Book of the month: Vivek Shanbhag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postcard from my bookshelf #9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Being translated

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Vida robada

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

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

 

 

Moja siostra …czy ja?

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

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

 

 

Beside Myself

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

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

 

 

The Person Who Stole My Name 

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

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

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

 

À sa place

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

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

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

I’ll let you know how I get on…

Book of the month: Jana Beňová

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postcard from my bookshelf #8

This month, I’ve chosen someone from the publishing world to receive a book. Although the literature of some countries remains unrepresented on anglophone bookshop shelves, the vast majority of the translated books I read during 2012 were commercially available (or at least available to buy secondhand). I could never have completed – or even seriously contemplated – the challenge of reading a book from every country without the army of editors, agents, scouts, rights managers, publicists, production staff and many others who spend their time bringing books to market.

In my experience, these people (particularly those working on translated literature) are deeply devoted bibliophiles who often work long hours for relatively little financial reward. For many of them, publishing the world’s stories is a labour of love.

The entries on the project post bore this out. Among the numerous comments from people working in or  connected to the publishing industry, there was a common theme: passion for literature and a readiness to go beyond the call of duty to share brilliant written works.

I was especially encouraged by the number of publishing students and aspiring editors who participated. It’s great to know that many of the next generation of literary gatekeepers share my enthusiasm for opening up the world’s stories to as many readers as possible. A special mention must go to Sarah, who comes to the UK this month to take up a place on Oxford University’s Columbia Publishing course. I hope it’s the start of a rewarding career!

In the end, however, it was a comment by Juliana Gonçalves that caught my eye:

Hi Ann,
my name is Juliana, and I am a student of Publishing Studies. Your work has been an inspiration to me, and I religiously follow your blog. It makes me feel ever more blessed for choosing the path I did! When I saw your TED video I immediately had a look at my bookshelf and I realized it wasn’t multicultural at all! Not a good sign for someone that wishes to work in the publishing world. Since then I have been trying to change this. A million thanks for opening my eyes! I was amazed to find out you read and loved Paulina Chiziane, because she is an astonishing writer and represents Portuguese language marvelously!

I love your new idea as in fact I love all others you had before, and I would be thrilled to participate too! I am not very picky with books! The last one I read is called Depois de morrer aconteceram-me muitas coisas by Ricardo Adolfo, a Portuguese writer that I am just now discovering and already find to be spectacular! A book I highly recommend, by the way! I am mostly happy when I find out books like this: amazingly written, funny and dramatic at the same time, that conveys deep meaning, but not very well known. These are the books I like to call pearls! Those I feel proud to find out from a million of other books. But I am not picky, as I said before! To receive books, any kind of books, is both a joy and a blessing.

I was drawn to Juliana’s enthusiasm and honesty. It’s always a good sign when someone recommends a book in a way that persuades me to look it up (sadly, my initial searches suggest that Adolfo’s work has yet to make it into English, but maybe this is something you’ll be able to change, Juliana).

In particular, I liked the way Juliana described the sort of books she loves. Her words put me in mind of one of my favourite titles from my quest – Lake Como by the Serbian writer Srđjan Valjarević, translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tošić. Funny, deft and wonderfully written, this seems to me to have all the hallmarks of one of Juliana’s ‘pearls’.

Although the book has been published in English by a small house in Serbia, it is very hard to get. A colleague brought my copy back from Belgrade in 2012. Since then, Valjarević’s Serbian agent has been in touch with me to ask for advice about getting the book a mainstream anglophone publishing deal. (I’d be very happy to connect him with anyone who is interested.)

As such, I had to order a secondhand copy online this time as the English translation no longer seems to be in print. I hope you like it, Juliana – perhaps this is one to add to your list to publish one day!

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next recipient will be announced on September 15.

Book of the month: Olga Tokarczuk

As with last month’s pick, July’s Book of the month came by way of a recommendation. I have known Magda Raczyńska, head of literature at the London-based Polish Cultural Institute for five years – ever since we both took an English PEN evening class about translation. Few people know more about what’s coming into English from Poland than Magda, so I always pay attention to her bulletins.

A few months ago, however, her email was particularly enthusiastic. A novel by one of Poland’s most celebrated contemporary authors, Olga Tokarczuk, had been translated into English by Jennifer Croft and was being published as Flights by Fitzcarraldo Editions in May of this year. As is often the case with many of the best books I read, something in the tone of her recommendation told me that this novel was special.

I lost no time ordering a copy. When it arrived, my inkling that this was no ordinary book was reinforced by a single endorsement printed on the back of Fitzcarraldo’s trademark minimalist blue cover: Tokarczuk is ‘a magnificent writer’, according to Belarusian Nobel Prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich, whose Chernobyl Prayer astonished me last year.

Flights is a challenging book to review. Woven of many threads tracing different kinds of journeys through space and time – stretching back across several centuries and around the globe – this is a novel that defies attempts to summarise it. Instead of the familiar formula of a central character or small group of characters forging their way through the thickets and over the obstacles an author throws in their path to create a single, loosely coherent journey, this is a vast ensemble piece in which voices appear and disappear and new perspectives surface as late as tens of pages from the end.

Rather than characters tying the narrative together, this novel is held together by ideas: reflections on the body, travel, life, death and what it means to move through space. These are expressed through a variety of tropes that crop up repeatedly in the fragmented accounts that, among many other things, portray the story of the Flemish anatomist Philip Verheyen, the journey of Chopin’s heart from Paris to Warsaw and a mother’s abandonment of her chronically ill child to ride the Moscow metro and sleep rough alongside an eccentric homeless woman.

The whole is carried on a current of exquisite writing (credit to Jennifer Croft here), which captures objects and experiences in startlingly fresh ways yet without the showiness that so often attaches itself to works that make heavy use of imagery. Time and again passages such as the description of nightfall on the opening page – ‘Now the dark soaks into my skin. Sounds have curled up inside themselves, withdrawn their snail’s eyes; the orchestra of the world has departed, vanishing into the park – had me reaching for my pencil to scrawl an enthusiastic ‘YES’ in the margin. In particular, the extended description of the death of a distinguished lecturer towards the end of the book is one of the best pieces of writing I have ever seen.

Although one of the many voices in the book claims that ‘describing something is like using it – it destroys; the colours wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear,’ Tokarczuk challenges this notion on almost every page, bodying forth life in all its vibrancy and strangeness so that we can recognise it anew. She makes us nostalgic for experiences we have never had – childhood holidays in rural Poland, trips to remote islands, conferences in far-flung corners of the globe. Meanwhile, the assuredness of her writing means that the frequent shifts between perspectives and the resumption of some storylines long after their last appearance is rarely a problem.

That said, the narrative will be too diffuse for some readers. Although the majority of the book is taut and compelling, there are odd sections that feel aimless or contain somewhat self-indulgent digressions that an editor might not have let a lesser-known writer keep. I also wasn’t convinced by the inclusion of maps, drawings and other illustrations, most of which are too small to interpret easily (and probably mean that this book is better read in hard copy than on an ereader).

But it almost feels churlish to mention these gripes in the face of such brilliance. The quality of the whole more than makes up for them. In sum, I can only echo the words of a far more discerning reader: Tokarczuk is magnificent.

Flights (Bieguni) by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017)

Postcard from my bookshelf #7

This project has international origins. It came from a comment on a blog I used to keep, where an American reader suggested I try an Australian novel: Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. This got me looking at my bookshelves with new eyes and made me realise how narrow my reading choices were. So in recognition of Australian literature’s role in opening my eyes to the world’s stories, I’m sending this month’s literary postcard to a reader in that nation.

Selecting one recipient from the clutch of very good entries from Down Under has not been easy. I liked all of the comments and had ideas of what I wanted to send to many of them, from JenroetheJourno, who is interested in LGBT fiction (try Nu Nu Yi’s Smile as They Bow, Jenroe), to Sharkell who likes not-too-heavy literary fiction and wanted to try some Arabic literature (it would have been Girls of Riyadh).

I was also intrigued to hear about the challenges of reading internationally in the outback – Bethany relies heavily on her e-reader as it takes around four weeks for many physical titles to reach her (Andrei Volos’s Hurramabad for you, Bethany). And I very much wanted to pick the brains of Alistair MW, a Latvian-Australian history teacher and Aboriginal education coordinator in Adelaide as I have yet to try Aboriginal literature and could do with some tips (my choice for you would have been Sandra Kalniete’s With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snow).

Unable to decide, I resorted to the time-honoured practice of picking a name out of a hat (or, in this case, my pocket). This yielded Ashlee Stewart, a 15-year-old Victorian who is keen to set out and read the world herself. Ashlee wrote this:

This is a great idea! I am thinking of doing my own version of this, but I won’t be able to fit it into just one year. I live in Victoria, Australia and I am 15 years old. I absolutely love reading. However, when I looked at my bookshelf, I saw a similar trend throughout my books, to what you saw when you looked at yours. I have now come to the conclusion, as you did, that I need to extend my range of reading.
To be given a copy of a translated book would be extremely helpful for this challenge, as the problem with spending money to buy all the books (as a lot won’t be available in my local libraries) is something that is playing on my mind.
Before starting this challenge I am writing a list of what books I will read for each country (which I am in the process of doing at the moment).
Also, do you have any tips or tricks that will help me with this challenge? Anything would be extremely helpful 🙂

Well, Ashlee. My main tips are to be persistent, curious and open-minded. Sometimes the route to finding those hard-to-reach titles can be surprising. Bear in mind that a lot has changed since I did my quest five years ago. Although some countries remain unrepresented in commercially available English translations, there have been some exciting new publications that have started to open up new literatures to us anglophone readers. I’ve featured some of them as my books of the month (the orange links on the List) but there are more out there, so I would encourage you to look widely.

It’s great that you’re getting organised and planning what you’d like to read, but I’d also leave the door open for changing your mind and discovering things along the way too. The more you do this sort of project, the more you learn about what’s going on with publishing around the world and you might find you stumble upon some more interesting choices as you go along.

As for my selection for you, I’ve decided to send you Kunzang Choden’s The Circle of Karma, to help you tick one of the smaller nations, Bhutan, off your list. The book is not a translation in the literal sense – it’s the first English-language novel written by a woman from the nation. However, in many senses it is a translation because it takes experiences that would be very alien to most Western readers and puts them into a form that we can appreciate.

Its central character has a lot in common with you. She’s also 15 and setting out on a quest – to travel to a remote village to light ritual butter lamps in her late mother’s memory. As I hope your reading adventure will for you, this journey opens up many ideas and possibilities for her, and leads her to a much richer life than she would have had if she had stayed in her familiar surroundings.

I hope you like it and good luck!

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next recipient will be announced on August 15.

Book of the month: Elena Varvello

Just over three years ago, an Italian novel tempted me out of book-reviewing retirement and formed the subject of the first of my Book of the month posts on this blog. You might have heard of the author – a reclusive chronicler of Naples life who was rising rapidly to fame in the anglophone world when I encountered her work and has since achieved massive international success.

I’m talking, of course, about Elena Ferrante; it was the first in her Neapolitan series, titled My Brilliant Friend in English and translated by Ann Goldstein, that persuaded me to start posting about books again on this blog. I was sent a copy by Daniela Petracco, tireless champion of great literature originating in languages other than English and UK director of Europa Editions. I loved the book and knew I had to tell people about it (I’ve since read The Days of Abandonment and for my money it’s even better than the Neapolitan novels).

So when I received an advance translation of a new Italian novel and, skimming through the publicity material, saw that one of its supporters was Daniela Petracco, I decided I would have to try it. My resolve strengthened when I turned to the Acknowledgements and saw that, far from simply supporting the novel, Petracco was Varvello’s first reader. The chances were that this book would be good.

At first glance, Elena Varvello’s Can You Hear Me? has all the hallmarks of a commercial thriller. The premise is typically high stakes – a young woman’s disappearance in a remote community, a boy’s murder, and a man losing his mind as his son comes of age. Then there’s the opening sentence: ‘In the August of 1978, the summer I met Anna Trabuio, my father took a girl into the woods.’ So far, so nail-biting.

Yet those who venture further into the pages expecting the novel to be nothing more than a page-turner are in for a surprise. For this book offers so much more.

Varvello has published two collections of poetry and it shows. Not only is her writing (translated here by Alex Valente) taut, but it is also exquisitely precise. Rather than scatter-gunning the reader with details, she selects one telling enough to convey an entire character or mood. From the way a person watches their reflection in a mirror, or the briefest of exchanges, the author conjures entire scenes, imbuing her pages by turns with menace, nostalgia and wistfulness.

This talent for concision enables her to convey profound observations without falling into the trap of expressing points too directly or knowingly. Time and again, characters are able to articulate what they are experiencing with stunning clarity, while remaining locked in the fatal subjectivity that is the essence of human experience and – in this and so many other great stories – prevents them from taking the actions that might avert disaster.

Chief among the cast of blinkered individuals is the narrator, Elia’s, father, whose redundancy and subsequent breakdown are the catalysts for much of the action. Menacingly erratic and yet pitiable, he towers from the page.

Varvello’s play with perspective and timeshift adds another layer of fascination. Exploiting many of the possibilities that telling the story through Elia’s eyes at 30 years’ remove presents, she interlaces different threads, employing several voices to blur the lines between memory and fantasy, empathy and repugnance, innocence and guilt.

While keeping the thread of the plot tightly wound and making heavy use of foreshadowing to sustain readers’ interest, she manages not to strike the nakedly manipulative tone that often topples the backdrop in less sophisticated works. Although some will find the sombre foreboding that suffuses the narrative a little monochrome, there is no doubt that the atmosphere is skilfully created. At points the writing is breathtakingly deft.

The result is an engrossing and troubling book that hangs big questions on the taut wire of a gripping plot. Like her namesake Ferrante, Elena Varvello knows how to keep readers hooked. We shall see more of her work.

Can You Hear Me? (La vita felice) by Elena Varvello, translated from the Italian by Alex Valente (Two Roads, 2017)

Postcard from my bookshelf #5

Last month, I sent a translated book to someone from the nation that showed most interest in my 2012 Year of Reading the World. This month, I’m giving one to someone from the country that, in many ways, provided me with the biggest challenge during the quest.

While I struggled to find a single translated work from numerous places – many of the lusophone and francophone African nations had no commercially available literature in English, for example – there were some nations that posed the opposite conundrum. These were the countries that had such a wealth of literature available that the idea of choosing a single book seemed ludicrous.

India was by far the trickiest of these. As I recorded in my blog post at the time, I was swamped with recommendations for titles from this vast and diverse nation. And every time I asked someone to help me choose my Indian book, they simply added more suggestions to my list.

Luckily, just as I was beginning to despair of ever finding a satisfactory way of selecting one thing to read, a journalist called Suneetha Balakrishnan came to my rescue. She had noticed that all the titles people had suggested were written in English. To her mind, this was second best when you considered that there was so much Indian literature written in other languages – the subcontinent is home to 22 officially recognised tongues, along with hundreds of others.

One of her favourite writers was MT Vasudevan Nair, who writes in Malayalam. She suggested I try to find a translation of one of his books.

Suneetha’s argument made sense to me. More than that, as happened so often that year, it highlighted a blind spot in my thinking. Despite the quest being driven by my desire to read more diversely, it hadn’t occurred to me to seek out Indian literature written in languages other than English.

I followed her suggestion and found a translation of Vasudevan Nair’s novel Kaalam. I enjoyed it very much and it opened the door for me to start exploring numerous other Indian literatures, which I have continued to do over the last five years.

(Incidentally, the exchange provided a lightbulb moment for Suneetha too. Realising how neglected Indian literature in languages other than English often is, she launched her own Reading Across India blog, an idea which she adapted for Mslexia magazine.)

Suneetha applied for a postcard and I was very tempted to choose a book for her. Had I done so, it would probably have been my UK choice, Caryl Lewis’s Martha, Jack and Shanco, or another book translated from Welsh because my discussion with Suneetha also inspired me to think about literature in languages other than English in my home country.

However, this project is about sending books to strangers and, although Suneetha and I have never met in person, I feel we are friends through the exchanges we have had. (Thanks once again for all your interest, support and wise words, Suneetha. I hope we will share many more reading ideas in future.)

As such, I have decided to send a book to one of Suneetha’s compatriots instead as a sort of thank you-by-proxy. After reading through the many Indian entries, I settled on Azfar Zaidi. He told me this:

I’ve been reading the replies to this post, and frankly, I feel a little unqualified. […] I’m nowhere near as “international” as anyone here. I’ve never sat on an airplane, and there are few cities in India that I have explored. But I read, and that breaks borders. Being able to imagine a parallel world through the descriptions and situations in a book is one thing I love to do. However, I believe that every book has a bit of its author’s own world in it. No matter how fictitious a book is, there’s an element of the author in it. It gets reflected by the way he narrates, describes or argues. Exploring parallel worlds through the medium of books somewhat compensates for the (current) limits of my world. I don’t have a specific genre to request. I read what comes my way, and I leave it to your discretion as to which book you’d like to send me (if you do). I’m only looking to widen the horizons of my mind. And I hope you’ll help.

Just as Suneetha’s words did five years ago, Azfar’s comment struck a chord with me. Reading does break borders and expand horizons. That was one of the most powerful things I took away from the project and continue to experience with my literary explorations to this day.

He also made me think almost instantaneously of the book I wanted to send him. It is a memoir by someone who, like Azfar, had never been on a plane, but ended up discovering the world through reading and his own curiosity.

The book in question is An African in Greenland by the Togolese writer and explorer Tété-Michel Kpomassie. It was one of the most joyous, funny and heartwarming books I read during 2012.

Azfar, it will shortly be travelling across the world to you. I hope you enjoy it.

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next recipient will be announced on June 15.

Book of the month: Samanta Schweblin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image from manbookerprize.com