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One April night two years ago in Athens, an animated group of authors of various nationalities sat down to hatch a curious collaboration: a novel that would take the protagonist on a round- the-world mission, transported by one writer's imagination and pen to the next, allowing the plot to evolve at will.
Roused by their Greek surroundings, it was natural that Homer's "Odyssey" would serve as inspiration, and the book that emerged from the collaboration of 14 writers from 12 countries is an adventurous quest. Loaded with action, passion and gore, "Global Novel," the project's official title, is peppered with plot turns and cliffhangers at times so improbable that the reader begins to suspect that the writers involved were trying to undermine each other's efforts.
"I think if that happened, it was involuntary," said Niccolo Ammaniti, the Italian contributor to the novel, which was published in Italy this month under the title "Il mio nome e nessuno" (My Name is Nobody). His impression was that the writers which included Pavel Kohout from the Czech Republic, the Chilean writer Antonio Skarmeta and Yasmina Khadra from Algeria merely tried to add fresh elements to the story line, which begins in an unidentified Central American city and ends in the Orkney Islands off Scotland, after passing through half the world.
"The risk did exist that you'd end up with a series of confounding turn of events without narrating anything," Ammaniti said, but he added that he didn't believe that had happened, for the most part. "The key was to stick to a story that worked and a plot that interested the reader."
The point of this new effort was to capitalize on the writers' global reach and appeal. According to Anteos Chrysostomides, who coordinated the project for the Greek publishing house Kastianotis, where he oversees foreign literature, the novel began to take shape in the mind of Greek playwright Giorgis Skourtis as he pondered globalization. Editorial input was minimal, Chrysostomides said, and his main task consisted of fixing inconsistencies and contradictions, like getting hair and eye colors straight, and persuading the authors to deliver on time so he could coordinate the "army" of translators fluent in 12 languages who worked feverishly to ensure that every author was kept up to date as the story developed. Chrysostomides drew upon a stable of writers aged between 30 and 80, whose styles and attitudes to writing varied as much as their backgrounds. Most had never met before gathering in Athens in April 2003 to hash out the details. Each wrote his or her chapter after receiving the translated version of the preceding chapter, which had been assigned in random order. The authors "liked the sense of surprise because it was a literary game for them too, as it is for the reader," Chrysostomides said, adding that in the Greek edition the authors of the chapters are only identified at the back of the book, to let readers guess the authorship. (In the Italian translation, each chapter bears the author's name. "We felt not knowing added an element of stress to reading," said Paolo Repetti, who heads the division that brought out the book at the Einaudi publishing house).
The novel's modern-day Ulysses is a young woman, Maria Teresa Almendros, who leaves her Latin American Ithaca in search for her father, a mysterious and charismatic revolutionary cast in the Che Guevara mold. The ancient Greek hero had pesky Olympic gods sending trouble his way. Maria Teresa has more down-to-earth encounters as she navigates through the underbelly of transnational revolutionary movements, political coup d'etats and international espionage.
A careful reader knowledgeable in the Greek classic will find many analogies between Ulysses and his modern-day model. But as the baton was passed between writers, particular national imprinting emerged, at times pulling the story into turbulent narrative waters.
"It's tempting to spend half your time eliminating what's come before you and replacing other elements with your own," said the Dutch author Arthur Japin, whose father, also a writer, participated in a similar experiment in the Netherlands in the 1950s, which gave Japin an idea of the "pitfalls" of the genre.
He said he wrote his chapters each author got two in reaction to those that preceded his. "They were preaching the revolution, but it was so extreme that I wanted to present another side, about being able to forgive," he said. The book was in part sponsored by the Greek Ministry of Culture in conjunction with its Cultural Olympiad for a Culture of Civilization program. The "Global Novel" was published first in Greek, in December 2003. The Italian edition is to be followed by Portuguese, Turkish and Dutch versions, Chrysostomides said from his office in Athens. The novel naturally lacks the organic cohesion that it would have had under one author, and several participants felt it wasn't entirely successful.
"The meeting we had in Athens was a fascinating, frustrating, inspiring, sometimes hilarious experience, and I went home with high hopes that we could produce something good," said Michel Faber, a Dutch-born novelist who was raised in Australia and now lives in Scotland. But in an e-mail exchange, he said he didn't believe that the final result worked as a novel. "Those old cliches about 'national character' have a lot of truth in them," he wrote. "As a novel, it lacks structure and emotional believability." Still, Faber said he found it "miraculous" that a book came out at all. "Look at what usually happens when countries attempt to communicate political tension, cutthroat competition, sabotage, war, even genocide," he wrote. "We managed to write a novel together instead."
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