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.
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. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes recorded by journalist Georges Vasseur in his diary during a month spent in the Pyrenées Mountains to treat his nervous. . .
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .
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. . .
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. . .
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. . .
“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. . .
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. . .