2008 Translations: Fiction

Following up on last week’s post about the Translation Database (downloadable version available via that same link), here’s the next set of capsule reviews of recently released and forthcoming literature in translation. (All previous posts and reviews available here.)

  • Oliver VII, Antal Szerb, translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix (Pushkin Press, $12.00, 9781901285796)

E.J. will be posting a full review of this shortly, so I’ll keep this really brief. I do want to point out that this is a great price point for a UK title, and that the quality of Pushkin Press books is outstanding. Nice grainy cover stock, French flaps, etc. And all for $12! This book would be $22 minimum from Peter Owen . . . Anyway, about the book itself, it sounds like a lot of fun: “The restless ruler of an obscure Central European state plots a coup against himself and escapes to Venice in search of ‘real’ experience. There he falls in with a team of con-men and ends up, to his own surprise, impersonating himself.” I love books featuring con-men, and a team of con-men is even better . . . This also has a fantastic opening line: “Sandoval the painter had tactfully left the young couple to themselves—the word ‘young’ being used here in a rather specialised sense.” More to come in E.J.‘s review.

  • Knowledge of Hell, Antonio Lobo Antunes, translated from the Portuguese by Clifford Landers (Dalkey Archive Press, $13.95, 9781564784360)

From one write-up about a title under review to another . . . Since Antunes is one of my all-time favorite writers, I’ll be reviewing this sometime over the next few weeks. (To be honest, the NCAA tournament has thrown a bit of a delay into our schedules.) This is Antunes’s first book, and one that I helped acquire during my time at Dalkey. I’ve been looking forward to this for years (literally), in part because it’s a new Antunes, and because it’s about a “psychiatrist who loathes psychiatry.” My first impression is that this is vintage Antunes—hallucinatory, claustrophobic, and angry. The one this that seems to be missing—at least so far—is the humor. Act of the Damned is a brilliant, amazing book—reminiscent of Faulkner, although a Faulkner who realizes that the lives of his characters are both tragic and very funny, in a disturbed sort of way. More on this in my forthcoming review. This is the first of two Antunes books coming out this year—the other is What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire? forthcoming from Norton. It’s also worth noting that I have a half-dozen readers reports on books from Antunes’s “middle period,” all of which sound absolutely amazing. In my opinion—and the opinion of a lot of Portuguese critics, scholars, and readers—Antunes deserved the Nobel Prize over Saramago, and all of his titles that are available from Grove are worth checking out.

This is a Japanese Literature Publishing Project title that was recently reviewed by Three Percent favorite Ben Lytal for the New York Sun. This volume consists of two novellas, the second of which Ben considers to be the best. it’s about a master bamboo craftsman named Kisuke who, well, I’ll let Lytal take it from here, “Kisuke, who, like Jinen, is uncannily boyish, eventually finds a wife in Tamae, a former prostitute who once loved his father. Kisuke never sleeps with Tamae, to her disappointment, and instead insists that she act as his mother. Despite the explicitness of Kisuke’s psychology, there remains much that lies below the surface — exactly how does this surrogate mother inspire Kisuke’s magnificent bamboo dolls, and just how does Tamae resolve her sexual love of the father with the son’s unusual request? The thrilling success of his bamboo dolls carries the story — and makes a queasy Oedipal nightmare into an enthralling fairy tale.” The JLPP has been extremely successful in getting more Japanese works translated into English, many of which are very compelling and worth checking out. Their unique form of support—pay for the complete translation and purchase 2,000 copies upon publication—is one of the reasons these books have found English publishers. More on JLPP next week in relation to the panel they’re sponsoring on publishing resources at the Association of Asian Studies Conference in Atlanta.

  • Wolf Totem, Jiang Rong, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (Penguin, $26.95, 9781594201561)

The hype for this title has been building for months (see Literary Saloon), and it’s one of the books that we plan on reviewing. In fact, as I was typing that sentence, PW Daily arrived, with Penguin Readies First Chinese Acquisition for Publication as the lead story. What’s weird about this story—and especially headline—is the “first Chinese acquisition” part of it. I mean, there are a number of other presses that have done a lot of Chinese literature, but receive no where near this amount of hype for their first acquisitions. The unevenness of the marketplace is a subject for a different post . . . By itself, this book does sound really interesting—it was written by a Chinese dissident, sold millions of copies (legit and black market) in China when it was published in 2004, and won the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007. According to PW, it’s “part ecological warning, part political indictment, and is set in 1960s Cultural Revolution-era Inner Mongolia.” Because of the good job Penguin has already done in positioning and marketing this title, it’s pretty much destined to do well here—at least in terms of attention, number of reviews, etc.—and in fact, the L.A. Times reviewed it this past weekend, almost a full week in advance of the official pub date. (Of course, the review wasn’t exactly positive—a particularly damning line: “Popularity, however, does not ensure quality”—but regardless, the book is sure to get heaps of attention and will probably become one of the most talked about Chinese books of 2008. In case you’re interested, I have six Chinese books in the current version of the translation database coming out from six different publishers—three of which are translated by Howard Goldblatt.)

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