June 28, 2012

A year of reading the world


Ann Morgan is a London-based writer who has set out to read books from across the globe. Inspired by the upcoming Summer Olympics, and by the desire to broaden her own literary tastes, Morgan’s goal is to read one book from each of the world’s 196 independent countries, which she classifies as all UN-recognized countries, plus Kosovo and Taiwan, by the end of 2012.

Morgan, who admits her “knowledge of world literature is shamefully anglocentric” is asking readers of her blog for recommendations on which books to look out for, and also where to get them, since, according to the Society of Authors, only three per cent of the books published in the UK each year are translations.

I need your help. I need you to tell me what’s hot in Russia, what’s cool in Malawi, and what’s downright smoking in Iceland. The books can be classics or current favourites. They can be obscure folk tales or commercial triumphs. They can be novels, short stories, memoirs, biographies, narrative poems or a mixture of all these things. All I ask is that they have some claim to be considered part of the literature of a country somewhere in the world — oh, and that they’re good.

Morgan has already traversed the literary landscapes of Bhutan, Iceland, Vatican City, Iraq, Cuba, Tunisia, The Marshall Islands, Jamaica, and more.

Her reviews tend to provide a bit of background information about the country where the book was originally published, and then delve into the nitty gritty, examining character, plots and themes. Her review of The Beauty of History by Viivi Luik, out of Estonia, begins,

The Estonian Literature Centre was one of the first national literature organisations on the web. It launched in 2001, back when Mark Zuckerberg was just starting out at Harvard and tweeting was something only birds did. Judging by my correspondence with it, the organisation is also one of the most efficient of its type: within a few days of my query email, I received a message from Kerti at the centre. She sent me a list of three recommendations and attached the manuscript of a crime novel set in medieval Tallinn, for which the centre is trying to find an English-language publisher.

Tempting though the crime novel was, I decided to go with The Beauty of History by Viivi Luik. This was largely because, from what I could find out, she is one of the country’s most highly acclaimed writers behind Jaan Kross, the Estonian writer most well-known to the rest of the world.

The novel follows a young woman who agrees to pose for a sculptor around the time of the Prague Spring in 1968. With change sweeping across Europe and shivering the Iron Curtain, the woman sees life around her tilting out of alignment as old certainties buckle and the authorities rush to clamp down on underground networks. The sculptor senses it too and is preparing to escape to the West in order to avoid military service, but for his model the events have less tangible and more emotional consequences that send her groping through the past, present and future, trying to locate herself in a world that will never be the same.

Melville House was fortunate enough to have Death and the Penguin reviewed. It’s a novel by Andrey Kurkov, out of Ukraine, about obituary writer Viktor Zolotaryov’s down-and-out life in Kiev, his pet penguin Misha, and the local mobster who takes a shine to them both.

Of the book, Morgan writes:

Funny, dark and spare, Kurkov’s prose evokes complex situations in a handful of words. The writer does this by using small details to reveal the humanity of his characters: a militiaman’s wish for a quiet shift, a cartoon on TV, a gangster’s pride about his car.

He combines this with razor-sharp perception to produce striking and often touching reflections on death, loneliness, friendship and love. In particular, Viktor’s meditations on the strange alchemy that is the obituary writer’s craft - creating something fixed and definitive out of a mass of memories, half-truths and anecdotes - are fascinating.

There’s plenty more to read on Morgan’s blog, and certainly it’s worthwhile to pay a visit if the wonders and mysteries of international literature speak to you as well.


Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.