I originally wrote this article for the May 2005 Wide World Books & Maps Newsletter. If you click on any of the links in the article, you will find yourself at Wide World's site where you can purchase the books mentioned. -Terrell
Reading the World
Wouldn't it be great if every time you travel to another country, you could sit down and have a nice long talk with one of the natives about their views on life, the world, their own country, history, or a hundred other topics? Constraints of time, opportunity, and language can make that pretty hard to do. Fortunately, people tend to write that kind of thing down in books, especially in novels, and some other people have found what they had to say important enough to translate it into English so we can read it. Exactly what can you expect to get out of these conversations? Here's what I've found...
Reading literature in translation can help you see help you see how local authors view their own culture and what broad themes are important to them. For example, the novels of Indonesian author, Pramoedya Ananta Toer (All that is Gone and The Buru Quartet), tend to center on his country's efforts to emerge from the Dutch colonial experience. Modern African authors like Nigerian Chris Abani (Graceland) often tell stories about the problems of their urbanizing societies. Japanese literature may look to the fleeting beauty of past times like Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country or focus on the surrealism and absurdity of the modern world as in Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Read what they write and you can see what they think about.
Reading literature from inside a society is really different from reading a book about a country by a non-native author. This year Louis de Bernieres and Orhan Pamuk both published novels set in Turkey with plots that involve the violent events that took place as the old empire died and the new country was being born. Birds without Wings by London-born de Bernieres tells a sad story of the people of a small Anatolian village that is well-written, interesting and informative. Turkish author Pamuk's novel, Snow, on the other hand, is a tragic cry of the heart of a nation just beginning to recover from its birth pangs and self-inflicted wounds. You may get more precise historical details from de Bernieres' story but you'll understand how the Turks feel about themselves in Pamuk's book. I like to hand sell (that's a bookie term meaning I often recommend) God's Mountain by Erri de Luca about a young boy in post-war Naples to customers on their way to Italy because I think the ending of the book is so Italian. No American would ever have written that ending. Reading that ending can help you understand Italians better.
Reading literature by locals can also help us to see how we're the same. Some themes are constant from culture to culture and they show up in literature. Everyone loves a love story (how about Mexican author Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate?). Certain things are always funny. And every culture that I've encountered is fascinated by a good murder mystery. Georges Simenon's Maigret novels have exposed the darker side of Paris and enthralled both French and English-speaking readers since the thirties. The Silence of the Rain by Liuz Alfredo Garcia-Roza shows us that Brazil and the Portuguese language can turn out a spine-tingling thriller. Even the bureaucracy of modern China has been the backdrop for the police procedurals of Qui Xiaolong (Death of a Red Heroine, When Red is Black). When you realize how truly universal this theme is, it's not hard to imagine cave men sitting around a fire grunting out the story of how Tharg killed Murg to steal his pounding stone. Reading these common themes helps us realize that we're on one world and we're all in this together.
So why does all this reading make your travel experience better? There are lots of reasons, but they all stem from one big reason and it is same reason most of us here love to travel: travel is a chance to look at our world from a fresh perspective and to come to know it, enjoy it, appreciate it, and love it all over again. Reading the literature of another culture is a great way to find that perspective.
When we did our Best of Travel Survey back in September I asked our customers to recommend some of their favorite translated novels. Here are some of their responses:
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Columbia)
Don't see your favorite on the list? Write and let us know what it is. We're always ready to hear about (and maybe stock) a great book.