, the women of the city, Pourshali included, were wearing their finest saris.

Along with the occasional glimpses of my face on advertising hoardings, I was delighted and occasionally unnerved by the sight of many exquisitely dressed people in flowing skirts riding pillion and side-saddle on the back of mopeds weaving through the traffic.

Generously, Pourshali gave up her share in the festivities to show me around. Our adventures included trips to the science museum – a thought-provoking monument to the discoveries of the mid-twentieth century, featuring a display of planets minus Pluto – and a mall where, under the bewildered eyes of the shop assistants, she took the role of personal shopper, advising me on purchases. ‘They are thinking, “What are these two people doing together? They look like they’re from different worlds,”‘ she whispered to me with a laugh.

The highlight, though, was the festival itself. Despite my late arrival, I managed to sit in on several fascinating sessions, including a discussion of fictional portrayals of sport, and a consideration of literature by prisoners of conscience, featuring the courageous Burmese writers Dr Ma Thida and Nyi Pu Lay.

The next day, after an evening of chats over dinner with Australia’s YA author Neil Grant and Indonesian novelist Ahmad Fuadi, among many others, it was my turn. My first session brought me into conversation with one of Pan Macmillan India’s senior commissioning editors, Teesta Guha Sarkar, author and editor Sutapa Basu and author and editor KE Priyamvada to discuss why writers need editors. We agreed on the need for trust and respect between writers and editors, and explored the tricks you might use to bring texture to a threadbare manuscript. Chief among these were giving characters quirks and applying fiction techniques to non-fiction.

Fifteen minutes later, I was in the hotseat, moderating a discussion on the role of research in creating fictional worlds. My panel were an international bunch, comprising Latvian bestseller Janis Jonevs, Lithuanian novelist Gabija Grusaite, award-winning Shehan Karunatilaka from Sri Lanka, celebrated and prolific Indian novelist Arup Dutta, and Assamese prizewinner Jayanta Bora.

An hour was only long enough to scratch the surface of the topic. Nevertheless, the discussion generated some excellent insights into the writing process, shared to a packed audience largely made up of students from schools and colleges across the state. While Jonevs talked about the pain of emotional research and the challenge of projecting himself back into his teenage self, Grusaite explained how a new development in a real-life Malaysian murder case had changed the course of her plot. Karunatilaka raised many a laugh with his tales of hanging out with drunk old men and watching cricket, Dutta described observing elephant trapping, and Bora talked about the 25 years of research that went into his debut.

Perhaps the most inspiring talk I participated in, however, was not on stage but during a conversation with festival curator Rahul Jain, during which the reasons for the effort that had gone into arranging and promoting the festival became clear.

‘We don’t have a literary culture,’ he told me. ‘But if these young people come here and see writers being glorified and people running from tent to tent as though literature is their lifeblood, they will realise that writers are important for a civilised society.

‘They can’t all be writers. But they can all be readers.’

Book of the month: Rita Indiana

This book came onto my radar by way of a tweet from Gary Michael Perry, acting head of fiction at the famous Foyles bookshop on London’s Charing Cross Road. Having found translations from the Dominican Republic to be fairly thin on the ground during my quest, I was delighted to have the chance to sample this Caribbean nation’s Spanish-language literature (back in 2012, I read Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which was written in English with elements of Spanglish thrown in).

Roving between an apocalyptic near future, the recent past and distant history, Tentacle, Achy Obejas’s translation of Rita Indiana’s La mucama de Omicunlé, is a bold and startling exploration of many of the big issues facing humanity today, including the role of technology, climate change, religion and colonial legacies. It takes the aftermath of a series of ecological disasters in the 2020s as its starting point and follows the fortunes of maid Acilde and troubled artist Argenis as they travel back and forth between 2037 and 1606, in search of ways to save themselves and head off the catastrophes that precipitate the story’s beginning.

Indiana’s technical ingenuity is this novella’s greatest strength. Rather than simply jumping between narratives in different time periods, she crashes the experiences together, playing out several story lines in one go. The most impressive example is when Argenis, who has been invited to participate in a residency to generate artwork that will hopefully raise funds and awareness to promote oceanic conservation, begins to experience ‘involuntary projections’ in his mind that lead him to function on two planes simultaneously. Indiana manages a rare feat: communicating a coherent experience of confusion, such that readers are able to inhabit Argenis’s bewilderment at being at once in his present and among buccaneers in the distant past without evoking the sort of frustration that would render the story unreadable.

There are also instances of wonderful playfulness. Indiana’s exploration of the possibilities of technology in the near future – where we might, for example, have access to a PriceSpy that will enable us to spot whether someone’s clothes are fake – are joyous, thought-provoking and sometimes alarming. Presenting us with a reality where access to data is as necessary to human survival as food, the author invites us to join her characters in stepping outside the present, so that we can look in and view much of what we take for granted about our contemporary reality with wondering and sometimes wary eyes.

The virtuosity of many of the descriptive passages is striking. The section where one of the characters undergoes an organic sex change as part of the fulfillment of a prophecy stands out for the way Obejas and Indiana find formulations for experiences beyond the reach of common human conception, bringing the seemingly unimaginable into words.

As with most, ambitious works, however, this marvellously inventive novella comes with a few health warnings. It deals with extreme situations and ideas, and its language registers and the events it contains reflect these.

In addition, for all Indiana’s technical ingenuity, Tentacle is not an easy read. Those who venture into it will have to work to keep abreast of its multiple threads, as well as accept that sometimes meaning may drop off a cliff edge, disappearing where we cannot follow. It is perhaps best enjoyed like the ocean that washes through so many of its pages – with a readiness to immerse ourselves, balanced with an awareness of how far we have ventured from the shore.

Tentacle (La mucama de Omicunlé) by Rita Indiana, translated from the Spanish by Achy Obejas (And Other Stories, 2018)

Picture: ‘Bavaro Sunrise, Dominican Republic‘ by Joe deSousa on flickr.com

Book of the month: Mbarek Ould Beyrouk

This week saw a gap filled in on the literary world map. Yesterday, the first ever novel from Mauritania to be translated into English was published by Dedalus, at last making it possible for anglophone readers to access traditionally published storytelling from Africa’s eleventh-largest sovereign state.

The release of Rachael McGill’s translation of Mbarek Ould Beyrouk’s Amadou-Kourouma prize-winning The Desert and the Drum makes the West African nation the latest of several countries to have a literary work made available for the first time in the planet’s most published language since my 2012 quest to read the world. Other examples include Turkmenistan and Madagascar.

Watching the first of what I hope will be many such works come to market has been a great joy. My project taught me that storytelling is not only a universal human impulse but a vital tool for building understanding across cultural, geographical, political and religious barriers. When countries do not have a presence on the global bookshelf, we all lose. So, when Jethro Soutar, whose translation of the first novel from Guinea-Bissau to be commercially available in English was published last year, got in touch to let me know about The Desert and The Drum, I was of course eager to take a look.

Alternating between past and present, the novel follows Rayhana, a Bedouin girl who has fled her camp, taking with her the ceremonial drum that is her tribe’s most prized possession. As the narrative unfolds, we travel with the fugitive to the author’s home city of Atar, learning what has driven her from her community as we witness her increasingly desperate efforts to recover the only thing that can restore her peace.

The novel was an excellent choice for translation. As a journey narrative, many of the episodes it describes are as unfamiliar and strange to the protagonist as they will probably be to most anglophone readers, making discovery part of the emotional arc of the book.

This means that the rituals and practices described in the text do not have the dutiful, anthropological air that often characterises such passages in translations of literature from less widely known cultures because they play a role in advancing the action. The best example is the extended account of Rayhana’s marriage ceremony, in which the role that the bride is supposed to play – pretending to be indifferent as the groom and his friends try to steal her away – cruelly matches her feelings.

That said, this episode does give rise to what I suspect may be an editorial intervention designed to bridge the gap between western sensibilities and the unsettling nuances of the wedding-night tradition:

‘It was up to the husband to overcome the distance between them, to quell her fears, to oblige the ignorant young girl to receive him. It was a rape of sorts, but it was tradition.’

Unless Beyrouk wrote with an eye to the international market, or unless his urban Mauritanian readership is so utterly divorced from the Bedouin community that their rituals are unknown to them (which I find unlikely having encountered descriptions of similar ceremonies in other West African literature), it seems improbable that this explanation about the ritual being akin to a rape would have featured in the original.* Still, I would be delighted to be corrected – do tell me if you know better!

Such jarring notes are rare. Translator McGill has found a register that is at once simple and precise, conveying images that spark both surprise and recognition. Take the description of Rayhana’s friend regarding her so intently that it seems as if she is trying ‘to mount the horses of [Rayhana’s] words and ride right inside [her]’ or this portrayal of her mother, who ‘had crossed the Sahara of doubt  long ago, never to return’. Such phrases at once root the story in its setting and convey its sense to readers everywhere.

This balancing of the specific and the universal is perhaps the book’s greatest strength. Grounded in the traditions that drive it and yet brimming with observations that are true wherever you read them, the novel bears the hallmark of great literature, making one little corner of the world an everywhere in which all manner of people can meet.

The Desert and the Drum is an exciting and compelling addition to the anglophone library. While it is unreasonable to expect one book to bear the weight of representing an entire nation – and while I hope we will one day look back with amazement on the era when there was only one story available in English from many nations – there is no doubt that this is a great ambassador for Mauritanian literature.

Thanks for giving us the chance to read it, Dedalus. Where next?

The Desert and the Drum (Le tambour des larmes) by Mbarek Ould Beyrouk, translated from the French by Rachael McGill (Dedalus, 2018)

* I would also urge Dedalus to rethink its policy on footnotes. Many of them seemed unnecessary and distracting, and the information they contained would have been better cut or placed in the body of the text, even if that meant dispensing with a few of the original terms.

Book of the month: Esther Gerritsen

Some books stay with you. I wasn’t going to feature another Dutch novel for a while, having written about Herman Koch’s Dear Mr M relatively recently. But then I got sucked into reading Esther Gerritsen’s Craving (translated by Michele Hutchison) after World Editions sent it to me along with a couple of other titles to mark Boekenweek (an annual festival of literature in The Netherlands). Four months later, it’s still on my mind.

In fact, Craving is one of several memorable Dutch novels I’ve read in recent years, among them Sam Garrett’s long-anticipated translation of Gerard Reve’s classic The Evenings and Jaap Robben’s You Have Me to Love, brought into English by David Doherty. Powerful and atmospheric though these books are, however, they didn’t quite get their claws into me in the way that Craving managed to do.

On the face of it, this is a very simple novel. The erratic Coco returns home to live with her terminally ill mother after years of estrangement. Their renewed proximity forces a re-examination of their troubled relationship and something of a rapprochement that sheds fresh light on both their lives.

As with several other contemporary Dutch novels, including Robben’s and Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin (translated by David Colmer), Craving focuses on filial relationships. It has the feel of a film shot exclusively in close-up, with small details representing dramatic shifts. This means that although Craving does not share the isolated settings of Robben’s and Bakker’s books, it possesses a similar quiet intensity, which comes from the narrative containing a minimal amount of background noise.

The words work hard here. Credit is due to Michele Hutchison for the way she has managed to present text that is as powerful as it is spare, where almost every phoneme seems to perform multiple functions – conveying the action, revealing specific emotional truths and acting as broader statements about the human experience. Even the comma splices that would usually have pedants bristling seem to work within the context of the narrative voice.

The efficiency of the dialogue is testament to the power of the language. Normally, I get frustrated by reams of unattributed statements and struggle to remember who is saying what without a reminder every three or four lines. In Craving, however, the character of each speaker comes across so clearly that I barely noticed the lack of signposts.

The economy of expression allows for some great comic moments too. Bathos and distraction are favourite devices for Gerritsen, who delights in reminding us how the monumental and banal coexist and colour one another, gilding significant moments with foolishness and elevating mundane happenings to precarious importance.

Through it all, Gerritsen never loses sight of the pattern she is weaving. She threads story deftly through the text, so that the whole picture comes into focus gradually. Instead of the neat reveal common in more commercial books, the central meaning emerges in such a way that it cannot be condensed or explained but can be comprehended only by reading the words set out in precisely the order the author has chosen. No more, no less.

Craving (Dorst) by Esther Gerritsen, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison (World Editions, 2015)