School is back in swing, a war with Syria looms and the new iPhone 5s is about to take over the world. Yet, let’s not forget the simple joys in life. Like books. More specifically, books in translation. Even more specifically than that, this year’s books in translation. As we begin the slow rev to the Best Translated Book Awards short list, the judges have decided to voice their comments, appraisals, frustrations, and declarations of love for the fiction entries along the way. As a judge, I can attest to the fact that even though I know a book may not be the strongest contender for the long or short list, I still can fall madly, deeply and begrudgingly in intellectual lust with it.
This brings me to my impressions of a few of the entries I’ve read so far that have made me think, intrigued me or challenged me to understand why the novel is so compelling even though the main character thoroughly disgusts me. The first novel I want to recommend is Marc Auge’s No Fixed Abode: Ethnofiction.
Ethnofiction blends truth and fiction (doesn’t all fiction?) that asks the reader to not necessarily identify with the main characters in the novel, but rather to reflect on the conditions in which she exists. This is a genre that began in film and is making it’s way into the literary vernacular, especially in France and England. Also known as docufiction or ethnography, it aims to take the viewer or reader into the world of a marginalized part of society and present that reality through the eyes of a main character. In Auge’s slim novel,translated by Chris Turner, he chooses to focus on homelessness through the life of the main character, Henri. Divorce, retired and struggling financially besides receiving a small pension, he sells all his belongings, gives up his studio apartment and moves into his Mercedes(pretty posh for a homeless guy).
Through diary entries, we learn of his nomadic life around his neighborhood: where he moves in car to avoid tickets, the cafe he visits to sit during the day and evening, and his homeless colleague who lives on the pavement near his parking space. As he gradually disengages from society and responsibility, the loneliness and alienation from mainstream society become contrastingly overwhelming but comfortable. At the end of the novel, he is forced to make a choice about whether he will decide to participate in society as he once had or to continue as homeless. What makes this so engaging is that even though we are drawn into the desperation of homelessness and our dismissal of the homeless, we still identify with the main character because it so well written.
I really enjoyed this book because as quick it was to read, Henri stuck with as well as the questions Auge raised. As far as the narrator, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another favorite of mine, The Waitress Was New about a lonely unemployed bartender on the outskirts of Paris. The same honest and touching voice. It also had elements of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which is a memoir, but began as a piece of investigative reporting and doesn’t feel to far off from ethnofiction.
The second novel I’d recommend is another short one, but no less intriguing. Scissors by Stephane Michaka is actually almost three times as long as No Fixed Abode, but reads just as quickly.
Michaka recreates the last ten years of Raymond Carver’s life through alternating voices – Douglas, his editor (okay, Gordon Lish), Marianne, his ex-wife and Joanne, his new poetess-lover and his own. There are fictionalized excerpts of Carver stories that add to the believability of this imagined decade. The fraught relationship between Douglas and Ray eventually leads to a power struggle between who is actually responsible for Carver’s success. No doubt they are inextricable. What makes this books so strong is that essentially Michaka gets to the kernel of the creative process from beginning to end including the pitfalls of alcoholism, passivity, ego and the trials of those who support a creative personality. The book feels very American because the subject is Carver whose stamp on the minimalist style pushed it to the front of acceptable literary styles. This American feel is due equally to the writer and the translator, John Cullen. Carver, like any artist American or not, struggled and at the end we see it not as Raymond Carver struggling, but the possible battles that lie in waiting for any creative pursuit.
The last novel is from a new ebook publisher that I’m really excited about, Frisch and Co.. Among other their new titles is Under This Terrible Sun by Carlos Busqued, translated by Megan McDowell, a brutal, downbeat novel full of weed, violence, carcasses and squid.
Part me of thinks, “I know, don’t ask,” but the other part of me(I guess it’s the sick part) couldn’t put down this stoner tale of criminality. Cetarti is a pot-smoking loser nearing forty, who is unemployed and running out of money. And like it always does, trouble starts with a phone call. He finds out that his mother and older brother were shot by her married boyfriend who then shot himself. He drives from Cordoba to Lapachito where the remains of his mother and brother are and is met by Duarte, a smarmy, aged, pot-smoking friend of Molina, Cetarti’s mother’s lover. Duarte offers a deal to Cetarti to collect on insurance. Cetarti is quick to agree since he has no emotional attachment to his mother or brother and is in need of money. A bit later we are introduced to a second narrator, Danielito, the son of Molina’s ex-wife. Danielito is young and also a heavy duty pot-smoker. He is the minion of Duarte who turns out to be a violent kidnapper. Through a weed haze, we learn of each character’s fascinations including giant squid, dancing elephants, disgusting fetish porn and model airplanes. Despite all that, I was drawn in by the duality of each character and bizarre loyalties each one rationalizes. Even though it’s difficult to believe anything gets done with all the 420 going on, there is a streamlined plot that pushes this forward in a really powerful way.
It’s about time I return to more entries for this year’s award, but it’s reading very well so far. Don’t just take my word for it, grab one the titles above and see for yourself. Stay tuned for posts from all our judges!
César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .