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.
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