The Beyond Borders Book Club: stories about our countries
Readers from Argentina, Egypt, Poland and Nigeria bring an international dimension to the Ennis Book Club Festival
Facilitator Sarah Clancy with Ifeoma Ugwueru, Malgorzata Buchalik, Carlos Navotska and Margaret Khalil at the launch of the Ennis Book Club Festival’s Beyond Borders book club. Photograph: Eamon Ward
The Beyond Borders Book Club is an initiative devised by Ennis Book Club Festival’s artistic director Paul Perry and facilitated by poet and community activist Sarah Clancy to include and showcase an international dimension to this year’s festival.
Four locally-based readers, Carlos Navotka, Margaret Khalil, Malgorzata Buchalik and Ifeoma Ugwueru, will discuss the literatureof their native lands: Argentina, Egypt, Poland and Nigeria. Here three of them explore a book that has something significant to say about where they are from.
The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz
It’s a book of short stories from the old times, when Poland was a multicultural country, full of people of different nations, cultures, views and religions, people that coexisted in a common environment, common society, living and working together, and telling their stories to each other. All that vanished with the catastrophe of the second World War, but I believe that exactly that experience shaped the Polish literature as well as curiosity and sensitivity to the other cultures.
Schulz himself was a Jew, who was educated in Vienna but wrote mainly in Polish – in arguably the richest, most free and most sophisticated Polish language ever. During his life, Drohobych town (which in those days was about as big as Ennis today) belonged in turn to Austria-Hungary, Ukraine, Poland, Nazi Germany and the USSR, so people changed their formal citizenship many times in their life, though still living in the same house and not moving from their provincial town.
Also the stories basically take place in and around only a few streets, in some kitchen gardens and squares, but Schulz’s imagination and versatile literary language metamorphose the town into the centre of the world where shimmering night streets branch off into labyrinths of archetypes and cinnamon shops overfilled with exotic objects of desire.
In a few weeks there will be published in America a new translation of The Street of Crocodiles (by Madeline G Levine), very different to the British one from the 1960s (by Celina Wieniewska) and I imagine that for Irish readers it could be interesting to compare them to understand how translation determines our perception of foreign literature and in how many different ways one and the same book can be read.
By the way, Irish readers, as with the majority in English-speaking countries, for the most part, read books originally written in English. Do you know that in the EU more than 50 per cent of literary translations are translations from English to other European languages and only about 6 per cent from all other languages into English? I’m constantly surprised by this strange kind of self-sufficiency, especially while it looks very soon that Ireland will become the only English-speaking country in EU.
I hope that the idea of Books Beyonds Borders will grow from an event this year to a full long-term project in the future, with a lot of foreign books translated into English and maybe also works of Irish literature translated into the languages of minorities that live on this island. That could be an efficient way to learn social and cultural realities of different cultures: integration through literature. We can organise it as an internet library, available from any place in the country, supported with reviews, reader recommendations, articles about authors, about the history of particular countries and their literature, and also with a forum, meetings and so on. What do you think about this idea?
Martin Fierro by José Hernández
Martin Fierro is a book about national identity and that is a controversial topic in the 21st century.
It represents the values and the meaning behind “being Argentine”.
It is about a gaucho (cowboy) forced to serve in the border army who escapes and becomes an outlaw.
The story is told in verse (payada, a form of improvised spoken word). It tells of his life at the border and how progress ruined his lifestyle.
When the book was written, Argentina was recovering from civil war. A huge number of immigrants were arriving mainly from Italy, the Basque Country and even Ireland. The character reacts negatively but comes to understand that it is up to him to share his values of independence, respect for family, land and work with these new Argentines. At a time when our national identity was in flux, the book was taken as the definition of what it means to be Argentine.
I love it because it speaks to who I am and it is just as relevant now in 21st-century Ireland. This search for identity is a driving force for many in this moving world.
I came to live in Ireland not because of some ancestral longing, economic necessity or Hibernophile wish fulfilment but because it is where my wife is from. That means I have had no rose-tinted glasses to shatter or pedestal to knock. I looked on this country with fresh eyes. What I love about it, especially here on the west coast, is how everything is close and those narrow, winding country roads. That is refreshing for someone coming from a place where you can spend 24 hours on a bus and still be in the same country. Even though it is a small country, the landscape varies greatly. It can be subtle and green or rocky and rough in just a couple of kilometres. The cliffs are stunning, almost challenging the brutality of the Atlantic. The quantity and quality of historical sites is impressive. I cannot forget the best gift to the culinary world, the breakfast roll! And the atmosphere at the matches of my adopted team of Munster Rugby.
Of course, there are things I don’t like. Most present in my mind at the moment is the waiting time to get your driving test and the cartel prices of car insurance.
There is scope to write thousands of words comparing Irish and Argentine writing. A certain deep literary commonality ties the likes of Joyce, Borges and Beckett. And there is no denying an Irish influence in Argentine writing through Pacho O’Donnell and María or Rodolfo Walsh.
However, for me, it is the vein of dark humour that runs in both and you can see the psyche of both cultures in the characters and their attitudes. To return finally to Martin Fierro who reminds me very much of Bull McCabe from The Field, stubborn and determined to do things in his own ways and part of the land.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Things Fall Apart is set in the 1890s and portrays the clash between Nigeria’s white colonial government and the traditional culture of the indigenous Igbo people. Achebe’s novel shatters the stereotypical European portraits of native Africans. His decision to write Things Fall Apart in English is an important one. Things Fall Apart is about the tragic fall of the protagonist, Okonkwo, and the Igbo culture. Okonkwo is a respected and influential leader within the Igbo community of Umuofia in eastern Nigeria.
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is very important to me because it showcased my Igbo culture and tradition as it was before colonisation. The use of Igbo names, the traditional marriage rites, the masquerades, the wrestlers, the dancers, the music, food and the gods cannot be over-emphasised. I named my first son Ikemefuna which was one of the main characters in the book because I had much regard for the boy [Ikemefuna]. I read the book for the first time in 1986 as my English literature novel for my secondary education curriculum.
In his canonical book Things Fall Apart (1958) Chinua Achebe pointed out the failure of the British colonial power to understand the indigenous culture, beliefs, values and the indigenous settings both in religion, politics, economy and social composition of the people. In Things Fall Apart Achebe informs his intended audience, not only the Europeans but also his own people, that their “past…was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.”
The story is centred on Igbo society. It is also about the Igbo’s encounter with Europeans. It also paints a picture of Igbo life before the arrival of the British. Achebe relays a message of a community with its own rules, laws and taboos which invariably will not appeal to western standards. It also shows that before the arrival of Europeans the Igbo society is healthy and functional.
Things Fall Apart presents the close-knit community of Umuofia and stated that each one of the people of Umuofia ‘possessed’ an important attribute that is interesting and rich. Igbo are industrious, hardworking, vibrant and religious. Achebe “deals the smug, harsh and calculating self-importance of empire a blow by displacing white missionaries, soldiers and government to the margins of the text. Their fatal imposition is registered, but it is only part of the text of African cultural history, with the first appearance of the colonialists denaturalised through Igbo eyes as albino.
Furthermore, Things Fall Apart presented through meta-narrative how the arrival of Europeans in African land, especially in the Igbo nation, marked decline, decay, division and hatred. The effect of imposition of language, alien culture, religion and education on the people was destabilising. The imposition by force of Christianity on the people as against their own religion was with bad faith. The missionaries employed enticement and aggressive methods to convert. They converted Okonkwo’s son Nwoye against his father’s wish and by doing so they pitched the father against his son.
Irish literature and African literature are somehow related in the sense that the context is based on pre- and postcolonisation, religion, power, morals, identity, culture and tradition, language and education. In fact, this aspect of the relationship of Irish with English has been used by Bruce King to make a comparison between Anglo-Irish literature and African literature in English. In King’s view, “Irish writing in English is ... uniquely similar” to African writing in its ability to incorporate a still living oral tradition within the forms of religion, language, beliefs, values, educational curriculum and culture.
The Beyond Borders Book Club panel discussion takes place on Sunday, March 4th, at 3.30pm, in Temple Gate, Ennis. Admission is free.