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.

Book of the month: Saneh Sangsuk

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Experts have been a great help to me since I decided to try to read the world. Many of the books I read for my original project in 2012 were recommended by people who had devoted decades of their lives to studying or translating literature from particular regions or languages. My Chinese and UAE choices were two very good examples – in both cases, the advice of people with in-depth knowledge of the books of those nations directed my attention to fascinating titles that I may well not have considered otherwise.

So when Sutida Wimuttikosol, a Thai literary critic and lecturer at Thammasat University,  introduced herself to me at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I lost no time in asking for her suggestions for literature from her homeland. Wimuttikosol emailed me details of three writers with work available in English translation: Khamsing Srinawk, Prabda Yoon and Saneh Sangsuk.

I tracked down work by all of them and can second Wimuttikosol’s recommendations – they are all, in their different ways, intriguing authors. However, the book that grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and has colonised a large swathe of my imaginary universe this month is The White Shadow by Saneh Sangsuk, and that’s the title I’m going to write about today.

In many ways, Sangsuk was a controversial writer for a Thai literary critic to recommend. Although his talent has long been recognised outside Thailand (the French government even made him a chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2008), the wordsmith’s work has historically had a less-than-glowing reception in his own nation.

According to the biographical note at the end of my edition of The White Shadow, in Thailand the author ‘raises twice as many jeers than cheers’. The novel was struck off the 1994 SEA Write Award pre-selection list and sold less than 1,000 copies, forcing its author (who had funded its publication himself) to survive ‘with no computer, no phone, no TV, but books from floor to ceiling in his rented room, writing in longhand […] and occasionally being treated to lunch at the market by his friends after he helps them sweep the floor’.

The eccentricity and single-mindedness the description above suggests is reflected amply in The White Shadow. As its subtitle – ‘portrait of the artist as a young rascal’ – suggests, it is an autobiographical coming-of-age novel. Looking back on the excesses, cruelties and bad choices of his youth, the narrator, who has retreated to a ramshackle house in the rural north to try to write, oscillates between self-loathing and self-pity, with numerous flights into mania, fantasy and humour along the way.

It’s subject matter that thousands of bildungsromans around the world – from Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and JM Coetzee’s Youth to MT Vasudevan Nair’s Kaalam, not to mention the James Joyce book referenced in the English-language title – have tackled over the centuries. Yet no-one has done it quite like Sangsuk. Extraordinarily inventive, merciless and sometimes offensive, his writing zeroes in on the smallest dust mote before spiralling out to look at the world from the perspective of outer space. All of life is here – digressions on Western art and Eastern mysticism, dissections of music and scientific theory, ponderings on philosophy, politics and psychology. You name it; you’ll find it in these pages.

In addition, the narrative bristles with lush descriptions of Thailand in many of its guises. The seedy underbelly of Bangkok and the wild splendour of the jungle all appear in lavish detail. We trail through the slums and universities, and jostle against the hawkers and hoodlums in the markets and on the beaches. Beauty and brokenness abound.

The same can be said of the writing. Some passages are astonishingly virtuosic and playful. Nevertheless – whether through glitches in the translation or quirks in Sangsuk’s style – there are odd turns of phrase and the occasional malapropism.

The book is also not an easy read from a liberal Western standpoint. Its questionable handling of gender issues and the unabashed misogyny of its protagonist make for some very uncomfortable moments.

For all that, though, this is an extraordinary performance. Whether its compatriots own it or not, the novel has things to say to readers everywhere. It will delight, challenge, unsettle and move.

Pleasingly, more than 20 years after this book met with the opprobrium of many of his peers, Sangsuk does seem to be getting more homegrown recognition. In 2014, his collection Venom and Other Stories won the SEA Write Award denied to his earlier work.

If The White Shadow is anything to go by, the accolade was richly deserved. The author, however, with the directness that makes that book so powerful, wasn’t convinced that his new work deserved the recognition. ‘It’s readable, I’d give it B+,’ he told the Bangkok Post.

The White Shadow: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Rascal (Ngao See Khao) by Saneh Sangsuk, translated from the Thai by Marcel Barang (Thaifiction Publishing, 2009)

Photo ‘Bangkok, Thailand’ by Simon Marussi on Flickr

*New* Book of the month: Elena Ferrante

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When I wrote the final post of my Year of Reading the World, back on 31 December 2012, I thought this blog was finished. As the first months of 2013 went by, however, I discovered the world had other ideas.

Not only was I immersed in research about global literature for my forthcoming book, Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer, but I found myself constantly coming into contact with interesting projects and initiatives that I wanted to let you know about.

The book recommendations from readers all over the planet kept coming in too (they still do to this day), so I decided to update the list every now and then to make sure that none of the excellent suggestions go to waste.

But it didn’t stop there: various publishers also jumped on the band wagon, frequently emailing to ask whether they could send me books in the hope that I might blog about them. Even when I explained that I wasn’t reviewing books on this site anymore, some people still posted me their titles.

Such was the case with Daniela Petracco, director of Europa Editions UK. Although I told her that I wouldn’t write about Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, she insisted on sending me a copy along with a glowing description of the work, so convinced was she of its power.

All credit to her, because the novel might have sat on my to-read mountain for a long time had it not been for Petracco’s belief in it. Something about the way she described the story and her enthusiasm for it made it stand out in my memory so that when I came to choose my next read last week, my hand reached for it, bypassing many titles that have been waiting for weeks, months and even years.

What followed was an enthralling reading experience, reminiscent of those childhood immersions in a story that turn the volume of the real world down to a whisper. It impressed and delighted me – and it was powerful enough to make me revoke my decision not to do any more book reviewing on this blog because I simply had to let you know about it (despite her success in Italy, the reclusive Ferrante is very little known in the Anglophone world – last year, the Economist declared that she ‘may be the best contemporary novelist you have never heard of’).

Indeed, reading Ferrante’s novel has inspired me to introduce a regular review slot. From now on, I will choose one ‘Book of the month’ that has stood out from among the titles I’ve read (perhaps recommended by you, stumbled upon by me or sent by a passionate advocate) and publish a post on the last Tuesday of the month about it.

So, without further ado, here’s a little insight into what makes My Brilliant Friend: Childhood, Adolescence such a tour de force.

Charting a close friendship between two girls , Elena and Lila, growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood in 1950s Naples, this, the first volume in a trilogy, depicts the rabble of circumstances, character traits and incidents that conspire to make us dream of a better life while condemning us to be who we are. From the jealousy that steers the central characters between cruelty and fierce loyalty, at once sabotaging and supporting each other, to the bitter realities that blight the hopes of figures such as Lila’s brother, Rino – tormented by visions of a family shoemaking empire but without the focus and application to see it through – and the wretched Melina, driven mad by her love for a philandering poet, Ferrante shows us the levers working the vice that warps and crushes the human soul.

Menace is everywhere. Whether in the childhood imaginings that shape the ogre-like figure of Don Achille or the all-too-real characters of the Solara brothers, terrorising the area with their Camorra connections, violence is only ever a mistimed comment away. Straitjacketed by honour codes that at once protect and hobble them, Elena and Lila must make desperate choices to have a hope of exercising some sort of control over their lives.

Now and then, the narrative doesn’t hold together as tightly as it could. Ferrante gives us a few too many TV-style recaps of events and there are occasional statements that contradict what has gone before – at a wedding towards the end of the book, for example, we read that ‘it was clear no one who had received an invitation wanted to miss it’ shortly after we have just witnessed the local school teacher spurn an attempt to get her to attend.

Some readers may also be frustrated by the mismatch between the prologue, set in the present day presumably some way towards the conclusion of the yet-to-be-published (in English) third book in the trilogy, and the main narrative, which only goes up until the mid-1960s. Unlike works that make up many other literary trilogies, this novel cannot really be said to stand alone.

Nevertheless, if the trade-off is that we have to read on to find all the ends tied up, it’s a sacrifice few are likely to mind making. Hmmn, I wonder if I can persuade Daniela Petracco to send me the next book…

My Brilliant Friend (L’amica geniale) by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2012; 2013)