This page features 'A View From This Bridge', our blog on international literature and the art of editing by editor Ellie Steel and various guests. We also pick a 'featured read' and have a regular Top 5 about the literature of a particular country. (To see the full blog archive click here.)
From the International Writing Blog
There are books that break through and find their way as if there was a before and an after their publication. Out in the Open is one of them. One weekend I received an email from someone who used to work at Seix Barral, urging me to read a couple of chapters from a novel that had made a big impression on her. The first chapter, which begins with a flight across country, immersed me in a barren world of earthy smells, sweat and fear. I read the fourth chapter of Out in the Open with my hand on my heart, struck by the unusual elegance of the prose but also by the powerful terseness of its style, by the absence of names, dates or context of any kind save for the inclemency of nature. I wrote back immediately requesting the novel in its entirety and a contact for the author. Once I had finished it, images filled my head reminiscent of the landscape in Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians; of the minimalist suspense of McCarthy’s The Road; of the understated roughness of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. But at the same time I was possessed by a sense of the unique power of the authorial voice.
Cole Porter loved Paris in the springtime and so do we. There's no better place for a literary stroll than Paris and assistant editor Fran Barrie has picked its best bookshops. We’re also very excited to be publishing our beautiful anniversary edition of The Man Who Planted Trees this week, Jean Giono’s classic fable about one man’s quest to plant a forest. It comes with a new introduction by Richard Mabey and is our featured read this month. You can find out more at the bottom of this page, after your stroll through Paris.
The Tusk that Did the Damage is set in Kerala, an extremely beautiful part of India. However, just as this novel turns the generally held idea about elephants as benign gentle giants on its head, it also uncovers a darker side to this green and luxuriant place. The story follows three characters: Manu, a boy whose family struggles to make a living in the rice fields; Emma, an American documentary film-maker who is an outsider uncovering uncomfortable truths about the conservation efforts in the region; and The Gravedigger, an incredibly dangerous elephant who has been a victim of various different forces looking to profit from elephants, or their tusks. Tania James has written a superbly suspenseful narrative about how these three characters' stories connect in dangerous ways, but beyond the evident literary qualities of her work she has also given a subtle and interestingly balanced picture of the porous moral boundaries between conservation and economic necessity or exploitation. Everyone in this book find themselves compromised in some way and the background subject of the ivory trade perfectly reflects this. It is refreshing to read a book that depicts an animal as seemingly familiar as an elephant with all its wildness and mythic and cultural weight, and also to see a sympathetic portrait of ordinary people trying to make a living in this very particular environment where nature and humanity have to coexist in close quarters.
Dancing in the Dark extract
The fourth volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard's epic six-volume series is published today. If you need any convincing to get on board with this extraordinary literary endeavour then here are the opening pages from Dancing in the Dark.
André Brink (1935-2015)
André Brink was one of South Africa’s leading literary figures, and internationally acclaimed for his prize-winning fiction, which included the novels A Dry White Season, Imaginings of Sand, The Rights of Desire, The Other Side of Silence and Philida. He won South Africa's most important literay prize, the CNA Award, three times, and was thrice shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Politically engaged throughout his life, he played an active role during the apartheid era as the most prominent of a group of dissident young writers, the Sestigers – and was the first Afrikaans writer to have a book banned by the South African government when the National party was in power.
In this extract taken from his memoir, A Fork in the Road, he remembers his rural upbringing in a staunch Afrikaner community.
Cryptocurrency: How Safe Is It?
Michael J Casey, co-author of Cryptocurrency, answers our Big Question:
With the big raid on Mt. Gox and hacking so much in the news, how safe are cryptocurrencies really?
Hacking is a real concern in the digital-currency world – as highlighted by the spectacular loss of 600,000 bitcoins worth more than $250 million at Tokyo-based exchange Mt. Gox in February 2014.
Yet cybercrime is a concern in the traditional currency world, too, as retailer Target, insurer Anthem Health, and bank J.P. Morgan all learned in 2014.
It’s also important to identify a misconception about bitcoin. While many businesses and individuals that use bitcoin have been hacked, the core software behind it has for six years resisted attack attempts from the smartest hackers in the world. They’ve failed because bitcoin’s software program does not reside on a central server but is distributed across thousands of independent computers. A breach of an individual person’s or bitcoin exchange’s “digital wallet,” or account, should no more be thought of as a breach of bitcoin itself than a hack of J.P. Morgan’s computers could be viewed as hack of the dollar.
Still, bitcoin businesses do have a PR problem around security, partly because of all the bad publicity lingering from the digital currency’s Wild-West days. They also have a bigger burden of proof than traditional businesses. Target, Home Depot, J.P. Morgan and Anthem are long-standing businesses that have built up a level of trust with customers. That trust may have been bruised by the recent security breaches, but it has survived. Bitcoin businesses can’t draw upon the same level of public goodwill. Building up a positive public image will be as important as (and inextricably linked with) thwarting hackers.
As for actually improving protection, the industry has evolved since the Mt. Gox episode. Several robust security measures are becoming commonplace. One is two-factor authentication, where the account holder needs two components to access funds. (An online account that requires both an input password and a code sent via SMS to your cellphone is an example of this.) Another is “multisig” authorisation, short for multiple signature, where accessing any account requires the consent of at least two people holding passwords. (It’s a bit like the two keys needed to unlock safety deposit boxes held at Swiss banks.)
Then there are “vaults” or “cold wallets,” essentially offline accounts, that are inaccessible to hackers. When the exchange BitStamp was hacked earlier this year, the thieves got into the online accounts (the exchange’s “hot wallets”) in which it held relatively small amounts of bitcoin for day-to-day operations, but they couldn’t access its more valuable offline accounts. Moreover, BitStamp reimbursed its customers, another thing that didn’t happen in the early days. In fact, many believe that if BitStamp had used proper multisig technology, its hot wallets would have survived too.
The technology and standards have developed such that various bitcoin custodial services have been able to convince insurers to underwrite their holdings.
The hope is that a Mt. Gox-like loss can’t happen again.
Ismail Kadare Wins the 2015 Jerusalem Prize
Huge congratulations to Albania’s most famous poet and novelist Ismail Kadare, who was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society last night at the Jerusalem International Book Fair.
Kadare was born in a small mountain village in southern Albania in 1936. He was the inaugural winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2005, and his books have been translated into 30 languages. Kadare has been compared to Kafka, Orwell and Gogol, and his novels draw on Albanian history and folklore, retelling classical legends in contemporary settings, while shedding light on the political dictatorship in Albania and its human consequences. Kadare has been an active critic of the Albanian political regime for decades, and his books have brought him into frequent conflict with the Albanian authorities – in Kadare’s own words, ‘the writer is the natural enemy of dictatorship’, and his books ‘constitute a very obvious form of resistance’. In 1990 Kadare sought political asylum in France, and he now divides his time between Paris and Tirana.
New to Kadare? Why not try Broken April, where, according to the code of Kanun, Gjorg must avenge his brother’s murder only to be hunted down himself – or The File on H, where two visiting American scholars seeking to trace the origins of Homer’s epics are suspected by the government of being part of an elaborate spying operation. Both available exclusively in Vintage Classics.
Saramago With Spiders
Ellie Steel takes another look at The Double by José Saramago after its adaptation by Denis Villeneuve into the film Enemy, starring Jake Gyllenhall.
Saramago often hypothesises in his work: what if everyone in a whole country went blind (Blindness); what if no one ever died (Death at Intervals); and in The Double, what would happen if you were confronted by your doppelganger? The figure of the double has a long rich history in literature and film. From Dostoevsky to Dead Ringers, doubles are everywhere. They’re sometimes used to comic effect, but most of the time they’re menacing: a second self, a manifestation of something dark.
The Double follows history teacher Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, who, while watching a video recommended by a colleague, recognises one of the extras as a younger but identical version of himself. He becomes obsessed with meeting this man, Antonio Claro, and tracks him down by watching numerous other films and checking the credits. Finally, they meet. But the double tradition doesn’t allow for both to exist in the same space, and only one man remains alive at the novel’s close.
Denis Villeneuve’s film Enemy, based on Saramago’s novel, adds an interesting dimension, and extra duplication, to the idea of the double. In the novel, Tertuliano’s double is an actor – someone who professionally plays other people – and in the film we watch the actor Jake Gyllenhaal play both men; one of whom, history teacher Adam Bell, sits at home and watches the other, actor Anthony Claire, playing a bellhop in a film-within-a-film. There’s a moment of knowing humour when Adam admits he doesn’t really like movies – Oops! he’s in one, being played by Jake Gyllenhaal.
Gyllenhaal is brilliant in this film. While in the novel we’re told the two men look identical, in the film we can see it for ourselves, yet the characters remain distinct. Yes, Anthony Claire wears a wedding ring, but there are more subtle differences between the two. Adam is more scruffy, neurotic and awkward; Anthony has more swagger, rides a motorbike and wears a leather jacket. Having the same actor play both characters gives weight to the possibility of the men being two parts of a split personality, a divided self, and it also adds to the unsettling sense of confusion over which Jake Gyllenhaal – Adam Bell or Anthony Claire (stage name Daniel St Claire) – is the original, and which is his double.
Villeneuve, a French Canadian, takes a novel written in Portuguese and set in Portugal, and transports it to English-speaking Toronto. The resulting film is stylish, thought-provoking, and beautifully shot. As the reviewer on the Roger Ebert website writes, ‘the movie’s look has the color of nicotine stains’, and Toronto has become a place of sickly brown nightmare, with vertiginous shots of skyscrapers, and – startlingly – a giant spider looming over the city. Isabella Rossellini’s in it. The ending is weird and terrifying (and has been discussed at length online if you don’t mind spoilers). It doesn’t entirely add up, at least not for me, but it’s interesting. As Richard Corliss puts it in his Time review, ‘there is only so much sense a movie like this needs to make’.
Peter Bradshaw picked the film for his ‘the one film you should watch this week’ video review on the Guardian, calling it ‘tense, absorbing’, and pointing out that the encounter between the two men brings about ‘hostility, terror, a kind of mutually agreed nervous breakdown, but also a kind of excitement, a possible liberation from the prison-house of identity’.
Perhaps that’s the key, it’s a film about identity, and rather than trying to explain it – or point out its flaws and contradictions – maybe the interesting discussion lies in why we, like Saramago and Villeneuve, find the idea of the double so fascinating, so thrilling and unsettling at the same time.