21 February 14 | Monica Carter

Michael Orthofer runs the Complete Review – a book review site with a focus on international fiction – and its Literary Saloon weblog.

Final selections

The deadlines approach – well, that one first, big deadline: with the Best Translated Book Award longlist due to be announced March 11 we judges have to decide what makes the 25-book cut. Twenty-five titles seems like a lot, but the procedure is that each of us submits our top-ten list (on March 1), from which the top sixteen vote-getters make the longlist, and then each judge gets to add one personal choice to round off the list, for a total of twenty-five titles. So each of us only gets to select ten+one titles. (Last year, only six of my top-ten choices for the longlist made it (with a seventh then slipping on as the plus-one).)

Since my top-ten/must-have list currently stands at roughly fourteen titles (fluctuating daily, as two or three titles different fall in and out of favor, depending on my mood …) this is proving a more arduous exercise than I had hoped. Twenty-five slots would be easy (well, easier … maybe) to fill), but ten feels really, really tight.

There are half a dozen or so titles that I simply can’t not put in my top-ten (which, in cruel-tease-form I won’t name here – though I’m probably sufficiently on the record regarding my feelings about them elsewhere …) – because I think they are really the most deserving (and, in some cases, because I worry that they might otherwise be overlooked) – but after that it gets complicated. There are a couple of titles that so many judges already seem to feel enthusiastic about that I’m not sure I need to put my full weight behind them yet – books by recent BTBA winners like Wiesław Myśliwski’s A Treatise on Shelling Beans or Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, for example, or Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle II, among others. But it’s hard to leave off any title that I truly want in the running: one favorite not making the initial cut is okay, since we each get to add that one personal selection, but likely there will be several that don’t get enough votes, making for quite a quandary with that lone personal selection…..

There are a lot of titles at the upper margins, the ones that I think I could make a case for – clear top-25 titles, to me, but maybe not top-ten (though some days I’m convinced title X is, other days title Y …).

There are the big novels my name-authors: Javier Marías’ The Infatuations (translated by Margaret Jull Costa), Antonio Muñoz Molina’s In the Night of Time (translated by Edith Grossman, The Economist just recently reminding us that: “Its author, one of Spain’s leading writers, has been unjustly ignored in the English-speaking world. With this book, he should get the acclaim he deserves” (though Entertainment Weekly (yes, well …) suggests the novel moves at: “the pace of a narcotized elephant” …)), Christa Wolf’s City of Angels.

There are the works by authors who have been getting great reviews and quickly gaining large followings, like Robert Walser (A Schoolboy’s Diary) and Elena Ferrante The Story of a New Name.

There are translations that have already won translation prizes: Ten White Geese by Gerbrand Bakker, which won (under a different title) the British counterpart to the BTBA, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2013 and Dimitri Verhulst’s Vondel Translation Prize-winning The Misfortunates. And I was already on a translation-prize-jury that found Elfriede Jelinek’s Her Not All Her to be a worthy winner – the 2011 Austrian Cultural Forum Translation Prize – so how can I not longlist it this time around? (Sure, the competition might be tougher here – certainly there are a lot more titles in the running – but this remarkable piece of work (and the excellent translation) continues to stand out – helped also by the fact that it’s different from almost everything else we’re looking at.)

There are the smaller works that linger nicely (and often don’t seem to have gotten enough attention). Sure, Amélie Nothomb’s Life Form is kind of simple much of the way – but in its conclusion totally won me over. Jang Eun-jin’s No One Writes Back – among the least-Dalkeyesque of the (many) Dalkey Archive Press titles to consider – has been among this year’s most pleasant reading surprises. The same goes for Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol, a rare (okay, the only …) translation from the Hindi we get to consider. And while Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge is the rare smaller (paperback original, too) title in translation to get pretty widespread coverage I still think it’s widely misread as a story-collection: I find it comes together beautifully and very effectively as a unified novel-whole. And then there’s a book like Jan Jacob Slauerhoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom, which held me rapt and whose strangeness still haunts me.

Finally, there’s than annual search for a worthy ‘genre’ title – a top-notch thriller, solid sci-fi, or the like. There were certainly mysteries and thrillers galore to consider this year (like every year), but it was not a great year – with the highly touted ones feeling particularly derivative. I suppose Ogawa’s Revenge might be considered genre, of sorts (horror). Otherwise, there’s only one of these titles in my mix: Ofir Touché Gafla’s The World of the End (and not just because of the author’s awesome/ridiculous name – touché!), which certainly hasn’t gotten the (‘mainstream’) attention it deserves.

Of course, time is not yet up, the decision doesn’t have to be made yet. I still have a few weeks days of reading ahead of me, a few more books to discover and consider. Part of me hopes to find another gem – but part of me also worries: what then? which book gets knocked off the already too-long list?


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