Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Hey, English is not the only language in which fiction is written!

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction, a sort of Booker Prize of the Arab World, was awarded to Youssef Ziedan of Egypt for his controversial novel Azazeel (to be translated into English as "Beelzebub"). The novel speaks about religious fanaticism and mob violence among early Christians in Roman Egypt. Of course the Coptic Christians wanted it banned, but isn't it the case of too many fiction books on the Arab world? To take a stand on this is quite tricky I would say, since I gather that Copts (10 million in Egypt) are being discriminated in Egypt. I would like, instead, to emphasize the fact that Egyptian writers seem to be the most appreciated in the Arab world (or maybe by the western audiences?), starting from Ala Al-Aswani.
Here's the plot of Azazeel from an article taken from The Guardian:
"[Azazeel are] the memoirs of a fifth-century doctor-­monk and passionate lover named Hypa, whose scrolls are unearthed by a 20th-century translator. Born in AD 391, when Christianity was imposed as Roman Egypt's official religion, Hypa wanders east to the Holy Land after witnessing a mob of Alexandrian Christians lynching a woman, Hypatia, the neo-platonic philosopher and mathematician who defended science against religion. Ziedan sees the lynching as a symptom of religious intolerance, and the start of a scientific dark age.
The fictional monk stumbles on another historical conflict, between the Coptic Bishop Cyril of Alexandria, and Nestorius, the Syrian-born patriarch of Constantinople whom Cyril deposed as a heretic in a schism of AD 431."

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize: because literature is not only what is written in English, as most British - American people uncounsciously assume... It is nonetheless sad that what is awarded and thus considered in the English-speaking world is always what is indeed translated, which is a small part of the great literature that the world produces. I would like to hear more about English or American people who read fiction directly in French or Spanish.
Three considerations: 1) I'm happy for Colombian fiction that dominates with 2 books, demonstrating that it's not only Garcia Marquez that matters 2) A novel from such a minor language as Albanian has been translated and nominated and I'm happy because as an Italian I feel Albania particularly close 3) Two non-European languages (Chinese and Hebrew) appear on the list, which is extremely good.

Voiceover by Céline Curiol, translated by Sam Richard from the French
Beijing Coma by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew from the Chinese
The Siege by Ismail Kadaré, translated by David Bellos from the Albanian
The Armies by Evelio Rosero, translated by Anne McLean from the Spanish
The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, translated by Anne McLean from the Spanish
Friendly Fire by A B Yehoshua, translated by Stuart Schoffman from the Hebrew

PS: I've been receiving comments like "Hey, is The Siege any good?". I'd like to inform you that I didn't read all the novels I name in my blog, especially when I'm giving news on the literary prizes!


  1. Stefania, thanks for the tip on "Azazeel." It sounds fascinating. While I agree that many Americans and Brits could/should read more international fiction than they do, I could care less what books win the prizes because I rarely (if ever) factor that into my book-buying decisions. I also think "guides" like the 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die lists are horribly "misguided": you'll never convince me that Ian McEwan has written 11 more "essential" books than Borges or Cortázar for example. I like browsing in bookstores of all types to get ideas on what to read next (we have a great foreign language bookstore near where I work, but the titles are often a little pricey due to import and shipping costs), but I also get book recommendations from course syllabi, graduate reading lists for master's degree and doctoral programs, interviews with authors I like, lit blogs written in foreign languages, etc. The various current book awards that you cover so well are interesting to read about to be sure, but they have virtually nothing to say about all the previous centuries' worth of great literature. This is more of a disappointment to me than the pro-English bias you mention. Sorry for the rant, but you said you wanted to hear from Americans who read directly in French and Spanish!

  2. I agree that buying a book just because it has won a literary prize can be disappointing, but sometimes the lists can help you in the choice. I always read the plots and decide what I might and might not like.
    What interests me is learning about new interesting writers and not all the book shops have the interesting books on the most visible shelves.
    Personally I use a bit of everthing: reading reviews on the newspapers, following news on the writers I like and new books that come out and good old browsing in my favourite book shops.
    Maybe I should read more classic and appreciate all the previous centuries'worth of great literature, as you say, but I have a soft spot for world literature, especially post-colonial literature so I follow the news and the prizes. About the classics, sometimes I feel that writing about them is useless because so much has been said already.