3 April 17 | Chad W. Post

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is by Jennifer Croft, who is the recipient of Fulbright, PEN, and National Endowment for the Arts grants, as well as the Michael Henry Heim Prize for Translation. She has been a MacDowell Colony Fellow and holds a Ph.D. from Northwestern University and an MFA from the University of Iowa. She is a Founding Editor of the Buenos Aires Review.



Umami by Laia Jufresa, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Mexico, Oneworld)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 53%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 8%

Umami is that rare novel that becomes the world it depicts, inviting us to inhabit it in the gentlest, kindest possible terms through Sophie Hughes’s delightful translation of Laia Jufresa’s perfectly crafted structural wonder in prose. With the alternating metaphors of creating and tending the garden at the center of Belldrop Mews—the building where all the book’s characters reside, in the heart of Mexico City—and remaining afloat or drowning in streams of consciousness, pressures and mourning, Umami calls our attention to attention, binding us to protagonists who instantly become beloved and whose crimes of inattention we both understand and feel deeply devastated by.

Ana, the twelve-year-old gardener who opens Umami and recurs as its soothingly emphatic refrain, describes the atmosphere of her family’s home following the death of her sister Luz at the age of five (though Luz always told everyone she was “almost six”):

. . . it’s not quite a river, our sadness: it’s stagnant water. Since Luz drowned, there’s always something drowning at home. Not everyday. Some days you think we’re all alive again, the five remaining members of the family: I get a zit; some girl calls Theo; Olmo plays his first concert; Dad comes back from tour; Mom decides to bake a pie. But later you go into the kitchen, and there’s the pie, still raw on the wooden countertop, half of it pricked and the other half untouched, with Mom hovering over it, clutching the fork in midair. And then you know that we too, as a family, will always be ”almost six.”

Her directness is disarming, and here—and throughout the book—the tone is a magic trick, the perfect mix of light and dark that enables us to understand that both life and death are in little details, like selfhood itself, the primary pursuit of Ana’s neighbor Marina: “Marina distrusts her own malleability and is attracted by the possibility of the opposite: the fascinating and at the same time terrifying prospect of being someone.” Marina is an artist with a severe eating disorder who spends her days inventing colors, or rather, words for colors, learning English from Ana’s American mother Linda because “English takes the edge off things, makes them feel less serious, a bit like scribbling mustaches on photos.”

Language and even translation are consistently integrated into the plot—a potential translation hurdle cleared with apparent effortlessness, and even pleasure, by Hughes—as another neighbor’s parallel project of cultivation begins alongside Ana’s garden. Alfonso is an academic taking time off after his wife Noelia dies of cancer; when he gets a new laptop, he decides to use it to create a chronicle of the couple’s time together, a kind of textual monument to commemorate their love. The details he remembers and loves about Noelia are so touching they are worth a novel on their own, while Alfonso’s growing understanding of his own process simultaneously takes the reader through the basic framework of the novel, its reason for existing as well as why we might read it and what reading it might help us to find:

What I like about writing is seeing the letters fill up the screen. It’s something so seemingly simple, so perfectly alchemic; black on white. To plant worlds, and tend them as they grow. If you’re missing a comma, you add it, and now there’s nothing missing. Everything this text needs is here.

And white on black, too. The pauses, the spaces, or as my friend Juan the philosopher would say: the ineffable. Everything missing from this text, its absences and silences, is here too.

Umami’s balance—of light and dark, of cultivation and deluge, of presence and absence—is what makes it such a welcoming home for the reader, one that feels profoundly lived-in (one can almost sense the neighbors’ heartbeats) as well as haunted (one can also sense the hovering shadows of Luz, Noelia, the children Alfonso and Noelia did not have, the parents Marina never quite had, the mother Ana’s mother might have been—but never was—and the abandoning, abruptly returning mother of Ana’s best friend Pina). When, in order to begin her garden, Ana stays home for the summer for the first time ever (instead of spending it with her grandmother in the States), she gets to go to the cemetery with her parents to mark the anniversary of her sister’s death:

I’d fantasized about this moment, about what I’d say to Luz. But in my fantasies it was raining and Luz was somehow able to listen to me. Now the sun is beating down and there’s not a patch of shade in the whole cemetery. She’s dead, and I have nothing to say to her. Was she beloved? She was my sister.

A little later, she goes home:

One by one, Pina and I pull off the little flowers. It occurs to me that if I’d known, I could have taken them to the cemetery. It’s a silly idea: they’re tiny. But Luz was too. Tiny, I mean. She used to sit on my lap, hug her legs, then curl into a little ball so that I’d hold her.

“Squeeze!” she’d say.

Sometimes I was scared I’d hurt her or break something, and I always let go sooner than she wanted me to. We all did. My brothers held on a bit longer, but not much. Luz always wanted to be squeezed more.

“Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze!” she begged Dad, and he would squeeze her with a single arm.

I don’t want to, but I can’t help imagining her in her box, in the cemetery. But that’s another silly idea because there’s not even anything in that box. It was too expensive and complicated to bring her body back to Mexico.

“What?” I ask Pina, who’s staring at me.

“Are you crying?” she says.

“Are you stupid?” I say, and she goes off in a sulk.

Jufresa’s warmth and restraint, along with the poise and inventiveness of Hughes’ translation, make Umami a novel I deeply hope people will contemplate and savor.


Comments are disabled for this article.
....
The Dispossessed
The Dispossessed by Szilárd Borbély
Reviewed by Jason Newport

To be, or not to be?

Hamlet’s enduring question is one that Szilárd Borbély, acclaimed Hungarian poet, verse-playwright, librettist, essayist, literary critic, short-story writer, and, finally, novelist, answered sadly in the negative, through his suicide in 2014, at the. . .

Read More >

A Greater Music
A Greater Music by Bae Suah
Reviewed by Pierce Alquist

A Greater Music is the first in a line of steady and much-anticipated releases by Bae Suah from key indie presses (this one published by Open Letter). Building off of the interest of 2016 Best Translated Book Award longlist nominee. . .

Read More >

Two Lost Souls: on "Revulsion" and "Cabo De Gata"
Two Lost Souls: on "Revulsion" and "Cabo De Gata" by Horacio Castellanos Moya; Eugen Ruge
Reviewed by Tim Lebeau

The dislocation of individuals from the countries of their birth has long been a common theme in contemporary literature. These two short novels recently translated into English appear firmly rooted in this tradition of ex-pat literature, but their authors eschew. . .

Read More >

Melancholy
Melancholy by László Földényi
Reviewed by Jason Newport

In Melancholy, Hungarian author, critic, and art theorist László Földényi presents a panorama of more than two thousand years of Western historical and cultural perspectives on the human condition known as melancholia. In nine chapters, Földényi contrasts the hero worship. . .

Read More >

The Hatred of Music
The Hatred of Music by Pascal Quignard
Reviewed by Jeanne Bonner

Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .

Read More >

Fragile Travelers
Fragile Travelers by Jovanka Živanović
Reviewed by Damian Kelleher

In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .

Read More >

Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei
Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger
Reviewed by Russell Guilbault

Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .

Read More >

Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages
Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages by Kyn Taniya
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .

Read More >

The Subsidiary
The Subsidiary by Matías Celedón
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .

Read More >

Thus Bad Begins
Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías
Reviewed by Kristel Thornell

Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .

Read More >