The puff around the award of this year’s Man Booker International Prize announced, with great flourish, at the V&A Museum was in marked contrast to the almost universal silence which greeted Quartet’s publication of the author’s masterpiece, The Melancholy of Resistance, in 1998, when we published the first English translation of this remarkable Hungarian writer.
As an independent publisher Quartet has always been more adventurous than most and as a result has been responsible for publishing books that the Establishment has shied away from. It started with the Joy of Sex over forty years ago and continues to this day.
Just one example of Quartet’s range was my account of a season’s publication in 1998, reprinted in our recent anthology Did We Meet on Grub Street?
A Witkiewicz Reader, edited, translated and with an introduction by Daniel Gerould. Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, who wrote under the pen name Witkacy, had come to be regarded as the outstanding dramatist of modern Polish theatre. He committed suicide after the Russian invasion of Poland in 1939 and his work was in eclipse till the liberalisation of the Communist regime in 1956. Then it was rediscovered and played a leading part in freeing the arts from ‘socialist realism’. Professor Gerould’s anthology gave the first overview of his work in English, including play texts, extracts from novels, philosophical and aesthetic essays, together with reproductions of his drawings and paintings.
The Compassion Protocol by Herve Guibert, translated by James Kirkup. Guibert had died in 1991 from an AIDS-related illness, the suffering of which found its way into his novels, a series of three that began with To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life and ended with The Man in the Red Hat. The Compassion Protocol (the second in the sequence) told, he wrote, ‘of my astonishment, my rage and the grief of a man of thirty-five on whom is grafted the body of an old man. But the happiness of remission makes an inroad into the unhappiness’. Quartet published the complete trilogy.
Worlds of Difference by Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt, translated by James Kirkup, with an introduction by Peter Handke. This novel, called ‘an undeserved present to German literature’ by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, told a story of a small Jewish boy taken out of Nazi Germany to be hidden in a remote orphanage in the French Alps. As he grows he is conscious of his exclusion as a Jew and his isolation as a German, finding the French language a struggle and suffering torment and persecution from the other boys. His salvation lies in developing an ability to distance himself from physical pain, achieving a transference into a ‘secret realm’ where his innermost thoughts are freed.
The Book of Hrabal by Peter Esterhazy, translated by Judith Sollosy. Conceived as a tribute to the great Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal (author of Closely Observed Trains), this fantastical novel has two angels in the background, who shadow the household of the author and his wife Anna in the guise of secret policemen. The angels communicate with God by walkie-talkie, their mission being to prevent the abortion of Anna’s fourth child. Anna – a blues-singing housewife – addresses the story of all that comes about to Hrabal himself.
The Man Who Came to a Village by Hector Tizon, translated by Miriam Frank. In a tale told with biblical simplicity, an escaped convict fleeing into the Argentine mountains arrives at a remote village where the inhabitants greet him as their long-awaited priest and saviour. His protestations are ignored and he finds himself installed as their chosen leader, engaging in philosophical discussions but disturbed by his own ambiguous identity. The scenario unexpectedly shifts with the arrival of a group to oversee the villagers in building a road to connect them with the outside world, heralding a total change in their traditions. This was the first of Tizon’s novels to be translated into English.
Diary, Volume III: 1961–1966 by Witold Gombrowicz, edited by Jan Kott, translated by Lillian Vallee. This completed the ambition of Quartet to publish all three volumes of Gombrowicz’s Diary, widely considered to be a masterpiece of Polish and European literature, standing even above his novels and plays. Through the Diary, wrote Czesław Miłosz in the New York Times, could be discovered ‘a great writer whose complex and multilayered thought belongs to the heart of our labyrinthine century’. Kirkus Reviews called it his ‘great unscrolling of spleen, playfulness, opposition, brilliance and subversion’.
The Island of Animals by Denys Johnson-Davies, illustrated by Sabiha Khemir. A fable by a foremost Arabic scholar, adapted from a tenth-century text from Basra, to expound on man’s responsibilities towards his fellow creatures, man having been chosen by God as the sole creature answerable at death for his actions in life. The Islamic teaching is that man has been created by God to share with every other creature the bounties of the earth. As a verse in the Qur’an stated: ‘And there is no animal in the earth nor bird that flies with its two wings which are not of communities like yourselves.’
The First Century after Beatrice by Amin Maalouf, translated by Dorothy S. Blair. Another fable, in the form a novel, that looked apprehensively beyond the end of the twentieth century to the growing divide between North and South. It centred on an investigation by a French entomologist and a journalist companion into the disturbing fact that female births were becoming increasingly rare for no apparent reason.
Girls of Alexandria by Edwar al-Kharrat, translated by Frances Liardet. Doris Lessing called the writing of Edwar al-Kharrat, a Coptic Christian by birth, more ‘Proust than Durrell’. His evocation of Alexandria in the 1930s and 1940s, through the stories of nine girls in nine chapters, placed them at the centre of a vibrant mosaic of family, schooldays, adolescence, wartime. The writing created captivating impressions of the streets and shorelines, the loves and scandals, of those who lived in the old city. Only through language, said the author, through the jumbled word-images thrown together in the bottomless rag-bag of your mind, could you travel to Alexandria.
Prince of Shadows by Antonio Munoz Molina, translated by Peter Bush. Some twenty years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, a republican exile is ordered to return to Madrid to seek out and liquidate a man suspected of colluding with the police in betraying members of the anti-Franco resistance. With his victim in hiding, a theme of déjà vu begins to spread around him like a net as he hunts him down, reprising events from a similar killing years before, till it seems his control over his destiny is passing out of his own hands into those of a mysterious police inspector, the ‘prince of shadows’.
Fire in Casabindo by Hector Tizon, translated by Miriam Frank. After a battle in 1875 on the puna, the tableland of the High Andes of Argentina, a mortally wounded one-eyed combatant sets out on a quest to track down his assailant and kill him so his own soul may be freed and find peace. With the story told in powerful, economical prose, the hero wanders in search, flashbacks mingling with present encounters and moments of delirium in a vividly realised book. Tizon was not of the magic-realist school but he wrote from the heart of the Latin American tradition.
My Golden Road from Samarkand by Jascha Golowanjuk, translated by Henning Koch. In Samarkand the childhood of a ten-year-old boy from a bourgeois background comes to an end as the Bolshevik terror spreads across Russia from Moscow. His family have to flee in disguise to try to reach the Caspian Sea, plagued by treacherous guides, predatory bandits and Bolshevik double agents ready to betray them. Golowanjuk had settled in Sweden in 1929 and become a popular author known affectionately as the ‘foreign bird of Swedish literature’.
Oedipus on the Road by Henry Bachau, translated by Anne-Marie Glasheen. A mythic and lyrical prose poem by a leading Belgian poet, novelist and playwright that tells the story of the blinded King Oedipus as he takes the road from Thebes to Colonus. His companions are his fourteen-year-old daughter Antigone and Clios, the shepherd bandit who joins them. Their adventures through a beautiful, ancient land set many trials for them in their journey towards self-knowledge, in which they are called on to become, by turn, beggars, singers, labourers, storytellers and sculptors. It was a profoundly realised imaginative treatment of themes that have fascinated over centuries.
The Fallen by Juan Marse, translated by Helen Lane. In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, a gang of street children gathers in a disused air-raid shelter in Barcelona, a city still suffering for its anti-fascist past. Between them they swap and embroider stories that build up into a Goyaesque fresco of corrupted lives. Using the children’s half-imagined, half-real scenarios, telling of secret sexual and political tortures, renegades and assassination attempts, Marse recreates the sordid, violent world of Barcelona in the wake of General Franco’s victory.
Mazurka for Two Dead Men by Camilo Jose Cela, translated by Patricia Haugaard. A novel by the Nobel Prize winner that was claimed to be a culmination of his literary art. It takes place in a backward Galician village community during 1936 to 1939, the years of the Spanish Civil War, starting with an abduction and killing and ending with the vengeance of the dead man’s brother. In between are woven several narrative voices, including that of the dead man’s widow. Varying themes and moods, touching on the comic and the grotesque, build like a musical composition. The music of a blind accordion player from the local brothel sounds at the start of the action and again at the end.
The Chrysalis by Aicha Lemsine, translated by Dorothy S. Blair. The ‘chrysalis’ of the title is the set of rigid traditions and attitudes binding family and married life in the Maghreb, where the principle of male dominance is fiercely defended by the tribal matriarchs. The story, by an Algerian prize-winning author, traces the story of two generations of Algerian women, a barren wife and her stepdaughter, and the long fight to win through to social independence.
The Ogre’s Embrace by Rachid Mimouni, translated by Shirley Eber. The Nouvel Observateur had called Mimouni ‘the Voltaire of Algiers…one of the great discoveries of French-Algerian literature of recent years’. Figaro said he was ‘one of the best Algerian contemporary writers…comparable to Kafka and Camus’. The book consisted of seven texts telling of the impact the absurd bureaucracies of the country had on the lives of some of its individual public servants and citizens, from a postal worker to a park keeper to a station master, for instance. There was no escape from those in power for anyone. Mimouni observed it all with a witty eye and a laconic response.
I wonder when the Booker judges and the Literary Festival supremos will ‘discover’ these remarkable texts. Pity they didn’t catch them first time round, but that’s the publishing game!