Book of the month: ed. Nikesh Shukla, The Good Immigrant

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One of the main points of this project has always been accessing voices that we don’t hear enough of in the anglophone world. Often, these voices are quite remote: stories by writers in minority languages and marginalised groups from distant regions where little gets picked up for publication and even less makes it through the translation bottleneck into the planet’s most-published language.

However, it’s often easy to forget that there are plenty of underrepresented voices closer to home, such as people writing in languages other than the dominant tongue (like Welsh writer Caryl Lewis, whose novel Martha, Jack and Shanco I read as my UK choice) or those from communities that rarely get the opportunity to tell their stories in their own words.

This is a problem that my November book of the month pick, The Good Immigrant, sets out to tackle head-on. Bringing together essays, think pieces and life writing by 21 black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) writers working in or connected to Britain today, the crowd-funded collection builds a compelling case for the importance of diverse storytelling. It is, as Nikesh Shukla states in his editor’s note, ‘a document of what it means to be a person of colour’ in the UK, assembled in response to ‘the backwards attitude to immigration and refugees, the systemic racism that runs through this country to this day’.

As Shukla’s comments suggest, much of this book does not make for comfortable reading – nor is it meant to. Many of the contributors narrate harrowing incidents that they or their family members have experienced, from being held at knifepoint by skinheads, as has happened to actor Riz Ahmed on several occasions, to receiving a prescription for drugs from a child psychologist in response to suffering racist bullying, as Daniel York Loh recalls.

Many of the anecdotes contain unpleasant surprises for white British readers like me. For example, I was unaware of the extreme abuse often experienced by people of Chinese ethnicity in the UK, but Wei Ming Kam and Vera Chok bring this home memorably, with Chok’s discussion of the sinister objectification of Asian women being particularly powerful.

Alongside these personal and specific examples, a number of the writers expand on larger themes that illuminate the mechanisms of the blindspots and doublethink that make such inhumanity possible. Reni Eddo-Lodge, whose forthcoming Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race promises to be brilliant, is great on the UK’s collective forgetting of black British history, while Sarah Sahim has thought-provoking things to say on Britain’s role in entrenching and solidifying the Hindu caste system.

And lest you get the impression that an uncomfortable read equates to an unpleasant one, it’s important to point out that the book has plenty of beauty, generosity and humour too. Stand-up comedian Nish Kumar’s account of his discovery that his photograph had been appropriated for an internet meme about Muslims (he’s Hindu by origin) is both funny and insightful. In addition, Salena Godden’s wry observations on the illogic of half the world spending money on skin-bleaching while white Brits strip off at the sight of sunlight in hope of a tan in ‘Shade’ – which also contains some of the collection’s most lyrical and playful writing – will no doubt raise a smile.

Perhaps the most important point, however, concerns the significance of complex, diverse storytelling and the role this has in allowing people to imagine and thereby appreciate the humanity and varied difference of those too often squashed into a box labelled ‘other’. This argument is made in many of the pieces, but most strikingly in the several accounts in which BAME actors share their experiences of typecasting and limited opportunity because of the paucity of roles available for people of colour in mainstream British culture. Miss L, for example, describes the day she waited along with her fellow drama students to be told what type of role was likely to be the mainstay of her career. ‘Wife of a terrorist’ was the verdict, a prediction that proved largely accurate, alongside a number of roles as powerless women in arranged marriages.

Representation, these accounts show us, is not enough. The mere tokenistic inclusion of a person from an ethnic minority in a well-worn, two-dimensional role does nothing to enlarge viewers’ or readers’ perspectives. Instead, we need to break free of those familiar narratives – those single stories as Chimanda Ngozi Adichie so memorably dubbed them – and push for a vast array of complex, challenging and even conflicting accounts.

This is important within nations like Britain, as much as across borders, because, as Bim Adewunmi puts it in ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Tokenism’, the superficial and inadequate representation of minorities in the stories we consume ‘leaks into the everyday too – if you cannot bring yourself to imagine us as real, rounded individuals with feelings equal to your own on screen, how does that affect your ability to do so when you encounter us on the street, at your workplace, in your bed, in your life?’

And if you wanted an example of the real-life consequences of such tokenism, the final piece in the book by British-Ugandan writer Musa Okwonga provides a salutary vision of the harm that insufficiently diverse representation can cause. As one of a handful of black students at the elite schools and university he attended, Okwonga felt an ‘ambassadorial responsibility’ to represent not simply himself but all those who shared his ethnicity to his white peers, holding himself to impossible standards in an exhausting effort to be a walking billboard for his race.

The encouraging news is that most of the writers of The Good Immigrant appear to believe that change is possible, that Britain for all its flaws and challenges has the potential to do better in the way it treats and values its citizens. Although many are saddened by the events of recent years – Okwonga, for example recounts his decision to leave the UK for Germany in search of greater tolerance and inclusiveness – the contributors seem to have faith in the power of storytelling and the healing quality of human connection, a sentiment Salena Godden expresses beautifully towards the end of her piece:

‘Human colour is the colour I’m truly interested in, the colour of your humanity. May the size of your heart and the depth of your soul be your currency. Welcome aboard my Good Ship. Let us sail to the colourful island of mixed identity. You can eat from the cooking pot of mixed culture and bathe in the cool shade of being mixed-race. There is no need for a passport. There are no borders. We are all citizens of the world. Whatever shade you are, bring your light, bring your colour, bring your music and your books, your stories and your histories, and climb aboard.’

The Good Immigrant, ed. Nikesh Shukla (Unbound, 2016)

Picture: ‘Know Your Rights’ by alister on flickr.com

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)

Postcards from my bookshelf (or A year of sending the world books)

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Exactly five years ago today, I did something eccentric. Sitting in my living room in south London, I decided to spend 2012 trying to read a book from every country in the world.

To this end, I registered the domain name ayearofreadingtheworld.com and posted a short appeal online asking the planet’s book lovers to suggest what I should read from different parts of the globe.

On that dank October day, I had no idea whether anyone would be interested. Yet within hours of my request going live, I had numerous comments and messages from people I’d never met offering all sorts of ideas. Just four days later, a stranger in Kuala Lumpur had volunteered to go to her local English-language bookshop to choose my Malaysian book and post it to me.

What followed was an extraordinary quest that challenged and remade me in ways I could never have imagined. It introduced me to writers and translators around the planet. It established friendships and professional connections I cherish to this day. It reshaped the way I read and write. And it taught me a huge amount about the extraordinary power stories have to connect us across geographical, political, social and religious divides. It also transformed me into a published author.

A year of reading the world changed my life. But it could never have done so without the generosity of the hundreds of book-loving strangers who went out of their way to do research, send me books, and even translate and write things specially for me from countries with no commercially available literature in English.

The project prompted the most extraordinary outpouring of altruism I have experienced.

And so, as the five-year anniversary of A year of reading the world rolls round, it seems only fitting to take a leaf out of those generous volunteers’ books and pay some of that kindness forward.

As such, this October 24, I have decided to spend next year doing another eccentric thing. Once a month throughout 2017, I will send a translated book to a stranger – a sort of postcard from my bookshelf.

You can apply to be one of the recipients by leaving a comment below. All you need to do is tell me a bit about you, the sort of things you like reading and why you want a book from me.

On the 15th day of each month I will choose one person to receive a book translated into English and use the information they have given me to select something I hope they will enjoy. I will post or courier this title to the recipient wherever they are in the world.

It would be great to hear from as many readers as possible, so please share this with anyone you think might be interested. As I discovered five years ago, the more people who get involved, the better reading the world can be.

World bookshopper: #10 Aida Books&More, Valencia

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A while ago, Miguel left the following comment on this blog:

Hi Ann,

If you ever come to Valencia (Spain), I volunteer in a second-hand bookstore called “AIDA Books & more”. It is fully run by volunteers, all books are donations and all profits go to support the projects of the charity organization AIDA. The projects are mainly focused on countries like Guinea-Bissau, Bangladesh, Cambodia and more. And there are more AIDA bookstores in Barcelona, Madrid, Segovia and soon in Castellón.

You are warmly welcome!

Well, in September I spent two weeks in the city and so, one glorious afternoon when the sun shone done more warmly than we ever experience in the UK, I made my way to the shop where Miguel volunteers.

Situated north of the Jardines del Real, an offshoot of Valencia’s Jardines del Turia (one of my favourite places in the world), AIDA Books&More is in a parade of shops on the Carrer de Molinell. You wouldn’t necessarily notice it if you were walking past – indeed, the trolley of books on the pavement is so casually placed that it almost looks as though it might have been left there by a passer-by.

Once you go inside, however, it’s clear that this is a place run by booklovers. There is a buzz of enthusiasm in the air, tangible even to someone with only about 20 words of Spanish like me. What’s more, the curation of the stock is impressive, with sections neatly organised.

The place is clearly popular. When I visit, numerous customers are drifting up and down the aisles and in and out of the back room, browsing to the accompaniment of music by Elton John and the Pet Shop Boys playing throughout the store.

Second-hand bookshops can provide interesting insights into the reading habits of those living nearby because much of what they sell often comes from the collections of local people looking to downsize or declutter.

If the shelves of AIDA Books&More are anything to go by, the reading tastes of Valencians are diverse and wide-ranging. Alongside an extensive fiction section, featuring Spanish and Catalan versions of numerous international favourites, as well as regional bestsellers such as novels by Andorran author Albert Salvado whose The Teacher of Cheops I read for this project, there are a lot of areas catering to niche interests.

Chess lovers will find a table of books devoted to strategies for achieving the perfect check mate; those curious about new-age philosophies and spiritualism will discover several shelves devoted to works on this. There are bookcases holding erotica and various kinds of cookery books, as well as an extensive selection of poetry and plays.

Here and there, old editions of classic works, such as Don Quixote, peer down from ledges and window sills. And for the thrifty, sale tables offer bundles of books at bargain-basement prices. For a handful of euros Javier L. Collazo’s three-volume English-Spanish Diccionario enciclopédico de términos técnicos could have been mine.

Although I assumed there would be little else that I could read in the shop, I was wrong. In the back room, I happened upon a shelf devoted to books in English, with smaller selections of books in French and German beneath.

There were some surprises here too. Although the majority of the English-language titles were mass-market crowd pleasers, with the inevitable Dan Browns and James Pattersons cropping up several times alongside offerings by Sue Townsend, CS Lewis and Rudyard Kipling, there were some more obscure works in the mix. I suspect it might be a while before S. Kierkegaard’s Either/Or (volume II) finds its next home.

Among the smattering of works aimed at younger readers, I was delighted to find my childhood favourite, LM Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Clearly, not far away, there was a reader after my own heart.

In the end, I plumped for VS Naipaul’s The Suffrage of Elvira, handing over the princely sum of €1 to a cheery woman at the till. She took my monosyllabic Spanish in her stride and sent me on my way with a merry smile.

I wandered back through the beautiful parks confident that if the charitable work of AIDA is carried out with anything like the enthusiasm that goes into running its bookshops, its projects are in very good hands.

Thanks for the tip-off, Miguel!

Farewell to the shelf

 

A week ago, almost five years after I first asked book lovers to help me read the world, I packed up the bookshelf that stored all the paper volumes I accumulated during the project. It was still arranged almost exactly as it had been when I finished my quest on December 31, 2012.

Yet last Friday everything from the massive hardback photobiography of Grace Kelly that I read for Monaco to the printout of ‘To Forgive Is Divine Not Human’, the story that Julia Duany wrote and read for me to represent her nation South Sudan, went into boxes.

I was moving out of the little south London flat in which I read the world and where, huddled at my desk in the corner, watching bin men and delivery lorries come and go out of the window, I wrote two books: Reading the World (known as The World Between Two Covers in the US) and my first novel Beside Myself.

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Packing up is a strange thing. You encounter objects that you haven’t looked at or noticed properly for a long time.

Picking up each of those books and loading them into boxes – it took four and, as you can see from the pictures, James Joyce proved particularly problematic (plus ça change) – was a touching, joyful and meditative experience.

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Handling the volumes brought to mind many of the stories of what people did to help me in my quest. Ripples and Other Stories recalled for me the generosity of Rafidah in Kuala Lumpur, who chose and posted it to me from the other side of the world; the striking black cover of Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta made me think of the afternoon I spent discussing author Aglaja Veteranyi’s extraordinary life and tragic death with her former partner Jens Nielsen (a conversation recorded in Reading the World).

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I remembered the many generous people who sent me unpublished manuscripts and self-published works, as well as the team of volunteers who translated a short-story collection so that I would have a book to read from São Tomé & Principe.

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I also found other things. Buried in a stack of notebooks that had languished on top of the bookcase long before the AYORTW shelf took shape, I found scraps of a diary from early 2009.

It was not a happy time for me. Having given up my job with the ambition of earning my living purely from writing and editing, I was feeling lost and very doubtful of my ability to achieve my goal. In one entry, I wrote:

A feeling of real depression, uselessness, worthlessness and rubbishness. Have I been here before? I’m not sure to this extent. I feel a fraud. Always a fraud. What can I write? I’ve spent a year twiddling with ideas, churning out words, some of which are half-decent but none of which go anywhere. […] I need to get myself out of this, prove I can do it. […] Sit down at the computer and go on through. This is getting to life and death now. Honesty, that is the key. To write something honest and fearless. […] Sit down tomorrow, brainstorm and write. Not be afraid that the chain of words will break.

 

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At the time, I couldn’t have guessed that the chain of words that would ultimately pull me out of that funk would be written not by me, but by hundreds of strangers around the world.

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It’s taken a few days, but at last I am relatively well-established in the place that will be my home for the next few months. For the first time in my life, I have my own writing room.

The AYORTW books have their own temporary shelf too. It’s rather ramshackle and constructed mostly out of packing boxes, but it has managed to stand up for 24 hours. Arranged in a different order (just imagine the exciting conversations they must be having with their new neighbours), they are staring out at me now.

They will watch as I continue with my next project, another novel. If ever the writing process gets difficult, inspiration will be close at hand.

World bookshopper: #9 The Big Comfy Bookshop, Coventry

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One of the best arguments for supporting bookshops as opposed to purely buying books online, is that they make unexpected encounters possible in a way that websites can’t. When you’re browsing most online retailer’s sites, your screen will be filled with a host of recommendations tailored to your buying history – a list of things that are like what you’ve liked before dictated by a sophisticated algorithm intended to maximise the chance that you’ll purchase another product.

In a bookshop, by contrast, as you wander from stand to stand, almost anything can catch your eye. You might go in looking for the latest bestselling thriller and come out with a memoir by a Norwegian lumberjack, or cross the threshold in search of a present for a friend and re-emerge half an hour later with a previously unheard of title that will keep you spellbound for the bus ride home.

In a bookshop, what you see is dictated less by your own previous choices than by the tastes and interests of those running and stocking the store. As a result, spending time in such places exposes you to more possibility and variety in the literary landscape, and can help challenge, disrupt and expand your reading habits.

As venues for unexpected encounters go, The Big Comfy Bookshop in Coventry has much to offer. Set up around two years ago after owner Michael McEntee took the brave decision to give up his day job and pursue his dream of running a wordmonger’s, the store is one of a series of quirky and creative businesses in Fargo Village on Far Gosford Street. There’s a comic shop next door and a film memorabilia purveyor a few units down, as well as numerous vintage-clothing traders with stands set up around the central hall.

It’s raining the day I go, but you wouldn’t know it from the throng of people gathered in the shop. Sitting at an eclectic array of chairs and tables, sipping coffees, teas and the occasional beer, they have just heard a talk from author Kate Riordan, the speaker before me in the line up of this, the inaugural Big Comfy Literary Festival.

Riordan is still there signing copies and while she does so, I take the opportunity to explore.

Although new books by the authors speaking at the festival are on sale near the counter for the weekend, the bulk of the Big Comfy merchandise is second-hand and, as such, dependent on the tastes of readers who have gone before. The usual suspects are out in force – a formidable crop of Wilbur Smiths, James Pattersons and Patricia Cornwells rubs shoulders with US classics such as Catch-22 and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

As is often the case in second-hand shops, translations are not much in evidence. However, there are some unexpected titles in the mix. I spend an intriguing five minutes flicking through a book called How to Clicker Train Your Cat. In addition, there is an impressive spread of sci-fi and fantasy fiction.

When I ask McEntee if this reflects a particular interest of his, he tells me that it doesn’t. In fact, some 90 per cent of this section comes from a friend of his who needed to downsize his collection.

Yet, while The Big Comfy Bookshop may be beholden to others for much of its stock, the tastes of its founder and his colleagues are everywhere apparent. From playful quotations and notes bearing personal recommendations from the staff on the shelves to posters for regular folk-music evenings and a handsome array of cakes on the counter, the place is alive with an enthusiasm for creating a cheerful, cosy, ‘comfy’ space that celebrates reading.

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A sense of humour is also in evidence: a Post-it note on a map of the Game of Thrones territories of Westeros and Essos hanging in the loo asks ‘But what lies west of Westeros?’

The result is a beautifully informal, friendly space where people can come to browse, chat, read and while away an afternoon. I feel very much at home while I give my talk.

And if any further proof of the welcoming nature of the place were needed, it comes as I leave. On my way out, I pass Darth Vader, who is on a break from an event at the film-memorabilia store and is popping into the bookshop for a quick cup of tea. An unexpected encounter if ever there was one.

Why reader Faizah Shaheen’s detention should outrage us all

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At a time of great turbulence and uncertainty in many parts of the planet, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the number of alarming news stories flooding our airwaves, newspapers and screens. Nevertheless, yesterday I came across a story that shocked me profoundly.

According to the Independent, Faizah Shaheen, a British Muslim woman, was detained at a UK airport and questioned under the Terrorism Act after an air steward reported her for suspicious behaviour last month.

And the suspicious behaviour in question? The 27-year-old National Health Service worker had been reading Syria Speaks, an award-winning art and culture anthology showcasing the work of more than 50 writers and artists challenging violence in their war-torn nation.

Far from an extremist text promoting radicalisation, the book had actually been supported by English PEN, the charity on whose translation funding panel I often sit. Yet, because an air steward thought it suspicious, Shaheen returned from her honeymoon to face 15 minutes of distressing questions from UK police.

This may not sound like much in the face of the extreme hardships and atrocities affecting many others around the globe. However, it points to something deeply disturbing and intimately connected to the cruelty being inflicted on millions by extremists, despots and inhumane policies.

As I discovered during my quest, a sure way to increase our understanding and appreciation of one another’s humanity – and thereby to promote peace – is to share our stories. By imagining the world through other people’s eyes in the extraordinary way that stories enable us to do, we enlarge and enrich our vision, and become better able to respect, value and talk meaningfully with one another.

To do this, people need to be able to read without looking over their shoulders, without fear of penalties or reprimands. When a person picks up a book, their focus should be on whether they will enjoy it and what they might get from it, on how it could broaden their horizons, rather than on how being associated with it might limit or threaten them.

Without this freedom, the world shrinks and fragments. Frightened to venture beyond the bounds of sanctioned subject matter, we find ourselves locked in an echo chamber, where the same ideas and perspectives reverberate at us time and again, and the Other becomes ever more inscrutable and strange.

Living in that sort of bubble, our appreciation of the humanity, complexity and dignity of those who do not conform to our mores quickly dulls and fades. And when that happens, discrimination, violence and persecution of those others ceases to seem unacceptable, because they are increasingly hard to imagine as people at all.

That is why Faizah Shaheen’s detention enrages me and should enrage all those who value and believe in the free circulation of literature. That is why I join English PEN in condemning what happened. Because, on a fundamental level, the cruellest things human beings do to one another stem from precisely this: preventing people sharing ideas and stories.

Picture by Konrad Förstner on Flickr.com.

Women in Translation month

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Now and then people ask me how many of the works that I read during my year of reading the world were written by female authors. This morning, I finally totted them up.

It turns out that of the 197 texts I read over the course of the quest, 53 were by women and 134 were by men. There were also nine mixed-gender group-authored books and one anonymous work (although most theories point to it having been written by a man). In all, then, 27 per cent of the literature I read in 2012 was by women.

When you consider that women make up 49.6 per cent of the global population (according to a 2015 UN report), it’s clear that my reading was not representative of the world’s demographics. However – without my realising it at the time – it was a fairly close reflection of the proportion of female-authored books that get translated into English.

The fact is that women authors have significantly less chance of getting an English-language book deal than their male counterparts. According to translator and blogger Meytal Radzinski, who has drawn on the excellent Three Percent Translation Database for her analysis, around 30 per cent of new translations in English are books by women writers.

The implications are clear: not only are we anglophone readers still only getting access to a relatively tiny proportion of the world’s stories, compared to the amount of translated literature published in many other parts of the world, but such works as do make it through the bottleneck add up to a rather skewed selection.

Eager to challenge and correct this imbalance, in 2014 Radzinski decided to name August ‘Women in Translation month’ (#WITmonth for those of the tweeting persuasion). The idea caught on, with numerous readers, bloggers, translators and booksellers jumping on the bandwagon to champion translated books written by women.

This August, for the third year in a row, #WITmonth is back and looking bigger than ever. A significant number of bookshops and libraries in the UK, US, France Germany and New Zealand have pledged to support it with displays of female-authored translations, and various other literature organisations and publications on both sides of the Atlantic are getting involved.

Perhaps one of the secrets of the campaign’s success is that #WITmonth is first and foremost a celebration. As translator Katy Derbyshire recently put it: ‘Women in Translation month is all about appreciating the great women writers who do get translated – and of course the people who bring them to us, their translators and publishers. It’s an opportunity to join in a worldwide conversation about outstanding writing from all over the globe.’

If you’d like to join the fun, Radzinski has put together a handy list of things you can do. This could be as simple as pledging to read a translated book by a female author sometime this month – in which case you might want to check out Radzinski’s database of translated books by women for inspiration.

And for those keen to explore the issue further, the activist group Women in Translation, founded by translators Alta L Price and Margaret Carson, has a great Tumblr site featuring a lot of the latest news on efforts to address gender inequality in the translation world.

For my part, I’ll be reading widely to find a brilliant female-authored work to feature as August’s book of the month. It’s a small gesture in the face of such marked inequality, but, as I discovered back in 2012, the way to read the world (and transform your view of it) is to go one story at a time.

Book of the month: Vladimir Bartol

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Some books stay with you. Slovenian writer Vladimir Bartol’s Alamut is a good example. It was recommended to me back in February 2013 by oblakales, who left a comment saying that ‘If you’re fond of historical novels I would strongly recommend the novel Alamut by Vladimir Bartol. I think it’s the most widely translated Slovenian novel. It’s about a group of soldiers in medieval middle east and the entire novel serves as an allegory of Fascism in Europe.’

I have to confess I’m not overly fond of historical novels, however I try to keep an open mind about these things and so, when I was rooting through blog visitors’ comments for new things to read early last year, I resolved to get myself a copy. I did this partly because I liked oblakales’s enthusiasm and partly because English translations of Slovenian novels are pretty thin on the ground. Given how unusual the novel I’d read from Slovenia during my quest was, I was curious to see what else the nation’s literature had in store.

As I had been with Luka Novak’s The Golden Shower or What Men Want (trans. Urška Charney), I was in for a surprise. When I started to read Alamut, I found myself plunged into an entirely unexpected world: an 11th-century Persian fortress, where the leader of an Islamic sect has come up with an ingenious and disturbing strategy for brainwashing his soldiers (or fedayeen): recreating paradise on earth.

A second surprise came when I started to research the book. Not only was the novel the most internationally renowned of Slovenia’s titles, as oblakales had suggested, but it was also the inspiration for the hit computer game Assassin’s Creed.

This was not what I might have expected from a Slovenian novel published in 1938 on the brink of the second world war, but it was intriguing. I read on, absorbed, finished the book and moved on to the next title on the to-read mountain.

In the months that followed, however, I found the story surfacing again and again in my mind. When the Huffington Post invited me to share some reading recommendations, I included it in my list. When I was invited to contribute to Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created, a book about imaginary dystopian societies being published by Hachette this November, I decided to write about the nightmarish, yet weirdly alluring fortress of Alamut.

Then, when I was pondering which title to feature this month, the novel popped up again. ‘Pick me! Pick me!’ it seemed to whisper from the stack of books heaped above my desk. I could tell by the way it looked at me that if I didn’t write about it, I would get no peace. And so, here goes…

There’s no question that the staying power of Bartol’s novel is the result of its rich, engrossing and terrifying world. Home to ‘an experiment in altering human nature’, the fortress allows its author to test human nature to its limits. As its frighteningly persuasive ruler probes and manipulates the desires of the youths under his control, steeling them to fight to the death, we witness the mechanisms of radicalisation first hand.

This is especially striking because, at the same time as laying bare Sayyiduna’s sinister methods, Bartol reveals how enticing his ideology is. He does this by showing it to us initially through the eyes of two newcomers, harem initiate Halima and aspiring warrior ibn Tahir. From their perspective the fort is, at least at first, a place of intrigue and delight. Wandering through its secret tunnels with them, discovering all the twists in Sayyiduna’s terrible scheme, we are at once charmed and appalled. Alamut (the book and the place) is a marvellous creation, in which we luxuriate, lulled by Bartol’s lavish descriptions and masterful use of suspense, reading on in spite – or perhaps because – of the unease that seeps through the cracks. Radicalisation, we learn, is at its most terrifying when it wears a smiling face.

Small wonder then that oblakales – along with many others – reads the novel as an allegory for the Fascism that was sweeping Europe at the time its author retreated to a mountain hideaway to write. And it’s little surprise, too, that others have found elements of the story echoed in Tito’s Yugoslavia and the Balkan war. No doubt, many 21st-century readers in their turn will identify parallels with other forms of ideological coercion and control exerted over impressionable young people today.

The fact that we can read the novel in so many ways points us towards its central message: more frightening than any particular ideology is the human willingness to follow charismatic rulers unquestioningly. As Sayyiduna recognises, his power consists in the fact that ‘people wanted fairy tales and fabrications and they were fond of the blindness they blundered through’.

Ultimately, this is a book about the power of stories to control and remake us. There can be few themes more calculated to obsess a writer than that.

Alamut by Vladimir Bartol, translated from the Slovenian by Michael Biggins (North Atlantic Books, 2011)

World bookshopper: #8 Altaïr, Barcelona

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If Stanfords travel bookshop had a Catalan cousin, it would look a lot like Altaïr. On the day I go, wandering in off the Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes and away from the Sant Jordi crowds, I find myself confronted with a treasure trove for those who enjoy combining literary exploration and jet-setting.

Like Stanfords, the bulk of the three-storey emporium is given over to country-by-country sections where the curious reader or would-be adventurer can find factual books and fictional works from the regions in question. The choices can be surprising. Look up Serbia and, alongside Lago de Como (the Spanish translation of the book I read from the nation) you’ll find an English-language copy of American novelist David Leavitt’s The Page Turner. In the Scottish section, you can pick up work by French writer Jules Verne.

As in similar English-language shops, setting rather than author nationality seems to be the deciding factor in the categorisation of texts. But unlike their Anglophone counterparts, Altaïr customers seem to be willing to cross linguistic as well as national boundaries.

When it comes to the shelf labelled ‘Regne Unit’ (that’s United Kingdom to you and me), a varied selection awaits. Books by Charles Dickens feature, alongside offerings from James Herriot, Mark Haddon, Hilary Mantel and Doris Lessing. I was particularly pleased to see a copy of El Relojero de Filigree Street, the Spanish incarnation of the international bestseller by Natasha Pulley, whom I met at the Bath Literature Festival earlier this year.

The lack of translation and distribution opportunities for works from some of the world’s more deprived countries – one of the major challenges during my quest to read a book from every country – seems to hold as true in Spanish and Catalan as it does in English. While most European nations boast their own sections in the store, several African countries are lumped together in the basement with only maps and factual histories by foreign writers to represent a number of them. By contrast, feted authors such as the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz have their own mini-sections.

International publishing challenges notwithstanding, the shop must be applauded for the range of its selection. In the section marked Kosovo – a fiendishly difficult nation to find any work in English from – I was delighted to discover Travels in Blood and Honey by Elizabeth Gowing, a British translator, NGO worker and beekeeper, who has lived and worked in the country for much of the past decade.

And the offering doesn’t stop at country-by country. If you’re interested in mountains, you’ll find an area catering for that. If the polar regions capture your imagination, you can while away a good hour or so browsing the explorer memoirs on display. There is an impressive array of photography books, a handsome wall of maps, a collection of publisher-specific stands from which classics by global notaries such as Ferrante, Carver and Marquez can be snapped up, and a swathe of bookcases devoted to the latest smash hits – thrillers and tearjerkers ripe for stuffing into your backpack to beguile those long-haul flights.

Meanwhile, for those who prefer the world to come to them, there are cases of trinkets, scarves and ornaments from different corners of the globe. In addition, Catalonians keen to add a bit of local polish to their English without getting on a plane have the option of resorting to the intriguing volume Laura Lips en habla como los Ingleses.

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This comes with a word of warning, however: when I flick through, I find a few rather eccentric suggested phrases. In particular, attempts to describe a scolding as ‘a tongue-lashing’, to tell someone to ‘keep your hair on’ or to say that ‘my computer is having a bad hair day’ would be more likely to make most native English speakers I know raise their eyebrows rather than invite you down the pub for a pint.

It seems there are some aspects of travel with which books can’t quite compete…