A few years ago, I made a shock discovery: Although I thought of myself as a fairly cosmopolitan, cultured person, my bookshelves told a rather different story about me. Pretty much everything on them was by British and North American writers and there was almost nothing in translation.
Baffled about why I was limiting myself to such a narrow selection of the globe's stories, I decided to make 2012 my year to correct this personal blind spot. I would try to read my way through one book from each of the world's 195 UN-recognized countries (plus Taiwan) and record my adventures on my blog ayearofreadingtheworld.com.
I knew I was going to need some help. And so I asked the world's book lovers to recommend what I should read from different countries. The response was amazing. Hundreds of people contacted me, with many going to great lengths to find, send and even write and translate things for me to read. To this day, I still get contacted by bibliophiles all over the planet with titles to add to my to-read list.
That quest taught me so many things about writing and stories and how literature can connect, shape and change our lives. It introduced me to a huge number of people, many of whom I am still in contact with today. And it opened my eyes to the riches that literature written in languages other than English has to offer.
Of course, it's impossible to read everything. The number of books published in the world easily runs into nine figures (five years ago a software engineer working on Google Books put the figure at 129,864,880, and there are certainly a lot more titles out there now). But my literary travels have brought me into contact with a number of amazing books that deserve more attention. Below are five of my favorites to date:
The Blue Sky by Galsan Tschinag, translated from the German by Katharina Rout (Mongolia)
This beautiful novel set in Mongolia's Altai Mountains tells the story of a young shepherd boy growing up in a fast-changing world. As the old traditions that his nomadic-herder ancestors have passed down for centuries begin to buckle and crumble under the pressure of twentieth-century advances, we get a glimpse into a rare and fading way of life.
Lake Como by Srđan Valjarević, translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tošić (Serbia)
This book has been translated into English, but it's not easy to get hold of. My copy was brought back from Serbia for me by a colleague who went home for a holiday. Following an alcoholic writer from Belgrade who bluffs his way on to a prestigious Rockefeller Foundation residency in Italy, it is one of the funniest books I read during my quest. But it also has that rare gift of revealing how people can grow and learn from one another too. A great read.
Alamut by Vladimir Bartol, translated from the Slovenian by Michael Biggins (Slovenia)
I read this book only a few months ago and was shocked that I hadn't heard of it before. First published in 1938, it is set in an 11th-century Persian fortress, where a charismatic leader has come up with an ingenious and disturbing strategy for radicalizing his troops to fight to the death by recreating paradise on earth. It is an extraordinary book, and even though it was completed almost 80 years ago, passages of it feel as though they could have been written yesterday.
Crowfall by Shanta Gokhale, translated from the Marathi by Shanta Gokhale (India)
India was the most difficult country to choose a book from during my quest as I had so many recommendations. In fact it wasn't until Indian journalist Suneetha Balakrishnan pointed out that all the books people had suggested had been written in English and advised me to try and find a translation of a book written in one of India's 22 other official languages that I solved the conundrum with Kaalam by MT Vasudevan Nair. Since the quest, I have continued to follow this advice and last autumn I read this book by Shanta Gokhale, another of Balakrishnan's recommendations. It follows a large cast of characters dealing with loss and trying to establish their careers in Mumbai, and has some very revealing things to say about the art and music worlds. I enjoyed it so much, I made it my September Book of the month
-- a slot I still run once a month on my blog.
Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa (Mozambique)
This book is not actually available in English, but it should be. It has won a national award in Mozambique and was voted one of the 100 Best African Books of the 20th Century by an African jury in 2002. I was lucky enough to be given an unpublished translation to read for my quest -- one of a number of manuscripts I read from countries with very little commercially available literature in English. The novel is a powerful and unsettling story of the rise and fall of a great leader who marshaled the resistance to the Portuguese at the end of the nineteenth century. Those of us who, like me, don't read Portuguese are really missing out.
Ann Morgan is the author of The World Between Two Covers.