22 July, 2013

Fiction From Other Cultures - Why Bother?

Do you ever read books written by authors from another culture? 

I suppose many of us read both British and American books, which you could say were two different cultures. And some people enjoy historical fiction, which can be culturally alien to us. How about fiction originally written in a different language though? Or from a country that is very different from the typical "Western World"?

I've been thinking a lot about this ever since the death was announced of Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. I haven't read any of his books and it got me wondering whether I've ever read any African literature at all. Does the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith count?

I may not have read  much African literature, but I haven't stuck entirely to British/American books either. I've read a couple of translated books by Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a few books set in India, several Russian works in translation, and a couple of books translated from German. Most of these books however, I read because they were on the BBC Big Read Top 100 books which I finished reading earlier this year. Would I have chosen them myself? I am ashamed to say I often view books set in another culture as being a bit too much like hard work - not enough escapism for me - but then when I do read something like A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth I find myself fascinated and never regret it. I've learned quite a bit about these cultures and languages through fiction that I probably would never have learned otherwise.

I was mulling all of this over when my eldest sibling sent me a link to an article about Ann Morgan, who spent 2012 reading something from every one of the 196 official countries in the world (plus one book from an unofficial country or region as voted for by her blog readers - a literary memoir of a journalist from Kurdistan). She was aware that her reading was very anglocentric and wanted to change that. Thus ensued a year of trying to find a story from places like Sao Tome and Principe and Honduras. If you're interested, or want to see the full list of books, take a look at her website - it's very interesting. Trying to find even a short story from some countries sounds like it was quite a task - especially those with a mostly oral tradition of storytelling!

Have you read anything by Chinua Achebe? Have you read a translated novel or short story set somewhere completely alien to you that you can recommend?

Here my top five books I've read in translation and/or that are set in a culture I knew nothing about:
  • Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Russian)
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Spanish)
  • Perfume - Patrick Suskind (German)
  • A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth (English; set in India just after partition)
  • All Quiet on the Western Front - Erich Maria Remarque (German)

10 comments:

  1. It's not contest for me: the books and short stories of RK Narayan. He was an Indian writer, writing in English about the fictional village of Malgudi and its inhabitants. The characters are memorable, the stories are always a delight, often gently amusing, and sometimes moving. I can't recommend him highly enough.

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    1. Recommend me one particular book and I'll stick it on my must-read list. If he makes you rave about him, he must be good!

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  2. It's a long time since I read them, and I don't know if it's just because the title is so distinctive but Man-Eater of Malgudi sprang immediately to mind. The most memorable one for me was The English Teacher, but I didn't put that at the top of the list because it's atypical, being more serious than his others also much more autobiographical novel.

    It features his marriage and the tragic death of his young wife - not to mention a spooky episode! In the novel and real life he was approached by a complete stranger who claimed to know he'd lost his wife and to be able to communicate with her. He was both sceptical and angered by this - but he ended up having several lengthy sessions with the man and received information known only to him - culminating the words his wife whispered to him just before she died, and which he had divulged to no one.

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    1. Ooooh, I'm going to put The English Teacher on my list anyway - sound intriguing.

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  3. I've definitely read more short fiction in translation than novels - mainly Japanese (Murakami) and Israeli (Etgar Keret), plus also some French (Guy de Moupassant) and Czech (Kafka). I have a set of Folio collections of short stories published in England, Ireland, France, Japan, America, and Russia. They cover a hundred or so years, and are fascinating. So far I've only read the Irish volume, but I'm hoping it won't take me too long to get to the others.

    I think my response to writing from outside my own experience depends on my mood. Sometimes I feel reassured that so much is universal. Other times, I feel like I've missed something by not knowing everything that's being referenced.

    Still, I definitely think it's worth the effort of reading more than just the fiction I can immediately relate to.

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    1. Thanks Dan. People always tell me I should read Murakami - I'll get round to it one day. Folio collection sounds great.

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  4. ... and then there is Salman Rushdie ... one of my favourite/challenging authors ... his children's book 'Haroun and the Sea of Stories' is great (and easy) ... 'Midnight's Children' also is good.

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    1. I've read both of those. I liked Haroun, and the sequel - Luka and the Fire of Life - but wasn't a big fan of Midnight's Children. The only other one I've read of his is The Ground Beneath Her Feet. I wasn't at all sure what to make of that. My husband describes Rushdie as writing books where you don't understand the individual sentences but somehow still understand the story!

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  5. I've read a few books from China, Like Sun Tzu's Art of War and Luo Guanzhong's Romance of the Three Kingdoms, both of which were inspired by my husband's gaming tastes. I also read The Swarm by Frank Schatzig, which I bought purely because the cover looked interesting. I'm trying to read the Day Watch at the minute, but I have too much to read.

    That's about as far as I've got, but there's so many wonderful books for people to read that it would be very easy indeed to become so immersed in one culture to notice others. But I think a lot of readers may find themselves attracted to another culture from an outside influence rather than exploring it. Sad really...

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    1. It is sad, though I always have a little panic about how many good books there are to read just in British literature from the past. I feel as if I'll never catch up and be ready to read a new book - I'm still reading some great 19th-century books!

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