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.
Over the course of this week, we will be highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. All of these are written by the BTBA poetry judges under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win.” You can find the whole series by clicking here. Stay tuned for more information about the May 3rd ceremony.
pH Neutral History by Lidija Dimkovska, translated from the Macedonian by Ljubica Arsovska and Peggy Reid, and published by Copper Canyon Press.
Idra Novey is the author of Exit, Civilian, a 2011 National Poetry Series Winner, and The Next Country. She is also the translator of The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector, On Elegance While Sleeping by Viscount Lascano Tegui, and The Clean Shirt of It, for which she was awarded a 2007 PEN Translation Fund Grant.
Born in Macedonia but long a resident of Slovenia, Lidija Dimkovska is a post-national writer. Her exuberant poems, vividly translated by Ljubica Arsovska and Peggy Reid, are international in scope and intimately so. In pH Neutral History, her second collection to appear in English, one poem opens with a “Peter Pan bus from New York to Amherst” and another in cold Schloßberg with stoves full “of our nails and hair.” Dimkovska’s radical mix of old world/ new world references make for a poetry that feels necessary to the future of poetry, and compellingly so. In the excellent long poem “Recognition,” she writes:
You have a sense of direction even in worlds
you’ve never visited, A.
You can tell what personal misery will give birth to a work of art
that will travel the world like the mind of an imbecile.
And which imbecile will return from no-man’s land, and which won’t.
That’s why in Christian bookshops
you pause with the Bible open in your hands
to listen to the singer simulating orgasm on the radio.
The leap from misery to art to imbeciles and Christian bookshops is funny and smart and darkly so. Like A., Dimkovska also has a sense of direction in worlds she hasn’t visited, or has witnessed only briefly. Her poems are equally lived and imagined, rooted and drifting. In her hands, an assassination attempt on the president is the work of Scheherazade. In her Collected Prose, Rae Armentrout says that “doubleness is the essence of consciousness.” In Dimkovska’s post-national poetry, the consciousness is more of a tripleness or quadrupleness. With these superb translations from Arsovska and Reid, pH Neutral History is a serious contender for this year’s Best Translated Book Award in poetry.
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