Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
As the calendar draws to a close, annual lists of the year’s best books begin to proliferate. However subjective these literary lineups may be, it should come as no surprise to readers of translated fiction that titles originating from outside the English-speaking world are seldom included in these year-end roundups. The lack of astonishment that comes with seeing a dearth of translated books included on such lists is outweighed perhaps only by the frustration that a bevy of such remarkable books will never enjoy the attention they truly deserve.
Reviewers, critics, and editors are, of course, entitled to their own opinions, but charged as they are with shaping the readerly landscape and exposing their audiences to books they elseways would not likely discover on their own, it can be rather dispiriting, year in and year out, to see some of the world’s best fiction go neglected, ignored, and otherwise uncelebrated (hence the need for the Best Translated Book Award).
What is it about literature in translation that fails to attract its deserved share of both popular and critical acclaim? Theories abound – and have for some time. Are American readers simply not properly exposed to the breadth of titles available in English translation? Are they provincial and xenophobic? Are they sated by the wealth of domestic talent? Do they mistakenly presume books rendered from another language will be needlessly arduous and unrewarding?
Are publishers, bookshops, media, and reviewers equally culpable for the disproportionately low interest in international fiction? Does lack of review coverage keep the average reader from discovering an exceptional work from without our borders? Are the big houses unwilling to publish more works in translation – having seen disappointing or diminishing returns previously? Are booksellers, despite their often-tireless advocacy for the books they admire, unable to engender and maintain enough of a groundswell? Is lit in translation to be forever relegated to a niche market, comprising but a sliver of the publishing and bookselling world?
With over 500 works of fiction published in English translation in each of the past two years (about a 50% increase from 2010), it appears interest in such books is, in fact, growing. As ever more translation-centric publishers join the scene (whether for profit or not), the abundance of titles available to English readers from all over the world will surely increase – a veritable windfall for those with broad, open-minded tastes (and monolingual backgrounds). But how to make those books appeal to the larger American readership? For the success of every Larsson, Murakami, or Bolaño are scores of writers equally worthy of as ardent an audience. Perhaps an industry with creative output as its product will forever remain a fickle and unpredictable one. Perhaps the arbiters of taste and merit are slow to evolve.
Knowing that great books written in languages other than English often have a laborious road to the American bookshelf, an award that aims to recognize the best translated book in a given year has more to consider than what a first glance may reveal. Ought the award, all things considered, bestow the prize upon the most altogether worthy entrant (excellence in writing, translation, presentation, et al.)? What if the book in question is unlikely, given even the most robust accolades and promotion, to ever find appeal beyond academic circles or a very narrow general readership? Should the notion of how a book has done critically (or might do commercially) bear weight upon the decision? Do we trust that readers will, if given a hearty enough recommendation from a reliable source, take a chance on something that they would otherwise pass by?
Undeservedly or not, a single work in translation (at least for a reader not normally inclined to pick up such a book) may well be seen as a reflection of all works in translation. For a reading public that relies on reviews and best-of lists as much as bookseller recommendations and word-of-mouth encouragement from fellow readers, it is incumbent upon publishers, reviewers, and bookshops (and award juries, as well) that we champion deserved works and their authors – if international fiction is ever to gain a wider appeal.
While end-of-the year lists often feature the more obvious selections, there is an (increasing?) opportunity for the so-called also-rans to get their due. Blogs, social media, and other non-traditional outlets are constantly reshaping the literary landscape. Books which, even a decade ago, may not have had a chance to wend their way into the hands of readers now have an easier time doing so (although it remains prohibitively difficult for most). A good many of the books translated into English in any given year are very likely amongst the best in their native languages (as it is difficult to imagine mid-list international authors finding either a translator or publisher stateside), so a list of the year’s translated titles is already a quasi-best-of selection by default.
It’ll be a welcome (and exciting!) day for all those interested in great literature when the ever-popular “best books of the year” lists count even a quarter of their entries as those rendered from a foreign language. Readers, culture, and society alike will benefit greatly, confirming and reiterating the fact that exceptional works of art need not be confined by arbitrary borders or the limitations of tongue. No “best of” list could ever presume to have the definitive word on the extraordinary, but declining to include more works in translation does a disservice to all readers. Much as ecosystems thrive best with greater diversity (and suffer, conversely, wherever monoculture is present), we, too, will be all the richer for indulging the abundance of authorial voices which currently flourish.
It’s December. I still have a shit-ton of books left to read for the BTBA, and the very thought of writing a blogpost about my favorite contenders is giving me mild anxiety. But, as a Chuang Tzu once wrote (in David Hinton’s excellent translation), “small fear is fever and worry; great fear is vast and calm.”
The great fear, in this case, consists in creating a longlist from so many well-designed, well-written, and well-translated books. It’s so frightening that I’m actually okay with it. But here comes the small fear: my two cents about what’s good in the pile of submissions.
I can certainly reveal some of my favorite titles to you, such as Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd (trans. by Christina MacSweeney), Roberto Bolano’s A Little Lumpen Novelita (trans. by Natasha Wimmer), Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile (trans. by Melanie Mauthner), and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book Three (trans. by Don Bartlett), but since all of these titles have already been mentioned several times, I figured my blogging energy would be better spent on two Danish titles that have not yet come up as anybody’s favorites. I will allow my fellow judges the benefit of the doubt, and assume they have yet to read the books I’m about to highlight.
As a Dane, Naja Marie Aidt’s writing has been an inevitable part of my life. I grew up reading and analyzing her short stories in middle and high school classes, and I’ve remained fascinated by her fiction ever since. One of Aidt’s literary fortes is her depiction of distorted human relationships; sometimes conveyed explicitly through master-slave abuse, pedophilia, or snuff (Vandmærket, 1993), sometimes portrayed through subtle powerplay and deceit as a matter of routine (Tilgang, 1995). Aidt’s latest short story collection and first book in English, Baboon (Two Lines Press), is no exception:
“I slowly peeled the clothes off her, and she looked beautiful on the red Persian rug, in the warm light from the fire. She spread her legs. She looked at me with dark, sorrowful eyes. Your sister has a tighter cunt than you. I wonder whether you’re born that way, or if it’s just because she’s so young.” (From Bulbjerg)
These disturbing tales will potentially stay with you for years; they have certainly haunted me since 2006, when I first read the collection in Danish. Rereading Baboon in English was an immense pleasure, thanks to an incredible translation by Denise Newman who managed to capture the beauty of Aidt’s descriptive prose while maintaining a sense of urgency within the lines:
“Suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of an astonishing landscape: luminous, white sand dunes on all sides, wind swept, small trees twisting under the vast open sky. We gasped joyfully as though coming up for air after being under water too long. We stood there looking around, our eyes blinking after staring at the gravel road in the dark forest for so long. Even the smell was different here, salty and fresh, the sea had to be close by. But we lost our bearings long ago.”
Aidt’s talent for combining brutality and beauty is, in my opinion, nothing less than extraordinary.
Another Dane who deserves honorable mention in the BTBA is Dorthe Nors. Her short story collection Karate Chop (Graywolf Press/A Public Space) is a delightfully fast and punchy read, expertly rendered by translator Martin Aitken. Nors’ combination of light language and dark humor is captivating -not only within each individual story, but also in the way the stories complement each other. From the tragicomic self-proclaimed Buddhist, to the man who googles female killers when his wife is asleep, to the heron in Frederiksberg Gardens with mites living in its underfeathers:
“Last winter I saw one slouching on the back of a bench with its long, scrawny neck. Its feet were completely white and it barely even reacted when I walked past. The way the wind ruffled its neck feathers made me want to go back and sit down next to it. It was the way the suffering had to be drawn out like that, the way herons never really muster the enthusiasm. But I won’t touch birds, alive or dead.” (from “The Heron”)
Nors’ short story “The Heron” was the first Danish piece to be published in The New Yorker, and it truly does work well as the literary centerpiece of the perfectly unpredictable Karate Chop.
Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.
The news has been worse than usual this year, so I’ve been particularly thankful for books that make me laugh. Here are some of the funniest contenders – in what I’m sure is just a coincidence, they all take place in the 1980s and involve either children or Soviets or both.
Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated by Rosalind Harvey) is narrated by a little boy named Orestes who lives in a very small, very poor town in Mexico. His father’s favorite activity is cursing the police, while his mother spends most of her time making quesadillas to feed Orestes and his numerous siblings (all similarly named after figures of Greek tragedy). When the family’s two youngest children, the twins Castor and Pollux, disappear, it sets off a chain of wild events that culminates with the appearance of some extraterrestrial visitors.
But before the aliens get involved, Orestes runs away to make his fortune, and so the book becomes a kind of sad, but hilarious, parody of a poor boy’s rags-to-riches story. Villalobos’ novel, originally titled Si viviéramos en un lugar normal (“If we lived somewhere normal”), criticizes a system of poverty and corruption that is, of course, not limited to Mexico, all while delivering lines so colorful and surprising that you can’t help but laugh.
Another tale narrated by a clever, resourceful, and chronically poor child, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki (translated by Stephen Henighan) moves the scene to Angola. The novel is populated by a cast of odd, lovable characters, including the eponymous Soviet, called Comrade Gudafterov by the children for his habit of greeting everyone with a solemn “Gudafter-noon,” no matter the time of day. Though there are moment in the plot when things seem to be getting dangerous, nothing really terrible actually happens, and we are left with an unusually vivid sense not only of the Angola of Ondjaki’s own childhood, but of the general texture of childhood itself. Stephen Henighan has done a particularly fine job conveying the range of Ondjaki’s style – the Soviet’s comically broken Portuguese and the narrator’s fleeting moments of poetry, for example, seem to arrive in English with equal ease.
Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov (translated by Katherine Dovlatov) is not narrated by a child. Rather, our hero is Soviet version of the superfluous man – poor, highly sensitive to literature, perpetually drunk, and somehow badly equipped for life. After a divorce and at the end of his rope, he arrives one summer at Pushkin’s country estate, looking for work as a tour guide. His ensuing adventures are punctuated by witty-one liners worthy of a vodka-soaked Oscar Wilde (“Are you good friends [with Mitrofanov]?” someone asks the narrator, who replies, “I’m good friends with his bad side.”), but overall, the novel owes more to Bulgakov, whose humor builds slowly, almost imperceptibly, until suddenly the entire situation is absurd. The book, like all my favorite Russian tales, is a tragicomedy, one of the saddest and funniest to appear this year.
The size of a book shouldn’t really matter, not when judging whether or not it’s Best Translated Book Award-worthy, but one of the things that has struck me about this year’s batch of eligible titles is that page- if not quality-wise many of the pickings are slimmer than usual.
Mind you, I’m still reeling from 2011 and the memories of (lugging, not to mention reading) Péter Nádas’s 1133-pager Parallel Stories …. (I don’t even want to think about 2009 and Jonathan Littell’s … let’s say unfortunate near-1000 page The Kindly Ones.) So, yes, there’s something to be said for shorter books – beginning with the logistical advantages, of getting through them, as well as the quicker variety moving from one to the next allows for (getting bogged down in a 500-pager is very different (and more drawn-out-painful) than getting bogged down in a book of 100 pages …).
Last year’s shortlist had quite a few substantial books: if not quite the norm, there were a decent number of 400+ page books, including the winning title. Hell, 400 pages seemed almost unremarkable. Antonio Muñoz Molina’s In the Night of Time topped 600, and along the way there had been longer books too: Goliarda Sapienza’s The Art Of Joy was just short of 700 pages, France Daigle’s For Sure easily topped that.
Quite a few 2014 books make it into the 400 page range – including obvious contenders for at least the final award-stages (longlist, shortlist): this year’s Knausgaard (My Struggle: Book Three), just like last year’s; this year’s Ferrante (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay), just like last year’s …. But there just don’t seem to be that many other bulky books. And there seem to be a lot of very slim ones.
True, we’re unlikely ever to have an entry as short as last year’s Her Not All Her — Elfriede Jelinek’s longlisted … well, it was barely a forty-page pamphlet. But the pile of top titles that come in at under a hundred pages is surprising.
Among my favorites this year has been Julio Cortázar’s (comic book-)inspired Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires (87 generously illustrated pages), which is about the most fun I’ve had reading any of these books this year. With cameos by Susan Sontag and Alberto Moravia this is … well, wild barely begins to describe it. But the writing (and translation, by David Kurnick) is sharp, and, despite being almost forty years old, it feels surprisingly topical and current.
Arno Camenisch’s The Alp (82 pages) is just one of what seems like dozens of Dalkey Archive Press entries in the 100-page-range (it’s not dozens, but there are quite a few). Here is an author who works in both German and Romansh (the fourth official language of Switzerland) – a challenge Donal McLaughlin seems quite up to here.
There’s a second Haruki Murakami book due out this year, too — The Strange Library, another book that counts as “heavily illustrated” and still doesn’t make it to a hundred pages. There’s a fairly new Murakami translator at work here too – one we haven’t read in the previous translations, Ted Goosen — and while it is a very small piece (and competes against the other Murakami in the running this year, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, translated by older Murakami-hand Philip Gabriel) can’t be discounted at this early stage.
Some good-looking short story collections come in under the century-mark — Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water and Kjell Askildsen’s Selected Stories among them – but I’m particularly surprised by the number of novels of this size. And by how many of them punch considerably above their weight: Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog Eyes is probably only sustainable over this length, while Jean Echenoz’s just over 100-page 1914 is a master-class in economical storytelling.
Others under 100 pages include the almost obligatory annual diminutive César Aira – Conversations this year (88 pages) – and Antonio Skármeta’s A Distant Father. Special mention has to go to Patrick Modiano’s Suspended Sentences, a volume we weren’t expecting until next year until he was named this year’s Nobel laureate, leading Yale University Press to push up the publication date: it consists of ‘Three Novellas’, filling just over 200 pages – but in France (and elsewhere) the slim volumes have also been published individually. Almost unfair for the Nobel laureate to get three chances to wow the judges in one go (and, helped along by translator Mark Polizzotti, who seems to have a really good feel for Modiano’s style, he certainly wowed this one).
So are there any fat chance-counterweights to these slim pickings? As I said, a couple of contenders make it into the 400 page range, but beyond that the choices are few and far between. Some thrillers and the like but from what I’ve seen so far, nothing that could make a serious dent (sorry, Zoran Drvenkar’s You may have an intriguing range of voices, but … yeah, sorry, no). The best 500+ pagers I’ve checked out so far are Leonardo Padura’s Trotsky novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs, which has the qualities that could put it on the longlist, and Albert Sánchez Piñol’s Victus, which also turns out to be a nice surprise. But they both do sag a bit under their weight – always the danger with the long ones.
The one I’m most curious about is one I haven’t seen yet: H.G. Adler’s The Wall (a reported 656 pages), the last in a trilogy that has impressed so far. This comes with some very good buzz, so I definitely see some potential here. Of course, I do have to see it before I can properly judge …..
We’re used to meaty books when it comes to fiction in translation, as if length were more proof of a book’s weighty worthiness. From the biggest Bolaños and recent BTBA winners Myśliwski and (2x) Krasznahorkai they never entirely shoved smaller works aside, but maybe had an easier time making more of a big impression. I wonder whether we’ll now see a shift towards some of this smaller work – looking even stronger this year than usual.
George Carroll is the World Literature Editor of Shelf Awareness and an independent publishers’ representative based in the Pacific Northwest.
None of the San Francisco Giants spoke with pitcher Madison Bumgartner in the dugout before he took the mound in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series except for a brief exchange with his catcher Buster Posey. Partly due to superstition and partly because Bumgartner was intensely focused, was in the zone.
I’m currently in The Best Translated Book Award reading zone. Please do not distract.
This is so, in my mind, with longlist and the BTBA.
There’s an ultra-secret password-protected, for-your-eyes-only spreadsheet that the BTBA judges use that lists the title, author, translator, publisher, language, and country for each of the 2015 submissions. There is a column for each judge to place her notes or remarks. (Don’t try to access the spreadsheet, publishers, it will self-destruct quicker than Jim Phelps’ MI instructions.)
Fortunately my spreadsheet column is at the beginning of that section, just to the right of Katrine Osgaard Jensen’s. She uses a letter code, which I’m pretty sure I’ve cracked. But I scroll right no further, for therein lies the use of longlist, the word that assigns power, the word which can strip power. “Longlist contender, must longlist, short of longlist, no longlist.” It can draw you in (I better read this) or repel (I better move on to something else).
I just have a list. Books move around like the stairways at Hogwarts. (Did I mention I just watched all of the Harry Potter movies?) Books that I read early in the process that I thought were really good, were really good, but they’re not as really good in comparison with the other really good books that I’ve now read.
That doesn’t mean that some of the books I’ve read don’t keep popping up a like a literary Whac-a-Mole. But will they make it to l-word? I don’t know.
Milena Michiko Flasar’s I Called Him Necktie, Pascal Garnier’s How’s the Pain, Eduardo Halfon’s Monastery, both Bohumil Hrabal titles Harlequin’s Millions and Ramblin’ On, Carlos Labbe’s Navidad & Matanza, Michel Laub’s Diary of the Fall, Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile, Andres Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves, Roderigo Rey Rosa’s Severina, Paulo Scott’s Nowhere People, Solvi Bjorn Sigurdsson’s The Last Days of My Mother, Goncalo Tavares’ A Man: Klaus Klump, Antoine Volodine’s Writers, Christa Wolf’s August.
All have much to love and I can do no better than to arrange them alphabetically.
Cesar Aira’s Conversations, Roberto Bolano’s A Little Lumpen Novelita, Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog-Eyes, Jorn Lier Horst’s The Hunting Dogs, Giulio Mozzi’s This is the Garden, Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, Audur Ava Olafsdottir’s Butterflies in November, Antonio Skarmeta’s A Distant Father, Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Quesdillas, Urs Widmer’s The Blue Soda Siphon.
Again, only alphabetical, all flawed in little ways, but solid nonetheless.
Predicting the longlist is a bit like handicapping horses: consistency, class, form, and pace. Books get boxed, parked out, shuffled back. Fortunately, I have miles to read before I sleep and need not place my bets until March.
Can Xue: The Last Lover, trans. from Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Yale/Margellos
The strangest and by far most original work I read this summer was Can Xue’s The Last Lover. How refreshing it is to encounter fiction that so resolutely disregards conventions of character and plot! The protagonists of this book do not develop—they transform, as do their relationships to one another, from one scene to the next. And they do so unpredictably, in ways that surprise and delight. As in much of Can Xue’s fiction, the prose is comic and disturbing at one and the same time. John Darnielle had Vertical Motion in mind when he pointed to the “grammar of dreams” that underpins that volume of stories: “situations in which a general meowing sound throughout a hospital provokes not the question ‘what’s going on?’ but instead ‘where are the catmen hiding?’” A similar grammar is present in The Last Lover, her most ambitious—and perhaps most radical—novel to date.
Faris al-Shidyaq: Leg over Leg volume 3, trans. from Arabic by Humphrey Davies, NYU
I wrote about the charms of this novel last winter, when the first two volumes were eligible for the prize. It should come as no surprise that the other two are now contenders as well. This chapter from volume three appeared in the 2014 translation issue of London’s The White Review. It’s preceded by a concise introduction by Humphrey Davies, whose translation of Shidyaq remains among the most gymnastic and resourceful amongst this year’s competition.
Elena Ferrante: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, trans. from Italian by Ann Goldstein, Europa
There’s no denying the force of Ferrante’s writing. I discovered volume 2 of the Neapolitan Novels last spring when it made our longlist. (Such are the privileges of judging for BTBA; you have to read the 25 titles selected to this list, and thereby profit directly from the enthusiasms of others.) I devoured it whole, then did the same to The Story of a New Name. Ferrante inspires that rare thing, rarer still among contemporary writers: the compulsion to read everything she’s ever published. Like its predecessors, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay bristles with intelligence and is executed with startling clarity. And like the other books in this series, it is all-absorbing. Here’s Ariel Starling in a recent review for The Quarterly Conversation: “Subtle as the plot may be, it would do the work a grave disservice not to note that Ferrante is, in her own way, a master of suspense. Reading these novels, one becomes so immersed in the world of the characters that even an offhand comment from a minor acquaintance can (and often does) carry the force of revelation—the books are nearly impossible to put down.”
Hilda Hilst: With My Dog Eyes, trans. from Portuguese by Adam Morris, Melville House
I’ve already posted on Letters from a Seducer which had been scheduled for 2013 release but entered the world on the wrong side of January 1. Goes without saying that this title and its extraordinary translation by John Keene has not weakened in the slightest since my initial encounter. Hilst deserves to be in the mix when winter arrives and we begin to draft lists. The question then is likely to be: which horse to back? The answer’s not immediately obvious, to the great credit of Hilst’s translators and editors. With My Dog Eyes was as exhilarating to read as the Letter and The Obscene Madame D. Hilst has been blessed with a generation of astute translators who are now introducing her work to an Anglophone readership. With My Dog Eyes struck me as the most aphoristic of the three novels. It begins unforgettably: “God? A surface of ice anchored to laughter.” Adam Levy wrote a canny essay for Music & Literature about this year’s eligible Hilst titles; read it here.
I’ve little doubt concerning the importance of the above works for their respective languages. Those without Chinese or Italian or Portuguese have Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Ann Goldstein, and Adam Morris to thank for ensuring that their greatness has been preserved in the face of formidable challenges. I’d like to mention briefly the names of a few more translators whose work has impressed over these first few months of reading. They succeed at communicating the vitality of the voices translated, but also for their accomplished prose in English. They are, in no particular order, Jason Grunebaum from the Hindi of The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash; Daniel Hahn from the Portuguese (Brazil) of Nowhere People by Paolo Scott; Chris Andrews from the Spanish (Guatemala) of Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa; and Karen Emmerich from the Greek of Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou, whose passages about the bewilderments of adolescent sexuality rank—alongside volume three of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard—among the funniest things I’ve encountered so far.
By now you may be asking which BTBA-eligible books I’m most looking forward to reading. Probably not, but let’s pretend. Without further ado:
Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt (translated from Danish by Denise Newman) is a short story collection that’s the first of this author’s work to reach English, and it’s touted as “audacious writing that careens toward bizarre, yet utterly truthful, realizations.” What’s not to like about that? Aidt is originally from Greenland, which is another bonus, as reading her book would get me one step closer to my secret goal of reading something from every country on the globe. Yes, I know Greenland is technically not a country, but it looks so big on Mercator maps that I count it anyway.
Mario Bellatin, who I’ve read before and very much enjoyed, has a new book out from Siete Vientos that contains two separate works, Flowers and Mishima’s Illustrated Biography. The latter portion sounds like non-fiction that wouldn’t qualify for the BTBA, but Bellatin says that it describes “what happened to the writer after his head was cut off.” So yeah, made up. It’s a bilingual edition with the English side having been translated by Kolin Jordan, and it’s a gorgeous little product. Not that I’m judging it solely by its cover, but it does tend to jump out of the stack at me.
Another Spanish language book that carries high expectations is Adam Buenosayres by Argentinian Leopoldo Marechal, a novel so massive that it took two translators, Norman Cheadle and Sheila Ethier, to tackle it. It was first published in 1948 and was Marechal’s attempt to create an epic that would do for his native city what Dickens did for London and Joyce did for Dublin. Among other Latin American writers who were influenced by it was Julio Cortázar, which is more than enough for me to take an interest in it.
From Germany comes The Giraffe’s Neck, about a tightly-wound, aging biology teacher in a failing public school. It’s written by Judith Schalansky (and translated by Shaun Whiteside) who previously brought the fabulous Atlas of Remote Islands into the world.
Javier Cercas is yet another writer whose fiction is always on my to-read list, and the next book of his on my plate is Outlaws, a novel in which an adult lawyer reconnects with the rebellious political gangster who transfixed him during his youth in 1970s Spain. That it’s by Cercas is one thing, but it’s translated by Anne McLean, so I know it must be good.
We Are the Birds of the Coming Storm is by Lola Lafon, a French writer who’s new to me. Translated by David and Nicole Ball, it was the subject of an intriguing review in the web magazine Full Stop that was very positive while admitting the difficulty of describing or responding to it. Which is like catnip as far as I’m concerned.
Lastly, there are two books, both from Dalkey Archive Press and also by French writers, that engage in the kind of metafictional play that drives some people up a wall but makes them must-reads for me. The first is The Author and Me (translated by Jordan Stump), in which writer Eric Chevillard attempts an ultimate refutation of the notion that narrators, even ones who share the author’s name, are mouthpieces for his opinions. A quote: “If all cauliflower and even all memory of cauliflower were abruptly to vanish from the face of this earth—O miracle!—then, I swear, I would don mourning clothes of red and gold, with a pointy hat and a party whistle unrolling from my lips with every breath.” I’m right there with you, Eric. Sorry, “Eric.”
On the slightly more serious side there’s Antoine Volodine, who I think may be undertaking the most important fictional project of our time. Using various pseudonyms (including the Volodine name), he’s producing a body of work that comments on and indicts contemporary society from the vantage of an imagined, not-too-distant future. His fiction has been spottily available in English from various publishers, and it’s been hard for American readers to grasp its scope, but Writers, translated by Katina Rodgers, looks to provide a useful summary. The different stories in the book purport to come from several Volodine heteronyms, finally together between covers.
It’ll take me a while to finish all these, and by then I’m sure I’ll have a new list of favorites to supplant or supplement them. Stay tuned.
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.
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.