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.
Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .
There are plenty of reasons you can fail to find the rhythm of a book. Sometimes it’s a matter of discarding initial assumptions or impressions, sometimes of resetting oneself. Zigmunds Skujiņš’s Flesh-Coloured Dominoes was a defining experience in the necessity. . .
In a culture that privileges prose, reviewing poetry is fairly pointless. And I’ve long since stopped caring about what the world reads and dropped the crusade to get Americans to read more poems. Part of the fault, as I’ve suggested. . .
I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in. . .
The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .
We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .
One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three. . .
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. . .
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. . .
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.. . .