For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.
The Great Weaver from Kashmir by Halldor Laxness, translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton. (Iceland, Archipelago)
The Great Weaver from Kashmir is the first of four books from Archiipelago that made the Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, and the only Icelandic book to make the list. (Considering the fact that only four books from Iceland were published in English translation this year, that’s not a bad ratio.)
In addition to being the only Icelander to make our list, Laxness is also the only Icelandic author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was given this distinction in 1955, not too many years after the publication of Independent People and Iceland’s Bell, two of his most well-regarded novels.
Great Weaver is one of Laxness’s first novels, written in 1927, but never before translated into English. It reads like a first novel—somewhat autobiographical (Steinn, the main character in the novel, converts to Catholicism, as did Laxness) and put together in a raw, somewhat innovative way that illustrates Laxness’s burgeoning talent. For me, it calls to mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, which breaks into play format at one point and feels like it was written by a novelist still trying to figure out what you can do with a novel.
The plot of Great Weaver centers around the aforementioned Steinn, who, at the opening of the book is a young, romantic poet about to leave Iceland for an extended stay abroad, where he hopes to become “the most perfect man on earth.” In a traditional romantic young man way, he thinks this can be accomplished through poetry and rebellion (especially against religion) and pursues a destructive bohemian lifestyle before attempting to commit suicide and undergoing a sea change leading him to join a monastery. Back in Iceland, he’s got a young woman named Dilja waiting for him, and their remote, sordid love affair is the main tension of the book.
What I think is most interesting about this book is the way that it mixes other forms and not terribly necessary information along with this primary storyline. Right after developing the anxious relationship between Steinn and Dilja, and Steinn’s eminent departure, Laxness leaves all that behind to give us a series of letters from Steinn’s mother about an affair that she had. And the way that Dilja’s story and Steinn’s develop in parallel is very well done. The characterization is strong (although Steinn remains a sort of enigmatic, troubled figure throughout—another element that makes the book compelling), the translation very fluid, and the descriptions of Iceland and Icelandic life very informative.
Larissa Kyzer wrote a full review of this title for us a while back, which is much more comprehensive than my description above and is also worth reading for the quotes from the book.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit Iceland on an editorial trip. It was a wonderful experience, and in addition to finding out about a number of authors, publishers, etc., I also had the opportunity to see a few interesting sites, including Þingvellir (or “Thingvellir”), which is a geologically and historically famous site, and the setting for part of this novel, and the Halldor Laxness museum, which is remarkable in part for the outdoor swimming pool he had and the lectern that he stood at to write. Since international literature is a great way to encounter other cultures, I thought it might be interesting to include both of these relevant links.
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.. . .
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. . .