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The Best Translated Books So Far

James Crossley is a bookseller at Island Books. He writes regularly for the store’s Message in a Bottle blog and for the website of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.

Having talked about books that I think other people will probably like, it seems like I should talk at least a bit about the ones I do.

Bohumil Hrabal’s Harlequin’s Millions (translated by Stacey Knecht) has already been highly praised here on the blog by Jeremy Garber (and elsewhere by that inestimable dean of BTBA judges, George Carroll) and I’m calling the shotgun seat on their bandwagon—it really is that good. If you don’t want to trust us, maybe Ivan Vladislavić can talk some sense into you. He calls it a “mesmerizing novel,” and being a brilliant novelist himself, albeit one who writes in the lesser language of English, he should know.

Among the few books in the running that can stack up to HM is Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of Gab, a series of linked short stories put out by Karolinum Press in the Czech Republic. It’s set in the (literally) Bohemian forest village of Kersko, a place notable for drunkenness, lust, venality, and especially the garrulousness of its inhabitants. Their self-serving lies pile up into mountains of manure, and the plots veer from the unbelievable into the surreal and the sublimely ridiculous. Comical, crude, and character-rich, it’s an altogether Hrabal-esque extravaganza of corkscrewing prose. Well, not -esque, because it too is by Bohumil Hrabal. Credit to translator David Short for channeling the flow of the author’s language without stanching it, and to the publisher’s design team as well. This edition is stunning, printed on thick paper that’s a pleasure to touch and practically spilling over with art. It’s bad form to make predictions about the finalists this early in the game, but if Hrabal’s not among them, it’ll only be because he was in competition with himself.

I’m also very high on the much more subdued submission from France’s Pierre Michon, Winter Mythologies and Abbots, which is part of Yale University Press’s Margellos World Republic of Letters series. It combines two short works that were first published separately, and even together they make a book, translated by Ann Jefferson, that clocks in at a scant 116 pages. In both sections, Michon has drawn obscure figures out of the mist of ecclesiastical history and fictionalized episodes from their lives. Their motivations are distinctly pre-modern, driven by a Christian faith that’s barely removed from paganism, and they feel wholly convincing while remaining utterly alien, at least to this hopelessly secular reader. Quiet, complete, and near-perfectly realized, it might be what Austen described when she wrote about “a little bit (two inches wide) of ivory” worked with “so fine a brush.”

From the same Yale series comes David Albahari’s Globetrotter. from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursac). Like his earlier novel Leeches, it deals with the fragmentation of the former Yugoslavia, this time treating the conflict more obliquely and displacing it to the placid setting of Banff, British Columbia. At an arts conference, a painter from Saskatchewan becomes obsessed with a Serbian writer and jealous of his burgeoning friendship with the descendant of a Croatian traveler. The vaguely homoerotic triangle that forms is far less important and intense than the maelstrom of ethnic guilt that spins in their psyches and finally wrecks them in an inexorable climax. Warning: Albahari has something against indentations. I think the lack of paragraphing adds to the headlong quality of the tale, but tastes vary. As a public service to traditionalists, I therefore provide an ample selection of pilcrows to be added to the text as needed: ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶

No one who’s reading this can be unaware of Open Letter’s track record of excellence with world literature, and it’s always difficult to rank their books against each other, but Street of Thieves by Mathias Énard (trans. by Charlotte Mandel) may be their best publication of 2014. It follows a young Moroccan man as he comes of age at home and travels across the Mediterranean to re-establish himself in Barcelona, and it manages to push almost every cultural hot button along the way. Immigration, terrorism, misogyny, the promise and failure of the Arab Spring … it could come across as a paint-by-number op-ed piece, but in fact it addresses these topics organically. The politics arise inevitably out of the fiction rather than the fiction being an artificial veneer over the politics.

Monastery by Eduardo Halfon comes from the Spanish by way of Lisa Dillman’s translation, and it chronicles the journeys of a Guatemalan writer, not coincidentally named Eduardo Halfon. It can’t quite decide whether it’s a novel or a short story collection, and I’m not sure how much reality or imagination lies behind it, but Halfon makes a good deal of hay out of that confusion. The plot carries him from the jungle of Central America to jazz concerts in North America, submarine bases in Europe, and beaches in Asia, and the unstable structure of the book prismatically expands the possibilities for interpretation. (Those who’ve read his very similar prequel, The Polish Boxer, will have to cope with further contradictions, as characters and events from it recur, subtly altered, in Monastery.) Detachment and dislocation have rarely been so well depicted as this. And believe me, in the middle of trying to read as many as possible of more than 400 books in less than a year, I know from dislocation.



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