Book review - All Walls Collapse

The central tenet of English PEN’s charter is that “literature knows no frontiers”. This richly varied collection of 11 short stories explores the barbed-wire fences of refugee camps, the barriers that divide communities today and the legacy of historical walls as well as celebrating how literature unites us across borders.

Brazilian author Paulo Scott, translated by Daniel Hahn, weaves an imaginative tale around the acrylic barriers erected during the 2016 summer Olympics to “stop the tourists with their photographic equipment from feeling like they are being exposed to a Rio de Janeiro that perhaps they would rather not face quite so close up”.

Muyesser Abdul’ehed’s poignant contribution, translated by Munawwar Abdulla, reminds us of the persecution of the Uyghurs – incarcerated in re-education camps, banned from speaking their native language – and the devastating effect this has on children. Kyung-sook Shin’s bittersweet tale, translated by Anton Hur, describes the homesickness suffered by a grandmother who is cut off from her home village by the border between North and South Korea; an area navigable by cats, but not humans.

Rezuwan Khan and translator Hla Hla Win both live in the Kutupalong refugee camp and I suspect Between Two Infernos is their reality, rather than fiction. It’s a bleak portrait of the “dark pit” in Bangladesh inhabited by Rohingya refugees. The narrator surely speaks for all those incarcerated when he claims: “The barbed wire that surrounds the camp on all sides has dismantled my state of mind, left my life permanently baseless.”

There are also stories that celebrate human resilience. Organised as a series of vignettes around the nine drinks consumed by various inhabitants of a hotel on Cyprus’s green line, Constantia Soteriou’s Brandy Sour, translated from the Greek by Lina Protopapa, deftly takes us through the years of conflict.

Commissioned for English PEN’s centenary, this powerful anthology also marks 10 years of its translation award and proves a fitting tribute to its free expression work and support of diverse voices.

Originally published by The Observer