Bolivia: fresh blood

Jimena, who suggested my Dominican Republic book, also had thoughts on Bolivia: Edmundo Paz Soldán was the most celebrated Bolivian writer around, she said. Perhaps if I emailed him and told him about my project he might be able to point me in the direction of a lesser-known Bolivian author whose work had been translated into English.

I had some reservations about this idea. In my experience, asking a writer to recommend other writers can often be the literary equivalent of wandering into McDonald’s and asking the staff if they know of any good fast-food outlets in the area. It’s not calculated to ingratiate you with them, you’re unlikely to get what you’re looking for, and you may very well find yourself asked to leave in no uncertain terms.

Still, if I did want to explore what other literature in translation might be available from South America’s poorest country, there wasn’t much else to go on. And besides, there was a big lot of water between me in London and Paz Soldán in his department at Cornell University. It was probably worth the risk.

Luckily for me, Paz Soldán turned out to be one of those exceptions that prove the rule. He wrote back enthusiastically to say that, while there was very little Bolivian literature available in English, his top recommendation was a short story collection by young writer Giovanna Rivero Santa Cruz, which had been published in a bilingual edition by Editorial La Hoguera in Bolivia.

When my copy of Sangre dulce/Sweet Blood arrived, the reasons for Paz Soldán’s enthusiasm became doubly clear: he had written the ‘Prologue’, in which he described Rivero as ‘one of the top-ranked young women writers of our time’. I was eager to see how her work stacked up.

Graphic, gripping and strange, Rivero’s stories – published here in an alternating edition where the English translation follows each Spanish piece – explore how power dynamics shift, warp and harden in relationships. Whether they focus on the child scared by a glimpse of her father’s sexuality during a telling of ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlin’, the psychiatric patient obliged to trade physical favours to win the right to shave her armpits, or the dog who eats her puppies while her owners endure the tension of house-to-house searches by the military, the way that people and animals displace and sublimate emotion in extreme circumstances is at the heart of these tales.

Much of the tension in the collection derives from opposition, particularly between the sexes. In ‘Masters of the Sand’, for example, two cousins discover how ‘enmity, love and glory are part of a perverse game’, when a childhood battle between two captive scorpions forges a destructive chain of consequences that wraps itself around both their lives. Similarly, the opening story ‘Final Countdown’, in which Macy and Alfredo battle each other in a series of sadistic sexual games opens up a mingled seam of sex and violence which runs throughout the collection.

For all their directness, though, many of the stories thrive on what Rivero leaves unwritten. The vital key to the characters’ suffering is only hinted at – as in the title story in which we can only guess at the precise nature of the abuse that Silva’s father inflicts on her – or the stories end at the moment before the decisive action takes place.

My favourite piece, ‘An Imperfect Day’, is a great example of this. Here, Rivero swirls together details – Marcelino’s mutilated hand, his loss of his job, the revolver his dad passed down from the Chaco War, his partner’s all-engulfing sexuality – which circle faster and faster, like water spiralling round a plughole, until they disappear into the inevitable conclusion, which happens just after the last line.

This subtlety means that a few of the pieces are a bit opaque. In addition, the leanness of the writing, in which nothing is wasted, requires absolute concentration from the reader to achieve its full effect. I found myself having to go over the opening paragraphs of several stories twice, so immediately did they thrust me into the midst of their action.

Such focus though is no hardship. Indeed, most of the stories are so compelling that they draw you in without you even realising. A word of warning though: commuters should consider saving this one for bedtime reading, otherwise Rivero might well make you miss your stop.

Sangre dulce/Sweet Blood by Giovanna Rivero Santa Cruz, translated from the Spanish by Kathy S Leonard (Editorial La Hoguera, 2006)

Suriname: the ties that bind

The maxim goes that we’re all six degrees of separation away from everyone else on the planet. From what I’ve discovered so far during this project to read a book from every sovereign state in the world, I’d say it’s less than that. Although I’m still lacking suggestions for several countries (see the list for any gaps you can help fill in, or any nations you can add more suggestions to), I’ve been amazed by the number of connections to far-flung places that have emerged in my own network of friends.

In the case of the small South American country of Suriname, the lead came through one of my boyfriend’s friends, who studied with him at film school. His family is Surinamese and so getting a recommendation for a book from there was simply a matter of a quick Facebook message across the Atlantic.

As it turned out, there was one author and one novel that stood head and shoulders above the rest. Published in 1987, Cynthia McLeod’s The Cost of Sugar is still the country’s bestselling book both at home and abroad. It sold 100,000 copies when it first came out – no mean feat in Suriname where, as McLeod explains in her introduction, any title selling more than 5,000 copies is considered a hit. Clearly, I had to see what all the fuss was about.

Spanning 14 years in the 18th century, the novel explores life in the former Dutch colony in the days when sugar and slavery were the nation’s driving forces. The story is told through the eyes of half-sisters Elza and Sarith, daughters of wealthy Jewish plantation owners who live through a period of extreme personal and political turbulence as tumbling markets and the growing band of escaped slaves, or ‘bush-negroes’, hiding in the jungle begin to challenge the status quo.

Discrimination is a key theme and the spark that ignites many of the most explosive episodes in the plot. In addition to highlighting the extreme racial prejudices – both between masters and slaves and between gentiles and the Jewish community that originally settled the colony – McLeod reflects the rife misogyny of the period, with many of her bright female characters confined to frivolous, ineffectual lives because of their sex. Her particular talent is showing the blind spots that exist in otherwise decent characters – Rutger, Elza’s husband, for example, is progressive when it comes to racial issues but sees no problem with exacting a promise from his intended that she ‘will not be a jealous wife’ and will turn a blind eye to his infidelities.

Inevitably, the most extreme instances of injustice and discrimination concern the black slaves. Pulling no punches when it comes to descriptions of the barbaric punishments devised to keep them in check – punishments which increase in cruelty and frequency as insurrection grows – McLeod conjures a memorable picture of the atrocities of the slave trade. She brings this home through a series of personal stories, many of which are extremely gripping and moving – the death of elderly Ashana after Sarith orders her to be flogged in a fit of pique even had me blinking back the tears.

Now and then, the shifts in perspective between the wide cast of characters feel a little abrupt. In addition, McCleod’s understandable sympathy for the plight of the slaves occasionally leads to some questionable statements about the uniformly moral and good nature of the bush-negroes living in the jungle.

All in all, though, this is a powerful evocation of key moment in South America’s history. Tracing the chain of guilt that leads from the slaves on the plantation right to the luxury mansions along the canals in Amsterdam, McLeod emphasises the ties that link us across the world. We are all much closer than we think.

The Cost of Sugar by Cynthia McLeod, translated from the Dutch by Gerald R Mettam (HopeRoad, 2011)

Venezuela: the best medicine

This project would be nothing without the people all over the planet who get in touch to suggest books, publishers, experts and organisations to help me read my way round the world. I’m continually delighted by how generous fellow booklovers are with their time and expertise, and the way these recommendations are opening up new vistas of reading.

Cherie Elston is one of those people. As arts editor of Palabras Errantesan ezine dedicated to promoting Latin American literature (which Laura introduced me to via a comment on The List), she knows a thing or two about books from South America. All the same, I couldn’t help being impressed by the list of 65 authors she sent in reply to my email.

I’m still researching my way through it and it will probably take me years to get hold of all the books (translations permitting). But I had to start somewhere and, as I didn’t have anything down for Venezuela before Cherie got in touch, I decided to begin with Alberto Barrera Tyszka.

Charting Dr Andrés Miranda’s response to the discovery that his father has terminal cancer, Tyszka’s Herralde Prize-winning novel The Sickness explores health, illness, life and death, and the strange, dispassionate vehicle of medicine that shuttles us between them. As Dr Miranda’s professionalism crumbles in the face of his impending loss, he is forced to confront his limitations and reassess his relationship with the vocation to which he is dedicated his life.

Tyszka’s ability to write about loss in all its guises is exceptional. From the seismic tremors it sends through an ordered existence to the absent-mindedness it interpolates into everyday moments, he captures it expertly. He also has a talent for presenting the inner workings of paranoia, which he sets forth through an email correspondence between Dr Miranda’s secretary and a strangely dependent patient.

The imagery he finds to convey the physical effects of shock and sadness is powerful too. When Andrés first sees his father’s results, we read that he feels ‘as if he bore inside him some helpless, stumbling creature, as if he were giving birth to a disaster’ and later, when his father phones to hear the news, that he ‘has a hedgehog on his tongue. His throat fills with pineapple rind’. This directness spills into Tyszka’s observation’s about his own craft as well. ‘Tears are very unliterary: they have no form’, he observes.

This insight is not always matched when it comes to observations about other areas of human existence. There are some strange generalisations about sexuality and the sexes, which ring oddly in the work of so generally empathetic and intuitive a writer.

Now and then the portrayal of hospital life stretches credulity too. Having grown up in a medical household, I found the idea that a surgeon would cancel an operation because his friend had just had some bad news hard to swallow. Now and then it seemed that Tyszka had underestimated the thick skin that most medical practitioners have to develop to survive their careers.

But these were minor points. The book was immensely enjoyable, as well as being touching and profound. Its exploration of the emotional spectrum and the stories we tell to inoculate ourselves against its worst effects will no doubt resonate with readers around the world, as it did with me.

Thanks Laura, Cherie and everybody else – please keep those recommendations coming.

Chile: the power of book groups

I have a confession to make: I’ve never been to a book group. In fact they fill me with dread.

I’m not quite sure why. Maybe the workshop process on my master’s course inoculated me against any desire to sit in rooms talking about books with all but a very few close friends or maybe it’s that I prefer to organise and express my thoughts through writing rather than speaking. More likely it’s because I’m not actually very good in groups — I have a bad habit of disengaging and clamming up when a line of conversation makes me impatient or gets pulled in too many directions.

Nevertheless it’s clear from people I speak to and visitors to this blog that book groups are a valuable way for readers to share their enthusiasm for literature and to discover works that might otherwise have passed them by.

This is particularly true in a place like London, where people of all sorts of cultural and national backgrounds can meet and mingle to swap ideas. So when an old university friend told me that she had particularly enjoyed a novel by young writer Alejandro Zambra that she read for her book group recently, it seemed like the perfect suggestion for my Chilean book.

Spanning a single night, The Private Lives of Trees follows aspiring-novelist-turned-literature professor Julian as he waits for his wife Veronica to come home from her drawing class. His stepdaughter Daniela is in bed and he is telling her a bedtime story, but, as the hours pass and the idea of Veronica’s return becomes an increasingly forlorn hope, the comfortable domestic scene snags and unravels, sending Julian groping through a gallery of memories and paranoid projections in an effort to stave off the horrid realisation that his life is changed for good.

Zambra’s skill lies in making a non-event — Veronica’s failure to appear — the central action of the novel. Normally books in which very little happens suffer from a lack of tension for which their rich arrays of literary insights struggle to compensate. Here, however, the drama builds, tautening the sinews of the narrative in line with Julian’s nerves as he strains to hear the familiar sound of his wife coming through the door.

For all its tension, the book also manages some flashes of comedy that vary the register nicely. This is helped by the arch narrative voice, which hovers half in and half out of Julian’s head and tantalises the reader with startling statements delivered in a cavalier, off the cuff way — ‘For now suffice it to say that during those years Julian pretended not to have a family’ it informs us at one point before sweeping on to other matters.

One or two of the devices are a little stale. The section where Julian tells himself what would happen ‘if this were a novel’, for example, has been done too many times by other writers for it to retain the dramatic irony it needs.

For the most part, though, this is an engrossing story told by an inventive and subtle writer in a sharp and skilful translation. I enjoyed it very much. Perhaps it’s time I thought about giving book groups a go…

The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell). Open letter (2010)