This post is courtesy of Best Translated Book Award judge, the inimitable George Carroll. Not only is he one hell of a West Coast sales rep for publishing companies large and small, he has an inexhaustible knowledge of translated literature.
There are two books set in shantytowns that were submitted for this year’s award: Shantytown by Cesar Aira and Horses of God by Mahi Binebine. Although the basic setting is similar, they’re quite different books.
One of the main characters in the Aira book imagines that at the core of the network of narrow streets, behind the façade of the shacks in Buenos Aires, there are towers, domes castles, ramparts, and groves. In Binebine’s book, no one in the book imagines where they live as anything but what it is.
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.
It is the winner of the 2010 Prix du Roman Arabe and Prix Littéraire Mamounia, was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2004 and has just been awarded a 2013 English PEN Award for outstanding writing in translation. Lulu Norman’s translation creates a genuine and authentic voice for the narrator.
I found Horses of God to be tighter and more compelling than the other books on the longlist. The main reason that I’m championing Horses of God is that I read it months ago and still can’t get it out of my head.
Odds are that this won’t win The Best Translated Book Award against the firepower of the 2014 list. But if you’re making a reading list based on this year’s selections, this should definitely be on it.
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