Literature from A(lbania) to B(razil): Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones; Nowhere People by Paulo Scott

Enterprising publisher & Other Stories continues its excellent work in bringing novels from all parts of the world to our attention in first-class translations. Latest offerings include Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones, translated from the original Italian by Clarissa Botsford; and Nowhere People by Paulo Scott, translated from the original Portuguese by Daniel Hahn. Both books are highly commended.

Sworn Virgin coverThe first novel opens in rural Albania when the country was still a Communist dictatorship and ’emigrates’ to America after the collapse of the regime in Tirana. Quoting from the very helpful foreword to Sworn Virgin written by Ismail Kaldare, “Her novel takes an apparently exotic subject, but one drawing on literature’s oldest archetypes: the creation of a double, and the transformation of a human being. Hana, the attractive young woman who is the protagonist of this novel, agrees of her own free will to ‘turn into a man’.

 “The story refers to an ancient if rare Albanian custom that has been preserved into the modern era, according to which, for various reasons – such as the absence of a man in the household or, as in Hana’s case, the fear of rape – a ‘conversion’ was permitted and a woman could change her status from female to male. She would gain all a man’s rights and freedoms, adopt male behaviour and dress, take part in assemblies of elders, and go out to cafés to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes, with the sole condition that she preserve her virginity.

“This apparently paradoxical and anomalous custom also has a surreal dimension: it presents a loss as a privilege, and offers subjection in the guise of freedom. The protagonist of this novel passes through all the tribulations of this frightening transformation like the actor in some extraordinary role in a classical drama that hurtle towards its dénouement.”

From the outset the novel reveals a young Albanian woman, dressed as and acting as a man flying to Washington DC to be reunited with family who have long since emigrated there. In a series of flashbacks, the reader begins to understand the reasons why an attractive young woman, a college student with excellent prospects, could, of her own volition, return to the very rural village in Albania to nurse her dying grandfather and decide, again without obvious coercion, to ‘become a man’. Inevitably, the societal pressures of such a closed community; a community that few readers will ever encounter; can lead her to take what might have been an irrevocable step. How Hana/Mark takes her/his decision and what transpires more than a decade later when she travels to meet her relatives make fascinating reading. The word pictures of people and of those repressive climates; dictatorship, rural isolation and patriarchy; that condition them are set out in very compelling prose. If you have never been to rural Albania, reading this novel will transport you there and bring you back again safely. It would be well worth the journey.

Nowhere People book cover

At a time when, for not very literary reasons, we have been focussing on Brazil, it has been a satisfying alternative to read Nowhere People by Paulo Scott in its English translation by Daniel Hahn. Protagonist of the novel, also called Paulo, is driving along a rain-drenched stretch of highway, the BR-116, and notices as he passes a soaked indigenous girl sitting on
the verge. After driving on for a while, his conscience makes him turn round, drive back and offer her dry clothes.
They have difficulty communicating. She is a fourteen-year-old dispossessed Guarani Indian and he is a 21-year-old Portuguese speaking law student. They are clearly two incompatible people thrown together (in this case by the novelist) and the story relates, in a non-linear manner, the consequences.

The novel moves backwards and forwards in time and a few of the chapters are in a smaller typeface as if they are footnotes to the story. The major achievement is the creation of the character and voice of Maína, the young girl who is deracinated by her encounters with ‘Western’ civilisation. The other achievement is that skill with which Scott retains our attention and interest in the two, across decades and continents against a background of post-dictatorship Brazil and Thatcher-ruled London. It is the ultimate expression of everyone’s need for a real home.

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