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…

A translation joust

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One of the most popular suggestions during my year of reading the world was that I should read Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote for Spain. Although I didn’t choose it for the project (I felt tackling Ulysses for Ireland was challenge enough given the average pace I had to maintain of reading one book every 1.87 days), I did tuck into the 1,000-page classic the following year, while on holiday in Priorat – near some of the regions through which the would-be knight-errant passes on his adventures.

I read Edith Grossman’s translation and very much enjoyed the book, finding the descriptions surprisingly fresh and vivid. Still, full of derring-do though the narrative is, I never imagined it would lead me to witness a real-life battle. Until yesterday.

Last night, in a packed room at the British Library’s Conference Centre, award-winning translators Margaret Jull Costa (who generously volunteered to help translate a book from São Tomé and Principe for me during my quest) and Peter Bush met for a ‘translation joust’, the latest in a series of such duels that various translators have staged in recent years. The pair had produced rival English versions of the famous windmill scene from Cervantes’ masterpiece and, with the prompting of chair and fellow translator Daniel Hahn, set out to defend their choices.

The results were fascinating. Going line by line – and sometimes comma by comma – the wordsmiths challenged one another’s decisions, revealing some powerful insights into their working methods as they did so.

As a comparison of the opening lines of the translations shows, the two versions were strikingly different:

Just then, they spotted thirty or forty windmills on that same plain, and the moment Don Quijote saw them, he said to his squire: ‘Fortune is directing our affairs far better than we could have wished, because look, friend Sancho, there before us stand thirty or more fearsome giants, with whom I intend to do battle and to slay each and every one of them.

And with their spoils we will begin to grow rich, for this is a just war and we are doing God a great service in removing such a plague from the face of the Earth. MJC

With that they spotted thirty or forty windmills in the nearby field and Don Quixote immediately said to his squire: “Sancho, my friend, Lady Luck has sorted things better than we could have ever hoped.

Just take a look at those thirty or so humungous giants I shall attack and obliterate in a moment and the ensuing spoils will be the start of good times for us, because mine is a just war, and I’m doing God a great service by wiping such an evil horde off the face of this earth.” PB

What emerged from the discussion was that, while Jull Costa had endeavoured to get as close to Cervantes’ original as modern English would allow and wanted to preserve Don Quixote’s high-flown way of speaking, Bush had set out to create a version that would be different from all previous translations. In part as a reaction against what has gone before, his Don Quixote is not above slang and colloquialisms.

It was, as one audience member observed, as though Jull Costa had built the sense of the absurd inherent in the original, whereas Bush had reflected the novel’s humour by taking a more directly comic approach. This sort of distinct character to a text, Jull Costa said, was essential for a translation to live.

An interesting insight into the process came when the pair considered how they had arrived at rather different descriptions for the location of the windmill-giants – Jull Costa has them ‘on that same plain’, whereas Bush situates them ‘in the nearby field’. It transpired that, rather than seeking a literal translation of the Spanish ‘en aquel campo’, each had pictured what they read the original to mean and then found a way to render the image in English.

The questions did not only come from the chair. At several points, audience members pitched in with sometimes rather passionate objections or challenges. The word ‘desaforados’ proved particularly controversial. Although both translators had focused on its connotations of scale – rendering it as ‘fearsome’ (MJC) and ‘humungous’ (PB) – one native Spanish speaker felt that it would have been more appropriate to translate it as ‘rampaging’.

‘I don’t know what it means in any dictionary. I tell you what it means to me!’ she said.

For me, as a writer, it was also fascinating to hear the translators talk about their approach to creating a finished written piece. Peter Bush revealed that he had produced 10-12 drafts of his extract, while Margaret Jull Costa said that for a joust like this she would normally do nine or 10. These would include a careful first draft, a second draft read against the original, a period of leaving the text, and a session of reading the translation out loud to catch any repetitions and clunky rhythms.

Though not everyone in the room may have agreed on the interpretation of ‘desaforados’, there can be no doubt that our enjoyment of the evening was unanimous. With last week’s good news that translations made up five per cent of printed fiction sales in the UK in 2015 (a 96 per cent rise in volume on the figures from 2001), let’s hope we will see many more such events.

Picture by Oren neu dag (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

World bookshopper: #7 Diada de Sant Jordi, Barcelona (various locations)

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Last week, I had a stroke of luck. A friend had invited me for a weekend away in Barcelona and when I checked out the dates, I realised something very exciting: our visit would coincide with Diada de Sant Jordi, the festival day of Catalonia’s patron saint and one of the biggest book parties on the planet.

Dating back to the Middle Ages, the celebration originally centred around lovers giving each other roses, drawing on the legend of Sant Jordi and the dragon, from whose blood a rosebush is said to have sprung. Then, in the 1920s, a member of the literary community in Barcelona (can anyone tell me his or her name?) noticed that the death dates of Shakespeare and Cervantes also fell on April 23. Inspired by this coincidence, the wordsmith encouraged people also to exchange books on this day – an idea which rapidly caught on.

The rest, as they say, is history. These days, thanks to the hundreds of stalls set up in the streets each Diada de Sant Jordi, the festival accounts for as much as 8 per cent of the book sales that take place in the region every year. The extravaganza has been such a success that it even inspired UNESCO’s World Book and Copyright Day.

You can imagine my excitement at being in the midst of it. While my companions slept off the journey, I was up early and out exploring the streets.

Even at 8am, many parts of the city were buzzing. On Rambla de Catalunya – one of the major centres of the festival – two rows of stalls stretched at least a quarter of a mile, laden with roses and books.

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All the major booksellers and publishers in the city had a presence. Wandering through, I spotted impressive spreads from Altaïr, BCN Books and La Central, to name but a few, as well as numerous stands devoted to specialist areas – from cookbooks to crime.

The offerings were extensive, featuring huge numbers of works by local and international authors. Titles by the celebrated Catalan writer Jaume Cabré were much in evidence, but I also saw numerous Spanish and Catalan versions of a number of old favourites and familiar faces from further afield.

There was Pétronille by Amélie Nothomb and La perla by John Steinbeck; both La noia del tren and La chica del tren by Paula Hawkins, and Roald Dahl’s Charlie y la fábrica de chocolate. Bestselling Italian writer Umberto Eco’s Il nome della rosa appeared here as El nombre de la rosa, while Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk was reconfigured as H de halcón (the Catalan version, which renders the title F de falcó, has just come out). And on several stands there teetered stacks of translations of the works of Jo Nesbø and EL James – some of them easily high enough to kill a toddler should they happen to fall.

Perhaps the most surprising title I saw was a Spanish translation of London Mayor Boris Johnson’s biography of Winston Churchill. No book, it seemed was too niche for Sant Jordi.

By contrast, the small handful of second-hand English-language titles I discovered on one table, looked rather sad. Although I did find the presence of Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, his memoir of the time he spent observing bullfighting in Spain, rather fitting. (The selection of ‘Livros en alemán’ was rather better.)

In addition to the books, authors were out in force too – or were certainly scheduled to be, judging by the number of boards promising signings later in the day.

There was no doubt about it: literature was a major focus here. However, seasoned literature professionals were by no means the only ones plying their wares.

I spied a stand devoted to books of piano scores – including the soundtrack for Frozen – and another offering colouring books. There were significant numbers of political organisations peddling texts supporting Catalan independence. Some even had televisions broadcasting their messages into the street. There was a stand run by a youth organisation that looked very much like the scouts, and numerous stalls raising money for charities such as Oxfam, the Red Cross and Save the Children.

Manning and womanning many of the stalls – and sometimes dashing out into the thoroughfare to thrust roses and leaflets at passers-by – were various costumed figures. I lost count of the number of dragons I saw and there was a healthy showing of Sant Jordis and princesses too. Other folk had gone for a more minimalist approach, simply draping themselves in the Senyera (Catalonia’s flag).

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The roses were by no means all orthodox either. They came in a huge variety of shapes, sizes and materials. There were rose lollipops and pendants. There were key rings and desk tidies. By one crossroad, I spotted a woman selling some intricate, free-standing blooms sculpted out of metal. Nearby, another vendor was driving a hard bargain for flowers fashioned from tiny bits of coloured plastic melted together in the oven.

Overall, the experience was exhilarating (although I was pleased to have got there early and beat the crowds, which made browsing the stalls very difficult later in the day). I made my way back to our apartment in time for brunch, sporting a handful of bookmark roses and a very large grin.

Feliç Diada de Sant Jordi!

Book of the month: Gail Jones

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The morning I started reading this month’s book of the month, a woman sitting opposite me on the London Overground leaned across. ‘Excuse me,’ she said. ‘Could you tell me about that book? You see, I’m moving there tomorrow.’

I glanced at the cover of Gail Jones’s A Guide to Berlin and smiled. ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘It’s not a guide to the city. It’s a novel by an Australian writer… But good luck with the move. From what I hear, it’s an amazing place.’

The fact that a coincidental encounter attended my reading of this Stella prize-longlisted book turned out to be quite fitting because chance connections play an uncanny role in the story. Told through the eyes of Cass, a young Australian woman who rents a bedsit in Berlin to try to write and falls in with a group of foreign nationals living in the city, the novel explores the surprising, strange and sometimes terrible things that link us.

The new friends – Yukio and Mitsuko from Tokyo, Gino and Marco from Rome, and Victor from New York – are brought together by a shared love of the work of Nabokov (the book’s title is also the name of one of his short stories). They use this common interest as a launchpad for a series of ‘speech-memory disclosures’, meeting regularly and taking turns to tell the others the story of how they came to be who they are. Yet, as the stories unfold, more comes out than the group could have imagined, leading to a violent climax that leaves each of the six central characters changed.

In many ways, it’s just as well that my fellow passenger didn’t have time to read this novel before she moved to Berlin: Cass’s first impressions of the city, which strikes her as ‘stiff and dead’, are far from inviting. Yet, as the pages turn, a rich, layered collage builds up, with Jones sending us whizzing along the lines of the U-Bahn and S-Bahn, stumbling over Stolpersteinen, walking in Nabokov’s footsteps and blundering into the makeshift shanty town established by African asylum seekers at Oranienplatz.

This mining of ‘remnant presences and the traces of suffering lives’ takes place against some of the most deliciously evocative descriptions of winter and snow that I have had the pleasure of encountering. Not since I read the Belarusian classic King Stakh’s Wild Hunt, has cold seemed to billow from the page in the way it does in the ‘scintillating night and […] smothered calm’ of Jones’s Berlin.

Yet, while the German capital may be a focus in the novel, the speech-memory disclosures remind us that each of us carries something of the places we come from. As a result, we learn about the hikikomoris and Lolita girls of Yukio and Mitsuko’s Japan, and the fallout of a bomb blast in Rome, as well as Cass’s ambivalent feelings about her homeland and the way outsiders regard it – her shame at the ‘government policy of hard hearts’ in relation to immigration, for example, and the idea that ‘in Europe, Australia is regarded as a fiction of beautiful lies’. In this way, the narrative plays with the mirage-like quality of national identity, a concept that seems to dissolve the closer you get to it.

Jones’s eye for the minutiae and hidden workings of human interactions is one of her major strengths. Time and again, the narrative mines the insecurities and foibles of its characters, bringing arresting truths to the surface. To read this book is to recognise repeatedly what it is to be a person. From the snags and spools in conversation, to the way we fictionalise our lives and concerns, editing and embellishing our histories as we go.

For the most part, these insights are delivered in stunningly precise prose. In the early chapters, a few metaphors misfire and adverbs clog odd sentences, making some passages feel awkward and self-conscious. By 20 or 30 pages in, however, these hiccups are mostly gone. It is as though Jones writes her way into the book, just as her heroine explores her way into Berlin.

Some readers, Reading Matters book blogger Kim Forrester among them, have criticised the dramatic events of the closing chapters as rushed and inauthentic, particularly after the slow drift of a narrative that, until that point, largely consists of people talking in a series of rooms. Credulity certainly creaks here and this abrupt turn of events will no doubt break the spell for some.

For me, however, the book has so much to offer that I was more than prepared to brush this aside. As a writer, I found this an extraordinarily nourishing read – a novel that inspires me to push my craft further, to write better, to imagine my way more fully into things. I was right to tell my fellow passenger that it is not a guide to the German capital. Instead, as the best books do, A Guide to Berlin reveals something about all of life and the whole world.

A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones (Vintage, 2015)

World bookshopper: #6 Three Lives & Company, New York

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Bookshops, I’m beginning to discover, are as interconnected as books. They refer to one another, inspire one another and sometimes share creators. And with the help of all sorts of international events, such as the Frankfurt Book Fair and Guadalajara International Book Fair, the people behind them and those that love these stores meet, mingle and spark new ideas between them.

This was brought home to me last month during a conversation I had at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath. The member of staff I was talking to revealed that the owner of New York bookstore Three Lives & Company had stopped by a few days previously. To me, this piece of information was rather surprising, as I had been at that shop in Manhattan’s historic Greenwich Village only a few weeks before…

On the day I go, the store is looking handsome. I’m there in response to comments from Vicki and Kht, who both answered the call I put out for NYC bookstore suggestions late last year by recommending I pay Three Lives & Company a visit.

Even before I cross the threshold, I can see why they love it. Nestled on its corner site at 154 West 10th Street, with books peering from every pane of its windows, the store seems to gleam in the gathering winter gloom.

Inside, Three Lives & Company is equally alluring. The small space is almost entirely lined with wooden bookcases, which display their wares in the sort of soft, golden light you get in old-fashioned library reading rooms. As I wander through, gentle music accompanies the mutterings of customers and counter staff, who manage the tricky balance of acknowledging visitors’ comings and goings without intruding upon browsing.

No offer tables here. No ‘buy one get one free’ – at least not on the day I visit. Instead, I get the feeling that each of the books lucky enough to have been given shelf-room here has been hand-picked for what it will add to the shop – and is far too valued to pile high and sell cheap.

Though the number of volumes Three Lives & Company can carry at any one time is necessarily limited, its selection is diverse. Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound keeps company with works by Marilynne Robinson, Chaitali Sen, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Omar Musa. Signed copies of Pulitzer prize-winner Michael Cunningham’s latest beckon from a display.

Most of the usual suspects in translation populate the fiction section – Kafka, Ferrante, Pamuk and Murakami are all there – although I am struck by the absence of Nesbø, who I can normally count on seeing anywhere. Instead, in almost precisely the place I would expect to find Harry Hole and his associates, I spy Belgian writer Amélie Nothomb’s wickedly witty Pétronille.

At length, I select Italian Nobel Prize laureate Dario Fo’s The Pope’s Daughter and take it to the till. There, I meet another friend. Just next to the cash register, I spot a copy of Lingo by Gaston Dorren, the Dutch writer I shared an event with at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last year.

It seems the best bookshops can’t help but forge and strengthen connections.

Giving books away

 

One of the most common queries I get is whether I can share e-versions of the books from my year of reading the world for free.

This question always provokes mixed emotions in me. I can well understand the excitement and eagerness that prompt it. The idea of broadening your horizons through reading is thrilling. When you realise how much world there is out there and that books could enable you to explore it, you can feel as though a whole new reality has opened up to you (as I did when I put an appeal out to the planet’s bibliophiles to help me read the world one rainy evening in October 2011). You’re impatient to get started and if someone can send you files that can speed you on that journey, why wouldn’t you want to jump at the chance?

The problem for me is that, in their excitement, these would-be literary adventurers often don’t realise that what they are effectively asking for is pirated copies of books. If I were to scan and make available e-versions of the books I read, the writers, translators and publishers behind them would not receive any money.

This would not only be unfair but also, cumulatively, could be very damaging. If I were giving away unlimited free versions of books, it would make those titles less likely to be kept in print and available for commercial sale (and it would make anglophone publishing deals very unlikely for those titles that are not yet published in English). Over time, it could further reinforce the economic imbalance which sees English-language writers like me much more widely published than those writing in other languages (and consequently much more likely to be able to live off writing – although, according to a 2015 survey, only around 10 per cent of UK authors do so).

But the mixed feelings don’t stop there because, while I’m very conscious of the financial challenges facing writers in many parts of the world, I’m also aware of the economic difficulties facing a lot of readers. I’m lucky that I’m able to afford to buy the books that intrigue me. My year of reading the world wasn’t cheap (it cost me several thousand pounds – perhaps a little more than a month’s salary at the time – to track down all those books, several of which were quite rare), but it wasn’t impossible. These days – rare books aside – most of the titles I buy cost less than £15, a small fraction of my weekly income.

That is not the case for readers in many parts of the world. Even though cheap e-books for smartphones are making much more literature available to people in a large number of the world’s poorest countries, the cost of physical books relative to income is still prohibitive. When I interviewed Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov for my book, Reading the World, he told me that translated books in the unofficial markets in Tashkent during the Soviet era often used to sell for about the same money as he made in an entire month. In other words, it cost Ismailov proportionally the same amount to buy one translation as it cost me to read the whole world.

So, although I do not share versions of the books I read during my project (except the titles like my Maldivian read, which the creator has chosen to put online), I am always very glad to hear about and support initiatives that make literature freely available to others. These include Chinese translator collective Paper Republic’s excellent project to put one English translation of a short story by a Chinese author online each week ‘for readers who wonder what new Chinese fiction in English translation has to offer and would like to dip a toe in the water’, as their website says.

As a result, I was delighted to hear recently from a group of students in Mexicali, Mexico, near the US border. Inspired by hearing about a year of reading the world, they decided to do something to help people in their community who might not be able to get hold of many books. They collected  a load of secondhand titles and created El Librero Communitario, a community bookshelf giving away books for free. The film above shows what happened when they took the bookshelf to a bus stop in town.

The project has been such a success that the students are looking for more donations, so if you have some books you no longer need, why not contact them through their Facebook page? I’m sure there are many readers who would appreciate it.

World bookshopper: #5 Word on the Water, London (various locations)

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So far, I’ve had to go to all the bookshops I’ve featured in this series. But this week, a bookshop came to me.

I was doing some work for a client in Haggerston in east London, a stone’s throw from the Regent’s Canal. The weather’s been pretty miserable lately, so I decided to take advantage of a dry spell to go for a lunchtime walk beside the water in the company of an audiobook (Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street – such an enjoyable listen).

No sooner had I ventured onto the towpath than I heard it: orchestral jazz drifting over the water, lending the Watchmaker a jaunty backing track. Once I’d walked over a humpback bridge, it came into view: a barge topped with a sail-like canopy and bristling with shelves of books. I knew what it was before I was close enough to read the sign outside: this was Word on the Water.

I’d heard of London’s only floating bookshop before. Chuntering up and down the Regent’s Canal for the past six years, it has become something of a (shifting) local landmark. There was a petition to save it when it lost its mooring last year (the campaign won and the barge will soon be moving to a permanent site near Granary Square).

In fact, I’d even seen it once or twice during my time working at the Guardian offices near King’s Cross in 2012. Back then, I’d been too absorbed in reading and blogging about one book every 1.87 days to be able to spare the time to venture aboard.

Luckily, this week was a different story.

An eclectic array of secondhand titles awaits me on the shelves and ledges on the outside of the boat. The Illustrated Guide to Egyptian Mythology rubs shoulders with a book about Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief. There are novels by Anne Enright, William Faulkner, Will Self, Annie Proulx, Sena Jeter Naslund and Dave Eggers. Studies in European Realism, a biography of Federico García Lorca and Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City Bombay peer up at me, while the obligatory Jo Nesbø stares out from a shelf. Things are kept simple by a flaking sign, which informs me that all paperbacks are £3 or two for a fiver.

Inside, the arrangement of the barge’s deceptively extensive stock is more regimented. The fiction bookcases run alphabetically, with a separate section for classics. Meanwhile, the Harry Potters have a shelf all to themselves, nestled beneath a window, through which I watch a shoal of learner canoeists windmill past.

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Small though it is, the bookbarge feels homely and inviting. There is a corner sofa on which you can imagine whiling away an hour or two as the woodburner crackles nearby (sadly, I don’t have this luxury, being on my lunch break).

Quirky antiques and ornaments nestle in odd spaces: a typewriter here, an old telephone there. Up near the entrance, a statue of the Buddha presides over the steps down into the belly of the barge.

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As is the case with many secondhand bookshops that rely on the cast-offs of anglophone readers, who often don’t read many translations, for their stock, the selection of books originating from other languages isn’t massive. However, I do happen upon Nick Caistor’s translation of The Hare by Argentine writer César Aira in the fiction section.

What Word on the Water may lack in international literature, however, it easily makes up for in passion. When I go to pay for the Aira, co-owner Jonathan Privett talks warmly about his experience co-running the barge. He tells me that sourcing titles from charity shops and house clearances is one of his favourite parts of the enterprise, and that he wouldn’t change his 20 years in the book trade for anything – even if the rewards are rarely financial.

‘I love doing this,’ he says. ‘If it was about making money, I would have got a job.’

Before I leave, Jon kindly poses for a photo with his dog, Star, who has been punctuating our conversation with some enthusiastic barks as she waits for Jon to play fetch with her on the towpath.

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As I climb out of the boat, he invites me to come back and do a reading from my novel, Beside Myself, sometime. I might just have to do that.

Then again, perhaps Word on the Water will come to me…

World bookshopper: #4 Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, Bath

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Picture a classic, old-fashioned bookshop: square-paned windows, handsome wooden bookcases, lots of nooks and crannies in which to escape into stories. Now imagine that this space has been given over to a lovable eccentric with a penchant for rare and quirky things.

If you concentrate hard enough, what you come up with may be something approaching Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. That’s the bookshop I found myself in this week. And it is quite simply one of the most charming wordmonger’s I’ve had the pleasure of visiting to date.

Mr B’s is in Bath, a handsome city in south-west England that was the site of elaborate Roman baths and became a popular spa town in Georgian times (many of Jane Austen’s characters frequent the place). Like St George’s in Bermuda – the home of my previous World bookshopper store – it’s a World Heritage Site.

I was at Mr B’s to meet six other novelists, all of us published by Bloomsbury, in advance of a joint event we were doing at the Bath Literature Festival. I was excited to chat to these writers – among them Natasha Pulley, author of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, David Savill (They are Trying to Break Your Heart), Ali Shaw (The Trees – such a great premise) and Paul M M Cooper, who wrote the achingly beautiful River of Ink. But the shop was so fascinating that, while the others made their introductions and swapped anecdotes about their journeys, I found myself irresistibly drawn away to explore its three floors.

There were unexpected delights round every corner. An antique Remington typewriter perched nonchalantly on a step. One wall of the staircase up to the top floor was papered with pages from a comic. A bath filled with books nestled under one of the windows. In the basement, the ceiling was covered with cloth tote bags from other indie bookshops around the world.

But perhaps the crowning glory was the upstairs Bibliotherapy Room, an idyllic space, complete with a complimentary coffee pot and a modern take on a roaring fire (a clever, gas-fired gizmo, glazed in so as to keep the books and their prospective buyers safe). No doubt, had one of Austen’s heroines wandered in from the narrow street outside, she would have felt right at home whiling away an hour or two here.

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This attention to detail is backed up by a rich and full selection of merchandise, with sections including ‘Books about Books’, ‘Graphic Novels’, ‘Food & Drink’ and a case of ‘Livres, Bücher, Livros’ (titles in French, German and Spanish).

The extensive fiction section bristles with tempting translations, alongside anglophone big hitters. The usual suspects are there – Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 hovers a shelf above a rabble of Jo Nesbøs, while a Sofi Oksanen stares up winningly nearby. Nobel laureates are out in force too, with strong showings from Orhan Pamuk and Naguib Mahfouz.

However, the selection is easily broad enough to allow for new discoveries. I was particularly pleased to spot a handwritten staff recommendation for Danish author Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned. Although this book was hailed as an instant European classic when it was published a few years back, I had not come across it before (needless to say, it is now on my lengthy to-read list).

This sort of personal touch is Mr B’s strongest suit of all. While I am browsing, several customers come in and ask for particular titles or genres. The staff respond enthusiastically, revealing not only extensive knowledge of the bibliouniverse, but also a profound love of books. As I listen, I discover a little heart-shaped wire frame on the wall, full of cards on which visitors have recommended their favourite books – titles by Helen Dunmore, JK Rowling, Brady Udall and Richard Yates all feature.

Clearly, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights is not just a place to buy books, but to share and cherish them too. Small wonder that in 10 years of trading, it has twice been named the UK’s Independent Bookshop of the Year.

Do pop along if you get the chance.

World bookshopper: #3 The Book Cellar, St George’s

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If you want to go to The Book Cellar in Bermuda, you have to pick your moment carefully. The first time I visit this store, located in 265-year-old Tucker House on Water Street in St George’s, it is shut.

According to the owner of the shop next door – which is open that day – this is not unusual. Many of the businesses in the historic settlement of St George’s – a UNESCO World Heritage Site said to be the oldest continuously inhabited English town in the New World – keep part-time and sometimes unpredictable hours. In fact, that week the business owners were due to be having a meeting about it to see if they could agree a joint opening schedule that would help create more consistent buzz around the town, which has suffered since cruise ships stopped visiting this end of the island.

Luckily for me, the Bermudian friends I was staying with know Kristin White, the owner of The Book Cellar. After an exchange of emails, Steve and I make arrangements for a return visit at a time when we are certain the store will be open.

Kristin is just setting up as we arrive, pushing back the shutters to reveal a sign promising ‘Books’, ‘Toys, Gifts & Souvenirs’, ‘Art’ and, intriguingly, ‘Oddities’. She welcomes us warmly and it immediately becomes apparent that, while her shop may keep part-time hours, Kristin’s love of stories and the community of St George’s is a full-time, wholehearted commitment.

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As well as running the bookshop, with local poet Yesha Townsend, Kristin is development director of the St George’s Foundation and the town’s cultural tourism manager. She stars in a weekly ghost tour she created to bring some of the place’s 400 years of history to life. In addition, she writes creative non-fiction, and recently masterminded a historical murder-mystery evening at a nearby restaurant, using a scandal that took place in the town several centuries ago.

While I wander around the shop, she is constantly greeting customers, talking to fellow business owners and waving to people passing in the street.

Kristin’s creativity and enthusiasm are strongly reflected in The Book Cellar. Its two, small rooms are crammed with fascinating stories and objects, and there are several works by local artists on display.

Up on the shelf near the doorway into the second room, an old hardback volume stands, fanned open with the word ‘Love’ carved into its pages. On a table nearby, a newspaper-wrapped oblong promises the purchaser a ‘Blind Date with a Book’ for the bargain price of $5. Whoever is bold enough to buy it will know only that the package contains ‘Young adult fiction perfect for readers of adventure & action’ – until they hand their money over.

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Although the selection of new books is very small, it is eclectic. Alongside various poetry volumes, as well as Suzanne Finamore’s Split: A Memoir of DivorceCheat: A Man’s Guide to Infidelity and Greg Kading’s sensational-sounding Murder Rap: The Untold Story of the Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur Murder Investigations, I am pleased to see a number of translations, including Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

When I remark on this to Kristin, she tells me that, when she took over the store four years ago, her aim was to focus on international fiction, as it is a particular interest of hers. The stock is low at the moment, but she and Yesha plan to reassess and bring in some more books in the coming months, with several trips to literary events abroad on their wish list.

Meanwhile, The Book Cellar’s second-hand section is thriving. You can almost hear the shelves in the back room groaning under the weight of the titles stacked on them. And although the selection here is fairly mainstream and anglophone – a lot of James Pattersons, Dick Francises and Stephanie Meyers, some Anne Fadiman, a Tom Wolfe and two copies of Bill Clinton’s My Life – there are some more unusual finds to be had. Over by the window, Steve spots the gekiga manga Path of the Assassin by Japanese writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojim.

Back in the new books section, I settle on Ways of Dying by the South African writer Zakes Mda. I take it to the till and pay as Kristin tells me about plans she has for two further tours in the town – one to do with food and the other, a bicycle trip.

‘When people ask me what I do, I say I sell story,’ she says. ‘St George’s main export is story.’

Back on Water Street, walking down towards the main square, where even now a ducking-stool juts out above the water showing where town gossips used to be dunked in the sea (and re-enactors still get wet from time to time), I can’t help thinking she’s right.

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