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Slim Pickings? by BTBA Judge Michael Orthofer

Michael Orthofer runs the Complete Reviewa book review site with a focus on international fiction – and its Literary Saloon weblog.

The size of a book shouldn’t really matter, not when judging whether or not it’s Best Translated Book Award-worthy, but one of the things that has struck me about this year’s batch of eligible titles is that page- if not quality-wise many of the pickings are slimmer than usual.

Mind you, I’m still reeling from 2011 and the memories of (lugging, not to mention reading) Péter Nádas’s 1133-pager The Kindly Ones.) So, yes, there’s something to be said for shorter books – beginning with the logistical advantages, of getting through them, as well as the quicker variety moving from one to the next allows for (getting bogged down in a 500-pager is very different (and more drawn-out-painful) than getting bogged down in a book of 100 pages …).

Last year’s shortlist had quite a few substantial books: if not quite the norm, there were a decent number of 400+ page books, including the winning title. Hell, 400 pages seemed almost unremarkable. Antonio Muñoz Molina’s In the Night of Time topped 600, and along the way there had been longer books too: Goliarda Sapienza’s The Art Of Joy was just short of 700 pages, France Daigle’s For Sure easily topped that.

Quite a few 2014 books make it into the 400 page range – including obvious contenders for at least the final award-stages (longlist, shortlist): this year’s Knausgaard (My Struggle: Book Three), just like last year’s; this year’s Ferrante (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay), just like last year’s …. But there just don’t seem to be that many other bulky books. And there seem to be a lot of very slim ones.

True, we’re unlikely ever to have an entry as short as last year’s Her Not All Her — Elfriede Jelinek’s longlisted … well, it was barely a forty-page pamphlet. But the pile of top titles that come in at under a hundred pages is surprising.

Among my favorites this year has been Julio Cortázar’s (comic book-)inspired Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires (87 generously illustrated pages), which is about the most fun I’ve had reading any of these books this year. With cameos by Susan Sontag and Alberto Moravia this is … well, wild barely begins to describe it. But the writing (and translation, by David Kurnick) is sharp, and, despite being almost forty years old, it feels surprisingly topical and current.

Arno Camenisch’s The Alp (82 pages) is just one of what seems like dozens of Dalkey Archive Press entries in the 100-page-range (it’s not dozens, but there are quite a few). Here is an author who works in both German and Romansh (the fourth official language of Switzerland) – a challenge Donal McLaughlin seems quite up to here.

There’s a second Haruki Murakami book due out this year, too — The Strange Library, another book that counts as “heavily illustrated” and still doesn’t make it to a hundred pages. There’s a fairly new Murakami translator at work here too – one we haven’t read in the previous translations, Ted Goosen — and while it is a very small piece (and competes against the other Murakami in the running this year, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, translated by older Murakami-hand Philip Gabriel) can’t be discounted at this early stage.

Some good-looking short story collections come in under the century-mark — Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water and Kjell Askildsen’s Selected Stories among them – but I’m particularly surprised by the number of novels of this size. And by how many of them punch considerably above their weight: Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog Eyes is probably only sustainable over this length, while Jean Echenoz’s just over 100-page 1914 is a master-class in economical storytelling.

Others under 100 pages include the almost obligatory annual diminutive César Aira – Conversations this year (88 pages) – and Antonio Skármeta’s A Distant Father. Special mention has to go to Patrick Modiano’s Suspended Sentences, a volume we weren’t expecting until next year until he was named this year’s Nobel laureate, leading Yale University Press to push up the publication date: it consists of ‘Three Novellas’, filling just over 200 pages – but in France (and elsewhere) the slim volumes have also been published individually. Almost unfair for the Nobel laureate to get three chances to wow the judges in one go (and, helped along by translator Mark Polizzotti, who seems to have a really good feel for Modiano’s style, he certainly wowed this one).

So are there any fat chance-counterweights to these slim pickings? As I said, a couple of contenders make it into the 400 page range, but beyond that the choices are few and far between. Some thrillers and the like but from what I’ve seen so far, nothing that could make a serious dent (sorry, Zoran Drvenkar’s You may have an intriguing range of voices, but … yeah, sorry, no). The best 500+ pagers I’ve checked out so far are Leonardo Padura’s Trotsky novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs, which has the qualities that could put it on the longlist, and Albert Sánchez Piñol’s Victus, which also turns out to be a nice surprise. But they both do sag a bit under their weight – always the danger with the long ones.

The one I’m most curious about is one I haven’t seen yet: H.G. Adler’s The Wall (a reported 656 pages), the last in a trilogy that has impressed so far. This comes with some very good buzz, so I definitely see some potential here. Of course, I do have to see it before I can properly judge …..

We’re used to meaty books when it comes to fiction in translation, as if length were more proof of a book’s weighty worthiness. From the biggest Bolaños and recent BTBA winners Myśliwski and (2x) Krasznahorkai they never entirely shoved smaller works aside, but maybe had an easier time making more of a big impression. I wonder whether we’ll now see a shift towards some of this smaller work – looking even stronger this year than usual.



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