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by Stephen Marche

Pub Date: Aug. 2nd, 2007
ISBN: 978-1-59448-941-9
Publisher: Riverhead

The conceptual ingenuity of this volume—an anthology that purports to document the literary progression and legacy of an imaginary island—offers flashes of metafictional illumination amid what often reads like an elaborate in-joke.

While promoted as the second novel by Marche (Raymond and Hannah, 2005), this reads more like a collection of short (some very short) stories by a variety of writers spanning more than a century in the history of the island of Sanjania. The forword by the esteemed (and fictional) Leonard King, identified as a frequent Nobel nominee, proclaims that “Sanjanians are perhaps the most literary people on earth,” while the preface by the (nonfictional) Stephen Marche traces the literary history of a country as it moves from dialects (every cove apparently has its own patois) toward the “clean school” of writing, which attempted to transcend such regional differences, and from colonialism to independence. It begins with early “pamphlet” fiction, with such familiar readymades as a prostitute’s fall and redemption, a Sherlockian sleuth and an African adventure. The wordplay dialect in these stories falls somewhere between Joyce and Jabberwocky. As the preface and a concluding section of criticism suggest, as Sanjania struggled to shake off Britain’s colonial yoke and assert its independence, some of its fiction conveyed its message through code, as stories of oppression and resistance took the form of metaphors, and writers moved from the more colorful idiosyncrasies of cove language toward a more standard English. The 20th century finds some of the country’s leading literary lights in self-imposed exile, with the more modern stories from the Sanjanian diaspora capable of standing on their own outside this fictional construct. Yet “A Wedding in Restitution,” one of the last and longest stories, suggests an earlier island innocence in its fable-like tone. The biographical notes on the fictional writers provide yet another layer of context, further distancing the author from his creation (though there’s a note on Marche as well).

If your bookshelf only has room for one anthology of Sanjanian fiction, this is it.