Why This Book Should Win – Baboon by Guest Critic Lori Feathers
Lori Feathers is a freelance critic and Vice President of the Board of Deep Vellum Publishing.
Baboon – Naja Marie Aidt, translated from the Danish by Denise Newman, Denmark
Two Lines Press
Baboon should win this year’s Best Translated Book Award because page-for-page it offers more surprises and excitement than any other book in the BTBA. Aidt writes like a sexed-up Flannery O’Connor. Her stories are fresh, daring and almost always unpredictable. Like O’Connor Aidt places her characters in ordinary situations and beneath the patina of comfortable domesticity we find, to our delight, the perverse and disturbing.
Along with plots that astonish, Aidt keeps readers off balance by using gender-neutral pronouns to deliberately obscure characters’ relationships to each other and defy our expectations as to how they will interact — most often in ways that are a great deal nastier than we can imagine.
But it is with her descriptions of the inconsequential that the most lasting impressions are created: a baby’s green, lollipop-stained mouth; an uncooked chicken, the habitual manner in which a woman moves her hand, the fat, falling flakes inside a child’s snow globe. The mundane becomes extraordinary when it succumbs to the scrutiny of Aidt’s perceptive eye:
I like watching people. And this woman is remarkable. She’s nearly bald. Her head must’ve been shaved fairly recently because there’s just a fine dark shadow of hair. She drinks carefully out of a small glass, something strong, maybe cognac, or whiskey, I can’t tell from here. There’s something about her that reminds me of a young animal, perhaps a deer, the same watchful nervousness. She’s wearing a suit that’s both elegant and a little too large. It’s grayish-green, brownish, like mud and dried grass. I have a sudden urge to touch her neck. A flood of images runs through my head: I think about the canvas sacks, about my childhood, about the soldiers’ uniforms, and my mother, who, much later, is standing in front of our house outside of Leipzig. It’s plastered with thick mortar and has that color so common for East German houses: grayish-green, brownish. My mother is smiling. She’s wearing a red dress.
A poignant portraiture like this displays Aidt’s talent even more than the astounding scenarios that she creates for her stories.
To read Baboon is to bear witness to the unraveling of otherwise complacent lives; an unsettling experience made all the more so in the short story format, which withholds the context necessary for the reader to anticipate what will happen next. And this is a large part of the fun. But Aidt also asks us to consider whether, like us, her characters are justified in being caught off-guard or if, as one character puts it, …she’s spent far too many years down in the dark, where all that’s revealed is a fraction of what there is.