Happy Boekenweek!

You might not have noticed that it’s Boekenweek, but if you visit the Netherlands in the next few days it definitely won’t pass you by. Since 1932, this annual ten-day celebration of all things bookish has been one of the highlights of the Dutch literary calendar.

In addition to a range of events, promotions and parties, the extravaganza launches a written work. This Boekenweeksgeschenk (Book week gift) is given out in bookshops whenever someone buys a Dutch-language title and to people joining libraries. Published by the Collectieve Propaganda van het Nederlandse Boek (Collective Promotion for the Dutch Book), these texts are usually written by famous homegrown authors, although this is not always the case – the 2001 offering came from British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie.

This year’s title is by Belgian-born Griet Op de Beeck. Sadly, being on the wrong side of the North Sea, I can’t easily get my hands on a copy – and I would struggle if I did, as my Dutch leaves more than a little to be desired.

As a result, I was delighted to receive a Boekenweek gift that I could more readily enjoy. Netherlands-founded publisher World Editions has been sending out packages of three of the Dutch novels on its list to mark the occasion. These comprise Esther Gerritsen’s Craving, a funny and arresting exploration of a difficult mother-daughter relationship told in the shadow of terminal illness; Renate Dorrestein’s The Darkness that Divides Us, an account of the way a murder sends shockwaves across a childhood; and Jaap Robben’s You Have Me to Love.

I can particularly recommend the last on the list: chilly, strange and quirky, it tells the story of a boy living with his reclusive mother on a remote island in the aftermath of his father’s disappearance into the sea. It also chimes neatly with the 2018 Boekenweek theme of ‘Nature’.

What’s more, the good folk at World Editions obviously appreciate that reading is hungry work, as they kindly included some Dutch treats of another kind: Stroopwafels. Never having tried these caramel-filled delights before, I’ve discovered that they are almost as moreish as the books. Oh dear…

How do you judge translations?

On Wednesday, I featured a graphic novel that had been shortlisted for a new literary prize as my Book of the month. Last night, the winner was announced. The inaugural TA First Translation Prize went to translator Bela Shayevich and editor Jacques Testard for the English edition of Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time.

Although all the shortlisted titles would have been worthy winners, the selection of Shayevich and Testard for this honour (in which the prize goes entirely to the people who brought the text into English and not to the original author) is great news. Belarusian Nobel laureate Alexievich’s work is as challenging as it is important (her Chernobyl Prayer was one of my #WITMonth picks back in 2016). It surely demands special skill to convey its polyphony, while maintaining a sense of cohesion.

It’s also great to see a literary prize that shifts the focus entirely onto the craft of recreating a narrative in another language. Too often, translators are overlooked when books from elsewhere are discussed. Indeed, several of the works I read during my 2012 round-the-world literary adventure, failed to mention the name of the person who had written the words in them.

Yet recognising what individual translators bring to – or even leave out of – a text is often impossible for those who only read the secondary version. Consequently, judging translations without referring to the original works requires an unusual approach, as prize-founder, writer, editor and translator Daniel Hahn explained when I asked him to tell me a bit more about the thinking behind the TAFTP award:

‘Most translation prizes fall into one of two categories – either you’re really judging the translation as an act of translation (ie. with an eye to the process, what happens in the journey from the original to the new text, what the particular challenges, solutions, frictions might be), or you’re basically judging the new text as a stand-alone thing which just happens to have its origins in another language. This prize isn’t quite either of those.

‘I’ve judged what used to be called the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, where translations-into-English are appraised alongside books written in English; and in our meetings we barely mentioned the translation process at all. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Man Booker International were the same – you’re judging works of English, not discussing the “translation” aspect as a distinct thing; these are just English-language books which happen to have two authors, who – in the event of a win – will share the prize. (As a translator, I like being judged this way, incidentally.) Meanwhile, those prizes that look at the translation as a-thing-in-relation-to-an-actual-original (so have perhaps a different idea of what makes a translation great) need to be judged by a quite different process – you’re dependent either on judges being able/willing to read originals (single-language prizes, for example) or having a big team of multilingual assessors who can report on this aspect on the judges’ behalf. (Even this new little prize of mine had nearly twenty languages among the submissions. We judges have four between us.)

‘I’ve only once before judged a prize like the TAFTP, where the judges read only the translated books and yet it’s the translator and not the writer who gets the cheque – that was the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation. It’s a slightly tricky one, since we aren’t reading the originals, yet at the same time we’re absolutely rewarding the translator’s role rather than the book generally. Here the author doesn’t get a look-in at all; if we’re giving a prize for a translation, it should in theory be possible to reward an awe-inspiring translation of a mediocre book, above a good translation of a masterpiece… In practice, of course, it’s not always easy to avoid being swayed by things that are seductive manifestations of the writer’s skill; and nor is it always realistic to think that as readers we can accurately isolate different people’s contributions anyway. (We make assumptions about such things all the time without realising – when I read a fine novel in English, my assumption is that, basically, the author wrote a fine novel in English for which s/he should be rewarded, rather than that the author wrote a catastrophically awful novel, which some poor editor basically had to rewrite in order to make it functional…)

‘In other words, the whole thing’s a bit messy. But we talked about that in the judging meeting, too – one of the most fun bits of judging any prize, in my experience, is trying to work out what it is you’re all looking for, and whether there’s some way of articulating that. We certainly can’t pretend there’s a scientific measure. Maybe in the first instance it just comes down to whom you ask to judge, and whether, as in this case, they’re people whose instincts you trust, and who understand how translating and writing and editing work, even if articulating quality is harder to do in the abstract than just “you know it when you see it”.

‘It’s sort of impossible to do, in some senses, but I did have two very wise fellow judges (a great translator and a great editor) to help me in the process. We had no way of knowing what the relationship of the translation is to the original, and yet there’s a lot we absolutely could tell. Did it work as a piece of English? How did the voices sound? If there were English jokes, were they funny? Etc. etc. We could get a sense, too, of whether a translator is having to do something particularly demanding. Our winning book is a dazzling piece of polyvocal English writing, and Bela Shayevich and her editor made the dazzling things happen in English. Of course, it’s possible that it’s a “bad” translation if the original is, say, a 64-page illustrated children’s book about a pony with lots of funny jokes – in which case, yes, this translation truly is an utter travesty (but I’d be surprised if that was the case); the new work would still be a masterpiece, of course, but then perhaps not a translation…’

As with so many things connected to international literature and cultural exchange, there are no easy answers to the question of how we ought to weigh translations. But that’s part of the fun.

Incidentally, if any Russian speakers know of a 64-page illustrated children’s book about a pony that’s been badly misrepresented in English, I’d love to hear more…

Picture from the Society of Authors website.

Book of the month: Tiphaine Rivière

In my previous post on book clubs, I mentioned that international literary prizes can often be a good source of reading suggestions. February’s Book of the month is a neat demonstration of that. Indeed, in this case a literary award encouraged me to discover not just an author I’d never read before, but a whole new genre.

Francesca Barrie’s translation of Tiphaine Rivière’s Carnets de thèse (Notes on a Thesis to you and me) is one of six books on the inaugural shortlist of the TA First Translation Prize. Set up and endowed by writer, editor and translator Daniel Hahn, the annual award recognises outstanding debut translations published in the UK, with the first winner announced tomorrow (March 1).

The award is unusual in that, unlike most comparable honours, the original author of the book does not receive part of the prize money. Instead, the  credit goes entirely to the person who rewrote their words in English.

The presence of Notes on a Thesis on the shortlist marks the award out in another way too. It is rare to see a graphic novel in contention for a prize like this. Although the art form is taken very seriously in many parts of the globe, books that use pictures to tell stories tend not to get much attention from the English-speaking literary establishment. As a result, they don’t come onto the radars of many anglophone readers.

This was certainly true for me. Being a wordy person with relatively poor visual sense, I’ve never really ventured into the genre. Had it not been for the presence of Notes on a Thesis on the TAFTP shortlist, the work would almost certainly have passed me by.

However, when I looked it up, the premise struck me as irresistible. Told through the eyes of a young woman, Jeanne, who gets accepted to do a PhD in Paris, the book sets out to satirise the university system. Sparked off by a blog Rivière started after three years working on a thesis herself, it is, according to the blurb on the back, ‘a wickedly funny graphic novel about academic life, for anyone who’s ever missed a deadline.’

I snapped up a copy and took it with me to the University of Kent, where, in between seeing students (many of them working on PhDs) in my capacity as a Royal Literary Fund fellow, I quickly fell under the spell of Rivière’s craft.

‘Wickedly funny’ does not begin to cover it. This is a book that will have readers laughing out loud and rushing to share the jokes. The observations are precise and devastating. A range of killer characters comes to life in a handful of sentences – from the secretary with ‘a secret tactic: feigning gross incompetence to wear down her adversaries, until they eventually stop asking her to do anything at all’ to the PhD supervisor who prescribes reading the complete works of Schopenhauer as a way of getting rid of his charge.

One of the great joys of the book is the way Rivière’s illustrations not only portray but also advance the story. Take this series of ID card snapshots revealing the toll Jeanne’s thesis takes on her over the course of four years.

Or this spread capturing the experience of giving a paper and then waiting nervously for questions at the end.

The publisher’s decision to market Notes on a Thesis at the academic community is understandable, but people from all walks of life will find much to recognise and chuckle at here. Whether it’s the excruciating family Christmas where well-meaning relatives unwittingly rip apart your ambitions, or the irrational, middle-of-the-night heart-to-heart with the partner who has been forced to ride the roller-coaster of your dreams with you, the pages brim with telling and hilarious details.

Although books about writing are common, it is unusual to see the business of trying to put pen to paper captured in pictures. Notes on a Thesis is both a joy and a surprise, richly deserving of literary recognition even as it pokes fun at much of the paraphernalia associated with that world.

If this is an example of what graphic novels have to offer, I have got a lot to learn.

Notes on a Thesis (Carnets de thèse) by Tiphaine Rivière, translated from the French by Francesca Barrie (Jonathan Cape, 2016)

The joy of book clubs

One of the trickiest things about setting out to explore the world’s literatures is deciding what you’re going to read. There is so much out there that it can feel overwhelming, particularly when most of the works you encounter – at least to begin with – will be by writers you have never heard of. How on Earth do you choose?

I think it’s for this reason that many of the people who contact me to say they have decided to read the world often tell me that they are going to use my list as a guide. I’m more than happy for readers to consult my choices as a starting point, but I always hope they’ll get inspired to do some exploring of their own too – so many wonderful books have been translated into English in the six years since my quest and although I continue to add one new discovery a month to the list, many hundreds of other wonderful titles deserve an audience.

There are a number of ways to find out about some of the best. Awards such as the Man Booker International Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award (the longlist for which is drawn up from nominations supplied by libraries around the globe) highlight many of the most ambitious and popular titles. Meanwhile, funding programmes including English PEN’s PEN Translates help bring brave and exciting works into the world’s most published language.

For those with limited time, there are also subscription schemes. One of the most recently launched is Asymptote Book Club, which sends those who sign up a surprise handpicked work of fiction every month. Drawn from the lists of independent publishers in North America and the UK and selected by the team behind the award-winning world-literature journal Asymptote, the titles promise to be as intriguing as they are diverse. So when  blogger Marina Sofia, who works for the site, contacted me to ask if I would be interested to review their second pick, I wasted no time taking a look.

It’s fair to say that I would probably never have found Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Aranyak (translated by Rimli Bhattacharya) on my own. Indeed, had Seagull Books not released an English version, some eighty years after the Bengali original appeared, it’s likely that the work would have remained forever off-limits to anglophone readers. That would have been a great pity because it is an extraordinary creation.

Told through the eyes of Satyacharan, a young man from Calcutta who accepts a job managing the leasing of land for farming in a remote part of neighbouring Bihar, the book captures a fragile, fading and enchanting world. As he falls in love with the jungle that his work must gradually destroy, Satyacharan records the encounters he has with many of the people and animals who make their lives in this unpredictable environment. In so doing, he reveals the way a place can work itself into the hearts of its inhabitants, changing them as they develop and transform the landscape.

The best English word we have to apply to this book is ‘novel’, but the term does not fit comfortably here. The narrative arc anglophone readers might look for in long-form fiction is largely absent from Aranyak. Instead, the book is a series of loosely threaded episodes that often give rise to musings on humankind’s place in the world. I’ve seen it described as a kind of anthropological monograph – and, indeed, it draws on the author’s observations recorded in his diaries while he performed a role similar to the one his protagonist undertakes. But although that description makes sense, it risks missing the essence of the book, which is its exquisite writing.

Lacking the narrative drive that often keeps pages turning, Aranyak entrances readers by virtue of its vivid and moving descriptions. Although the narrator frequently expresses frustration at his inability to represent ‘the real face of [his] country’ adequately on the page, Bandyopadhyay and Bhattacharya’s work contradicts him.

Spine-tingling evocations abound. Take, for example, this description of a vista the protagonist often catches sight of while out on business:

‘The place is densely shadowed and lonely; from wherever you look, you can see in the far horizon a ring of blue hills like children holding hands and playing a game.’

Just as the narrative shape is unfamiliar, so the way language is used defies anglophone conventions. Although the prologue locates the events of the story firmly in the past, the tenses vary throughout the book, as though the narrator is reliving his memories. The text is also peppered with terms likely to be unknown to most Western readers, although these generally do not obscure the sense (indeed, I am grateful for the editorial decision to keep footnotes to a minimum).

As is so often the case with works from traditions rather different to the anglophone canon, the book requires readers to approach it with openness and a readiness to put things that jar down to their own unfamiliarity with the genre rather than flaws with the work. Those that do so will be richly rewarded: this is a rare and precious glimpse into a kind of storytelling as enthralling as it is strange to Western eyes.

If Asymptote Book Club keeps finding such gems, subscribers are in for a treat.

Aranyak by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, translated from the Bengali by Rimli Bhattacharya (Seagull Books, 2017)

Book of the month: Ahmet Altan

Writing is hard. There’s the problem of finding ideas rich enough to spin stories out of, the battle with self-doubt, the struggle to maintain focus, the financial insecurity and the frequent tangle with rejection. For most of us who write in English, however, the challenges largely end there.

The same is not true for writers in many other languages. With the skewed international market favouring anglophone books, making a living is frequently even more difficult for authors in other tongues. In addition, those in regimes hostile to freedom of expression often have to contend with attempts to limit their work and their lives, an experience all too familiar to the author of my latest Book of the month.

I first heard about Turkish writer Ahmet Altan a few weeks ago when I read an article by him in The Author, the UK’s Society of Authors’ members’ magazine. The piece was a striking account of what it is like to write inside a prison cell. The celebrated novelist and former newspaper editor is something of an expert on the topic: he has spent much of the last 18 months in detention for charges including ‘giving subliminal messages in favour of a coup on television’, ‘membership of a terrorist organisation’ and ‘attempting to overthrow the government’.

I was gripped by Altan’s writing. Deeply personal and yet so lyrical that it almost tipped over into poetry at times, the article was a defiant assertion of the power of the imagination in the face of tyranny. I lost no time in seeking out one of Altan’s novels to read in English.

Endgame, translated by Alexander Dawe, has been called a Turkish noir novel by several reviewers. The premise makes it clear why: a writer retires to a remote community only to find himself plunged into intrigue when the place reveals itself to be a hotbed of jealousy and murder. Having been turned into a killer himself, he sits alone in the centre of the town, awaiting the dawn and arrival of those who will surely come to seek revenge for what he has done. The novel spans this night, taking us back over the events that have led him to this point.

So far, so dark and thrillerish. Indeed, the early pages contain many passages that could cheerfully sit in any number of mystery novels written around the world. From the suspenseful evocation of the sinister and controlling Mayor Mustafa, to loaded hints about strangers being unwelcome and rumours of shady activity surrounding the ancient church on top of the hill, where treasure is thought to be hidden, the text is rife with mechanisms calculated to keep the pages turning. There are also a number of local details that are as intriguing as they are disturbing – the hitmen who are so nonchalant that they arrive in minibuses, for example.

Yet, as is so often the case when we English speakers try to shoehorn stories from elsewhere into our prefabricated boxes, the fiction label ‘noir’ (reportedly popularized by crime fiction editor Barry Gifford in the 1980s) risks squashing this novel out of shape in prospective readers’ minds. For one thing, the pace is by no means always commensurate with the and-then-and-then-and-then of much genre fiction. The narrative meanders at times, digressing to consider existential questions or stepping back from events to see them with a distance that creates room for fresh insights. Take, for example, the narrator’s response to witnessing a man being shot dead in the local coffee shop:

‘You’re sitting there reading the horse racing pages and some guy comes and blows your brains out.

A brain picturing galloping horses was suddenly splattered over the coffeehouse floor, sending imaginary horses racing through the grass. I could see the jockeys in colourful outfits riding on their backs. All of the hopes and schemes, frustrations and desires, jealousies and passions that had resided within the folds of that brain were then washed away with a bucket of water.

The sum of a man’s memory had been destroyed.’

There is beauty and wistfulness in much of the writing. The opening sequence, for instance, in which the protagonist claims to be able to see the town’s sleeping inhabitants’ dreams escaping out of windows and chimneys to frolic together is touching. The same is true of insights such as: ‘We can’t fit a whole person into one life. This life we live is too small for all desires.’ These are the kind of observations that resonate across cultures and genres, and stay with you long after plot and character detail are gone.

Some aspects of this book will be challenging for those used to mainstream anglophone fiction. The frequent references to God and sin are striking; although the protagonist claims not to be a believer, he frequently rails against the creator, often chiding Him for placing him in a badly plotted novel. In addition, the earthy and occasionally misogynistic presentation of women may be off-putting for some – the narrator has no hesitation in indulging in a little objectification now and again. There’s also the challenge of unfamiliar pacing, which sometimes sees Altan lingering over a scene or idea that an English-language writer might hurry through and visa versa.

Such wrinkles in alignment are almost inevitable, however, when it comes to encountering literature from elsewhere. Indeed they are often part of the joy. And if it’s joy you’re looking for, this book has plenty to offer. Funny, thoughtful, savage and audacious, this is a novel that will enthrall and surprise. Like its author, it cannot be constrained within boundaries set by others. It is entirely itself.

#AhmetAltan #FreeTurkeyMedia Find more information on the campaign to free Ahmet Altan here.

Endgame (Son Oyun) by Ahmet Altan, translated from the Turkish by Alexander Dawe (Canongate, 2015)

Picture: ‘prison‘ by Raffaella on flickr.com

Book of the month: Herman Koch


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture: ‘Diamond 530 NS4‘ by *Physalis on flickr.com

Postcard from my bookshelf #12

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hi Ann,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book of the month: Naivo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postcard from my bookshelf #11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meghan, I hope you enjoy it.

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


Book of the month: Liliana Colanzi

With a few notable exceptions, South American countries are generally poorly served when it comes to having their literature translated into the world’s most published language. If you want to venture beyond Colombian, Argentinian or Brazilian literature, you quickly find that quite a few nations only have a handful of their authors’ works available in English.

Bolivia is a case in point. When I cast about for something to read from there in 2012, there seemed to be very little choice. In the end, on the recommendation of the country’s most celebrated contemporary writer, Edmundo Paz Soldán, who graciously responded to my request for thoughts on lesser-known Bolivian writers I might discover, I plumped for the striking and savage short-story collection Sangre dulce/Sweet Blood by Giovanna Rivero Santa Cruz.

Five years later when a translation of another short-story collection by a female Bolivian writer came onto my radar through #WITMonth, I thought it might make an interesting comparison.

A brief summary of the content of some of the stories in Liliana Colanzi’s Our Dead World, translated by Jessica Sequeira, immediately shows up common ground between the authors. Stories of mental breakdown, maternal cruelty, child death, indigenous slavery and suicide make up the meat of this collection; like Rivero, Colanzi has an eye for the darker side of life.

The similarities don’t end there, for Colanzi’s writing possesses a similar muscularity and violence to Rivero’s. She has no hesitation in plunging us into disturbing scenes – such as the brutal killing of a pig, which opens the story ‘Alfredito’. These she fleshes out in precise and alarming detail, revealing that cruelty lives not in the summary of the things we do but in the moment-by-moment choices to deny, impose, withhold or force.

As with Rivero’s work – and indeed a number of the other Latin American works I’ve read – mental illness and the uncanny loom large. The world is never quite stable or trustworthy. The wave that travels through a university campus, triggering a spate of student suicides, is never explained. Neither are the spooky animals glimpsed by a homesick space traveller on Mars.

What gives Colanzi’s writing its own unique flavour, however, is her love of unusual perspectives. From ‘Family Portrait’, in which the surfacing of longstanding grudges between generations is told largely through the eyes of the photographer’s assistant helping to set up a group photograph, to ‘Story with Bird’, in which the narrator steps back briefly from events to envisage a time when humankind is extinct and other unimaginable beings inhabit the earth, the writer delights in showing us her characters from surprising angles.

The most delicious example is the way she crashes together space time and quotidian human existence at the start of ‘Meteorite’:

‘The meteroid traced the same orbit in the solar system for fifteen million years until the movement of a comet pushed it toward Earth. Even so, it took another twenty thousand more years before it collided with the planet, during which time the world passed through an ice age, mountains shifted and the waves gave land masses a new shape. Innumerable life forms died out forever, while others battled ferociously, adapted and repopulated the Earth. When the object at last entered the atmosphere[…] the igneous ball, a meter and a half in diameter, fell on the outskirts of San Borja. Its spectacular descent from the heavens was witnessed by a couple at home, arguing at five-thirty in the morning.’

Sometimes this playfulness topples into the outright weird. There are digressions and odd turns of events that feel too loosely threaded through the narratives. And, as is almost always the case with collections of this kind, certain of the stories are more successful than others.

On the whole, though, this is an arresting book. Its pieces work together to remind us that, although we are small, short-lived organisms in a vast and ancient universe, we nevertheless have the capacity to do startling things.

Our Dead World (Nuestro mundo muerto) by Liliana Colanzi, translated from the Spanish by Jessica Sequeira (Dalkey Archive Press, 2017)

Picture: ‘Abandoned steam engine in Uyuni train cemetery’ by Jimmy Harris on flickr.com