BTBA Favorites So Far by Jennifer Croft
This week’s post is by Jennifer Croft who is the recipient of Fulbright, PEN, MacDowell and National Endowment for the Arts grants and fellowships, as well as the Michael Henry Heim Prize for Translation. She holds a PhD from Northwestern University and an MFA from the University of Iowa. She is a founding editor of The Buenos Aires Review. Follow her on Twitter: @jenniferlcroft.
For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
Thrilled to be a judge for this year’s Best Translated Book Award. Here are seven of my favorite titles so far.
Sometimes it feels like they spent that entire first year locked away in a permanent rehearsal while we sat among the untouched instruments in their silent music school, the hallway piling up with gift baskets. Something I understood then is that the Mexican gift industry may be well at truly gringofied at Christmas, but when it comes to death, our own comfort foods trump everything. I’ve never received so many bags of Mexican sweet treats—pepitorias, palanquetas, jamoncillos—as I did when my sister died.
I couldn’t put this book down, and when it did end, it left me in tears. An extremely charming novel that seamlessly toggles between a couple of years in the lives of the people who inhabit a Mexico City tenement compound. Particularly wonderful are the amaranth scholar who sets out to reconstruct his beloved wife through writing after she dies of pancreatic cancer and Luz, the five-year-old girl who drowns shortly after her narration ends (as we learn from her sister Ana—a lovely character, as well—in the book’s opening pages). Jufresa’s disarming, unabashed tone and interest in the intersection of languages and cultures reminded me of Chloe Aridjis’ wonderful Book of Clouds, while Sophie Hughes’ translation stands alongside the original as a dazzling feat in its own right. Hughes won the English PEN Award for this translation, and I can certainly see why, as the English abounds with inventive and delightful solutions to the challenges of the Spanish.
A beautiful and surprising meditation on community, absent maternity and growth of all kinds.
Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was by Sjón. Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.
The film was delayed by thirty minutes while the cinemagoers offered one another their condolences, passing from row to row, neither pressing hands nor embracing but bowing their heads and repeating the same words of consolation with the variations “your daughter,” “your sister,” “your wife,” “your husband,” “your son,” “your brother”—since everybody had lost someone.
The screening was accompanied by Reynir Gíslason’s Orchestra, and to begin with the music managed to drown out the sighing and weeping. Thick smoke rose from the more expensive seats, where the men were chain-smoking cigars in the hope that this would stifle their sobs.
A glittering little gem of a book that strikes the perfect balance between story and character, on the one hand, and capturing a moment and place, on the other. The place is Reykjavik, and the moment occurs in the midst of the city’s 1918 influenza outbreak. The excellent translation also finds the perfect tone. There is an irrepressible sweetness in protagonist Máni Steinn: as he awaits judgment after being caught engaging in sex with another boy, he tries to make out the identities of his captors, but “he can’t place the fourth, good at faces though he is.” That night, “he dreams of antelopes.” A beautiful meditation on cinema, queer identity and making one’s way in the world.
Willful Disregard by Lena Andersson. Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death.
Hugo never followed up anything Ester said. Ester always followed up what Hugo said. Neither of them was really interested in her but they were both interested in him.
A painful account of unrequited love, told in sober, bracing prose. An astute deconstruction of a relationship over the course of a year. A quick and engaging read.
Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.
Mold started to grow in my ears because no one ever spoke to me. The tongue is not only for speaking; you can also use it to eat with. Ears, on the other hand, exist only for the purpose of hearing voices and sounds.
This utterly brilliant and absolutely delightful novel by Japanese-born Yoko Tawada, written in German, is by far the freshest take I’ve read on both foreignness and writing in I don’t even know how long—possibly ever. The story of three generations of polar bears, each of whom engages with people and other animals in unique and fascinating ways while meditating on what it means to be a self—a performing or public self, as well as a contemplative, inner self—in different kinds of exile and cages. The earnestness of all the voices in this book is so endearing, often amusing and sometimes heartbreaking. As always, Susan Bernofsky’s translation is graceful and deft, making every single sentence a true pleasure. A treasure of a book, to be read and reread.
Panther by Brecht Evens. Translated from the Flemish by Michele Hutchison and Laura Watkinson.
An alarming and alluring story of a child whose mother has committed suicide, the horrifying brokenness of the domestic life that remains her gradually becoming clear over the course of the narration. Beautifully, hauntingly illustrated.
33 Revolutions by Canek Sánchez Guevara. Translated by Howard Curtis.
He walks in the direction of the bay, observing attentively—pretending to be distracted—the huddles forming on the corners, among the people standing in line, and on the seawall. To all appearances, the scratched record of everyday life continues intact, repeating itself as it does every day; but deep down, something is moving, falling apart, breaking up.
This neat, pocket-sized novel packs a real punch. With the rhythm of a lullaby and the entreating quality of a prayer, 33 Revolutions recounts the attempted escape of an ordinary man from Cuba, which he has come to view as a kind of island prison, drawing interesting comparisons with Soviet Russia throughout. The book covers a ton of territory in its few small pages while still preserving a powerful sense of enclosure and entrapment, stressing a repetitiveness that nonetheless is a kind of ticking time bomb—no easy narrative feat. I read this in a single sitting and liked it a lot.
Eve out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi. Translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman.
Men’s hands take hold of you before having even touched you. Once their thoughts turn toward you, they’ve already possessed you. Saying no is an insult, because you would be taking away what they’ve already laid claim to.
Like the hand snaking up my T-shirt, they need me to lift my skin so they can feel my organs, or even stop my heart from beating. Their urges won’t be constrained. Soon they’ll be nothing left to take but they’ll keep going anyway.
But why should I let them?
This is the most vivid novel I’ve read in ages, magnificently translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman. The gorgeous, profoundly poetic writing is completely mesmerizing and viscerally affecting: it gave me goose bumps several times. Cycling through four main adolescent voices in an impoverished neighborhood of Port Louis, Mauritius, the narrative slowly escalates through brilliant and memorable scenes, as well as haunting inner monologues, to its glorious conclusion that manages to somehow be both devastating and uplifting at once.
I am your double. I am your single. I have split completely and totally in two: I was Saad, sitting transfixed in my stiff chair (or stiff in my transfixed chair), and I was someone else, unmoored, observing things but pushing them away through his thoughts, his defiance, his mortality.
There is something so triumphant and so powerful in the structure of Eve, and something so real and touching in these characters, each consistent, unexpected, thought-provoking and wonderful.
My older brother Carlo is gone. He went to France ten years ago. I was little. He was my hero. When he left, he said: I’ll come back to find you. I’m waiting for him. He never came back. He calls sometimes, but only to make small talk. I don’t know what he’s doing over there. But when I hear his voice, I know he’s lying, that he hasn’t done well. When I hear his voice, I know he’s dead.
And I’d love to kill, too.
A work of profound sympathy and deep desire.