Advice for world readers

One of my favourite things about this project is the way other people have taken it on and made it their own. Several times a week – and sometimes as much as every day – I hear from booklovers who have been inspired to launch their own international-reading ventures.

These can sometimes be very individual and specific – such as the Mexican students who gave away books in their town to promote reading or the horror fan keen to sample something of that genre from as many nations as possible. Usually, however, the messages come from people who, as I did back in 2011, have realised quite how narrow their reading has been and are keen to broaden their horizons by exploring stories from elsewhere.

Sometimes they just want to let me know what they are planning. Sometimes, they ask questions. And, though the questions can be very varied, the most common are these: What advice can I give people trying to read the world? How can you read so much so quickly? Where do you find books from nations with little or no published literature in English? What do you do if you can’t afford to buy books? Can I help?

Much as I’d love to be able to help with individual quests, time and money factors usually make this impossible. During my ‘Postcards from my Bookshelf’ project last year, in which I sent books to 12 strangers in celebration of the fifth anniversary of my quest, I received comments from more than 200 people keen to take part. It simply wouldn’t be possible for me to buy books for everyone.

However, there are a few tips and bits of information that I’ve learnt over the past six years that might be useful for would-be literary explorers. I’m putting them below. Please feel free to add your own advice in the comments.

  • Be curious and open to changing your ideas Reading the world requires you to let go of your assumptions about many things – from morality and history to what counts as a book in the first place. This can be challenging but also hugely rewarding. As far as possible, try to keep an open mind. In particular, when you find yourself reading something that feels difficult, remember that your reaction may reveal more about your own cultural conditioning and blind spots than about the book or country it comes from.
  • Make the quest your own Many of the people I hear from tell me that they’re using my list as a guide. It’s great to know that it’s useful and I hope that the Book of the month reviews help keep it fresh. However, there are so many amazing books out there and a huge amount has changed since I read the world in 2012. Thousands of brilliant new translations have been published, in some cases opening up the literature of countries that had nothing available in English during my quest. Meanwhile, other titles have gone out of print and are harder to find. So, although people are welcome to use my list, I would urge them to explore for themselves too. There are many great resources out there but three good places to start are English PEN’s World Bookshelf, Words Without Borders and Asymptote.
  • Go at your own pace You don’t have to read the world in a year. You don’t have to read it in ten years. It’s much better to go at a pace that you can sustain rather than to drive yourself frantic by trying to cram reading into every spare moment and turning it into a chore. Instead, find a window of time (even if it’s just 15 minutes a day) that you can dedicate to reading and stick to that. And if you find yourself wanting to spend more time reading as you go along – great!
  • Use libraries and other reading resources to read for free Reading can be expensive. Even with the generous book gifts I received from strangers, my original quest cost me several thousand pounds. This can be prohibitive, especially if you live in a part of the world where books are relatively expensive. There aren’t always easy solutions. However, where they exist, libraries can be a fabulous resource for bookworms. Not only do they make books freely available, but they will also often order in titles you request. For people in particularly difficult circumstances, there are charities such as Book Aid working to supply books. It may be worth researching what is available in your area and contacting the relevant organisations to see how international their offering is. Whatever you do, please avoid the temptation to resort to pirated versions of texts. The inequalities in the international publishing industry that mean that some literatures are much more widely read and translated than others will only be reinforced by this. It’s important that authors are paid for their work.
  • Be patient and use your initiative It’s very difficult when you come to a country that has no commercially available literature in English. What you do about this will depend on how much time and energy you have. During my quest (as you’ll see if you read the posts for the Comoros, Panama and São Tomé and Príncipe, to name a few), I resorted to all sorts  of outlandish things to try to source texts, including contacting charities, academics and students working in the region, and tracking translators down through social media. There is no magic solution to ticking off these countries. However, the good news is, it’s getting easier. Since my project, literature from several previously off-limits nations, including Madagascar and Guinea-Bissau, has been released in English. I’m hopeful it won’t be long before every UN-recognised nation has something available in the world’s most-published language. I’ll do my best to keep you informed. Watch this space!

Picture: ‘One last look at 2012. Happy New Year planet Earth!’ by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on flickr.com.

A new work from Turkmenistan

People often ask me about the unpublished manuscripts I encountered during my 2012 quest to read a book from every country in the world. Have they been picked up by publishers? Are they available for other literary explorers to read?

The answer is mixed – while some of the works, such as Juan David Morgan’s The Golden Horsehave appeared (albeit briefly) in English – several deserving books, chief among them Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa’s Ualalapi, remain off-limits to anglophone readers.*

Getting translated works published can be an uphill struggle, so I was very pleased when Glagoslav Publications took on The Tale of Aypi, the first novel ever to be translated from Turkmen into English. Its author, Ak Welsapar, kindly shared it with me in manuscript form during my project and it’s great that it’s now commercially available.

Late last year, I received more news from Welsapar. Glagoslav Publications were bringing out another book by him – a collection of short stories. Would I be prepared to write a foreword for it?

I accepted gladly and am delighted to announce that the collection, Death of the Snake Catcher, translated by Lois Kapila, Yossef Azemoun and Richard Govett, was published last month. Containing stories written during Welsapar’s time in his homeland and over the decades since his exile, the book is an intriguing insight into life in one of the most closed societies on Earth, as I attempted to explain in my foreword:

‘Although the stories may appear very diverse, a closer look reveals a number of common themes and tropes at work. The power of the unexplained is among the most prominent. As in The Tale of Aypi, a book that is haunted by the ghost of a girl who died some centuries before the story takes place, the uncanny has a strong influence. The ground shifts constantly beneath our feet, leaving us uncertain what to expect and what to trust.

[…]

‘In other stories, this sense of uncertainty spreads to engulf everyday objects. People cannot be trusted and neither can things. Even the most innocuous-seeming of occurrences – a love affair, two carts approaching a crossroad, a man writing at a desk – can turn treacherous and become the thing that destroys your life. As Jummi, the luckless team leader in “One of the Seven is a Scoundrel”, says, “these days one of your two eyes can become your enemy.”

‘For readers, these sudden shifts in significance are as instructive as they are unsettling. Faced with a reality that may never be quite what it seems, we find ourselves ill at ease. Like a citizen in a society overseen by a fickle dictator, or a writer working in the shadow of freedom of expression-limiting rules the specifics of which are left at the discretion of individual censors – as was the case in the Soviet era – we can never be sure what is safe. It is as though Welsapar writes us into the world he has left, letting us taste the bitterness of living in constant fear of recrimination for offences, or faults in interpretation, we may not even realise we have committed.

[…]

‘Yet, although the stories frequently tackle dark subject matter, there is a lightness to the writing that lifts it out of the gloom that might otherwise swamp these pages. We see it in the optimism of young lovers and in the determination of many of the characters to achieve the dignity of leading an independent existence – no matter how limited and basic that might be. What’s more, hopefulness pervades the title story, in which two mortal enemies – the snake catcher and his prey – meet and in so doing discover that they have made each other what they are. Although their identities are built at least partly on their mission to destroy one another, the story hints that the world might nevertheless be big enough to contain them both. As Welsapar explained when I asked him about the collection: “People should never forget that we are only part of a great life, a cosmos, and it does not become a person to take living space from other living creatures. Only the weak strive to destroy one another. The strong learn to coexist.”

‘For all the difficulties he and his characters face, the belief that a better reality is possible underpins Welsapar’s writing. Just as he continued to work in the face of what must have seemed like insurmountable obstacles when he was first blacklisted and forced to endure seeing his books destroyed, so the people he portrays retain faith that survival is its own reward and that tomorrow may bring better things. Even if “the most important thing, the secret thing, maybe, slips away as always, and remains unfathomable”, the effort to express what can be expressed and live what can be lived is worthwhile.

It is great to see this second work of fiction from the only Turkmen writer with a voice in English hitting the shelves. Congratulations to Ak Welsapar and to Glagoslav Publications for continuing to champion this author.

* Thanks to Catherine for alerting me to the fact that Ualalapi is now available, published by Tagus in 2017.

Picture: ‘Golden statue of Saparmurat Niyazov, aka Turkmenbashi, first president of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat‘ by David Stanley on flickr.com

Book of the month: Basma Abdel Aziz

An editor once told me that she worked on the basis that a reader has to hear about a book five times before he or she will buy it. April’s Book of the month is a neat demonstration of her theory.

In the two years since Elisabeth Jaquette’s translation of Egyptian writer Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue came out, the book has flashed repeatedly on my radar. It cropped up in several articles about underrated books by women. Marcia Lynx Qualey, tireless champion of Arabic literature, made much of it on her excellent blog. When it made the shortlist for the inaugural TA First Translation Prize, I finally cracked and bought a copy.

The novel centres around Yehya, a man wounded in a political uprising in an unnamed state. Forced to join the static queue at the Gate – the sinister, faceless institution that has assumed power in the wake of the Disgraceful Events – Yehya, his friend Nagy and lover Amani must pit themselves against the system in order to stand a chance of obtaining the operation that will save his life. As they do so, they encounter a host of other characters, including a school teacher barred from practising for allowing a subversive essay to be read in class and a man petitioning for compensation on behalf of a cousin killed in the service of the state, and witness the slow disintegration of society in the face of an increasingly intransigent regime.

Like its author, who is nicknamed ‘the rebel’ in her home country, the novel is unashamedly political. Its ideas lie close to the surface and, although the state in which it is set is unnamed, readers cannot fail to miss the references to the Arab Spring. Whether she is portraying the way that legislation can become weaponised to weaken and even kill citizens by making it impossible for them to obtain the things necessary for their survival, or showing how seemingly innocuous objects such as mobile phones can be used against their owners, Aziz writes with insight and wry humour. The best passages reveal the human toll that such inhuman policies exact. The following is a good example:

‘Everyone was on equal ground. But they all had the same look about them, the same lethargy. Now they were even all starting to think the same way. […] The queue was like a magnet. It drew people toward it, then held them captive as individuals and in their little groups, and it stripped them of everything, even the sense that their previous lives had been stolen from them.’

For obvious reasons, the novel has been compared to works by George Orwell and Franz Kafka and like those books (and the political theatre of Bertolt Brecht), it has a distant, no-man’s-land quality, as though it has tapped into a universal nightmare. Many of the lesser characters remain nameless and are identified only by their clothing or physical characteristics, and the descriptions of the city are mostly stark and spare.

However, a humanity throbs at the heart of Aziz’s writing, indicating a possibility for redemption that other such works sometimes lack. In the face of the cruelty of the state, the friendship between the central characters and the connections between the secondary figures who support and encourage one another to endure the endless waiting persist and even strengthen. Although they may be powerless to ameliorate their material circumstances, individuals in the queue retain control over the expression of their humanity. If not exactly heartening, this observation adds subtlety and depth to the writing. The same is true of the sections that reveal how queue life is liberating in some ways for a number of the characters – particularly the women – because it enables them to break free of social mores and become more assertive.

The book is not always an easy read. Like the queue itself, the plot remains static for long periods before jerking forward suddenly. Occasionally the narrative gets bogged down in logistics and abstractions that are hard to follow – mimicking, perhaps, the legal documents and pronouncements that stymie so many of the characters’ lives. Its abrupt shifts in perspective are sometimes disconcerting and its prose is occasionally simple to the point of being bald.

On the whole, though, the novel is too important for any of this to matter. In capturing a specific moment and using it to express universal truths about freedom and identity, it joins the ranks of great stories that endure across the generations. In twenty years’ time, when the Arab Spring has faded from many memories, readers will still be hearing about this book frequently enough to keep picking it up.

The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Melville House, 2016)

Picture: ‘Once Bank Misr Reopened in February People Queued For Hours To Collect Their Money’ by Alisdare Hickson on Flickr.com.

Book of the month: Robert Seethaler

Book titles containing the word ‘life’ can often be deceptive. Hanya Yanagihara’s award-winning A Little Life, for example – which you might expect to be rather modest in length – tips the scales at 737 pages.

It’s perhaps fitting, then, that bestselling Austrian author Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, translated by Charlotte Collins, skews the other way. Played out in a mere 161 sides, this slip of a novel weighs little. However, as I discovered a few weeks back, it leaves a lasting impression.

The premise is simple: the narrative presents the life of Andreas Egger, a manual worker living in the Austrian Alps over the course of much of the twentieth century. Told largely chronologically, with occasional flashes forward and backwards to illuminate particular events, it reveals the joys and losses that shape an individual who is, on the surface at least, unremarkable.

In the absence of the grabby hook so often required to sell books to big English-language publishers these days, it falls to Seethaler’s writing (and Collins’s translation) to make the novel stand out. This they do in spades. Although it gets off to an uneven start, seeming to pitch us into the realm of the uncanny with its portrayal of Egger’s weird encounter with his reclusive goatherd neighbour, the narrative quickly assumes a serenity as majestic and awe-inspiring as the mountains among which it is set.

There is a lovely reticence to the work. For the most part, the story is conveyed in plain words with the occasional detail, such as the peening anvil used to dispatch a wounded dog, keeping the story grounded. Against this spare linguistic backdrop, occasional descriptive flourishes peep out like edelweiss blooms: the priest whose cassock flaps ‘around his body like the dishevelled plumage of a jackdaw’; the shell-fire blossoming ‘like blazing flowers over the mountain crests’.

There is also humour. In particular, a wry tone suffuses the portrayal of many of the hardships of Egger’s early life, almost as though it has been filtered through the gossip of relatives and neighbours. Take this description of the death of Egger’s mother: ‘she had led an irresponsible life, for which God had recently punished her with consumption and summoned her to his bosom.’ The distance and lightness at work here give the central character a complexity and dignity where another author might have been tempted to make him simply pitiable.

Seethaler’s confidence in allowing tiny observations to bear the weight of great events, gives the novel its power. There are moments of supreme beauty – Egger’s proposal to his sweetheart Marie is one of the most romantic scenes I’ve ever read. Meanwhile the losses that besiege the protagonist are rendered almost unbearable by what is left unsaid, allowing the author to exploit dramatic irony to its fullest as we watch Egger stumble to confront tragedies for which he never quite finds the words.

In many ways, A Whole Life is a marketing department’s nightmare. A man lives and then he dies. On the face of it, there is nothing to set this story apart. But in the hands of a writer like Seethaler, that is precisely what makes it special.

A Whole Life (Ein ganzes Leben) by Robert Seethaler, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins (Picador, 2015)

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

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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