I’m really excited about this year’s list of finalists—it’s a pretty loaded list that includes works from eight different countries, ranging from Russia to Argentina to Djibouti. All ten books have a valid chance of winning the award depending on what criteria you want to emphasize. (Click here to see all the various arguments for why each of these books should win.)
We’ll be posting more commentary about this over the next few weeks, building up to the announcement of the winning title on May 3rd at 5:30pm the PEN World Voices/CLMP Fest taking place at the Washington Mews in New York.
Also, the finalists for poetry are going to be announced on the Poetry Foundation blog, and will be reproduced here as soon as that goes live.
The 2013 Best Translated Book Award Fiction Finalist
The Planets by Sergio Chejfec, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary (Open Letter Books; Argentina)
Prehistoric Times by Eric Chevillard, translated from the French by Alyson Waters (Archipelago Books; France)
The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, translated from the Persian by Tom Patterdale (Melville House; Iran)
Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes (New Directions; Hungary)
Autoportrait by Edouard Levé, translated from the French by Lorin Stein (Dalkey Archive Press; France)
A Breath of Life: Pulsations by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz (New Directions; Brazil)
The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller, translated from the German by Philip Boehm (Metropolitan Books; Romania)
Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz (Open Letter Books; Russia)
Transit by Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated from the French by David Ball and Nicole Ball (Indiana University Press; Djibouti)
My Father’s Book by Urs Widmer, translated from the German by Donal McLaughlin (Seagull Books; Switzerland)
Special thanks needs to go out to all of our fine judges: Monica Carter, Salonica; Tess Doering Lewis, translator and critic; Scott Esposito, Conversational Reading and Center for the Art of Translation; Susan Harris, Words Without Borders; Bill Martin, translator; Bill Marx, Arts Fuse; Michael Orthofer, Complete Review; Stephen Sparks, Green Apple Books; and Jenn Witte, Skylight Books.
And we want to thank Amazon.com once again for underwriting the award and providing $25,000 allowing us to give $5,000 cash prizes to both winning authors and translators, along with providing a small honorarium for the judges.
As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.
The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller, translated from the German by Philip Boehm, and published by Metropolitan Books
This piece is by BTBA judge Bill Marx, who also runs Arts Fuse, a great source for criticism and commentary on a range of art forms.
In A Thousand Darknesses, her critical study about how literature manages to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, critic Ruth Franklin asserts that “every canonical work of Holocaust literature involves some graying of the line between fiction and reality.” One could apply that claim to the literature about the pitiless existence in the death camps of the period as well, the Russian gulags. Romanian writer Herta Müller’s masterpiece, The Hunger Angel, describes life in a Soviet forced-labor camp right after the war through a powerful, almost uncanny, melding of imagination and first-hand testimony. Beautifully translated by Philip Boehm, this is the finest volume I have read so far by the Nobel prize-winning author, and I have no doubt that it is a canonical work because it meets Ezra Pound’s oft-quoted demand for literature. What’s more, it does so despite the odds—transforming stale pieties and images about the era’s inhumanity into news that stays news.
Back in the early ’60s, critics such as Ted Solotaroff already felt that all that could be said about the horror had been said: “By now there have been a glut of books and articles, reminiscences and diaries, documentary history and objective analyses tell us everything we need to know about the ghettos and prisons and death camps; no survivor need feel compelled to assume the burdens of testimony to the degradation, torture and murder that reiterate through these accounts and finally dull and deaden consciousness of their import.” So much more has been revealed since then.
So how does The Hunger Angel expand our consciousness of this well-worn material? Partly because it deals with what had been a repressed part of Romanian history, an episode that the authoritarian Ceaușescu regime did its best to keep a secret. After the war, Romanians with a German background were sent off to Soviet work camps, where thousands died. Müller explains in her afterword that “the deportations were a taboo subject because they recalled Romania’s fascist past.” She wanted to write about this hushed-up injustice, and spoke to a number of elderly survivors about life in the camps, developing a special relationship with the poet Oskar Pastior. There was talk of a collaboration, but when Pastior died Müller fashioned the material into a novel that evokes, amplified through her distinctive creative vision, the man’s playfully stark poetic sensibility.
The book creates the consciousness of seventeen-year-old prisoner Leo Auberg through his meditations on objects (in his past as well as in the camps), minimalist contemplations of horror that are pungent, sardonic, poetic, humorous, acidic, and heart-breaking. Along the way Müller invents words to describe the dehumanizing experiences that beset the narrator, a compelling language that, according to translator Boehm, evokes “the displacement of the soul among victims of authoritarianism.” The value of such an inspired articulation of historical witnessing is summed up near the end of the book: “Little treasures have a sign that says, Here I am. Bigger treasures have a sign that says, Do you remember. But the most precious treasures of all will have a sign saying, I was there.”
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