Hijos del Nilo (Children of the Nile, Xavier Aldekoa)

Narrative non-fiction. Published in Spanish in 2017 by Ediciones Península (Barcelona). 306 pages.

In Children of the Nile, the prizewinning Spanish journalist Xavier Aldekoa sets off on a journey to trace the Nile from its source at Lake Victoria all the way to the Mediterranean. However, this is not some modern boys’ own adventure following in the footsteps of European explorers of the 19th century. Instead, as the title suggests, Aldekoa’s real interest is in the people that live along the banks of the river, the diversity and versatility of their culture, and the conflicts that occur as rising populations and political tensions spill over into violence and war.

His journey begins in Uganda, where his original plan had been to meet up with Grace, a South Sudanese girl who has been forced to flee the violence in her own country. However, Aldekoa’s aim of reuniting Grace with her mother is thwarted when renewed conflict breaks out in South Sudan.

Instead, Aldekoa travels – sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of others – from the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda, down the White Nile and across South Sudan as far as the border. He then takes a detour to Ethiopia, where he visits the source of the Blue Nile in the Ethiopian highlands. The next stage of his journey takes him to Khartoum, where the White and the Blue Nile merge before the river starts its crossing of the Sahara Desert. In the final section of his journey, Aldekoa visits Egypt, travelling by boat and train from Abu Simbel, near the Sudanese border, to Rashid, a port on the Nile Delta.

Aldekoa’s journey takes us through a region that is wracked by poverty, war, and ethnic and political conflict, and the true protagonists of the book are not the writer himself or the landscape through which he travels, but the people he meets and the stories they tell. These include:

  • a former child soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, who was kidnapped and inducted into the LRA, committed unimaginable atrocities, rose up through the ranks, and finally escaped, leaving behind his former comrades but carrying his memories with him
  • a family of South Sudanese refugees who, with the help of an anonymous benefactor, have managed to rebuild their lives and now pin their hopes on the academic prowess of a studious 18-year-old
  • the people of the northern highlands of Ethiopia, a police state where a careless comment can land the speaker in prison (or worse) and where almost everyone has a friend, a relative, a neighbour or a colleague who has been arrested and tortured by the security forces
  • a Khartoum journalist who runs one of the few independent newspapers in a country where any sign of dissent is quickly squashed
  • the crew of a fishing boat, members of the marginalised Nubian minority in southern Egypt, who struggle to maintain their dignity despite the disdain with which the government and its officials treat them.

The overall picture is one both of despair and of hope. Many of the countries through which Aldekoa travels have recently been at war, while the precarious peace that currently prevails often coexists with low-level conflict and is only enforced by pervasive repression. But there is hope, too, in the people of the region, many of whom have refused to be drawn into the violence, and cleave instead to traditions of hospitality, dreaming of freedom as they quietly pursue their goal of a better life for themselves and their loved ones.

 

Reception

Hijos del Nilo has been extremely well received in Spain. It is currently on its fourth print run (in less than two months), has topped the non-fiction bestseller charts, and has received wide coverage both in the mainstream print press and the broadcast media:

http://elpais.com/elpais/2017/04/07/planeta_futuro/1491584247_322514.html

http://www.elperiodico.com/es/noticias/internacional/xavier-aldekoa-historias-nilo-5983099

http://www.eldiario.es/carnecruda/programas/Hijos-Nilo-Africa-Xavier-Aldekoa_6_629997001.html

A full list of clippings (in Spanish) is available here:

http://planeta.hosting.augure.com/Augure_Planeta/r/INMAG/Section/1078/6080?AccessToken=6D006500730063006F006C006100%23636336360594487946%23%237194D3887F7A83679EBA0C6C02CCB03C

 

Translation issues

The original Spanish text contains a mixture of different styles: first person reportage, flashback, direct speech, more contemplative descriptive writing, and analysis of political and historical contexts. The challenge for the translator is to reproduce this range of styles in English without losing the energy and range of the original text.

 

Author data

Xavier Aldekoa (b. Barcelona, Spain, 1981) is a writer and journalist who has written extensively on Africa. He is the Africa correspondent of La Vanguardia (one of Spain’s leading newspapers), is a co-founder of the groundbreaking current affairs magazine Revista 5W, has made several TV documentaries, and is the winner of numerous prizes. In 2014 he published Océano África, a collection of articles and other pieces.

https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xavier_Aldekoa

http://www.xavieraldekoa.net/

Tres ataúdes blancos (Three White Coffins, Antonio Ungar)

“One thing led to another, and that was only the beginning. I am referring to the head resting on the plate of cannelloni. Heavy and still and deaf, and attached to Pedro Akira’s stocky body by a strong, manly neck.”

When the opposition presidential candidate is brutally assassinated in the fictional Latin American country of Miranda, an unlikely hero – an obese social misfit with a groundless superiority complex – is drafted in to ensure that the country’s dictatorial ruler will not go unchallenged. What ensues is a satirical thriller, a black comedy and a political tragedy, told in the unforgottable voice of its first person narrator, the oddly endearing José Cantona

Synopsis

A bizarre thriller in which the antisocial protagonist is forced to take on the identity of the leader of the opposition party and undergo unbearable adventures in order to bring down the totalitarian regime of a fictional Latin American country that bears more than a passing resemblance to Colombia. Within this structure, the novel grows, wildly and unpredictably gushing forth in the protagonist’s voice. Excessive, mentally unbalanced, hilarious, the narrator uses his words to question, ridicule and destroy reality.

Accompanying him on his adventures are an idealistic bodyguard and a reluctant nurse. Ceaselessly pursued by the regime and betrayed by their supposed allies, the characters are finally hunted down and defeated. The two men disappear. The woman manages to escape.

The adventure seems to have come to an end when the woman, living in exile, receives a manuscript that recounts their experiences, written by the protagonist. She reads it, believing the two men to be dead. Her reading, however, becomes a frantic revision of all she has experienced and helps her find a resolution.

Translation issues

The novel is told almost entirely in the first person by a narrator with a very distinctive voice, which constantly subverts linguistic convention for both surreal and comic effect. The main challenge for the translator is to convey this voice without either flattening it (by replacing unconventional source language phrasings with more conventional equivalents in English) or carelessly transforming the unusual wordings of the source into clumsy translationese. I believe that my sample translation (see attached) shows that these are issues that can be resolved, producing an English text that is true to the spirit of the original, retaining both its surreal mood and dark humour.

Author data

Antonio Ungar (b. Bogotá, Colombia, 1974) is a novelist and journalist, who won the Premio Nacional de Periodismo Simón Bolivar for his journalism in 2005. He has published three collections of three stories, three novels and one piece of fiction for children. His second novel (Las orejas del lobo) was the runner-up for the Courier International Prize for the best foreign-language book published in France in 2008.

He currently lives in Jaffa (Palestine-Israel), where he continues to work as a journalist for a number of publications and is also preparing his next novel:

http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/culture/.premium-1.726656

Additional data

First published in Spanish by Editorial Anagrama (Barcelona, Spain). 284 pages. Winner of the Premio Herralde de la Novela 2010.

Translated into French, German, Italian, Dutch, Hebrew and Greek.

Reviews

“a political satire that keeps the reader on tenterhooks – laughing in nervous disbelief, cringing in fear – until the last haunted sentence” (Brendan Riley, Review of Contemporary Fiction)

“a work that loses none of its political power for its resemblance to a prose poem” (Ollie Brock, Times Literary Supplement)

“a grotesque, satirical thriller, which signals the beginning of a literary career that should be followed with interest” (Ricardo Baixeras, El Periódico)

“Its success is to combine parody with the enormous sadness that the story generates” (J. Ernesto Ayala-Dip, Babelia, El País)

“Stylistically brilliant, bitingly ironic, the book becomes a vertiginous story of violent events that tumble upon each other. But it is also the delicate story of an impossible love, which is counterpoised with the river of blood where the protagonist finds himself” (Arturo García Ramos, Abc).

“a grotesque comic fresco of Latin American tyranny, a stunning satire on political violence… But it is impossible not to recognise certain mechanisms of corruption and lies that also affect Europe and the rest of the developed world” (Iñaki Ezkerra, El Correo)