Postcard from my bookshelf #8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serbia: cultural exchange

Colleagues are wonderful things: you can have a casual conversation in passing one morning and suddenly discover that the person you catch sight of every so often in the canteen or say hello to on the stairs is an expert in a whole host of subjects you know nothing about. Over my time freelancing at newspaper and magazine offices in and around central London, I’ve shared water coolers with salsa dancers, filmmakers, fell runners, actors, poets, and many more besides.

In a place like London, colleagues can also be a great source of information about books from other countries. And so, when I discovered that Tijana who sat behind me for a time at the Guardian was Serbian and a booklover to boot, I lost no time in asking her for suggestions.

Tijana went one better than simply giving me a list of recommendations. On a trip home a few months later, she picked out a translation of a book she had enjoyed and posted it to me. And so it was that I found myself clutching a copy of Srđjan Valjarević’s intriguingly titled Lake Como.

The novel follows a Serbian writer who takes up a Rockefeller scholarship for a month-long residency at the luxurious Villa Maranese by Lake Como in Italy. Surrounded by academics, thinkers and artists on similar bursaries, the protagonist, who is there on the pretext of writing a novel, spends his days sleeping, getting drunk, watching football and chatting up a waitress in a local bar. He seems destined to fritter his time away, yet as the weeks pass his observations and interactions with the people around him take on a meaning that in many ways transcends the work he might have done on his own.

Frank, irreverent and at ease with his shortcomings, Valjarević’s protagonist is an extremely likeable character. Whether he is describing his part in the application process for the scholarship – ‘I was drinking beer as I wrote a short outline of the novel, I made it all up, and my friend Vlada translated it into English and then corresponded with them for a while instead of me’ – or the fabrications he uses to get out of the centre’s dreary cultural evenings and concerts, the hero is refreshingly honest and often very funny.

Such humour is just the tool Valjarević needs to puncture the earnestness of the Villa Maranese and reveal the absurdity of much that goes on there. Whether he is dodging the fierce questions of the Kyrgyz literature expert determined to press-gang him into giving a lecture, sympathising with the Nigerian poet who has travelled all the way from Africa only to spend his residency laid up with back pain, or taking advantage of his peers’ simplistic assumptions about the horror of his life back in Belgrade, the hero’s interactions show up the surreal elements and contradictions that lie beneath the worthy veneer of life at the Villa Maranese. Perhaps most telling of all is the chapter where the writer invites the waitress and his other friends from the village to dinner at the house and discovers that, despite living next door to the fabulous grounds, they have never before been able to go inside.

Yet the novel is far from a hatchet job on pompous cultural schemes. Indeed, the paradox at the heart of the book is that, despite his ostensible abuse of the terms of his scholarship, the writer gains much of value during his residency: he makes meaningful connections, both with people in the village and with several fellow guests; he has moments of transcendent experience, from seeing a golden eagle to hearing the tune of bells in a town he can no longer visit played by another resident; and he begins to re-evaluate the way he lives.

The result is a moving and surprisingly searching consideration of nationality, art, identity, culture and human endeavour. It is at once one of the funniest books I’ve read this year and one of the most profound. If you can get your hands on a copy, it’s well worth the effort.

Lake Como (Komo) by Srđjan Valjarević, translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tošić (Geopoetika Publishing, Belgrade, 2009)