The Lieutenant of Kouta – a #BTBA2018 flashlight

I’ve learned that there are a lot of reasons why a book doesn’t make it onto a long list. Mostly it’s about the numbers… there are hundreds of books and a limited number of opportunities to recognize them. And so, while I am proud of having contributed to this year’s Best Translated Book Award Long List, and on the whole I think it’s excellent, I still have an entire stack of books which I feel deserve honorable mentions at the very least.

Over the next few weeks I’d like to talk about the novels I read from 2017 that – for a huge variety of reasons, all of which are so benign as to be entirely uninteresting – didn’t make it onto this year’s long list.  These are books I enjoyed and wanted to shine my little flashlight on.


The Lieutenant of Kouta is the first in a trilogy of books by the Malian writer Massa Makan Diabaté to be translated into English. Written in 1979, and set in a fictionalized version of the author’s hometown of Kita, it follows the adventures/journey of one Lieutenant Siriman Keita, a retired tirailleur sénégalais (the name taken by members of the black African infantry of the French Army) who returns to Kouta after his years of service to France. Once home he builds an expensive house (square, like those he saw on the continent) and – puffed up on his own importance, surrounded by hangers-on and overly impressed with the French colonial government, – he settles down to criticize, annoy and unintentionally entertain the locals. Initially, Siriman Keita does not make himself beloved to his neighbors. Just the opposite: he rebuffs the overtures of the local imam and openly criticizes the local customs. His pride gets him into some embarrassing, and ultimately humbling, situations. The tone of his exploits veer mostly towards slapstick, like the time he falls from his horse while trying to impress a young woman’s family.

Emboldened by the applause, at the limit of his self-control, he made his horse rear until it was almost vertical; then he ordered it to prostrate itself before his future in-laws. The beast bent its knees; the cries of admiration rose, and the band resumed, even more beautifully. Surprised, the horse reared, launching its rider into a mud-filled ditch. The crowd gathered around the lieutenant in a circle to block him from sight. The rumor spread throughout the village; his image was tarnished.

“It looks like he pooped his pants, like a baby,” some said. The more merciful maintained that he had only pissed himself…

The Lieutenant of Kouta gets high marks just for its entertainment value. It’s really funny. Diabaté’s prose style has a folksy charm reminiscent of Eudora Welty’s rowdier tales, like Losing Battles and Why I Live at the P.O.  His characters also have a lot in common with one of John Steinbeck’s down-on-their-luck heroes. Both writers concerned themselves with the situation of disenfranchised men struggling, through a mix of humor and pathos, to retain their dignity in rapidly changing worlds. Steinbeck once wrote “I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature”, which makes me think he would have approved of Diabeté’s work… if it’d been available in English during his lifetime. Because despite being from different continents and very different cultural backgrounds, these three writers were contemporaries. And once you realize that simple fact, the overlap in their work is obvious.

Massa Makan Diabaté (1938-1988) was descended from a family of griots, with deep roots in Mali, Africa. Griots were oral historians, storytellers, spreaders of news and gossip, entertainers and the advisers to kings.  Their job was to preserve and disseminate important community information in the absence of the written word.  Diabaté was trained by his two uncles, both renowned griots. His life’s work would be to keep the griot tradition relevant in 20th century society. Shane Auerbach’s and David Yost’s vibrant translation celebrates that history by preserving the sense that this novel comes out of an oral, storytelling tradition.  Most of the lieutenant’s escapades are related to us as anecdotes, casual gossip passed between neighbors.

The narrative structure is fairly standard, and for some readers, those who might be over modernism and need a break from experimental prose, the no frills approach to character and plot can be something of a relief. It’s the local nature of the subject matter which elevates it, coming at us from an unusual point of view – that of the crowd. In the waning days of colonialism returning soldiers, receiving government pensions and indoctrinated with military discipline, served as unofficial extensions of the colonial administration. (Mali didn’t gain independence until 1960.) Lieutenant Siriman Keita is no exception, with his susceptibility to flattery and misplaced allegiance to France. But hints are dropped early on that there is more to this character.  He possesses a kind heart. The novel opens with laughter as we (along with a group of villagers) witness the lieutenant catch a local boy stealing his eggs. The uncowed child, Famakan, is paraded through the streets, responding to the Lieutenant’s constant berating and threats of dire punishments with his own muttered asides. The two reach a bridge and the boy, knowing he will come out of it unharmed, says that for his punishment he chooses to be thrown over the side. Siriman, not wanting to do Famakan actual harm, believes this too harsh. But Famakan insists. “He’s suicidal,” the lieutenant shouted. ‘“He chose for me to throw him from a bridge. Let none accuse me of murder!”’ A struggle ensues as the lieutenant tries to restrain/dissuade Famakan. The boy manages to push his captor headfirst into the mud below and “To disguise his ruse, the boy dove in after him, to the applause, shouts, and laughter of the audience.” Ever aware of his dignity, Siriman shouts to the spectators, “Mark my words… Whoever tells this story will have to pay twenty francs! Ten francs will go to me, and ten will go to Famakan.”

The fact that he is willing to split the fine so that the boy benefits reflects well on him. Later the lieutenant will adopt Famakan and reenacting their first, inauspicious meeting will become a game between them. One designed to make the boy smile and laugh. Diabaté’s secret sauce is allowing his character to evolve, balancing the man’s pomposity with an almost tragic integrity. Eventually – after several comedic missteps which serve to lighten what is ultimately a tale about one man’s disillusionment with colonialism – the lieutenant’s better nature will win out and his transformation into an entirely sympathetic character will be complete. Perhaps even into a heroic one, in that way that introspection in old age can sometimes become heroic. At the end, I was surprisingly moved by The Lieutenant of Kouta journey.

 

Title: The Lieutenant of Kouta

Author:  Massa Makan Diabate

Translator: Shane Auerbach & David Yost

Publisher: Michigan State University Press, 2017

Alafair Burke’s The Wife Pushes Readers To Ask Themselves “Where Do You Draw The Line?”

 

“…Alafair Burke has the intuitive ability to up-cycle genre trends, cherry-picking the best elements from an abundance of novels and current events, and then transforming them into something that still manages to feel wholly original. She is a master of her craft…”

I know this is not the usual type of book (i.e. – not a translation) you expect to see reviewed here, but never fear.  This is easily the best whodunnit and whydunnit I’ve read in ages. To find out why, read my full review of Alafair Burke’s The Wife at the Los Angeles Review of Books website. And if you’re looking for a thriller to take with you on vacation, this is it.

The Twenty Days of Turin by Giorgio De Maria

The plot of The Twenty Days of Turin can be compared to the Bermuda Triangle – lots of weird stuff supposedly happens in it, but no one knows why.

Giorgio De Maria’s 1975 Italian cult classic The Twenty Days of Turin, translated into English for the first time by Ramon Glazov, is easily one of the strangest books I’ve come across in recent memory. De Maria, who’s been compared  to H.P. Lovecraft, Borges and Poe, has written one of those modern-day allegories that is open to an infinite number of interpretations: a commentary on the rise of fascism in Italy, for example, or a foreshadowing of the phenomenon of social media. It’s all a bit of a conceptual mess, but no less enjoyable for it.

Our adventure begins when an unnamed journalist traveling to Turin to investigate an incident which took place 20 years before, when a collective insomnia took hold of most of the town’s population, causing them to shamble through the streets and squares at night in vulnerable, fugue-like states. The following morning the mangled remains of the victims are discovered  – their bodies broken at odd angles as if they’d been swung about by the feet. The murderers are never identified and the events remain shrouded in mystery. This dark time comes to be known (conveniently) as the Twenty Days of Turin.

At the same time as bodies are being found, a group of young men travel door to door inviting residents to join a shadowy institution known as the Library. The Library is a place in which average people are encouraged to deposit and read each others private journals. A kind of social experiment created to foster community and relationships, encouraging strangers to connect through the sharing of each other’s deepest and darkest secrets.

Everything could be deposited into the Library: works that were slender or unnaturally bulky, sometimes with a disarming naiveté in a world of slyness. Masterpieces could appear by accident, but they were about as easy to track down as a particle of gold in a heap of gravel. There were manuscripts whose first hundred pages didn’t reveal any oddity, which then crumbled little by little into the depths of bottomless madness; or works that seemed normal at the beginning and end, but were pitted with fearful abysses further inward. Others, meanwhile, were conceived in a spirit of pure malice: pages and pages just to indicate, to a poor elderly woman without children or a husband, that her skin was the color of a lemon and her spine was warping – things she already knew well enough. The range was infinite: it had the variety and a the same time the wretchedness of things that can’t find harmony with Creation, but still exist, and need someone to observe them, if only to recognize that it was another like himself who’d created them.

As the journalist attempts to unravel the layers of mysteries surrounding, and connections linking, the Twenty Days and the Library, unidentified forces are rising against him. Time is running out. And the events of the Twenty Days appear to be happening again.


I read H.P. Lovecraft when I was too young to understand what a horrible and damaged human being he was. I read his work superficially, enjoying the horror stories without comprehending the racist subtext they contained. I think this is how it was for many people, and as a result it can be hard to reconcile the stories we enjoy with the madness (and hatred) of the man who wrote them. The Shadow Over Innsmouth was my favorite.  The premise of a fishing village haunted by alien gods known as the Deep Ones fascinated me. And the formula of the first person narrator, descending into madness, investigating a mysterious evil that he suddenly (and tragically) finds himself the focus of is hard to mess up.  Giorgio De Maria obviously read Lovecraft, too, because he follows that same formula. He inserts interviews, recordings and correspondences – building layer upon layer of false reality until the reader finds herself half convinced that what she is reading is true.

book coverBut Lovecraft is just one in a patchwork of influences. There are a lot of rabbit holes on these pages for readers interested in falling down. Time is measured in intervals of twenty in a surprising number of folktales (For example: Rip Van Winkle and his predecessor Peter Klaus’ naps both lasted that long). And while the victims of the Twenty Days suffered from lack of sleep versus too much – I was still reminded of these older tales in which ordinary people join the games or celebrations of powerful, supernatural beings and suffer as a result.  Like folktales which come to us through an oral traditions of storytelling, The Twenty Days of Turin has an abridged quality to it. It has its own supernatural beings and their minions, who are central to the plot, but whose motivations are never adequately explored. Elements like the Library are introduced seemingly because the writer finds them interesting (rightfully so) or because they embellish the text. Not because they contribute to the overall narrative.  De Maria creates and relies on all these mythological touchstones without bothering to explain them. We are, in a way, being asked to revert to a naive reader. One who embraces superstition as an explanation for the unknown.

The Twenty Days of Turin can be classified as a novella. It takes up only 144 of the 186 pages of the physical book, which also includes two short stories by the same author: The Death of Missolonghi and Phenomenology of the Screamer, tacked on as appendices. There’s also a twelve page Translator’s Introduction. The two short stories aren’t very interesting and I found the Introduction a needless distraction, which is unusual for me. (I am a conscientious reader of forwards, introductions, afterwords and translators notes). But the author’s voice is what pulls you into this story and nothing should be allowed to detract from it. The symbolism and atmosphere are what make up for the overall lack of depth. And, it’s probably no coincidence that the actual, titular story is short enough that, even if your left dissatisfied with the ending and what passes for a resolution of the mysteries, you won’t feel you’ve wasted two hours of your life you can never get back. In this way The Twenty Days of Turin is the rare exception to the rule: the sum of its parts are by far greater than its whole.

Title: The Twenty Days of Turin

Author: Giorgio De Maria

Translator: Ramon Glazon

Publisher: Liveright, New York (2017)

The Sacred Era by Yoshio Aramaki, translated by Baryon Tensor Posadas

 

Born April 12, 1933, Yoshio Aramaki’s writing comes to us from a different time. His novel The Sacred Era, originally published in Japanese in 1978, has more in common with classic American sci-fi short story writers like Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury—sharing their preoccupation with wonky metaphysics, biblical allegories, and performative misogyny—than with speculative fiction writers working in the present day. He leads readers down the same well-trodden genre path where impoverished young men discover they are, despite an often remarkable lack of initiative, destined for great things. But Aramaki’s brilliant leaps of imagination and use of experimental, non-linear plot structures are too ambitious for the resulting work to be dismissed as outdated or derivative.

Read my full review of Yosio Aramaki’s novel, The Sacred Era, over at the Quarterly Conversation.

My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump – The Los Angeles Review of Books #WITMonth

“WE’RE ALL WAITING for Marie NDiaye’s breakthrough book in English. You’re waiting, too, whether you know it or not. Despite being an award-winning French writer (she won the Prix Femina in 2001, the Prix Goncourt in 2009, was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, and shortlisted for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award) whose first book was published when she was 17, whose work is both regularly translated into English and generally well reviewed by American critics, NDiaye has yet to gain traction with American readers. At 50, she still hasn’t established the niche audience of, say, Michel Houellebecq, a writer with whom she shares nationality, a tendency toward the cerebral, and a provocateur’s spirit (though the nature of her provocations is more earnest and less performative than Houellebecq’s)…”

Why this failure to connect? Click on the image to find out.

Happy Women In Translation Month!