As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.
Mama Leone by Miljenko Jergović, translated from the Croatian by David Williams and published by Archipelago Books
This piece is by Québec translator Peter McCambridge, who also runs a blog about translating literature from Québec.
When Mama Leone wins the Best Translated Book Award, it will be a triumph of storytelling and atmosphere-building, a victory for stories well told (and well translated) everywhere. The writing is on the face of it simple at times, but just enough off kilter that it still manages to suck us in and take our breath away.
Take the first few paragraphs of the first story, You’re the angel:
When I was born a dog started barking in the hall of the maternity ward. Dr. Srecko ripped the mask from his face, tore out of the delivery suite, and said to hell with the country where kids are born at the pound! I still didn’t understand at that point, so I filled my lungs with a deep breath and for the first time in my life confronted a paradox: though I didn’t have others to compare it to, the world where I’d appeared was terrifying, but something forced me to breathe, to bind myself to it in a way I never managed to bind myself to any woman.
And breathe. Wow. There we are, sucked right into the story, right into this terrifying new world, bound tightly to it from the get-go, and somehow forced to breathe and accept it, swept along by the narrative. It’s so simple, and yet somehow magnificent.
Mama Leone is a collection of stories in two parts. The first half is about childhood and told in a voice so original and so authentic that it’s hard to resist. Don’t stare, Miljenko is told. Quit eavesdropping. Life’s not a circus. And yet we explore his world with our eyes wide open, with our ears pricked. Everything is huge, larger than life. Sarajevo is “a gigantic city, the most gigantic in the world,” his loneliness is “the biggest in the world,” a character laughs “like a giant out of a fairy tale.” Bedtime, trips to the potty, plans to run away from home, eating sardines, all become dramas of epic proportions (“cities silently crumbled in my pounding heart”).
The effect is grandiose. Scenes from a childhood, more realistic than abstract, but high on poetry all the same, add up to a beautiful tableau that somehow seems all the more real for its helter-skelter, kaleidoscopic vision of the world.
The language is exhilarating. Sentences career along between commas, the vocabulary a tremendous mix of slang, poetry, and more than the odd memorable one-liner.
The result is stunning and beautiful and real, all with an undercurrent of death and war and increasing sadness.
And then suddenly our perspective shifts to the third person. It is a grown-up’s world, the world of Deda, Boris, Marina, Nana, and the others. A world of love, longing, and loss, of darkness and war and damage. There are still angels but now they are drunken. Words that in the first section “flowed in cascades, gushing over the edges of the world being born” now “disappear into dark spaces.” People “become destroyed cities to each other,” although there are still the occasional roses in the sky in place of stars.
The words that so enchanted us in the first part are now “sometimes uglier than what they mean.” But, as with all the best stories, there is beauty in the loss and the missed opportunities. And no end of beauty in the writing.
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .
Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .
Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .