As you already know, the winner of this year’s BTBA for fiction is Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, and translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet. Below is a short piece by the BTBA fiction jury explaining the reasons behind their selection and pointing out two runners-up.
We are very pleased to award the 2013 Best Translated Book Award for fiction to Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet. Fans of the award will no doubt note that this is the second year in a row that it has been given to Krazsnahorkai, with last year’s honors going to his first novel, Satantango, translated by George Szirtes. This fact was taken into account by the judges, as was our desire to honor writing from a wide range of geographies, cultures, and languages, and these are all things that we hope will be continued to be accounted for going forward. But in the end one thing was clear: out of a shortlist of ten contenders that did not lack for ambition, Seiobo There Below truly overwhelmed us with its range—this is a book that discusses in minute detail locations from all around the globe, including Japan, Spain, Italy, and Greece, as well as delving into the consciousnesses and practices of individuals from across 2,000 years of human history. The book also takes bold steps forward in terms of how we think of the form of the novel, and our expectation of how a novel works and what it can attempt to do. In its scope, its depth, and its amazing precision, we found Seiobo There Below to be a work of rare genius. We were likewise very enthusiastic about Mulzet’s translation, which is astonishing for its beauty and its technical skill. In this book of nearly 500 pages, filled with sentences that range on for pages at a time, as well as all sorts of specialized jargon and obscure details, Mulzet doesn’t hit a false note, a truly amazing accomplishment. We must give due congratulations to her great work, as well as register our appreciation to her editors at New Directions, who surely must share in the credit.
As much as we admire Seiobo There Below, it was not an easy decision to elevate this book above our two runners-up, and there was much in-depth discussion and passionate arguments in favor of all three finalists. Although there can only be one winner, it is important to us to honor the range of styles, geographies, languages, and cultures that made it so challenging to select the 2013 honoree. Thus we offer these words of praise for our two runners-up:
We found Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s short novel The African Shore, masterfully translated by Jeffrey Gray, to be almost the perfect counterpoint to Seiobo There Below. In its sonnet-like perfection, even a single out-of-place word would have marred this novel’s hypnotizing effect, so due praise must be given to Rey Rosa and Gray for presenting us with this seamless, engrossing story. We also admired the strange logic by which Rey Rosa’s book functions, telling two parallel narratives that are connected by that strange symbolic creature, the owl. The African Shore felt very much to us like a story that only Rey Rosa could have told, a small, perfectly cut jewel that we can stare into endlessly. It is emblematic of the very rich exchange between Rey Rosa’s native Guatemala and the Morocco in which he lived for a decade, and its minimalist aesthetic points us toward an interesting new direction for Latin American literature to follow in the new century.
We were equally enamored of Minae Mizumura’s work in adapting Emily Brontë’s Gothic classic Wuthering Heights to contemporary Japan, translated most spectacularly by Juliet Winters Carpenter. As the novel continues to evolve as an art form, it is essential that it take stock of its legacy and find ways to rejuvenate its classics. Mizumura does not only this but also interrogates the idea of the “true novel“—the Western novel in the tradition of Flaubert, Dickens, et al.—against the traditional Japanese novel. As have many great Japanese writers before her, she reaches into the rich intersection between East and West to create something distinctly Japanese yet global in scope, a satisfying investigation of individual characters, the landscape of her nation, and various novelistic traditions. This wonderful novel marks the entry of a major talent into the English language, and we are proud to honor Mizumura’s long overdue arrival.
Who is Eduardo Torres? That’s the question Augusto Monterroso asks in his novel Lo demás es silencio, a detailed depiction of a small town intellectual’s life—his childhood, courtship, working maturity, and retirement—filled with typical Monterrosian wit, charm, and innovation. Although there is no beginning, middle, or end to the story, the scenes from the life of Eduardo Torres blend together seamlessly to create for the reader a wide-ranging view into the life of this man. More of an in-depth character study than an actual story, the novel is nevertheless engaging and flows neatly from one part to the next.
Written in a manner utterly distinct from that of a typical biography, Monterroso makes use of a range of literary categories to build his character. A brother’s memories shed light on his upbringing. An old love letter, found and recorded by his young secretary, gives a glimpse into his adolescence. An interview with his wife tells of their day-to-day relations and routines. A friend recounts Torres’ interactions with the populace of his village. Essays by Torres, as well as responses to and critiques of these essays, also appear, providing the reader with a more intellectual portrait of the man, supplemented by a collection of quotations and aphorisms Torres is noted for coining. The crowning section of the book is an addendum, commenting on the “biography” itself, also written in Eduardo Torres’s voice. What is most amazing about this fictional construction is not the variation of literary styles but rather the change in tone that complements each separate narrator. Monterroso writes as if he really was compiling a biography from numerous sources, yet at the same time manages to convey a sense of unity in his characterization of Eduardo Torres.
To the discerning reader, Monterroso is a witty author, writing a book that is perfectly matched with his style. The subtle commentary he weaves in about his own writing is couched so that at first glance it seems to be that one of his characters is remarking on something entirely unrelated, and yet upon review becomes what it really is. There are several instances throughout the book that are deserving of a second glance and thus a hearty laugh. Monterroso’s style makes Lo demás es silencio more than just a character study. It is instead an utterly enjoyable and entertaining read, perfectly suited to a summer afternoon.
Augusto Monterroso (1921-2003) was a Guatemalan author considered to be one of the central figures in the “Boom” movement. Almost all of his books are collections of short pieces, including the story “The Dinosaur,” considered to be one of the shortest stories ever, and reproduced below as translated by Edith Grossman:
“When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.”
Lo demás es silencio (La vida y la obra de Eduardo Torres)
by Augusto Monterroso
Inventive, playful, and moving, Vila-Matas’s second book to be translated into English is an amazing accomplishment, expanding the idea of what qualifies as a “novel” while also serving as a sort of manifesto for literature. The book’s main theme is laid out in its opening paragraph, which is a somewhat veiled reference to Vila-Matas’s earlier book Bartleby & Co.: “At the end of the twentieth century, the young Montano, who had just published his dangerous novel about the curious case of writers who give up writing, got caught in the net of his own fiction and, despite his compulsive tendency towards writing, suffered a complete block, paralysis, a tragic inability to write.” On a trip to Nantes to visit his son Montano, the narrator starts obsessing about his own “literature-sickness,” which he eventually terms Montano’s Malady. Unable to think about anything but literature and his sense that modern man is killing literature, the narrator does anything he can to uncover a “cure,” eventually finding relief by having sex with his wife at the end of part one. This is where the book really starts to get interesting . . . The second part of the book invalidates all that came before, explaining that it was a false-diary, a new novella by the author, who is a famous Spanish writer. This second part—a “dictionary” of authors who wrote famous diaries—gives way to a lecture the narrator give in Budapest on the diary as literature.
Throughout these formal and stylistic changes the basic points of the author’s story remain—his trip to Nantes, to Buenos Aires, his friend/rival Tongoy (who looks like a vampire), and his strained relationship with his wife. As with Bartelby & Co., underlying the narrator’s erudition and literature-obsession is a well of loneliness, a void that reading and writing tries to fill. And in the case of this novel, the narrator’s obsession and search for a cure to his “malady” is spawned by the growing sense that literature itself is on its deathbed, under attack by “cretins, lousy, dead writers cum civil servants.” These are “people who copy what has been done before and lack any literary (though not financial) ambition,” constituting a “plague even more pernicious than the plague of publishing directors working away enthusiastically against the literary.”
The thing that saves this book from becoming a screed against people who watch too much TV and laugh at dumb jokes is the voice of Vila-Matas’s narrator. Warm, funny, self-effacing, obsessed, and a tad paranoid, the reader is sucked into his world after only a couple of pages, quickly growing to sympathize with this curious figure. Similar to Marcel Benabou’s Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, this title will live on for years as a high-water mark of literary creativity.
by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Jonathan Dunne
235 pp., $14.95 (pb)
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