Making the List [BTBA 2018]
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Tara Cheesman, a freelance book critic and National Book Critics Circle member whose recent reviews can be found at The Rumpus, Book Riot, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Quarterly Conversation. Since 2009 she’s written the blog Reader At Large (formerly BookSexy Review).
As long as the Best Translated Book Award long list is (twenty-five books—which is pretty long) the majority of the books in translation published in 2017 won’t be on it. Yes, I’m stating the obvious, but it still merits consideration. I’m one of those people who calculates how many books I’ll read before I die, so this is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.
Bringing attention to those books that could otherwise be forgotten or overlooked in the onslaught of titles published every year is one of the most important things this award does. As a judge I’ve read so many good books that it’s hard to accept a limit on how many we can talk about and promote in the context of the prize. So, I decided to throw a few extra recommendations out there. Here are three completely random books I enjoyed, found interesting, thought worth talking about and which may or may not make it onto this year’s long list.
Mr. Fix-It by Richard Ali A Mutu, translated by Bienvenu Sene Mongaba, has the distinction of being the first novel translated from Lingala, a language spoken by approximately ten million people residing in the Democratic Republic of Congo and neighboring countries, into English. Which means that when it was originally written the likelihood was that it was intended exclusively for non-Western readers. That alone, in an increasingly homogenized literary landscape, makes it worth reading. But, curiosity factor aside, Mr. Fix-It is like an episode in a daytime soap. The protagonist drags us with him on his romantic misadventures and it’s all surprisingly amusing and incredibly sappy and just fun. (Phoneme Media)
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell. I was hesitant to include this book if only because it gotten a ton of press, from Lithub to the New Yorker—but I found it so quirky that it felt more wrong not to write about it than to add my voice to the choir. The premise is deceptively simple: a dying woman lays in her hospital bed and has a conversation with her friend’s son. Together they attempt to retrace the events that have brought her to the present moment in which they are speaking. The immediacy of the two voices creates an eerie, searching, out-of-time quality similar to A Scanner Darkly (that 2006 movie with Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr., and Winona Ryder) or 12 Monkeys. Or, better yet, Rick Moody’s novella The Albertine Notes. Which, if you haven’t read it, go do that and then feel free to DM me on twitter. (Riverhead Books)
Hadriana In All My Dreams by the Haitian writer René Depestre and translated by Kaiama L. Glover, is the most traditional of the three books I’ve listed here. Set in the 1930s, it’s the story of a young bride who seemingly dies at the altar from a heart attack, but is actually the victim of zombification. I’d describe the writing as more ribald than erotic, which actually helps to balance and make bearable the magical realism Depestre incorporates into the plot. Hadriana In All My Dreams is narrated from the perspectives of both the bride and her godbrother, a young boy at the time of the wedding who grows into manhood haunted by Hadriana’s fate. This story sprawls outward. The author has created a huge cast of characters, human and otherwise, all of whom he seems to feel real affection for. He writes convincingly about the tension and contrast between Catholicism and Voodoo. And has given us what might be the greatest description of a Haitian Carnival ever written. (Akashic Books)