Review | The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, Youssef Rakha | Book of the Week

Rakha’s tale of a man’s “transformation during twenty-one days from a Europeanized intellectual to a semi-madman who believed he could perform magic deeds to resurrect the Islamic caliphate” is a very readable feast — taking in love, friendship, work and (in)sanity . . . identity, faith and the nationalist movement . . . Ottoman Turkey, neoliberalism, politics . . . digital photography, the internet and Cairo café life . . . Amgad Salah’s conversion from a lost hobo into an unarmed terrorist . . . laced with a smattering of zombies, camels, masturbation and ecstasy (chemical or otherwise). The Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars is one helluva read.

Part confessional, part letter to a friend, part philosophical treatise and a journey of self-discovery: Mustafa Çorbaci’s stream of consciousness carries the reader along in a weird and wonderful coherent swirl of words that conveys his thoughts, impressions and emotions as his world is turned upside down. “My marriage had been a Greek tragedy, which begins and ends within twenty-four hours. Blink and it’s over.” A journalist for over a decade, “in the last seven years he hadn’t budged from in front of the screen.” He eventually leaves his job and travels, ending up in Beirut. Continue reading Review | The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, Youssef Rakha | Book of the Week

Spotlight | The Russians are Coming? They’re already here! | G de Chamberet

Russia: friend or frenemy? The Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s direct military involvement in the Syrian Civil War are generally reported with an anti-Russian bias. Britain’s phobia has its roots in the 19th century and fear of Russia’s rising power. Today, still, Russia asserting its national interests is presented as an act of blatant aggression. A Cold War mentality lives on. Yet Western militaristic aggression in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya are portrayed as noble moral endeavours, bringing democracy to the unenlightened.

Colin Thubron opens Among the Russians (Picador 1995) with the words: “I had been afraid of Russia ever since I could remember. When I was a boy its mass dominated the map which covered the classroom wall; it was tinted a wan green, I recall, and was distorted by Mercator’s projection so that its tundras suffocated half the world.” Continue reading Spotlight | The Russians are Coming? They’re already here! | G de Chamberet

Spotlight | Patrick Modiano: public novelist, private man

Writing is a strange and solitary activity. There are dispiriting times when you start working on the first few pages of a novel. Every day, you have the feeling you are on the wrong track. This creates a strong urge to go back and follow a different path. It is important not to give in to this urge, but to keep going. It is a little like driving a car at night, in winter, on ice, with zero visibility. You have no choice, you cannot go into reverse, you must keep going forward while telling yourself that all will be well when the road becomes more stable and the fog lifts.” So spoke Patrick Modiano − for whom the fog has most certainly lifted − at the Swedish Academy, Stockholm, on 7 December 2014. He is the eleventh French writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

A refreshing antithesis to the self-promoting writer blasting forth at every opportunity, Modiano is a private man and remains aloof from the Parisian literati. There is a big difference between writing − intensely personal − and doing a turn in front of a live audience. Writers who feel that the words on the page are the point and everything else − including the web − is a distraction, could well be heartened by Modiano’s words, “A writer – well, a novelist at least – often has an uneasy relationship with speech. Calling to mind the way school lessons distinguish between the written and the oral, a novelist has more talent for written than oral assignments. He is accustomed to keeping quiet, and if he wants to imbibe an atmosphere, he must blend in with the crowd. He listens to conversations without appearing to, and if he steps in it is always in order to ask some discreet questions so as to improve his understanding of the women and men around him. His speech is hesitant because he is used to crossing out his words. It is true that after several redrafts, his style may be crystal clear. But when he takes the floor, he no longer has any means at his disposal to correct his stumbling speech.”

Continue reading Spotlight | Patrick Modiano: public novelist, private man

Spotlight | Boom not Bust: A new chapter in the story of translation in the UK

Translations on the UK market

In a piece for The Swedish Book Review published in 1997, I stated that, “Roughly 3% of the titles published in the UK every year are translations (as opposed to 30-40% in France and Germany).” It is a puzzling paradox that Britain is such a multi-cultural society yet so insular when it comes to ‘foreign’ writers in translation. Especially since book-buyers just want a good story and are not particularly concerned about its provenance.

Dr Jasmine Donahaye’s 2012 survey Three percent? Publishing data and statistics on translated literature in the United Kingdom and Ireland is unequivocal: “Literary translation in the UK and Ireland – whether assessed according to its broader definition or restricted to the genre categories of poetry, fiction and drama – is a little higher than the often-cited 3% figure. Indeed it is consistently greater than 4%, and, over the sample years, consistently increases.”

She gives the following statistics:
“The percentage of all publications that are translations: 2.21% in 2000 ; 2.65% in 2005 ; 2.43% in 2008.
“The percentage of poetry, fiction and drama that is translation: 4.37% in 2000 ; 4.51% in 2005 ; 4.59% in 2008.
“The percentage of all literary genres (the entire 800 Dewey range) that is translation: 4.17% in 2000 ; 4.20% in 2005 ; 4.37% in 2008.”

Continue reading Spotlight | Boom not Bust: A new chapter in the story of translation in the UK