#WITMonth: Socorro Acioli

I’m sticking predominantly to Brazilian women writers this month, as the Women in Translation Month coincides with my Brazilians in August. The first of the authors is new to me. Socorro Acioli writes mainly children’s (or YA) literature, and this book The Head of the Saint, translated by Daniel Hahn, illustrated by Alexis Snell and published by Hot Key Books, seems to be targeted at the YA market. This does surprise me somewhat – although I know YA readers can be quite sophisticated, the subject matter here (all about poverty and corruption, religion as the opium of the masses, marriage and gender expectations) does not seem to hold much appeal for that kind of audience. It’s the first of Acioli’s books to be translated into English, and the reason that they were brave enough to do it has perhaps something to do with the fact that she developed the story for it while attending a writers workshop hosted by Gabriel Garcia Marquez some years ago.

Samuel is a young orphan, with ‘a thin, hungry body, almost a shadow’. He has been walking for days, ten hours a day, barefoot, nearly starving, because he has promised his recently deceased mother to go the town she originally came from, find his grandmother and father, and light a candle at the feet of the town’s patron saint. [There is a fashion in Brazil for giant statues on hills outside towns, like the statue of Christ in Rio.]

This is St Francis rather than St Anthony, and in a different location, but it gives you an idea of what we are talking about.

The problem is that when he reaches the god-forsaken town of Candeia, his grandmother chases him away, the giant statue of St Anthony has lost its head and the town appears all but abandoned, because the saint is believed to be cursed.

Samuel finds shelter from a thunderstorm in the head of the saint, which has rolled down to the bottom of the hill (although we will soon find out, in a very funny story, that it had not ‘fallen off’ but was a construction error and never made it to the top of the statue in the first place). He is bitten by dogs and unable to move for a while, so he believes he is starting to hallucinate when he hears voices singing and praying.

It turns out that a small group of women do still believe that St Anthony can help them to find their true love and get married. Samuel and a boy from town whom he befriends, Francisco, set out to make those prayers come true. Lo and behold, they get more and more requests, the saint’s reputation is transformed and Candeia starts to come alive again. This continues even when it’s discovered that Samuel was the person behind the ‘miracles’ (although some of the miracles are never fully explained, they just seem to happen as people start feeling more positive about things).

There is more to the story: Samuel finding out about his family background, and his quest to find the mysterious voice who fills his ears with a dream-like song in a language he doesn’t fully understand. There are funny moments – the origin of the name Madeinusa, for example – and poignant ones: families abandoned, men cheating, corrupt mayors, hired men to beat up people. Yet through it all, Samuel holds steadfast to the promise he made to his dying mother.

The book is described as ‘charming and heart-warming’, and it does have some similarities with Jorge Amado’s depiction of life – cheerful and energetic, despite the deep social inequalities. There is also something of the practical, straight-talking characters from Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series there. But, as with nearly all Brazilian literature I’ve encountered, magic and dreams and surreal situations are only a heartbeat away.

Happy Birthday, Asymptote Book Club!

It’s been one year since a minuscule team of volunteers operating on a shoestring budget launched the Asymptote Book Club and what an adventurous journey around the world it has been! Although we are sometimes at the mercy of publishers’ schedules and catalogues, we’ve made a deliberate effort to be as diverse as possible: 12 countries, 12 languages, 7 men and 5 women. 

But it’s about more than just ticking the boxes. Our editors have made a real effort to find not just high-quality literature and sterling translations, but also works which make us ponder, debate, and want to explore more about a particular author or country. And they have a pretty good eye for winners: two of our selections were English Pen Translates Award winners and another two were shortlisted for the inaugural National Book Award Prize for Translated Fiction in the US.

Then there are all of the unseen skirmishes behind the scenes with late arrivals from abroad, postal delays because of snow or holidays, sudden changes in publishing dates… Still, it has been a labour of love and a venture that I’m very proud to be associated with.

And the excellent, superb, phenomenal news is that we are doing a ‘counter-Brexit’, i.e. we are expanding into the EU! In other words, as of immediately, you can subscribe to the Book Club if you have an address in the EU (previously, it was only open for the US and UK).

I have to admit I’ve not managed to read all of the books, as review demands and other reading challenges came in. The three early summer titles are a blur: Brother In Ice by Alicia Kopf, transl. Mara Faye Lethem; The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge, transl. Nicky Harman and Revenge of the Translator by Brice Matthieussent, transl. Emma Ramadan, but I look forward to exploring all of them in the near future.

Of the ones that I did read, each one has meant something special to me.

December 2017: The Lime Tree by César Aira, transl. Chris Andrews – got me started on a love affair with this Argentinian writer 

January 2018: Aranyak by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, transl. Rimli Bhattacharya – the dark Bengali horse which most surprised me and which I still find myself thinking about

February: Love by Hanne Ørstavik, transl. Martin Aitken – this short Norwegian novella was the most emotionally wrecking, had me on tenterhooks

March: Trick by Domenico Starnone, transl. Jhumpa Lahiri – the cleverest in its blend of everyday minutiae and intertextuality

July: The Tidings of the Trees by Wolfgang Hilbig, transl. Isabel Fargo Cole – the most personally relatable and relevant

August: I Didn’t Talk by Beatriz Bracher, transl. Adam Morris – the most interesting from the political point of view, can see it becoming a talking point now and in the future, with Brazil descending once more into totalitarianism

September: Moving Parts by Prabda Yun, transl. Mui Poopoksakul – the boldest choice, the funniest and most experimental and also most blatantly contemporary

October: Like a Sword Wound by Ahmet Altan, transl. Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi – the most ‘moreish’ – really got swept up in the family saga, the political intrigues and historical period

November: The Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodrožić, transl. Ellen Elias-Bursać – have just started this one, which I expect will be very emotionally resonant with me, as one of my best friends lived through that terrible period in Yugoslavia (with a Serb mother and a Croat father)

We had our first ever Book Club meeting in London on Thursday evening and we couldn’t quite agree on an overall favourite. Do I have a personal one? I think each one gave me something different to love and I simply cannot pick between them. But if you were to twist my arm, I might have to choose Hanne Ørstavik and Ivana Bodrožić.

I cannot wait to see where the second year of our travels will take us. If you want to join us in our exploration of world literature, you can find all the details about the Book Club and how to subscribe here.

Favourite Translated Books of the Year 2017

I am trying to find an alternative to the ‘Top 10 Reads’ of the year, mainly because I find it difficult to stick to such a small number. So this year I will be listing some of my favourites by categories (although not giving them awards, like Fiction Fan does so wittily) – and I won’t even stick to numbers divisible by five. I am not counting any of the books I read in the original languages – those will form a separate category. Interesting sidenote (and perhaps not coincidental): only one of the books below was on my Kindle rather than in paper format. Perhaps those read electronically don’t stick as well to my mind?

 

A rather dashing young Miklos Banffy.

Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted (transl. Katalin Bánffy-Jelen & Patrick Thursfield)

The last book in translation but one of the most memorable of the whole year. It took me a while to get going with it. I had a number of false starts, i.e. I’d pick it up, put it down after a few pages and then not read it for a couple of weeks, by which point I had forgotten all the complicated names. But if you give it your full attention, it is the beginning of a wonderful historical saga that gives you a real insight into a certain place and time.

Ariana Harwicz: Die, My Love (transl. Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff)

Short and punchy, knocking you out with its breathless verve and barely concealed fury, this story of a woman feeling completely out-of-place in her life and suffering from some kind of trauma or depression will leave you reeling.

 

The instantly recognisable silhouette of Pessoa.

Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet (transl. Richard Zenith)

A diary or essay with so much to say about the human condition in general and the creative artist in particular that I know I will be reading it for the rest of my life.

Svetlana Alexievich: The Unwomanly Face of War (transl. Pevear & Volokhonsky)

Possibly my favourite non-fiction book of the year and one that I have been recommending to everyone, including my Russian friends. It also makes an appearance on Shiny New Books on my behalf.

Antti Tuomainen:  The Man Who Died (transl. David Hackston)

My favourite translated crime fiction read of the year, it has almost slapstick situations, a lot of black comedy but also a sad inner core about a dying man losing all his illusions about the people around him.

 

A rather cheeky chappy, this Bohumil Hrabal…

Bohumil Hrabal: Closely Observed Trains (transl. Edith Pargeter)

Another example of broad farce interspersed with real depth and tragedy, with surreal flights of fancy.

Ricarda Huch: The Last Summer (transl. Jamie Bulloch)

I loved the naive ideology of the privileged vs. the uncompromising voices of the oppressed who are resorting to violence – an endless debate even nowadays.

Seven favourites out of the 36 books in translation that I read over the course of 2017 (a total of 130 books read so far). So less than a third in translation (although this number would go up to about 60, so nearly half, if I added the books in other languages). What is a bit shameful is that my reading is so Eurocentric, although this might have something to do with my #EU27Project, which I  have been engaged in somewhat haphazardly this year. My only consolation is that I seem to have done a better job of it and been slightly more prepared than those negotiating Brexit…

However, in 2018, I hope that my translated fiction horizons will be broadened by my subscription to the Asymptote Book Club, about which many of you will have heard me chirruping, tweeting and even shouting! The very first title is still a top secret and I will keep my mouth firmly zipped up, but I will give you small clue: it is not European.

A good quartet [or a good book] is like a good conversation among friends interacting to each other’s ideas. (Stan Getz)