How’s this for a plot: the 16th century poet, Camões, is exiled from Portugal, his native country, for, what else?, falling in love with the wrong woman. He is sent East to the dysfunctional, claustrophobic, and imperiled colony of Macao. On the way there, the ship he is a prisoner on wrecks; he barely escapes with his life. After finally and fortunately arriving on Macao, he falls in love with Pilar, the governor’s daughter, essentially repeating the mistake the got him banished in the first place…
That alone would be worthy of your attention, but there’s more: in the 20th century, an unnamed radio operator, a man who says he is neither sailor nor landlubber, begins, as the ship he sails on moves further east, to tune into Camões’ story, essentially transferring places with the poet, who has somehow managed to tunnel through time. Late in the novel, after Camões has been banished yet again, this time to the then inhospitable Chinese mainland, he trades places with the radio operator…
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.
Paul Vincent’s translation captures the odd beauty of Slauerhoff’s singular novel, rich in atmosphere and incident. It’s the kind of book many of us on the BTBA panel live for: an undisputed classic that, after an inexplicably long time, makes its way into English. Thank god we have publishers like Pushkin Press who endeavor to bring books like this to light. It stands on its own, but taking all of this into consideration, The Forbidden Kingdom deserves to win the award.
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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. . .
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,. . .
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. . .
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?),. . .
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’. . .
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. . .
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. . .