19 March 13 | Chad W. Post

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.


Comments are disabled for this article.
....
Morse, My Deaf Friend
Morse, My Deaf Friend by Miloš Djurdjević
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in _Morse, My Deaf Friend_— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .

Read More >

The Crimson Thread of Abandon
The Crimson Thread of Abandon by Terayama Shūji
Reviewed by Robert Anthony Siegel

The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important. . .

Read More >

Life Embitters
Life Embitters by Josep Pla
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

Last year, NYRB Classics introduced English-language readers to Catalan writer Josep Pla with Peter Bush’s translation of The Gray Notebook. In that book, Pla wrote about life in Spain during an influenza outbreak soon after World War I, when. . .

Read More >

The Physics of Sorrow
The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov
Reviewed by Izidora Angel

“Your bile is stagnant, you see sorrow in everything, you are drenched in melancholy,” my friend the doctor said.
bq. “Isn’t melancholy something from previous centuries? Isn’t some vaccine against it yet, hasn’t medicine taken care of it yet?” I. . .

Read More >

Vano and Niko
Vano and Niko by Erlom Akhvlediani
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

What to make of Vano and Niko, the English translation of Erlom Akhvlediani’s work of the same name, as well as the two other short books that comprise a sort of trilogy? Quick searches will inform the curious reader that. . .

Read More >

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 >