I am taking a sabbatical in a few weeks (actually 20 days to be exact). Never had one before. I'm used to having a month off in the summer but now there will be three.
What will I do? Rest, people say. But rest comes in many forms. I have no desire to sleep in or sleep extra. But I would like to spend time in the wilderness, wouldn't mind heading down to the desert if I could, would love to flop by a mountain stream and just watch it go by and count the emerald bubbles.
Yet there are few things more interesting on this earth than stories and few stories more interesting than those that come from people far away in lands even farther away. "I had a farm in Africa . . ." writes Isak Dinesen and right away we want to go there and see this farm, walk its acres, see its animals and houses and the colours of its skies. I have read a lot of English literature but I confess to not having read enough of non-English literature, even in translation, even of those from other lands who choose to write in the English tongue instead of their own. Perhaps this is the summer to turn all that around.
I have read some books from far away, of course. All Quiet On The Western Front, burned by the Nazis, is a German book, and even in translation the prose is magical. It had a profound impression on me as a boy and I will always remember a passage the author wrote about the soldiers marching in the driving rain - it rains on the trenches, it rains on the mud, on their faces, on the dead, in rains in their hearts.
Dumas counts for France with his adventure novels on the three musketeers (actually four): "All for one and one for all." Ah, if only the world was really like that. But sometimes, you know, it is. And Victor Hugo of Les Miserables fame counts for la belle France also: "They covered his hands with kisses. He was dead."
Russia is easy. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Chekhov. Turgenev. Sholokov - And Quiet Flows The Don. Pasternak - Doctor Zhivago. Solzhenitsyn - One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich. Russia is easy.
What is not so easy, at least for me, is to say I've read the stories of the Indonesians or Malaysians, the stories of China and Taiwan, India and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, Vietnam and Cambodia, Denmark and Norway, Chile and Brazil and Colombia. The fiction is out there all right. Some names have been carried to me by the nuthatches and sparrows and robins. Some by CBC and CNN. Some I've found listed on Amazon. There is much out there. Where to begin?
Somehow I've decided to begin with Africa, a continent that people often mention as if it were one country instead of many. I have read some African writers - Alan Paton of Cry, the Beloved Country; Andre Brink of A Dry White Season; Nadine Gordimer of The Conservationist. But my intention this summer is to try and read some literary works from each of Africa's countries - Botswana, Sudan, Chad, Mali, Kenya, as well as the nations of North Africa - Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and, surprisingly (for isn't it a nation of the Middle East?) Egypt.
The point of the matter is you can be a tourist in a country and learn nothing about the real people and the way they really are when you are not looking. If you live in the country for a few weeks or months or years you can learn something, for sure. But when a good writer writes of their people and their land then you get to the heart of it fairly quickly. Not that I undertake to read the whole world, African nations included, just to gather in some sort of international information that will allow me to blather on, ignorantly, at a party of friends. "Well, you know, the famous writer of fiction in Ethiopia says . . . " This should be a matter of the soul, stories that come into you and make their home in you and never leave. They work on you in the night and by the bright rays of the day, and they humanize the planet and all the news reports, and they dye your imagination with the colours (and they colour outside the margins too, which your art teacher told you never to do). Everything changes once I've read hundreds and hundreds of the good stories of the earth, not just those written by Americans and Canadians and the British. Not that those nations cannot plant rich fiction in me. But it is time to leap over the garden wall.
I know that I will not like some of the stories and sometimes that will be my fault and sometimes theirs (no matter how the critics praise for I know critics well enough to accept they will praise the worst writer just for being ethnically unique, or politically correct or incorrect, or writing about an atrocity or injustice no one else has written about yet). But it is my hope that I will find enough sun and shadow to delight me and bring that deeper rest to my soul I crave.
A friend says persons come back from their sabbaticals to stay a year or less at their old jobs and then move on. Some never come back. I have no idea which of those people I will be, if any of them. But I am going on safari and it is certain that I do not know when I will be back and who I will be when I arrive at my front door which will be shut tight against the October winds.