Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Writers you haven't heard of but you must read...

Lost in translation

Awarding the international Man Booker prize this week to the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare (who?), the critic John Carey complained that foreign literature is 'neglected' in Britain. Is it? We asked some experts to select 10 overseas writers we should be reading

Wednesday June 29, 2005
The Guardian

Harry Mulisch

The author of more than 30 novels, the Dutch writer Harry Mulisch has also published poetry, plays, criticism and reportage, including an eyewitness account of the Eichmann trial. Born in 1927, he published his first novella at the age of 20, but hardly any of his work was translated into English until the 1980s. His best book is probably The Assault, a brilliant examination of Holland's torturous history under Nazi occupation. Drawing on his own background - Jewish mother, Austrian father - this utterly gripping novel traces the effects of a wartime atrocity, following lines of guilt and responsibility through the postwar decades.

The Assault gave Mulisch a sudden flare of exposure when the film adaptation won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1987, but it didn't turn him into a household name. His novels are profound, thoughtful and more interested in ideas than characters - which may be why he has failed to reach an English-reading audience. But if he finally wins the Nobel prize - for which he is regularly tipped - perhaps that will change.

Josh Lacey, novelist and critic

Stefan Heym

The fiction of this irascible, intellectual German writer, who died in 2001, has long been out of print, even where it has actually been translated. "Stefan Heym" was the nom de plume of Helmut Flieg, a Jewish exile from nazism whose family was murdered in Auschwitz. He fought in the US army and wrote a compelling war novel, Crusaders (1948), before reacting to McCarthyism by abandoning the US for East Germany. Here he became a dissident journalist and wrote two novels, banned for their political content.

Heym's best fiction was of a rare kind: satirical and allegorical. Particularly successful is The King David Report (1972), in which bloody Old Testament stories are given a witty modern significance. Narrated by Ethan, a scribe commissioned by King Solomon to write an official history of King David, it is a story of politics in a totalitarian society, ruled by the righteous. The Wandering Jew similarly makes satirical use of religious stories, as Ahasverus (the Wandering Jew, cursed for denying Christ a resting place as he carried his cross to Calvary) roams through time, arguing with Martin Luther and a Marxist East German professor. Very un-English.

John Mullan, senior lecturer in English literature, University College London

Cees Nooteboom

Born in 1933 in The Hague, the Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom has built a solid reputation as a travel writer, most successfully with a book of essays about Spain, Roads to Santiago. Mingling philosophy, poetry, criticism and description, the book is an elegant pilgrimage through Spanish art and history. But Nooteboom reserves his most fascinating work for his novels, eight of which have now been translated into English. His prose is precise and spare; his characters are rootless, thoughtful and very modern; his plots are playful and deliberately odd. In The Following Story, for instance, the narrator wakes up in a hotel room in Lisbon, having gone to bed the previous evening in his home in Amsterdam. Gradually, he realises that he occupied the same room 20 years ago, during a liaison with the wife of his best friend.

Perhaps this playfulness has prevented Nooteboom becoming better-known in English translation. It's a pity: sophisticated, witty and rarely much longer than 100 pages, each of his small, complex novels has the condensed strength of the best work by Borges or Calvino.

Josh Lacey

Marcel Benabou

In 1986, the Moroccan-born Marcel Benabou published a book called Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, which proposes to explain why he has not yet got started as a writer, and which spends its pages trying to get him started and failing throughout. But then, he is the sort of writer who likes to try out the notion that the book in your hands that has his name on it is neither a book nor his, and, having made a fairly convincing case (while at the same time anticipating your objections), commiserate with you at the paradox he's created. Since then, Benabou has written three more that have been translated into English, including Throw Out This Book Before It's Too Late, the readerly companion to the writerly Why I Have Not Written. He's a writer of a terribly playful sort of provocation, who, like all the greatest artists, is willing to let you go if you will: "But perhaps it is now you, reader, who, buffeted by all these possibilities, tired of these manoeuvres that have you stamping with impatience at the threshold of this work, have one and for all lost your desire to know more about it. In that case, too bad."

Dan Halpern, writer and critic

Halldor Laxness

If literature is a world map on which, in TS Eliot's words, "all time is eternally present", the novels of the Icelander Halldor Laxness are landmarks as significant as the sagas that cast their oppressively magnificent shadow over Icelandic story telling for 800 years. In the 1920s Laxness, with The Great Weaver of Kashmir, began to lead the Icelandic novel out from that shadow. As first a Catholic convert and then, after visiting America in an attempt to make films, as a socialist, he welded saga and external influences together in fiction that casts an otherworldly spell at the same time as presenting humanity's this-worldly problems in the harshest light.

The first of his books to read is the marvellous The Fish Can Sing (Brekkukotsannall), the story of a boy, Alfgrimur, abandoned to the care of his grandparents on the outskirts of Reykjavik. Read, too, his parable of ambition, Independent People, and his 1948 satire Atom Station, and you'll understand that here is a novelist of world stature.

Julian Evans, writer on European literature

Juan Goytisolo

Exiled from Franco's Spain and still living in Marrakech, Juan Goytisolo is Spain's greatest living writer, and its most scathing iconoclast. His milestone Marks of Identity trilogy (1966-75), which began with an exile returning to Barcelona after the civil war, skewered political tyranny and Catholic repression to reclaim Spain's long-buried Moorish and Jewish heritages. His bisexuality (explored in his masterpiece memoirs of the 1980s, Forbidden Territory and Realms of Strife), spurred his rejection of the church and Spain's obsession with cultural "purity". The Spanish civil war - in which his mother was killed - haunts his fiction, whether he uses it to evoke Lorca's links with the Arab world (The Garden of Secrets, 1997) or the bombardment of Sarajevo and Baghdad (State of Siege, 1995).

At 74, Goytisolo is still passionate about Islamic culture (see his essays on the Muslim Mediterranean, Cinema Eden, 2003), and invaluable in his long view of the Muslim world's ties with Europe. As he once told me, when Catalan was forbidden: "I realised that to have two languages and cultures is better than one; three better than two. You should always add, not subtract."

Maya Jaggi, journalist and critic

Jaan Kross

Jaan Kross, now 85, was deported with countless other Estonians to Siberia in 1946 and spent eight years in the gulag. When his first novel to appear in English, The Czar's Madman, was published in 1992 by Harvill, it seemed a remote candidate for greatness. It is the story of a Baltic German baron, Timo von Bock, who in the 1820s commits political suicide by telling Tsar Alexander I exactly what is wrong with his empire. Yet entering Kross's historical world you found an allegorical tale of sumptuous readability.

Kross's latest novel in English, Treading Air, deals with the 20th century, but is no less slow-burning and exhilarating. Most of Kross's work is historical and he has said that he has always believed that "somewhere, history is preserved". The truth is that he is its preserver, a punctilious and playful chronicler of magisterial conviction and power.

Julian Evans

Marie Darrieussecq

Some novels are enjoyable exactly because you can see what sources they have exploited. Marie Darrieussecq's first book, Pig Tales (1998), is clearly a version of Kafka's The Metamorphosis for a later age. Appearing in France in 1996 under the more subtle title Truismes, it is the first-person narrative of a young woman working in a massage parlour who is slowly turning into a pig. She writes in "piggle-squiggles". "I know how this story might upset people," she begins, but her parable of our beastly fleshiness - via Greek myth and George Orwell - is chastely, if chillingly, told.

Written when Darrieussecq was in her late 20s, Pig Tales made her a star in France, though Anglophone reviewers flinched from it. She has since published four more novels, perhaps too rapidly, each one with some odd, inventive frame for the narrative. The literary influences can be deadening, but where she is peculiar she is intriguing. Her latest, White, sets two oblivion-loving strangers down in the Antarctic and then lets their memories creep up on them. Properly étrange .

John Mullan

Shen Congwen

His bittersweet, nostalgic tales of his southern Chinese homeland, pulled apart by civil war and revolution in the early 20th century, deserve to be much more widely read. (Some are translated by Jeffrey Kinkley, including Imperfect Paradise, University of Hawaii Press, 1995.) Born in 1902 in Hunan, in southern China, Shen joined the army in 1918, and spent the next few years of his life gathering the raw material that he later worked and reworked, through ever more ambivalent eyes, into the short stories and novellas that he produced in Beijing between the 1920s and 1940s: the execution of modern revolutionaries by confused old traditionalists; harsh village morality; rural love affairs that smoulder beyond the grave; fathers lost in war to their unknowing families.

Although he stayed in mainland China after the communist revolution of 1949, the ambivalent nostalgia towards rural China's traditional past expressed in his fiction, and the elliptical elegance of his language, branded him as out of step with Mao's proletarian literary prescriptions and fulminations against the evils of "old" (pre-1949) China. He more or less stopped writing fiction after the communist takeover, before being enthusiastically rediscovered by the first generation of writers to break with Mao-style socialist realism in the 1980s.

Julia Lovell, translator and writer

Dubravka Ugresic

As a novelist, Dubravka Ugresic displays the eerie genius for detail that can be found in her essays The Culture of Lies (1998) and Thank You For Not Reading, published last year. Once negligible facts or events suddenly reveal themselves as central to the tragedy - an element of the Balkan catastrophe familiar to anyone who witnessed it (Ugresic is Croatian, but prefers not to be identified as a "Croatian novelist"). In Ugresic's novel The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, a photo album is the one object the narrator cannot bear to part with; in her forthcoming novel The Ministry of Pain a class of refugee literature students constructs a shrine to familiar objects from "home". These connections, pathetic and all-important, are the foundations of identity and home, of their construction and their loss. If fiction is to build bridges, it must surely communicate that whatever identity we may have is composed not merely of ourselves but of the otherness of others. Few novelists succeed more poignantly at this than she does.

Julian Evans

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Stung by hardliner's entry into second round, Iran's youngsters contemplate voting

After having boycotted the first round of presidential election on June 17, the young in Iran are trying to figure out whether it was the right decision now that it has brought a hardline and conservative rule closer. Whatever, even if little, has been achieved under Khatami's two terms, the option of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran's president is not one many would like to consider.

Ahmadinejad has even gone on record and promised to "chop the hands off" corrupt officials and stated in May that Iran "didn't have a Revolution in order to establish democracy". Gee! It would not be surprising to see Rafsanjani romp home in the second round with a considerable margin of victory - thanks to a high turnout of young voters.

Read one article on this issue here.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

How Rafsanjani has apparently changed!

Rafsanjani campaign ad angles for Iran youth vote

By Amir Paivar, Reuters

Presidential candidate Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani discussed fashion, sex and Islam in a rare televised chat with a panel of youngsters, ahead of an election marked by a battle for Iran's huge youth vote.

The broadcast late on Saturday was a deftly-edited election campaign ad, but nevertheless was highly unusual in the Islamic state, where officials seldom expose themselves to such questioning by the young.

Like other conservative candidates in the race, Rafsanjani, a mid-ranking cleric, is trying to rebrand himself as a liberal in a country where half of the 67 million population is under 25 and the voting age is 15.

Rafsanjani, 70, who held the presidency between 1989 and 1997, told a panel of about 20 young men and women, some in all-enveloping black chador, some in colorful scarves, that they should have more choice in what they wear.

"Design and color depends on people's taste ... there should be clothes, but no nudity!" Rafsanjani told the round-table discussion group, which burst into laughter.

The Islamic Republic has strict rules on women's dress, ordering them to cover their hair and disguise the shape of their bodies. But restrictions relaxed somewhat after reformist President Mohammad Khatami took office in 1997.

Asked what he thought about relationships between the sexes, Rafsanjani said religion should be no barrier.

"In the Islam I know, if implemented, no one would feel limited in their instincts," said Rafsanjani who has in the past spoken in favor of temporary marriage -- a practice that allows Shi'ite Muslims to wed for as little as a few minutes.

The campaign ad contrasted with those of the other seven candidates, which have mostly consisted of straight interviews touching on issues ranging from unemployment to foreign policy.

Former police chief Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who most polls put second behind Rafsanjani, has perhaps the slickest campaign ads so far, featuring him co-piloting a commercial passenger jet and addressing town-hall style meetings.

Each candidate is allowed to air two half-hour ads on the state broadcasting network before Friday's vote.


Young Iranians and Rafsanjani laughed together at tame jokes about the wily elder statesman and quizzed him on rumors that he has amassed great personal wealth. He shrugged off the charges, saying anyone who could prove such assets was free to keep whatever they found.

But Rafsanjani's question and answer session with the group, the selection criteria for which was unclear, came to a climax with a tearful account from one girl in a purple headscarf who expressed weary disgust at life in Iran.

"I want to tell you I am not going to vote ... I don't want to be deceived," said Parisa Azizpour, 23, who appeared to represent many young Iranians disillusioned with politics.

Azizpour said she was questioned by her family for arriving home late and harassed by university doormen for what she wore.

Rafsanjani, wiping tears from his eyes, was silent for a few moments before collecting himself to urge the young to voice their feelings by voting.

But it all ended on a happy note with the youths shown applauding and smiling. Even the originally glum Azizpour broke into a smile and clapped.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Guess who is reporting from Iran!!!

Sean Penn in new role at Friday Prayers in Tehran

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Hollywood actor Sean Penn, adopting the role of a journalist, scribbled in his notebook as Friday prayer worshippers in Tehran chanted "Death to America."

Penn, 44, in Iran on a brief assignment for the San Francisco Chronicle ahead of presidential elections on June 17, may be one of the best known faces in film, but he went unrecognized by the 6,000 faithful at Tehran University.

Working with a translator, Penn took copious notes as hardline cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati urged the congregation to vote en masse "to make America angry."

The actor, who visited Iraq before and after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and wrote an account of his second trip for the Chronicle, told Reuters he had decided to come to Iran because of growing tensions between Washington and Tehran.

The United States accuses Iran of developing nuclear weapons and sponsoring terrorism. Iran denies the charges.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

The reformist press is here to stay in Iran

Despite arrests and closures, Iran's new press says it's here to stay

Whoever wins Iran's presidential elections next week, they will be facing a determined press that has survived a string of closures and arrests and which continues to push against the Islamic republic's "red lines" that confine freedom of expression.

"There will be no going back," Mashallah Shamsolvazin, the president of Iran's Association for a Free Press, told AFP.

"Going back" means a return to the situation eight years ago, just before the first election victory of incumbent President Mohammad Khatami. There were a mere five national newspapers of which one, Salam, was pro-reformist. The clerical regime also closely guarded the issuing of newspaper licenses.

Today the news kiosks are piled high with some 60 daily papers, including 14 dedicated to economic issues, around a dozen to sports and one to cinema. Of the regular papers, around half are centrist or reformist.

But the situation for the press is far from ideal, with human rights groups constantly pointing the finger at the regime as it struggles to keep journalists in line.

For Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based press rights watchdog, Iran remains the region's "biggest prison for journalists". And in every paper, self-censorship is ever present.

Shamsolvazin himself spent time in jail three years ago, but prefers to look at the achievements rather than the setbacks. "For the development of the press," he said, "Khatami deserves a good mark."

But it is a measured observation. In 2000 the judiciary, a bastion of Iran's religious right-wing, shut down some 100 titles that backed the president. Journalists were also hauled before Revolutionary Courts on charges ranging from "disturbing the public mind" to "propagating against the regime" or "insulting religious values".

And the crackdown continues, with the judiciary surfing the Internet to seek out writers who head online to call for a change in how the 26-year-old Islamic republic is run.

Twenty online journalists and Internet technicians operating pro-reform websites were arrested last November. After their release, several complained of having been forced to make elaborate confessions.

As recently as last week, weblogger Mojtaba Saminejad was jailed for two years after being convicted of "insulting the supreme leader", Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The subject of Khamenei's position as supreme leader is one of Iran's many "red lines" -- in other words issues that cannot even be touched.

Dissident journalist Akbar Ganji, who has served five years behind bars for alleging top regime figures were behind a string of gruesome murders of dissidents was allowed out of jail on sick leave last week -- only to be arrested again.

In 2003, the case of Canadian-Iranian photographer Zahra Kazemi also threw the spotlight on what the regime is capable of: she was detained for taking pictures outside Tehran's Evin prison, and died several days later as a result of a blow to the head.

But according to Issa Saharkiz, a former culture ministry official in charge of the press, entrenched hardliners are fighting a losing battle.
"Every political viewpoint has its own newspaper, even if print-runs have dropped since 2000," said Saharkiz, who has also headed several papers that drew the wrath of the censors.

Before Khatami, 1.2 million issues of various papers were printed. Today that figure stands at 3.5 million.

"Progressively, new papers are replacing the ones that were closed down. The tone of articles is more prudent, but the depth is still there," Shamsolvazin explained.
Another emerging force is the student press, which over the past eight years has expanded from 200 to 2,200 titles. With a circulation of two million, Shamsolvazin noted they also carry a "far more radical line" than the mainstream papers.

Added to that are 42,000 webloggers -- meaning Iran ranks third behind the United States and China in terms of numbers of online diarists.

"The weblogs have developed since the press closed. The pressure is so intense that young people jump onto anything in order to express themselves," said one weblogger, who asked that she not be named.

"Most of the blogs are not political, but having said that, politics does have an influence on what we write."


Friday, June 03, 2005

Tales sans borders

Imagine this. You boot your cushy IT job. Pick up your savings and set off for the world. But this is no ordinary trip. Your baggage is full of stories and it gets heavier as you travel. Each time you land in a new country, you pick up tales from there in return for a few of yours. This is what Philippe Dulauroy (Dul) and Claude Mamier (Claudio) from France have been doing since August 27, 2003. Traversing cultures and exchanging stories.

The period of stay varies from country to country – from three and a half months in Mexico because of its huge size to a little over an hour in Colombia where they “walked across a road” to cross the unmanned border. So far, they have trodden through 23 countries. “Given the fact that there are around 200 countries, we have a lot of work to do in our lives,” says Claudio, as the two were passing through Jaipur on Thursday.

Of the hundreds of stories that they have heard, taken down and assimilated from various people they meet, the two plan to put about 200 of them one their website – The trip, which excludes Africa, hopefully finishes next year in May.

Besides the immense range of stories and cultures they encountered, Claudio and Dul were also stunned by similar tales that kept cropping up at various places. Like the Seven Crows in Czech Republic that became 12 Ducks in Turkey and changed to Six Swans in Jordan. “They could have been born at different places at the same time but it is not possible because it is a long story. What must have happened is that the story travelled with people and they changed the animals according to their choice,” says Dul.

However, it is not some ancient form of globalisation, he clarifies, “In fact, it is the other way around. This is where part of one culture travels to another, changes its form to become part of the new one. It is an exchange,” he adds. Unlike, as Dul cites, the “crushing politics and culture of the US”. “The only thing we had to keep in mind not to do during this trip was to be an American,” he states.

Despite their best efforts, the two failed to convince any sponsor to pitch in for their marathon story-telling session and have been living on about 13 euros each day of the trip. “They would ask for something humanitarian or something full of action. It is not easy for culture to get funding,” says Claudio. Now that they have come so far, Dul was optimistic of some assistance in their next endeavours. “We have a CV now, something to show the sponsors,” he jokes.

Enriched and encouraged by this trip, Claudio and Dul are hoping that they would not have to return to work in France. “But will we return to France? Who knows?” Dul pitches in immediately, his eyes glistening with the possibility of not doing so. “The world is a big place but there is no question on the fact that we are not going to step into that office,” he says. “We will make all the effort we can to see that we do not have to work,” adds Claudio.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times