Like many American readers, I stumbled upon Rodrigo Rey Rosa thanks to Bolaño. How could you not be willing to check out a previously unheard-of Guatemalan author after encountering praise like this:
To say that Rodrigo Rey Rosa is the most rigorous writer of my generation and at the same time the most transparent, the one who better weaves his stories and the most luminous of them all, is saying nothing new.
The African Shore is the story of an unlikely encounter in the most international of cities, Tangier. Its first part follows the kif-smoking Hamsa, a Moroccan shepherd boy who has recently become involved in the drug trade in an attempt to ameliorate his socio-economic condition. The second part follows a Colombian tourist who has lost his passport after a crazy night of alcohol and whores. Stranded in a strange land, he gradually becomes more enmeshed in complex relationships of vague desire and mutual incomprehension. All the while, the life that he left behind slowly fades into remote irrelevance. In Tangier, the focal point of his relationships with others—and ultimately of the novel itself—is an owl. The Colombian buys it from a ragged boy on the street for a few dirhams, and it quickly becomes an object of adoration and a site of contention, propelling the narrative forward.
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.
Rey Rosa’s novel is a delicately constructed miniature model. Its brevity and ease of reading are deceptive. The chapters rattle by; most are not much more than a page or two. When I finished, I had to ask myself if there shouldn’t have been something more. After setting it down and going about my day, though, it returned to me, its elaborate intricacy growing on me all the while. Rey Rosa’s masterful narrative has been remarkably conveyed into English by Jeffrey Gray. He could easily have upset this striking balance at so many points, and yet he didn’t. The rigor and transparency come through. For that accomplishment, it deserves very serious consideration for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award.
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes recorded by journalist Georges Vasseur in his diary during a month spent in the Pyrenées Mountains to treat his nervous. . .
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .
There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .