24 March 14 | Monica Carter

Stephen Sparks is a buyer at Green Apple Books. He lives in San Francisco and blogs at Invisible Stories.

Through the Night was the last novel Stig Saeterbakken wrote before killing himself in 2012. Maybe this shouldn’t matter when it comes to determining whether it was the best-translated book published in 2013, but there’s something unshakable in the fact that Saeterbakken’s last work concerns itself with suicide, with depths of pain and loss and those regions where words cannot reach. The uncomfortable proximity of the book and its author, especially one as troubled as Saeterbakken, reminds us that behind every novel is a human being.

Through the Night tells the story of Karl Meyer, a successful dentist whose life unravels after his son’s suicide. In its broad contours, this is an unexceptional story, one that in less capable hands might be more tedious than moving. Saeterbakken, though, relates the story in an emotionally honest way, allowing us to understand Meyer while at the same time keeping a necessary distance. So, as we watch Meyer descend into a sort of clichéd self-destruction (against which, of course, we’re helpless)—leaving his family for a younger woman, giving up his practice and leaving the country, abandoning everything familiar in pursuit of the oblivion of elsewhere—we see a man who is both an archetype and an individual. The particulars stick with us: the novel opens with Meyer’s wife, Eva, plunging an axe into the television that Meyer has been glued to since their son’s funeral. It’s the passivity of the binge-viewer that Meyer tries to shake free of as the novel progresses, creating a tension between inertia and action familiar to anyone who’s felt themselves paralyzed by grief.

Part of what makes Through the Night so much more compelling than other novels treading similar ground is that Saeterbakken isn’t concerned with limiting himself to a realist depiction of an extreme psychological state—as difficult a task as that is. As is apparent in his previously translated work—Siamese and Self-Control—Saeterbakken sought to create situations in which extreme states are matched by outward realities, as if he needed to find a physical form in which to embody the waywardness of a world where, for example, a child can die before his parent. In Through the Night, which progresses from psychological realism to surrealism, Saeterbakken finds a haunting manifestation of this waywardness in the house in Zagreb, which is said to contain the fears of each of its visitors. I’ll leave it to the curious reader to find her way there.

Saeterbakken’s final novel isn’t perfect and the translation suffers from an occasional rough patch, but the book is nonetheless a fitting testament to a writer who, more than anything, found it unacceptable to take the easy way out. And while I generally avoid the qualifier “brave” when describing fiction, I think Through the Night is a brave work—perhaps the only brave book on the BTBA longlist. For that alone, it deserves to win.


Comments are disabled for this article.
....
Faces in the Crowd
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli
Reviewed by Valerie Miles

At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .

Read More >

Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia by Julio Cortázar
Reviewed by Cameron Rowe

Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin. . .

Read More >

Self-Portrait in Green
Self-Portrait in Green by Marie NDiaye
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships.. . .

Read More >

The Madmen of Benghazi
The Madmen of Benghazi by Gerard de Villiers
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .

Read More >

The Four Corners of Palermo
The Four Corners of Palermo by Giuseppe Di Piazza
Reviewed by Patience Haggin

The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this,. . .

Read More >

Writers
Writers by Antoine Volodine
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .

Read More >

My Brilliant Friend
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Reviewed by Acacia O'Connor

It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .

Read More >

Stealth
Stealth by Sonallah Ibrahim
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .

Read More >

Miruna, a Tale
Miruna, a Tale by Bogdan Suceavă
Reviewed by Alta Ifland

Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .

Read More >

Kamal Jann
Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .

Read More >

The next few events from our Translation Events Calendar: See More Events >