Book of the month: Herman Koch

A while ago I got an email from a reader. She had enjoyed my novel, Beside Myself, she told me. But she particularly wanted to congratulate me on not having put a writer in it, this authorial habit being one of her pet hates.

Her message got me thinking. Stories featuring storytellers are pretty common. They’re also fairly universal. From Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire to Stephen King’s Misery, and from One Thousand and One Nights to Alice Munro’s ‘Family Furnishings’, the international literary landscape is thronged with imaginary wordsmiths. And, unfortunately for my correspondent, many of us seem to enjoy reading about them.

I suspect this is because where there are writers you usually find readers (or listeners) too. There can be few more satisfying things than recognising something in a book you are reading. Whether it’s an observation about an experience you have gone through or a truism about a particular sort of person or situation you know well, that flash of connection when a writer captures something you have long felt is a joy.

As a result, books that feature readers have a head start because they automatically contain subject matter that has the potential to resonate with every person who picks them up. This is a double-edged sword, however, because the sheer volume of literary works containing readers and writers means that any new contribution has to do something special to stand out.

At first glance, it seems that bestselling Dutch writer Herman Koch’s Dear Mr M, which hinges on the real-life and fictional accounts of the mysterious death of a school teacher several decades previously, may be a competent yet unremarkable addition to the genre. A number of familiar tropes and characters greet us in the opening chapters – the sinister fan with ‘certain plans’ for the object of his attentions, the jaded, ageing, white male author fearful that his greatest work is behind him, the suggestion that certain fictional events may bear more than a passing resemblance to real life.

Yet, as the pages turn, this literary novel in thriller’s clothing opens out like an umbrella, becoming something much more elaborate and impressive than its beginnings promise. Far from reading a neat and compulsive – yet ultimately familiar – account of the working through of a literary obsession, we find ourselves in the grip of a story that questions not only its own framework but the foundations of storymaking itself.

Looking and watching sit at the novel’s heart. Koch turns these themes around to explore their many angles using the ingenious device of having one of the central characters film various key events and then play them back at different points. The result is that we read several scenes from diverse perspectives, discovering how certain details recede or become accentuated depending on who is looking and why.

Although dark in tone, the book is not without playfulness. The jibes at the Amsterdam book-club scene (there is a particularly excellent sequence in a library, where Mr M is invited to do a reading and we are let in on his gripes about everything from the librarian’s haircut to the dog-haired blanket in the car that will drive him home) are as hilarious as they are daring. Similarly, numerous misanthropic observations about many of the lesser characters recall the delicious, if somewhat jaundiced, humour of recently translated Dutch classic The Evenings.

The complexity and sophistication of the narrative’s construction – it switches perspective and timeframes frequently – means that this is a more demanding read than its marketing might imply. Those wishing to be swept along by a comfortable whodunnit should opt for something else. It’s also the kind of book that repays lengthy reading sessions rather than brief dips in and out. There are so many threads that it’s easy to get in a tangle if you don’t keep a firm grip.

But for those with the time and energy, this story will more than reward the effort. Smart, stylish and beautifully controlled, this is one of those rare books that at once offers a great story and moves its genre forward.

Dear Mr M (Geachte heer M.) by Herman Koch, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Picador, 2016)

Postcard from my bookshelf #12

And so we come to the final stranger to receive a book in celebration of the support people gave me when I read the world in 2012.

What a year it’s been. In the last 12 months, I’ve sent titles sent to an incredibly diverse group of people and places – from a translator on a Greek island to an aspiring writer living in a hostel in Delhi, and from a school student in Australia to a medical student with leukemia in the Philippines (not to mention one Donald J Trump).

Choosing books for strangers has made me revisit several of the big questions I encountered during my quest to read the world. These have included how taboos differ from person to person and what we mean when we say a book is set in a particular place.

I have been delighted and humbled by the warmth so many people have shown in the comments on the project post – indeed, it’s been great to hear from many booklovers who have followed the blog for some time but have never commented before. I only wish I could choose books for all of you!

For this last gift, I’ve picked someone who is at the early stages of a reading adventure similar to the project that changed my life five years ago. One of the joys of this blog has been the huge number of people who tell me it has inspired them to broaden their reading and so I wanted to select a fellow literary explorer to receive the last book.

There were a huge number to choose from, so in the end, luck played a part. I went for Pritha Bardhan, who happened to have posted her entry for the competition on October 24, 2016, five years to the day since I launched this blog with the question ‘Can you help me read the world?’ She wrote this:

Hi Ann,

I absolutely LOVE what you did and it has inspired me to do the same. I am currently on world book 14, which is from Vietnam. I am also consciously trying to split my reading list 50/50 between men and women after reading your Women In Translation month blog posts.

Similar to you, when people found out about this challenge that I am undertaking, they have been kindly recommending or gifting me with books. I am also finding out more about the history of each of the countries; for instance details on the 1987 military coup in Fiji, fascism in Europe in the 1930s and I’m currently reading the hardships faced by Vietnamese women during the Vietnam War.

Thank-you for your insight and I look forward to reading more of your blog posts in the future :o)

The book I’ve chosen for Pritha, By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel and translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar, is a rare gem. In fact, it is only the second novel to be translated into and published in English from the authoritarian West African nation, Equatorial Guinea. Weaving local oral storytelling traditions into the Western novel form to portray a series of catastrophic events that shape the narrator’s childhood, the title stands out as one of the most exciting additions to literature from underrepresented nations of recent years.

As it was published in 2014, By Night the Mountain Burns wasn’t available when I read the world. Like many of the works I review in my book-of-the-month posts (marked orange on the List), it has been part of a wave of brilliant translations that have continued to open up closed-off areas of world literature to English speakers. Since my project, titles from Madagascar, Guinea-Bissau and Turkmenistan have all come onto the market, making it easier for curious readers to explore even more of the world’s stories (although nations such as the Comoros remain absent from anglophone bookshelves and many other countries have only one or two titles in English translation).

The truth is that the world we are able to read – much like the planet itself – is in flux. The international literary landscape shifts constantly, with new voices emerging and others sinking as titles go out of print. One person’s journey through world literature at a particular point in time is really nothing more than a snapshot of the image shown briefly on a kaleidoscope before the picture changes once more.

It’s endlessly fascinating and it’s for this reason that, as I realised when my year-long adventure ended, I’ll be reading the world for the rest of my life. Pritha, I hope the same will be true for you.

Thanks to everyone who entered Postcards from my bookshelf. Your enthusiasm is what keeps this blog going. May 2018 bring us all many wonderful reads!

Book of the month: Naivo

This month’s pick is a special one. About a year ago, I reported that this project had prompted US-based translator Allison M. Charette to travel to Madagascar in search of a book that could become the first complete novel to be translated into and published in English from the island nation. A few weeks ago, I finally got to read it.

Set in the precolonial era when slavery was practised in the nation, Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo (Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa) presents the intertwined stories of Fara and her father’s slave, Tsito. As the changes of the 19th century buffet their homeland, sending waves of white (vazaha) missionaries and industrialists to challenge the ancient hierarchies – and instigating a violent crackdown on Western practices by the reigning monarchs – the pair must navigate the choppy waters of their personal histories. In so doing, they come to see themselves and each other differently, identifying what is valuable in the society that surrounds them and learning what they must reject.

As with novels such as the (as yet unpublished in English) Ualalapi from Mozambique, unfamiliarity is one of the great joys of this text for anglophone readers. From details such as the importance of the correct arrangement of domestic objects so as to please the ancestors and striking expressions – ‘by my father’s incest’, for example – through to rituals including the fampitaha competition, a dance contest in which female competitors must, among other things, perform while being carried on men’s shoulders, the book is a lavish representation of a remote and strange world.

Sometimes this is alarming. The graphic presentations of the brutal tangena ritual, in which those accused of witchcraft are forced to drink poison and only deemed to have proved their innocence if they manage to regurgitate three bits of skin, and the executions of Christians hurled to their deaths from cliff tops, are startling. Similarly, the description of the graveyard where the corpses of those put to death are consumed by wild dogs makes for troubling reading.

Difference is everywhere apparent on the linguistic level too (credit to Allison M. Charette here). Arresting images abound. We learn, for instance, that Fara’s father ‘smells like bulls moving to summer pastures’, while an unreliable narrator’s story changes colour constantly ‘like a chameleon when children hiss at it’. British readers will be particularly enthralled by the passage in which Tsito visits Chatham, Kent and describes the English port town through fresh eyes:

‘We crossed through a small wood and finally reached the top of the hill, crowned by a structure called Fort Pitt. It was one of several fortifications that the English had built around their industrial center. This one had been converted into a hospital, treating mostly construction-related injuries, which seemed like a bad sign to me. Man pays an ever-increasing cost to rise to power, no?’

These sorts of unfamiliar ways of viewing and capturing human experience make the text richly nourishing, particularly for English-language readers who also write. They show us new ways of imagining, recalling Goethe’s claim about the importance of literary cross-cultural exchange for keeping storytelling vibrant: ‘Left to itself, every literature will exhaust its vitality if it is not refreshed by the interest and contributions of a foreign one.’

Nevertheless, the unfamiliarity of many aspects of the book also poses challenges for English-language readers. Though parts of it are deeply evocative, surprising approaches to pacing and certain storytelling customs, such as announcing the year in which events take place, make some passages feel oddly distant. At times, the text rushes through the deaths of fairly major characters only to linger for pages at a time on the rhythms of the rural day. These differences in weighting can be distracting, but, for readers able to keep an open mind, they are hugely informative too: they reveal what is important both to Naivo and his original readers. In this way, they are perhaps as illuminating about life in Madagascar as the historical events described.

Readers may also struggle to keep tabs on the vast cast of characters that move through the text. The unfamiliar hierarchies of the Malagasy monarchy compound this, making the machinations of various pretenders to power hard to follow.

However, as with the pacing, this is less a problem inherent in the text than a challenge for Western readers to overcome. It is a function of the fact that, by and large, we anglophone booklovers don’t venture into narratives that diverge very far from the models of storytelling we know.

For those who are able to push through this barrier, the rewards are rich: vivid, thought-provoking narration; rich, mind-furnishing imagery; and an insight into a place and time that has hitherto been absent from the English-language literary landscape. Being a nation’s first text to be translated into the world’s most-published language is a heavy burden for any novel to bear, but Beyond the Rice Fields more than stands up to the challenge. It is proof that the anglophone exploration of Malagasy literature is long overdue.

Beyond the Rice Fields (Au-delà des rizières) by Naivo, translated from the French by Allison M. Charette (Restless Books, 2017)

Postcard from my bookshelf #11

A final spin of the random-number generator brought me to this comment from Meghan:

I love this project! I have always said that if I could, I would love to spend quality time in every culture in the world. This is a great way to see into those different cultures and know that we are all the same, no matter where we ended up being born. I have eclectic taste: poetry, sci-fi, apocalyptic..I especially love reading books that show the day to day lives of other cultures so you feel yourself immersed in that culture. Thank you for sharing your journey with us!

Two things stood out for me from this: Meghan’s enjoyment of sci-fi and apocalyptic literature, and her desire to feel immersed in the day-to-day lives of other cultures.

This second point is a common theme among literary explorers. Indeed, when people hear about my project to read a book from every country in 2012, they often assume that I read a book set in every country.

I can see why. For many bibliophiles, part of the appeal of reading internationally is the idea that it will enable them to travel in the mind, using books as a telescope to look at far-away places that they might never visit in person.

There’s nothing wrong with this as an ambition – and there are many wonderfully immersive books bristling with local detail that will give readers the impression of being transplanted into the everyday lives of people thousands of miles away.

However, when I set out on my quest five years ago, I knew this wasn’t my goal. Apart from anything else, I was sure that it would take many more than one book from each place to get an accurate, rounded picture of what life in each nation was like.

Instead, what interested me was mindsets, voices and perspectives. I wanted to explore how writers in different places looked at life, seeing what individual viewpoints I could access, rather than trying to look for general truths.

This meant that setting was not a primary concern. It seemed to me that a novel about another country or an imaginary place could tell me as much about the world-view of the author as a lavish evocation of the region in which they lived. So, although many of the stories I read took place in the nations I chose them to represent, some didn’t – my Eritrean read being an example. Meanwhile, like many of the best English-language novels, a number of them featured international journeys.

With this in mind, I decided to crash together Meghan’s two points and selected an-otherworldly book that nevertheless reveals telling things about the culture in which it was written. My choice is the daring 1977 dystopian novel Egalia’s Daughters: A Satire of the Sexes by Norwegian writer Gerd Brantenberg, translated by Louis Mackay.

It’s a novel I’ve discovered since I finished my original quest and have returned to several times. Indeed, I wrote an entry about it for the beautifully illustrated Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created, which Hachette published last year. (The picture of the rather controversial Norwegian cover featured at the top comes from this.)

Set in a world where patriarchy is turned on its head so that society is ruled by wim, while menwim can only aspire to be ‘housebounds’ who must stay at home, look pretty and bring up the children, the novel explores gender dynamics through the lens of second-wave Scandinavian feminism. As British writer Naomi Alderman’s The Power would do decades later, it uses this startling reversal of the status quo to reveal the injustices and cruelties that lurk beneath the surface of many of our assumptions about how life works.

Like the best books, it is as at once specifically of its time and place, and universal – packed with insights that are relevant to people reading in a different language at forty years’ remove.

Meghan, I hope you enjoy it.

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 final recipient will be announced on December 15.

 

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

Translation as transhumance

Being wordy people, translators often turn their hand to writing their own work. From David Bellos to Edith Grossman, many of the big names in the field have set down their thoughts about their craft in articles, essays and full-length books.

Blending their experiences with broader theoretical reflections about what it takes to transport meaning from one language to another, these works are often enjoyable and illuminating. Nevertheless, they can feel daunting to readers not directly engaged in working with words. Consisting largely, as they often do, of the writer’s efforts to find the terms to express the mechanisms of their art – to translate the concept of translation – these meta-narratives sometimes feel a little inward-looking, as though they can only be grasped fully by fellow practitioners.

As a result, when award-winning translator Ros Schwartz contacted me about her translation of French translator Mireille Gansel’s book Traduire comme transhumer (which hits the British bookshop shelves as Translation as Transhumance on November 1), I hesitated. A translation of a book about translation? Where would it all end?

The publicity material that accompanied the book wasn’t calculated to dispel my reservations. According to its opening sentence, the work I held in my hand was ‘half-memoir, half-philosophical treatise musing on translation’s potential for humanist engagement’. My thoughts strayed to the translation of the Boris Akunin mystery I had just downloaded to my Kindle in advance of the Russian superstar coming to the Folkestone Book Festival next month – surely it would be more fun to put this worthy volume aside and crack on with a highfalutin tale of murder in nineteenth-century Moscow?

Luckily, Translation as Transhumance proved to be nothing like the dry, self-referential treatise I feared. Instead, what I discovered when I turned to the first page was an urgent, human work, blending together lived experience with insights so precise that they would make booklovers of all stripes gasp.

The writing is often exquisite. Presenting her memories and the reflections they inspire in a series of brief chapters, many of which run to no more than a page, Gansel (through Schwartz’s lens) has the knack of pulling us into a scene with a handful of words. We are there with her, beside her father’s armchair, on the night she first discovers the magic of unspooling the meaning in the letters that used to arrive from relatives in Budapest; we stand in the spartan rooms of her elderly relations dispersed across Europe by the cruel events of the twentieth century; and we discover the life-saving power of the work of Brecht as she relates her youthful encounter with it.

The immediacy of these descriptions means that we not only understand Gansel’s argument that human experience is encoded into words; we feel it too. Her portrayal of the way history has devastated and rebuilt the German spoken by many of Europe’s displaced people is as moving as it is beautiful:

‘This is the German that has been punctuated by exiles and passed down through generations, from country to country, like a violin whose vibratos have retained the accents and intonations, the words and the expressions, of adopted countries and ways of speaking.’

Language, we learn, bears the marks and scars of those who have used it before us. Even innocuous-seeming words can, with a little probing, be made to bleed.

Using this passionate engagement with the inner significance of words as a starting point, and tying it to detailed examples from her career, Gansel presents interpretations of translation at the end of many of her chapters. Several familiar tropes appear – bridging and smuggling both feature. But Gansel quickly leaves these behind, encountering and moving past image after image in an effort to elucidate what she does with words. Translation is an attempt to reach the language of the soul. It is an effort to communicate a work’s humanity. It is a ‘seismograph at the heart of time’. It is, as the title suggests, akin to the seasonal movement of flocks from pasture to pasture in search of nourishment.

Each of these formulations is illuminating and yet none of them entirely encapsulates the writer’s meaning. In many ways, that is Gansel’s point: language shifts constantly as words accrue associations that gradually bury others, such that a phrase written now will read very differently to someone encountering it in fifty years’ time.

As such, true translation must be a living, ongoing process; a constant effort to find the mot if not exactly juste then at least acceptable. It is for this reason that we need retranslations of classic works. And, yes, it is for this reason that there will always be room for new publications of translators’ reflections on their craft. If only they could all be as powerful as this.

Translation as Transhumance (Traduire comme transhumer) by Mireille Gansel, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz (Les Fugitives, 2017)

Book of the month: Vivek Shanbhag

Since completing my year of reading the world, I’ve been fascinated by literature translated from the 22 languages other than English that have official status in India. One of the most interesting discoveries I made during my project was when an Indian journalist opened my eyes to the work Malayalam writer, MT Vasudevan Nair. So I was delighted to hear about the publication this year of a novel translated into English from the South Indian language of Kannada, which is still barely represented in the anglophone reading world.

Although Ghachar Ghochar is Vivek Shanbhag’s English-language debut, the book is far from being his first work. The celebrated  author from the Indian state of Karnataka has published eight works of fiction and two plays.

His experience and expertise is quickly apparent when you open this novel. Deceptively simple in its premise – the destabilization of dynamics when a business venture dramatically improves a family’s financial circumstances – this slender work relies on deft writing and keen-eyed observation to carry it along. Shanbhag and his translator Srinath Perur – who worked closely together on the English-language version – provide these in abundance.

In a lesser author’s hands this book might easily be a creaky parable about the threats to traditional hierarchies posed by India’s economic boom, or a rambling disquisition on the discontent of the newly comfortable protagonist Vincent. Instead, although the best elements of both these things are woven neatly into the fabric of the story, it is a vivid and moving portrait of humanity in all its contrariness and perversity.

The delight is in the detail. Domestic objects represent and reveal great emotional shifts. For example, in the revelation that Vincent now feels it would be meaningless to buy his mother the sari he dreamed of getting her as a boy when his family lived in a shack on the other side of Bangalore, we see the price of financial gain.

Similarly, profound truths are expressed in handfuls of everyday words: ‘The well-being of any household rests on selective acts of blindness and deafness’; ‘the last strands of a relationship can snap from a single glance or a moment of silence’; ‘it is one of the strengths of families to pretend that they desire what is unavoidable’.

It is no surprise to discover that, as Shanbhag reveals in an interview on his English-language publisher’s website, the author is a fan of Ernest Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory – ‘that most of the story is beneath the surface’. Indeed, he extends this to translation too, regarding the process as the business of ‘taking what is unsaid in a work from one language to another’.

Yet Shanbhag’s writing is warmer than Hemingway’s usually manages to be. There is humour in the occasionally querulous tone of his narrative and evidence of an eye for the ridiculous in the manner in which he sets out his characters’ quirks – the family’s nearly year-long resistance to buying a new pressure cooker on the off-chance that one might be given away at a conference, for example, and the way Vincent’s father, in his original sales job, would spend evenings going over figures ‘again and again until they gave in and agreed’.

The abruptness of the ending will bring some readers up short. Yet, when considered in light of the novel’s title – a nonsense phrase that, among Vincent’s wife’s relatives, signifies things getting tangled up – it makes a kind of sense. The title becomes a prediction – no sooner do we understand its significance than we see it embodied in the story.

Unlike his novel, though, Shanbhag’s English-language career looks far from ending in a knotted mess. Ghachar Ghochar has garnered rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, and Shanbhag and Srinath Perur are already preparing another of his books for the anglophone market. About time too.

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur (Penguin Random House, 2017)

Picture: ‘Busy busy Brigade Road in Bangalore’ by Ryan on flickr.com

Postcard from my bookshelf #9

This month, the random-number generator led me to an intriguing comment. It was posted back in January by Rachel Unklesbay and went as follows:

I’ve just started your challenge to read a book from every country (not in a year, though. I have a toddler. I’m giving myself more time than that.) I love the idea of getting to know different peoples through their literature!

I would love to receive a book – or just recommendations. I sometimes struggle to find books that aren’t overtly sexual – I’m okay with some sex, but nothing pornographic – and sometimes authors try to make their books “edgy” and only succeed in making them really awkward. Is this something I just have to get over? Is this a worldwide trend, or just something Americans do to try to look grown-up?

Rachel’s words posed me something of a head-scratcher. After all, I have no way of knowing what counts as ‘overtly sexual’ in her eyes or whether our definitions of ‘pornographic’ match. Among many things, reading the world has taught me that people can have very different thresholds when it comes to a whole range of sensitive issues and if you attempt to second-guess someone’s sensibilities you can often end up extremely wide of the mark.

It’s a dilemma I’ve encountered many times over the last five years. One of the most common queries I receive is from people – often teachers – asking whether the books on the list are suitable for children of certain ages.

I’m sure they find my replies frustratingly vague, but the truth is I can’t answer definitively as I do not know what they would deem acceptable. Apart from the fact that individual children vary hugely in what they are capable of appreciating, there is the problem that what I consider harmless might be beyond the pale for my correspondents and visa versa.

It’s a point that was neatly illustrated when I looked into Chinese children’s literature and chose the award-winning Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan (translated by Helen Wang) as my Book of the month back in April 2015. According to Wang and several other translators I’ve been in touch with, it can often be challenging to find Chinese children’s books that will work in the anglophone market because standards are so different: while Chinese stories can often seem rather simplistic and old-fashioned about things like gender roles, they can also be far more violent and graphic than is usual in English-language works aimed at similar age groups.

However, one thing I could very much identify with in Rachel’s comment was her comment about sex coming across as awkward in a lot of the titles she’s tried. That’s certainly an issue as far as British writers are concerned. Indeed, so much terrible writing about physical intimacy is published each year in my home country that the Literary Review magazine even runs an annual Bad Sex in Fiction award.

I can’t say for sure whether this is a problem exclusive to English-language writers, although it’s certainly true that my international reading has introduced me to some of the best writing about sex that I have ever encountered (indeed, my post on the book I read for Guyana, which I naively titled ‘Guyana: sex and how to do it’ unintentionally brought a lot of people using dubious, sex-tourism-related search terms to my blog – but that’s another story).

Still, I wanted to choose a book that Rachel would be likely to enjoy and so didn’t want to run the risk of selecting something that she would find too explicit.

Instead, I’ve opted for a book that, while it might appear overtly sexual, is in fact far from it. The novel in question is The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leïla Marouane (translated by Alison Anderson), which was my pick for Algeria.

As I wrote in my 2012 review, its provocative title made for some awkward moments on public transport – and was a neat demonstration of the old adage ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’.

Witty, inventive and beautifully written, this is a treat of a novel. Rachel, I hope you like it!

 

Being translated

 

 

 

 

 

Having spent the past five years thinking a lot about translation and how important it is, I’ve been delighted to have a chance to observe the process from a different angle over the past twelve months. My novel Beside Myself has received book deals in around nine language territories, which means that I have had the privilege of seeing my writing translated into other tongues.

This has been a strange experience. As I don’t speak Thai, Polish, Chinese or Italian (some of the languages in which my work now exists), I have no way of knowing how the respective translators have rendered my story. I have had to trust them and my publishers to produce a fair representation of my original work, one that I hope will convey the kernel and spirit of the narrative to readers in their respective language markets.

From my own research and experience with reading translations, I am aware that this might involve a degree of alteration or the inclusion of extra bits of explanation in order to convey concepts that may not be familiar to people in other parts of the world.

As such, the process has brought home to me once more the generosity and fragility of translation – that it is essentially an exercise that relies on strangers reading your work with sympathetic and discerning eyes.

However, although I can’t read the foreign-language versions of my novel (apart from the French – of which more soon!), I have been able to consider the different book jackets and titles that publishers have chosen to give my work. This has been an education in the way that different book markets operate and so I am sharing a selection below. Above, from left to right, are the UK hardback, UK paperback, US hardback and US paperback covers for comparison.

(For those who don’t know, the novel centres around a pair of identical twins who swap places in a game and then get trapped in the wrong lives when one of them refuses to change back.)

 

Vida robada

This is the cover of the Spanish edition. I like the sepia feel of the picture, which harks back to my central characters’ childhoods in the 1980s.

The literal translation of the title is ‘Stolen life’. This is interesting as it makes a more definitive statement about who is to blame for what happens in the novel than the original title. Spanish readers will have the sense that someone has done something wrong before they even begin the first page.

 

 

Moja siostra …czy ja?

The Polish cover is intriguing. We’re in thriller territory here. The mirror gets across the idea of twinship and doubleness. However there is a much darker feel to everything, as though the beautiful woman in the reflection is about to come to serious harm.

The title (‘My sister… or me?’) is much more direct than the English or Spanish versions. In Poland, readers know that this is a story about choosing between sisters as soon as they glimpse the spine of the book.

 

 

Beside Myself

The Taiwanese edition seems like a halfway house between the two previous versions. We have the slightly retro-feeling little girls, but the fragmenting of the picture lends a dark feel as though everything is about to fall apart.

The Taiwanese publisher has kept the English title on the cover (apparently this is common practice in this part of the world), but I’m not sure whether the Chinese characters are a literal translation of it or a different title – can anyone help me out?

 

 

The Person Who Stole My Name 

The Chinese cover is the most unusual of the ones I have seen. In fact, when I was first sent it, I was so intrigued that I asked my agent to find out what the thinking behind it was (in case you were wondering, there aren’t any flamingos in the novel).

The answer came back that the separation of the species – the little girl and the birds – was intended to indicate loneliness. This is a central theme in the novel, so that makes sense to me.

As with the Spanish title, Chinese readers of ‘The person who stole my name’ will have the sense that a wrong has been done to someone before they turn to the first page.

 

À sa place

The French cover also prompted a question, as to my British eyes it seemed to have slightly erotic overtones (again, not a strong feature of the book). My French editor, however, assures me that this is not the case in the French market.

I really like the ambiguity of the title (‘In her place’), which leaves open the question of which twin’s identity is under threat.

As I can read French (very slowly and with a big dictionary), I will be able to see how the story has been carried over into this new language. I’m planning to get stuck in as soon as I finish editing my next novel.

I’ll let you know how I get on…

Book of the month: Jana Beňová

August is Women in Translation month. The initiative was started four years ago by translator Meytal Radzinski to challenge the gender imbalance in the anglophone publishing industry. This sees works by women making up only around 30 per cent of books originally written in other languages that make it onto English-language bookshop shelves.

As such, I knew I wanted to review a book by a woman writer this month (although I haven’t gone to the same lengths as last August, when I read 17 translated works by women and featured five on this blog in an effort to start to redress the gender imbalance in my own original project). And as #WITmonth (for the Twitterate among you) is all about championing underrepresented voices, it seemed to make sense to seek out a title from a country that is relatively poorly served for translation overall.

Slovakia is such a nation. Although a relatively wide selection of Czech literature is available in English, there is surprisingly little to sample from the country that made up the other half of Czechoslovakia until its dissolution in 1993. Certainly, back in 2012, I found there were very few titles to choose from (although I did enjoy the novel by Peter Pišťánek that I ended up reading).

So I was intrigued to hear about Seeing People Off, the first English-language translation (done by Janet Livingstone) of the work of European Union Prize for Literature-winner Jana Beňová, whose writing, according to US publisher Two Dollar Radio, bears comparison with the Brazilian great Clarice Lispector. Here, surely, was an exciting title to get my teeth into.

At a mere 126 pages, Seeing People Off might seem to be a sliver of a book. Its contents, however, are far from lightweight. Centred around Elza and her partner Ian, who live in a large apartment block in a district of Bratislava, ‘a place where time plays no role’, the narrative consists of telling fragments of their experiences and of the lives that surround them. We hear snatches of their neighbours’ arguments, as well as lines from the conversations of people at nearby tables in the cafés they frequent. Elements of the main characters’ backstories and those of their friends crop up unannounced, crowbarring themselves into the pages in a way that might at first seem chaotic but quickly creates an arresting whole.

The similarities to Lispector’s work are obvious for, as in The Hour of the Star, the story is told in short bursts, giving the text the appearance of a series of feverish notes on existence. There is the same playful oddness that runs through the Brazilian writer’s work: a river swells its banks and threatens to overwhelm the city; childhood imaginary friends tumble into the narrative and begin to act independently; and Elza, who is writing Seeing People Off and reads out extracts from it to her contemporaries now and then, comments wryly on her reasons for cutting down the space she gives to certain people in the tale and the frustrations of the Slovakian publishing industry.

There are oddball comparisons too. We read, for example, that forlorn figures wandering around a half-closed fun fair remind Elza ‘of England in times when they used children as chimney sweeps’.

Much of this quirkiness is funny, but it can be alarming too. Discussions surrounding a reality TV show set in a concentration camp and cold – almost clinical – accounts of violence and suicide inspire unease as the narrative lurches between what is acceptable and what is not, inviting readers to acknowledge and test this boundary within themselves.

The result is a book that seems to operate partly on the subconscious level, dredging up, inverting and reconfiguring ideas, themes and images. As such, it requires careful reading for, suspended on the finest of threads, the narrative is always only an attention lapse or two away from tumbling into nonsense.

For those who persevere, however, the rewards are great. In a very few words, Beňová tugs at the strings that bind conventional narratives, testing the knots and exposing the weaknesses. In so doing, she reveals that sometimes the point of reading might be to lose the thread.

Seeing People Off  by Jana Beňová, translated from the Slovak by Janet Livingstone (Two Dollars Radio, 2017)