This month, Wilkins Farago is publishing the translation of an award-winning children’s book, One Red Shoe by Karin Gruss with illustrations by Tobias Krejtschi, in the US (the book can be purchased both at the publisher’s website, and at Amazon.com). The story is a look at the impact of conflict on children who live in war zones, specifically a child in the Gaza Strip. Hannah Johnson, deputy publisher of Publishing Perspectives, translated the book from German into English.
Q: Though you have worked in German with your work at the German Book Office in New York, the Frankfurt Book Fair, and as the Deputy Publisher of Publishing Perspectives, this is the first book you’ve translated. How did you come to translate this book?
Wilkins Farago publisher Andrew Wilkins and I have known each other for several years. Andrew is the managing editor of Publishing Perspectives’ show dailies during the Frankfurt Book Fair, so we have the opportunity to work together and see each other every year. In 2013, he discovered One Red Shoe in Frankfurt. He brought the German version of the book to our office, and asked my opinion. It’s unusual to see a children’s book tackle tough subjects like war and violence without downplaying the gravity of these events or glossing over the trauma. We both thought the book was something special. After Andrew bought the English rights in 2014, he asked if I’d like to do the translation.
Q: Though you speak, read, and write in German often for your work, how did you find the role of translating for publication?
When speaking or writing, it isn’t necessary to think about how another person might say something. You can use your own style. Translation requires you to stay loyal to the author’s original tone, to use phrases and words that came from someone else. The tone of One Red Shoe is particularly important because it’s how the author is able to portray a gruesome event without over-traumatizing younger readers. It was a challenge for me to make sure the mood that the text conveys was just right.
Q: How much collaboration did you have with the author?
Q: Were there any challenges you hadn’t anticipated in capturing the emotion and tension of the story?
Perhaps because this is a children’s book and the text on each page is short, every word carries more weight. I got hung up on a couple phrases where my English translation wasn’t doing justice to the original German. And given the balance this book strikes between conveying the impact of war on children yet not turning off potential readers because of this tough subject, I felt extra pressure to make each word count.
Q: Do you have plans to translate more books in the future?
I’d certainly consider translating shorter works again. It’s rewarding to be a part of the process that makes a book like this available to many more readers.Tweet
Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
Monastery (Bellevue Literary Press)
Eduardo Halfon, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn
Like a companion volume or literary reverberation, Eduardo Halfon’s Monastery continues the itinerant wanderings begun in his beautifully-composed The Polish Boxer. Monastery’s narrator, a certain Eduardo Halfon, encounters and engages the world around him – be he beside the West Bank barrier, seeking an intimate jazz performance in Harlem, or visiting a coffee plantation in Guatemala. Reflective and reminiscent, the short stories/tales/vignettes that make up Halfon’s second work translated into English are effortlessly gratifying. Halfon needn’t employ a stylistically singular prose style (although he writes magnificently) or rely on compelling, convoluted plots to evince the wonder of the world around him. Each of the eight pieces contained within Monastery offers a melodic yet transitory glimpse of the seemingly insignificant moments that eventually merge into memories of consequence.
Halfon, honored as one of the Bogotá 39, has about a dozen works to his name. El ángel literario (“The Literary Angel”) – a 2004 semifinalist for the Premio Herralde (won previously by the likes of Javier Marías, Roberto Bolaño, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Daniel Sada) – appears to be, like both Monastery and The Polish Boxer after it, an astounding semi-autobiographical work that blends genres and transcends the merely fictional. Seeing more of the Guatemala City-born author’s works in translation would be a gift.
Maybe it was her driving. Maybe it was the combination of hash and the heat inside the Citroën and the adrenaline rush I’d gotten with the soldiers. Maybe it was something much darker and more fleeting. I rolled the window all the way down, stuck my head out and, breathing in the warm fresh air, thought of other walls. Chinese walls and German walls and American walls. Holy walls of temples and damp mossy walls of cells. The brick walls of a ghetto, the walls surrounding an entire people imprisoned in a ghetto, starving in a ghetto, dying slowly and silently. All of a sudden, I saw or imagined I saw on the wall (we were driving very fast and my eyes were almost closed and my pupils were dilated) the all-black figure of the girl in the Banksy painting: her black braid, black bangs, little black skirt, black shoes, black face looking up, her whole body facing up toward the sky as she floats up the wall with the help of a bunch of black balloons held in her tiny black hand. It occurred to me, my head halfway out the window and already experiencing a delicious lethargy from the hash, that a wall is the physical manifestation of man’s hatred of the other. A palpable concrete manifestation that attempts to separate us from the other, isolate us from the other, eliminate the other from our sight and from our world. But it’s also a clearly useless manifestation: no matter how tall and thick the construction, no matter how long and imposing the structure, a wall is never insurmountable. A wall is never bigger than the spirit of those it confines. Because the other is still there. The other doesn’t disappear, never disappears. The other’s other is me. Me, and my spirit, and my imagination, and my black balloons.
Navidad & Matanza (Open Letter)
Carlos Labbé, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden
It is a game. Not a novel. There is no story. Only rules.
A metafictional, heady tale of disappeared children, a novel-game coauthored by laboratory subjects, and a hatred/fear-inducing drug called hadón, Navidad & Matanza is the first of Chilean-born writer Carlos Labbé’s works to be published in English. Excerpted previously in Granta’s The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists 2010 issue (as “The Girls Resembled Each Other in the Unfathomable”), Navidad & Matanza’s labyrinthine story within a story is both sinister and foreboding.
Labbé, a novelist and screenwriter (who penned his master’s thesis on Roberto Bolaño), deftly weaves an intricate, enigmatic story into and around itself. Navidad & Matanza could be the hallucinogenic amalgamation of a César Aira plot with setting and characters conceived by Bolaño – if written using Oulipo-style constraints. Though less than 100-pages in total, Labbé’s novel has an inebriating effect that persists well after the book’s conclusion. With ample imagination and commanding style, Navidad & Matanza certainly marks Labbé as a young author from whom we ought to anticipate great, fascinating things to come.
To that end, five friends of similar interests and I had come up with a system that, in the beginning, seemed like an original and fascinating discovery. A novel-game. In short, it involved rolling dice, moving your token to a space with prefigured plotlines and formal constraints, writing a text according to those constraints and, that night, mailing this text to the other participants. Everyone had been assigned a day of the week, except Sunday, a day of rest. It was a game of complex rules and seduction. And the result was out of control.Tweet
Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
With the start of spring (for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, that is) less than six weeks away, the BTBA longlist announcement draws ever closer (early April!) – and, as such, we judges continue our evaluation of the year’s fiction in translation. Reading and considering so many disparate books never loses its appeal, nor, despite the varying quality of the texts, the pleasure of being exposed to books that might have otherwise been overlooked. With nearly 500 works in contention for this year’s esteemed prize, the list of eligible titles, at first glance, may seem both daunting and overwhelming – yet, as it must, the proverbial wheat separates itself from the chaff. With less than two months to go before the longlist is revealed, a number of books seem to have found favor with many of the judges. The below titles are but a small sample of the exceptional books that more than one jurist has been especially enamored of (and, thus, may – or may not – make their way onto the much-anticipated longlist):
The Symmetry Teacher (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
By Andrei Bitov, translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon
The sixth of Andrei Bitov’s works to be rendered into English, The Symmetry Teacher is a masterful, postmodern metafictional novel long on flair, but short on fervor. Like the nesting dolls mentioned within, The Symmetry Teacher contains stories within a story within a story.
Subtitled “A Novel-echo,” (“Translated from a foreign tongue by Andrei Bitov, retranslated into English by Polly Gannon”), the novel begins with a note by Bitov himself, recalling a book he had read many decades ago by an obscure English author named A. Tired-Boffin (an anagram for Andrei Bitoff). The book, The Teacher of Symmetry, despite Bitov’s exhaustive searchings, was never to be located again – thus he set out to retranslate it from memory. Tired-Boffin’s The Teacher of Symmetry features as its protagonist an enigmatic author named Urbino Vanoski (whom, later in the novel, composes poetry under an anagrammatical pseudonym). Portions of Vanoski’s novels are excerpted as chapters (with names altered by Bitov – as outlined in an included chart relying on Tired-Boffin’s curious propensity to name chapters in a categorical manner based on grammatical tenses) and compose the bulk of Bitov’s singular tale.
Sound confusing? It’s not. Sound tedious? Far from it. Perhaps in the hands of a less talented writer, this construct would seem like mere affectation, but Bitov’s literary gifts are prodigious and nothing about The Symmetry Teacher comes off as contrived. If you like your fiction tidy, plot-driven, full of banal dialogue, and stuffed with artificial flavorings, however, this surely isn’t the book for you.
So many of Bitov’s (Tired-Boffin’s [Vanoski’s]) stories – or novel excerpts, rather – are wonderfully imagined; ranging from a writing society that expels members upon completing a work, to a marooned poet enamored of a woman with transformative abilities, to a king who decides to pen an additional volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica (when not altering the composition of the night sky).
The Symmetry Teacher is bewitching, but never strays into the bewildering. The Russian author’s new novel is frequently humorous and wildly imaginative. Neither a proper puzzle nor riddle to be solved, Bitov’s book instead invites readers to consider language and literary construct through the façade of playful fiction. If there’s anything to be found lacking in The Symmetry Teacher, it’s that while intellectually intoxicating, it has so little emotional effect. Nonetheless, it contains some undeniably gorgeous writing and impressive feats of artistry.
We are capable of destroying a primitive ideal, but are not capable of erecting in its stead a more capacious one that would include what we have ruined. If a person were paid money for what is characteristic of him, and not for those distortions and aberrations by which he accommodates himself to success, the prime minister and great scholar would experience the comfort of their places, and so their happiness, like Gummi out there chopping wood. If everyone, having discovered his inmost secret wish, could be allowed to engage in the simple pastime that made him happy, the world would descend into idiocy and a golden age would reign on earth. It is only due to the fear of loneliness that people are not all mad – and they are all mad because they accept the conventionality of social existence while failing to examine it in their minds. The therapy of real work is possible only in paradise.
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (Semiotext(e))
By Julio Cortázar, translated from the Spanish by David Kurnick
In the Argentinian master’s Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia, literary superfriends (Cortázar, Susan Sontag, Octavio Paz, and Alberto Moravia) battle the forces of capitalist excess and international bibliocide. Inspired by his participation in the second Russell Tribunal (1975, Brussels), as well as his inclusion in an issue of the Mexican comic book series, Fantomas, la amenaza elegante (#201, “La inteligencia en llamas”), Cortázar published this self-referential, metafictional novella to help spread the word about the tribunal’s report (on human rights violations in Latin America).
With numerous cameos by other prominent writers of the era (Norman Mailer, Eduardo Galeano, Carlos Fuentes, José Lezama Lima, et al.), Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires retains the original comic drawings from the Mexican series in which they first appeared. Crafting a fictional narrative around the graphic story and his work with the tribunal, Cortázar takes aim at the various exploits of multinational corporations and the rapacious effects they’ve had (and continue to have) on human rights, environmental well-being, creative culture, and national sovereignty. While very slim in length, Fantomas cleverly combines comedy, politics, literature, and an unsettling reality into a single remarkable work.
Although Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires does not, of course, set out to solve the centuries-old corrupting influences of American corporate interventionism, it does, however, (further) demonstrate Cortázar’s seemingly limitless creativity. Rather than composing an editorial screed, Cortázar instead allowed the brilliance of his storytelling (and the comic book illustrations) to succinctly convey the grave threats that still endure after many decades. Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires is fun, fresh, fantastical, and an absolute delight to behold.
“Yes, Julio, but reality makes itself known in other ways, too – it makes itself known in work or the lack of work, in the price of potatoes, in the boy shot down on the corner, in the way the filthy rich drive past the miserable slums (that’s a metaphor, because they take care never to get anywhere near the goddamn slums). It makes itself known even in the singing of birds, in children’s laughter, in the moment of making love. These things are known, Julio, a miner or a teacher or a bicyclist knows them, deep down everyone knows them, but we’re lazy or we shuffle along in bewilderment, or we’ve been brainwashed and we think that things aren’t so bad simply because they’re not flattening our houses or kicking us to death…”
By Marcos Giralt Torrente, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
By unanimous jury decision (which included Roberto Bolaño), Marcos Giralt Torrente’s Paris was awarded the 1999 Herralde Prize (Andrés Neuman’s as yet untranslated Bariloche was the runner-up). The Spaniard’s debut novel is a remarkable work of remembrance, reconciliation of memory, and the tenacious effects of formative moments. Giralt Torrente’s narrator, a man reflecting back on a number of unanswered questions from his youth (most notably, the time his mother spent living in the French capital city without him – and the relationship they both had to his oft-absent father), spends nearly the entirety of the novel reflecting, recalling, re-imagining, and re-processing the events of childhood. With stunning prose and impressive psychology insight, Paris is a meditation on the nature of memory and the ways it binds our present to the past. Giralt Torrente’s debut novel is a masterful feat.
When we think about the past, it’s hard to resist both dividing it up into blocks in accordance with the pattern of events that have made most impression on us and attributing powers to it that it does not have, allowing ourselves to believe that the arrival of a particular date had the ability to work some radical transformation on us. Until the death of my father, we say, I was like this or like that, when we should really say that on such and such a date, something that already existed inside us began to make itself manifest or visible. Such nonsense is merely the reflection of a still greater error of thinking, the belief that we change suddenly rather than gradually, as if we could not possibly be influenced by opposing but simultaneous impulses.Tweet
Today’s podcast is a special one, featuring PEN Translation Committee co-chair (and talented Czech translator) Alex Zucker to talk about what translators do and should get paid, and to break down where all the money goes in publishing a work of international literature.
In comparison to some other Three Percent podcasts, this one is wall-to-wall information, and is sure to spark a number of debates, discussions, and reactions. Enjoy!
This week’s music is The Wind that Cried the World by The Phantom Band.
As always you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes by clicking here. To subscribe with other podcast downloading software, such as Google’s Listen, copy the following link. And you can email us with complaints and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
This morning, the Daily Beast ran a piece by Bill Morris entitled Why Americans Don’t Read Foreign Fiction. It starts with Morris admitting his ignorance of Patrick Modiano’s work prior to his winning the Nobel Prize, then goes into a reading of Modiano’s Suspected Sentences, before veering into the speculative rabbit hole of why more books aren’t translated, and why a lot of these books are hard to sell.
In 2003, Stephen Kinzer wrote a story for the New York Times entitled Why Americans Yawn at Foreign Fiction. It starts by discussing how very few people in America had heard of Imre Kertesz before he won the Nobel Prize. As with Morris’s article above, it goes on to point out a few of the more successful translations of recent times (Kinzer points to Boris Akunin, whereas Morris lists a number, including Roberto Bolaño and Stieg Larsson), then discusses all the reasons why more translations aren’t published in America.
I refere to Kinzer’s article a lot, generally using it as a baseline to show how far coverage of translations by the mainstream media has come with regard to writing about international literature. There’s no way anyone would use the word “yawn” nowadays!
It’s fascinating to me that these two articles came out 12 years apart, but hit on a lot of the same problems. We’ve come a long way, yet many of the same problems are still there, permanently ingrained in the publishing-reading ecosystem.
Looking at these two pieces side-by-side is pretty interesting though . . .
So the question becomes: are so few translated books available because American readers don’t read them, or do American readers read so little foreign fiction and poetry because so little of it is available in translation? Or is it a bit of both? [. . .]
There is no shortage of theories. Americans are physically isolated and culturally insulated, goes one. But if so, why do they devour such contemporary or recently deceased foreign writers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Umberto Eco, Carlos Fuentes, Michel Houellebecq, Roberto Bolaño, Stieg Larsson, Milan Kundera, Haruki Murakami, Knausgaard, Carlos Ruis Záfon and Per Petterson? Sometimes, if you publish it, the readers will come.
‘‘We were seen as a leading university press for literature in translation, but we’ve decided to make it a smaller part of our program because it just is not viable,’‘ said Donna Shear, director of Northwestern University Press. ‘‘It’s expensive, and the sales aren’t there. This is definitely a trend in the university press world.’‘
This trend has spread from university presses to publishing in general. Writers, publishers and cultural critics have long lamented the difficulty of interesting American readers in translated literature, and now some say the market for these books is smaller than it has been in generations.
Now that’s a contrast I can really get behind. In 2003, Donna Shear was still at Northwestern University Press (she later left for University of Nebraska) and was cutting back on the number of translations NUP was doing. At the time, the Writings from an Unbound Europe series, which includes works from Bohumil Hrabal, Jaan Kross, Georgi Gospodinov, David Albahari, and many more of the best writers of Eastern Europe, was probably the premiere series of translations out there. This series was officially ended in 2012. In 2013, Northwestern published one book in translation, and they did exactly one in 2014 as well.
By contrast, Morris is able to point to a number of international writers who widely known in America, including a number—Záfon, Petterson, Knausaard, Bolaño, Larsson—whose success came after the 2003 Kinzer piece.
“It’s not that Americans don’t want foreign fiction,” Gurewich [Judith, publisher of Other Press] insists. “But they’re intimidated. This is the difficulty. How does one cross that bridge?” [. . .]
“America is a puzzle of very complicated groups,” Gurewich says. “Readers are receptive if it lands in their hands. What is the secret to putting books in their hands? How do you find people who want to find out how other people think?” [. . .]
“There may be an increasing acceptance of translation now,” Glusman [John, editor in chief at W.W. Norton] says, laughing at the memory of that rejection letter [a rejection of and I.B. Singer novel], “but there has always been resistance to it. There’s an initial resistance to foreign writers because many are unknown to American readers.”
He adds, “I think there are cycles of awareness, just as there are fashions in other businesses. Once publishers see an unusual success with a certain kind of book, people jump on the bandwagon. This happened with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, with Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and with Harry Potter. People tried to jump in and replicate it. That’s not easy to do.”
(Something about Glusman’s statement bugs me, but I’m not sure how to put my finger on it . . . Is he really saying that publishing international literature is a trend? And dude, get some fucking contemporary references. All three of the books/series he references are decades old.
Also, this is a perfect moment to mention Ann Morgan’s The World Between Two Covers about her quest to read a book in translation from every country in the world.)
In interviews publishers cited many reasons for their increasing reluctance to bring out books by non-American writers. Several said a decisive factor was the concentration of ownership in the book industry, which is dominated by a few conglomerates. That has produced an intensifying fixation on profit. As publishers focus on blockbusters, they steadily lose interest in little-known authors from other countries.
Some publishers said that they had no staff editors who read foreign languages and that they hesitated to rely on the advice of outsiders about which foreign books might capture the imagination of Americans. Others mentioned the high cost of translation, the local references in many non-American books and the different approach to writing that many foreign authors take.
“A lot of foreign literature doesn’t work in the American context because it’s less action-oriented than what we’re used to, more philosophical and reflective,’‘ said Laurie Brown, senior vice president for marketing and sales at Harcourt Trade Publishers. ‘‘As with foreign films, literature in translation often has a different pace, a different style, and it can take some getting used to. The reader needs to see subtleties and get into the mood or frame of mind to step into a different place. Americans tend to want more immediate gratification. We’re into accessible information. We often look for the story, rather than the story within the story. We’d rather read lines than read between the lines.”
The profit thing is always an issue, always an excuse commercial presses use. Which, not to bang the nail right on the head, or whatever (there’s no way that’s an understood cliche . . . I really need some coffee), is exactly why the National Endowment for the Art, universities, and donors really need to support non-profit presses. These are the outlets that will keep the literary world vibrant and not so focused only on those books that appeal to the widest possible audience. (Smart cosmopolitan readers deserve books too!)
Laurie Brown’s statement is the most annoying thing in either of these articles. (Quick sidenote: this was before Harcourt fired Drenka Willen—and later rehired her after all the living Nobel Prize winners she’d published wrote a scathing letter to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—who was the lifeblood of international literature at Harcourt for decades.) Let me paraphrase here to make it utterly clear how dangerous this point of view really is. And I’ll do so in my written imitation of the most annoying voice I can imagine. Because reading this quote has me scratching out my eyes.
So, like, Americans? They’re really into ACTION. Quick, easy to understand action. These readers who we sell our books to? They can’t read between the lines! They can’t think philosophy! They need immediate gratification and information conveyed in the simplest of ways. That’s just who American readers are (psst . . . they’re dummies!) and so we give the people the want. We couldn’t give two fucks about culture—we just want to make money off the sheep! I mean, readers.
God damn it. I forget how bleak and fucked up things were in 2003. Granted, a lot of things are still the same—presses don’t hire editors who can speak foreign languages, a lot of books don’t make money, 85% of translations come out from small, indie, university, nonprofit presses—but at least we seem to be covering it in a more nuanced way, one in which we can point to notable successes.
So, onward and upward, I guess. At least American just don’t read foreign fiction now, instead of “yawning” at it.Tweet
Snow day! We’re still recovering, mentally as much as with street parking. Hope everyone’s staying warm. Here’s the beginning of Chris’s review:
One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three weeks. While this may seem insignificant in a novel about the construction of a $3-billion project contracted to an international consortium, it actually plays an important role in the novel (more on that later). The birds also serve as a metaphor for Coca itself: Unless you were born and raised there, you stay just long enough to get the job done and leave.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
Just got this in the mail from Words Without Borders, and am going to share it in full and encourage all of you to nominate your favorite international lit promoter. Past winners have been Carol Janeway Brown and Drenka Willen—two amazing publishing people.
It’s really exciting to see this award continuing, and interesting to see who will win, since there are dozens of deserving candidates out there.
Words without Borders is seeking nominations for the 2015 Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature. Named in honor of our first board chair, the Ottaway Award recognizes individuals who have taken extraordinary steps to advance literature in translation. In accordance with the mission of Words without Borders, the awardee will be selected on the basis of his or her efforts to build cultural understanding by advancing popular awareness of international writers and literatures.
The Ottaway Award is presented each fall at the annual Words without Borders Gala in New York City.
As a member of our community, we hope you will take the time to help us find our 2015 honoree by submitting a nomination through our online form by Friday, March 6, 2015. Only those nominations submitted via our online form will be reviewed. The recipient will be announced in April.
We look forward to receiving your nomination and encourage you to circulate this message within your networks.
It’s time for our annual music podcast in which Chad, Nate, and Kaija all share songs from their favorite albums of 2014. Although we only talk about four songs each on this podcast, we put together a Spotify playlist featuring 86 songs and running almost six hours. Enjoy!
Next week we’ll be back to normally scheduled book talk. Specifically, Chad and Tom will be talking with Alex Zucker about translator’s fees, forming a translators guild, and other financial aspects of publishing international literature. In the meantime, feel free to email us at email@example.com with any questions or comments.
As always you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes by clicking here. To subscribe with other podcast downloading software, such as Google’s Listen, copy the following link. And you can email us with complaints and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.
I have an embarrassing inability to remember plots. It took me three readings of The Brothers Karamazov just to be able to remember beyond a few weeks who had actually killed Fyodor Pavlovich — and The Brothers Karamazov is one of my favorite books. I have no idea why this happens; but no matter how exciting they are, plots in my brain have a very short half-life. On the other hand, the emotional or ethical texture of a book — especially a book I liked — will remain with me for years, completely unattenuated. Now that the announcement of the longlist is approaching, it’s been interesting to go back to my notes, to see which titles I’ve forgotten and which are somehow still with me.
The following books don’t have much in common, other than this tenacity (which is, of course, highly subjective) and the fact that they haven’t been talked about much on this blog. None of them, I feel, would be out of place on the longlist.
There’s a type of mysticism in Last Words from Montmartre by Qiu Miaojin (translated from the Chinese by Ari Larissa Heinrich) that recalls Clarice Lispector, but Qiu’s philosophy feels solid in a way that Lispector’s often does not. Qui’s narrator, a young, queer Taiwanese woman living in Paris, feels a pain and an ecstasy embedded in everyday objects and experiences: letters, phone calls, film screenings. Hugely important to the blossoming Taiwanese literary culture of the 1990s, Last Words from Montmartre also bears the tragic urgency of books whose authors later committed suicide. Qiu took her own life at the age of 26, but the work she left behind is astonishingly mature. Its literary merit alone would be enough to recommend Last Words from Montmartre to the longlist, but as a work of queer literature — a tradition that up to now has been disappointingly underrepresented among BTBA contenders — it deserves even more serious consideration.
Tove Jansson, the Swedish-speaking Finnish author best known for her children’s books about the Moomin family, was also one of the most brilliant short story writers of her time. Her stories have been slowly making their way into English for a few years now, but NYRB’s The Woman Who Borrowed Memories (translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella) is the first collection likely to attract significant attention from American audiences. I am unabashedly biased when it comes to Tove Jansson; I love her, and even though technically she’s already posthumously won the BTBA once (in 2011, for her novel The True Deceiver), her short stories could give almost anyone a run for their money.
The Elusive Moth by Ingrid Winterbach (translated from the Afrikaans by Iris Gouws and the author) is a very mysterious novel about an entomologist in a remote, desert-encircled South African town. Summer lies heavily over every sentence, sleepy, slow, and sensual, and yet throughout the novel there is a taut, nearly unbearable line of tension. As elusive as its title promises, Winterbach’s novel may not exactly be the sort to inspire rabid enthusiasm, but it is very subtly and intelligently done.
And one more word on my most recent read: Like Last Words from Montmartre, Letters from a Seducer by Hilda Hilst (translated from the Portuguese by John Keene) is passionate and epistolary, but its tone couldn’t be more different. Letters from a Seducer is an irreverent catalogue of outrageous, theatrical sexualities. Hilst delights in breaking taboos and detailing fetishistic obsessions, making constant fun of phallocentrism and bourgeois sensibilities. But she does it with a good sense of humor and often great literary panache. (Translator John Keene deserves praise for the number of euphemisms he’s managed to generate for various body parts alone.) Behind the absurdity are also flashes of deep feeling, comical desperation in the face of writing, and these meditations lend Hilst’s short novel staying power as literature, and not only as (in the author’s own words) “brilliant pornography.”Tweet
The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .
We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .
One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three. . .
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?),. . .