18 December 13 | Chad W. Post

Michael Orthofer runs the Complete Review – a book review site with a focus on international fiction – and its Literary Saloon weblog.

One of the many interesting things about judging the Best Translated Book Award is the sense it gives you of what (and how much) is actually being translated into English (and published/distributed in the US). Thanks largely to Dalkey Archive Press’ Library of Korean Literature, for example, we’re suddenly exposed to about a dozen Korean titles this year (without the Dalkey publications, it would be more like … one). The statistics can be revealing – and disappointing. Sure, we get … well, if not quite any number so at least a whole lot of French titles – but Chinese ? Isn’t Chinese literature hot right now ? Last time the database we rely on was updated (i.e. there might still be some unaccounted for) I counted all of three eligible titles.

Numbers-wise, among the literatures which seems to consistently punch above its population-weight, along with Icelandic and Hebrew, is Dutch (meaning: Dutch and Flemish), and while we have (at last count) quote-unquote only six works of fiction to consider … well, damn, it is an impressive selection (and the Vondel Prize-folks — who have to consider two years’ worth of publications — have their work cut out for them).

I haven’t seen one of these yet — The Square of Revenge, ‘An Inspector Van In novel’ by Pieter Aspe – and I suspect that its being part of a mystery series makes it a longshot to get longlisted, but I note that Aspe has apparently sold millions and that this book did get reviewed in The New York Times Book Review (only as part of Marilyn Stasio‘s ‘Crime’-round-up, but still). [As it turns out, there’s a double-bill of Inspector Van In novels eligible – a second one, The Midas Murders, having also appeared in the eligible period (but failing to make it onto the database for now – an omission Chad will rectify shortly. So that’s seven – and counting … – Dutch titles in the running.]

Even if they are great mysteries, the Aspes will be hard-pressed to compete with the other Dutch titles elbowing for spots on the longlist. First off, there’s Hella S. Haasse’s The Black Lake , in Ina Rilke’s translation — which fellow-judge Daniel Medin has already delighted in in a previous Three Percent/BTBA post. Haasse — who died just two years ago, at a very ripe old age – wrote this back in 1948. While quite a bit of the work by this grand old lady of Dutch literature has been published in translation, it’s great to see this important, powerful little novel about colonial Indonesia finally also available in English.

There’s another, even older work in the running, Jan Jacob Slauerhoff’s 1932 novel, The Forbidden Kingdom. This unusual time-bridging narrative features Portuguese traveler and poet, Luís de Camões, as well as a modern-day (well, early 20th-century) events, and is a wonderful (and wonderfully surprising) more-than-just-adventure novel.

Then there’s Gerbrand Bakker’s Ten White Geese — which you might also recognize from the title it was published in the UK under, The Detour , since it, in David Colmer’s translation, already won the biggest translation-into-English prize on the other side of the Atlantic, the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, With Bakker’s previous novel, The Twin, already making the 2010 BTBA shortlist it’s clear he’s an author – and this a book – that has to be taken pretty seriously.

Finally, there are the two Sam Garrett-translated titles – notable not just because they share a translator (Anthea Bell has him beat there, hands down, with five translations in the BTBA-running) but because they’re in many ways quite similar works – and both were incredibly successful in the Netherlands. One is Tirza, by Arnon Grunberg, the other The Dinner by Herman Koch. Amazingly, both were reviewed in the not-known-as-very-open-to-fiction-in-translation New York Times Book Reviewhere and here – and The Dinner even got the Janet Maslin treatment in the daily Times (she loathed it).

One seems to have done much, much better sales-wise than the other — The Dinner, which actually can boast of being a New York Times bestseller (indeed, it spent quite a few weeks on the bestseller lists). Yet Tirza is the clearly superior work; as Claire Messud concluded in her NYTBR review of The Dinner, that novel, while “absorbing and highly readable, proves in the end strangely shallow”. Tirza, on the other hand, is both entertaining and, ultimately, profound.

Both novels have a horrific twist. In the case of The Dinner it is one that’s, at least in its outlines, fairly obvious early on – but just keeps getting more twisted and horrific as the novel progresses (an admittedly very nice and disturbing touch). Tirza seems to follow a simpler arc of personal dissolution before taking its more surprising final turn into the abyss.

The Dinner uses a meal at a fancy restaurant as its foundation, taking readers through the many courses while incongruously (that’s the intent, anyway) increasingly disturbing revelations are made. With one of the characters running for high political office (prime minister, in fact), The Dinner is a cruel satire of contemporary Dutch movers and shakers (and any notion of civilized behavior in general). By turns shocking as well as occasionally funny, it does have considerable shock-value-appeal – but there’s not that much more to it. Koch does reasonably well, but not quite well enough with what is also ultimately a very ugly tale that – as Messud noted – doesn’t really have much depth to it.

Tirza also involves an almost unspeakable act, but Grunberg is the far superior craftsman in leading readers there, the shock, when it comes, all the more affecting. It’s a remarkably convincing portrait of a man falling apart. Like Koch’s novel, it’s uncomfortable to read, in part, but whereas Koch’s exaggerated satire can also be shrugged off – good for cocktail-party chatter, but hardly to be taken seriously as an in any way a profound critique of society – Grunberg’s novel sits much deeper.

I can see the easy appeal of The Dinner – part of which is surely also that it can be shrugged off fairly easily, as over-the-top satire often can. Tirza, much more personal than public (no one running for the highest office in the land here …), may not be a novel whose protagonist readers want to identify with either, but it’s a completely convincing portrait of (a) contemporary man and contemporary society.

This BTBA selection process, of narrowing down the three or four hundred eligible books, first to a longlist, is challenging. I’ve just gone over the Dutch titles here, and I think there’s a strong case to be made for four of them to at least reach the final-25 stage. Whatever the outcome – I am only of nine judges, after all, and I can’t be sure how my fellow judges feel about these (and the many other worthy) titles – I’d be surprised if Tirza didn’t make the cut, and if The Dinner did.

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