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Imagining A Better World: Four Translated Books That Explore Questions Raised By This Year's Hay Festival

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The Hay Festival is an annual literature and arts festival which takes place in Hay-on-Wye, Wales. This year, attendees are encouraged to “Imagine The World”. But what exactly should they be imagining?

With events discussing topics like climate change and the need to eradicate humanity's carbon footprint, it's clear the focus is on making the earth a healthier, more sustainable place – before it's too late. But this won't happen overnight, and it definitely won't happen unless we make it happen. Survival means coming together, collaborating and compromising.

These four translated books explore the natural world and themes of communication and togetherness. Some strive to find answers. Others offer a harrowing warning. But all are worth your time.

The woman in the dunes

One of the big focuses at this year's Hay Festival is climate change, and the horrifically adverse effects it's having on the earth. Ultimately, nature is indifferent to the lives of human beings. Disaster is inevitable should we fail to come together and change our ways.

Though not about climate change directly, Kobo Abe's The Woman in the Dunes gapes wide-eyed in terror at nature's indifference. Niki Jumpei is an amateur entomologist who scours the desert for rare and interesting beetles to study. At night, after he misses the last bus home, he is forced to take shelter in an enigmatic village, surrounded on all sides by hulking sand dunes.

The villagers encourage Niki to sleep in a house at the bottom of a sand quarry, but when he wakes up he discovers they have removed the rope ladder and trapped him. Forced into slavery, Niki must keep digging sand in order to prevent the house from being buried – and more importantly, himself.

Abe's prose – translated from the Japanese by E.D. Saunders – is stark and suffocating, a chilling testimony to the power and apathy of nature.

The Castle Of Crossed Destinies

Italo Calvino's writing is some of the most visceral and spellbinding that has ever been put to paper, and The Castle of Crossed Destinies is no exception. Coming together to improve the world means finding a way to communicate against all odds, to find a common ground on which to build a future. Inspiration can be drawn from Calvino's unique yet strikingly relevant tale.

In The Castle of Crossed Destinies, a group of travellers meet on two occasions: once at a castle, then later at a tavern. At the tavern, they find their ability to speak has been magically snatched away. Each, then, must tell their individual stories using nothing but the images on a deck of tarot cards.

The reader, like the narrator, must attempt to interpret and decipher these eclectic images, piecing together stories that range from humorous to enlightening.

Structured similarly to Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, Calvino proves that even when a person's voice is muted it is still possible to be heard.


Ahmed Khaled Towfik's Utopia features a society in which the wealthy wilfully ignore the lives of those who live on the other side of their walls. Sound familiar? No discussion about bettering the world would be complete without acknowledging the fact that there are those who greatly benefit from it remaining just the way it is, regardless of the inevitable cost.

Utopia kicks off when a young man and his girlfriend – who live within the walls of this affluent Egyptian community – decide to leave. Though their motivation is despicable (they plan on cutting off an outsider's limb to bring back home as a trophy) they nevertheless come to witness the consequences of their decadence. Their lives are immediately endangered by the harshness of the world they and the rest of the commune have wrought, and it's only through the mercy and kindness of the very people they despise that they have even the slightest hope of survival.

As we hurtle towards an uncertain future, Towfik's terrifying Utopia is more prescient than ever.

The narrow road to the deep north and other travel sketches

Striving to create a better world doesn't have to be all fear, gloom and doomsday predictions. After all, it's important to pause for a moment and remember what exactly is at stake. To remind ourselves of nature's beauty, and what will surely be lost if we fail not only to imagine a better world, but to create one.

Matsuo Basho was a seventeenth century poet – the great master of the haiku form – whose writing was primarily concerned with depicting the minuscule yet awe-inspiring phenomena of nature. The Narrow Road to the Deep North was written while Basho travelled from Edo to the Northern Provinces of Honshu. Along the way, he describes through prose and poetry the curious and profound (and profoundly curious) fragility of the natural world.

Reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North is like turning over a boulder as a child, marvelling at the astonishing variety of life that lurks underneath. It will also make you determined to preserve it.

Content writer from Northern Ireland. Commonly found reading, sitting firmly in a seat at the cinema (bottle of water and a Freddo bar, please) or listening to the Mountain Goats.

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