8 January 09 | Chad W. Post

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.



Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge, translated from the French by Richard Greeman. (France1, New York Review Books)

This is one of two NYRB titles on the fiction longlist (the other being Stefan Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl) and one of the two Serge books NYRB has published (the other being The Case of Comrade Tulayev).

Serge lead a very interesting and difficult life (see footnote1 below), and didn’t always have an easy time publishing his books. In fact, as noted in Greeman’s intro (more on that in a second), when the Nazis took over Paris all of Serge’s books were withdrawn from publication because they were considered “subversive.”

Unforgiving Years was finished in 1946—one year before Serge passed away—but wasn’t published until 1971, and wasn’t translated into English until 2008. It’s a very ambitious and wide-ranging book, and the comparison in the jacket copy to “an immense mural or the movements of a symphony” is very appropriate. Richard Greeman’s very informative and well-written introduction does a great job of describing the set-up of the novel:

Unforgiving Years is divided into four sections, four symphonic “movements,” each of which evokes its distinctive time and place through its tone and atmosphere. The first movement, entitled “The Secret Agent,” expresses the sinister unreality of a Paris indifferent to the approach of war in a chill minor key. The second, “The Flame Beneath the Snow,” is discordant, heroic, and secret like one of Shostakovich’s wartime symphonies. It portrays a frozen, starving Leningrad during the “thousand days” of the Nazi siege. The third movement, “Brigitte, Lightning, Lilacs,” imagines the final days of Berlin under Allied bombardment in mode of Wagnerian Gotterdammerung, while the final movement, “Journey’s End,” is a tragic requiem set in the stark, volcanic Mexican selva where death and life repeat their endless cycle.

Against this panorama of planetary catastrophe, Serge poses his collective protagonist: a quartet of loyal, idealistic Soviet secret agents, veteran revolutionary fighters from the Russian Civil War period (1918-1921), now disillusioned. Operating in Europe where Hitler is triumphing and war looming, their faith in the Party is shaken by the Moscow Trials and the Stalinist totalitarian nightmare developing back in Russia. Caught in this “labyrinth of madness,” torn between a heroic sense of duty and the recognition of a historical impasse, doomed to be eliminated by the GPU apparatus if the gestapo doesn’t get them first, they search for an escape from a “world without possible escape” while trying to make sense of history and of their individual lives.

(I wish I could post the entire intro—it’s worth the price of admission, so to speak.)

This is a remarkable book—a perfect example of the type of literature we’d like to bring attention to via this award. It’s a “classic” novel in the best sense of the word, and the diversity in tone and character of the four parts (and the action-packed ending) are what makes this such a strong novel.

1 (I love using footnotes.) Like with Horacio Castellanos Moya, Serge’s background is a bit complex. From NYRB’s author bio:

Victor Serge (1890-1947) was born Victor Lvovich Kibalchich to Russian anti-Czarist exiles, impoverished intellectuals living “by chance” in Brussels. A precocious anarchist firebrand, young Victor was sentenced to five years in a French penitentiary in 1912. Expelled to Spain in 1917, he participated in an anarcho-syndicalist uprising before leaving for Russia to join the Revolution. Arriving in 1919, after a year in a French concentration camp, Serge joined the Bolsheviks and worked in the press services of the Communist International in Petrograd, Moscow, Berlin, and Vienna. An outspoken critic of Stalin, Serge was expelled from the Party and jailed in 1928. Released and living in Leningrad, he managed to publish three novels (_Men in Prison_, Birth of Our Power, and Conquered City) and a history of Year One of the Russian Revolution. Arrested again in Russia and deported to Central Asia in 1933, he was allowed to leave the USSR in 1936 after international protests by militants and prominent writers like André Gide and Romain Rolland. Using his insider’s knowledge, Serge published a stream of impassioned, documented exposés of Stalin’s Moscow show trials and machinations in Spain which went largely unheeded. Stateless, penniless, hounded by Stalinist agents, Serge lived in precarious exile in Brussels, Paris, Vichy France, and Mexico City, where he died in 1947.


Comments are disabled for this article.
....
The Indian
The Indian by Jón Gnarr
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

The opening of Jón Gnarr’s novel/memoir The Indian is a playful bit of extravagant ego, telling the traditional story of creation, where the “Let there be light!” moment is also the moment of his birth on January 2nd, 1967. Then. . .

Read More >

Mother of 1084; Old Women; Breast Stories
Mother of 1084; Old Women; Breast Stories by Mahasweta Devi
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

Mahasweta Devi is not only one of the most prolific Bengali authors, but she’s also an important activist. In fact, for Devi, the two seem to go together. As you can probably tell from the titles, she writes about women. . .

Read More >

Tristana
Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

The prolific Spanish author Benito Pérez Galdós wrote his short novel, Tristana, during the closing years of the nineteenth century, a time when very few options were available to women of limited financial means who did not want a husband.. . .

Read More >

The History of Silence
The History of Silence by Pedro Zarraluki
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

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. . .

Read More >

Flesh-Coloured Dominoes
Flesh-Coloured Dominoes by Zigmunds Skujiņš
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

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. . .

Read More >

Iraqi Nights
Iraqi Nights by Dunya Mikhail
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

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. . .

Read More >

Three-Light Years
Three-Light Years by Andrea Canobbio
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

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. . .

Read More >

The Little Horse
The Little Horse by Thorvald Steen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

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. . .

Read More >

Guys Like Me
Guys Like Me by Dominique Fabre
Reviewed by Peter Biello

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. . .

Read More >

Birth of a Bridge
Birth of a Bridge by Maylis de Kerangal
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

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. . .

Read More >