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)

A book club with a difference

A few weeks ago, I had an exciting invitation. Audible, the UK’s largest providers of digital audiobooks, were launching a Listening Club. Once a month they would select one title to invite readers to discuss. They had decided to launch the club with the audio version of my debut novel Beside Myself, narrated by the wonderful Lisa Coleman. Would I be available to come to their London studio to take part in a recorded discussion with a small group of listeners to help get the conversation started?

The studios were in one of a number of glamorously converted warehouses near the Barbican. Brightly decorated, with bird-print wallpaper on the kitchen ceiling and large breakout spaces containing foosball and table-tennis tables, they were a world away from the tiny cluster of little black booths where I recorded the audiobook of  The World Between Two Covers in 2015.

They also contained the most beautiful piece of book-related art I have ever seen: Storylines, a huge reworking of the London Underground map, with book titles replacing station names. I was amused to find that the novels populating the area of north London in which I grew up seemed particularly dark, and included The Exorcist and Psycho.

The experience of talking about your work with readers can be mixed. Although it’s always nice to hear that people have engaged with your work, you often find yourself answering the same questions over and over again. When it comes to Beside Myself, a psychological drama about twins who get trapped in the wrong lives, I rarely get through a conversation without having to explain that I’m not a twin and that I have never been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, unlike the main character of the novel.

This discussion was entirely different. Attended by three listeners, among them my friend, writer Rosie Fiore, who had received an invitation entirely by chance, and chaired by Audible editorial assistant Holly Newson, it explored many of the novel’s themes in great depth: nature versus nurture, the role of education and whether personality consists of what we are or of what others project onto us.

I particularly enjoyed talking about what the audio form can add to a novel, as my experience has been that narrator Lisa Coleman brought a huge amount of interpretative richness to the text. Indeed, as I explained in the discussion, it was her idea to make some of the voices in the central character’s head those of people in the novel – an extra layer that had not occurred to me.

The first Listening Club question went up on the Audible UK Facebook page yesterday and the recording of the discussion will be released soon. Watch this space!

Translation as transhumance

Being wordy people, translators often turn their hand to writing their own work. From David Bellos to Edith Grossman, many of the big names in the field have set down their thoughts about their craft in articles, essays and full-length books.

Blending their experiences with broader theoretical reflections about what it takes to transport meaning from one language to another, these works are often enjoyable and illuminating. Nevertheless, they can feel daunting to readers not directly engaged in working with words. Consisting largely, as they often do, of the writer’s efforts to find the terms to express the mechanisms of their art – to translate the concept of translation – these meta-narratives sometimes feel a little inward-looking, as though they can only be grasped fully by fellow practitioners.

As a result, when award-winning translator Ros Schwartz contacted me about her translation of French translator Mireille Gansel’s book Traduire comme transhumer (which hits the British bookshop shelves as Translation as Transhumance on November 1), I hesitated. A translation of a book about translation? Where would it all end?

The publicity material that accompanied the book wasn’t calculated to dispel my reservations. According to its opening sentence, the work I held in my hand was ‘half-memoir, half-philosophical treatise musing on translation’s potential for humanist engagement’. My thoughts strayed to the translation of the Boris Akunin mystery I had just downloaded to my Kindle in advance of the Russian superstar coming to the Folkestone Book Festival next month – surely it would be more fun to put this worthy volume aside and crack on with a highfalutin tale of murder in nineteenth-century Moscow?

Luckily, Translation as Transhumance proved to be nothing like the dry, self-referential treatise I feared. Instead, what I discovered when I turned to the first page was an urgent, human work, blending together lived experience with insights so precise that they would make booklovers of all stripes gasp.

The writing is often exquisite. Presenting her memories and the reflections they inspire in a series of brief chapters, many of which run to no more than a page, Gansel (through Schwartz’s lens) has the knack of pulling us into a scene with a handful of words. We are there with her, beside her father’s armchair, on the night she first discovers the magic of unspooling the meaning in the letters that used to arrive from relatives in Budapest; we stand in the spartan rooms of her elderly relations dispersed across Europe by the cruel events of the twentieth century; and we discover the life-saving power of the work of Brecht as she relates her youthful encounter with it.

The immediacy of these descriptions means that we not only understand Gansel’s argument that human experience is encoded into words; we feel it too. Her portrayal of the way history has devastated and rebuilt the German spoken by many of Europe’s displaced people is as moving as it is beautiful:

‘This is the German that has been punctuated by exiles and passed down through generations, from country to country, like a violin whose vibratos have retained the accents and intonations, the words and the expressions, of adopted countries and ways of speaking.’

Language, we learn, bears the marks and scars of those who have used it before us. Even innocuous-seeming words can, with a little probing, be made to bleed.

Using this passionate engagement with the inner significance of words as a starting point, and tying it to detailed examples from her career, Gansel presents interpretations of translation at the end of many of her chapters. Several familiar tropes appear – bridging and smuggling both feature. But Gansel quickly leaves these behind, encountering and moving past image after image in an effort to elucidate what she does with words. Translation is an attempt to reach the language of the soul. It is an effort to communicate a work’s humanity. It is a ‘seismograph at the heart of time’. It is, as the title suggests, akin to the seasonal movement of flocks from pasture to pasture in search of nourishment.

Each of these formulations is illuminating and yet none of them entirely encapsulates the writer’s meaning. In many ways, that is Gansel’s point: language shifts constantly as words accrue associations that gradually bury others, such that a phrase written now will read very differently to someone encountering it in fifty years’ time.

As such, true translation must be a living, ongoing process; a constant effort to find the mot if not exactly juste then at least acceptable. It is for this reason that we need retranslations of classic works. And, yes, it is for this reason that there will always be room for new publications of translators’ reflections on their craft. If only they could all be as powerful as this.

Translation as Transhumance (Traduire comme transhumer) by Mireille Gansel, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz (Les Fugitives, 2017)

Being translated

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

Moja siostra …czy ja?

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

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

 

 

Beside Myself

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

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

 

 

The Person Who Stole My Name 

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

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

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

 

À sa place

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

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

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

I’ll let you know how I get on…

Book of the month: Dawit Gebremichael Habte

The question of whether a book has to be set in a particular country in order to be ‘from’ that place was a recurrent theme during my year of reading the world. Many people feel that this is an important factor in determining a story’s cultural identity. Indeed, I know of a number of literary quests that make setting the primary consideration when it comes to choosing books from different regions – sometimes preferring stories by non-nationals over texts by people born or living in the nation.

During my project, I took a different view. Although the majority of stories I read in 2012 took place at least partly in the country under whose name they appear on the list, this wasn’t the case with all of them.

There were several reasons for this. Firstly, as British and American wordsmiths write books set all over the world, I didn’t see why I should expect authors from other places to limit their imaginations to the space within the borders of their own nations, or even to the real world at all. What interested me most was voice and perspective, rather than a representation of cultural detail in each place.

However, sometimes there was no option but to choose a story set somewhere other than in the country I was selecting it to represent. This was particularly true in the case of states where freedom of expression is limited and most of those who write have been forced to flee.

Eritrea is a prime example. Although North Korea is frequently described as the home of the world’s most oppressive regime, the north-east African nation often ranks below it for freedom of expression. The iron-fisted government control in this one-party nation, where all media is owned by the state, means that anyone who wishes to express an independent opinion must either suffer or leave.

As a result, when I came to look for a book by an Eritrean writer, I knew it was likely to be by someone no longer living there. This proved to be the case: the novel I chose was by Eritrean-born Sulaiman Addonia, who has spent most of his life outside the nation. It was called The Consequences of Love and was set in Saudi Arabia.

While I’m sure the oppressive atmosphere Addonia conjures around the illicit love affair at the heart of his novel owes something to the fear that his family must have known in their country of origin, the choice meant that the specifics of life inside Eritrea remained a mystery to me. So when I was contacted by a publicist to ask if I would be interested in reading ‘an immigrant’s story from war-torn Eritrea to asylum in the US’, I was intrigued. Within a few weeks, a copy of Gratitude in Low Voices by Dawit Gebremichael Habte had landed on my doormat.

As its title suggests, Habte’s is a success story. Having escaped to Kenya as a teenager in 1989, the young man made his way to the US. There by dint of hard work and extraordinary determination he carved out a life for himself, eventually receiving support from Michael Bloomberg to develop a software and training programme to benefit his compatriots.

Habte’s life has been a mixed one and his book reflects this. Part memoir, part treatise, part self-help volume, with a goodly amount of historical detail, political argument and philosophical musings thrown in, this is an unusual work.

For readers like me, its most interesting sections come in the first half, where Habte writes clearly and warmly about life in his homeland. He shares many insights. We learn, for example, about naming conventions among the Tigrinya-speaking population, for whom surnames don’t exist but who have the tradition of giving each child a new name and then the father’s first name from every known preceding generation, leading to official names that can stretch over numerous lines.

I particularly enjoyed his description of his time reading at the British Council Library in Asmara. Here was another writer inspired by reading stories from elsewhere. Indeed, Habte’s account of the influence of British stories and games on his thinking is a powerful testament to what books can do, as well as an echo of some of the sentiments other African writers raised on European fiction (perhaps most notably Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) have expressed:

‘Thanks to the British version of the Monopoly board game and the books of Charles Dickens (Oliver TwistDavid CopperfieldA Christmas Carol…), we made London our virtual vacation home. We basically were strolling through the streets of London without actually setting foot at Heathrow Airport. It is at this point that we started to live locally but think globally.’

Habte’s explanations of the political and historical context of the situation facing Eritrea in the last few decades are clear and damning – if occasionally a little roughly shoehorned into the narrative. Through his eyes, we see how the nation has been failed by the international community, which has repeatedly allowed greed, oil deals and wider political considerations to come before the interests of the people in the region.

Yet the writer is not bitter. Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of the book is Habte’s unfailingly positive attitude to the challenges he confronts. In the face of huge difficulty, he does not look for help from others but relies on his own ingenuity, meeting prejudice and selfishness with compassion (as he does when he crosses paths with the people smuggler who betrayed him) and humour (fabricating an outlandish account of life back home to scandalise a group of ignorant high-school girls).

At times, the gratitude of the title can become a little wearing. Habte makes no secret of the fact that the book is intended at least partly as a thank you to the many ‘angels without wings’ who helped him on his way. His earnestness is touching, but the repeated, dutiful digressions to give accounts of the lives of people who were kind to him get rather exhausting.

The narrative is patchy too and could have done with tighter editing. And I’m sure I won’t be the only one to find the final third, in which Habte recounts his progression through various US educational institutions, dull in comparison to what goes before (although the accounts of the lengths he went to to fund and sustain his education are often inspiring).

And yet this remains an important book. It is an insight into a nation that is little represented in the minds of many people, as well as a powerful portrayal of the experience of being an immigrant. As such, it provides a sound riposte to anyone who thinks people leave their homelands and everything they know to travel across the globe and start from scratch lightly.

Those looking for masterful writing won’t find it here. But those looking for passion and a fresh perspective undoubtedly will.

Gratitude in Low Voices: A Memoir by Dawit Gebremichael Habte (RosettaBooks, 2017)

Farewell to the shelf

 

A week ago, almost five years after I first asked book lovers to help me read the world, I packed up the bookshelf that stored all the paper volumes I accumulated during the project. It was still arranged almost exactly as it had been when I finished my quest on December 31, 2012.

Yet last Friday everything from the massive hardback photobiography of Grace Kelly that I read for Monaco to the printout of ‘To Forgive Is Divine Not Human’, the story that Julia Duany wrote and read for me to represent her nation South Sudan, went into boxes.

I was moving out of the little south London flat in which I read the world and where, huddled at my desk in the corner, watching bin men and delivery lorries come and go out of the window, I wrote two books: Reading the World (known as The World Between Two Covers in the US) and my first novel Beside Myself.

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Packing up is a strange thing. You encounter objects that you haven’t looked at or noticed properly for a long time.

Picking up each of those books and loading them into boxes – it took four and, as you can see from the pictures, James Joyce proved particularly problematic (plus ça change) – was a touching, joyful and meditative experience.

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Handling the volumes brought to mind many of the stories of what people did to help me in my quest. Ripples and Other Stories recalled for me the generosity of Rafidah in Kuala Lumpur, who chose and posted it to me from the other side of the world; the striking black cover of Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta made me think of the afternoon I spent discussing author Aglaja Veteranyi’s extraordinary life and tragic death with her former partner Jens Nielsen (a conversation recorded in Reading the World).

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I remembered the many generous people who sent me unpublished manuscripts and self-published works, as well as the team of volunteers who translated a short-story collection so that I would have a book to read from São Tomé & Principe.

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I also found other things. Buried in a stack of notebooks that had languished on top of the bookcase long before the AYORTW shelf took shape, I found scraps of a diary from early 2009.

It was not a happy time for me. Having given up my job with the ambition of earning my living purely from writing and editing, I was feeling lost and very doubtful of my ability to achieve my goal. In one entry, I wrote:

A feeling of real depression, uselessness, worthlessness and rubbishness. Have I been here before? I’m not sure to this extent. I feel a fraud. Always a fraud. What can I write? I’ve spent a year twiddling with ideas, churning out words, some of which are half-decent but none of which go anywhere. […] I need to get myself out of this, prove I can do it. […] Sit down at the computer and go on through. This is getting to life and death now. Honesty, that is the key. To write something honest and fearless. […] Sit down tomorrow, brainstorm and write. Not be afraid that the chain of words will break.

 

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At the time, I couldn’t have guessed that the chain of words that would ultimately pull me out of that funk would be written not by me, but by hundreds of strangers around the world.

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It’s taken a few days, but at last I am relatively well-established in the place that will be my home for the next few months. For the first time in my life, I have my own writing room.

The AYORTW books have their own temporary shelf too. It’s rather ramshackle and constructed mostly out of packing boxes, but it has managed to stand up for 24 hours. Arranged in a different order (just imagine the exciting conversations they must be having with their new neighbours), they are staring out at me now.

They will watch as I continue with my next project, another novel. If ever the writing process gets difficult, inspiration will be close at hand.

Book of the month: Roland Rugero

 

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It’s always a joy to hear of new publications of works from countries that have little or no commercially available literature in English translation.

The east African nation of Burundi is a prime example. Back during my project to read a book from every country in the world in a year, I could find no fiction translated from either French or Kirundi, the nation’s two official languages at the time (English was made an official language in 2014). In the end, I was indebted to the Burundian academic Marie-Thérèse Toyi, who generously couriered me a copy of her self-published English-language work Weep Not, Refugee so that I could read a novel from her homeland.

Until this month, that book was the only fiction I had read from Burundi. But now, thanks to a new publication brought out by Phoneme Media, that has changed.

Christopher Schaefer’s translation of Roland Rugero’s second novel Baho! is, according to its publisher, the first full-length work of fiction by a Burundian author to be translated into English. Certainly my research supports this claim (although I’d love to hear from you if you know differently). As such, the book is something of a landmark and another welcome step in the much-needed drive to bring more Francophone African literature into the world’s most-published language.

The novel centres around a misunderstanding in a fictional rural region, called Kanya. When mute teenager Nyamuragi’s attempts to ask directions are misunderstood as an attempt to rape a local girl, his community is thrown into uproar. As feelings spill over into a desire for mob justice, the fragile peace of the area is shattered, revealing the fault lines left by the nation’s recent traumatic past.

This is a striking and surprising book. With snatches of story and backstory told from diverse perspectives, as well as numerous digressions on big questions such as the purpose of art and how the fact that Kirundi has the same word for ‘tomorrow’ and ‘yesterday’ may elucidate the characters’ relationship with time, the book bristles with insights into the culture in which it is set. I was particularly struck by a passage that explores how the violent events of the recent past have ruptured and warped the language, making people reach for ever more outrageous things to swear by because ‘with all this death among us, […] speech has become divided, multiplied, and fragmented. Its unity has been irreparably shattered. So we no longer believe in the curse or the consequences it invokes.’

There is a directness and freshness to some of the writing, which reminds me of certain passages of Weep Not, Refugee in which Toyi, much like Rugero, seems to reach from the text to grab readers by the shoulders and make us listen. Although the 1993 genocide is not much mentioned and, as Schaefer points out in his ‘Translator’s Note’, the words ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’ appear only once in the book, the sense that trauma has remoulded society underpins each page. We see it in the way people’s judgment is ‘clouded by the violence’ and ‘the obsessive fear of rape has haunted this country’s women’.

Other historical influences pervade the text too. We see the fusion of colonial and indigenous culture in the way Rugero weaves and sometimes smashes together the French literary tradition, Biblical references, and Burundian oral tales and proverbs. Kirundi peppers the text and numerous passages reveal an inventive approach to structure and narrative – an example being the chapter at the market, which is told purely in unattributed dialogue, so that it seems that we as readers are standing in the press of the crowd, able only to make out a series of disembodied shouts and comments.

That said, not all of the book is successful. Even taking into account the author’s assertion to Schaefer that he has deliberately mimicked the Burundian oral tradition of shifting perspectives and the trait of sometimes overwhelming listeners with contradictory information in conversation, the narrative makes for a patchy and sometimes frustrating read.  Although some of the imagery is arresting, there are a number of odd descriptions and awkward word choices (whether Rugero’s or Schaefer’s) that obscure and muddy the sense. A number of sentences are so cluttered with adjectives that it feels like trying to pick your way through an obstacle course. The ending is also a little bald.

But perhaps much of this is fitting in a novel that centres around a misunderstanding, in which communication is examined and found wanting. In testing the limits of the novel form with the weight of structures it does not often bear, Rugero is doing important work – and it is inevitable that there will be a few creaks and cracks along the way.

Problems aside, there is no question that this book is a welcome addition to the English-language world. By virtue of its very existence, it opens the way for the creation and dissemination of more stories from regions and communities that are too often overlooked. As I know from my conversations with writers like Marie-Thérèse Toyi , the mere existence of books by a compatriot can give an aspiring storyteller courage to try to express themselves in words. May there soon be many more.

Baho! by Roland Rugero, translated from the French by Christopher Schaefer (Phoneme Media, 2016)

Messages from authors


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One of the great things to have come out of this project is the fact that I have been in touch with many of the authors of the works I have read during and since 2012. Some of these people, like Juan David Morgan (whose novel, The Golden Horse, I picked for Panama) and Ak Welsapar (whose Tale of Aypi was my read from Turkmenistan), sent me unpublished translations of books not available to buy in English.

Others, including Marie-Thérèse Toyi (Burundi), Hamid Ismailov (Uzbekistan) and Cecil Browne (St Vincent and the Grenadines), were gracious enough to allow me to interview them at length for Reading the World, the book I wrote to explore some of the bigger themes and stories behind this quest.

In a number of cases, these contacts have led to lengthy correspondences and friendships. Pictured above is a collection of postcards showing the artwork of Honduran writer Guillermo Yuscarán. He posted these to me after I wrote about his short-story collection, Points of Light, along with a letter telling me that if I ever wanted to visit him, all I needed to do was get the bus to his town and ask for ‘El gringo Yuscarán’.

As time has gone by, the dynamic has shifted slightly. Whereas I contacted most of the people above during or shortly after my project, in the years that have followed more and more authors have found their way to me. Often, they do this by leaving comments on the posts about their books. For example, Barbadian author Glenville Lovell popped up with the following: ‘Wow! Thank you! I think I’m going to read my novel again.’

Then there was this from the writer of Kenya, Will You Marry Me?: ‘Philo Ikonya the author here, i saw this review months after it was published. Time flies… I enjoyed it and the fact that this project found my book! No greater thing than feedback! Thank you. :-).’

Luís Cardoso from East Timor left a note in his native Portuguese: ‘Ann, gostei imenso da tua apreciação. Muito obrigado. Eu sou o autor.
Luis Cardoso.’

And Olinda Beja (whose short-story collection A casa do pastor was translated by nine volunteers especially for this project so that I could read something from the tiny island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe) contacted me to tell me about a new volume of tales set in her birthplace.

There have also been some touching interactions with people connected to the authors of many of the books I’ve read. As recorded in Reading the World, I spent a moving hour sharing a drink with Jens Nielsen, the former partner of Swiss author Aglaja Veteranyi, who drowned in Lake Zurich in 2002. Unfailingly open and generous, Nielsen told me about their extraordinary relationship, the trauma of Veteranyi’s depression and suicide, and the work he has done as executor of her estate. Once Reading the World was published, he even arranged for a copy to be deposited in Veteranyi’s collection of work in the Swiss National Archive, where my writing will stay alongside hers for at least the next 300 years.

Now and then, comments from authors’ and translators’ friends and acquaintances pop up on this blog too. I was delighted with the following message from Ahmed in response to my Maldivian read: ‘Hi, Ms Morgan, I am from the tiny islands of Maldives. You chose one of the best books to read about our beliefs, culture and lifestyle. Just now informed Mr. Abdulla Sadiq of your choice. He was delighted. What a great idea!’

And this note from the tiny island of Vanuatu, left under my post on Sethy John Regenvanu’s wonderfully exuberant memoir Laef Blong Mi, made me smile: ‘He’s still as young as ever.’

Given that it’s now more than three years since I officially stopped reading the world (although I continue to read widely and select one book to review here each month), I had assumed that these comments had probably come to an end. It turns out I was wrong. A couple of weeks ago, the following message was left by author Sarah Mkhonza under my post on Weeding the Flowerbeds, my pick from Swaziland:

Thanks for the review. The school and mission were celebrating 100 years and I felt compelled to write about their contribution to our lives. I am grateful that you were able to give the book an honest review. I never really thought it would be read beyond Swaziland and the mission. Most of the teachers have passed away. It makes more sense to have written something about their contribution to our lives I am grateful that you were able to have something to read on a country which is struggling to create writers and give the people a voice. Political parties are still banned and journalists are still being imprisoned. Thanks for mentioning some of these facts in the review.

Nearly four years after this project began, its ripples continue to spread.

Death of a Thousand Cuts

 

Rewriting and editing are often two of the biggest challenges for would-be authors. They certainly were for me. During the many years I spent trying (and failing) to write a novel, I struggled with how to get my manuscripts into publishable shape.

I could discipline myself to get up early, sit at my desk and churn out a certain number of words each day. But once I had those words, I was at a bit of a loss as to how make them better.

I know from discussions with many authors all over the world that I’m not alone in this. Whatever language you write in, it can take years to discover the process by which you hone and craft a raw splurge of text into a story that someone else might want to read.

This is one of the reasons that I’ve long been a fan of the blog and now podcast ‘Death of a Thousand Cuts’ by poet, author and musician, Tim Clare. Tim and I studied on the UEA creative writing master’s course together in the early 2000s and his first novel, The Honours, was published to great acclaim in 2015.

Some years before this, Tim spent time working for a literary consultancy (one of those companies that provides editorial feedback on manuscripts). In the blog and podcast, he uses the editorial skills he sharpened doing this and through working on his own writing to critique the first page of an unpublished novel sent to him by an aspiring wordsmith.

What I particularly like about Tim’s approach is that while he pulls no punches – and his comments about manuscripts’ weaknesses are often extremely funny – he is always kind. His blog is not about ripping someone’s work to shreds but about showing them (and everyone else reading or listening in) how to make it better. As a result, his posts are not only entertaining, but also full of valuable insights for writers of all levels of experience.

So when Tim mentioned that he would be inviting some authors to guest host ‘Death of a Thousand Cuts’ with him, I lost no time in raising my hand. A few weeks ago, we met in a studio in central London to record ourselves discussing two opening pages. You can hear what we made of the first submission through the SoundCloud link above.

And in case you want to see the extract we’re discussing, here it is:

Clear (by Dan)

They don’t even have magazines any more, just pamphlets smeared with filth. I can smell the mother with wide, sun-cracked shoulders, fat kid lolling in her arm pit. Girl next to me looks vegan, pale and pointy. No smell.

My jeans haven’t dried properly and I smell like a banana.

I try to pull into myself, tighter and tighter, but I bend back to shape like a coat hanger. Another fat mum, pushchair too big. Not regular either: tubes, pipes, a machine for God’s sake. Baby seems chirpy though, gurgling into its raw pink chin. Try to look normal.

I’ve been rehearsing my script. I can’t tell them what it is and admit I’ve been googling gloopy wreckages of flesh since 4am. Last week it was Impetigo, so she said. But it’s…

Tom Creckan, room 6

Polite knock. He actually gets up and meets me at the door. Normally just a sullen clack of the keyboard, whiff of mint. New and keen. And clean. Creamy hand-soap hand-shake. Hint of acne himself if you peer close enough, gnawing at the corners. No hair gel/wax/crème, just a breezy morning fluff. Shirt well ironed. This man is a fucking morning.

I start my tale. Just throw it right in.

‘I get these cold sores.’

He stares, unflinching, bobbing my reflection in his spectacles.

‘Last week…your colleague said it was Impetigo…I mean, not that I’d question…but…’

He’s about to stop me. Smother me, politely, with a creamy palm.

Giving books away

 

One of the most common queries I get is whether I can share e-versions of the books from my year of reading the world for free.

This question always provokes mixed emotions in me. I can well understand the excitement and eagerness that prompt it. The idea of broadening your horizons through reading is thrilling. When you realise how much world there is out there and that books could enable you to explore it, you can feel as though a whole new reality has opened up to you (as I did when I put an appeal out to the planet’s bibliophiles to help me read the world one rainy evening in October 2011). You’re impatient to get started and if someone can send you files that can speed you on that journey, why wouldn’t you want to jump at the chance?

The problem for me is that, in their excitement, these would-be literary adventurers often don’t realise that what they are effectively asking for is pirated copies of books. If I were to scan and make available e-versions of the books I read, the writers, translators and publishers behind them would not receive any money.

This would not only be unfair but also, cumulatively, could be very damaging. If I were giving away unlimited free versions of books, it would make those titles less likely to be kept in print and available for commercial sale (and it would make anglophone publishing deals very unlikely for those titles that are not yet published in English). Over time, it could further reinforce the economic imbalance which sees English-language writers like me much more widely published than those writing in other languages (and consequently much more likely to be able to live off writing – although, according to a 2015 survey, only around 10 per cent of UK authors do so).

But the mixed feelings don’t stop there because, while I’m very conscious of the financial challenges facing writers in many parts of the world, I’m also aware of the economic difficulties facing a lot of readers. I’m lucky that I’m able to afford to buy the books that intrigue me. My year of reading the world wasn’t cheap (it cost me several thousand pounds – perhaps a little more than a month’s salary at the time – to track down all those books, several of which were quite rare), but it wasn’t impossible. These days – rare books aside – most of the titles I buy cost less than £15, a small fraction of my weekly income.

That is not the case for readers in many parts of the world. Even though cheap e-books for smartphones are making much more literature available to people in a large number of the world’s poorest countries, the cost of physical books relative to income is still prohibitive. When I interviewed Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov for my book, Reading the World, he told me that translated books in the unofficial markets in Tashkent during the Soviet era often used to sell for about the same money as he made in an entire month. In other words, it cost Ismailov proportionally the same amount to buy one translation as it cost me to read the whole world.

So, although I do not share versions of the books I read during my project (except the titles like my Maldivian read, which the creator has chosen to put online), I am always very glad to hear about and support initiatives that make literature freely available to others. These include Chinese translator collective Paper Republic’s excellent project to put one English translation of a short story by a Chinese author online each week ‘for readers who wonder what new Chinese fiction in English translation has to offer and would like to dip a toe in the water’, as their website says.

As a result, I was delighted to hear recently from a group of students in Mexicali, Mexico, near the US border. Inspired by hearing about a year of reading the world, they decided to do something to help people in their community who might not be able to get hold of many books. They collected  a load of secondhand titles and created El Librero Communitario, a community bookshelf giving away books for free. The film above shows what happened when they took the bookshelf to a bus stop in town.

The project has been such a success that the students are looking for more donations, so if you have some books you no longer need, why not contact them through their Facebook page? I’m sure there are many readers who would appreciate it.