BTBA 2010 Fiction Finalists: A Recap
A commenter asked the other day for links to all of the daily summaries for this year’s BTBA fiction finalists. Well, I’ll do you one better . . . Below are all ten shortlisted books with links to AND excerpts from the overview pieces:
César Aira, Ghosts. Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. (Argentina, New Directions)
Of the three Aira books to make their way into English, this one is by far my personal favorite. It’s just so tight. Not a wasted word. And the opening is incredibly impressive and grand, depicting the setting for the novel (New Year’s Eve at a fancy high-rise that’s still under construction) through a variety of perspectives, from the earlier morning visits of the future inhabitants to check in on how things are going, to the mind of the architect, to Patri’s cousin who gets all the workers their lunch, to Patri’s mom, before settling in on Patri herself. This extended intro is almost like a supernatural flight, a way of passing through all the layers of the building and the class divisions of the people involved with it. And beyond setting up the plot and players, it also gives Aira a chance to show off his skills and to start his mediation on space, happiness, and potentiality.
Gerbrand Bakker, The Twin. Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer. (Netherlands, Archipelago)
We’re not the only ones to praise The Twin—Jessa Crispin included it on the list of “Top Foreign Fiction” books that she put together for NPR. In her summary she gets at another interesting aspect of this novel—it’s lost sense of time. It feels very turn-of-the-century, and is, but in a 20th becoming 21st sort of way . . . Or as Jessa puts it: “In its candor about the bitterness that can arise from family obligations and the responsibility of caretaking, The Twin is both touching and surprising. Bakker’s beautiful and uncluttered prose style is almost old-fashioned. A character’s remark about the farm — “It’s here on this road now, but it might just as well be 1967 or 1930” — could refer to the novel itself. Family drama, after all, is timeless.”
Ignácio de Loyola Brandão, Anonymous Celebrity. Translated from the Portuguese by Nelson Vieira. (Brazil, Dalkey Archive)
Centered around an unreliable narrator obsessed with the idea of becoming famous, Anonymous Celebrity reads more like a scrapbook than a novel, teaming with information and jokes, switching tone on every page, forcing the reader to come to terms with the manic, slightly unhinged mind behind it all. And by “slightly unhinged,” I mean willing to murder the “Lead Actor”—who supposedly looks just like our narrator—so that he can take over all of L.A.‘s roles.
All the various sections, such as the “Rescuing the Anonymous” bits to draw attention to the nearly-famous (like Marli Renfro, who served as Janet Leigh’s body double in Psycho, or the unknown friends present in a photograph of Hemingway) are brilliant. The manuals for how to be famous and the gallery of characters extremely fun. But it’s obvious as you move through this book that there’s something going on underneath to decipher. The entire narrative is steeped in lies and delusions, constructing a wonderful game for the reader to puzzle through. All is clarified by the end (maybe a bit overclarified), but along the way the writing is brilliant, the posturing and the bittersweet appeal of celebrity is palpable.
Hugo Claus, Wonder. Translated from the Dutch by Michael Henry Heim. (Belgium, Archipelago)
I can’t do half the job Michael Orthofer did in describing Wonder so I’m think I’m just going to crib his review . . . The focal point of the novel is Victor Denijs de Rijckel, a schoolteacher who is a bit mental before the story even starts. And the novel progresses along two major tracks: a series of entries de Rijckel makes in a notebook he’s keeping at the institution where he currently resides, and a chronological description of earlier events.
The plot is set in motion when de Rijckel attends a masquerade ball, falls for a woman (isn’t it always the case?), and then meets a young student the next morning who knows the woman and where she lives. Michael can take it away: “The woman lives at Almout castle, in Hekegem, and they go there. Taking a room at a local inn the teacher passes the boy off as his nephew, but eventually they suspect him of being a paedophile; rather than turn him in, however, they want their silence to be bought — typical, it turns out, for this morally compromised nest. Reaching Almout de Rijckel is mistaken for someone else, the Dutch delegate to a meeting taking place there.”
Wolf Haas, The Weather Fifteen Years Ago. Translated from the German by Stephanie Gilardi and Thomas S. Hansen. (Austria, Ariadne Press)
In the novel The Weather Fifteen Years Ago, Wolf Haas is being interviewed about a book he wrote with the same title that is more or less a prolonged story of unrequited love. The novel inside the novel revolves around one Vittorio Kowalski, who appears on a game show to show off his ability to remember what the weather was like in a particular small village in the Austrian Alps every day for the past fifteen years. In and of itself, this is a pretty remarkable, but the Haas of the novel knows that there’s something more to the story . . . Why would a man memorize the weather every day for some podunk town where his family once vacationed? (A: A girl. It’s always a girl.)
From this seemingly innocent, yet oddly compelling story, a whole world unfolds, one that’s both intricate in terms of its plot (there’s a lot more to this little summer love than one initially expects) and in terms of how the interviewer talks with (fictional) Haas about the way the (imaginary) book is written.
Gail Hareven, The Confessions of Noa Weber. Translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu. (Israel, Melville House)
. . . After the first handful of pages I was in love with Noa’s voice. As I mentioned in my review, this is one of those novels in which the voice and telling of the story far outstrips the plot of the actual book. At its most basic, The Confessions of Noa Weber is about a middle-aged writer who married a man out of convenience (to escape her military duty) and continues to love for the rest of her life despite the fact that he leaves her for Russia, for another woman, for a different life.
Noa goes on to become a very successful author of Nira Woolf detective novels, but never stops loving Alek. And this book is her gut-wrenchingly personal account of her obsession and her life as a whole. In our blog & Twitter-obsessed world, this book is perfectly suited for our times. It reads like a too-personal look into someone’s life, but one that is charming, honest, smart, self-critical, sarcastic, and absolutely captivating.
Jan Kjærstad, The Discoverer. Translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. (Norway, Open Letter)
What’s fascinating about this trilogy—and the reason why you don’t need to read all three books to “get it”—is the way that each volume presents Jonas’s life and Margrete’s death in completely different ways. There’s some tricksy narrative stuff going on—who is narrating The Seducer and how do they know all the details of Jonas’s life? who is the woman giving the professor all the dirt on Jonas in The Conqueror?—but on a basic level it’s pretty straightforward: in The Seducer, Jonas is a superstar who is one degree from perfection and arrives home from a trip to find that his wife has been murdered, and in The Conqueror, he’s always has some violent urges which culminated in him murdering his wife. And in The Discoverer, he’s out of prison sailing down a fjord with his daughter and a group of young people working on a high-tech multimedia project. [. . .]
And that’s Kjaerstad’s genius. The way these three separate visions overlap and interplay is absolutely brilliant. You can start anywhere with the series, and depending on the order in which you read these, you’ll end up with a different impression of Jonas, of what really happened, and of the various threads that tie together the three books.
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future. Translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull. (Russia, New York Review Books)
This is one of those books that must drive a certain B&N buyer (and a dozen sales reps) absolutely insane. All the book world prejudices come into play: 1) short story collections don’t sell, 2) dead authors don’t sell, 3) who gives a shit about Soviet Russia?, 4) could be cross-shelved in either sci-fi or literature, and 5) how do you pronounce “Krzhizhanovsky”? [. . .]
Although the pieces aren’t quite as avant as Kharms, the strange sense of humor and the self-reflexiveness of the book remind me of the OBERIU. With a little bit of Calvino thrown in for good measure.
José Manuel Prieto, Rex. Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen. (Cuba, Grove)
Trying to summarize this book is a bit tricky. It’s like a mafia thriller filtered through Nabokov. It’s a dense book with a narrator who is both unreliable and maybe a bit confused, and who is obsessed with Proust. It was also the subject of an incredible conversation Erica Mena and I had with Esther Allen for a forthcoming Reading the World podcast. (That’s a subtle enough plug, right?)
Anyway, the basic set-up of this book is that the narrator has been hired by a Russian couple living in Marabella, Spain to tutor their son. The narrator decides that all the kid needs to do is read Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, which is the book that contains everything from psychology to quantum physics. The world is in there.
Robert Walser, The Tanners. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky. (Switzerland, New Directions)
I think I’ll close this off with one of my favorite quotes from the novel. It’s from the very end, but really, this is a book that’s more mood than plot, so I’m really not giving away much of anything:
“No,” she said, “you won’t sink. If such a thing were to happen, what a shame it would be—a shame for you. You must never again condemn yourself so criminally, so sinfully. You respect yourself too little, and others too much. I wish to shield you against judging yourself so harshly. Do you know what it is you need? You need things to go well for you again for a little while. You must learn to whisper into an ear and reciprocate expressions of tenderness. Otherwise you’ll become too delicate. I shall teach you; I wish to teach you all the things you’re lacking. Come with me. We shall go out into the winter night. Into the blustery forest. There’s so much I must say to you. Do you know that I’m your poor, happy prisoner? Not another word, not one word more. Just come—”
There you go . . . Enjoy the write-ups and the books. I’d love to hear from anyone who has read and loved (or hated) any of the books on the list, and since the winner has yet to be decided, feel free to lobby for your favorite in the comments section below . . .