The Read The World Project

READ THE WORLD – Mongolia: The End of the Dark Era by Tseveendorjin Oidov

Translated by Simon Wickhamsmith.

The End of the Dark Era is the first book of Mongolian poetry to be published in the United States, and one of the few avant-garde collections to have come from the vast steppes of Mongolia.

One of my favourite things with translated poetry is when on one page is the poem in the original language and on the opposite page is the translation. Even if you can’t read the original language, or make much sense of it at all when it’s in a completely different alphabet like here, it’s cool to see how the poem was originally laid out, how many lines there were and how much space it took up.

The first half of The End of the Dark Era is poems from between 1975-1983 and they’re all about a page long. A lot of them are about nature, or paint vivid scenes of the ocean, rocks or forests through them. There’s a distanced or almost dreamlike quality to a lot of them, and some feel like little mini stories being told to you.

The second half of the collection is called “Advantgardism” and is a collection of short fictions. Each poem or fiction is no more than five lines long and each are accompanied by an illustration by the author on the opposite page. The illustrations are all line drawings of horses in different poses. Personally, I found the illustrations more interesting than the writing, they were just unlike any illustrations I’d really seen before and they manage to make the horse look animated which is impressive. Though I did like how the words and image complemented each other.

I think the poems of Tseveendorjin Oidov are not for me. A few are brief but effective, but most seem to be the kind of poetry that I just don’t understand or would better understand if I had someone to guide me through them. Apparently, Tseveendorjin Oidov is considered to be the first Mongolian modernist and modernism is something I could never really get my head around – even when I studied it a bit at university. Maybe if you’re a modernist fan you should try some translated Mongolian modernist poetry and see how that compares to Western modernism writing.

READ THE WORLD – Slovakia: The Equestrienne by Uršuľa Kovalyk

Translated by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood.

1984, in a small town in the east of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, Karolína is growing up. Her mother has too many boyfriends and her forceful but caring grandmother carries a knife. In an attempt to escape her hard and monotonous life, Karolína joins a riding school at the edge of town. There she befriends Romana, a girl with one leg shorter than the other, and Matilda, a rider and trainer who helps the girls overcome their physical limitations. Together they form a successful trick riding team and soon the small town doesn’t seem so small anymore for Karolína.

The blurb on my copy of The Equestrienne calls it a novel, but at 80 pages I’d say it’s more of a novella. Either way, The Equestrienne is a short, kind of bittersweet coming of age story. I always find it difficult to talk about such short books that are focussed on a short period of time. It spans about sixteen years as that’s roughly the age Karolína is when the story ends, but a lot of her childhood is glossed over and it’s when she’s around twelve and discovers the stables – along with a teenage boy called Arpi – that she starts to come into her own. At the stables Karolína makes a friend for the first time. And with Arpi she discovers cigarettes and music like Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones.

Change is a big element to The Equestrienne and Karolína’s life. Naturally, she’s growing up and maturing, having her first period has a big impact on her, but there’s the political changes happening in the background as the Soviet Union begins to dissolve. There’s a lot of moments of hope because of these changes, but equally there’s disappointment as they go from one dictatorship to another – capitalism.

The women in The Equestrienne are all fleshed out and interesting, which is a feat considering how short it is, and the only named male character is Arpi. All the other men are pushed to the background or become a threat to Karolína’s happiness or safety. The relationships between the different female characters are strong too. Karolína’s grandmother makes a huge impact on her life as she’s a force to be reckoned with and while to begin with Karolína often doesn’t understand or like her mother and her choices, as she matures she see’s the everyday strains she’s under. Then Matilda and Romana each give Karolína confidence and companionship in a time when she felt so alone.

The Equestrienne is a short but effective story that’s sad and sweet. It’s a universal coming of age story, but by having it set in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic means you can learn more about that culture and history and how things like the economy affected its people. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Zambia: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

Narrated by Adjoa Andoh, Richard E. Grant and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.

In 1904, in a smoky room at the hotel across the river, an Old Drifter named Percy M. Clark, foggy with fever, makes a mistake that entangles the fates of an Italian hotelier and an African busboy. This sets off a cycle of unwitting retribution between three Zambian families (black, white, brown) as they collide and converge over the course of the century, into the present and beyond. As the generations pass, their lives – their triumphs, errors, losses and hopes – form a symphony about what it means to be human.

I shall preface this review by saying it took me over two months to listen to this audiobook. Audiobooks are something I tend to listen to when I’m out and about and as I’m not going anywhere due to a pandemic it took me lot longer to read this book than normal. I think this probably did affect how much I enjoyed The Old Drift as it’s such a sprawling generational epic that I’d sometimes forget characters names between times I was listening or find it difficult to remember the different familial connections.

The Old Drift is a generational story, and it is interesting how three generations of three families can keep encountering one another in different ways and in different times. There’s romance and conflicts and just passing freak meetings, and often younger generations have no idea that their parents or grandparents may have met in some capacity before. Characters hear stories about things that as the reader you’ve already seen from someone else’s point of view and you realise that while some characters in these families might not meet themselves, they may have mutual friends or even passing strangers who have talked to them both at some point or another.

People in all three families go through love and loss, have children, and jobs and while there are universal struggles or life events The Old Drift does a good job at showing how their different backgrounds can have an effect on things. One family is descended from Italian immigrants/colonisers and one of their children then marries an Indian hairdresser. Another family is descended from a Black Zambian and a white English blind woman who ran away with her husband back to his home country. And the third family is Black, born and raised in Zambia. Due to their differences in wealth and education these families have very different lives and attitudes. One odd thing does connect them all and that’s hairdressers. A lot of the major life events for these characters happen in a hair salon or because of a hairdresser.

There’s a sci-fi element to The Old Drift I wasn’t expecting. As the story gets to the twenty-first century, there’s the technology we know, iPhones and drones for example, but then there’s advanced tech imbedded in people’s hands so they can use their had like a phone. It has a torch in a fingertip and their palm is a holographic touchscreen connected to the internet. It’s a bit jarring having these futuristic elements after previously appearing to be very true to the various periods of history these generations of characters have been living through – the AIDS epidemic plays a big role in many characters lives when the story gets to the 1980s.

There’s so much going on in The Old Drift that it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of who’s who and how they’re connect, nevermind finding meaning and some sort of thread to follow through this story. Seeing events from different characters points of view, some more in depth than others, lets you see how different people react to events, how it can be a big deal for some and barely a memory for others, but this can get a little repetitive.

I’m really not sure what else to say about The Old Drift. It is an impressive debut novel and one a may have found easier to follow if I didn’t have such huge gaps between picking it up. There’s a lot of tragedy in these characters lives and maybe it’s because you only see snapshots of their lives at different times but there certainly seems to be more sad moments than happy ones. This, along with how long the book is and the often lyrical narrative, does make The Old Drift a bit dense and hard to get through.

READ THE WORLD – Federated States of Micronesia: My Urohs by Emelihter Kihleng

A short poetry collection from Pohnpeian poet, Emelihter Kihleng.

I think this was a very interesting collection. A lot of the poems were almost short stories or small snapshots at life, and I feel I learnt things about the Federated States of Micronesia from these poems, which is an achievement considering how short they are. For instance, I never knew about the connection between the Federated States of Micronesia and America, that many people live or work or have connections to Hawaii especially. In the poem “Destiny Fulfilled?” it covers how people from the various islands joined the US Armed Forces and its “War on Terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq. I also liked how it gets its title from a Destiny’s Child album and uses lyrics from the song “Soldier” to show the differences between pop culture and actual war.

I liked how the poet had footnotes in the poems, explaining a word or phrase that was in a different language, or adding context when a poem is inspired by real events. I believe Pohpeian is the language used throughout the collection, with many of the poems being in a combination of English and Pohpeian. Some are like a dialogue between two characters and there’s the English translation after each phrase, while in others it’s just the odd word or line that’s not in English.

The poems in My Urohs are about the people, the culture, the food, and the connections and differences between people who live on different islands in the Federated States of Micronesia and their different languages, stories and culture. It’s an interesting little collection and a great insight into a place I’d only ever heard of and knew nothing about.

READ THE WORLD – Kyrgyzstan: Jamilia by Chingiz Aïtmatov

Translated by James Riordan.

Jamilia’s husband is off fighting at the front. She spends her days hauling sacks of grain from the threshing floor to the train station in their small village in the Caucasus, accompanied by Seit, her young brother-in-law, and Daniyar, a sullen newcomer to the village who has been wounded on the battlefield. Seit observes the beautiful, spirited Jamilia spurn men’s advances, and wince at the dispassionate letters she receives from her husband, while she also draws closer to Daniyar.

Jamilia is a very short book at around 90 pages and it’s just one long chapter. Jamilia is told from Seit’s perspective and he narrates the story in the first person. It’s a simple story in terms of plot, a young woman in a small farming community potentially finds a better and stronger love while her husband is away, and in terms of writing. The writing is so simple that it often reads like Seit is sat with you, telling you the story. That come partly the tenses as sometimes the narrative voice knows more than the present-Seit would.

Considering this book was published in the 1950s, Jamilia herself could almost be described as a manic pixie dreamgirl. Seit is infatuated with her, as are a lot of the other men in the village, and as it’s from Seit’s point of view, you never really get to see much of Jamilia’s personality or her hopes, dreams and desires. You just see her through Seit’s eyes, and his judgement is clouded by his own feelings for her.

Jamilia is one of those books that even though it’s so short it took days to get through. I think that’s because of a few things. One, the story didn’t really grab me, I thought there’d be an illicit romance and more drama when there really wasn’t and it was just a series of events in these farming peoples lives. Two, I thought it’d be from Jamilia’s point of view so you could see her conflict about being drawn to a man who wasn’t her husband and have more of an insight into her seeing she is the titular character. And three, the writing style was so simple it ended up being boring so even when there was something different happening in the plot, I wasn’t really engaged with it.

Looking at Goodreads a lot of people seem to really like this book so maybe I’m in the wrong, or it could be down to the translation. Either way I’m glad to have now crossed off Kyrgyzstan from my Read the World Project.

READ THE WORLD – Greece: Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki

Translated by Karen Van Dyck.

Living in a big old house surrounded by a beautiful garden in the countryside outside Athens are Maria, the oldest sister, as sexually bold as she is eager to settle down and have a family of her own; beautiful but distant Infanta; and dreamy and rebellious Katerina. Over three summers, the girls share and keep secrets, fall in and out of love, try to figure out their parents and other members of the tribe of adults, and worry about and wonder who they are.

The majority of Three Summers is told from Katerina’s perspective and in the first person. Though there are the odd chapters from other characters perspectives, mainly the other two sisters, and those are written in the third person so it’s easy to tell when you’re momentarily stepping away from Katerina’s viewpoint.

Three Summers is set in the 1930s before the Second World War and the sisters do all seem to live an idyllic life. At the start of the novel, so during the first summer, they are twenty, eighteen and sixteen. They spend their time lying in the fields, talking to one another about their thoughts and dreams, and also generally getting the attention of the young me they know. They also think about their separated parents and other family dramas. They live with their mother, aunt and grandfather while their father, who is both a banker and an inventor, lives in Athens.

I found Three Summers quite slow going. At times that suited the story as it evokes the feeling of lazy summer days where the days blur into one, but on the other hand it made it more difficult to connect with the characters and on the whole I didn’t really care about them.

Maria was the sister that was the easiest to understand, she knows what she wants and decides who and when she’s going to marry quickly. Infanta is more reserved and at some points I wondered if she was written to be asexual or aromantic because of how distant she was towards the young man who clearly likes her. It could have been natural shyness or nerves but some of her reactions to strong emotions sometimes seemed more extreme for that. Katerina is more bold than her sisters and her curiosity and actions often made her mother despair. She doesn’t seem to fit in this family and while she does say she falls in love with a neighbour, it’s hard to tell if she really has and she’s not using him as a gateway to adventure.

The writing in Three Summers is quite flowery and paints vivid pictures of the old house and the surrounding countryside, but that sort of thing isn’t really for me and it wasn’t keeping my attention by the end of book. Maybe it’s because I did find myself skim reading the last section of the book, which was about the events of the third summer, but I did find it difficult to keep track of some of the friends and neighbours, how they were connected to the sisters and what they thought of them.

Because it’s set just across three summers and is more of a slice of life type story, there are some things that are open ended and potential relationships not yet pursued which is a little frustrating but that’s the nature of this kind of story. Three Summers is a coming of age story and it’s one that fans of period dramas may like a lot. It has the will they/won’t they relationships but with more of a stiff upper lip as young women weren’t allowed to be forthright with their wants in the 1930s.

READ THE WORLD – Mauritius: The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah

Translated by Geoffrey Strachan.

Ten-year-old Raj is oblivious to the Second World War being fought far beyond his tiny island home. His mother is his sole company while his father works as a prison guard, so Raj dreams of friendship. One day, from the far-away world, a ship brings to the island Jewish exiles who have been refused entry to Israel. David, a recently orphaned boy of his own age, becomes the friend that he has longed for, and Raj takes it upon himself to help David escape from the prison. As they flee through sub-tropical forests and devastating storms, the boys battle hunger and malaria – and forge a friendship only death could destroy.

The Last Brother is one of those stories where a much older character reminisces about certain events of their past and how it affected them. In this instance, Raj is an old man close to his eighties and he’s thinking about David, their friendship and the games and adventures they had and what he would’ve done differently if he could. This means you are kind of aware of how things are probably going to turn out before you get to that part of the story.

Something I really liked about The Last Brother was how it made me think about the Second World War from a completely different perspective. As someone who’s British and grew up in the UK, in school I learnt about the Second World War from the UK perspective and about the European countries (and America and Japan) involved with the conflict. The world is a big place and while it’s something I hadn’t thought about before, there would naturally be parts of the world where the conflict didn’t touch or the people, especially children, were unaware of what was happening between other nations.

The difference between adult-Raj and child-Raj’s narrative voice is distinct and I feel the author really captured the innocence a ten-year-old has, even if they have experienced violence they are resilient and still want to have fun with a friend. Both Raj and David have experienced personal tragedy though Raj can’t comprehend how and why David and the other Jewish refugees have ended up in his small corner of the world, and in a prison as well. David doesn’t talk about his life or how he became an orphan much, as the reader with prior knowledge of the persecution of the Jews in Europe you can see his trauma but with Raj being so unaware of world events, he doesn’t see David as a victim, he just sees a friend.

The way Raj and David form such a firm friendship in such a short space of time is sweet and realistic. As is how far Raj will go to try and protect David even if his plans are misguided. The Last Brother is a deceptively simple story because it’s largely told through the eyes of a child, but that makes it all the more affecting.

READ THE WORLD – Botswana: The Screaming of the Innocent by Unity Dow

When a twelve-year-old girl goes missing near her village, the local police tell her mother and the villagers that she has been taken by a wild animal. Five years later, young government employee Amantle Bokaa finds a box bearing the label ‘Neo Kakang: CRB 45/94’. It contains evidence of human involvement in the affair. So begins an undercover struggle for justice and retribution.

Predominantly set in a rural village in Botswana in 1999, The Screaming of the Innocent is a story of ritual murder and a cover up. Have to say I found the opening chapters very difficult to get through and uncomfortable to read. They are set in 1994 and follow the men who are watching young Neo and planning how they are going to take her. The description in those chapters is vivid as you get into the minds of deprived but powerful men, as they watch Neo, describing her young body in a sexual manner. It almost made me feel queasy and that was the most striking part of the book. Then there’s the five-year time jump, and it’s not till much later that you discover what exactly they did to Neo and again it’s in graphic detail.

The Screaming of the Innocent is a relatively short book (just over 200 pages) and I thought the way the story was told was interesting. From the beginning you know who the men are who took Neo, but you don’t know how they got away with it – was it corruption or incompetence. It’s a fight for justice as long-lost evidence is discovered and someone who wasn’t even in the same region when the girl was taken, is pulled into the village’s turmoil and becomes their spokesperson.

While The Screaming of the Innocent is told from multiple perspectives as different characters remember what happened after Neo’s disappearance all those years ago, Amantle could be called the main character in the present. She discovers the evidence and has no idea of the impact it’ll have on her life or those in the village she’s just arrived in. She is someone who wants to fight for what’s right and is very earnest. She has connections to lawyers through friends and she almost has a fake it till you make it in her quest for the village’s to find out the truth. It can be a little grating as she’s so serious and focused and doesn’t always seem to realise the potential consequences of her actions as she’s convinced her method is the best.

The scenes where Amantle and her lawyer friends discuss the case and theorise what might have happened to Neo and how and why the evidence ended up where it did for five years was one of the most interesting parts of the story. The Screaming of the Innocent doesn’t feel complete though as while Amantle gets the answers she seeks, there’s still the longer fight for justice still to come.

The Screaming of the Innocent is one of those crime/mystery stories where by the end of it you as the reader know the answers, and even some of the characters do, but that doesn’t mean they’re good answers or ones that give people closure or justice. It’s a bit frustrating really as personally I like my crime stories where everyone gets their comeuppance.

Still, The Screaming of the Innocent being set in the 90s and a place and culture so different to my own was interesting. I didn’t always like how it was written, it seemed very simplistic at times – especially after the impactful opening chapters – but the story was a compelling one. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Yemen: A Land Without Jasmine by Wajdi Al-Ahdal

Translated by William Maynard Hutchins.

Under the watchful eyes of the men in her community the beautiful, virtuous university student Jasmine goes about her daily business, keeping to herself and avoiding the male gaze at all costs. That is until one Valentine’s Day, when she disappears without a trace. As the details surrounding her sudden disappearance emerge the mystery deepens. Sexual depravity, honour, obsession; the motives are numerous and the suspects plentiful. Family, friends, fellow students and nosey neighbours are quick to make their own judgements on the case, but the truth may be far stranger than anyone anticipates.

I found A Land Without Jasmine strangely captivating. It’s a super short novel, less than 100 pages, and has seven chapters, each from a different character’s perspective. The first is from Jasmine’s, as she describes the heated gazes she receives from all men, young and old, even when wearing her niqab. How uncomfortable she feels, how their attention often makes her feel anxious as she wishes to be treated for more than what she looks like. The following chapters are from the perspective of detectives, neighbours, and family as they try and piece together what has happened to Jasmine.

The way Jasmine describes the unwanted attention she receives is uncomfortable to read, but what’s even more uncomfortable is when the story is from the point of view of her teenage neighbour who is infatuated with her. He, like a lot of the other male characters, seems to be unable to separate his desires and dreams from reality. His desires are explicit, and he becomes obsessed with figuring out what happened to Jasmine, forgetting to look out for himself or how his actions might be perceived by the police or Jasmine’s family.

I thought the writing in A Land Without Jasmine was often very good and provocative. However, there were some phrases that felt a bit stilted down to a choice of a word when another might’ve been more suitable but that was likely to be down to the translation. It did take me a little while to get into the story though. I think that was down to it being written in first person and I can’t remember the last book I read that was written in that tense. I think sometimes first-person narrative can make the writing seem more simplistic. At some points this seemed to work in the novels advantage, as it sometimes made statements more impactful, but at other points it made reading it feel slow and awkward.

A Land Without Jasmine is a almost a sexy mystery story – though while it does have erotic language in it, the way the characters objectify and belittle Jasmine doesn’t make it particularly sexy or appealing. There are some moments of wry sense of humour here, and how it brings in family politics, the importance and power of different family tribes for one, is interesting as that’s something I knew little about. A Land Without Jasmine is a strange mystery but once you get into the writing style, it becomes a compelling one. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Sudan: Thirteen Months of Sunrise by Rania Mamoun

Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette.

Thirteen Months of Sunrise is a very short (just 72 pages long) but impactful short story collection. There are ten stories in the collection, the shortest one is just two pages long while the longest is nine pages with the others being somewhere in between.

I think this is the shortest short story collection I’ve ever read, and I was impressed by how much the author could say in so few words. “A Week of Love” is the two-page story that follows the evolution of a relationship and it easily shows the various emotions and uncertainty when you like someone new.

A lot of the stories are about something that seems so everyone can relate to as it’s so mundane, like a person’s thoughts as they travel on a bus, or someone desperate to find a job to support their family. Many of the stories are a little snapshot into peoples lives in Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan, and the mental and physical struggles they have.

My favourite story in the collection was “Thirteen Months of Sunrise”, it has discussions of identity and the differences and similarities between people and cultures from Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

It’s hard to really talk about Thirteen Months of Sunrise because the stories were so short! Still, it’s a great translation and the stories are interesting and thoughtful. 4/5.