Why This Book Should Win: The 10 Fiction Finalists
Now that the ten finalists for the 2014 BTBA in Fiction have been announced, it’s worth taking a look back at the reasons “why these books should win” according to the judges and other readers. Below is a list of all ten finalists, with links to their individual write ups along with a key quote from each.
Horses of God by Mahi Binebine, from the French by Lulu Norman (Morocco; Tin House)
Horses of God is narrated from beyond the grave by one of four childhood friends who wrench an existence in the Sidi Moumen slums in Casablanca. They form a soccer team that competes with teams from the other slums and dream of a soccer as a vehicle to escape from the squalor, violence, and unemployment. However, their fate is changed when they are attracted to a religion that offers them guidance and purpose, and training in martial arts.
Their choices and decisions transform them from lives of despair to religious extremism, and ultimately to become suicide bombers. The book is based on the 2003 suicide bombings at Casablanca’s Hotel Farah.
Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter (Romania; Archipelago Books)
In a year of stiff competition, including from Archipelago’s other leading candidate for the BTBA, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book Two—Blinding stands apart as a work that transcends the intimate thoughts of the central male narrator and expands a vision of reality to include all dimensions of time and space. Seriously, it’s a wild read. And it’s weird to see Knausgaard compared to Proust, when Knausgaard’s My Struggle reminds me far more of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, you live fully inside the minutiae of mundane daily existence wherein the narrator making his way through the world. Cărtărescu is far more akin to Proust in that he traces out the full extents of what the human mind and its capacity for memory can contain and create at once: the brain is a dangerous tool, and the weapon of memory can destroy us even as it liberates us out of the mundanity of our existence. Memory is everything, and you have the power to create memories out of nothing. Blinding is an experiment in memory-creation. Mythmaking is memory-creation. Memory is power. Memory is existence.
The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy; Europa Editions)
There is something about Elena Ferrante as a writer that is difficult to ignore. She never misses a beat. Her novels, as varied as they are, don’t waver; they are consistently thoughtful, provocative, smothering and honest. This novel was my personal pick to be put on the longlist. She has been brilliant for so long and deserves the Oscar. Her brilliance isn’t limited to her mechanics, her finesse or her creativity as a writer, but it’s her willingness to continually address the psychological machinations of women who have very unfeminine feelings.
Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Netherlands; Open Letter Books)
How to describe a book as affecting and unusual as Tirza I could cobble together a few puffed-up jacket blurb superlatives—something like, “Hilarious Disturbing Subtle Horrific Masterpiece,” or maybe “Psycho-Cultural Familial Catastrophic Tour-De-Force.” But no, the best way to proceed in this instance is to accept that, confined to this meager space, I won’t be able to do justice to this irreducible book.
So I should start by admitting that I was totally unprepared for Tirza. To be honest, I would be scared to meet the person who is prepared for it. Two paragraphs in, I understood the caliber of writer I was dealing with. By the second page I had already laughed out loud. And from then on I was hopelessly immersed in the pathetic, compelling world of Jörgen Hofmeester.
My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Norway; Archipelago Books)
I’ve read three volumes of My Struggle so far, and I’m almost certain that I like Vol 2 the best. I hate comparisons of My Struggle to Proust because they always end up being purely superficial, but I’m going to make another superficial comparison for reasons that I hope will be evident: I kind of liken this volume to the second volume of Proust. Nine out of ten people adore Within a Budding Grove the most of all volumes of Proust because it’s the love volume. Proust is using all of his talents to describe love at its most rapturous and incandescent phase, and he’s processing it through his own memory, which of course makes it even more romantic and memorable. Not to mention, love stories tend to make for great narratives, another thing that makes the second volume of Proust much easier to read and more memorable than other volumes. There’s a certain sort of immediacy there that’s hard to match with any other kind of story.
Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet (Hungary; New Directions)
Krasznahorkai, like Beckett, writes like a pilgrim whose temple has been destroyed, who owns nothing but the bruises on his feet. To our astonishment, he shows us that the concerns we thought we had left behind — how to make art as an offering and a plea to the gods, for example — are in fact terribly modern. As we journey through the seventeen chapters of Seiobo There Below — each of which displays remarkable erudition, pathos, and humor — we come to understand the urgency of our spiritual predicament, the poverty and despair that we have chosen and that is beyond our power to undo.
But even there at the edge of the apocalypse, Krasznahorkai offers us two beaten pearls of hope.
A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters (Japan; Other Press)
In her prologue (which, by the way, contains what is probably the best piece of writing about writing I’ve ever read), Mizumura outlines her intent in A True Novel to execute a sprawling epic in the tradition of western classics—what in Japanese is called honkaku shosetsu, loosely translated as ‘true novel’. This form is presented in contrast to shishosetsu, or ‘I-novel’, the more traditionally Japanese novelistic form of autobiographical narrative. To this end, she employs none other than Wuthering Heights, reimagining Brontë’s classic in postwar Japan.
The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray (Guatemala; Yale University Press)
In that narration, what impresses me most is the ambiguous specificity of the writing. Rey Rosa demonstrates a profound mastery of negative capability, all the more impressive given the diversity of his subject matter. He manages to evoke a world of complexity—Latino tourists and unquestioning locals, economic migrants and drug peddlers, and even French residents not all too far removed from their colonialist fore-bearers—with the sparsest of prose. His depiction of post-colonial Tangier, significantly evolved from the Tangier of his mentor Paul Bowles, is pitch perfect and rings true to my years in Morocco. For an author relating a story about the mutual incomprehension of cross-cultural encounters, Rey Rosa shows just how much he really gets people from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. Occasionally, a quarter page exchange will distill the essence of hour-long conversations I’ve had with French people or Hispanics, or Moroccans.
Leg Over Leg Vol. 1 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (Lebanon; New York University Press)
That’s already one reason why this book should win the BTBA: it blows our (pre-)conceptions of Arabic literature out of the water. It certainly did mine. Sure, I’ve made my way through Naguib Mahfouz and Elias Khoury, and a variety of the translations of Arabic novels from the past decades, but I never managed to get much of a sense of anything earlier than, say, Tawfiq al-Hakim. Sure, there’s always the Arabian Nights, but that stands so distant and apart from everything else that it feels entirely separate. Arabic fiction – in translation – always seemed to be twentieth (generally later-twentieth) and twenty-first century fiction, much of it strongly shaped by so-called Western influences. And then I pick this up and get an electrifying jolt, finding a mid-nineteenth century literary work that is as radical and inventive as any modern novel. I thought I had a decent sense of modern Arabic literature, and suddenly I found myself exposed to a whole new layer underlying it all, throwing a whole new light on all of it.
The Forbidden Kingdom by Jan Jacob Slauerhoff, translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent (Netherlands; Pushkin Press)
In its rough outlines, Jan Jacob Slauerhoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom (translated by Paul Vincent) sounds like the a great genre novel—time-travel! possession! conspiring monks! But like other great modernist works—this one was originally published in 1932—it uses its subject matter as a means to play with expectation and certainty. It is a strange book, at times difficult to follow as it shifts between characters and centuries, but it is also something of a page-turner. It brings to mind Joseph Conrad, but without quite the same ponderousness, and somewhat remarkably, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.