Book Review - Life from Elsewhere

This slim but largely impressive collection of essays and stories marks the tenth anniversary of English PEN’s Writers in Translation programme and underlines the cultural importance of literary exchange today.

In her entry, the Syrian writer and journalist Samar Yazbek describes the redemptive power of art and suggests that it forces us to “look into each other’s eyes and into the eyes of those who are portrayed as our enemies, transforming them into human beings”. In particular, literature can “take things apart and examine them no matter how unsightly the subject matter”. Living in exile, Yazbek is ideally placed to examine the importance of fiction in helping to transform perceptions of the “other”. This also, she advises, involves familiarizing ourselves with the work of authors less well known outside their country (the case for many Syrian writers), so that we can truly understand those who bear witness to human atrocities and their attempts to document this in literature, and thus avoid cultural exchange becoming “empty statements about the role of art in effecting change”.

The Gaza resident and journalist Asmaa Al-Ghul condemns the endemic cultural repression and censorship in her homeland. She argues that Hamas views “books, art and the spread of reading as a key threat to their existence because thanks to these things, people will soon discover how empty much of their religious and political rhetoric truly is”. The Israeli writer Ayelet Gundar-Goshen lightens the mood with an entertaining metafictional account of a writer who discovers that his translator has changed the gender of his main character, unbidden, thus making the novel a success in its new language. Her story wryly celebrates the translator’s creative input in literary fiction.

It is the Russian novelist Andrey Kurkov who perhaps best encapsulates the joy of global communication: “Every culture, every literature contains a secret. The key to unlocking this secret is the language in which the culture is created, in which its texts are written, in which its ballads are sung and its songs recorded”. It is translators, Kurkov reminds us, who open these doors and reveal new wonders. It is a shame, then, that German, Italian and Portuguese writers are conspicuously absent in this anthology and, given the breadth of PEN’s work in translation, Life from Elsewhere feels rather slight. I was left wanting more.

Originally published by TLS