BTBA 2017, This Issue: The Body
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Lori Feathers, an Assistant Managing Editor at Asymptote, freelance book critic and member of the National Book Critics Circle. Follow her online @LoriFeathers. 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.
Most of us believe that we are something greater than a body, that our conscious self has significance beyond the physical shell and internal organs and systems that substantiate us. I am one of the believers. Yet thought, mood, and life itself are captive to the body’s faults, its intermittent betrayal of our desire to feel and project vigor and good health. Here are some favorite BTBA titles that captivated me with stories about the body.
Seeing Red, Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell)
In her searing autobiographical novel Meruane describes what it was like to lose her eyesight at thirty, a side effect of severe diabetes. The precise moment when she loses total sight in one eye (followed soon after by an almost complete loss in the other) leaps from the page in vivid language that portrays a sense of wonderment that effaces self-pity:
And then a firecracker went off in my head. But no, it was no fire I was seeing, it was blood spilling out inside my eye. The most shockingly beautiful blood I have ever seen. The most outrageous. The most terrifying. The blood gushed, but only I could see it. With absolute clarity I watched as it thickened, I saw the pressure rise, I watched as I got dizzy, I saw my stomach turn, saw that I was starting to retch, and even so. I didn’t straighten up or move an inch, didn’t even try to breathe while I watched the show. Because that was the last thing I would see, that night, through that eye: a deep, black blood.
What resonates about Seeing Red is how intimate it feels, not simply in the manner that memoir is personal but the way that Meruane takes us insider her visionless existence, a world in which “seeing” the realities of life and love do not require sight.
The Little Communist Who Never Smiled, Lola Lafon (translated by Nick Caistor)
I remember Nadia Comãneci. She was the elfish wunderkind whose blurry image was ever-present on my family’s prehistoric television screen in the summer of 1976. I wanted to be like Nadia—taut and sinewy in a white leotard, defying gravity, moving through space straight and sharp as an arrow. But then how could I, an eight year old with little self-discipline, have any notion of the pain, persistence, and personal sacrifice required to be Nadia? In Lola Lafon’s fictionalized account of the gymnast’s career we come to understand just what it took and the repercussions.
The world’s imagine of Nadia as an unbreakable, doll-like creature was the product of an obsessed media and her indomitable coach, Béla Károlyi. Much of Lafon’s story focuses on how a once-adoring public turned on Nadia when her body started to mature. Nadia’s developing breasts and widening hips were met with derision. No one wanted to see the tiny prodigy become a woman. They needed her to continue looking like a child to feed their adoration. As a result, Nadia felt betrayed by her body. She referred to puberty as “The Illness” and fought to keep it at bay:
The Illness is advancing. It’s invading her, gnawing away at her previous existence. Its latest manifestation: last Friday as she sprints towards the vault. Everything seems normal. But as she runs, something else begins to move, a ridiculous, jolting movement: extra flesh that isn’t part of her, but of which she can feel every quiver, every repugnant autonomous fatty cell.
…unacceptable betrayal, a sniggering uppercut: she would love to cut them off, these whatsits—she refuses to say the word breasts—this capitulation forcing her in the direction of all the others: the girls at high school. [ . . . ] They’re so comfortable you can sink into them like cushions. And now, it makes her nauseous, she too has become comfortable. Ugly. Shapeless. [ . . . ]
Lafon’s book is a painful story of objectification that sheds a damning light on the way that society views female athletes and how these views distort girls’ self-image. Today we may have become just a bit more accepting of a variety of female athletes’ body types but without a doubt, the prejudices and misogynistic attitudes mostly persist.
The Heart, Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Sam Taylor)
From its title it would be easy to assume that The Heart is about romantic love. Buyer beware: this is not the stuff of cupids and roses, but a novel about a heart, the internal organ of a certain young man:
The thing about Simon Limbres’s heart, this human heart, is that, since the moment of his birth, when its rhythm accelerated, as did the other hearts around it, in celebration of the event, the thing is, that this heart, which made him jump, vomit, grow, dance lightly like a feather or weigh heavy as a stone, which made him dizzy with exhilaration and made him melt with love, which filtered, recorded, archived—the black box of a twenty-year-old body—the thing is that nobody really knows it; . . .
At the risk of revealing too much, Simon suffers a life-threatening accident, and his parents are faced with painful and exigent life and death decisions regarding his care. De Kerangal’s descriptions of Simon’s body and the medical procedures that are performed on it are so crystalline that you cannot help but feel a deep sense of awe for the human body:
. . . The heart is explanted from Simon Limbres’s body. It’s crazy, you can see it—there, in the air—for a brief moment you can apprehend its mass and its volume, attempt to grasp its symmetrical form, its dual bulge, its beautiful color (crimson or vermilion), seek to match it to the universal pictogram of love, the playing card emblem, the T-shirt logo— . . . the organ held in the hand and exhibited to the world, streaming with tears of blood but haloed with radiant light . . .
Rage, Zygmunt Miloszewski (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)
A different sort of “body book,” Rage is a murder mystery set in modern day Poland. The prosecutor’s primary clue is a complete, seemingly intact skeleton comprised of the bones of a number of different people including that of a man who disappeared only two weeks prior, too soon to have naturally decomposed into a skeleton:
“Somebody has gone to a lot of trouble to complete the perfect skeleton,” he said. “To make sure that nothing is missing. You’ll be getting a full report from me, but the main findings are as follows: Most of the bones are Najman’s. But not all. [. . .]”
. . . Several theories ran through his head, each worse than the last. And each one featured a miserable psycho, lurking in the cellar of one of those Warmian Disney castles, surrounded by little heaps of bones sorted by type, and ticking off the missing items needed to complete his work. Screw that.
“So these are the bones of five different people?” he asked, to confirm it. “Our victim in the starring role, the bit players being the man who owned the hand, the man who owned one ear, the woman who owned the other, and in a walk-on role, the lady who kindly donated the missing parts.”
Author Zygmunt Miloszewski is Poland’s best-selling author, and reading Rage it’s easy to understand why. The novel’s protagonist, Prosecutor Teodor Szacki, strikes the perfect balance of sarcasm, determination, and jaded sophistication—a gumshoe with a distinctive voice that, in Llyod-Jones’s flowing translation, makes for a thrilling read.