This week’s BTBA post is written by George Carroll, a publishers representative based in Seattle who blogs at North-North-West. He is also the soccer editor for Shelf Awareness and he and Chad frequently spent part of the weekend texting about EPL match-ups and Manchester Fucking United.
Paranoia by Victor Martinovich, translated by Diane Nemec Ignashev
A young writer falls in love with a woman who is also the lover of the head of state security in Belarus. The triangle falls apart when the woman says she is pregnant, disappears, is seemingly murdered, and the writer becomes the prime suspect.
The book opens with “There was light, then came darkness.” The beginning is a lot of romantic obsession, a bit cloying at times. The middle is written from transcripts of monitoring the apartment where the lovers meet. The final third of the book is the payoff—writing about it would be a minefield of spoiler alerts. Donald Rayfiled’s review in the TLS remarked that Martinovich’s achievement was showing how “a hole can open up in the ground and drop you into hell.” That pretty much sums it up. It’s dark, unsettling, and capped with a major WTF ending.
That the book takes place in Minsk during the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko, and that the head of security invokes the historical figure Mikhail Muraviov, aka “the hangman” is thinly disguised. Timothy Snyder wrote a lengthy piece about the book in New York Review of Books three years ago, noting that the book was removed from bookstore shelves in Belarus two days after it was published.
The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees, translated by Max Weiss
A couple of weeks ago Publishers Weekly announced The Silence and the Roar as one of the top ten books of 2013. What does that mean? Not a whole heck of a lot. However, it’s great to see a book in translation make a general wrap-up and the fact it wasn’t written by one of the Yankees of the Translation League is a huge plus.
The book was written in 2004, pre-current-revolution Syria. The main character, a writer, gets in trouble with security forces, has his ID card taken away, tries to retrieve it at headquarters, only to be refused entrance because, well, he doesn’t have an ID card.
This book, like Paranoia, has all of those descriptive pigeon-holes—Orwellian, Kafkaesque, dystopian. There’s a real snarkiness to the protagonist and the female characters (mother, girlfriend) have a nice depth to them.
The Village Indian by Abbas Khider, translated by Donal McLaughlin
Abbas Khider recently received the Nelly-Sachs-Preis, a biennial prize awarded by the city of Dortmund, who just lost to Arsenal. Wait. That’s a different column I’m writing. Previously Khider was a runner-up for the Adelbert von Chammiso Award, given to non-German writers who make a contribution to German letters. Not bad for someone who arrived in Berlin knowing three German words: Hitler, Lufthansa, and scheisse.
Khider was arrested six times for leafleting against Saddam Hussein’s regime and spent two years in an Iraqi prison. On his release, he became an undocumented refugee traveling through North Africa and Europe.
The narrator in the book finds a manuscript on a Munich-Berlin train that tells his own story but with a different name. How much similarity the character Rasul Hamid has with Khider would be very interesting to know. My takeaway from the book—when you’re on the run, carry a knife and duct tape.
That Smell by Sonallah Ibrahim, translated by Robyn Creswell
After spending five years in prison, a political prisoner, now under house arrest, tries to adjust to life in Cairo. This book doesn’t qualify for the BTBA award. Snap. But just because it doesn’t qualify, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it.
At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin. . .
Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships.. . .
Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .
The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this,. . .
Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .
It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .
From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .
Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .
Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .