Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles._
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The Black Minutes by Martin Solares, translated by translated by Aura Estrada and John Pluecker
Why This Book Should Win: The judges gave the first Best Translated Book Award to an awesome book called Tranquility by Attila Bartis, despite the fact that it was up against that behemoth 2666, and everyone knows that 2666 is the greatest book published ever, to say nothing of the year 2008. (Really, it is. I should know. I wrote it.)
As may be surmised from the above paragraph, this is the second entry in the WTBSW series from beyond the grave. This time it’s from The Late Roberto Bolano.
Needless to say, a lot of people were disappointed that the judges opted for the Bartis, so here’s their chance to give the award to a hyper-noirish, dark, convoluted, paranoid, freaky book about the Mexican drug war, in many ways similar to 2666 (and in many ways nothing like my master opus at all).
The Black Minutes tells a pretty gripping story about murder in 1970s, northern Mexico providing a kind of pre-war look at a land that is now dominated by huge narco-cartels. Like many good noirs are, it’s framed around the one cop who wants to do an honest job, named Cabrera. As as English-language translator Natasha Wimmer wrote in The Nation:
It’s crime fiction, but it’s also a meditation on corruption, and it captures the kind of nightmarish helplessness that many feel in the face of the tide of narco-violence sweeping the north of Mexico. In Tamaulipas alone, assassinations since June include the front-runner candidate for governor of the state and two mayors of a single small town over the course of two weeks. On September 19, after the killing of a photography intern, the Ciudad Juárez paper El Diario ran an extraordinary editorial asking the drug gangs for instruction: “We want you to explain to us what . . . we are supposed to publish or not publish. . . . You are at this time the de facto authorities in this city.” Scraping away some of the cool remove of the traditional noir, The Black Minutes gives a gorgeous, suffocating sense of life in Mexico’s sweltering northeast and an equally smothering sense of a justice system in which the concept of justice has been leached of meaning.
We soon find that the story of the honest cop is just the beginning, as about 1/3 of the way in Solares abruptly shifts to a story-within-a-story about Cabrera’s predecessor on the case, which makes the plot-line even more convoluted, the characters even more numerous, and everything that much more freakily connected.
So in sum, The Black Minutes is a big, wooly, meaty neo-noir with plenty of sex, guns, violence, death, and of course lots and lots of politics. It’s a chance to give the award to a Mexican drug war book in light of the fact that the judges dissed my book 2666, even as the Bartis was pretty freakin awesome.
E.J. mentioned this earlier, but now that we actually have a physical issue in hand, I thought I’d add a bit of information.
As noted in the earlier post, this issue of Zoetrope: All-Story is dedicated to contemporary Latin American writers. All of the writers included in this issue are under 40 (born post-One Hundred Years of Solitude) and the vast majority have never been published in English translation.
From the introduction by Daniel Alarcon and Diego Trelles Paz:
The view of Latin American letters, at least in the United States, has sorely needed an update for quite some time. Magical realism has been one of Latin America’s most profitable exports for many years, operating as the prevailing commercial literary mode long after outliving its usefulness. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solidtude (1967) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), two books we would describe—without exaggeration—as perfect, served as precursors to an unfortunate string of imitatons, novels that combined a little magic, a little folklore, and a few miraculous recipes in entirely predictable formulas, creating an exotic, unrealistic, and ultimately damaging vision of Latin America. Perhaps the most dispiriting consequence of this stylistic hegemony is that so many other worthy writers have received less attention than they deserve. Giants like Jorge Luis Borges and Mario Vargas Llosa are widely celebrated, though not widely read in English—to say nothing of Juan Carlos Onetti, Juan Rulfo, Clarice Lispector, Julio Cortazar, or Manuel Puig. In this context, the recent canonization of Roberto Bolano in the United States and around the world is a truly welcome development, which we hope will lead to greater interest in not-yet-famous and emerging Latin American writers.
To that end, they included a diverse list of authors from a range of countries, including: Carolina Sanin (Colombia), Ronaldo Menendez (Cuba), Ines Bortagaray (Uruguay), Rodrigo Hasbun (Bolivia), Alejandro Zambra (Chile), the late Aura Estrada (Mexico), Slavko Zupcic (Venezuela), and several others.
A quick word about the design: Zoetrope is always beautiful, but this time they outdid themselves. The paper so supple, and I really like the inclusion of the original Spanish version of the stories in the back on blue-tinted paper. Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro was the guest designer and interspersed throughout the issue are wonderful full-color sketches from his notebook.
You can order a copy (and find out more about this issue) by visiting the Zoetrope: All-Story website.
Number of interesting articles in this issue, in particular the late Aura Estrada has a fantastic piece on Cesar Aira and Roberto Bolano.
Thanks to Susan Sontag, FSG, and great writing, Roberto Bolano has received a good deal of well-deserved exposure over the past few months. Unfortunately, Aira—whose books are much more bizarre, slight, and completely different from one another—has been more overlooked.
Having read both of the books New Directions has published, I think Aira’s a great talent whose stature will grow over the next few years. And how could he not?:
Slim, cerebral, witty, fanciful, and idiosyncratic, Aira’s novels draw strength and meaning from many traditions, including Eastern and Central European existentialism: from the Polish Witold Gombrowicz, the French Raymond Russell, the Russian Mikhail Bulgakov, the Czech Bohumil Hrabal, and even the Austrian Thomas Bernhard—without the anti-nationalist anger.
Estrada’s review of Amulet is equally engaging and thoughtful, further illustrating what a great talent we recently lost.
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .