Book of the month: Trifonia Melibea Obono

August is Women in Translation month. This is an excellent initiative started in 2014 by blogger Meytal Radzinski to highlight the fact that less than a third of the books translated into English each year are written by women. As I realised when I totted up my numbers a couple of years ago, my quest broadly reflected the gender imbalance in publishing in 2012 – only 27 per cent of the books I read that year were by female authors.

As a result, I welcome the continued efforts of bloggers like Radzinski to bring translated work by women to wider audiences and am pleased to see a new reading women writers worldwide project by journalist Sophie Baggott getting off to a flying start. For my own small contribution to the cause, I read only work by women in August.

This year has seen some great additions to the anglophone global bookshelf, including several fascinating reads from underrepresented countries and languages. Examples include Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena, translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis, and Celestial Bodies by Omani author Jokha Alharthi, translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth.

My pick for this month, however, comes not only from a little represented country, but from a minority perspective in that nation. La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel, is not only the first novel by a woman from Equatorial Guinea to be translated into the world’s most published language, but it is also one of the few LGBTQ African novels to have come onto my radar.

The story follows the coming of age of Okomo, a motherless girl who sets out to try to find her father, and in the process discovers some challenging truths about herself and her traditional Fang culture. As she becomes aware of her desires and of the way that people like her and her Uncle Marcelo – a ‘fan e mina’ or ‘man-woman’ – stand outside society’s norms, the protagonist is pushed towards a deeper understanding of the impulses that drive her and the forces that have shaped the world in which she must find a place.

The novel provides fascinating insights into a way of life that feels far removed from Western urban culture. With its glimpses of Fang traditions – including the belief that women can prove their femininity by handling hot pots without cloths and the expectations surrounding polygamous marriages – it will offer rich material for readers hungry for details of places they might never visit in person. The presentation of the LGBTQ elements of the story is also striking. (‘There isn’t a word for it. It’s like you don’t exist,’ explains Uncle Marcelo to Okomo, although translator Schimel does opt to include the English term ‘lesbian’ later in the book.)*

Yet some of the narrative’s most memorable and often funny moments have a ring of universality to them too. Okomo’s grandfather’s misogynistic ramblings about the suitable behaviour of young girls, for example, and her grandmother’s attempts to manipulate her younger relatives feel instantly recognisable. Okomo also displays a deadpan humour that would be authentic in the mouth of a teenager anywhere.

At times, the book almost feels like a fable or fairy tale. Recalling some of the fantastic elements of By Night the Mountain Burns, as well as the Nigerian classic The Palm-Wine Drinkard, the narrative takes flight when Okomo ventures into the forest, a place where restrictive rules fall away and she is free to be herself. As Abosede George writes in her thoughtful Afterword, this use of the setting confronts common claims that LGBTQ issues are ‘unAfrican’ by rooting these characters and their relationships in the soil.

There is no hiding the fact that this book requires work from anglophone readers. Its perspective and cultural references will inevitably have a distancing effect for many. In addition, the differences in approaches to pacing, repetition and taboos may mean a lot of Western readers find the narrative leaping forward when they expect more build up and circling back when they are impatient to press ahead. Characters may also appear coy and blunt by turns as their mores clash with anglophone norms.

Most of these issues, however, have more to do with many English-language readers’ limitations – reinforced by the prevailing trends in publishing – than with La Bastarda itself. It is a significant book. The more such stories we read, the better we will learn to understand them.

La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel (Feminist Press, 2018)

Picture: ‘Bioko_2010_1891‘ by NathanaelStanek on flickr.com

*After I wrote this review, translator Lawrence Schimel explained to me that the Spanish word ‘lesbiana’ is present in two places in the book, hence his inclusion of the English term. There is no word for lesbian in the Fang language. Apparently, the way to approach this was a source of considerable discussion during the editing process.

Book of the month: Liliana Colanzi

With a few notable exceptions, South American countries are generally poorly served when it comes to having their literature translated into the world’s most published language. If you want to venture beyond Colombian, Argentinian or Brazilian literature, you quickly find that quite a few nations only have a handful of their authors’ works available in English.

Bolivia is a case in point. When I cast about for something to read from there in 2012, there seemed to be very little choice. In the end, on the recommendation of the country’s most celebrated contemporary writer, Edmundo Paz Soldán, who graciously responded to my request for thoughts on lesser-known Bolivian writers I might discover, I plumped for the striking and savage short-story collection Sangre dulce/Sweet Blood by Giovanna Rivero Santa Cruz.

Five years later when a translation of another short-story collection by a female Bolivian writer came onto my radar through #WITMonth, I thought it might make an interesting comparison.

A brief summary of the content of some of the stories in Liliana Colanzi’s Our Dead World, translated by Jessica Sequeira, immediately shows up common ground between the authors. Stories of mental breakdown, maternal cruelty, child death, indigenous slavery and suicide make up the meat of this collection; like Rivero, Colanzi has an eye for the darker side of life.

The similarities don’t end there, for Colanzi’s writing possesses a similar muscularity and violence to Rivero’s. She has no hesitation in plunging us into disturbing scenes – such as the brutal killing of a pig, which opens the story ‘Alfredito’. These she fleshes out in precise and alarming detail, revealing that cruelty lives not in the summary of the things we do but in the moment-by-moment choices to deny, impose, withhold or force.

As with Rivero’s work – and indeed a number of the other Latin American works I’ve read – mental illness and the uncanny loom large. The world is never quite stable or trustworthy. The wave that travels through a university campus, triggering a spate of student suicides, is never explained. Neither are the spooky animals glimpsed by a homesick space traveller on Mars.

What gives Colanzi’s writing its own unique flavour, however, is her love of unusual perspectives. From ‘Family Portrait’, in which the surfacing of longstanding grudges between generations is told largely through the eyes of the photographer’s assistant helping to set up a group photograph, to ‘Story with Bird’, in which the narrator steps back briefly from events to envisage a time when humankind is extinct and other unimaginable beings inhabit the earth, the writer delights in showing us her characters from surprising angles.

The most delicious example is the way she crashes together space time and quotidian human existence at the start of ‘Meteorite’:

‘The meteroid traced the same orbit in the solar system for fifteen million years until the movement of a comet pushed it toward Earth. Even so, it took another twenty thousand more years before it collided with the planet, during which time the world passed through an ice age, mountains shifted and the waves gave land masses a new shape. Innumerable life forms died out forever, while others battled ferociously, adapted and repopulated the Earth. When the object at last entered the atmosphere[…] the igneous ball, a meter and a half in diameter, fell on the outskirts of San Borja. Its spectacular descent from the heavens was witnessed by a couple at home, arguing at five-thirty in the morning.’

Sometimes this playfulness topples into the outright weird. There are digressions and odd turns of events that feel too loosely threaded through the narratives. And, as is almost always the case with collections of this kind, certain of the stories are more successful than others.

On the whole, though, this is an arresting book. Its pieces work together to remind us that, although we are small, short-lived organisms in a vast and ancient universe, we nevertheless have the capacity to do startling things.

Our Dead World (Nuestro mundo muerto) by Liliana Colanzi, translated from the Spanish by Jessica Sequeira (Dalkey Archive Press, 2017)

Picture: ‘Abandoned steam engine in Uyuni train cemetery’ by Jimmy Harris on flickr.com

Book of the month: Samanta Schweblin

When I was at university, I saw the following question on an exam paper: ‘Literary prizes often go to the right author but rarely the right book. Discuss.’ It was one of my earliest exposures to the doubts that often surface as the book world’s award ceremonies come round each year.

It’s easy to see why some people are cynical about prizes. With so many publications competing for attention (according to the Guardian recent years have seen more than 20 titles released every hour in the UK alone, with a total of 184,000 new and revised works coming out in 2013), it seems inevitable that awards are at least partly luck of the draw.

Indeed, history is littered with the names of literary greats passed over for accolades that subsequent generations of readers would have rushed to heap upon them. Neither Virginia Woolf nor James Joyce received the Nobel Prize for Literature, for example, while several of those lauded over the decades have slipped into obscurity.

Nevertheless, during my quest to read a book from every country, I found book prizes could act as useful signposts when it came to selecting reads from literary traditions and markets that were largely unfamiliar to me. The fact that Sunethra Rajakarunanayake’s Metta had won the Best Sinhala Novel State Literary Award, for instance, emboldened me to choose it for Sri Lanka with positive results.

So, although I appreciate that book prizes are an inexact science, I nevertheless look out for the announcement of the major longlists and shortlists each year. And for those of us interested in reading books that originate beyond the English-speaking world, they don’t come much more major than the Man Booker International Prize, which was awarded for the first time last year to Han Kang and translator Deborah Smith for The Vegetarian, a book of the month pick of mine some months before.

April’s book of the month, Argentinian novelist Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, translated by Megan McDowell, comes from the shortlist for the 2017 award. I read it some weeks ago after seeing lots of excitement about it on social media and it stayed with me. Earlier this month, I was delighted to discover that it was among the six novels in contention for the award.

Framed as a vision arising from a woman’s delirium as she lies dying, the narrative centres on a holiday gone sour. Terror glints in the sunshine as Amanda haltingly recalls meeting flamboyant Carla and the macabre story she shared about her desperate attempt to save her poisoned son, David, by submitting him to a process of partial  transmigration conducted by a local medicine woman. Yet, as the book unfolds, it becomes apparent that the malevolent forces in question are not confined to Carla’s memory, and that Amanda and her daughter Nina could be at risk from them too.

Concision is central to the narrative’s power. In this slender, 194-page novel, Schweblin and McDowell know the weight of each word and deploy them to achieve maximum pressure.

Mystery abounds as the familiar becomes strange. This is a world where the most mundane of things – a child waking in the night, a lesser-known brand of peas – acquire a horrid weirdness. And as Amanda swerves in and out of the story, urged on by the very David whose eerie unmaking lies at the heart of the book, the ground of the narrative shifts unnervingly beneath our feet.

‘You know. But you don’t understand,’ David tells Amanda. Is he addressing us too?

Loathe though I am to make too much of comparisons between writers from markedly different times and traditions, I couldn’t help but find echoes of the work of one of my favourite authors, Shirley Jackson, here. Schweblin’s management of unease and foreboding is every bit as deft as the building of giddy queasiness found in such classics as The Haunting of Hill House. (Incidentally, Ruth Franklin’s outstanding biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, is a must-read for all those who have enjoyed Jackson’s work.)

The result is memorable, haunting and brave. Like all books that test the limits of what words can do, Fever Dream takes risks and there are odd occasions where the narrative knots or sags, such that some readers might flail to regain the thread. These are few, however.

Not having read Schweblin’s other works, I can’t say how this compares and whether or not it is the title from her oeuvre most deserving of global recognition. But if the Man Booker International Prize judges see fit to honour Fever Dream this year, I would count it a worthy second winner.

Fever Dream (Distancia de rescate) by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Oneworld, 2017)

Image from manbookerprize.com

WITmonth pick #5: Lina Meruane

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When I tweeted that I was reading Seeing Red by Chilean writer Lina Meruane last month, @infinitetexts responded: ‘hold on tight. It’s a brilliant ride!’ It turned out to be good advice because this slender work, my fifth and last pick of the 17 books I read during Women in Translation month, is a roller coaster of a story.

The autobiographical novel follows the fortunes of Lina, a doctoral student in New York who loses her sight after a stroke. Forced to depend more and more on her boyfriend, Ignacio, and relatives back in Chile, the fiercely intelligent, ambitious and self-reliant protagonist has to renegotiate her relationships with those around her and the world. As she does so, she is obliged to look at life, humanity, the body and science afresh.

Meruane’s ability to take readers into the experience of sight loss is extraordinary. Her descriptions are fresh, immediate and memorable, inviting comparisons with passages from Nobel Prize winner José Saramago’s great novel Blindness. Although the catastrophe that Meruane evokes is private and individual, as opposed to the public and universal breakdown of society that Saramago depicts, it is every bit as engrossing and devastating. In this narrative we discover that to lose your sight is to risk losing your self – an eventuality which could cost you the world as utterly as any mass outbreak of sightlessness might.

At root, this is a book about what happens when the familiar suddenly becomes strange, rendering the methods by which we have known and judged the things around us useless. It reveals what happens when the known is made mysterious – when simple acts such as moving around your apartment or recognising an acquaintance turn into minefields, when the street ceases to be a place and becomes instead ‘a crowd of sounds all elbowing and shoving’. In showing us life through a scuffed lens, the novel helps us to look at everyday occurrences differently.

The idea that blindness opens up alternative channels of vision and insight is hardly new – storytellers have been playing with it since the creation of the first Ancient Greek myths involving the blind prophet Tiresias and probably long before that. Yet, in Meruane’s hands, the familiar trope takes on a fresh urgency, helped by startling language use and imagery that makes the text leap from the page. Indeed, praise is due to translator Megan McDowell, who has not only managed to deliver an English version full of surprising and challenging repurposements of words, but also had to contend with a scene in which Lina and Ignacio try to do a crossword – surely no easy thing to bring successfully from one language to another.

The consequence of the odd brilliance of the prose, which is sometimes bewildering in its breathlessness, is that it makes reading itself strange. Much like the protagonist, who has to remake her interaction with texts by way of audiobooks, we also have to relearn to read in order to inhabit this novel. And just as Lina stumbles over the once mundane objects of her life, we may find ourselves blundering between sentences, having to stop now and then to reorientate ourselves and ensure that our interpretation is on track.

The result is powerful and memorable. Although I wish Meruane had opted for a different final sentence (the existing one being a little on-the-nose for my liking), there is no doubt that this book is a valuable addition to the literature of blindness, as well as an excellent read. It is exhilarating – a brilliant ride as @infinitetexts said. I came away with my vision sharpened and my head spinning.

Seeing Red (Sangre en el ojo) by Lina Meruane, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Deep Vellum, 2016)

Picture: ‘Blurred vision’ by Judy on flickr.com

Book of the month: Eduardo Halfon

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It’s been a difficult week here in the UK and for many of us there is great uncertainty about the future. One thing I am sure of, however, is that – now more than ever – we English speakers must read and listen to the stories of people who use other languages. From what I have learnt over more than four years of global literary exploration, this is one of the surest and best ways to further our understanding and appreciation of the way those in other places see the world.

Translation gives us the gift of looking through the eyes of all humanity. By borrowing others’ perspectives, in the special way that stories allow us to do, we enlarge and enrich our seeing. We will need that vision more profoundly than ever in the challenging months ahead.

With that in mind, it’s my pleasure to share a wonderful novel from a nation that, to date, has had almost none of its literature translated into English. Back in 2012, when I was deep in my quest to read a book from every country in the world in a year, the pickings from Guatemala were slim. I went with The President by Miguel Angel Asturias (translated from the Spanish by Frances Partridge), a book first published in Mexico in 1946. At the time, it was the only novel from the nation that I could find in English translation.

So you can imagine my delight when Guatemalan author Eduardo Halfon’s The Polish Boxer came onto my radar. Published in the final months of my quest, this translation of a slim collection of interlinked short stories put together by a team of five translators – Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead and Anne McLean – brings an exciting Central American voice into the Anglophone arena.

The narratives follow Eduardo Halfon, a literature professor who shares his author’s name and is spurred into action when a promising student in his class leaves the university without explanation. Thereafter, we follow Halfon through a series of quests, experiences and discoveries – to a remote village, to an academic conference on Mark Twain, to a music festival and in search of a concert pianist-turned-gypsy-musician in Belgrade. Disparate though they are, the narratives circle around the narrator’s memory of his grandfather’s account of meeting a Polish boxer in Auschwitz and how that fleeting encounter saved his life.

As you might expect from a novel in which the protagonist shares the author’s name and is a literature professor, there is quite a bit of play with the idea of what a story is or isn’t in the book. We read numerous pronouncements on the art of storytelling – ‘that the visible narrative always hides a secret tale’; ‘that literature is a deceit in which he who deceives is more honest than he who does not deceive’; that ‘the only way to tell a story is to stutter it eloquently’. In another writer’s hands this self-conscious and occasionally defensive kind of discussion might be irritating – and, indeed, it does occasionally lean that way – but Halfon’s wry, self-deprecating manner saves it, making it largely thought-provoking and playful instead.

Coupled with this are some fabulous descriptions and observations. For my money, the evocation of rural Guatemala is hard to beat. Raw beauty drips from the pages in which Halfon travels into the countryside in search of his erstwhile student to a place where the term for poetry in the local language, Cakchikel, means ‘braid of words’. But it is the title story of the Polish boxer, when at last it comes, that takes the prize. In its stark force and spare, telling details, this tale recalls Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, perhaps the most powerful piece of literature dealing with the Holocaust that I have read.

The narratological fencing and playfulness extend to the linguistic level. Dialogue bleeds into description with nothing to separate the two, so that it is as though we are looking out at the world from the inside of Halfon’s mind. At times, the meandering of the narrative makes us question the solidity of the ‘I’ narrating it – are we still with Halfon or has someone else crept in and taken over under the cover of a turning page? And although I can’t read the original to compare, the virtuosity of the translators is apparent in the skill with which they judge how much to explain and how much to trust the reader to cope with culturally specific terms: the book never falters while a helpful hand reaches in to push us in the right direction and yet it never trips over its laces either. Instead, it runs over unfamiliar terrain at an elegant, even pace.

That’s not to say that the novel is perfect. A hackneyed turn of phrase creeps in here and there, and the fragmentation and meandering will be too much for some readers. (*Spoiler alert* There’s a lot that never gets resolved and that is kind of the point.)

But if you are able to able to trust it, this book will sweep you up and bear you away through a host of specific times and places towards a universal vision of the things that make us who we are. Maybe, in the final analysis, that is what a story is really meant to do.

The Polish Boxer (El boxeador polaco) by Eduardo Halfon, translated from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead and Anne McLean (Pushkin Press, 2012)

Picture: Santiago – Lago de Atitlan – Guatemala-81 by Christopher William Adach on Flickr.com.

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: Valeria Luiselli

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I’ve been on the trail of Mexican writers for the last few months. Conscious that there is a wealth of exciting literature emerging from south of the US border, I was keen to experience a broad range of it and find something that I could recommend to you.

Things got off to a promising start. Having stumbled across Elena Poniatowska being interviewed at the London Book Fair, I read Leonora, her biographical novel based around the life and work of eccentric British-born Mexican artist Leonora Carrington – whom Poniatowska spent a great deal of time with during her latter years. The book was extraordinary, colourful, alarming and brave.

Next, on the recommendation of my Liveright/Norton editor Elisabeth, I sought out Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera. Striking, rich and odd, this novel brought forth a virtuosic performance from its translator Lisa Dillman. She writes at the end about the efforts she went to to achieve a geographically unmarked English rendering for Herrera’s linguistically playful account of a young woman’s journey to the US in search of her brother.

Either of these books would have been a worthy candidate for Book of the month. However, as both authors are already extensively celebrated nationally and relatively well-known beyond Mexico’s borders, I thought it might be nice to find work by a lesser-known author to tell you about. And, as the majority of my Books of the month have been by men, I decided to seek out work by a woman author.

This is where things got more difficult. A bit of virtual detective work led me to Gabriela Jauregui, a published poet who has turned her hand to novel-writing in recent years. I contacted her through her website to ask if her novel was available in English and if not, whether she could recommend any women authors whose work is not widely known outside Mexico.

Jauregui replied that her novel was only being published in Spanish this September. An English version is not yet on the cards, but she (and I) hopes that this may happen one day.

She had two names for me: Brenda Lozano and Daniela Tarazona. Both young and doing great work, they were not as widely known as more established writers such as Valeria Luiselli or Cristina Rivera-Garza.

I tracked both authors down in that wonderful, global talking shop Twitter and sent them messages. Were their novels available in English? I would very much like to read them if so.

Sadly, as happened so often during  my year of reading the world, the answer was no in both cases. Despite building an increasingly impressive reputation in the hispanophone world, Lozano and Tarazona are off-limits to anglophone readers. (For now at least – if you know of an English-language publishers looking for exciting new Mexican writers, do send them their way, and to Jauregui too!)*

In the absence of anything available in the language I read in by these authors, I decided to go for one of Jauregui’s fallbacks and plumped for Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli. This book has received some great write ups and I was keen to take a look.

Split between Mexico City and New York, the narrative records the attempts of a young mother to write a novel drawing on her youth in the Big Apple. As the scraps of text she generates in between looking after her children build, layer upon layer emerges and we find the narrative consumed by her own fears, concerns and fascination with obscure Harlem Renaissance poet, Gilberto Owen.

The fragmented nature of the narrative makes for a quirky and sometimes surprising reading experience. Many English-language reviewers have remarked on the originality of Luiselli’s style, but those familiar with the work of Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector will find parallels.

I particularly enjoyed the playful allusions to the reactions of the narrator’s husband, who keeps reading the work in progress and trying to adjust his behaviour in response to it, as though the fictional events described are somehow a comment on him. It was also great fun to read the sometimes contrary comments on the translation and publishing world that pepper the narrative: ‘That’s the way literary recognition works, at least to a certain degree,’ the narrator observes at one point. ‘It’s all a matter of rumor, a rumor that multiplies like a virus until it becomes a collective affinity.’ (And surely this blog post and the way I chose this book are a neat demonstration of the truth of the statement.)

Add to this a range of wry and wise insights into human nature and the way we deceive ourselves about our motives, and it’s rare that you turn a page without nodding in recognition at some observation or other.

What moves the book onto the next level, however, is Luiselli’s technical flair. Rarely does an object get mentioned without reappearing as a plot device later; time and again the narrative turns back to satirize and comment upon itself. The result is that the novel is peppered with payoffs and the last third presents a series of pleasing moments of recognition, where idea after idea is tied up, resolved or complicated.

This demands attention from the reader and it’s fair to say that there are times when the fragmentary narrative is tough to follow. By the same token, the set-up the structure demands can make for some stretches that feel rather devoid of tension and lacking in momentum.

But if you give yourself over to Luiselli and resign yourself to the rare moments when the narratological currents leave you idling in the reeds, you’re in for a joyous ride. Opening up onto stunning prospects and shimmering moments here and there, this novel achieves the rare balance of being at once accessible and profound, funny and wise.

Mexico, we need more from you.

Faces in the Crowd (Los Ingrávidos) by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Granta, 2013)

* An extract of Brenda Lozano’s novel Todo nada, translated by Rosalind Harvey, has already appeared in the México20 collection, featuring work by 20 Mexican writers under 40.

A great honour

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I had a nice surprise this weekend. There was a very familiar name on the list of people receiving Queen’s Birthday Honours (the titles awarded every year by Elizabeth II to mark her official birthday). The person in question was celebrated Portuguese- and Spanish-literature translator, Margaret Jull Costa, who has been given an OBE for services to literature.

I first came across Jull Costa’s work back in the initial week of my year of reading the world when a colleague at the newspaper I was working at lent me her translation of Eça de Queiroz’s The Mandarin and Other Stories to read as my choice from her home country, Portugal.

A few months later, I encountered Jull Costa again when I read Luís Cardoso’s powerful memoir The Crossing, one of the few books available in English translation by a writer from East Timor.

On both occasions, I was struck by the clarity and beauty of the writing and, as my appreciation for the extraordinary skill that translation requires grew throughout the project, I began to realise how deserved the many accolades Jull Costa has received over the course of her career are. But it wasn’t until September of that year that I witnessed her dedication to literature first-hand.

That month, having tried and failed to find any stories in translation from the small African nation of Sao Tome & Principe, I decided to appeal to the kindness of strangers and see whether Portuguese speakers might come to my rescue to translate a short story collection especially for me. As happened so many times during my quest, the world’s literature lovers overwhelmed me with their generosity and before a week had gone by, I had more offers of help than I was able to accept.

In amongst the welter of messages, however, there was one particularly exciting email. It was a message from Margaret Jull Costa, who had heard about the venture from a student on a summer school she had taught at, and wanted to offer her assistance.

I couldn’t believe it. This was Margaret Jull Costa. The Margaret Jull Costa – translator of Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, and Javier Marías and a shelf-ful of other revered writers. And she wanted to do a translation for me? As I said at the time to a friend, I felt as though I had asked to borrow a bike and been lent a Ferrari.

True to her word, along with eight other volunteers, Jull Costa translated the stories I selected and sent them back, enabling me to read Olinda Beja’s A casa do pastor in its entirety. Without her work, both published and unpublished, I would not have been able to read the world as I did. Hearty congratulations to her on this latest achievement in a glittering and immensely valuable career.

Picture by marcus_jb1973

Paraguay: remembrance of things past

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Sometimes when you’re trying to read a book by a writer from every country in the world, you have to travel in time as well as space. While there may not be any translated literature from that nation available in print at the time you’re looking, if you dig back into the past you can occasionally get your hands on an edition of a translation published decades ago that will take you into an imaginary universe from which you would otherwise be shut out. These out-of-print books are like portals, opening and closing  at will: not everyone can get to them, they pop up in surprising settings and you’ll rarely find one in the same place twice.

My Paraguayan pick was one of these books. As far as I can find out, there is little other than Helen Lane’s 1986 translation of Augustos Roa Bastos’s I The Supreme out there for us English-language readers (do tell me if you know differently). Luckily, I was able to get hold of a faded 1988 edition listed by an independent bookseller on Abe Books (there are a few others on there at the moment, but they may disappear at any time).

The 1974 novel, which saw Bastos permanently exiled from his homeland, is a fictional rendering of the recollections, pronouncements and paranoid fantasies of the early 19th century Paraguayan dictator Dr José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (who dubbed himself El Supremo). Constructed by an anonymous compiler from a mountain of charred dossiers, pamphlets, correspondence and other documents salvaged from a fire at the time of the ruler’s death, the narrative presents a mind turning in on itself as the tyrant confronts his own mortality.

From the first page – which displays a lampoon in the voice of El Supremo found nailed to the cathedral doors in the capital – the text babbles with questions about identity, authority and authorship. The novel is shot through with footnotes and extracts from other works that contradict the primary account, as well as revisions from the tyrant as he creates his own account of the founding of the Perpetual Dictatorship. As El Supremo’s shadowy scribe puts it, in this world of reconfigurations, suppressed voices and fabrications, ‘even the truth appears to be a lie’.

For all the slipperiness of the narrative, however, the character of El Supremo looms large, riddled with the conflicts, eccentricities and the lack of empathy that comes from years of being cut off from normal human interaction. Bastos’s portrait of the ruler’s paranoia, who sees himself surrounded by people with ‘a bad case of the itch to be kings’, is brilliant and points up the psychology behind the grotesque and brutal punishments he metes out as casually as he orders his food – the cells blocked up to admit no light, the traitors left sitting in the sun, the man forced to row until he dies. These are offset by El Supremo’s delusions about his own benevolence, reflected in outbursts of irrational generosity – as in the case of the meticulous list of toys he orders to be distributed to children at Epiphany.

Bastos’s greatest achievement, however, is that, while revealing the monstrous actions and self-deception of the tyrant, he brings out his humanity too. This comes through in the lonely, sober tone of many of the entries in El Supremo’s private notebook, as well as through glimpses of the ruler as a frail old man playing dice in his slippers and contemplating the impending loss of his faculties. It also lives in his flashes of insight into his situation and his wistful daydreams about how if he had met a woman and had a family he might have enjoyed a peaceful, quiet old age, rather than sitting in fear and isolation, thinking about crowds burning his effigy and listening to ‘the sounds of a sick mind clattering along’.

For all its brilliance, however, the novel does come with a health warning: its dense, heavy style will be too rich for some appetites. The concentration wanders in its maze of associations and you sometimes have to retrace your steps to pick up the thread again. Although Bernard Levin might have read it twice in a weekend – as he writes breezily on the back cover – the book will take most people much longer to get through (I had to allow four days).

If you stick with it, however, the rewards are great. The I the Supreme is many things: a portrayal of the nightmare of being able to trust no-one but yourself; a portrait of a mind hemmed in; and a reminder of how easily we might be other than we are. Extraordinary.

I the Supreme (Yo el Supremo) by Augusto Roa Bastos, translated from the Spanish by Helen R Lane (Faber & Faber, 1988)

Dominican Republic: home and away

This book was given to me by Jimena, a Mexican woman who attended the English PEN ‘Free Speech: found in translation’ night-class course I finished a few weeks back. She looked apologetic as she got The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao out of her bag and handed it over.

‘I’m not sure if you’ll want to include it,’ she said. ‘You see, he writes in English.’

A discussion ensued about whether Junot Diaz, now a creative writing professor at MIT, was an acceptable Dominican Republic choice. My classmates wanted to know where he was born (Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic), where he lived now (the US), and how much of his childhood he’d spent in the country (four years plus holiday visits to relatives from what I can make out). It seemed each one of us had slightly different criteria for judging Diaz’s pedigree.

Personally, I wasn’t sure I would include Diaz. I had several other names in the frame for the Dominican Republic and, excellent though I was sure the Pulitzer prize-winning novel was, I was intrigued to find out about them.

Then two things happened: quite by chance, our course leader Sophie Mayer referred to Diaz’s novel during the session, a coincidence which appealed to my sense of serendipity, and I discovered that the prose work of the other Dominican Republic writers on the list, including Arambilet and Pedro Mir, was by no means readily available in English. Time being of the essence, I decided to give the Diaz a go. It would be a sort of test of where that mysterious boundary line of nationality goes in literature, I thought.

Roving back and forth between the US and the Dominican Republic, the novel follows Oscar, a sci-fi and fantasy nerd and son of a Dominican mother, growing up in the eighties in a rough neighbourhood in New Jersey. Overweight, lonely and desperate for attention from girls, Oscar embarks on a series of excruciating attempts to win the favours of the local beauties, watched first by his rebellious sister Lola and later his college room-mate Yunior.

But it turns out that Oscar’s misery is by no means a one-off. As he unfolds his family’s backstory, Diaz reveals an intricate tale of torture, betrayal, murder and shattered dreams that stretches all the way up to the Dominican Republic’s erstwhile dictator Trujillo and will, quite literally, blow Oscar’s mind.

It’s interesting that a discussion of nationality nearly turned me off reading this book, because the relationship of the individual to cultural identity is one of its central themes. Right from its Derek Walcott epigraph, ending ‘either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation’, the novel explores how heritage informs, shapes and constrains our choices. Everything from the family fear of being under an old Fuku (curse) and the fact that ‘in Santo Domingo a story is not a story unless it casts a supernatural shadow’, through to Lola’s fraught relationship with her mother and Oscar’s relatives’ scorn at his failure with girls can be traced back to a sense of what Dominican life is or should be.

The threads weaving together the personal and national are further tightened by a series of zestful footnotes that run through the book, giving the narrator’s personal gloss on history. Describing aspects of Trujillo’s reign of terror, ‘one of the longest, most damaging US-backed dictatorships in the Western Hemisphere (and if we Latin types are skillful at anything it’s tolerating US-backed dictators, so you know this was a hard-earned victory, the chilenos and the argentinos are still appealing)’, they present a furiously witty engagement with the way politics impacts on individual lives. Feisty, shocking and only occasionally annoying, they grab the predominantly American readers Diaz clearly has in mind by the scruff of the neck and make them acknowledge what has happened, often giving them a parting jab in the ribs – ‘You didn’t know we were occupied twice in the twentieth century? Don’t worry, when you have kids they won’t know the US occupied Iraq either’.

Although Jimena was worried that the fact the  novel was written in English rather than Spanish might weaken its DR claims, the language of the book is shot through with a sense of Dominican heritage. Packed with Spanish slang and even complete sentences in the language, the narrative is raucous with the richness of its cultural references and the conflicts and contradictions these create.

The result is a powerful, irreverent and thoroughly engrossing exploration of identity and how the particular time and place we are born and grow up in shape who we are. If anything, Diaz’s exposure to both US and Dominican society sharpens his perception of the DR. It is as though for both him and his characters, the transition between the two cultures is only truly possible once they have immersed themselves in, understood and made peace with their Dominican heritage. As Lola puts it, ‘you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in.’

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Faber, 2009)