Three summers ago, I showed up to the airport without a book for an eight-hour flight—a foolish thing—and so made a last-minute selection at the nearest Hudson News: a novel about one German woman's adventures in Berlin during World War II. I liked it—but what, I wondered, was the real story?
The book I found, in hope of answering that question, was A Woman in Berlin, an anonymous memoir of life in the German capital during the Soviet occupation. The book I had read en route to Paris, by an American author, was a story of wartime meddling and occasional derring-do.
Sample passage from A Woman in Berlin:
"My throat was dry with nervous excitement when I turned onto my friend's street. When you haven't seen each other for two months—and what months!—you have no way of knowing whether the buildings are still standing or whether the people inside are still alive. … Ilse and I hastily exchanged the first sentences: 'How many times were you raped [by Soviet troops], Ilse?' 'Four, and you?' 'No idea, I had to work my way up the ranks, from supply train to major.'"
That... seemed like a substantial difference. For uncomplicated reasons, sure: genre, authorial intention, and more. But it was clear to me that a German author's perspective on Germany had something to offer that an American author's perspective on Germany could not.
And so, I began my project. I Googled prodigiously, and found a group of likeminded readers: "Around the World in 80 Books." They discussed one novel per month, with the collective objective of reading a book set in every country. Their goal is now my goal. I am 30 books in, and reading fast.
To their ambition, I added my own mandates.
Sub-rule 1: It is not sufficient that a book is set in a foreign country; a native-born author must have written it as well. (Le Petit Prince, oui. A Year in Provence, no.)
Sub-rule 2: No books by foreign authors about the American experience.
Sub-rule 3: Exceptions allowed. (Consider Irène Nemirovsky's Suite Française, a peerless consideration of wartime life in France by a writer born in Kiev and murdered at Auschwitz for sub-rule 1; consider Americanah, by the Nigeria-born, Yale-educated Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for sub-rule 2.)
Because I started in Germany, I next moved to Poland (Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen), then moved north, to Finland, for the beautiful The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. I covered Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania with three books about the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states (moving north to south, Sofi Oksanen's Purge, Peggie Benton's Baltic Countdown, and Ruta Sepetys's Between Shades of Gray), a historical calamity of which I previously had only glancing knowledge. I'm currently reading No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, by Syrian writer Khaled Khalifa. I try now to focus more on contemporary writers than classics: I sort-of read Don Quixote in college, but for this project, I read Javier Marías's The Infatuations.
Three years into this project, I've discovered that half of the satisfaction is in the selection of each nation's book, a process I perform with all of the solemnity and none of the chance of a Hunger Games reaping ceremony. I have read five books from Australia but decided none qualify because I didn't like them enough.
Sometimes the problem is more complex. Let us consider South Africa. Rian Malan's My Traitor's Heart is one of my favorite books, and bears an explicative subtitle: "A South African Exile Returns to Face His Country, His Tribe, and His Conscience." It would be even more explicative if "South African" were rewritten as "Afrikaner" ("White Afrikaner" is redundant), as it's the story of a white man confronting his own family's contributions to apartheid.
I had already read the Booker Prize-winning Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, a Nobel laureate whose work similarly considers the consequences of apartheid—sometimes on men who resemble Coetzee, who, if not for the hipster-professorial beard, would look quite at home in a portrait of Donald Trump's cabinet. White men make up less than five percent of the population of South Africa. The country has 11 official languages: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu. Who should tell the country's stories?
"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." –Nelson Mandela
How could I avoid my own tendency, made clear by this process, to gravitate to books by authors who most physically resembled me? It wasn't until I read Trevor Noah's truly wonderful memoir, Born a Crime, that I realized for all my appreciation of South African literature, his was the first book I'd read by a "coloured" South African.
The first book I read by a black South African was Nelson Mandela's canonical autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. In one of Born a Crime's most moving passages—when Noah translates a police officer's instructions, issued in Xhosa, to a prisoner who only understands Pedi, Noah quotes Mandela:
"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."
Noah continues: "When you make the effort to speak someone else's language, even if it's just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, 'I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.'"
I used to believe I had a talent for the acquisition of language. This is untrue. I have lived in France on and off for three years, and at this point I can conjugate a number of verbs (pleasingly, nearly all of those involved in the acquisition of sandwiches, for which I do have a gift), but I am hopeless at slang: When a friend recently suggested a petit goûter de chaud, chez toi—translate this, clumsily, as "little to taste of hot, house you"—I didn't know if he was suggesting a snack at my place, or a mid-afternoon make-out. (He arrived with éclairs.) And I've given up on my childhood goal of facility in every available language—including Navajo, in case there was ever another opportunity to fight for America alongside the Code Talkers.
"If we cannot speak someone else's language, we can at least hear their stories."
Universal fluency is not an option—at least for now, at least until Google figures it out. What I have come to realize through this project, though, is that there is a next-best thing: If we cannot speak someone else's language, we can at least hear their stories. There is no surer path to empathy without borders—and if there is one thing this strange, wounded world we now inhabit could use more of, it is certainly that.