Now that the ten finalists for the 2014 BTBA in Fiction have been announced, it’s worth taking a look back at the reasons “why these books should win” according to the judges and other readers. Below is a list of all ten finalists, with links to their individual write ups along with a key quote from each.
Horses of God by Mahi Binebine, from the French by Lulu Norman (Morocco; Tin House)
Horses of God is narrated from beyond the grave by one of four childhood friends who wrench an existence in the Sidi Moumen slums in Casablanca. They form a soccer team that competes with teams from the other slums and dream of a soccer as a vehicle to escape from the squalor, violence, and unemployment. However, their fate is changed when they are attracted to a religion that offers them guidance and purpose, and training in martial arts.
Their choices and decisions transform them from lives of despair to religious extremism, and ultimately to become suicide bombers. The book is based on the 2003 suicide bombings at Casablanca’s Hotel Farah.
Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter (Romania; Archipelago Books)
In a year of stiff competition, including from Archipelago’s other leading candidate for the BTBA, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book Two—Blinding stands apart as a work that transcends the intimate thoughts of the central male narrator and expands a vision of reality to include all dimensions of time and space. Seriously, it’s a wild read. And it’s weird to see Knausgaard compared to Proust, when Knausgaard’s My Struggle reminds me far more of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, you live fully inside the minutiae of mundane daily existence wherein the narrator making his way through the world. Cărtărescu is far more akin to Proust in that he traces out the full extents of what the human mind and its capacity for memory can contain and create at once: the brain is a dangerous tool, and the weapon of memory can destroy us even as it liberates us out of the mundanity of our existence. Memory is everything, and you have the power to create memories out of nothing. Blinding is an experiment in memory-creation. Mythmaking is memory-creation. Memory is power. Memory is existence.
The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy; Europa Editions)
There is something about Elena Ferrante as a writer that is difficult to ignore. She never misses a beat. Her novels, as varied as they are, don’t waver; they are consistently thoughtful, provocative, smothering and honest. This novel was my personal pick to be put on the longlist. She has been brilliant for so long and deserves the Oscar. Her brilliance isn’t limited to her mechanics, her finesse or her creativity as a writer, but it’s her willingness to continually address the psychological machinations of women who have very unfeminine feelings.
Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Netherlands; Open Letter Books)
How to describe a book as affecting and unusual as Tirza I could cobble together a few puffed-up jacket blurb superlatives—something like, “Hilarious Disturbing Subtle Horrific Masterpiece,” or maybe “Psycho-Cultural Familial Catastrophic Tour-De-Force.” But no, the best way to proceed in this instance is to accept that, confined to this meager space, I won’t be able to do justice to this irreducible book.
So I should start by admitting that I was totally unprepared for Tirza. To be honest, I would be scared to meet the person who is prepared for it. Two paragraphs in, I understood the caliber of writer I was dealing with. By the second page I had already laughed out loud. And from then on I was hopelessly immersed in the pathetic, compelling world of Jörgen Hofmeester.
My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Norway; Archipelago Books)
I’ve read three volumes of My Struggle so far, and I’m almost certain that I like Vol 2 the best. I hate comparisons of My Struggle to Proust because they always end up being purely superficial, but I’m going to make another superficial comparison for reasons that I hope will be evident: I kind of liken this volume to the second volume of Proust. Nine out of ten people adore Within a Budding Grove the most of all volumes of Proust because it’s the love volume. Proust is using all of his talents to describe love at its most rapturous and incandescent phase, and he’s processing it through his own memory, which of course makes it even more romantic and memorable. Not to mention, love stories tend to make for great narratives, another thing that makes the second volume of Proust much easier to read and more memorable than other volumes. There’s a certain sort of immediacy there that’s hard to match with any other kind of story.
Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet (Hungary; New Directions)
Krasznahorkai, like Beckett, writes like a pilgrim whose temple has been destroyed, who owns nothing but the bruises on his feet. To our astonishment, he shows us that the concerns we thought we had left behind — how to make art as an offering and a plea to the gods, for example — are in fact terribly modern. As we journey through the seventeen chapters of Seiobo There Below — each of which displays remarkable erudition, pathos, and humor — we come to understand the urgency of our spiritual predicament, the poverty and despair that we have chosen and that is beyond our power to undo.
But even there at the edge of the apocalypse, Krasznahorkai offers us two beaten pearls of hope.
A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters (Japan; Other Press)
In her prologue (which, by the way, contains what is probably the best piece of writing about writing I’ve ever read), Mizumura outlines her intent in A True Novel to execute a sprawling epic in the tradition of western classics—what in Japanese is called honkaku shosetsu, loosely translated as ‘true novel’. This form is presented in contrast to shishosetsu, or ‘I-novel’, the more traditionally Japanese novelistic form of autobiographical narrative. To this end, she employs none other than Wuthering Heights, reimagining Brontë’s classic in postwar Japan.
The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray (Guatemala; Yale University Press)
In that narration, what impresses me most is the ambiguous specificity of the writing. Rey Rosa demonstrates a profound mastery of negative capability, all the more impressive given the diversity of his subject matter. He manages to evoke a world of complexity—Latino tourists and unquestioning locals, economic migrants and drug peddlers, and even French residents not all too far removed from their colonialist fore-bearers—with the sparsest of prose. His depiction of post-colonial Tangier, significantly evolved from the Tangier of his mentor Paul Bowles, is pitch perfect and rings true to my years in Morocco. For an author relating a story about the mutual incomprehension of cross-cultural encounters, Rey Rosa shows just how much he really gets people from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. Occasionally, a quarter page exchange will distill the essence of hour-long conversations I’ve had with French people or Hispanics, or Moroccans.
Leg Over Leg Vol. 1 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (Lebanon; New York University Press)
That’s already one reason why this book should win the BTBA: it blows our (pre-)conceptions of Arabic literature out of the water. It certainly did mine. Sure, I’ve made my way through Naguib Mahfouz and Elias Khoury, and a variety of the translations of Arabic novels from the past decades, but I never managed to get much of a sense of anything earlier than, say, Tawfiq al-Hakim. Sure, there’s always the Arabian Nights, but that stands so distant and apart from everything else that it feels entirely separate. Arabic fiction – in translation – always seemed to be twentieth (generally later-twentieth) and twenty-first century fiction, much of it strongly shaped by so-called Western influences. And then I pick this up and get an electrifying jolt, finding a mid-nineteenth century literary work that is as radical and inventive as any modern novel. I thought I had a decent sense of modern Arabic literature, and suddenly I found myself exposed to a whole new layer underlying it all, throwing a whole new light on all of it.
The Forbidden Kingdom by Jan Jacob Slauerhoff, translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent (Netherlands; Pushkin Press)
In its rough outlines, Jan Jacob Slauerhoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom (translated by Paul Vincent) sounds like the a great genre novel—time-travel! possession! conspiring monks! But like other great modernist works—this one was originally published in 1932—it uses its subject matter as a means to play with expectation and certainty. It is a strange book, at times difficult to follow as it shifts between characters and centuries, but it is also something of a page-turner. It brings to mind Joseph Conrad, but without quite the same ponderousness, and somewhat remarkably, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.
Last year we brought out Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, one of my favorite books of the past few years. (And a title that deserves to at least be shortlisted for this year’s BTBA . . .)
At the time I talked to Arnon about doing two of his other books—The Man without Illness and The Asylum Seekers—since we all love his work so much, and thought that Open Letter could serve as a home for some of these older books. He seemed thrilled about this.
We made an offer to his new representative, Oscar van Gelderen (who took over Arnon’s properties after Ira Silverberg went to run the Literature Department at the NEA, but is primarily a Dutch publisher), and after following up with him a half-dozen times—he held our offer for months upon months—we received the following reply this morning:
It took some time before we could respond to your offer, the reason being we are looking carefully at the publishing situation in each country wherein Arnon is published.
And although we have enjoyed working together with Open Letter on Tirza, we have decided not to accept your offers for Arnons books. Sales for Tirza have been quite poor, as far as we can judge (when do we receive royalty statements?), and visibility in the media has been limited. We love the Open Letter list, its quality, but we feel Arnon needs a publishing house with more sales power. We dont mean this in a disrespectful way, au contraire, we know how Open Letter operates and we can see the upsides of that strategy too, but we need more power and marketing force in order to get Arnon the breakthrough he deserves (in each and every country).
For the moment we have put things on hold in the USA and UK, we want to decide in a later stage whom we want collaborate with. Arnon is currently writing his novel about his mother, a book, we feel, with lots of sales potential. For us it would be thé Grunberg book to break open the market, get him out there, and find the readers he truly deserves.
In the meantime, please send us some more information regarding sales of Tirza, we are curious to know how it sold sofar.
All the best,
Oscar van Gelderen
Arnon Grunberg Agency
Yeah, it’s still pretty disrespectful, buddy.
The sales have been modest—over 2,000 copies, but still—which is one reason we’re moving to Consortium for sales distribution. We’ve been doing all sales representation ourselves (and with the help of the fantastic George Carroll out in the Pacific Northwest), and that’s much more complicated and difficult now than it was 10 years ago. Literary books—in translation, in a crowded marketplace—will probably always sell between 1,500 and 4,000 copies on average, but hopefully Consortium will push us toward the larger end of that spectrum.
Back to kvetching: Last April, Arnon sent me a translated version of an article he had written about Greece, in hopes that I would be able to find a magazine interested in publishing this. Under normal circumstances, this would be an agent’s job; my assumption was that Oscar doesn’t know that U.S. landscape as well as I do, and was looking for some help.
So, for no money or other considerations, I spent some time talking to various publications and eventually got Andrew Leland from The Believer interested and the piece appeared in the September 2013 issue of the magazine. You’re welcome, Oscar!
Putting aside my emotions for a second, let’s consider how wise a move this is on Oscar/Arnon’s part.
In case you’re not aware of Arnon’s publishing history in the U.S., in 1997, Farrar, Straus & Giroux brought out his debut novel, Blue Mondays. A few years later, 2001 to be exact, St. Martin’s brought out Silent Extras. Three years later, Other Press brought out two of Arnon’s books, Phantom Pain and The Story of My Baldness. Then, in 2008, Penguin brought out The Jewish Messiah. And finally, in 2013, Open Letter publishes Tirza.
For a lot of international authors, that’s a damn fine run. Over the course of 16 years, five different publishers brought out six of Arnon’s books. The part that might be troubling is the five different publishers. Conventional Wisdom states that if a publisher sells an acceptable number of copies of a particular author’s book, they like to go on with that author, build a backlist, etc. My guess—and maybe I’m wrong—is that FSG, Penguin, Other Press, didn’t get the attention and sales that they were looking for, which is why they only did 1-2 books then moved on.
From a typical agent’s perspective, this is not a good thing. Publishing people talk, partial sales information becomes accessible, and any new editor considering a new book from this author can look back on this pothole-filled publishing history, and . . . probably think long and hard about signing on the author’s new book.
So, in contrast to having a situation in which Arnon had a publisher willing to do 3+ of his novels—more than any other previous publisher—Arnon is now going out into the marketplace with a lot of baggage . . . I wish him luck. All I want is to be able to read more of his books—something that probably won’t be possible (Especailly for his backlist titles) for the foreseeable future.
Then again, there always is the self-publishing route . . .
One of the many interesting things about judging the Best Translated Book Award is the sense it gives you of what (and how much) is actually being translated into English (and published/distributed in the US). Thanks largely to Dalkey Archive Press’ Library of Korean Literature, for example, we’re suddenly exposed to about a dozen Korean titles this year (without the Dalkey publications, it would be more like … one). The statistics can be revealing – and disappointing. Sure, we get … well, if not quite any number so at least a whole lot of French titles – but Chinese ? Isn’t Chinese literature hot right now ? Last time the database we rely on was updated (i.e. there might still be some unaccounted for) I counted all of three eligible titles.
Numbers-wise, among the literatures which seems to consistently punch above its population-weight, along with Icelandic and Hebrew, is Dutch (meaning: Dutch and Flemish), and while we have (at last count) quote-unquote only six works of fiction to consider … well, damn, it is an impressive selection (and the Vondel Prize-folks — who have to consider two years’ worth of publications — have their work cut out for them).
I haven’t seen one of these yet — The Square of Revenge, ‘An Inspector Van In novel’ by Pieter Aspe – and I suspect that its being part of a mystery series makes it a longshot to get longlisted, but I note that Aspe has apparently sold millions and that this book did get reviewed in The New York Times Book Review (only as part of Marilyn Stasio‘s ‘Crime’-round-up, but still). [As it turns out, there’s a double-bill of Inspector Van In novels eligible – a second one, The Midas Murders, having also appeared in the eligible period (but failing to make it onto the database for now – an omission Chad will rectify shortly. So that’s seven – and counting … – Dutch titles in the running.]
Even if they are great mysteries, the Aspes will be hard-pressed to compete with the other Dutch titles elbowing for spots on the longlist. First off, there’s Hella S. Haasse’s The Black Lake , in Ina Rilke’s translation — which fellow-judge Daniel Medin has already delighted in in a previous Three Percent/BTBA post. Haasse — who died just two years ago, at a very ripe old age – wrote this back in 1948. While quite a bit of the work by this grand old lady of Dutch literature has been published in translation, it’s great to see this important, powerful little novel about colonial Indonesia finally also available in English.
There’s another, even older work in the running, Jan Jacob Slauerhoff’s 1932 novel, The Forbidden Kingdom. This unusual time-bridging narrative features Portuguese traveler and poet, Luís de Camões, as well as a modern-day (well, early 20th-century) events, and is a wonderful (and wonderfully surprising) more-than-just-adventure novel.
Then there’s Gerbrand Bakker’s Ten White Geese — which you might also recognize from the title it was published in the UK under, The Detour , since it, in David Colmer’s translation, already won the biggest translation-into-English prize on the other side of the Atlantic, the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, With Bakker’s previous novel, The Twin, already making the 2010 BTBA shortlist it’s clear he’s an author – and this a book – that has to be taken pretty seriously.
Finally, there are the two Sam Garrett-translated titles – notable not just because they share a translator (Anthea Bell has him beat there, hands down, with five translations in the BTBA-running) but because they’re in many ways quite similar works – and both were incredibly successful in the Netherlands. One is Tirza, by Arnon Grunberg, the other The Dinner by Herman Koch. Amazingly, both were reviewed in the not-known-as-very-open-to-fiction-in-translation New York Times Book Review – here and here – and The Dinner even got the Janet Maslin treatment in the daily Times (she loathed it).
One seems to have done much, much better sales-wise than the other — The Dinner, which actually can boast of being a New York Times bestseller (indeed, it spent quite a few weeks on the bestseller lists). Yet Tirza is the clearly superior work; as Claire Messud concluded in her NYTBR review of The Dinner, that novel, while “absorbing and highly readable, proves in the end strangely shallow”. Tirza, on the other hand, is both entertaining and, ultimately, profound.
Both novels have a horrific twist. In the case of The Dinner it is one that’s, at least in its outlines, fairly obvious early on – but just keeps getting more twisted and horrific as the novel progresses (an admittedly very nice and disturbing touch). Tirza seems to follow a simpler arc of personal dissolution before taking its more surprising final turn into the abyss.
The Dinner uses a meal at a fancy restaurant as its foundation, taking readers through the many courses while incongruously (that’s the intent, anyway) increasingly disturbing revelations are made. With one of the characters running for high political office (prime minister, in fact), The Dinner is a cruel satire of contemporary Dutch movers and shakers (and any notion of civilized behavior in general). By turns shocking as well as occasionally funny, it does have considerable shock-value-appeal – but there’s not that much more to it. Koch does reasonably well, but not quite well enough with what is also ultimately a very ugly tale that – as Messud noted – doesn’t really have much depth to it.
Tirza also involves an almost unspeakable act, but Grunberg is the far superior craftsman in leading readers there, the shock, when it comes, all the more affecting. It’s a remarkably convincing portrait of a man falling apart. Like Koch’s novel, it’s uncomfortable to read, in part, but whereas Koch’s exaggerated satire can also be shrugged off – good for cocktail-party chatter, but hardly to be taken seriously as an in any way a profound critique of society – Grunberg’s novel sits much deeper.
I can see the easy appeal of The Dinner – part of which is surely also that it can be shrugged off fairly easily, as over-the-top satire often can. Tirza, much more personal than public (no one running for the highest office in the land here …), may not be a novel whose protagonist readers want to identify with either, but it’s a completely convincing portrait of (a) contemporary man and contemporary society.
This BTBA selection process, of narrowing down the three or four hundred eligible books, first to a longlist, is challenging. I’ve just gone over the Dutch titles here, and I think there’s a strong case to be made for four of them to at least reach the final-25 stage. Whatever the outcome – I am only of nine judges, after all, and I can’t be sure how my fellow judges feel about these (and the many other worthy) titles – I’d be surprised if Tirza didn’t make the cut, and if The Dinner did.
Arnon Grunberg—author of a number of books, including Tirza, which is one of my favorite Open Letter titles from 2013—has a really fantastic essay about a trip to Thessaloniki in the new issue of The Believer.
You need to read the whole long thing, but here’s a bit to entice you:
Until recently, wars had a venue. They had a front. Wars had a beginning, and often came to a clear end. Then the war against terrorism came along. This war was everywhere and nowhere; it could pop up anyplace. And although the war was more manifest in some places than others—Afghanistan and Iraq, for example—it remained elusive. Then the financial crisis hit, and proved every bit as elusive as the “real” wars at the start of the twenty-first century. The crisis, too, was everywhere and nowhere, but it did have a single nation at its epicenter: Greece.
Not at Lehman Brothers, which collapsed in 2008, and not on Wall Street; Greece was where the fire broke out. One heard the word contamination again and again, but this time it was no imperial cultural contamination, no creeping process of civilization. This time the crisis was a contagion: debts and obligations that would never be repaid, a gradual deterioration of the financial immune system.
And so, in the darkest days of winter, I decided to set off for Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city. Cities like that are often at least as interesting as the capital, and if God is in the details, then the truth is going to be revealed at the periphery. In conversations with people working in various capacities to regenerate Greek social and economic life, I would try to assess the collateral damage from this newest international conflagration. But I also went to Thessaloniki to meet its mayor, Yiannis Boutaris, who had recently rocketed to international stardom. In newspaper articles he was portrayed as a “good Greek,” a man who wanted to combat corruption, who did not compare Angela Merkel to Hitler, who did not blame everything on capitalism, and who had no desire to defend in veiled terms the country’s nepotism and status quo. In those articles one detected an unmistakable relief at the fact that a good Greek had been found.
I would spend Christmas in Thessaloniki—the light in the darkened world of the crisis.
Check out the whole thing, and then buy Tirza. We could really use the sales. Oh, and if you’re reading this and have $80,000 you’d like to donate to the World’s Coolest Publishing House, please call me. Please.
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