Jewels in Your Pocket [BTBA 2020]

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Christopher Phipps, a manager at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.

We’ve all been warned repeatedly to never judge a book by its cover, a caution easily and often extended towards judgments based on size. Size matters not, counseled Yoda. Big things come in small packages, sang Foster Sylvers. Brevity is the soul of wit, intoned long-winded Polonius . . . All sage advice I’ve taken to heart, for as much as I love the massive tome, the great torrential work that will challenge and demand, I confess that many times portability dictates whether I’ll pick up a book. Can I fit it in my pocket?

When you sit down to read a big book, you have to approach it with patience. You have to have a willingness to settle in, allow the work to set the stage, find its pace. And maybe even expect some parts to drag. Big books are allowed to be messy. With a small book, though, the initial investment is less risky. Let’s just see where this goes, you say. And when that small book works, there is a jewel-like quality, a sort of perfection all the more precious for being able to be held in the palm of your hand. The best seem to open endlessly within, a tesseract of emotional and intellectual impact. Here are some recent jewels I’ve read, all of which can easily fit into a pocket:

Black Forest by Valérie Mréjen (5×7 inches, published by Deep Vellum Publishing): In seventy-two pages (including translator’s note), Mréjen stalks no less than great Death itself, in all its various tragic or capricious or mundane or shocking or brutal or funny guises.

The Skin Is the Elastic Covering That Encases the Entire Body by Bjørn Rasmussen (4.5×7 inches, published by Two Lines Press): At one hundred and eighteen pages, the book is almost tinier than its title. But if small books are jewels, here is an ember to burn you, to mark and disfigure your fragile casing with its explicit fury.

Parade by Hiromi Kawakami (4×6 inches, published by Soft Skull Press): Including afterword and illustrations, at only seventy-nine pages, here is the most delicate of books. Fittingly, Kawakami’s story of a childhood memory blurred with fantastic creatures from Japanese mythology feels ethereal and half-dreamed, half-remembered.

Space Invaders by Nona Fernández (5×7.5 inches, published by Graywolf Press): Childhood memories serve as the vehicle here too, as friends recall a classmate in school during the Pinochet regime. Fernández uses her seventy pages to great effect, managing a light touch on collective, dark memories.

The Fool by Anne Serre (4.5×7.25 inches, published by New Directions Publishing): This triptych of fables is sly, playful, surreal, intriguing, and, in no small measure, disturbing. Each novella has a sort of beguiling brilliance. Taken together, they are prismatic.

The Promise by Silvina Ocampo (5×7 inches, published by City Lights Books): Ocampo’s one hundred and three page novella, which she spent twenty-five years perfecting, feels like unearthed obsidian. It is both gorgeous and unsettling, like looking into a glittering darkness you could lose yourself in.

Kannjawou by Lyonel Trouillot (5×7 inches, published by Schaffner Press): Trouillot’s celebratory novel is warm and wise, a look behind the label of “Third World” at the lives and personalities of modern-day Haitians. Longer than the others on this list, at two hundred and one pages, including sketches and a glossary, it pulses, alive, like a small beating heart.

Disclaimer: Yes, I have heard of mass-market paperbacks.

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