Book of the month: Juan Marsé

I love meeting translators. Having built their careers around enabling people to access the work of other writers – lending readers their eyes, as I describe it in my book Reading the World – they are often very generous, knowledgeable and fascinating.

Nick Caistor is a case in point. With a string of famous works to his name, including novels by Paulo Coehlo, José Saramago and Dominique Sylvain, this three-time Premio-Valle-Inclán-winner and former BBC World Service Latin America editor is a mine of insights and stories. When I met him to record a (yet-to-be-released) podcast for the Royal Literary Fund this month, we had a wonderful discussion about the frustrations and joys of helping literature to travel, topped off by a delicious lunch from a Brazilian stall on the street market near his London flat.

Caistor’s kindness didn’t end there. A few days later, a package dropped onto my doormat: his recent translation of Spanish Cervantes prize-winner Juan Marsé’s Esa puta tan distinguida (or The Snares of Memory, as Caistor has rendered it in English).

The premise is intriguing. In 1980s Barcelona, a writer is hired to create a film script based around the murder of a prostitute in a cinema projection booth more than thirty years before. In his efforts to achieve authenticity, the writer seeks out the convicted murderer, one Fermín Sicart, and, over the course of a series of taped discussions, attempts to get to the bottom of the crime. There is a problem, however. Though Sicart accepts his guilt, he cannot recall why he killed his victim. As the writer tries to grope his way towards an understanding of his subject, he is forced to interrogate his own motives and methods for translating this gruesome episode to the silver screen.

The book is surprisingly funny. Helped along by abrupt shifts in register that reliably undercut the writer’s loftier reflections, a strong current of bathos and formidable housekeeper Felisa, who has no compunction about interrupting the narrator’s work to harangue him about his unhealthy habits, offer her opinions or subject him to another of her ‘riddles’ taken from classic films, the narrative is extremely entertaining.

This is nowhere more true than during the passages in which the writer reflects on the difficulties and compromises of the creative process. For a fellow novelist, the section describing five hours spent crossing out sentences in a handful of barely legible pages is particularly enjoyable (not to say reassuring!). There is also a lot of fun in the passages that skewer the Spanish film industry. Beholden to politics and funding issues, the project lurches from one director and producer to another, morphing dramatically with each shift so that the writer is constantly obliged to reframe his vision in light of considerations that have nothing to do with the quality of the work.

The humour in no way detracts from the rigour and beauty of the prose, however. Indeed, Marsé and Caistor’s descriptions of writing and the mechanisms of self-censorship are among the most memorable I’ve read. In showing how ‘the story came to me from an undeniable personal tragedy, but was also rooted in the fraught memory of the dark days of the dictatorship, the resentment, humiliation, pain and desire for revenge that still persisted in many different guises in the collective subconscious’, the narrative makes the particular universal – one of the hallmarks of great literature.

Rather than getting in the way, the human elements of the story – the writer’s fretting about money, Sicart’s flashes of forgetfulness, and Felisa’s complaints about clearing up cigarette butts – elevate the work. They imbue the novel with life, allowing us to experience the emotional reality of the ideas it explores rather than simply presenting them on the page, while the intrigue of the plot draws us on.

‘Haven’t I told you a thousand times that the black or noir novel as they call it in French is the best way to investigate social conflicts, explore the human condition, to denounce implacably the injustices and corruption of our society?’ remarks an incidental character in a doctor’s waiting room midway through the book. In Marsé’s hands, this is certainly true.

The Snares of Memory (Esa puta tan distinguida) by Juan Marsé, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor (MacLehose Press, 2019)

Book of the month: Helga Flatland

This Women in Translation month (#WITMonth), or August as it’s known in some parts of the world, I’ve been rather spoilt for choice. Although the number of female-authored books being translated into English is still low in comparison to those by men, the awareness-raising efforts of recent years have seen a glut of fabulous titles by women made available to anglophone readers.

Those keen for recommendations now have a wonderful resource in the shape of blogger and #WITMonth founder Meytal Radzinski’s freshly compiled list of ‘The 100 Best Books by Women Writers in Translation.’ Drawn up from nominations from readers around the world, this is an attempt, in Radzinski’s words, ‘to create a new canon of sorts’. I for one shall be mining it for suggestions.

Even without this wonderful list, many of the best titles I have read so far this year have been works in translation by women. Favourites have included Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby, translated from the French by Sam Taylor; Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline, translated from the Italian by Tim Parks; Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff; and Annelies Verbeke’s Thirty Days, translated from the Dutch by Liz Waters, which was my June Book of the month.

My selection for this month, however, came onto my radar by way of another blogger, John Fish of The Last Word Book Review. I saw him tweeting about Helga Flatland’s A Modern Family and was inspired to try out this celebrated Norwegian writer’s English-language debut for myself.

The premise is simple enough. Adult siblings Liv, Ellen and Håkon find their lives thrown into confusion when, just shy of their father’s seventieth birthday, their parents break the news that they are planning to divorce. This revelation sparks an intense period of questioning and insecurity, in which the assumptions on which their lives rest are tested and the ties between them stretched out of shape.

Flatland has the gift that I most often covert in the work of other writers: the ability to make everyday events compelling. Whereas my two published novels and the one I am working on now all feature characters pushed to breaking point by extraordinary events – my way of cracking people open to get at the workings within – Flatland finds the drama in the quotidian and makes us see how even something as mundane as clearing the table can be fraught with meaning and tension.

Flatland operates on the level of fine detail. Alive to the minute adjustments that switch the points of conversation and send exchanges careening off along unexpected tracks, she gives us characters who are perpetually frustrated in their attempts to live up to their own and one another’s standards by insecurities and shared history. We feel Liv’s exasperation at her tendency to regress in the face of her mother’s disapproval and cringe at Ellen’s boyfriend Simen’s inability to read the family dynamics so that he keeps chuckling long after a conversation has taken a sombre turn. This precision makes the novel deeply synecdochic, with almost every small exchange and event standing for momentous shifts below the surface.

The drama also lives in the gaps between its personages’ perceptions. With multiple episodes narrated several times from the viewpoint of the three main characters, we see the sometimes funny and sometimes tragic discrepancy that can often exist between people’s readings of the same events.

There are also a few wry interjections from Flatland. Although the comments nominally come from the narrators, there is too much knowingness in the gripes about novels in which characters end up at meaningful locations without being aware how they got there and the tendency to belittle women’s fiction for them not to carry some authorial weight.

This knowingness is occasionally a problem. The articulateness with which Håkon – the least successful of the three narrators – explains his motivations, for example, strains credulity. His insights into his predicaments sometimes feel too precise to be quite real.

Overall, though, this masterful Norwegian writer’s anglophone debut is an utterly compelling and satisfying read. It reminds us how full and rich life is, how the quietest existence can brim with urgency and drama – and how much wonderful writing we English speakers have yet to discover.

A Modern Family by Helga Flatland, translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger (Orenda, 2019)

Book of the month: Ali Zamir

My latest featured read marks another welcome addition to the anglophone literary world: the first commercially available translation of a novel from the Comoro Islands off the coast of Mozambique.

In 2012, when I read my way around the world, there was no longform fiction available to buy in English from this nation of 1 million people and I resorted to reading an unpublished translation of a novel by one of the archipelago’s leading writers. In May this year, that changed with Jacaranda Books’ release of Ali Zamir’s A Girl Called Eel, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins.

Narrated breathlessly and chaotically by the title character, the novel looks back on its protagonist’s life just as she is at the point of leaving it. Over the course of its 271 pages, we accompany Eel through the major events that have shaped her, exploring her internal and external worlds until we come to an uneasy understanding of the forces that have simultaneously made and destroyed her.

The book is a canny choice for English translation. As with many of the most memorable works from nations with little work available in the world’s most-published language – Smile as They Bow and Allah is Not Obliged come to mind – it has a strong and irreverent narrative voice. Although Eel may be at death’s door and has suffered some serious ill-treatment, she is not self-pitying or feeble. She thinks nothing of berating her fellow characters and even her reader, and shows little sympathy for what she perceives as weakness: ‘what is it about death that scares you feeble-minded fools so much,’ she exclaims when people in a sinking boat scream with fear.

This contrarian streak means that Eel is unpredictable and consequently fascinating. By turns alarming, shocking and funny, her voice acts like a hand drawing the reader through the novel’s unfamiliar terrain, pacing and mores. Although Western readers may not share some of Eel’s assumptions and may occasionally find it hard to enter into the emotional reality of the situations she describes, we are prepared to accompany her back and forth through the medina of Mutsamudu because she keeps us entertained.

She also delivers some powerful insights along the way. Words, she tells us, ‘are born free as birds, only if you nourish them with sincerity can you make them your own’.

Zamir and Higgins have clearly taken this advice. The text throbs with striking imagery. Take this description of a small craft battling through a sea storm: ‘the boat had to float through those furious waves and surging tides like an insect creeping over a mad woman’s dress as she thrashed and flung herself about’. Here, the crashing together of two distinct areas of experience – the wetness of the sea and the dryness through which insects usually move – creates a wrenching effect that conveys the violence of the scene.

There are occasions where such unusual images tip over into farce. For example, although it captures some of Eel’s disorientation, her description of vomiting on a woman’s back as being like etching her suffering onto a copper plate feels grotesquely ornate.

The challenges don’t end there. The narrative often rambles. This is no doubt deliberate and a reflection of Eel’s confusion as she drifts in and out of consciousness – indeed, she often scolds herself for digressing. Nevertheless, such apparent aimlessness is risky as it can make readers frustrated and inclined to let go of the narrator’s guiding hand. Occasionally, it’s tempting to wonder whether Eel’s self-admonitions aren’t really directed at her author.

There’s also the stylistic quirk of the text being devoid of all punctuation except commas and a final exclamation mark. The novel is Eel’s ‘furtive last sentence’, the jacket copy explains. But it isn’t really: there are lots of separate sentences in the book. It’s just that they are not demarcated as such but spliced together by one comma after another.

None of this takes away from the fact that this is, however, a very welcome addition to the English-speaking world’s bookshelf. Vivid, striking and surprising, this is an impressive work. That it is the first Comoran novel to be commercially published in English almost feels irrelevant. Whatever its provenance, A Girl Called Eel deserves a global audience.

A Girl Called Eel by Ali Zamir, translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins (Jacaranda, 2019)

Book of the month: Annelies Verbeke

One of the joys of this project has been the opportunity it’s given me to interact with authors around the world. From Turkmen author Ak Welsapar, who graciously asked me to write the preface to the latest English-language translation of his work, to Suchen Christine Lim from Singapore, who sent me a copy of her most recent novel only a few months back, I’ve really enjoyed learning about the lives and processes of so many wonderful writers. Given the geographic spread of the people whose work I’ve read for this project, however, it’s unusual that I meet them face to face.

The author of my latest book of the month is a rare exception. Having shared a stage with Annelies Verbeke at Vrije Universiteit’s Abraham Kuyper Lecture in Amsterdam last month (you can see us in the picture above in conversation with moderator Abdelkader Benali), I was delighted to receive a copy of her novel Thirty Days, translated from the Dutch by Liz Waters. I dived in and was quickly absorbed in what has turned out to be one of my favourite reads of the year so far.

Taking place in the space of a month, the novel follows the experiences of Alphonse, a musician-turned-decorator who has moved with his girlfriend to the rural district of Belgian Westhoek. Discovering that his work and manner often encourage clients to open up to him, Alphonse is quickly immersed in a web of personal tragedies, comedies and intrigues that spreads out across the pages of the novel, binding together everyone he meets and leaving no-one, but especially the protagonist, unchanged.

This is an immensely stylish book. With a strong instinct for the loose connections and quirks in human interaction, Verbeke presents a large cast of memorable and compelling characters. No matter how slight their involvement in the narrative, each of them feels rounded and finely drawn, and comes to us in the midst of pressing dilemmas. From the furious, butterfly-obsessed translator Alphonse encounters at a retreat building he is contracted to paint to the kebab-shop worker with a penchant for ice sculpture who slices off his finger in the process of preparing a shawarma, they all command attention and convey the impression that what we see of them is the merest tip of a deep iceberg of experience and feeling.

This is particularly true of the protagonist, Alphonse. The manner in which his history is revealed is incredibly skilful and invites readers to interrogate their assumptions. Having spent a long time imagining my way into the mindset of a person with markedly different life experiences and cultural markers to my own for my second novel, Crossing Over – which features an illegal Malawian migrant as one of its main characters – I was awed by Verbeke’s ability to take us into her hero’s universe. What’s more, I was envious of the facility with which she is able to make telling points without ever allowing the issues she explores to hi-jack the narrative and render her characters cardboard cut-outs acting in the service of ideas.

Verbeke’s control of the many elements of the story is hugely impressive. Wide-ranging though the narrative is – touching on the First World War, West African music and agricultural history, among many other things – the novel wears its author’s extensive research lightly. All the facts it features have an impact on the story and the writing hardly ever feels showy.

The result is a profoundly moving, insightful and witty piece of work, a book that has the capacity to make readers laugh and cry. It is, quite simply, fantastic. ‘Without a doubt, Verbeke is the greatest talent of her generation,’ proclaims a quote from the Flemish newspaper De Standaard on the front cover of my copy. I can well believe it.

Thirty Days (Dertig dagen) by Annelies Verbeke, translated from the Dutch by Liz Waters (World Editions, 2016)

Picture courtesy of Vrije Universiteit.

Book of the month: Duong Thu Huong

It’s always a pleasure to hear from other literary explorers. Reading the world is such an enriching and mind-expanding experience that I’m keen for as many people to do it as possible.

Among the numerous things I enjoy when I learn about other international reading quests is finding out what specific parameters the reader in question has set themself. Although many global book projects look similar at first glance, no two are identical because each becomes a reflection of the concerns and interests of the person at the centre of it. People might choose to categorise books by setting, for instance, or to seek out works in a particular genre or from a set time period.

Sometimes, these parameters illuminate important issues about the way stories circulate. Sophie Baggott’s Reading Women Writers Worldwide is a prime example. Having challenged herself to journey through some 200 books by women by 2020, Sophie has shone a light on the serious imbalance in international publishing, which still sees female-authored works making up only around 30 per cent of the books translated into English each year. (This is a problem that a number of campaigners are working to tackle, perhaps most notably translator Meytal Radzinski, who established Women in Translation Month back in 2014.)

Certain that Sophie must have discovered some gems on her literary travels, I contacted her recently to pick her brains for recommendations. She came back with several suggestions, including La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated by Lawrence Schimel, and The First Wife by Paulina Chiziane, translated by David Brookshaw, both of which I have already reviewed enthusiastically on this blog.

One title was completely new to me, however: Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong, translated by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson. I chased down a copy of the controversial Vietnamese novel – banned in the author’s home country – and was quickly hooked.

The story is told from the perspective of Hang, a young woman who is one of the many Vietnamese ‘exported workers’ sent to the Soviet Union in the seventies and eighties. When her Uncle Chinh summons her to Moscow, she embarks on a train ride that unlocks a wealth of memories, enabling the reader to piece together the mystery around her father’s disappearance and fraught relationship with her mother, and ultimately freeing Hang from the historical guilt that has bound her.

Duong Thu Huong has an exceptional instinct for the way that tension fuels a compelling story. Replete with dramatic encounters, this book is a rare beast: a literary novel with a gripping plot. Although many of the most powerful scenes centre on the main characters – with exchanges between Hang, her Aunt Tam, her mother and her uncle all working to reveal the complex web of emotions that snares them – there are some striking cameo appearances too.

In particular, I found myself itching to know more about the married couple who put Hang’s father up for one night and ‘must have been linked by some crime that kept them there, far from their village. Their shadowy past seemed to be both a bond and a yawning chasm between them, wedding their destinies and sundering their souls.’ By the middle of the next page, however, they had been left behind, never to reappear.

This engrossing storytelling also stems from the author’s sharp grasp of the way multiple, and sometimes conflicting, motivations can lead people to act against their better nature. There are numerous examples in the text but one of the most memorable involves the account of the villagers being goaded to turn against their neighbours following the classification designed to root out wealthy landowners. The rapidity with which people denounce their friends is chilling.

In her foreword, co-translator Nina McPherson warns that the Orwellian quality of the Communist rhetoric spouted by certain characters is deliberately satirical, as if worried that such sections might jar or disconcert readers. However, to my eye, the narrative shifts gears smoothly, moving seamlessly between descriptive passages of sometimes spine-tingling beauty to the harsh registers of many of the exchanges.

Nevertheless, the book is not without its flaws. Although for the most part deftly handled, the complex, flashback-laden structure yields the occasional jolt and sag. The device of harnessing something in the present to evoke a past event is a little overused in the early half of the book, with the result that a few of the transitions feel artificial. In addition, with the exception of intriguing figures such as the sinister married couple mentioned earlier, some of the walk-on characters seem redundant, almost as though they are remnants of threads or scenes cut from earlier drafts.

None of this gets in the way of the novel’s brilliance, however. It is at once engrossing and enlightening, a compelling narrative that leads readers through experiences and settings rarely represented in the English-speaking world. When set alongside the equally heart-wrenching yet deeply masculine The Sorrow of War, which was my choice to represent the country back in 2012, it reveals a strikingly different side to Vietnam.

Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong, translated from the Vietnamese by Phan Huy Dong and Nina McPherson (William Morrow, 1993)

Literary adventures in Amsterdam

This week saw me heading to Amsterdam. I went there at the invitation of international bestselling Belgian author Annelies Verbeke. She has been the writer in residence, or Vrije Schrijver, at VU University this year and her final duty in the role was to organise and deliver the Abraham Kuyper Lezing, an annual public lecture built around a theme of the curator’s choosing.

This year’s title was De taal van de wereld (The language of the world). As part of this, Verbeke was keen for me to speak about my journey through international literature.

It was a great pleasure to be back in Amsterdam. It’s a city very close to my heart: I went there to decompress after I finished my year of reading the world back in January 2013 and the main character of my first novel Beside Myself spends her happiest time there. I caught myself half-wondering if I might bump into her in Vondelpark.

The visit was also a lovely opportunity to catch up with writer friend Gaston Dorren. Dorren and I have stayed in touch since we shared a stage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival back in 2015.

My visit coincided with a special day for him: his latest book, Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages, had just come out in his mother tongue, Dutch. When we met for lunch, he had just picked up his copy from his publisher. As you can see, from the photo, however, he was very self-effacing about this achievement.

After a stroll around Amsterdam’s picturesque centre, I met Annelies Verbeke for ginger ale and hot chocolate in a café near to the Zuiderkerk, where the evening event would take place. I was intrigued to hear about her work at VU, which, among other things, has involved gathering volunteer translations of short stories from around the world.

I was also thrilled to discover that Verbeke has been inspired to mount her own international literary quest and has so far read books from 75 countries. We talked enthusiastically about some of the many questions around cultural identity and authenticity that such armchair travels uncover, and I picked her brain for recommendations.

The evening event was an extravaganza. Bringing together performances from intercultural women’s choir Mihira (a group made up of singers from some 20 countries who each contribute music from their cultural tradition to the repertoire), actor Kenneth Herdigein and Friesian poet Tsead Bruinja with talks from Verbeke and several of the university staff, it offered the 200 or so audience members a smorgasbord of cultural delights.

As one of the major themes was the challenge of combatting the spread of English in Dutch culture, I felt rather sheepish when it was my turn to take the stage (my Dutch, I’m afraid, is not equal to delivering a presentation and I was obliged to stick to my mother tongue). Everyone was extremely gracious and welcoming, however, and the staged discussion Verbeke and I had with fellow author and host Abdelkader Benali was fascinating.

Over a drink afterwards, I asked Benali more about his work. Although we English speakers only have access to his first novel, Wedding by the Sea, the Moroccan-Dutch writer is prolific, particularly as a theatre-maker. His explanation of the process he goes through to develop shows and the emotional investment that each of the performances requires was wonderful.

I left the Zuiderkerk impressed once more by the richness that the world’s storytellers have to offer – and how much we English speakers often miss.

Book of the month: Guzel Yakhina

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A little while ago, I was contacted by Anna, a teacher at Go-English language school in Blagoveshchensk city on the border with China in far east Russia – in fact, she tells me, you can see China just across the Amur river (pictured above in one of the photos she sent me).

Anna and her students had been discussing this project and wanted to know about my Russian choices. I sent back a reply and a question – which book would her students choose for me?

FullSizeRender-28-04-19-08-42-4A few days later, I received a response featuring a number of suggestions from Anna’s students, along with explanations for why they recommended each book. The titles they’d picked included Ukrainian author Anastasia Novykh’s Sensei of Shambala (which Evgeniya says completely changed her outlook on life) and Alexander Pushkin’s The Daughter of the Commandant (which describes the ‘Russian soul in every detail’, according to Alina). In addition, Anna had made her own suggestion: The History of a Town by 19th-century author Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, whom she calls ‘the king of Russian satire’.

In the end, however, it was a recommendation for a contemporary novel that caught my eye: the award-winning Zuleikha by Tartar author Guzel Yakhina, translated by Lisa C. Hayden. Irina describes it as ‘a deep thought-provoking book which leaves its positive mark on your heart’, and soon after I started it, I knew it would be my next book of the month.

Set during the period of Soviet dekulakization and collectivization introduced when Stalin came to power in the mid-1920s, Zuleikha tells the story of the nation through the life of the title character. After witnessing the murder of her harsh husband by government forces charged with disenfranchising wealthy peasants (kulaks), Zuleikha is exiled along with thousands of others to a remote region of Siberia. There, the handful of them who survive the cruel journey must build a society from scratch, questioning and overturning many of the assumptions on which their former lives rested in the process.

As with many books that span years and capture the maturing and changing of the central characters, the tone of Zuleikha varies. The grim cruelty of the early chapters recalls other contemporary gulag-related fiction, such as Sofi Oksanen’s Purge, but there are moments of bathos too, as well as arresting imagery. After Zuleikha leaves her hometown and embarks on the punishing six-month train ride around rural Russia that will be the death of many of her companions, a softness creeps in as she begins to forge connections with those around her. This in turn shrinks to baldness in the early days at the settlement, where life is reduced to nothing but a series of punishing tasks necessary for survival, before blossoming to readmit wonder and creativity, seen through the eyes of a child and captured in art.

Tonal shifts notwithstanding, the ingenuity required to survive remains a constant theme. Whether we are witnessing Zuleikha creeping about her husband’s home in an effort to avoid her vicious mother-in-law, or seeing the official put in charge of her train risk arrest with each rare flash of humanity he shows his charges, Yakhina leaves us in no doubt of the precariousness of life in this world. The characters’ physical hardships pale in comparison to the mental suffering they endure and the self-deception they are obliged to practice to negotiate a society hostile to free thought.

Indeed, Yakhina’s ability to depict the collapse of the human psyche under extreme pressure is one of her greatest talents. The supreme example of this involves her portrayal of the breakdown of celebrated medical professor Volf Karlovich, who spends many pages believing that he is insulated from the horrors surrounding him by virtue of the fact that he lives inside an egg, until events force him to break out of his imaginary shell and engage with the real world once more. The unfolding of this episode is exquisite and credit must go to both the author and translator Lisa C. Hayden for the work they have done to imbue it with such tenderness and power.

It’s almost inevitable that in such a sweeping book, some parts drag. Indeed, the nature of the story – in which life is stripped back to its essentials and imagined afresh – necessitates a certain amount of simple, technical description. At points, there is a level of detail and lingering on certain incidental bits of information and action that some anglophone readers may find frustrating, given that such passages would usually be paced differently in comparable English-language novels. There is also a fair amount of recapping, some of which feels redundant.

Overall, however, this is a triumph of a book. It is a masterclass in synthesizing historical research with imagination and insight into how people think and feel. As Irina says, it ‘leaves its positive mark on your heart’. Thanks to Anna and the B2 students at Go-English in Blagoveshchensk for bringing it and the other titles above to my attention.

Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina, translated from the Russian by Lisa C. Hayden (Oneworld, 2019)

Photos courtesy of Anna

Brahmaputra Literary Festival

This project has led to many extraordinary experiences for me. From speaking at TED Global and delivering TEDx talks in Geneva and Hanoi to having a book translated specially for me by a team of volunteers and appearing on a panel with the deputy prime minister of Jordan at the Knowledge Summit in Dubai, my quest has opened up many more things than I could ever have imagined when, one rainy night in October 2011, I decided to try and read a book from every country in the world.

Last weekend brought another first: seeing my face on a large cube sculpture (pictured above). The cube was one of a number of installations at the Brahmaputra Literary Festival in Guwahati, India, where I and some 130 other writers from 20 countries met at the invitation of the Publication Board of Assam to engage in three days of panel discussions about books.

At least, I was supposed to be there for three days. In the event, however, a cancelled flight meant my journey got rather delayed and, after an erratic, three-stop hop across the world (taking in Cairo, Kuwait and Hyderabad), I arrived in Guwahati with just 34 hours to go until I was due to leave again.

The experience was worth the effort, however. From the moment I was met at arrivals and driven through the city, where banners advertising the festival fluttered from almost every hoarding and the faces of the writers taking part smiled at me from giant arches over the road, I knew I had been invited to join in something extraordinary.

The celebratory mood was heightened by the fact that the date of my arrival was a special day in India. As my wonderful guide, Pourshali, one of the many young volunteers helping to make the festival a success, explained, that Sunday was Saraswati Puja, a celebration of the goddess of knowledge. As a result, the women of the city, Pourshali included, were wearing their finest saris.

Along with the occasional glimpses of my face on advertising hoardings, I was delighted and occasionally unnerved by the sight of many exquisitely dressed people in flowing skirts riding pillion and side-saddle on the back of mopeds weaving through the traffic.

Generously, Pourshali gave up her share in the festivities to show me around. Our adventures included trips to the science museum – a thought-provoking monument to the discoveries of the mid-twentieth century, featuring a display of planets minus Pluto – and a mall where, under the bewildered eyes of the shop assistants, she took the role of personal shopper, advising me on purchases. ‘They are thinking, “What are these two people doing together? They look like they’re from different worlds,”‘ she whispered to me with a laugh.

The highlight, though, was the festival itself. Despite my late arrival, I managed to sit in on several fascinating sessions, including a discussion of fictional portrayals of sport, and a consideration of literature by prisoners of conscience, featuring the courageous Burmese writers Dr Ma Thida and Nyi Pu Lay.

The next day, after an evening of chats over dinner with Australia’s YA author Neil Grant and Indonesian novelist Ahmad Fuadi, among many others, it was my turn. My first session brought me into conversation with one of Pan Macmillan India’s senior commissioning editors, Teesta Guha Sarkar, author and editor Sutapa Basu and author and editor KE Priyamvada to discuss why writers need editors. We agreed on the need for trust and respect between writers and editors, and explored the tricks you might use to bring texture to a threadbare manuscript. Chief among these were giving characters quirks and applying fiction techniques to non-fiction.

Fifteen minutes later, I was in the hotseat, moderating a discussion on the role of research in creating fictional worlds. My panel were an international bunch, comprising Latvian bestseller Janis Jonevs, Lithuanian novelist Gabija Grusaite, award-winning Shehan Karunatilaka from Sri Lanka, celebrated and prolific Indian novelist Arup Dutta, and Assamese prizewinner Jayanta Bora.

An hour was only long enough to scratch the surface of the topic. Nevertheless, the discussion generated some excellent insights into the writing process, shared to a packed audience largely made up of students from schools and colleges across the state. While Jonevs talked about the pain of emotional research and the challenge of projecting himself back into his teenage self, Grusaite explained how a new development in a real-life Malaysian murder case had changed the course of her plot. Karunatilaka raised many a laugh with his tales of hanging out with drunk old men and watching cricket, Dutta described observing elephant trapping, and Bora talked about the 25 years of research that went into his debut.

Perhaps the most inspiring talk I participated in, however, was not on stage but during a conversation with festival curator Rahul Jain, during which the reasons for the effort that had gone into arranging and promoting the festival became clear.

‘We don’t have a literary culture,’ he told me. ‘But if these young people come here and see writers being glorified and people running from tent to tent as though literature is their lifeblood, they will realise that writers are important for a civilised society.

‘They can’t all be writers. But they can all be readers.’

Book of the month: Rita Indiana

This book came onto my radar by way of a tweet from Gary Michael Perry, acting head of fiction at the famous Foyles bookshop on London’s Charing Cross Road. Having found translations from the Dominican Republic to be fairly thin on the ground during my quest, I was delighted to have the chance to sample this Caribbean nation’s Spanish-language literature (back in 2012, I read Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which was written in English with elements of Spanglish thrown in).

Roving between an apocalyptic near future, the recent past and distant history, Tentacle, Achy Obejas’s translation of Rita Indiana’s La mucama de Omicunlé, is a bold and startling exploration of many of the big issues facing humanity today, including the role of technology, climate change, religion and colonial legacies. It takes the aftermath of a series of ecological disasters in the 2020s as its starting point and follows the fortunes of maid Acilde and troubled artist Argenis as they travel back and forth between 2037 and 1606, in search of ways to save themselves and head off the catastrophes that precipitate the story’s beginning.

Indiana’s technical ingenuity is this novella’s greatest strength. Rather than simply jumping between narratives in different time periods, she crashes the experiences together, playing out several story lines in one go. The most impressive example is when Argenis, who has been invited to participate in a residency to generate artwork that will hopefully raise funds and awareness to promote oceanic conservation, begins to experience ‘involuntary projections’ in his mind that lead him to function on two planes simultaneously. Indiana manages a rare feat: communicating a coherent experience of confusion, such that readers are able to inhabit Argenis’s bewilderment at being at once in his present and among buccaneers in the distant past without evoking the sort of frustration that would render the story unreadable.

There are also instances of wonderful playfulness. Indiana’s exploration of the possibilities of technology in the near future – where we might, for example, have access to a PriceSpy that will enable us to spot whether someone’s clothes are fake – are joyous, thought-provoking and sometimes alarming. Presenting us with a reality where access to data is as necessary to human survival as food, the author invites us to join her characters in stepping outside the present, so that we can look in and view much of what we take for granted about our contemporary reality with wondering and sometimes wary eyes.

The virtuosity of many of the descriptive passages is striking. The section where one of the characters undergoes an organic sex change as part of the fulfillment of a prophecy stands out for the way Obejas and Indiana find formulations for experiences beyond the reach of common human conception, bringing the seemingly unimaginable into words.

As with most, ambitious works, however, this marvellously inventive novella comes with a few health warnings. It deals with extreme situations and ideas, and its language registers and the events it contains reflect these.

In addition, for all Indiana’s technical ingenuity, Tentacle is not an easy read. Those who venture into it will have to work to keep abreast of its multiple threads, as well as accept that sometimes meaning may drop off a cliff edge, disappearing where we cannot follow. It is perhaps best enjoyed like the ocean that washes through so many of its pages – with a readiness to immerse ourselves, balanced with an awareness of how far we have ventured from the shore.

Tentacle (La mucama de Omicunlé) by Rita Indiana, translated from the Spanish by Achy Obejas (And Other Stories, 2018)

Picture: ‘Bavaro Sunrise, Dominican Republic‘ by Joe deSousa on flickr.com

Book of the month: Yoko Tawada

This last selection of 2018 was made partly in response to a comment on the A Year of Reading the World Facebook page. Reacting to my review of Sofi Oksanen’s harrowing novel Purge, Susan wrote: ‘All your book choices have a “ dark” sad quality to them. I even predicted this one! You need to find someone in the whole wide world that writes with some humor or happiness!’

While my voyage through international literature has taken in some sunny vistas, from the irrepressibly curious and joyful memoir An African in Greenland by Togolese explorer Tété-Michel Kpomassie to the hilarious and thought-provoking Lake Como by Serbian author Srđan Valjarević, it’s fair to say that most of my recent picks have tended towards the darker end of the spectrum. As a result, I decided to take up Susan’s challenge and find something funny with which to see the year out.

It wasn’t as easy as you might think. For a start, humorous translations are relatively thin on the ground. This may be something to do with the fact that, genre fiction aside, a large proportion of the texts that make it into English from other languages tend towards the literary end of the spectrum. In the anglophone world, ‘literary’ tends to equate to ‘serious’.

There’s also the issue that jokes can be difficult to carry from one language to another. Sometimes this is down to the fact that a lot of humour is rooted in word play, but it can also be owing to cultural differences that mean that a sequence likely to have one set of people roaring with laughter may leave another group cold.

As a result, the funny literature in translation tends to fall into three categories – the satirical, the surreal and what I’ll call circumstantial or fish-out-of-water stories, in which we watch an unlikely protagonist thrown into a challenging scenario with, hopefully, hilarious results. I’ve tried several books in all three categories in the last few weeks.

In the satire camp, I was intrigued by Vladimir Lorchenkov’s The Good Life Elsewhere, translated by Ross Ufberg, a biting account of increasingly desperate attempts by a group of villagers in one of Europe’s poorest countries to get to Italy and the better life they imagine they’ll lead there. As so little Moldovan literature comes into English, it was great to see another voice from the country represented in the world’s most published language. However, the bleakness of the humour (featuring suicides, people trafficking and all manner of extreme experiences) was such that I wasn’t convinced the book satisfied my brief.

Among my fish-out-of-water reads, I romped through Nichola Smalley’s translation of Emmy Abrahamson’s How to Fall in Love with a Man who Lives in a Bush, a quirky account of a Swedish woman’s love affair with a homeless man in Austria. There were some particularly amusing scenes set in an English-language school, which played deftly on the malapropisms inevitable when learning a new tongue, and I was interested to discover that the novel was inspired by the author’s relationship with her now-husband. Still, enjoyable though it was, the book felt a little too light for my tastes. I wanted something that would make me think as well as smile.

That left the surreal. Here, I gravitated towards Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear, attracted partly by the name of celebrated translator Susan Bernofsky, who directs the Literary Translation programme at Columbia University in the States. As she translated the work from Tawada’s German manuscript, I’m counting this as a German read, although a separate, earlier version exists in Japanese.

Concepts don’t come much more unusual than the one behind this book. It consists of three interlinked short stories examining the interaction between captive polar bears and the people who work with them, taking in a sweep of twentieth-century history along the way.

Swooping in and out of the heads of the ursine and human figures in its pages, the narrative delights and surprises. Humour comes from crashing the two worlds together – presenting bears holding down administrative jobs, battling writer’s block and crossing picket lines – and the opportunity this gives Tawada to make our world strange to us. Through the eyes of polar bears, the rituals of organisations such as the Young Pioneers and ideas such as make-up are exposed as arbitrary and potentially foolish.

In addition to raising a smile, this oddness enables the author to explore big questions. By bending language and stepping outside the anthropocentric framework most stories take for granted, she and Bernofsky invite a reconsideration of concepts including nature, nationality, art, politics and rights. The human perspective is revealed to be one of many, reminding us that, as Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari has put it, ‘we are living on a tiny island of consciousness within a perhaps limitless ocean of alien mental states’.

Is this the sort of uplifting book Susan had in mind? Perhaps not quite, although it is inspiring in its way. Is it laugh-out-loud funny? No – to be honest, I’m still looking for another one of those. (Please do put any suggestions below.) Is it worth reading? Absolutely.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear (Etüden im Schnee) by Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books, 2016)

Wishing everyone a very happy 2019. Thanks so much for your support and interest in my reading adventures. Check back soon for some exciting news!