Holiday Reading – Words Without Borders

Here in England, the period between Christmas and the New Year is a tangled mess of bank holidays and ordinary working days, no one quite clear which shops and businesses are open, whether public transport is running a full schedule, when refuse might be collected. It becomes difficult to maintain a sense of conventional daily life when the media seems to be convinced we are engaged in one long festive whirl. I welcome the downtime, in particular Paul being on holiday, but I don’t really enjoy the sense of limbo. When you have no family and aren’t doing anything with friends during that period, there is only so much lounging around to be done before it’s back to the desk. So, yesterday, while Paul was sanding the floor of the room we are currently decorating, I was clearing through my assorted online reading backlogs.

I’ve been reading the December 2011 issue of the online magazine, Words Without Borders, a magazine of international writing. I’d not come across this magazine before but the current issue has an extensive feature on fantastic stories from around the world, and another feature on Iranian writers which turned out to be equally fascinating.

Of the eight stories identified as part of the fantastic section, the most ‘conventional’, perhaps, is ‘Orkish Cornbread’ by Ranko Trifković, a fantastical recipe for that very substance. I like the Tolkienish riff on lembas, the bread of the elves, and cram, the dwarvish version. Why shouldn’t the orcs have their own take on so fundamental as food as bread? It’s pleasingly transgressive in its view of the world, and very amusing in the way it plays with fantasy conventions and foodie pretensions. ‘Orkish Cornbread’ doesn’t really step beyond that one riff, although it hints at the author’s imaginativeness so I’d like to see more work from this author.

The Navidad Incident: The Downfall of Matías Guili’ has rather more substance. Set on the fictional South Sea island of Navidad, it concerns the adventures of a group of Japanese veterans, visiting the former colony, and travelling by tour bus. Here is the opening paragraph of this novel extract.

At 6:00 A.M., lowest ebb tide, a bus was sighted crossing the lagoon between Gaspar and Baltasár islands, sending ripples across the surface. The yellow and green vehicle careened this way and that, racing gaily over the crystal blue shallows. The first rays of the morning sun over the low central hills of Baltasár glinted off the windows as the bus took to the water out past the airport bearing northeast, skimmed the tip of Tsutomu Point, then disappeared in the direction of Colonia.

The rest of the extract comprises a series of reports on the appearances and disappearances of the bus around the island, gradually broadening into a portrait of the role played by the bus system in island life, from birth to death. It would be easy to casually say ‘magic realism’ and move on, but I think that would be lazy. Yes, it has a flavour of some Latin American fiction I’ve read in recent years, but it emerges more in the description of the way in which the bus figures in island culture than in the disappearing/reappearing tour bus, which partakes more of the overtly supernatural, with people responding accordingly.

Naiyer Masud’s ‘Dustland’, translated from Urdu, is a very different kind of story, inclining more towards the VanderMeerian definition of weird, at any rate as I currently understand it. ‘Dustland’ is set in a landscape which seems to be entirely empty of features. The narrator finds himself here after having deliberately chosen a series of ‘bleak and dreary’ paths, rejecting the lush and the green. One has a sense that allegory is lurking off to the side of the path somewhere, rather like the snakes that the narrator fears so much, but if it is, it doesn’t appear. Instead, the narrator fetches up in a curious desolate settlement which threatens to be overwhelmed by dust every time there is a storm, and there are many such storms.

While, we are led to understand, most people fear dust storms, the narrator is something of an oddity. He has always loved dust storms, and goes out in them when sensible people stay at home. This unusual habit marks him out and is the thread that unravels a curious story of improbable connections between him and the inhabitants of the Dustland settlement.

I particularly like this story for its evocation of a settlement in the middle of nowhere, somehow clinging onto life because of someone’s conviction that it needs to exist.

André Pieyre de Mandiargues’ ‘The Red Loaf’ (translated from French) and Nazli Eray’s ‘The Map’(translated from Turkish) both incline towards the phantasmagoric, ‘The Red Loaf’ particularly so. Here, a clearly unreliable narrator – philanderer, liar, drug addict – wakes up in a hotel room, stripped of his possessions, and aware of a strange light coming from a drawer. In the drawer is the eponymous loaf, and it takes but a moment for the narrator to become the same size as the mites he perceives to be crawling on the loaf, after one bites him, and to embark on a mysterious journey through the loaf’s interior. Oddly, my immediate thought was of Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, and the characters’ exploration under the moon’s surface; the story has that same analytical and observational flavour, but can we, should we, trust the narrator.

‘The Map’ starts promisingly, with the narrator’s discovery of a bundle of maps in an Istanbul bookshop. They are ‘interpreted’ maps, drawn according to the cartographer’s own understanding of the thing that he or she is mapping, an intriguing concept which throws up all sorts of possibilities for reshaping the world. However, the author, and thus the narrator, focuses on a ‘Map of Man’ which endeavours to interpret the behaviour of men, which seems to be a mystery to the female narrator, whose relationship with her boyfriend seems to be under some sort of pressure. Somehow, she and a girlfriend become lost in the map itself. While I liked the idea of becoming lost in a map, I have to admit that I was less engaged by the idea of the voyage round the male psyche, and the discovery that it was bleak, empty, inimical of life.

In fact, mapping seems to be an underlying theme in several of these stories; it turns up again in the story by Maltese writer, Pierre Mejlak, ‘At Livia’s Bar’, a möbius-like story in which a girl maps an imaginary city, centred on a bar run by Livia, mixer of the most remarkable drinks. It’s a small story on the page, but the more one probes it, the more it seems to contain, bigger on the inside than the outside, so to speak.

Miguel de Unamana’s ‘The Man Who Buried Himself’, translated from the Spanish, is a more conventional story of a man being confronted by a doppelgänger, whose life he takes on, leaving him to bury himself. It’s a curious story, more psychological in flavour than some of the others and I half-suspect I was less receptive to it than I perhaps should have been, as it seems not to have stayed in my mind in the same way as some of the others.

Of all the stories, the least successful in my view was Maja Novak’s ‘The Ghosts Are Schrodinger Cats’, translated from the Slovene, not so much for the premise as described in the title, but for the story’s execution. For reasons that elude me, the story is set in Scotland, in a curiously cartoonish Scotland, as though the writer’s knowledge of the country is based on watching bad films and old-fashioned tourist guides. There might be a satirical element to this, but if that is so, it is escaping me, as does the appeal of the bright narrative tone which is, I think, supposed to suggest ‘comedy’. I would just dismiss it as poor writing except that I’ve seen something like this recently, in an unpublished manuscript written by someone entirely different, from the same area, suggesting that it might be a narrative style I have simply never encountered before. Be that as it may, it’s not one that works for me.

And just to finish off, Elham Eshragi’s ‘Lamb’, translated from Persian, although not part of the fantastic collection, is a nicely observed story of a man who is obliged to suffer the consequences of an ill-judged act.

In all, this is mostly an excellent collection of fiction, and yet again, I am reminded of just how much material there is out there, beyond the English language. I’m already looking forward to the next issue of Words Without Borders.

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