Montenegro: home truths

Around the end  of May, I was mooching about on Twitter trying to drum up leads for some of the gaps on The List when @markbooks swooped in to recommend The Coming by Andrej Nikolaidis for the small South-eastern European country of Montenegro. @stujallen had just read it, he said.

I was in the process of thanking them when @MissCathO joined the party to say that, on the subject of Montenegrin literature, she was hoping to get an English translation of fiction by @ksenijapopovic shortly. Soon after that @ksenijapopovic popped up with the news that her novel was being proofread as we spoke and should be ready in ebook form in the next few weeks. I asked  her to keep me posted and she duly did, tweeting at me excitedly on 16 July to say that A Lullaby for No Man’s Wolf was now available on Amazon.

In the meantime, I’d done a bit of research on Ksenija Popovic (or Xenia Popovich as her name is rendered on the e-cover of the English version). It turns out she’s something of a Montenegrin literary star. Her first novel was a bestseller, won an award (the name of which I’ve been unable to find a satisfactory translation for) and was made into a film. She also did the translation of her latest book, the only one so far available in English, herself. Sorry though I was to have to bypass Andrej Nikolaidis, about whom I’d heard several good things, I was going to have to check this out.

A Lullaby for No Man’s Wolf unpicks the backstory of Klara, a classical pianist turned housewife, who at the age of 30 is already ‘old and tired’. Taking us back through her tough childhood in an orphanage, or ‘home for mistakes’, in an anonymous semi-American, semi-European town, the narrative explores the horrific events that led to the collapse of her relationship with her first love, Vuk, and her subsequent lonely marriage.

The wit and cynicism of Klara’s voice is one of the novel’s greatest strengths. ‘Born bitter, unwilling to indulge in childish deceptions’, she looks the calculating mechanisms of the children’s home, where wards of the state are ‘spared the pressure of attending high school’ by being sent to work in the neighbouring factory, full in the face. The early passage where Klara introduces us to the staff’s manipulative method of getting visitors to donate money pulls no punches:

‘The director’s impeccable system, which she liked to call her only child in a sea of other people’s children, triumphed whenever one of us pulled the lady by the sleeve and asked in a sweet voice, “Are you my mommy?”‘

The robustness of the storytelling means that the narrative is able to take the weight of the traumatic events that later crowd in upon it. While the gear change into graphic descriptions of abuse may be too abrupt and shocking for some readers’ tastes, Popovic’s fearlessness and frankness carry it through. Her insight into the way extreme experience warps the dynamics of human relationships is particularly impressive, and I found myself repeatedly typing ‘great’ and ‘wow’ into the notes on my Kindle as I read her account of the mental labyrinth Klara wanders through in the latter half of the novel.

The secret of the book’s success is that, unlike most authors writing about under 18s, Popovic is not an adult writing about children but a person writing about people. Her work is entirely free of that coyness writers usually seem to feel about children’s emotions, meaning that love, fear, anger, sexual attraction and hatred are every bit as raw, present, shocking and enthralling for her young characters as for adults, if not more so.

One or two strange words like ‘pianism’ and ‘snobbism’ have slipped through the translation net. These stick out, however, because the rest of the work flows so well – helped no doubt by the years Popovic spent in the US as a child. In fact, as the book goes on, you begin to wonder if they aren’t meant to be coinages by Klara, so atypical are they of the rest of the text.

But this is splitting hairs. As a whole, this is an outstanding piece of work: raw and fearless. If anyone needs proof of the value of authors being able to self-publish to ebook, it’s right here in this novel: the second self-published translation of a work published commercially in another language I’ve read this year. A fantastic achievement. More please.

A Lullaby for No Man’s Wolf by Xenia Popovich, translated from the Montenegrin by Xenia Popovich (Xenia Popovich, 2012)

France: a fine line

I heard about this book through a class I’ve been attending on free speech and translation, run by English PEN. The final session was set to involve a visit from translator Sarah Ardizzone (née Adams), who was going to talk about how she worked with writer Faïza Guène’s heavily inflected, Moroccan-street-slang-laden French to create the English version of the novel Just Like Tomorrow.

The work piqued my interest for another reason too: having read Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris for my Algerian book, I was curious to see how another novel set in the French capital’s North African community but this time written by a French-born author might compare to it. Would reading this book help me to draw that ever more elusive line between where one country’s literature stops and another’s begins?

Just Like Tomorrow follows 15-year-old Doria as she copes with life on the city’s grim Paradise estate. Her father has recently left her mother for a younger wife in Morocco and the two women now live on the bread line, depending on the income from Doria’s mother’s precarious cleaning job and their own abilities to make do and mend. Caught between the disapproval of their conservative neighbours and the shallow complacency of a series of social workers, Doria has nothing but her wit and verve to keep her from becoming just another statistic on the French authorities’ books.

Sadly, Sarah Ardizzone was unable to make the class, which was a shame because it would have been fascinating to hear about the process by which she converted Guène’s prose into a sort of light Jafaican (or Multicultural London English as it’s more formally known). Translating dialects can be tricky at the best of times – and a questionable decision can be very distracting – but here Doria’s narrative voice, peppered with ‘innit’s, ‘you get me’s and ‘back in the day’s, is thoroughly engaging and believable. The only sticking points come occasionally in the form of cultural references, which veer between British romance author Barbara Cartland (unlikely to be known to many urban teenagers), TV programme The Price is Right and French gameshow Fort Boyard, as though final decisions about the framework of Doria’s translated world haven’t quite been made – although these may have been carried over from the original.

The success of the voice is central to the book, because it is Doria’s wry, fearless, fresh vision and killer putdowns that make the novel. So much so, that I’m struggling to choose which of the many great oneliners to share with you. There’s the cashier who is ‘so flat you could fax her’, the absent father now known to his daughter as ‘Mr How-Big-Is-My-Beard’, and, perhaps my favourite of all, Doria’s succinct explanation of the Arabic term ‘insh’Allah’:

‘She played that wild card, AKA ‘insh’Allah’. It doesn’t mean yes or no. The proper translation is “God willing”. Thing is, you never find out if God’s willing or not…’

The humour, however, never clouds our vision of the hardships Doria and her mother face. If anything, it enhances the picture by making us indignant that such vibrant individuals should be forced to endure the sneers of snobs and racists, the harsh treatment of shady employers and the patronisation of officials. Guène brings this home through a series of small, yet telling scenes – such as Doria’s struggle to scrape enough money together to pay for sanitary towels at the local shop’s checkout and her recollection of the day she unwittingly went to school in a second-hand pyjama top, bearing the English phrase ‘Sweet Dreams’.

Does her perspective on Paris differ from the attitude of Marouane’s protagonist to the city? Well, perhaps, in as much as he might be described as being on the fringes of French culture looking longingly in at what he thinks he sees, while Doria is very much in the thick of the less-than-perfect reality.

Such questions seem to pale into insignificance, however, in the face of the fact that this is simply a fabulous, and thoroughly engaging book. Its portrait of a divided society, full of contradictions, tensions and hope will enthrall, challenge and resonate with readers – wherever they are in the world.

Just Like Tomorrow (Kiffe kiffe demain) by Faïza Guène, translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone (Definitions, 2006)

Guyana: sex and how to do it

 

I wrote in my last post about the difficulties many authors have describing sex. However it’s by no means true of all. And you’d be hard pushed to find an example of how to (erhem) do it well than Buxton Spice by Oonya Kempadoo.

Set in the fictional coastal village of Tamarind Grove in 1970’s Guyana, the novel charts the sexual, social and political awakening of a young girl, Lula. As she observes the complex, painful and mysterious relationships of the people around her — and begins to have experiences of her own — Lula tests the boundaries of her identity and growing awareness of the hidden mechanisms of the world.

Sex is graphically and variously present in the narrative, with teen fumblings, lesbian encounters, rape and voyeurism all playing a part. What makes it compelling is the freshness and vitality of Kempadoo’s language — utterly devoid of the clumsy clichés and euphemisms that make most sex scenes so excruciating — and the way she uses the physical acts to map the shifting power dynamics between her characters.

Less successful is the overall narrative structure, which rambles between fragments of experience, roping in an unnecessarily large cast of characters. Kempadoo pulls this together to some extent at the end, but the softness of focus niggles. At times, reading the book feels a bit like watching a Polaroid develop only to find that the picture was blurred all along.

In the finish, though, Kempadoo’s poetic vision and her fizzing Creole keep the pages turning. She uses these to deliver a portrait of lost childhood that is at once universal and steeped in a very particular time and place. And if you’ve ever wondered what uses two teenage girls can come up with for a battery, the answers are right here…

Incidentally, my decision to categorise Oonya Kempadoo as a Guyanese novelist is slightly controversial. Although Kempadoo was born of Guyanese parents, raised in Guyana and still holds citizenship (alongside citizenship for several other countries), she identifies as Grenadian.

I changed the book to my Grenada entry for a while because of this, but on reading Buxton Spice I felt that it was so rooted in Guyana and drew so strongly on Kempadoo’s childhood there that it would be wrong to classify it as anything other than Guyanese literature.

I’m ready to be persuaded otherwise though, so if you have different thoughts on what constitutes a book’s national identity please let me know.

Buxton Spice by Oonya Kempadoo (original language: English/Creole). Publisher: Phoenix (1998)