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Short Novels that Pack a Punch [BTBA 2017]

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by reader, writer, and BTBA judge Rachel Cordasco. 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.

Every once in a while, you come across a slim novel that packs a powerful punch. It’s as if the author boiled the story down to its most essential elements, and then served that up to the reader with the understanding that that reader would devour it in one sitting. I love coming across those novels.

I had the good fortune to come across two such books lately: Mon Amie Americaine by Michele Halberstadt (translated by Bruce Benderson) and The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera (translated by Lisa Dillman). The differences are obvious: one is from France, the other from Mexico; one dwells upon life and its disappointments while the other focuses on death and the threat of death; one is about friendship while the other is about professional relationships. Both are stunning in their own unique ways.

In keeping with their length, Mon Amie Americaine and The Transmigration of Bodies both have a small cast of characters with intense relationships. The two women in Mon Amie form a deep friendship based upon how their starkly different personalities complement one another. While one woman is vibrant and vocal, the other is quiet and contemplative, and it is their ability to appreciate each other’s strengths and faults that cements their relationship. But would you call the relationships in Transmigration “friendships”? They’re more like professional connections. When the main character (“The Redeemer”) is called upon to help negotiate the transfer of two bodies from the city’s two warring crime families, he pulls in a nurse and a bouncer type to help iron out the details and get the two families to agree to terms. We’re told that these characters had past dealings with one another in the past under similarly-sensitive circumstances, and that experience has allowed them to form a kind of loose posse.

Both stories also unfold against a backdrop of death/decay. In Mon Amie, one character’s battle with cancer leaves her a shadow of her former self, and forces her friend (the unnamed narrator) to grapple with how to express sympathy without implying pity, or how to sustain their friendship while still acknowledging that everything has changed. The enemy in this book—cancer—is out in the open and apparently vanquished, and yet it takes a heavy toll. The enemy in Transmigration, though, is everywhere and anywhere, since the story takes place during the spread of a deadly plague of uncertain origin. Indeed, one of the bodies being exchanged turns out to be a plague victim. Under other circumstances, the near-simultaneous deaths of two people from warring crime families would seem sensational; against the backdrop of a plague and a city on lockdown, though, it seems less remarkable but sinister nonetheless.

Because Mon Amie and Transmigration are short and powerful, they make you forget about things like appointments and errands and they make you read them in one gulp. OK, they don’t make you do anything per se, but once you start reading, you don’t want to stop. It would be like listening to a friend tell a captivating story and breaking in randomly to make a phone call or go grocery shopping. Who wants to interrupt a great story? Both Halberstadt and Herrera expertly draw the reader into the plot and then keep her there with spare but lyrical language. It doesn’t matter that they are completely different in terms of subject and approach; they both succeed in transporting the reader out of herself before she even realizes it. And isn’t that the mark of a great book?



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