The 2016 Best Translated Book Award shortlist has been announced!
Below, find the ten books, their descriptions, and links to reviews.
Let me know what you think, whether below or over at the new GoodReads Group (here; we’d love you to come join us)!
The winner will be announced on May 4.
A General Theory of Oblivion
by José Eduardo Agualusa
translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn
On the eve of Angolan independence, an agoraphobic woman named Ludo bricks herself into her Luandan apartment for 30 years, living off vegetables and the pigeons she lures in with diamonds, burning her furniture and books to stay alive and writing her story on the apartment’s walls.
Almost as if we’re eavesdropping, the history of Angola unfolds through the stories of those she sees from her window.
- In a line that was surely included to bait book reviewers, one of the novel’s characters declares: “A man with a good story is practically a king.” If this is true, then Agualusa can count himself among the continent’s new royals. ~Angel Gurria-Quintana in The Financial Times
- Fragmented and densely layered, Oblivion unfolds within the possibility — and the tension — inherent between writing and identity, text and meaning, story and life. ~Dustin Illingworth in The Quarterly Conversation
by Samuel Archibald
translated from the French by Donald Winkler
Like a Proust-obsessed Cormac McCarthy, Samuel Archibald’s portrait of his hometown is filled with innocent children and wild beasts, attempted murder and ritual mutilation, haunted houses and road trips to nowhere, bad men and mysterious women. Gothic, fantastical, and incandescent, filled with stories of everyday wonder and terror, longing and love, Arvida explores the line which separates memory from story, and heralds the arrival of an important new voice.
- Determining the exact dramaturgy of Arvida’s narrative universe can be challenging, and certain character types and situations recur like musical leitmotifs (including sexually victimized women, whose experiences are rendered vividly without crossing the line into exploitation). What’s fascinating is the sense of people haunted by a place instead of the other way around. By beginning and ending the book with references to Proust, Archibald risks over-determining his artistic motives, but he writes so eloquently about the double-edged nature of memory — of remembering as a gift and a curse — that he earns his allusions. ~Adam Nayman in Quill and Quire
- To say that Arvida skewers our expectations of a “linked” short story collection would, of course, be a gross understatement. So pungent are the stylistic shifts and contrasts in this book, that the less-generous reader may feel a bit baffled by them. But the reason this book has been such a success – 25,000 copies and counting sold in its original French; its nod from the Giller for the English translation – is because it breaks new ground in that very genre. ~Mark Sampson in Numero Cinq Magazine
The Story of the Lost Child
by Elena Ferrante
translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Here is the dazzling saga of two women, the brilliant, bookish Elena and the fiery uncontainable Lila. In this book, both are adults; life’s great discoveries have been made, its vagaries and losses have been suffered. Through it all, the women’s friendship, examined in its every detail over the course of four books, remains the gravitational center of their lives. Both women once fought to escape the neighborhood in which they grew up — a prison of conformity, violence, and inviolable taboos. Elena married, moved to Florence, started a family, and published several well-received books. But now, she has returned to Naples to be with the man she has always loved. Lila, on the other hand, never succeeded in freeing herself from Naples. She has become a successful entrepreneur, but her success draws her into closer proximity with the nepotism, chauvinism, and criminal violence that infect her neighborhood. Yet somehow this proximity to a world she has always rejected only brings her role as unacknowledged leader of that world into relief. For Lila is unstoppable, unmanageable, unforgettable!
Against the backdrop of a Naples that is as seductive as it is perilous and a world undergoing epochal change, this story of a lifelong friendship is told with unmatched honesty. Lila and Elena clash, drift apart, reconcile, and clash again, in the process revealing new facets of their friendship.
- The notion of tracing the stories of two women over the long arc of their lives is hardly new — Arnold Bennett and Richard Yates both drew powerful portraits of two very different sisters in their novels “The Old Wives’ Tale” (1908) and “The Easter Parade” (1976) — but Ms. Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet is utterly distinctive, immersing us not just in a time and place, but deep within the psychological consciousness of its narrator, Elena (who, not coincidentally, shares the first part of her creator’s pen name). ~Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times
- Ferrante’s writing seems to say something that hasn’t been said before – it isn’t easy to specify what this is – in a way so compelling its readers forget where they are, abandon friends and disdain sleep. It would be enough to have books in which we recognise the truth of women’s lives in all its darkness, but the Neapolitan quartet also has an almost deranging narrative pleasure, delivered in a style that’s more of an admission that the author cares too much about the truth to bother with style. ~Joanna Biggs in The London Review of Books
The Physics of Sorrow
by Georgi Gospodinov
translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
Using the myth of the Minotaur as its organizing image, the narrator of Gospodinov’s long-awaited novel constructs a labyrinth of stories about his family, jumping from era to era and viewpoint to viewpoint, exploring the mindset and trappings of Eastern Europeans. Incredibly moving—such as with the story of his grandfather accidentally being left behind at a mill—and extraordinarily funny—see the section on the awfulness of the question “how are you?”—Physics is a book that you can inhabit, tracing connections, following the narrator down various “side passages,” getting pleasantly lost in the various stories and empathizing with the sorrowful, misunderstood Minotaur at the center of it all.
- Despite this playfulness and deliberate “obvious discrepancies,” the book is surprisingly coherent, both in narrative and theme, though that’s not to suggest it isn’t rich. After all, along with the consistent playfulness in structure, theme, and tone, loneliness exists. The book is highly personal, so how could it not? Children are placed in basements or abandoned. There’s the confusion of life. ~Trevor Berrett in The Mookse and the Gripes
- Readers who tire of the endless parade of triteness of contemporary life and contemporary creative work will no doubt find solace in Gospodinov’s work, and that is a commendable feat on the author’s part. Gospodinov tells us the truth, and that is a rare and wonderful thing indeed. ~Jordan Anderson in The Quarterly Conversation
Signs Preceding the End of the World
by Yuri Herrera
translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman
Signs Preceding the End of the World is one of the most arresting novels to be published in Spanish in the last ten years. Yuri Herrera does not simply write about the border between Mexico and the United States and those who cross it. He explores the crossings and translations people make in their minds and language as they move from one country to another, especially when there’s no going back.
Traversing this lonely territory is Makina, a young woman who knows only too well how to survive in a violent, macho world. Leaving behind her life in Mexico to search for her brother, she is smuggled into the USA carrying a pair of secret messages – one from her mother and one from the Mexican underworld.
- Signs is a novel of language, meant to be translated because it is so aware of the journeys language takes, from one to another, and within their boundaries. ~P.T. Smith in Bookslut
- Packed into a tidy hundred and seven pages, some will view Signs Preceding the End of the World as a forthright comment on the imagination of national boundaries, the shared fate of all to be experienced at the end of the world, or the eternal separation between “us” and “them.” But all will be sure to regard this novel as an enduring document of world literature. ~Ethan Perets in Asymptote
by Yoel Hoffmann
translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole
Part novel and part memoir, Yoel Hoffmann’s Moods is flooded with feelings, evoked by his family, losses, loves, the soul’s hidden powers, old phone books, and life in the Galilee — with its every scent, breeze, notable dog, and odd neighbor. Carrying these shards is a general tenderness, accentuated by a new dimension brought along by “that great big pill of Prozac.” Beautifully translated by Peter Cole, Moods is fiction for lovers of poetry and poetry for lovers of fiction — a small marvel of a book, and with its pockets of joy, a curiously cheerful book by an author who once compared himself to “a praying mantis inclined to melancholy.”
- Despite what seem like so many tangents, and the short chapters with their often stray bits and pieces, Moods is far from a halting narrative and it easily pulls readers in. The structure appears loose, almost preciously delicate, in contrast to the concrete blocks of so much essay-argument, but the ultimate impression is one of considerable resonant substance. ~M.A. Orthofer in The Complete Review
- Reading Moods is not unlike the experience of reading the fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, as it compels an immediate reassessment upon conclusion, and rewards an immediate rereading. The work that particularly comes to mind is “Borges and I,” which contains a sentence that could have been written by Hoffmann, “So my life is a point-counterpoint, a kind of fugue, and a falling away — and everything winds up being lost to me, and everything falls into oblivion, or into the hands of the other man,” and it shares the contemplative, almost despairing mood over creation that seems to recur most frequently in Moods, hits the same minor key of a book that Hoffmann describes as “mostly blues.” And if the reader passes through the book’s short passages a second time, noting the finer patterning that contributed to the book’s ultimate success, and is left recalling this passage, “We realize that these words don’t amount to what’s usually called belles letters. If there were a bank where one could exchange literary currency for the currency of life we’d go there and ask for the latter, even if it cost us greatly,” which is unambiguous about the relative importance of writing novels, even good novels, in the face of death, they need only need to read the first line and remember that the beginning is everything: Hoffmann has undoubtedly begun again.~Sho Spaeth in Full Stop
The Complete Stories
by Clarice Lispector
translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson
The recent publication by New Directions of five Lispector novels revealed to legions of new readers her darkness and dazzle. Now, for the first time in English, are all the stories that made her a Brazilian legend: from teenagers coming into awareness of their sexual and artistic powers to humdrum housewives whose lives are shattered by unexpected epiphanies to old people who don’t know what to do with themselves. Clarice’s stories take us through their lives — and ours.
From one of the greatest modern writers, these stories, gathered from the nine collections published during her lifetime, follow an unbroken time line of success as a writer, from her adolescence to her death bed.
- On the very first page of the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s “The Complete Stories,” she signals that hers was never an ordinary sensibility, but one capable of perceiving anxiety and menace in even the most routine phenomena. ~Larry Rohter in The New York Times
- While some stories appear whimsical and read like exercises, and others muse at length and almost absent-mindedly, almost abstractly, on habit and motive, or something that happened, others have an exquisite sharpness, the fruit of a most original and daring mind. In the best stories, something deeply strange is fully visualized by Lispector, as though it had come in a waking dream and it needed to be given urgent substance. ~Colm Tóibín in The New York Review of Books
The Story of My Teeth
by Valeria Luiselli
translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney
Highway is a late-in-life world traveler, yarn spinner, collector, and legendary auctioneer. His most precious possessions are the teeth of the “notorious infamous” like Plato, Petrarch, and Virginia Woolf. Written in collaboration with the workers at a Jumex juice factory, Teeth is an elegant, witty, exhilarating romp through the industrial suburbs of Mexico City and Luiselli’s own literary influences.
- Valeria Luiselli is as much a cartographer as a writer, interested in finding areas still unmapped. As in her first novel, “Faces in the Crowd,” she combines fictional narrative with historical and intellectual points of reference, and the result is writing without preconceptions, as airy and open as a soccer field. Prefigured by her excellent book of essays, “Sidewalks,” “The Story of My Teeth” is playful, attentive and very smart without being for a minute pretentious. ~Jim Krusoe in The New York Times Book Review
- Translated into a colloquial, idiosyncratic, and thoroughly enjoyable English by Christina MacSweeney (who also created a timeline at the end of the novel, which, according to Luiselli, “both destabilizes the obsolete dictum of the translator’s invisibility and suggests a new way of engaging with translation”), The Story of My Teeth ends up containing the truths and delusions of a fabulist, elements of the picaresque, unresolved preoccupations, wonderful asides, and a whole house of mirrors constructed with so much mirth and skill that it seems to avoid the glumly highbrow label of “postmodernism.” Instead, Luiselli’s work echoes Mann’s appraisal of Don Quixote: falling into that category of writers who, with style and ease, engage the reader on an intellectual level yet are compulsively readable, without all that self-seriousness or reckless headiness. ~Tynan Kogane in Words without Borders
War, So Much War
by Mercè Rodoreda
translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño
Despite its title, there is little of war and much of the fantastic in this coming-of-age story, which was the last novel Mercè Rodoreda published during her lifetime.
We first meet its young protagonist, Adrià Guinart, as he is leaving Barcelona out of boredom and a thirst for freedom, embarking on a long journey through the backwaters of a rural land that one can only suppose is Catalonia, accompanied by the interminable, distant rumblings of an indefinable war. In vignette-like chapters and with a narrative style imbued with the fantastic, Guinart meets with numerous adventures and peculiar characters who offer him a composite, if surrealistic, view of an impoverished, war-ravaged society and shape his perception of his place in the world.
As in Rodoreda’s Death in Spring, nature and death play an fundamental role in a narrative that often takes on a phantasmagoric quality and seems to be a meditation on the consequences of moral degradation and the inescapable presence of evil.
- What we take away mostly, then, from this overwhelmingly honest work of fiction is less the power of this author’s imagination and capacity for human excavation — though that of course is there, and an artistic truth if there ever was one; it’s more the sense that there are some truths too painfully real to be relayed as such, and thus need a scrim of fiction to be bearable at all. Fashioning a dream-self, tree-self, or any non-self provides a necessary counterpart to what would otherwise be a state of constant incarceration: where “my prison is not these walls, but my own flesh and bones.” ~Jennifer Kurdyla in Music & Literature
- The war described in this book is mostly internal, and the large conflicts are more conceptual—young and old, life and death, present and past. Rodoreda’s dreamy, poetic prose is served well by Relaño and Tennent’s remarkable translation. A significant entry among the works in the Catalan language. ~Publishers Weekly
Murder Most Serene
by Gabrielle Wittkop
translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie
In the last days of the Venetian Republic, the successive wives of Count Alvise Lanzi suffer mysterious, agonizing deaths. Murder Most Serene offers a cruel portrait of a beautiful but corrupt city-state and its equally extravagant and corrupt inhabitants. Redolent of darkness, death, poison and transgression, it is also an over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek Venetian romp. Rich in historical detail and bursting with bejeweled putrescence, Gabrielle Wittkop’s chilling memento mori eschews the murder mystery in which it is garbed for a scintillating depiction of physical, moral, societal and institutional corruption, in which the author plays the role of puppeteer–“present, masked as convention dictates, while in a Venice on the brink of downfall, women gorged with venom burst like wineskins.”
- This is dark, rich, deeply disturbing writing, conscious of its artifice and expertly manipulating that. ~M.A. Orthofer in The Complete Review
The 2016 judging panel:
- Amanda Bullock
- Heather Cleary
- Kevin Elliott
- Kate Garber
- Jason Grunebaum
- Mark Haber
- Stacey Knecht
- Amanda Nelson
- P.T. Smith