The twenty-five book longlist has been whittled down to ten! The Best Translated Book Award shortlist is out!

As a reminder, books are eligible for this year’s prize only if they were published in English in the United States last year for the first time ever. Go check them out!

The winner will be announced on May 31.


Suzanne
by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette
translated from
the French by Rhonda Mullins
(Canada, Coach House)

Purchase from Amazon.

Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette never knew her mother’s mother. Curious to understand why her grandmother, Suzanne, a sometime painter and poet associated with Les Automatistes, a movement of dissident artists that included Paul-Émile Borduas, abandoned her husband and young family, Barbeau-Lavalette hired a private detective to piece together Suzanne’s life.

Suzanne, winner of the Prix des libraires du Québec and a bestseller in French, is a fictionalized account of Suzanne’s life over eighty-five years, from Montreal to New York to Brussels, from lover to lover, through an abortion, alcoholism, Buddhism, and an asylum. It takes readers through the Great Depression, Québec’s Quiet Revolution, women’s liberation, and the American civil rights movement, offering a portrait of a volatile, fascinating woman on the margins of history. And it’s a granddaughter’s search for a past for herself, for understanding and forgiveness.

We’ve become conditioned, in the books we read and the films we watch, to our heroines achieving some form of redemption, however problematic they might be and however spurious that redemption. But as you might have guessed, Suzanne isn’t that kind of novel, and that’s because Suzanne wasn’t that kind of person. ~Ian McGillis, The Montreal Gazette


Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller
by
Guðbergur Bergsson
translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith
(Iceland, Open Letter Books)

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A retired, senile bank clerk confined to his basement apartment, Tómas Jónsson decides that, since memoirs are all the rage, he’s going to write his own—a sure bestseller—that will also right the wrongs of contemporary Icelandic society. Egoistic, cranky, and digressive, Tómas blasts away while relating pick-up techniques, meditations on chamber pot use, ways to assign monetary value to noise pollution, and much more. His rants parody and subvert the idea of the memoir—something that’s as relevant today in our memoir-obsessed society as it was when the novel was first published.

Considered by many to be the ‘Icelandic Ulysses‘ for its wordplay, neologisms, structural upheaval, and reinvention of what’s possible in Icelandic writing, Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller was a bestseller, heralding a new age of Icelandic literature.

It’s not the most appetizing of visions, but Bergsson’s shaggy (and, in a couple of instances, carefully shaven) dog stories have a certain weird charm, even as it develops that Jónsson has discovered one great raison d’être for writing a memoir: revenge. ~Kirkus


Compass
by Mathias Énard
translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
(France, New Directions)

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As night falls over Vienna, Franz Ritter, an insomniac musicologist, takes to his sickbed with an unspecified illness and spends a restless night drifting between dreams and memories, revisiting the important chapters of his life: his ongoing fascination with the Middle East and his numerous travels to Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus, and Tehran, as well as the various writers, artists, musicians, academics, orientalists, and explorers who populate this vast dreamscape. At the center of these memories is his elusive, unrequited love, Sarah, a fiercely intelligent French scholar caught in the intricate tension between Europe and the Middle East.

With exhilarating prose and sweeping erudition, Mathias Énard pulls astonishing elements from disparate sources — nineteenth-century composers and esoteric orientalists, Balzac and Agatha Christie — and binds them together in a most magical way.

So much now weighs on Franz — inescapably, all the history he’s accumulated, but personally, too, his own confrontation with mortality (and, before that, the promise of what should be, medically, an ugly decline) as well as the literally out of reach woman whom he can’t get out of his thoughts, a debate-partner (among much else) debating now at such a distant remove. Énard manages to make what is essentially this sleep-deprived protagonist’s monologue consistently entertaining — no wonder he can’t sleep, with all this bubbling in his mind — with enough of the human to the story to make even the more obscurely scholarly go down comfortably easily.

A fine piece of writing, and a very enjoyable work. ~M.A. Orthofer, The Complete Review


The Invented Part
by Rodrigo Fresán
translated from
the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden
(Argentina, Open Letter Books)

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An aging writer, disillusioned with the state of literary culture, attempts to disappear in the most cosmically dramatic manner: traveling to the Hadron Collider, merging with the God particle, and transforming into an omnipresent deity — a meta-writer — capable of rewriting reality.

With biting humor and a propulsive, contagious style, amid the accelerated particles of his characteristic obsessions — the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the music of Pink Floyd and The Kinks, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the links between great art and the lives of the artists who create it — Fresán takes us on a whirlwind tour of writers and muses, madness and genius, friendships, broken families, and alternate realities, exploring themes of childhood, loss, memory, aging, and death.

Drawing inspiration from the scope of modern classics and the structural pyrotechnics of the postmodern masters, the Argentine once referred to as “a pop Borges” delivers a powerful defense of great literature, a celebration of reading and writing, of the invented parts — the stories we tell ourselves to give shape to our world.

Admittedly, the question of whether The Invented Part is a novel was a rhetorical exercise meant to draw out certain aspects of this text. Of course, it is a novel. It is, however, something much more: a resounding refutation of the assertion that the novel is dead, and a statement of how omnivorous and adaptable the form is. ~George Henson, Quarterly Conversation


Return to the Dark Valley
by Santiago Gamboa
translated from
the Spanish by Howard Curtis
(Colombia, Europa Editions)

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Santiago Gamboa is one of Colombia’s most exciting young writers. In the manner of Roberto Bolaño, Gamboa infuses his kaleidoscopic, cosmopolitan stories with a dose of inky dark noir that makes his novels intensely readable, his characters unforgettable, and his style influential.

Manuela Beltrán, a woman haunted by a troubled childhood she tries to escape through books and poetry; Tertuliano, an Argentine preacher who claims to be the Pope’s son, ready to resort to extreme methods to create a harmonious society; Ferdinand Palacios, a Colombian priest with a dark paramilitary past now confronted with his guilt; Rimbaud, the precocious, brilliant poet whose life was incessant exploration; and, Juana and the consul, central characters in Gamboa’s Night Prayers, who are united in a relationship based equally on hurt and need. These characters animate Gamboa’s richly imagined portrait of a hostile, turbulent world where liberation is found in perpetual movement and determined exploration.

His novel follows five seemingly unrelated story lines: a brilliant but emotionally scarred female poet; a writer turned one-time diplomat (simply referred to as Consul); an Argentine neo-Nazi evangelist; a priest-turned-rebel; and the celebrated French poet, Arthur Rimbaud. The novel is divided into two parts and an accompanying epilogue over the course of which we become well acquainted with the journeys and miraculous crossing of paths of its protagonists. Gamboa seamlessly weaves together biography and fiction, at times even borrowing from his own, quite fascinating life. ~Amir Soleimanpour, Los Angeles Review of Books


Old Rendering Plant
by Wolfgang Hilbig
translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole
(Germany, Two Lines Press)

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What falsehoods do we believe as children? And what happens when we realize they are lies?possibly heinous ones? In Old Rendering Plant Wolfgang Hilbig turns his febrile, hypnotic prose to the intersection of identity, language, and history’s darkest chapters, immersing readers in the odors and oozings of a butchery that has for years dumped biological waste into a river. It starts when a young boy becomes obsessed with an empty and decayed coal plant, coming to believe that it is tied to mysterious disappearances throughout the countryside. But as a young man, with the building now turned into an abattoir processing dead animals, he revisits this place and his memories of it, realizing just how much he has missed. Plumbing memory’s mysteries while evoking historic horrors, Hilbig gives us a gothic testament for the silenced and the speechless. With a tone indebted to Poe and a syntax descended from Joyce, this suggestive, menacing tale refracts the lost innocence of youth through the heavy burdens of maturity.

In the spirit of Proust’s Swann’s Way — the section of his opus that features this olfactory moment — Wolfgang Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant is a sensory novel that uses scent to flatten time. But whereas Proust uses a teacake to evoke a French village, Hilbig uses dissolving animal corpses to evoke postwar East Germany. Old Rendering Plant, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and published by Two Lines Press, is about a man’s experience of a decaying slaughterhouse and a river full of toxic sludge. Like Proust’s, Hilbig’s writing has a beautiful and dream-like quality. But Old Rendering Plant is about tarnished ground. Entombed in the visceral smells of the sickly landscape, the unnamed narrator floats through it in paralyzed fashion. ~Nathan Scott McNamara, Los Angeles Review of Books


I Am the Brother of XX
by Fleur Jaeggy
translated from the Italian by Gini Alhadeff
(Switzerland, New Directions)

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Fleur Jaeggy is often noted for her terse and telegraphic style, which somehow brews up a profound paradox that seems bent on haunting the reader: despite a sort of zero-at-the-bone baseline, her fiction is weirdly also incredibly moving. How does she do it? No one knows. But here, in her newest collection, I Am the Brother of XX, she does it again. Like a magician or a master criminal, who can say how she gets away with it, but whether the stories involve famous writers (Calvino, Ingeborg Bachmann, Joseph Brodsky) or baronesses or 13th-century visionaries or tormented siblings bred up in elite Swiss boarding schools, they somehow steal your heart. And they don’t rest at that, but endlessly disturb your mind.

In Jaeggy’s world, characters don’t change or have epiphanies—unless a sudden cruelty, a murder, or a suicide counts. They are as they are, and much of what they are is related to where they’re from—the soil in which they were planted. This is especially true in Jaeggy’s stories, where social position, citizenship, and class confer on everyone a sort of generic character: foreigners en route to visit Auschwitz are laughing and “arrogant with everyone,” but, as they approach their destination, “they instantly put on an air of decorum . . . an ostentation of grief.” Young farmhands have “meek, stubborn skulls . . . . They were like brothers to the cattle.” These are reminiscent of the archetypal characters one finds in the Brothers Grimm. Particularly in Jaeggy’s earlier work, objects and settings are generalized, rarely pinned to a specific time and place: we encounter a house with a garden, a wooden cross, a pastor, incestuous twins, crystal glasses, a gauzy blue dress. ~Sheila Heti, The New Yorker


My Heart Hemmed In
by Marie NDiaye
translated from the French by Jordan Stump
(France, Two Lines Press)

Purchase from Amazon.

Marie NDiaye has long been celebrated for her unrivaled ability to make us see just how little we understand about ourselves. My Heart Hemmed In is her most powerful statement on the hidden selves that we rarely glimpse — and are often shocked by.

There is something very wrong with Nadia and her husband Ange, middle-aged provincial schoolteachers who slowly realize that they are despised by everyone around them. One day a savage wound appears in Ange’s stomach, and as Nadia fights to save her husband’s life their hideous neighbor Noget — a man everyone insists is a famous author — inexplicably imposes his care upon them. While Noget fattens them with ever richer foods, Nadia embarks on a nightmarish visit to her ex-husband and estranged son — is she abandoning Ange or revisiting old grievances in an attempt to save him?

Conjuring an atmosphere of paranoia and menace, My Heart Hemmed In creates a bizarre, foggy world where strange coincidences, harsh cruelty, and constantly shifting relationships all seem part of some shadowy truth. Surreal, allegorical, and psychologically acute, My Heart Hemmed In shows a masterful author giving her readers her most complex and compelling world yet.

Realistically chilling in spite of — and because of — their absurdity and lingering mystery, Marie NDiaye’s novels are becoming ever more important to me as they look deeply into the hearts of troubled individuals, fighting against their very selves. My Heart Hemmed In is the latest to be translated into English, and it is my favorite. I suspect, though, that that’s only in part due to the book itself. I’m sure the other part is that I’m becoming more in tune with what NDiaye is doing, more adept at reading her strange tales, so I’m getting more out of each book. Certainly, I loved this one from page one until the end, reading it almost non-stop over a few otherwise hazy days in July. ~Trevor Berrett, The Mookse and the Gripes


August
by Romina Paula
translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Croft
(Argentina, Feminist Press)

Purchase from Amazon.

Traveling home to rural Patagonia, a young woman grapples with herself as she makes the journey to scatter the ashes of her friend Andrea. Twenty-one-year-old Emilia might still be living, but she’s jaded by her studies and discontent with her boyfriend, and apathetic toward the idea of moving on. Despite the admiration she receives for having relocated to Buenos Aires, in reality, cosmopolitanism and a career seem like empty scams. Instead, she finds her life pathetic.

Once home, Emilia stays with Andrea’s parents, wearing the dead girl’s clothes, sleeping in her bed, and befriending her cat. Her life put on hold, she loses herself to days wondering how if what had happened—leaving an ex, leaving Patagonia, Andrea leaving her—hadn’t happened.

Both a reverse coming-of-age story and a tangled homecoming tale, this frank confession to a deceased confidante. A keen portrait of a young generation stagnating in an increasingly globalized Argentina, August considers the banality of life against the sudden changes that accompany death.

August demonstrates how loss can mark a person, how it can permeate everything, and what we can do with it. ~Lauren Kinney, Los Angeles Review of Books


Remains of Life
by Wu He
translated from the Chinese by Michael Berry
(Taiwan, Columbia University Press)

Purchase from Amazon.

On October 27, 1930, during a sports meet at Musha Elementary School on an aboriginal reservation in the mountains of Taiwan, a bloody uprising occurred unlike anything Japan had experienced in its colonial history. Before noon, the Atayal tribe had slain one hundred and thirty-four Japanese in a headhunting ritual. The Japanese responded with a militia of three thousand, heavy artillery, airplanes, and internationally banned poisonous gas, bringing the tribe to the brink of genocide.

Nearly seventy years later, Chen Guocheng, a writer known as Wu He, or “Dancing Crane,” investigated the Musha Incident to search for any survivors and their descendants. Remains of Life, a milestone of Chinese experimental literature, is a fictionalized account of the writer’s experiences among the people who live their lives in the aftermath of this history. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style, it contains no paragraph breaks and only a handful of sentences. Shifting among observations about the people the author meets, philosophical musings, and fantastical leaps of imagination, Remains of Life is a powerful literary reckoning with one of the darkest chapters in Taiwan’s colonial history.

Wu He’s narrative is an outpouring, and only to a limited extent a story; the fascinating historical events and his encounters do make for an often engaging read, and his efforts to consider both the Mushu Incident and its aftermaths are fascinating — but it is not easy to get through. Too lively and varied to be a slog, Remains of Life also remains a frustratingly slippery text. ~M.A. Orthofer, The Complete Review

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