WITmonth pick #5: Lina Meruane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WITmonth pick #3: Svetlana Alexievich

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When Swedish chemist, engineer and armaments manufacturer Alfred Nobel left money in his will for the establishment of an annual literary prize at the end of the 19th century, he stipulated that the award should recognise an author who has produced ‘the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’. Since the Nobel prize in Literature was first awarded in 1901, various winners have proved controversial, with some commentators and interested parties objecting to the decisions of the Swedish Academy.

For example, when Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk won the accolade in 2006, not long after charges that his work was guilty of ‘insulting Turkishness’ were dropped, there was uproar in his homeland. Similarly, when exiled Chinese writer Gao Xingjian received the honour in 2000, China congratulated France on the news, pointedly disowning the first ever literary Nobel laureate born within its borders.

Indeed, when you think about it, such controversy is unsurprising: with so many exceptional writers working away around the globe, the idea that it should be possible to pick one a year to honour as outstanding is problematic. Whoever the Swedish Academy chooses, it’s likely that someone will have other ideas.

Or so I thought, until I read Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future by Belarusian investigative journalist and writer Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year.

Twenty years in the making, this extraordinary book consists of the curated accounts of many of those who lived through (and continue to feel the effects of) the Chernobyl disaster. It was in part prompted by the fact that, although the nuclear-power plant where the accident happened was in Ukraine, a combination of meteorological, geographical and political factors meant that Belarus suffered terribly, such that at the time Alexievich wrote the book, one in five Belarusians lived in the contaminated zone and only one in four died of old age.

Through her conversations with people involved with the incident at every level – from local villagers and clean-up workers to scientists, lecturers and former officials, as well as returnees, outlaws and immigrants now deliberately living in the affected area, and even herself – Alexievich presents a powerful document that uses the horror of what happened to interrogate identity, history and the way that this event has shaken and reshaped the future not only of her nation, but of the world.

The secret to the book’s power is its focus on the personal and the specific. Opening with a lengthy and heartrending account by Lyudmila, the widow of a fireman sent to tackle the blaze at the power plant in nothing but his shirt sleeves with the result that his body disintegrated over the weeks that followed, the narrative sets out insight after insight into the painfully inadequate responses we human beings exhibit in the face of the unthinkable. Through this, we see delineated our reluctance to accept catastrophic change – as revealed by the fact that shops continued to set out trays of pastries as the dust cloud blew over and in the initial excitement of evacuees at the thought of a weekend away – and the distressing ubiquity of selfishness that led many to barter the safety of others in their own interests. In addition, the terrible resignation of a generation of children robbed of their futures speaks plainly in anecdotes such as the account of the young boy who, when chided by a fellow bus passenger for not giving up his seat with the warning that if he does not do so he will have to stand in his dotage, replies coldly that he knows he will never be old.

There is humour in the midst of the bleakness. I defy you not to smile at the story of the success of ‘Chernobyl produce’ in the markets of surrounding cities, where allegedly contaminated apples get snapped up as gifts for bosses and mothers-in-law.

And powerful though the human stories are, some of the most disturbing passages are those that reveal how nature itself was thrown out of whack by the accident. Details such as the revelation that flowers lost their scent and bees stayed in their hives for several days after the blasts are chilling.

These observations – testament to Alexievich’s skill in winning her subjects’ time and trust – ground the narrative, engross the reader and provide the author with the foundation to build some devastating arguments that the text’s emotional clout makes it impossible to ignore. There are many of these – including fascinating explorations of self-sacrifice and the tragic consequences of the Soviet ideal of putting the collective before the individual, which may have led some to take suicidal risks out of a misplaced desire to be heroic.

However, the most compelling points for many readers who, like me, are hundreds of miles from the scene of the accident, must be the passages that show how Chernobyl has changed the lives of everyone around the world. For all that foreign journalists arrived to cover the incident swathed in protective clothing, what happened has got under everyone’s skin, Alexievich contends. This is true not only because of the radionuclides the explosions spread across the globe, which will endure for 200,000 years, but also because ‘in the space of one night we shifted to another place in history’.

In this new place, ‘near’ and ‘far’ are redundant terms because we have been revealed to be vulnerably interconnected. It is a world where traditional concepts of evil fall apart and the language we have to describe disaster crumbles because the greatest threat comes not from an external enemy, but from something we have created ourselves. It is a reality that our brains are not fully equipped to comprehend, an existence where home can become uninhabitable, where trees can groan under the weight of toxic fruit, and where the damage from a single event is inflicted not all at once, but over time, spooling on to warp the lives of those not yet born.

That Svetlana Alexievich manages to get us to appreciate so much about what Chernobyl means – that she enables us to contemplate the unimaginable – marks her out as a truly great writer. This work is outstanding. Were he able to look forward into the future, the inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel, would probably have shuddered at the sort of explosions human beings acquired the power to create a few decades after his death. But I believe he would have found the author of this exceptional work well worthy of the prize to which he gave his name.

Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future by Svetlana Alexievich, translated from the Russian by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait (Penguin Classics, 2016)

Picture: ‘Libro abandonado en Chernóbil‘ by tridecoder on flickr.com

WITmonth pick #2: Paulina Chiziane

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I have been wanting to read this book for more than four years. It came onto my radar during my Year of Reading the World in 2012, when I was finalising my choice for Mozambique. As I wrote in my post at the time, I had actually just read a novel by Mozambican writer Mia Couto and was planning to post about it, when a comment from Miguel made me think twice.

Mia Couto was a literary cliché, he said. I should try to find something else – and Niketche by Paulina Chiziane, the nation’s first-published female novelist, would be a good starting point.

Loathe to be thought to have plumped for a cliché, I embarked on a quest to find an English version of Niketche, which did seem to have been published in translation. But when I contacted the publisher, it turned out that the firm had folded before it was able to release the book. A finished English-language version did not exist.

All was not lost as far as a good alternative to Mia Couto was concerned, however, as this conversation led to the manuscript translation of the extraordinary Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa, an amazing book that richly deserves an English-language deal.

Yet, while Ualalapi still awaits an anglophone publisher, the last few years have brought good news for Chiziane’s novel. This summer, Archipelago Books launched a version titled The First Wife, translated by David Brookshaw, and I lost no time in snapping up a copy.

As the title suggests, the novel is about marriage – albeit in a rather different form to that which many of us in the English-speaking world are used to, at least at first glance. When Rami discovers that her husband of 20 years, police chief Tony, has been secretly conducting a series of concurrent, long-term extra-marital relationships – effectively practising a form of polygamy – she reacts furiously. Yet her anger quickly gives way to a desire to understand and challenge the warped gender dynamics that have seen her and so many women like her marginalised and silenced across the generations.

Embarking on a journey of personal discovery that leads her to question the traditions and assumptions that have shaped her life, Rami visits dubious love counsellors and wizards, and eventually joins forces with her husband’s unofficial wives to right the wrongs they suffer. In so doing, she reveals the extraordinary potential of female solidarity and exposes the hollowness of patriarchal power – uncovering a self-perpetuating system, in which those who appear to wield influence and to gain from inequality are often the most deluded and damaged of all.

This is a powerful and angry book. Portraying the myriad injustices to which Rami and her contemporaries are subject – from a welter of myths about women’s evilness and tendency to precipitate natural disasters, through cultural rules that dictate men should receive the best parts of the chicken to eat, to the appalling treatment of widows, whose possessions can be appropriated by their in-laws and whose bodies can be commandeered by their brothers-in-law for ‘sexual purification’ – Chiziane reveals the ‘litany that has sent women to sleep down the ages’.

Yet, for all its fury, the narrative is underpinned by an appreciation of the interconnectedness of the human experience. To Chiziane, the suffering experienced by her female characters is part of a loop of wrongdoing and hurt, in which all people are implicated. Rather than women against men, or them and us, gender inequality as seen through this author’s eyes is part of a wider, skewed system, which it behoves all humankind to correct. This is neatly summed up in the description of the ‘cycle of subordination’:

‘The white man says to the black man: It’s your fault. The rich man says to the poor man: It’s your fault. The man says to the woman: It’s your fault. The woman says to her son: It’s your fault. The son says to the dog: It’s your fault. The dog barks furiously and bites the white man, and the white man once again angrily shouts at the black man: It’s your fault. And so the wheel turns century after century ad infinitum.’

This clear-eyed evaluation of the causes of subjection makes Rami’s discovery of her own agency and worth deeply touching. I was moved to tears by several passages towards the end of the novel, in which she and her friends revel in their femininity and celebrate womanhood – free at last from the mental fetters that formerly made them resent their gender.

The writing is urgent and surprising. As in Ualalapi, there are images that leap from the page and delight with their freshness. That said, there are a number of mixed metaphors that obstruct the sense. In addition, some English-language readers may struggle with the unfamiliar pacing, which makes some events seem rather abrupt, while other minor incidents stretch on for pages. Similarly, several episodes and thought processes are recounted on more than one occasion, which can be a little discombobulating.

These niggles are really beside the point, though. In addition to being a work of great imagination and creativity, this is an important book. As well as setting out a story that enables readers to feel the necessity of challenging patriarchal norms, it provides a compelling comment on the long shadow of colonialism and telling insights into the way tradition moulds minds.

Hats off to Archipelago Books for bringing this towering work to the English-speaking world. Might I persuade you to take on Ualalapi next?

The First Wife (Niketche) by Paulina Chiziane, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw (Archipelago Books, 2016)

Picture: ‘Elections in Mozambique’ by United Nations Photo on flickr.com

WITmonth pick #1: Lena Andersson

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At the start of August, I made a promise. I wrote a post pledging to read lots of translated books by women in a bid to find a truly brilliant female-authored translated title to feature as my book of the month. This was going to be my small contribution to Women in Translation Month, a campaign now in its third year, aiming to tackle the disproportionately small number of books by women that get English-language translation deals.

The first part of the pledge was easy. Drawing on a range of personal recommendations, comments on here, things I’d been wanting to tackle for ages and some excellent lists put together by supporters of the campaign, I read my way through 17 works, tweeting the titles as I went.

In fact, I was reading at roughly the same rate as I did during my original quest to read the world back in 2012. And just like that journey, this challenge took me to some intriguing places. From a remote girls’ boarding school in the mountains of Rwanda to Park Slope in Brooklyn and from 1980s China to 16th-century Peru, I found myself transported beyond the bounds of my imagination by the writers’ skill.

So far, so good. But then I was faced with the second part of the challenge: choosing one title to tell you about.

Here I came unstuck. There were simply too many excellent and extraordinary books among the selection for me to settle for reviewing just one. And so, in recognition of the fact that my original quest featured far more books by men than by women, I have decided to take this opportunity to redress the balance a little. I have selected five titles to review and add to the List over the next couple of weeks (in addition, of course, to redoubling my commitment to seek out great books by writers of all genders to feature at other times).

And so, without further ado, here is the first of the bunch.

If you ever need proof that a story does not need to be original to be powerful, you need look no further than Swedish writer Lena Andersson’s Wilful Disregard. On the face of it, this slender novel tells a story so familiar you could barely call it a plot: Ester, a poet and essayist in her early 30s, falls for Hugo, an older artist, and has to deal with the painful consequences when her passion is not returned.

It sounds mundane. And yet the quotidian nature of the storyline is the secret of this book’s success. With no narratological fireworks to wow readers and no twists to keep the pages turning, it is left to Andersson and her translator Sarah Death to make the novel compelling by use of language and description alone.

And my goodness, they certainly do.

Andersson sets out her stall in the opening pages by showing us what words mean to her poet protagonist. Language, we learn, is only ever ‘an approximation’. As a result, ‘the dreadful gulf between thought and words, will and expression, reality and unreality, and the things that flourish in that gulf, are what this story is about.’ Indeed, at times, the impossibility of capturing things with words almost seems too much for Ester and her creator alike:

‘How can one portray a human being from the inside in language or imagery without the transmission process introducing a false note? That’s the question. Metaphorizing feelings can only lead away from those feelings.’

And yet, as so often happens when a writer expresses her frustrations at the limitations of her art, great writing is frequently in evidence in this book. It takes the form of succinct evocations and spare, precise descriptions amid a welter of rich perceptions about what human beings think and do. Some of these, such as the way obsession unfolds and the means by which we sabotage ourselves in the eyes of those we most want to charm, are timeless, but there are observations that feel very much of the moment too. The reflections on the torments experienced by anyone waiting for a text message from a love interest are particularly telling.

There’s humour in there too. The restaurant scene where Ester finds herself unable to order the same dessert as Hugo because she is cross with him and can’t appear to agree with him about anything is wonderful.

Indeed, the universality of so much of the story can make its local distinctiveness jar when it appears. There are episodes where Ester is direct in a way quite foreign to a British reader, but probably entirely natural to a resident of Stockholm.

And while we’re on the text’s disconcerting aspects, it must be said that not all Andersson’s pared-back descriptions find their mark. A few of the metaphors are distractingly odd and there are occasional word choices and repetitions (whether reflected in the original or introduced at the translation stage) that jolt and tremble the smooth train of the narrative.

But really these quibbles are nothing when set against the pleasure that comes from being absorbed in this story. Some books turn their own pages for you and this is such a one. Please Picador, can we have some more Lena Andersson in English?

Wilful Disregard by Lena Andersson, translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death (Picador, 2015)

Picture: Youthful Romance: The east end of Kungsholmen in Stockholm, Sweden by Let Ideas Compete on Flickr.com

Why reader Faizah Shaheen’s detention should outrage us all

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At a time of great turbulence and uncertainty in many parts of the planet, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the number of alarming news stories flooding our airwaves, newspapers and screens. Nevertheless, yesterday I came across a story that shocked me profoundly.

According to the Independent, Faizah Shaheen, a British Muslim woman, was detained at a UK airport and questioned under the Terrorism Act after an air steward reported her for suspicious behaviour last month.

And the suspicious behaviour in question? The 27-year-old National Health Service worker had been reading Syria Speaks, an award-winning art and culture anthology showcasing the work of more than 50 writers and artists challenging violence in their war-torn nation.

Far from an extremist text promoting radicalisation, the book had actually been supported by English PEN, the charity on whose translation funding panel I often sit. Yet, because an air steward thought it suspicious, Shaheen returned from her honeymoon to face 15 minutes of distressing questions from UK police.

This may not sound like much in the face of the extreme hardships and atrocities affecting many others around the globe. However, it points to something deeply disturbing and intimately connected to the cruelty being inflicted on millions by extremists, despots and inhumane policies.

As I discovered during my quest, a sure way to increase our understanding and appreciation of one another’s humanity – and thereby to promote peace – is to share our stories. By imagining the world through other people’s eyes in the extraordinary way that stories enable us to do, we enlarge and enrich our vision, and become better able to respect, value and talk meaningfully with one another.

To do this, people need to be able to read without looking over their shoulders, without fear of penalties or reprimands. When a person picks up a book, their focus should be on whether they will enjoy it and what they might get from it, on how it could broaden their horizons, rather than on how being associated with it might limit or threaten them.

Without this freedom, the world shrinks and fragments. Frightened to venture beyond the bounds of sanctioned subject matter, we find ourselves locked in an echo chamber, where the same ideas and perspectives reverberate at us time and again, and the Other becomes ever more inscrutable and strange.

Living in that sort of bubble, our appreciation of the humanity, complexity and dignity of those who do not conform to our mores quickly dulls and fades. And when that happens, discrimination, violence and persecution of those others ceases to seem unacceptable, because they are increasingly hard to imagine as people at all.

That is why Faizah Shaheen’s detention enrages me and should enrage all those who value and believe in the free circulation of literature. That is why I join English PEN in condemning what happened. Because, on a fundamental level, the cruellest things human beings do to one another stem from precisely this: preventing people sharing ideas and stories.

Picture by Konrad Förstner on Flickr.com.

Women in Translation month

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Now and then people ask me how many of the works that I read during my year of reading the world were written by female authors. This morning, I finally totted them up.

It turns out that of the 197 texts I read over the course of the quest, 53 were by women and 134 were by men. There were also nine mixed-gender group-authored books and one anonymous work (although most theories point to it having been written by a man). In all, then, 27 per cent of the literature I read in 2012 was by women.

When you consider that women make up 49.6 per cent of the global population (according to a 2015 UN report), it’s clear that my reading was not representative of the world’s demographics. However – without my realising it at the time – it was a fairly close reflection of the proportion of female-authored books that get translated into English.

The fact is that women authors have significantly less chance of getting an English-language book deal than their male counterparts. According to translator and blogger Meytal Radzinski, who has drawn on the excellent Three Percent Translation Database for her analysis, around 30 per cent of new translations in English are books by women writers.

The implications are clear: not only are we anglophone readers still only getting access to a relatively tiny proportion of the world’s stories, compared to the amount of translated literature published in many other parts of the world, but such works as do make it through the bottleneck add up to a rather skewed selection.

Eager to challenge and correct this imbalance, in 2014 Radzinski decided to name August ‘Women in Translation month’ (#WITmonth for those of the tweeting persuasion). The idea caught on, with numerous readers, bloggers, translators and booksellers jumping on the bandwagon to champion translated books written by women.

This August, for the third year in a row, #WITmonth is back and looking bigger than ever. A significant number of bookshops and libraries in the UK, US, France Germany and New Zealand have pledged to support it with displays of female-authored translations, and various other literature organisations and publications on both sides of the Atlantic are getting involved.

Perhaps one of the secrets of the campaign’s success is that #WITmonth is first and foremost a celebration. As translator Katy Derbyshire recently put it: ‘Women in Translation month is all about appreciating the great women writers who do get translated – and of course the people who bring them to us, their translators and publishers. It’s an opportunity to join in a worldwide conversation about outstanding writing from all over the globe.’

If you’d like to join the fun, Radzinski has put together a handy list of things you can do. This could be as simple as pledging to read a translated book by a female author sometime this month – in which case you might want to check out Radzinski’s database of translated books by women for inspiration.

And for those keen to explore the issue further, the activist group Women in Translation, founded by translators Alta L Price and Margaret Carson, has a great Tumblr site featuring a lot of the latest news on efforts to address gender inequality in the translation world.

For my part, I’ll be reading widely to find a brilliant female-authored work to feature as August’s book of the month. It’s a small gesture in the face of such marked inequality, but, as I discovered back in 2012, the way to read the world (and transform your view of it) is to go one story at a time.

Book of the month: Vladimir Bartol

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Some books stay with you. Slovenian writer Vladimir Bartol’s Alamut is a good example. It was recommended to me back in February 2013 by oblakales, who left a comment saying that ‘If you’re fond of historical novels I would strongly recommend the novel Alamut by Vladimir Bartol. I think it’s the most widely translated Slovenian novel. It’s about a group of soldiers in medieval middle east and the entire novel serves as an allegory of Fascism in Europe.’

I have to confess I’m not overly fond of historical novels, however I try to keep an open mind about these things and so, when I was rooting through blog visitors’ comments for new things to read early last year, I resolved to get myself a copy. I did this partly because I liked oblakales’s enthusiasm and partly because English translations of Slovenian novels are pretty thin on the ground. Given how unusual the novel I’d read from Slovenia during my quest was, I was curious to see what else the nation’s literature had in store.

As I had been with Luka Novak’s The Golden Shower or What Men Want (trans. Urška Charney), I was in for a surprise. When I started to read Alamut, I found myself plunged into an entirely unexpected world: an 11th-century Persian fortress, where the leader of an Islamic sect has come up with an ingenious and disturbing strategy for brainwashing his soldiers (or fedayeen): recreating paradise on earth.

A second surprise came when I started to research the book. Not only was the novel the most internationally renowned of Slovenia’s titles, as oblakales had suggested, but it was also the inspiration for the hit computer game Assassin’s Creed.

This was not what I might have expected from a Slovenian novel published in 1938 on the brink of the second world war, but it was intriguing. I read on, absorbed, finished the book and moved on to the next title on the to-read mountain.

In the months that followed, however, I found the story surfacing again and again in my mind. When the Huffington Post invited me to share some reading recommendations, I included it in my list. When I was invited to contribute to Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created, a book about imaginary dystopian societies being published by Hachette this November, I decided to write about the nightmarish, yet weirdly alluring fortress of Alamut.

Then, when I was pondering which title to feature this month, the novel popped up again. ‘Pick me! Pick me!’ it seemed to whisper from the stack of books heaped above my desk. I could tell by the way it looked at me that if I didn’t write about it, I would get no peace. And so, here goes…

There’s no question that the staying power of Bartol’s novel is the result of its rich, engrossing and terrifying world. Home to ‘an experiment in altering human nature’, the fortress allows its author to test human nature to its limits. As its frighteningly persuasive ruler probes and manipulates the desires of the youths under his control, steeling them to fight to the death, we witness the mechanisms of radicalisation first hand.

This is especially striking because, at the same time as laying bare Sayyiduna’s sinister methods, Bartol reveals how enticing his ideology is. He does this by showing it to us initially through the eyes of two newcomers, harem initiate Halima and aspiring warrior ibn Tahir. From their perspective the fort is, at least at first, a place of intrigue and delight. Wandering through its secret tunnels with them, discovering all the twists in Sayyiduna’s terrible scheme, we are at once charmed and appalled. Alamut (the book and the place) is a marvellous creation, in which we luxuriate, lulled by Bartol’s lavish descriptions and masterful use of suspense, reading on in spite – or perhaps because – of the unease that seeps through the cracks. Radicalisation, we learn, is at its most terrifying when it wears a smiling face.

Small wonder then that oblakales – along with many others – reads the novel as an allegory for the Fascism that was sweeping Europe at the time its author retreated to a mountain hideaway to write. And it’s little surprise, too, that others have found elements of the story echoed in Tito’s Yugoslavia and the Balkan war. No doubt, many 21st-century readers in their turn will identify parallels with other forms of ideological coercion and control exerted over impressionable young people today.

The fact that we can read the novel in so many ways points us towards its central message: more frightening than any particular ideology is the human willingness to follow charismatic rulers unquestioningly. As Sayyiduna recognises, his power consists in the fact that ‘people wanted fairy tales and fabrications and they were fond of the blindness they blundered through’.

Ultimately, this is a book about the power of stories to control and remake us. There can be few themes more calculated to obsess a writer than that.

Alamut by Vladimir Bartol, translated from the Slovenian by Michael Biggins (North Atlantic Books, 2011)

On the trail of international crime writers

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This weekend, I went undercover. Officially, I was hosting one of the tables at the ‘Kill Me Quick’ author dinner as part of Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, one of the biggest events dedicated to crime and thriller writing in the world.

That was my alibi for being at the Old Swan Hotel, the handsome hostelry where, in 1926, murder mystery queen Agatha Christie was discovered hiding out after she disappeared for 10 days, sparking a massive search. However, as regular readers of this blog will appreciate, I had ulterior motives for lurking at the scene of the crime: with the schedule promising events involving some of the leading genre writers from around the world, I was eager to do a spot of literary spying.

And so it was that I caught an earlier train up to Yorkshire than I needed and, flashing my author pass and a smile, slipped into two Saturday sessions dedicated to crime writing from beyond the Anglo-American world.

The first was ‘Murder Out of Africa’, a discussion bringing together several writers of novels set in the continent. Something of a mystery emerged when the panel, chaired by prolific British novelist NJ Cooper, walked in, however: with the exception of Nigerian writer Leye Adenle, everyone else taking seats on the stage was white. Indeed, had it not been for the last-minute withdrawal of Margie Orford, whom Adenle had replaced at short notice, the participants would all have been Caucasian.

This, Cape Town-set thriller author Paul Mendelson explained when an audience member raised the question towards the end of the session, was to do with what London-based publishers selected for release. Nevertheless, Adenle was quick to point out that a number of black African authors are making names for themselves and that the African crime fiction becoming available to Western audiences is increasingly diverse.

The representation problem aside, the discussion was fascinating and wide-ranging, taking in a number of issues specific to writing murder mysteries in the continent, as well as challenges that all novelists face. Afrikaans author Deon Meyer spoke about his sense of the perception among many Western readers that African crime writing cannot be entertaining because the setting has so much darkness and violence. This was not true, he said: he and his peers did everything to make their books as thrilling and suspenseful as any comparable work (and judging by Meyer’s sales figures and the fact that his books have been translated into 28 languages, he is certainly doing something right).

Indeed, if anything, Meyer felt readers should be a little wary of the much-vaunted craze for Nordic noir. ‘Just ask yourself how much credibility do crime writers have from countries that have no murders,’ he quipped.

The question of misogyny came up (barring NJ Cooper, the panel was all male, although this would not have been the case had Orford been there). Cooper challenged Mendelson to speak about the extreme violence against women in The Serpentine Road and opened the question up to consider whether misogyny was a common theme in African crime writing.

Adenle was quick to counter this. Such misogyny as does exist in African writing and cultures, he said, was the result of the introduction of Christianity, with its teaching that the man is the head of the household. Prior to this, many African cultures were matriarchal. Polyandry was practised in some tribes and there are historical accounts of powerful queens, such as the Hausa Muslim warrior Amina. One of the many consequences of colonialism had been the swapping of one set of myths for another, with the attendant blind spots and prejudices.

A question on process brought a fascinating insight into the working methods of writing duo Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, aka Michael Stanley. Having started out as academics, the pair were used to writing collaboratively with other colleagues and so, when they came up with the idea for a crime novel, it seemed only natural to work in that way, with one drafting a section for the other to edit and visa versa. Now living on different continents, they find the time difference particularly useful: ‘We can write 24 hours a day,’ said Sears.

Next up, came ‘France Noir – Le Roman Policier’, another panel discussion bringing together thriller heavyweight Pierre Lemaitre, award-winning translator Frank Wynne (who interpreted where necessary), prize-winner Bernard Minier and SJ Parris (aka Stephanie Merritt), whose Conspiracy is set in 16th-century Paris. Funnily enough, Merritt’s memoir The Devil Within, was one of the books I drew on during my research into bipolar disorder for my novel, Beside Myself, so it was fascinating to see her speaking on quite another topic.

As with the previous event, the discussion covered a lot of ground. An interesting revelation came when Frank Wynne observed that he had been largely responsible for the English-language titles of Lemaitre’s works, several of which diverge from the French originals. I wanted to ask him about his reasons for settling on Blood Wedding for the most recently published book. While it’s no doubt arresting, the phrase has strong associations with the Lorca play of the same name and I wondered whether this was deliberate.

The forest of hands that went up at the end meant I didn’t get the opportunity to find out at the time, but this morning on Twitter Wynne gave me this explanation: ‘yes, very cheeky but deliberate. Not that it refers to anything in the text – the French title couldn’t easily be translated. In Robe de marié the missing final E means it’s not wedding dress but bridegroom’s dress – the 1st is subtle, the 2nd clunky.’

Lemaitre provided a powerful insight into the importance of anglophone publishing deals. His international success took off when he signed his English-language contract, with numerous other foreign-rights sales following. ‘For any French writer, the most important translation is English,’ he said. ‘Even if you never sell a single book to an English reader. Much better to have failure in English than a roaring success in another language.’

Countering the suggestion that French noir books are particularly gruesome, Minier, whose 2011 novel The Frozen Dead starts with the grotesque murder of a horse, pointed out that nothing could be more violent than some of the things found in Shakespeare. ‘It’s a question of degree,’ agreed Lemaitre. ‘My wife has been asked how she could have married a man who could write such horrible things. The response is: how can you buy a book by a man who can write such horrible things.’

The discussion also brought up a contrast in the way that crime fiction is perceived in the anglophone and francophone worlds. In France, it seems, there is a less sharp divide between literary and genre fiction, with authors of crime books often scooping prestigious awards. Indeed, Lemaitre himself has won the Prix Goncourt. This, the writers agreed, was due to the legacy of authors such as the Belgian creator of the detective Maigret, Georges Simenon. His simple style was praised by André Gide, who claimed Simenon had raised crime writing to the status of great literature and, in so doing, had revealed something missing in French literary works.

I could have stayed listening to the discussion for hours, but time was marching on and as the dinner hour approached, I was obliged to slip away to my room and wriggle into my thriller-writer disguise for the evening. Forty-five minutes later, I slunk into the green room and stood looking round at the cluster of well-known authors – Christobel Kent, MJ Carter, Joanne Harris and James Runcie to name but a few. I hoped none of them would finger me for a spy.

World bookshopper: #8 Altaïr, Barcelona

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If Stanfords travel bookshop had a Catalan cousin, it would look a lot like Altaïr. On the day I go, wandering in off the Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes and away from the Sant Jordi crowds, I find myself confronted with a treasure trove for those who enjoy combining literary exploration and jet-setting.

Like Stanfords, the bulk of the three-storey emporium is given over to country-by-country sections where the curious reader or would-be adventurer can find factual books and fictional works from the regions in question. The choices can be surprising. Look up Serbia and, alongside Lago de Como (the Spanish translation of the book I read from the nation) you’ll find an English-language copy of American novelist David Leavitt’s The Page Turner. In the Scottish section, you can pick up work by French writer Jules Verne.

As in similar English-language shops, setting rather than author nationality seems to be the deciding factor in the categorisation of texts. But unlike their Anglophone counterparts, Altaïr customers seem to be willing to cross linguistic as well as national boundaries.

When it comes to the shelf labelled ‘Regne Unit’ (that’s United Kingdom to you and me), a varied selection awaits. Books by Charles Dickens feature, alongside offerings from James Herriot, Mark Haddon, Hilary Mantel and Doris Lessing. I was particularly pleased to see a copy of El Relojero de Filigree Street, the Spanish incarnation of the international bestseller by Natasha Pulley, whom I met at the Bath Literature Festival earlier this year.

The lack of translation and distribution opportunities for works from some of the world’s more deprived countries – one of the major challenges during my quest to read a book from every country – seems to hold as true in Spanish and Catalan as it does in English. While most European nations boast their own sections in the store, several African countries are lumped together in the basement with only maps and factual histories by foreign writers to represent a number of them. By contrast, feted authors such as the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz have their own mini-sections.

International publishing challenges notwithstanding, the shop must be applauded for the range of its selection. In the section marked Kosovo – a fiendishly difficult nation to find any work in English from – I was delighted to discover Travels in Blood and Honey by Elizabeth Gowing, a British translator, NGO worker and beekeeper, who has lived and worked in the country for much of the past decade.

And the offering doesn’t stop at country-by country. If you’re interested in mountains, you’ll find an area catering for that. If the polar regions capture your imagination, you can while away a good hour or so browsing the explorer memoirs on display. There is an impressive array of photography books, a handsome wall of maps, a collection of publisher-specific stands from which classics by global notaries such as Ferrante, Carver and Marquez can be snapped up, and a swathe of bookcases devoted to the latest smash hits – thrillers and tearjerkers ripe for stuffing into your backpack to beguile those long-haul flights.

Meanwhile, for those who prefer the world to come to them, there are cases of trinkets, scarves and ornaments from different corners of the globe. In addition, Catalonians keen to add a bit of local polish to their English without getting on a plane have the option of resorting to the intriguing volume Laura Lips en habla como los Ingleses.

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This comes with a word of warning, however: when I flick through, I find a few rather eccentric suggested phrases. In particular, attempts to describe a scolding as ‘a tongue-lashing’, to tell someone to ‘keep your hair on’ or to say that ‘my computer is having a bad hair day’ would be more likely to make most native English speakers I know raise their eyebrows rather than invite you down the pub for a pint.

It seems there are some aspects of travel with which books can’t quite compete…

Book of the month: Eduardo Halfon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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