28 books, 28 authors, 28 countries… and one year
by Kent MacCarter
See part one
What are some of the hurdles in finding all the books?
Translations into English, and the lack thereof, has proven to be the largest hurdle in cobbling together my reading list. Not a surprise. It’s my own fault I’m not at least bilingual. So I’ve had to bend the rules in a few selections.
At the beginning, finding a novel for Monaco that ticked all my boxes was, well, a wide open blank. I held hope that some universally published genius would surface from the woodwork of my research and… wow! Hey? Fancy that? _____ is from Monaco.
Hasn’t turned out that way.
I’ve settled on W Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, widely considered his masterpiece (even if he admitted late in life that he was surely a cut-rate author). The ‘breach’ in my set parameters occurs in that Maugham was not born in nor technically from Monaco (although I have strong reservations on the idea of one’s ‘fromness’). No, Maugham was born a privileged son of an Englishman in Paris. Close enough? Close enough in the way that novelist Hella Haasse was born in Indonesia to Dutch parents, then moved to The Netherlands early in life? Not really. But Maugham did live the last 25 years of his life in Monte Carlo baled up in some ostentatious mansion. So there we are. And, well, his life was the precise embodiment of a jet-setting tosspot with endless spigots of cash, closets bursting with garish frippery, affairs rearing up in far-flung countries like couture fads or spooked gazelles and well-oiled manoeuvres in conniption throwing. All news to me. Can’t say I knew boo about William Somerset Maugham before. So, here, he acts as the pastiche many think Monaco to embody. It’s certainly not a fair embodiment applicable to all mensch from the area over the eons, but I had to go with somebody.
But here’s whom I would very much have preferred to read from Monaco for this project: Louis Notari.
Without doubt, Notari is the man of letters from Monaco. He singlehandedly revived studies of and writings in various Monégasque languages – the first author to have known published works in those tongues. As late as the early 1920s! La Bibliothèque Louis Notari, Monaco’s national library, clearly is named in his honour. He wrote the words for Monaco’s national anthem, too. And, oh yes, he was also an accomplished civil engineer, designing Monaco’s only major gardens, the Jardin Exotique de Monaco (mostly comprised of cacti from around the world, thornily juxtaposed with and lording above all the gauzy Rolls Royces thrumming to and fro). Notari was also the first to discover, around 1950, the huge caverns that lay under his nation and trumpeted garden… incidentally, the very same caverns in which I would nearly meet my death, 52 years later, after sliding down some dank, rickety stairs and nearly impaling myself in an iron maiden of razor-sharp stalagmites protruding below. Thanks, Louis.
I emailed the Notari Library, enquiring if they knew of any translations from the past 75 years. No reply. I wrote to the Monaco International Forum of Cinema and Literature seeking the same. No reply. For Chrissakes, I even wrote to the arts society headed by one Mr Albert Alexandre Louis Pierre Grimaldi, aka Prince Albert II. Thrice, no reply.
So, Maugham’s my chap for Monaco.
My inability to read French has also stymied my plans for New Caledonia and its premier literary figure, novelist and poet Jean Mariotti. Never had I heard a peep about him before my wife and I recently set off on our babymoon (read: honeymoon for expectant parents) to Mariotti’s homeland. We stayed a few nights in a rustic bungalow amidst araucaria pines that swish and bend to spell the region’s beauty. Turns out this Mariotti fella is from the next ravine over. Learning this fact seeded in me my first inklings of this project.
Widely lauded in France, generally unknown everywhere else, Mariotti, too, receives the library and academic college naming homage in Noumea. From what I can prowl online, many of his novels sound like Jack London-y tales with a South Pacific bent and doused in farragos of local politics (although he also penned travel guides and economic surveys of the indigenous cultures to pay the bills). Frustratingly, the only English translation of his work ever to be published, Tales of Poindi, was a one-off run from Domino Press, New York, in 1938. And that was a children’s book.
Undaunted, I pressed on with correspondence (choppily translated by Google) to L’association pour L’édition des Oeuvres de Jean Mariotti. Did they know of any translations? Their reply was eager, excited that somebody from Australia enquired about their god, but also wistful with resignation. Alas, they have grand plans to publish all his works in translation, but, to date, haven’t raised enough cash or international interest to do a single one. Are you reading this, entrepreneurs out there with small presses? I know it’s often about rapier margins and dollars in publishing books, but what an opportunity.
New Caledonia represents the lone loose-end I have with this project. I could stumble through Mariotti’s readily available French language originals, insufficiently gleaning only the phonemes his words offer my ear. There isn’t really anybody else to choose from. So I might do just that.
I did have another first-choice dead end, for identical reasons, in hoping to read heralded Montenegrin author Mirko Kovač, owner of more brass badges of honour (for literature) than his nemesis, Slobodan Milošević, could have possibly sported (for shame) on his erstwhile epaulettes. After coming up goose eggs for any Kovač translations, I wrote to indie Croatian publisher Fraktura to see if they had any English language editions planned, adding to what they currently publish of his work in the Serbo-Croatian. Again, I received a most eager reply: they’d like to do exactly that, but haven’t found any foreign publisher to invest in such a co-project (still looking at you, small presses of Australia). Thankfully, I ran across Mihailo Lalić, fellow esteemed Montenegrin scribe… and located a bookshop in New Iberia, Louisiana, that had a used copy of his The Wailing Mountain. This book got a lone English translation printing in the 1960s. There aren’t many around.
A few more bends to my project rules
When looking into whom I would select from Cambodia, I dearly wanted to discover that one, perhaps two novels by Mao Somnang had been translated into English. Curses. Not a one that I’ve come across, anyhow. She has been, undoubtedly, the most widely read author in Cambodia for the past thirty years. I’m gleaning her books were more lengthy serials, at times cranked out in a fortnight. Writing under the nom de plume of The Rabbit, she stealthily concocted and freed more than 100 titles under the Khmer Rouge’s bulbous nose. It’s said her books helped keep people sane during such hard-to-imagine barbarism. Pin Yathay’s recount, Stay Alive, My Son, my selection for Cambodia, has done the ‘imagining’ for me. It is one of the first and more renowned texts of the survival of that wrath. Yathay’s book is novel-length, definitely literature, but not much fictionalising going on, I suspect. I’ve chosen it anyhow.
In the end, I did select one book of poems – Black Stone by Grace Mera Molisa of Vanuatu. She was, by miles, the grand swami of Vanuatu’s modern literary incubation: poet, activist, leading Pacific intellectual, agitator, polyglot extraordinaire. Also, an interesting point to note is that she was the first indigenous Vanuatan, ever, to be awarded a university degree… or so attest various pages on the internet. Could be true?
Melanesian cultures are saturated in a dizzying bombardment of languages and oral traditions which are as rich as any region on the planet. Scads of dough-eyed students traipse off into PNG, Solomon Islands, Wallis and Futuna to study this linguistic trove. But there’s not been a whole lot of printing presses out there chugging away on tiny islets. Ergo, little of this tradition has found its way into printed novels, let alone in English. Pasifik Paradaes, Molisa’s novel written in Bislama – a creole hewed from English, French, indigenous languages and woven into the modern tongue spoken by all Vanuatans – remains untranslated.
And so here, finally, is my selected reading list!
Eleven women, seventeen men, in no particular order.
- Agamemnon’s Daughter, Ismail Kadare, Albania
- The Crystal Frontier, Carlos Fuentes Macías, Mexico
- Paradise of the Blind, Duong Thu Huong, Vietnam
- Museum of Unconditional Surrender, Dubravka Ugrešić, Croatia
- The Villagers, Jorge Icaza Coronel, Ecuador
- Faces in the Water, Janet Frame, New Zealand
- Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru
- The Shrimp People, Rex Shelley, Singapore
- Miracle Workers, Slavko Janevski, Macedonia
- Black Stone, Grace Mera Molisa, Vanuatu
- Blindness, José Saramago, Portugal
- Snow Country, Yasunari Kawabata, Japan
- The Tea Lords, Hella Haasse, Netherlands
- Frangipani, Célestine Hitiura Vaite, French Polynesia
- Cosima, Grazia Deledda, Italy
- The Vivisector, Patrick White, Australia
- The Girl in the Photograph, Lygia Fagundes Telles, Brazil
- Nowhere Man, Aleksander Hemon, Bosnia-Herzagovina
- Stay Alive, My Son, Pin Yathay, Cambodia
- TBC, Jean Mariotti, New Caledonia
- By Night in Chile, Roberto Bolaño, Chile
- Bear, Marian Engel, Canada
- Of Human Bondage, Somerset Maugham, Monaco
- The Wailing Mountain, Mihailo Lalić, Montenegro
- The Time of the Doves, Mercè Rodoreda, Spain
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou, USA
- Mobile, Michel Butor, France
- No Harvest But a Thorn, Shahnon bin Ahmad, Malaysia
My preference is to acquire new copies where I can, then go for used copies when necessary.
Will anything keep me from completing the project?
My wife and I are expecting our first child this April. Very exciting. Fatherhood will certainly consume much of the remaining snippets of free time I currently have to laze around and read, as I am plentifully told. Bring it on! I’m not ready, but whoever is with their first child?
So I’m quite enthused that I managed to read six novels in January alone. That’s easily the most I’ve ever read in a month’s time (although I’d wager the aggregate word count from all six is still less than the total for Shantaram).
Perhaps the greatest threat to this reading project is feline in nature. One of our two cats, Henry (a headstrong female whom I adore), is equipped with a spooky knack for knowing when I am sprawled out on the couch, on our bed or anywhere on the floor with a book in my hand. She slinks up to me, real coquettish-like, and with stealth aplomb, winnows herself between my face and the book I’m holding up to read. When she obtains a perch on my sternum that satisfies her proximity requirements of utmost interruption, she begins purring like an ebullient whipper-snipper. And there she sits, smug little scamp, scrunched up like a yogic bunny.
Wouldn’t you know? She’s actually allergic to literature! It’s true. For when she is moored in these perches – blocking all view of my book and elastic in her resistance to be being nudged out of my line of vision – she stiffens her legs, uncoils her lanky frame like a baseball pitcher winding-up for a fastball, and with enormous velocity, uncorks an almighty cat sneeze directly in my face.
Me: fully glazed like a doughnut.
I never see it coming. Even though I know it’s lurking somewhere, craftily, artfully, in her sinuses.
So you can see how this is problematic. And it’s a deeply grody experience. But 28 books, 28 authors, 28 countries… and one year to get it done will not be as viscous.
On to book 14…
Kent MacCarter is a writer and resident in Melbourne, where he lives with his wife, two cats and one child (expected birth date 4 April 2011). His poetry and a smattering of non-fiction has appeared in anthologies, journals and newspapers internationally. He is currently involved on the board of SPUNC: The Small Press Network and is also an active member in Melbourne PEN.