Having talked about books that I think other people will probably like, it seems like I should talk at least a bit about the ones I do.
Bohumil Hrabal’s Harlequin’s Millions (translated by Stacey Knecht) has already been highly praised here on the blog by Jeremy Garber (and elsewhere by that inestimable dean of BTBA judges, George Carroll) and I’m calling the shotgun seat on their bandwagon—it really is that good. If you don’t want to trust us, maybe Ivan Vladislavić can talk some sense into you. He calls it a “mesmerizing novel,” and being a brilliant novelist himself, albeit one who writes in the lesser language of English, he should know.
Among the few books in the running that can stack up to HM is Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of Gab, a series of linked short stories put out by Karolinum Press in the Czech Republic. It’s set in the (literally) Bohemian forest village of Kersko, a place notable for drunkenness, lust, venality, and especially the garrulousness of its inhabitants. Their self-serving lies pile up into mountains of manure, and the plots veer from the unbelievable into the surreal and the sublimely ridiculous. Comical, crude, and character-rich, it’s an altogether Hrabal-esque extravaganza of corkscrewing prose. Well, not -esque, because it too is by Bohumil Hrabal. Credit to translator David Short for channeling the flow of the author’s language without stanching it, and to the publisher’s design team as well. This edition is stunning, printed on thick paper that’s a pleasure to touch and practically spilling over with art. It’s bad form to make predictions about the finalists this early in the game, but if Hrabal’s not among them, it’ll only be because he was in competition with himself.
I’m also very high on the much more subdued submission from France’s Pierre Michon, Winter Mythologies and Abbots, which is part of Yale University Press’s Margellos World Republic of Letters series. It combines two short works that were first published separately, and even together they make a book, translated by Ann Jefferson, that clocks in at a scant 116 pages. In both sections, Michon has drawn obscure figures out of the mist of ecclesiastical history and fictionalized episodes from their lives. Their motivations are distinctly pre-modern, driven by a Christian faith that’s barely removed from paganism, and they feel wholly convincing while remaining utterly alien, at least to this hopelessly secular reader. Quiet, complete, and near-perfectly realized, it might be what Austen described when she wrote about “a little bit (two inches wide) of ivory” worked with “so fine a brush.”
From the same Yale series comes David Albahari’s Globetrotter. from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursac). Like his earlier novel Leeches, it deals with the fragmentation of the former Yugoslavia, this time treating the conflict more obliquely and displacing it to the placid setting of Banff, British Columbia. At an arts conference, a painter from Saskatchewan becomes obsessed with a Serbian writer and jealous of his burgeoning friendship with the descendant of a Croatian traveler. The vaguely homoerotic triangle that forms is far less important and intense than the maelstrom of ethnic guilt that spins in their psyches and finally wrecks them in an inexorable climax. Warning: Albahari has something against indentations. I think the lack of paragraphing adds to the headlong quality of the tale, but tastes vary. As a public service to traditionalists, I therefore provide an ample selection of pilcrows to be added to the text as needed: ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶
No one who’s reading this can be unaware of Open Letter’s track record of excellence with world literature, and it’s always difficult to rank their books against each other, but Street of Thieves by Mathias Énard (trans. by Charlotte Mandel) may be their best publication of 2014. It follows a young Moroccan man as he comes of age at home and travels across the Mediterranean to re-establish himself in Barcelona, and it manages to push almost every cultural hot button along the way. Immigration, terrorism, misogyny, the promise and failure of the Arab Spring … it could come across as a paint-by-number op-ed piece, but in fact it addresses these topics organically. The politics arise inevitably out of the fiction rather than the fiction being an artificial veneer over the politics.
Monastery by Eduardo Halfon comes from the Spanish by way of Lisa Dillman’s translation, and it chronicles the journeys of a Guatemalan writer, not coincidentally named Eduardo Halfon. It can’t quite decide whether it’s a novel or a short story collection, and I’m not sure how much reality or imagination lies behind it, but Halfon makes a good deal of hay out of that confusion. The plot carries him from the jungle of Central America to jazz concerts in North America, submarine bases in Europe, and beaches in Asia, and the unstable structure of the book prismatically expands the possibilities for interpretation. (Those who’ve read his very similar prequel, The Polish Boxer, will have to cope with further contradictions, as characters and events from it recur, subtly altered, in Monastery.) Detachment and dislocation have rarely been so well depicted as this. And believe me, in the middle of trying to read as many as possible of more than 400 books in less than a year, I know from dislocation.
By this point several judges have had an opportunity to share their thoughts about participating in the BTBA process, and it’s hard to come up with anything especially original that I can contribute. But that’s rarely stopped me from blogging in the past, so why would it now?
More than one judge, most recently fellow Northwest bookslinger Jeremy Garber, has written about the honor it is to be involved with the Best Translated Book Award. Ditto that. It’s ego-inflating whenever someone seems to care about my opinions, all the more so when it’s the people at a high-class outfit like the BTBA who do. And it’s a true privilege to think that I can play a small role in bringing attention to the huddled masses of international literature yearning to breathe freely on American shores. I’m like a lamp beside a golden door!
Disgusting paternalism aside, it really is a treat to read all this great writing from around the world. I’m a fan of literature in translation who keeps up with the work of dozens of authors and publishers, but barely a day has gone by without my finding in my mailbox a remarkable book that I’ve never heard of before. Even months away from the final voting, it would be easy for me to compile a very credible shortlist, and I have to remind myself that many more remarkable books are on their way.
What may be most exciting is that by the end of the process I’ll have as complete a picture as possible of an entire segment of the industry. We in the US see relatively little of the world’s production of fiction, which is bad, but it’s still possible (just) for me to familiarize myself with every single piece of fiction newly translated into English during this calendar year, which is fascinating to consider.
One thing I’ve observed is that there’s a broader range of work available than I’ve been finding on my own. I gravitate toward books that don’t come across like mainstream American fiction, books that through their language or form remind me they come from somewhere else, but there’s plenty of reading pleasure to be obtained from fiction that’s not focused on estrangement. Judge M.A. Orthofer has already covered some of the mystery/thriller/suspense titles that have come from abroad in 2014, and there are a number of others that could have strong popular appeal. Jonas Jonasson, for example, had a bestseller a couple of years ago with The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, and he has a BTBA entry this year called The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden that’s equally entertaining.
Want proof that not all French novels are thinly-veiled memoirs weighed down by existential angst? That rumor is dispelled by Armand Chauvel’s The Green and the Red : “When Léa and Mathieu first cross paths, it is under false pretenses—Mathieu is posing as a vegetarian, infiltrating the local animal rights community for information that will force Léa’s restaurant toward a swifter demise. And while Léa suspects that Mathieu isn’t all that he appears to be, she has no idea how deep his culinary deception goes. Neither of them can deny the attraction they feel for each other, and it seems as though they might be setting a table for two … until Léa learns the truth.” Swoonworthy for the right reader, n’est-ce pas?
Bulgaria provides a companion volume for foodies via Nine Rabbits by Virginia Zaharieva. It’s a good bit grittier than Chauvel’s romance, telling of a young woman growing up under Communist rule who finds solace in the domestic arts passed down by her grandmother—the dozens of recipes that are critical to the heroine’s identity are right there in the text. As a person whose most-used kitchen utensil is a corkscrew, I wouldn’t have chosen to read Zaharieva’s story without the BTBA, and I wouldn’t have known anything about the satisfactions that it offers.
As these and other books have rolled in, I’ve realized how much I’ve missed in earlier years, and I’ve been tempted to start digging into previous longlists and back catalogs. I can’t, of course, given that I still have so much of this year’s crop to harvest. The pile of paperbacks next to my desk is inspiring, but as it continues to climb past the height of an average fourth-grader, there are also moments when I feel like sloping off in search of bad science fiction novels that can be consumed like potato chips. Until the pile actually buries me, though, I’ll persist.
As we work our way through the 500-some new translations released in 2014, I’m going to repost on a few books that have stood out for me so far. This list is not exhaustive at all, and it is incredibly subjective, so, disclaimers. But for what it’s worth, here it is.
Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente (translated by Margaret Jull Costa)
It’s like Giralt had a direct line into the skull of Javier Marías—and, yes, this first novel from one of Spain’s biggest authors can stand up to that kind of comparison (plus, look who translated it). But Giralt is no Marías clone. Though his style is clearly indebted in this book, the concerns and narration are wholly Giralt’s. Very few authors could write a debut novel this good.
La Grande by Juan Jose Saer (translated by Steve Dolph)
From debut to swan song: La Grande was what one of Argentina’s greatest postwar authors was working on when he died in 2005. He got close enough to finishing it that I think we can consider it a complete work. It’s huge, ambitious, and very successful.
Ready to Burst by Frankétienne (translated by Kaiama L. Glover)
As publisher Jill Schoolman put it, Frankétienne is a force of nature. A poet and author with dozens of works to his name, he is also an artist, musician, and activist. In this slim book he (among other things) articulates his aesthetic of spirialism. It looks to be an amazing read.
Bombay Stories by Saadat Hasan Manto (translated by Matt Reeck)
Manto gets name-checked a lot as the greatest Urdu short story writer of the 20th century. After having read a few of the stories in this book, I can believe that.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)
Just as Knausgaard’s moment seems to be fading, Elena Ferrante is heating up in the U.S. media. And with good reason.
Melancholy II by Jon Fosse (translated by Eric Dickens)
Jon Fosse’s original Melancholy was a damn good read. So, of course, I’m hoping that Dalkey manages to live up to its Nov. 11 release date so that we can consider this for the award.
Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas by Patrick Modiano (translated by Mark Polizzotti)
I have to hand it to the Nobel committee—they usually end up picking writers that I find pretty interesting. I’ve never read Modiano and am eager to give this one a look. Plus, Yale has been doing astonishing work with its Margellos series, so the fact that they were on to this before the Prize is a good indication.
Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
Valeria Luiselli ~ Faces in the Crowd
As sinuous and singular a novel as Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd (los ingrávidos) is (translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney), it is all the more remarkable on account of it being a debut – and a most assured one at that. The Mexican novelist and essayist’s first fiction entwines multiple narratives and perspectives, shifting between them with the ease and gracefulness of a writer far beyond her years (Faces in the Crowd was published when Luiselli was 28).
The metafictional scaffolding of Faces in the Crowd is seamlessly constructed and its bibliocentric façade entrenches it within a rich tradition of referential Latin American literature. Mexican poet Gilberto Owen figures prominently into the multi-threaded plot that concerns a literary translator-cum-novelist. Owen himself narrates a great deal of Luiselli’s story, encountering along the way the likes of Ezra Pound, García Lorca, William Carlos Williams, Nella Larsen, and Duke Ellington. Though separated by more than a half-century, the characters’ lives appear to embrace as Luiselli plays with notions of temporal fidelity.
Faces in the Crowd, beyond its gorgeous writing and superb composition, is modest yet striking, measured yet salient. Luiselli is quite clearly a gifted writer and with the concurrent publication of her essay collection, Sidewalks, she ought to be garnering some much-deserved attention. Given the evident range of her myriad literary talents, it will be most interesting to see what comes next.
*Earlier last week, the National Book Foundation named Luiselli one of 2014’s 5 Under 35 (as selected by Karen Tei Yamashita).
**The Story of My Teeth, Luiselli’s second novel will be published by Granta in 2015.
Bohumil Hrabal ~ Harlequin’s Millions
Set in a “little town where time stood still,” Bohumil Hrabal’s Harlequin’s Millions (translated from the Czech by Stacey Knecht) is an elegantly written work of reminiscence and remembrance. Full of exquisite, expressive prose, the late Czech writer’s novel features an aged female protagonist/narrator reflecting on years past and moments elapsed. Hrabal’s rhythmic sentences and chapter-length paragraphs reveal the nameless lead’s life story (personally, politically, and professionally) – as well as those of her husband, Francin, and his older brother, Pepin. Their dalliances as residents in a local castle-cum-retirement home alternate between the wistful and the jubilant.
While touched by moments of melancholy, Hrabal’s tale tends more towards the nostalgic than the languid or rueful. As the titular song “Harlequin’s Millions” plays unendingly throughout the castle grounds, melodic memories of the novel’s richly drawn characters unfurl as well. Harlequin’s Millions is an evocative tale of aging that effortlessly mingles the bitter and the sweet.
Milena Michiko Flašar ~ I Called Him Necktie
A rhythmic, melodically paced novel of sorrow and rumination, I Called Him Necktie (translated from the German by Sheila Dickie) is an unassuming literary gem. Written by Milena Michiko Flašar, a young Japanese/Austrian novelist, the story features two main characters (Taguchi, a 20-something hikikomori, and Ohara, a late middle-aged former businessman) each suffering from a self-imposed alienation and existential denial. As they slowly become acquainted with one another, these two vividly composed protagonists begin to open up and reveal all they’ve been unable to share with those closest to them. Taguchi and Ohara recount their respective hardships, disappointments, and losses, finding both solace and wisdom in each other’s perspective.
Flašar’s doleful tale explores the interconnectedness of lives and the reliance we have on others in times of need. The sentiment expressed in I Called Him Necktie is genuine and tenderly portrayed. Never maudlin, even for an instant, Flašar’s empathetic, compassionate story hums with sincerity and grace. The first of Flašar’s works to appear in English translation, I Called Him Necktie is an unforgettable novel that effortlessly plumbs the depths of human emotion – exposing a rich vein of mercy amidst the pervading malaise.
Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
With so much reading left to do (as submissions continue to fill our mailboxes daily), a handful of books already stand out as some of the year’s finest original translations. Although it remains to be seen whether any of the below titles will make the longlist cut – let alone one of the ten coveted spots on the shortlist – each is an exceptional book in its own way, deserving of an audience larger than is likely and offering considerable recompense to anyone who affords it their readerly faculties.
Gonçalo Tavares ~ A Man: Klaus Klump
The first volume of Gonçalo Tavares’s remarkable Kingdom series, A Man: Klaus Klump (translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil) is the last of the four to be translated into English (after Jerusalem, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, and Joseph Walser’s Machine). Like the others, however, this one explores themes of alienation, brutality, impotency, and power. The slimmest of the four works, Klaus Klump shares an essence with the others while being perhaps the most staccato in story and prose.
Spanning several decades in the lives of a handful of characters, Klaus Klump is set in an unnamed city – beginning amidst an ongoing war and later in the years following the cessation of (armed) conflict. With juxtaposing imagery, stark metaphors, and tight, yet evocative language, Tavares entwines the disorienting horrors of senseless ultra-violence with the psychological detachment of conflict-survival. The intensity of Klaus Klump seems all the more pronounced given how much is omitted from the story – allowing a menace or foreboding to loom throughout.
Neither Klaus Klump nor the rest of the books in the series seek to seemingly do more than show the inconsequentiality, indifference, disposability, and vapidity that so characterize 21st century culture. Klaus Klump (like Ernst Spengler, Lenz Buchmann, and Joseph Walser in the earlier books before him) populates a world where war and commerce function in codependency. Obedience is nearly superfluous, as long as appetites remain insatiable. To serve within such a system, one needn’t resort to nihilism – simply passive resignation will do.
Gonçalo Tavares is an exceptional talent and his writing seems almost limitless in scope (garnering the attention and acclaim of luminaries like the great José Saramago and Enrique Vila-Matas). The Kingdom series (cycle? quartet? tetralogy?) offers a world that could not be more dissimilar to the one found in Tavares’s The Neighborhood. One not familiar with the provenance of these respective books would swear they were written by authors possessed of disparate literary tastes and temperaments. That Tavares can move so freely between works exuding terror and dread to those offering humor and charm is quite breathtaking to behold. With poems, short stories, plays, and other fiction as-yet untranslated, hopefully more (much more!) of Tavares’s work will soon be forthcoming in English.
Andrés Neuman ~ Talking to Ourselves
Talking to Ourselves (translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia), the second of Andrés Neuman’s books to be rendered into English, could not be more unlike its predecessor in translation – be it thematically or stylistically. Whereas Traveler of the Century an epic novel of ideas, Talking to Ourselves is a far more intimate, personal work dealing with loss and mortality. There are no early-19th century self-rearranging German towns or cave-dwelling organ grinders to be found herein, but instead a small family forced to confront a reality teetering precariously upon the cusp of sorrow and uncertainty.
Set across an ambiguous landscape that appears to encompass both Spain and Latin America, Talking to Ourselves transcends geographical borders as easily as it does those of fidelity and compassion. Mario, afflicted with a cancer that brings him ever closer to death, sets out on (what he knows to be) a final road trip with his young son, Lito. Staying behind is Mario’s wife, Elena, heartbroken over her family’s impending fate, yet able to find mild comfort within the pages of literature. With Mario’s illness looming, husband/father, wife/mother, and son are left to make sense of their inevitable realities however best they can – longing for intimacy and release, yet unable to overcome the emotional alienation imposed upon them by imminent dissolution. Told, in turns, from the perspective of each of the three main characters, Talking to Ourselves is, narratively speaking, a most ambitious effort.
Talking to Ourselves considers a host of subjects, not the least of which being death, sickness, caretaking, parenthood and filial responsibility, devotion and infidelity, sex, passion, the duality of pleasure and pain, mourning, dishonesty, individual experience, and the inherent differences between men and women. If Neuman’s novel seems rich with life, it’s not only because his characters and their situations are so well-conceived, but also on account of his story being the stuff that life is so often composed of. To be sure, there are moments of tenderness, joy, and humor to be found throughout the book (especially when narrated by young Lito) – but Neuman’s capacity for unyielding compassion in the face of unflinching circumstance speaks volumes about the depths of his empathy and ability to synthesize through fiction the often unsettling realities and conflicting motivations of mortal existence.
With but a pair of works currently in translation, it is still rather evident that Andrés Neuman possesses a formidable talent. Talking to Ourselves, despite its solemnity (tempered though it may be by beauty and bittersweetness), is an exceptional work of considerable emotional breadth. While the story itself may well be dolorous, it radiates with an authenticity that can often be elusive in fiction. There’s a vibrancy and liveliness to Neuman’s writing (as well-evidenced, too, in Traveler of the Century) that is irresistible. Even if one were not captivated by his arresting tale, persuasive characters, or sonorous prose, the impassioned effects of his storytelling are inescapable.
Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
It is quite an honor (to say nothing of a responsibility) to be invited to adjudicate the creative output of others. In merely thinking of the myriad ways one might go about arbitrating the many facets that comprise a finished work of art – especially literature in translation – it is admittedly difficult to know how best to weigh its constituent parts. With many hundreds of novels and short story collections published in original English translations each year, most, of course, will never receive the due attention or readership they so rightly deserve. Thus it is, then, that the goal of the (eighth!) annual Best Translated Book Award (should be to highlight the titles, authors, translators, and publishers most worthy of acclaim.
A cursory glance at the list of the year’s translations reveals a wealth of notable authors from every continent. This embarrassment of literary riches is enough to make any devotee of international fiction swoon (and feel, perhaps, not a little overwhelmed). But do the household names of literature in translation (your Bolaños, Saramagos, Hrabals, Murakamis, Knausgårds, et al.) have an unfair advantage against those foreign authors for whom English-speaking audiences have yet to discover? Or might an author newly translated into English (the language with the third most native speakers worldwide) garner some disproportionate attention in hopes of not overlooking a dazzling new talent?
Do we, as discerning readers, gravitate towards the works rendered from their mother language by translators we already admire (such as Natasha Wimmer, Margaret Jull Costa, Richard Pevear, Chris Andrews, Philip Gabriel, Anne McLean, Susan Bernofsky, et al.)? In an ideal word (where translators enjoy more recognition for their accomplished efforts), our criteria would be completely objective, letting a book present itself on its own merits alone, but, alas, a subjective reality is the one we must inhabit.
And publishers? For every New Directions, Other Press, Melville House, NYRB, Dalkey, Graywolf, and Open Letter there are countless others acquiring, editing, translating, publishing, and promoting in relative obscurity. Young publishing house upstarts focusing on translation (New Vessel and Deep Vellum amongst the most promising) often have the liberty of taking greater chances on more esoteric or little-known works. With the field of publishers releasing fiction in translation growing ever more diverse (per market forces, no doubt), there is likely no greater time for a worldly reader to be alive than at this very moment.
While at first glance the prospect of working through hundreds of works to anoint a single one as the best translated book of the year may appear daunting, it needn’t be as such. As any lifelong reader or peruser of bookstore stacks knows well; somehow, as inexplicable as it always seems until the next time, the right book will (must!) inevitably find its way into our hands. Nine of us (each with disparate backgrounds, expectations, interests, strategies, and tastes), charged as we are with bringing our relative expertise and acumen to the task at hand, will certainly make our way through the year’s offerings and end up with what is (perhaps unanimously) the best translated book of the year.
Since I am the youngest, the least knowledgeable, and by far the most superficial judge in the BTBA, it’s only appropriate that I make my first blog post about something sexy. As a judge in the much-fun World Cup of Literature this summer, also hosted by Three Percent, my write up for Croatia vs. Mexico accidentally ended up referencing my sexual mischief in June. So yeah, I’m not going to bore anyone with that again. Instead, I believe it would be appropriately disgraceful of me to dedicate this post to: not the authors, not the translators, but the book designers.
That’s right. I’m judging books by their covers.
In appreciation of the NY Art Book Fair, presented by the nonprofit Printed Matter (provider of artists’ book awesomeness since 1976), I would like to acknowledge some of my favorite covers in the BTBA so far. I feel particularly compelled to do so after witnessing an inspiring talk last week about cover design and the visual enactment of literature, as a part of the Book History Colloquium at Columbia University. The talk was given by one of my favorite contemporary book designers, Peter Mendelsund, whose new Kafka covers you might have noticed (the series with the eyes). Mendelsund studied philosophy and literature, went on to become a classical pianist, and then suddenly decided to learn book design on his own. His appreciation for immediacy inspired me to go ahead and blog about something I have absolutely no knowledge of. Also, he claimed that developing a taste in design was super easy. Basically, you just ask yourself what looks good. So there.
First up is Quesadillas : a novel, cover illustration by Joel Holland (written by Juan Pablo Villalobos, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
I immediately noticed this light paperback when it came in the mail, despite the fact that it chose to arrive with books from five different publishers. The black-on-lime green cover claimed my attention, along with the cow-on-UFO illustration. What’s not to like? I started reading Quesadillas the following day, solely due to its cover.
Another well-designed delicacy I devoured because of its cover was The Guest Cat (written by Takashi Hiraide, translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland, published by New Directions). Erik Rieselbach is behind this intriguing design (more honorable mention for him later), although the cover art is actually an oil painting by Léonard Tsugouharu Foujita from 1927.
According to Christies.com, this piece of oil on canvas, entitled “Chat Couturier”, is worth $60,000-$80,000. I’m not sure if I would ever want that thing on my wall – a cat in any kind of artwork makes me uncomfortable – but as a book cover it definitely works. That stare would make anyone open anything, be it a book, a safe, or an anchovy sandwich.
Next up is Baboon (written by Naja Marie Aidt, translated from the Danish by Denise Newman, published by Two Lines Press). Although broken flowers make me think of Bill Murray by default, Gabriele Wilson’s cover art mercifully exceeds my previous notions. There’s something haunting about the shadows on the petals, something stunning about this terrible flower on a pale background. I’m a fan.
Lastly, I have to dedicate a final paragraph to some books that have already been mentioned by my fellow judge, Madeleine LaRue. I will not waste your time with even more praise to these publications, but simply point out that their covers are among my favorites as well:
Our Lady of the Nile, cover art by Amedeo Modigliani (written by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated from the French by Melanie Mauthner, published by Archipelago Books).
A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, cover design by N. J. Furl (an anthology of Spanish-language fiction curated by Valerie Miles, published by Open Letter Books).
The End of Days, cover design – yet again – by Erik Rieselbach (written by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, published by New Directions).
That will be all.
Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.
I live in Berlin, in a neighborhood with a chronically understaffed post office, so books on their way to me from the United States are usually in for an adventure.
A package from Archipelago Books, example, arrived dripping wet, even though it hadn’t rained in Berlin for a week. Luckily, the texts themselves were all intact, and a little water damage has only lent a pleasant air of world-weariness to the appearances.
Another package I received, this time from Vintage, had been opened, its contents shoved into my mailbox, and the envelope stuffed crookedly in after them. Is that even legal?, I wondered, are they even allowed to open my stuff? Turns out, yes, but only is the stuff is books. Since most of them were about hard-boiled detectives, I figured they were used to some rough handling and didn’t feel too sorry for them.
But the best (by which I mean most unusual) delivery arrived this week: an absolutely enormous blue bag bearing the seal of the Belgian post, one gaping end knotted shut with plastic cords. It was the sort of bag I imagine Santa Claus would use if he were a Belgian mailman. For a moment I hoped that there would just be one giant book inside, but instead there was another, slightly smaller blue bag, tidily wrapped and stamped by Sweden Post.
The treasure inside this strange blue matryoshka was more than worth the trouble it took to wrestle it out. Inside the blue Swedish bag, surrounded by what I assume used to be an envelope but which now resembled something closer to the insides of a sofa after they’ve been torn up by a very eager puppy, were eight books from Open Letter, dusty but otherwise unharmed. Among them were several titles I’d been looking forward to for some time: Ingrid Winterbach’s The Elusive Moth, Amanda Michalopoulou’s Why I Killed My Best Friend, and of course the splendid anthology that’s been getting so much attention on this blog recently, A Thousand Forests in One Acorn.
Of course, no matter how bizarre the story of a book’s arrival at my front door might have been, its importance fades as soon as the experience of the text itself takes over. One of those half-drowned Archipelago titles, Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile, has proved a moving and memorable read. One of the few novels from sub-Saharan Africa to be eligible for this year’s BTBA, Our Lady of the Nile centers on an elite girls’ boarding school in 1970s Rwanda, shortly before a wave of ethnic violence breaks out. I recently reviewed the novel for Music & Literature, where I wrote of it as both a collective coming-of-age story and a prelude to genocide.
The book I’m reading currently, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, was unusual in that it arrived at my apartment completely unscathed. It’s the first novel by Erpenbeck that I’ve had a chance to read. It begins with the death of an eight-month old baby and traces the ramifications this death later has on the child’s family. But then, in the first of the book’s many “Intermezzo”s, the baby is resurrected: time rewinds itself, the baby is saved in the nick of time. She’s given a second chance at life, allowed to grow up for a few more years. When she finds another death, she is resurrected again, and so on; the main character, whose name we learn only at the end of the novel, keeps dying and keeps not being permitted to die, until she has lived through nearly the entire twentieth century.
A serious (in my opinion, unfortunately humorless) meditation on death, The End of Days was striking to me not only for its compelling premise, but also for the quality of its translation. Susan Bernofsky has produced an exceptionally powerful English version of this very German text; the book’s prose, just like its cover when it arrived in my Berlin mailbox, showed no sign of having made a transatlantic journey.
Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.
My strategy for BTBA reading is very simple and very biased: I read the books by women first, and if there are no books by women, then I read the shortest ones first. I start with the women because there are fewer of them, and with the short books because they make me feel accomplished.
One of the first books I read was Can Xue’s The Last Lover (translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen), a novel by one of China’s best and strangest contemporary writers. I had been enchanted a few years ago by her short story collection Vertical Motion, which is populated by all sorts of Kafkaesque sons and animals.
Can Xue’s work is dreamlike, but not in the hazy, poetic way that that word usually implies. Rather, her stories follow the logic of dreams, particularly in The Last Lover: locations shift abruptly, characters’ reactions are unexpected or irrational, elements from previous scenes are suddenly re-assembled in new configurations. The Last Lover, a story of three couples, is perhaps best understood as taking place in a largely or entirely imaginary space. The lovers are wandering not through the world, but through each other’s dreams, which nevertheless resemble some version of the world. The book is baffling at times, and after reading it I often stood up slightly dizzy. But something about it is tenacious. Like Kafka (whom she greatly admires), Can Xue is able to create metaphors that are understood deeply and intuitively even while they elude intellectual comprehension.
The Last Lover surfaced in my thoughts again recently when I found another book by a modern-day sister of Kafka’s.
Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water (translated from Estonian by Ilmar Lehtpere) is a slim book (only eighty pages) of surreal fairy tales. In one, a woman bites the arms off three successive husbands, all named Jaan. In another, a skeleton called Lena tells of her life on an island that has “torn itself free from the ocean floor.” A third woman has written a grammar of bird language and collects apricots from her “six former husbands” (her enumeration of their respective qualities recalls Kafka’s story “Eleven Sons”).
Some of the stories are noticeably weaker than others, but in the best of them there is a certain freedom found in all good fables, including Kafka’s: the freedom to be read both literally and figuratively. Kristiina Ehin’s stories are metaphors for emotional events, usually ordinary ones like falling in or out of love, but they are sometimes very original metaphors, interesting as fiction in their own right. Like Can Xue, Kristiina Ehin encourages us to interpret her work while simultaneously hinting that interpretation is not important.
Whether or not either of these titles ends up on this year’s longlist, they deserve to be read, not only on their own merits, but as representatives of marginalized literatures. We know that only 3% of the English-language book market is devoted to works in translation; how much smaller is that percentage when we count only books by women, let alone books by women from China or Estonia? Indeed, it has taken me depressingly little time to get through all the BTBA submissions by women that I’ve received up to now. I hope that more are on the way, and that more (especially from under-represented countries) are slated by publishers for the coming years.
In the meantime, as I continue to read wonderful things by writers of all genders, I can’t help but noticing that these two, The Last Lover and Walker on Water, have a curious capacity to linger in my mind, even as technically “better” books fade from memory.
Monica Carter is a freelance critic.
As I continue on keyboard jacking the BTBA blog this week, I continue also to give praise to some of the publishers who started roughly around the time the award began and have grown right along side us. After A for Archipelago comes E for Europa Editions – the sleek and suave playboy of international literature. Europa puts out the kind of books The Most Interesting Man in the World would read. On one hand, they are gritty with their notorious list of European Noir titles; on the other hand, they are the penultimate cultivated dinner guests with authors like Jane Gardam, Steve Erickson and Elena Ferrante. Granted, they are not solely a publisher of literature in translation, but international literature is their aim as state in their mission statement below:
With offices in New York and London, Europa Editions is an independent publisher of quality fiction. The company was founded in 2005 by Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, who are also the owners and publishers of the Italian press, Edizioni E/O. The idea behind the creation of Europa Editions was to capitalize on Edizioni E/O’s deep roots in European publishing to bring fresh international voices to the American and British markets and to provide quality editions that had a distinct look and consistently high level of editorial standards. The Europa catalog is eclectic, reflecting the founders’ belief that dialogue between nations and cultures is of vital importance and that this exchange is facilitated by literature chosen not only for its ability to entertain and fascinate, but also to inform and enlighten.
What book got me first? The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. Then it was Ferrante’s Lost Daughter. I couldn’t be happier to see that Ferrante is gathering the respect and praise she is receiving currently, but as with many readers who discovered a great writer early on in their career we can’t help but wonder what took everybody so long. I have recently been emailing with one of my fellow judges and he had just finished Ferrante’s newest, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and he said that he thought it was better than the last one and that she was “the real deal.” “Of course!” I wanted to scream. Not because everybody should know of her greatness by now, but because her novels are so brutally candid about womanhood, motherhood, friendship between women, and she writes about women have that society at large considers taboo. Even though her first few novels are slim, each one infused by a different singular, suffocating voice, the Neapolitan novels are thick and cast with a Shakespearean set of characters. The pairing of Ferrante and her translator, Ann Goldstein, has given Europa a literary powerhouse that pleases both critics and readers.
Besides Ferrante, they stole my wanna-be-a- drunken-sailor heart with dedication to European Noir. Originally, Europa called it “Mediterranean Noir” but they are expanding which is wise because if there is one thing that is not getting enough attention in the publishing world, it is global noir. I am serious about this. Although there are the City noir titles by Akashic which are good, they are akin to a sample platter of authors of noir. With Europa, you get the feast. My first noir writer I encountered through Europa was Jean-Claude Izzo. He fulfilled my drunken sailor dream and then some. I read his Marseilles Trilogy in a weekend and quickly tore through The Lost Sailors and A Sun for the Dying. Again, the same translator throughout Izzo’s work, the talented Howard Curtis is that invisible presence that makes it all work as a good translator should.
Besides Ferrante and their growing list of European Noir, I can’t help but mention their artwork. They have great covers. Having worked in bookstores, there’s no better way to attract attention to a book than a really stunning cover facing out. Europa covers are easy to spot and quite diverse. I am a huge enthusiast of cover art and Europa has accomplished a difficult task by developing it’s own identity but also making each cover original and individual.
Well, Europa Editions, you’re on my dance card. I love you for your jet setting style. I love you because you would be equally comfortable drinking a forty out of paper bag or a bottle of Dom at the Ritz. You always look good even though I am never sure what to expect when I turn the page. But that’s what makes me love you, you brilliant fool.
Although the judges have been reading books all year, if you're a publisher, author, or translator, and want to make sure that your works are being considered, feel free to contact any and all of the panelists. Click here for a mailing list of the poetry judges (here for one with emails) and here for a mailing list of the fiction judges (here for one with emails). If you have any questions, please contact Chad Post.
There's no entry fee, all you have to do is mail one copy (or send an e-version) of your publication to each of the appropriate panelists. Please indicate that the package is a 2015 BTBA submission. . .
All original translations published between January 1, 2014 and December 31, 2014 are eligible. Reprints and retranslation are ineligible. Submissions for the FICTION award will be accepted until December 31, 2014. Submissions for the POETRY award will be accepted until December 31, 2014.