This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Lori Feathers, anAssistant 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.
While it’s still very early days in the months-long process of reading and evaluating the hundreds of eligible fiction titles for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award, I’ve already made some discoveries that impressed me with compelling narratives and expressive writing that is skillfully sustained by very solid translations. In compiling this list I noticed a common theme: each of these books explores an extraordinary relationship, a bond that consumes and sometimes destroys those within it.
The Young Bride by Alessandro Baricco (tr. Ann Goldstein)
In this gothic fable Baricco portrays a family that tries to avoid life’s pain and disappointment by hiding within a meticulously maintained, insular world of its own making. This bubble is threatened by the unexpected arrival of the young Bride, fiancé of the family’s only son. The young Bride assimilates herself into the family’s peculiar household but over time both she and the family are indelibly changed by their relationship. The family’s extravagant lifestyle and hedonistic rituals are described with sly humor and sumptuous detail. As in his prior novel, Silk, Baricco’s characters exude an erotic sensuality that feels honest and natural. This richly decadent prose is masterfully translated by Ann Goldstein. Baricco uses the elements of a fable to their best effect: with fantastic settings and situations Baricco addresses our very real and relatable reluctance to face the pain of loss and our own mortality.
A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska (tr. Christina E. Kramer)
It would be difficult to find a relationship more foreign to most of us than that of conjoined twins. Dimkovska places us inside the mind and body of Zlata, joined at the head to her sister, Srebra, with exceptional detail and perspective. The girls’ physical and emotional entrapment to one another is made all the more difficult by their troubled, impoverished home life and the political and economic instability that rocks 1990s Macedonia. As the girls reach adulthood their situation becomes increasingly unbearable, and Dimkovska draws not-so-subtle parallels between the surgical separation of the twins and the rending of the former Yugoslavia. The writing is lyrical and beautifully perceptive, full of sensitivity and nuance for the girls’ affliction and the way that it controls their lives.
Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes (tr. Siân Reynolds)
Gloria, the forty-one year old protagonist of Despentes’s Bye Bye Blondie, is a force of nature: physically violent to herself and others, uninhibitedly honest, and devoid of self-control. Gloria reunites with her old boyfriend and fellow delinquent from teenage years, Eric, and they become entangled in a self-destructive, mid-life romance from which neither has the strength to escape. Despentes unabashedly refuses redemption for her protagonist, and she draws Gloria’s character so completely and authentically that this, along with the punchy momentum of the prose, results in a compulsively readable and exuberant novel.
About My Mother by Tahar Ben Jelloun (tr. Ros Schwartz and Lulu Norman)
Ben Jelloun’s fictional memoir evokes a middle-aged man’s patient guardianship over the mental and physical deterioration of his beloved, dying mother. The novel explores memory, suggesting that for both the dying and their loved ones memories are the only refuge from the painful realities of death. The son’s feelings about his mother are expressed with a poignant beauty that contrasts sharply with the crude breakdown of his mother’s mind and body. At the same time, Ben Jelloun paces his narrative to artfully mirror the slow, laborious monotony of a natural, age-induced death.
The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Michael Barnes and Torbjørn Støverud)
The bond between Mattis, a mentally handicapped man, and his older sister, Hege, is the focus of Vesaas’ 1957 novel set in a remote Norwegian farming village where the two share a home. In most ways Mattis’ actions and emotions are those of a child, and he is entirely dependent upon Hege both as a caregiver and only friend. When Hege becomes romantically involved with an itinerant worker Mattis is incapable of sharing Hege’s affections with another. The author portrays Mattis’ innocence and naïve wonder about the world with clean, spare writing that despite its straight forwardness (or perhaps because of it) eloquently carries a real depth of perception and emotion.
UPDATE: Not actually eligible for the award! Peter Owen brought this out in 2013, so it can’t actually win. But that shouldn’t stop you from buying a copy from Archipelago!
My Marriage by Jakob Wassermann (tr. Michael Hoffman)
This fascinating, autobiographical novel is a husband’s account of his manipulative wife, their volatile marriage, and subsequent (but less than definitive) separation. Alexander possesses a passive nature and is quick to avoid confrontation. So when Ganna, a young admirer of his writing, proposes that they wed Alexander acquiesces. Although Alexander lacks any physical attraction for Ganna a sense of duty, feelings of pity, and her fawning admiration of his writing, keep him in the marriage despite their vicious arguments. Wasserman takes us inside the humiliations and inflicted pain of this unstable relationship. Not only do we understand the damage that this couple inflicts upon each other, we feel it, too, in writing that resonates with pitch-perfect tone in Michael Hoffman’s translation.
The latest addition to our Reviews Section is joint review by Sarah Two and Quantum Sarah on Alessandro Baricco’s Emmaus, which is translated from the Italian by Mitch Ginsburg and is available from McSweeney’s.
Here is an excerpt from their review:
Alessandro Baricco’s latest novel, Emmaus, centers on the friendship of four working-class Catholic adolescents and their shared love for a tragic, sexual young woman named Andre. The plot of the novel follows the trajectory of a classic loss of innocence story, but Baricco immediately complicates this definition. What distinguishes Emmaus from other narratives of this archetype is its ambiguous stance in respect to Catholicism and sin. It would be a grievous oversimplification to say that the boys live in a world of repression and then find truth, or that they are innocent, pure souls in childhood and are subsequently corrupted in adolescence. To the contrary, Baricco distinctly avoids this simplistic dichotomy of good and evil: the narrator and his friends possess constant awareness of promiscuity and violence, but they don’t label it as such.
Click here to read their entire review.
Alessandro Baricco’s latest novel, Emmaus, centers on the friendship of four working-class Catholic adolescents and their shared love for a tragic, sexual young woman named Andre. The plot of the novel follows the trajectory of a classic loss of innocence story, but Baricco immediately complicates this definition. What distinguishes Emmaus from other narratives of this archetype is its ambiguous stance in respect to Catholicism and sin. It would be a grievous oversimplification to say that the boys live in a world of repression and then find truth, or that they are innocent, pure souls in childhood and are subsequently corrupted in adolescence. To the contrary, Baricco distinctly avoids this simplistic dichotomy of good and evil: the narrator and his friends possess constant awareness of promiscuity and violence, but they don’t label it as such. In the words of the narrator:
. . . we are ignorant of what scandal is, because we instinctively accept every possible deviation betrayed by those around us simply as an unexpected supplement to the protocol of normality. So, for example, when, in the darkness of the parish cinema, we felt the priest’s hand resting on the inside of our thigh, we weren’t angry but quickly deduced that evidently things were like that, priests put their hands there – it wasn’t something you needed to mention at home.
There’s a disturbingly dismissive tone in the narrator’s voice as he describes these deviant acts – these acts of molestation aren’t sinful or bad; rather, things are “like that,” and the boys simply accept it.
When the narrator’s best friend Luca first experiences a break with his childhood vision of the world, it is compared to traversing outside their homeland: “For the first time one of us pushed beyond the inherited borders, in the suspicion that there are no borders, in reality, no mother house untouched. . . From that land he looks at us, waiting for us to follow”. These “inherited borders,” once so immutable, quickly break down as the novel progresses. One by one, the four young men slip into the realm of tragedy – a world where priests molest children but also give the Eucharist, where mothers sleep with Confessors but also fiercely protect their young, where girlfriends will be virgins until they marry, yet submit to sexual touching under a blanket. But readers will struggle to link this shadowy world to the conventional notion of “sin.” The author presents us with a cast of morally mixed characters, whose deviant actions fail to receive the kind of denunciation you’d expect from an insular Catholic community.
Take, for example, “the Saint,” the most ostensibly pious of the four friends. He aims to join the priesthood, displaying a faith that’s beyond passionate in its dimensions: “That mother made us tell her that we prayed, while the Saint burned in prayer; and his legs had a way of kneeling that was like crashing, when we simply changed position—he fell to his knees”. The fervor with which the Saint prays is almost erotic – a quality that makes his faith appear close to his vice, like two sides of the same coin. Likewise, the narrator suggests that the Saint’s sinister tendencies are what propel his piety: “None of us have that sensitivity to evil, a kind of morbid, terrifying attraction – increasingly morbid, inevitably, because it is terrifying – as none of us have the same vocation as the Saint for goodness, sacrifice, meekness, which are the consequence of that terror”. Perversely, a disturbingly intimate familiarity with evil fuels the sanctity of characters like the Saint.
One of the more poignant elements of the novel was its meditation on faith. The Catholicism posited by this book, however, is hard to define – the priests try to teach the boys “that faith is a gift, which comes from on high and belongs to the world of mystery”. In other words, it is a holy and untouchable boon from God. Yet despite their respect for the Bible and their clergymen, the boys see their faith as derived from a different source: “From somewhere, and in an invisible way, our unhappy families passed on to us an immutable instinct to believe that life is an immense experience”. Conventional teachers of faith, such as priests, parents, or scriptures, lack the authority that you’d expect them to wield in this book; that power instead belongs to human instinct, which molds their particular religion and guides their actions. This frequently-iterated sense of humanism would seem to throw traditional Catholicism into question, an idea which is later echoed in the statement, “long before God, we believe in man – and this alone, in the beginning, is faith”. Faith isn’t a dry scripture or a fixed doctrine for the boys; it is something fluid, malleable, and organic, constantly remodeled to match the changing structure of their lives.
Emmaus is a painful and lyrical chronicle of adolescence, but the narrative voice is too cognizant, too reflective to belong to a young boy. The pensive tone implies a back-looking narrator, who possesses the objectivity and emotional detachment to explain to us, calmly and logically, the shock two boys experience when they find out that a parent is severely depressed:
. . . this gives an idea of how we’re made. We have a blind faith in our parents; what we see at home is the just, well-balanced way of things, the protocol of what we consider mental health. We adore our parents for that reason—they keep us sheltered from any anomaly. So the hypothesis doesn’t exist that they, first of all, can be an anomaly—an illness.
Yet what are we supposed to glean from the fact that the ostensibly adult narrator chooses to speak in the present tense whenever he comments on the general state of his adolescent life? Does he still have a blind faith in his parents, or is he merely inhabiting his youth linguistically as well as emotionally? This is another way in which Baricco complicates the simple architecture of a loss of innocence narrative; the voice of the boy, the adolescent, and the man are indistinguishable.
The narrator spends so much time grappling with philosophical and religious conundrums that we come to expect a reconciliation of these tensions, but this is in no way fulfilled. The book’s final pages are filled with just as much uncertainty as the middle. Finishing it feels like waking up from a dream, one full of would-be-contradictions that nonetheless make perfect sense according to the logic of the dream. Upon waking, all that’s left is the disarming question of whether or not this logic can apply successfully in the real world.
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .