The Best Translated Book Award Longlist

The Best Translated Book Award has been my favorite book prize for a number of years. The long longlist of 25 books always contains surprises and delights . . . and it was announced today at The Millions!

So peruse below! What are you picking up? And, at the end of the string of books, please find a few interesting statistics that show just how rich the longlist is in terms of countries and languages represented, not to mention the number of publishers doing the hard work of bringing us these books.

Slave Old Man
by Patrick Chamoiseau
translated from the French and Creole by Linda Coverdale
(Martinique/New Press)

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From one of the most innovative and subversive novelists writing in French, a “writer of exceptional and original gifts” (The New York Times), whose Texaco won the Prix Goncourt and has been translated into fourteen languages, Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man is a gripping, profoundly unsettling story of an elderly slave’s daring escape into the wild from a plantation in Martinique, with his master and a fearsome hound on his heels.

We follow them into a lush rain forest where nature is beyond all human control: sinister, yet entrancing and even exhilarating, because the old man’s flight to freedom will transform them all in truly astonishing—even otherworldly—ways, as the overwhelming physical presence of the forest reshapes reality and time itself. Chamoiseau’s exquisitely rendered new novel is an adventure for all time, one that fearlessly portrays the demonic cruelties of the slave trade and its human costs in vivid, sometimes hallucinatory prose. Offering a loving and mischievous tribute to the Creole culture of Martinique and brilliantly translated by Linda Coverdale, this novel takes us on a unique and moving journey into the heart of Caribbean history.

Pushed beyond the roles imposed by their common master, man and mastiff unravel a knot of domination that can’t be maintained without the subordination of animals to human beings, wilderness to “civilization.” The sparks from their contest kindle this bonfire of a book, a maroon story written with “a folktale parlance and a runner’s wind.” ~Julian Lucas, The New Yorker Times

These insights into his mental strength show how the old man manages to persevere through a fall into a wellspring, branches that leave him “covered in bright blood and scabs,” and an encounter with a viper, en route to the book’s climactic confrontation. Chamoiseau’s prose is astounding in its beauty—and is notable for its blending of French and Creole—and he ups the stakes by making this novel a breathtaking thriller, as well. ~Publishers Weekly (starred review)


Fox
by Dubravka Ugresic
translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac and David Williams
(Croatia/Open Letter)

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With characteristic wit and narrative force, Fox takes us from Russia to Japan, through Balkan minefields and American road trips, and from the 1920s to the present, as it explores the power of storytelling and literary invention, notions of betrayal, and the randomness of human lives and biographies.

Using the duplicitous and shape-shifting fox of Eastern folklore as a motif, Ugresic constructs a novel that reinvents itself over and over, blending nuggets of literary trivia (like how Nabokov named the Neonympha dorothea dorothea butterfly after the woman who drove him cross-country), with the timeless story of a woman trying to escape her hometown and find love to magical effect.

Propelled by literary footnotes and “minor” characters, Fox is vintage Ugresic, recovering the voices of those on the margins with a verve that’s impassioned, learned, and hilarious.

Almost meandering, in its six distinct parts, Fox is an expansive and thought-provoking read, both enjoyable and moving. It stands well enough on its own, too, but is also another welcome piece of the larger, very much of-a-piece Ugresic œuvre as a whole. ~M.A. Orthofer, The Complete Review

As Fox convincingly demonstrates, “We are all footnotes, all of us in an unrelenting and desperate struggle . . . against vacuity.” In part 3, the narrator invokes Scheherazade, a fox whose stories bought her time, to underscore how narrative, comprised of fact and fiction, helps us resist the void. In her story about how stories come to be written, Ugresic, another fox, has shaped a “truthfulness” that embodies the power of art. ~Michele Levy, World Literature Today


The Governesses
by Anne Serre
translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson
(France/New Directions)

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In a large country house shut off from the world by a gated garden, three young governesses responsible for the education of a group of little boys are preparing a party. The governesses, however, seem to spend more time running around in a state of frenzied desire than attending to the children’s education. One of their main activities is lying in wait for any passing stranger, and then throwing themselves on him like drunken Maenads. The rest of the time they drift about in a kind of sated, melancholy calm, spied upon by an old man in the house opposite, who watches their goings-on through a telescope. As they hang paper lanterns and prepare for the ball in their own honor, and in honor of the little boys rolling hoops on the lawn, much is mysterious: one reviewer wrote of the book’s “deceptively simple words and phrasing, the transparency of which works like a mirror reflecting back on the reader.”

Written with the elegance of old French fables, the dark sensuality of Djuna Barnes and the subtle comedy of Robert Walser, this semi-deranged erotic fairy tale introduces American readers to the marvelous Anne Serre.

This novel’s ideas about shame, constraint, lust and abandon are as subtle as the sex is frank, conveyed through insinuation and metaphor. “The Governesses” is not a treatise but an aria, and one delivered with perfect pitch: a minor work, defiantly so, but the product of a significant talent. ~Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

Told in surrealist bursts, this novella combines the dreaminess of Barbara Comyns, Aimee Bender, and Kathryn Davis with the fairy-tale eroticism of Angela Carter. ~Kirkus


Dézafi
by Frankétienne
translated from the French by Asselin Charles
(Haiti/University of Virginia Press)

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Dézafi is no ordinary zombie novel. In the hands of the great Haitian author known simply as Frankétienne, zombification takes on a symbolic dimension that stands as a potent commentary on a country haunted by a history of slavery. Now this dynamic new translation brings this touchstone in Haitian literature to English-language readers for the first time.

Written in a provocative experimental style, with a myriad of voices and combining myth, poetry, allegory, magical realism, and social realism, Dézafi tells the tale of a plantation that is run and worked by zombies for the financial benefit of the living owner. The owner’s daughter falls in love with a zombie and facilitates his transformation back into fully human form, leading to a rebellion that challenges the oppressive imbalance that had robbed the workers of their spirit. With the walking dead and bloody cockfights (the “dézafi” of the title) as cultural metaphors for Haitian existence, Frankétienne’s novel is ultimately a powerful allegory of political and social liberation.

Scholars widely view Frankétienne as Haiti’s most important writer. He wrote what many consider the first modern novel entirely in Haitian Creole, “Dezafi,” in 1975, and a play well known here that challenged political oppression, “Pelin Tet. ~Randal C. Archibold, The New Yorker Times

The book is a literary and linguistic treasure that allows anyone interested in that period to delve into the complexity of Haitian history, culture, language, religion as well as issues of class, gender, identity, and power.” ~Cécile Accilien, Director of the Institute of Haitian Studies, University of Kansas


After the Winter
by Guadalupe Nettel
translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey
(Mexico/Coffee House)

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Claudio’s apartment faces a wall. Rising from bed, he sets his feet on the floor at the same time, to ground himself.

Cecilia sits at her window, contemplating a cemetery, the radio her best companion.
In parallel and entwining stories that move from Havana to Paris to New York City, no routine, no argument for the pleasures of solitude, can withstand our most human drive to find ourselves in another, and fall in love. And no depth of emotion can protect us from love’s inevitable loss.

It seems at first that After the Winter, which follows two lovers from long before they meet through the years after, departs considerably from Nettel’s earlier obsessions with animals, insects, and the horror of the body. Yet it’s still recognizably Nettelian in its crisp, straightforward sentences that build and build until profundity, or profound sentiment, sneaks up on the reader. ~Callum Angus, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Nettel’s sharp, potent novel depicts how even the briefest relationship can affect the rest of a life. ~Publishers Weekly


Lion Cross Point
by Masatsugu Ono
translated from the Japanese by Angus Turvill
(Japan/Two Lines Press)

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How does a shy, traumatized boy overcome the shame, anger, and sadness that silence him? In Lion Cross Point, celebrated Japanese author Masatsugu Ono turns his gentle pen to the mind of ten-year-old Takeru, who arrives at his family’s home village amid a scorching summer, carrying memories of unspeakable acts against his mother and brother. As Takeru befriends Mitsuko, his new caretaker, and Saki, his spunky neighbor, he meets more of his mother’s old friends, discovering her history and inching toward a new idea of family and home. All the while he begins to see a strange figure called Bunji — the same name as a delicate young boy who mysteriously vanished long ago on the village’s breathtaking coastline at Lion Cross Point. At once a subtle portrayal of a child’s sense of memory and community, an empowering exploration of how we find the words to encompass our trauma, and a spooky Japanese ghost story, Lion Cross Point is gripping and poignant, reminiscent of Kenzabur? ?e’s best work. Acts of heartless brutality mix with surprising moments of pure kindness, creating this utterly truthful, cathartic tale of an unforgettable young boy.

Lion Cross Point is marked by a dichotomy between the inevitability of suffering and the potential for compassion within those moments. Being a child, Takeru is constantly at the mercy of others, and, time and time again, their decisions place him in painful situations. Every step of the way, though, there is someone to help carry him through it, creating a book that is equal parts heart-wrenching and heartwarming. ~Reid Bartholomew, World Literature Today

Be forewarned. Angus Turvill’s translation of Ono’s prose is spare. The line between what’s real and what’s imaginary (or dead) in this novel is blurred. Not much actually happens in “Lion Cross Point.” But the book’s import, though subtle, is undeniably there. It’s a mournful, but ultimately uplifting portrait of a boy trying to make sense of his seemingly shattered world in order to create a stronger, more hopeful future. ~Alexis Burling, The San Francisco Chronicle


Convenience Store Woman
by Sayaka Murata
translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori
(Japan/Grove)

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The surprise hit of the summer and winner of Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize, Convenience Store Woman is the incomparable story of Keiko Furukura, a thirty-six-year-old Tokyo resident who has been working at the Hiiromachi “Smile Mart” for the past eighteen years. Keiko has never fit in, neither in her family, nor in school, but in her convenience store, she is able to find peace and purpose with rules clearly delineated clearly by the store’s manual, and copying her colleagues’ dress, mannerisms, and speech. She plays the part of a “normal person” excellently?more or less. Keiko is very happy, but those close to her pressure her to find a husband and a proper career, prompting her to take desperate action.

A sharp-eyed look at contemporary work culture and the pressures we all feel to conform, Convenience Store Woman offers a brilliant depiction of a world hidden from view and a charming and fresh portrait of an unforgettable heroine.

But, for all the disturbance and oddity in “Convenience Store Woman,” the book dares the reader to interpret it as a happy story about a woman who has managed to craft her own “good life.” “I could think of the me in the (store) window as a being with meaning,” Keiko reflects, cocking an ear to the trancelike “music reverberating on the other side of the glass.” Murata does not judge her protagonist’s path to fulfillment, nor does she spend too much time contemplating what it might mean to find transcendence in such work. Instead, she admires Keiko’s quirk and lively boldness. To second-guess this woman would be to fall into her sister’s trap: Mami is “far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine.” It may make readers anxious, but the book itself is tranquil—dreamy, even—rooting for its employee-store romance from the bottom of its synthetic heart. ~Katy Waldman, The New Yorker

But these are minor quibbles and perhaps even missing the point. For it’s the novel’s cumulative, idiosyncratic poetry that lingers, attaining a weird, fluorescent kind of beauty all of its own. The world of the store with its dented cans and rice balls and barcodes and scanners, and Keiko’s shivery, unashamedly sensual response as a “convenience store animal” who can “hear the store’s voice telling me what it wanted, how it wanted to be”. The book’s title is more than perfect, for this, you soon realise, is a love story. Keiko’s love story: the convenience is all hers. ~Julie Myerson, The Guardian


Seventeen
by Hideo Yokoyama
translated from the Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai
(Japan/FSG)

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1985. Kazumasa Yuuki, a seasoned reporter at the North Kanto Times, runs a daily gauntlet of the power struggles and office politics that plague its newsroom. But when an air disaster of unprecedented scale occurs on the paper’s doorstep, its staff is united by an unimaginable horror and a once-in-a-lifetime scoop.

2003. Seventeen years later, Yuuki remembers the adrenaline-fueled, emotionally charged seven days that changed his and his colleagues’ lives. He does so while making good on a promise he made that fateful week?one that holds the key to its last solved mystery and represents Yuuki’s final, unconquered fear.

From Hideo Yokoyama, the celebrated author of Six Four, comes Seventeen?an investigative thriller set amid the aftermath of disaster.

Yokoyama’s tale is slow to unfold, and it’s less fraught with peril than the usual mystery, but as a roman à clef it speaks to his hope, as he writes in the preface, that “the reader will witness both the positive and negative essence of human nature.” ~Kirkus

Impressively, Yokoyama makes accessible drama out of Yuuki’s battles with his colleagues and superiors, and the introduction of an opportunity for personal redemption provides some glimmers of hope in an otherwise depressing tale. Readers will be deeply moved. ~Publishers Weekly


Love in the New Millennium
by Can Xue
translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen
(China/Yale University Press)

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In this darkly comic novel, a group of women inhabits a world of constant surveillance, where informants lurk in the flower beds and false reports fly. Conspiracies abound in a community that normalizes paranoia and suspicion. Some try to flee—whether to a mysterious gambling bordello or to ancestral homes that can be reached only underground through muddy caves, sewers, and tunnels. Others seek out the refuge of Nest County, where traditional Chinese herbal medicines can reshape or psychologically transport the self. Each life is circumscribed by buried secrets and transcendent delusions.

Can Xue’s masterful love stories for the new millennium trace love’s many guises—satirical, tragic, transient, lasting, nebulous, and fulfilling—against a kaleidoscopic backdrop of commerce and industry, fraud and exploitation, and sex and romance drawn from the East and the West.

Part of the difficulty of reading Love in the New Millennium was that I couldn’t stop tweeting passages. To be a reader was to become a trailer, and to become an actor, too. It’s irresistible, the way one enters this laughable, shifting no-time where everyone inside is talking about like the weather. It’s also very boring, as a plotless book is. A circling, nonbuilding narrative gets tiring. What’s the pleasure, then? Humor and surprise. It’s a frankly poetic existence. Plus my reader’s sense of awe grew continually at the endless refillability of the thing. The book is a vase, it’s a form. ~Eileen Myles, The Paris Review Blog

The country landscape in Frontier is pure Xue: part fairy tale and part mystery with little resolution. This is also true of Love, especially when we follow Xiao Yuan to Nest County which feels a lot like Pebble Town. Add to this the fast absurdist dialogue from Xue’s Yellow Mud Street and we might assemble something like Love in the New Millennium. ~Kelly Krumrie, Full Stop


Disoriental
by Négar Djavadi
translated from the French by Tina Kover
(Iran/Europa Editions)

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Kimiâ Sadr fled Iran at the age of ten in the company of her mother and sisters to join her father in France. Now twenty-five and facing the future she has built for herself as well as the prospect of a new generation, Kimiâ is inundated by her own memories and the stories of her ancestors, which come to her in unstoppable, uncontainable waves. In the waiting room of a Parisian fertility clinic, generations of flamboyant Sadrs return to her, including her formidable great-grandfather Montazemolmolk, with his harem of fifty-two wives, and her parents, Darius and Sara, stalwart opponents of each regime that befalls them.

In this high-spirited, kaleidoscopic story, key moments of Iranian history, politics, and culture punctuate stories of family drama and triumph. Yet it is Kimiâ herself––punk-rock aficionado, storyteller extraordinaire, a Scheherazade of our time, and above all a modern woman divided between family traditions and her own “disorientalization”––who forms the heart of this bestselling and beloved novel.

Disoriental, a stylistically fragmented novel by the French-Iranian Négar Djavadi, reads like a multilayered pastiche of unrelated themes, yet all connected to Kimiâ Sadr’s troubled life. ~Azarin Sadegh, The Los Angeles Review of Books

The title of the book, Disoriental, beautifully encompasses not just the experience of the narrator throughout her life across geographies, eras, and identities but also what Djavadi seems to have envisioned for her readers’ experience of the book. The captivating story of a girl who grows into a woman dealing with the burdens of history on her country, her family, and herself, Disoriental offers so much to both non-Iranian and Iranian readers. ~Poupeh Missaghi, World Literature Today


Bride and Groom
by Alisa Ganieva
translated from the Russian by Carol Apollonio
(Russia/Deep Vellum)

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From one of the most exciting voices in modern Russian literature, Alisa Ganieva, comes Bride and Groom, the tumultuous love story of two young city-dwellers who meet when they return home to their families in rural Dagestan. When traditional family expectations and increasing religious and cultural tension threaten to shatter their bond, Marat and Patya struggle to overcome obstacles determined to keep them apart, while fate seems destined to keep them together—until the very end.

Bride and Groom is a nice little novel of contemporary Dagestan life, Ganieva’s light touch allowing for a low-key but still very revealing socio-cultural profile. A consistently humorous touch, and the weaving in of Sufi-tradition — explained more fully by Ganieva in her Afterword — make for a sprightly novel — though perhaps also skimming too lightly across the surface (even as it suggests a much darker, deeper expanse beneath). ~M.A. Orthofer, The Complete Review

One has the sense that the spirit of Jane Austen lives on in Alisa Ganieva’s Bride and Groom. A runner-up for the Russian Booker Prize and her second novel to appear in Carol Apollonio’s English translation, it has the kind of tenderness, tradition, and subtlety that Austen surely would have recognized. ~Hannah Weber, Asymptote


CoDex 1962
by Sjón
translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
(Iceland/FSG)

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Over the course of four dazzling novels translated into dozens of languages, Sjón has earned a global reputation as one of the world’s most interesting writers. But what the world has never been able to read is his great trilogy of novels, known collectively as CoDex 1962?now finally complete.

Josef Löwe, the narrator, was born in 1962?the same year, the same moment even, as Sjón. Josef’s story, however, stretches back decades in the form of Leo Löwe?a Jewish fugitive during World War II who has an affair with a maid in a German inn; together, they form a baby from a piece of clay. If the first volume is a love story, the second is a crime story: Löwe arrives in Iceland with the clay-baby inside a hatbox, only to be embroiled in a murder mystery?but by the end of the volume, his clay son has come to life. And in the final volume, set in present-day Reykjavík, Josef’s story becomes science fiction as he crosses paths with the outlandish CEO of a biotech company (based closely on reality) who brings the story of genetics and genesis full circle. But the future, according to Sjón, is not so dark as it seems.

In CoDex 1962, Sjón has woven ancient and modern material and folklore and cosmic myths into a singular masterpiece?encompassing genre fiction, theology, expressionist film, comic strips, fortean studies, genetics, and, of course, the rich tradition of Icelandic storytelling.

Sjón is celebrating story while commemorating the brief lives of many of those born in the same year as him, 1962, yet fated to early deaths through disease, chance accidents and other horrors. In a sombre recurring device, he includes random lists of the dead, reminders of life’s fragility inserted into a lively picaresque about a difficult birth that makes that of Frankenstein’s monster appear straightforward. This wayward, exciting odyssey confronts death throughout. Nothing is quite what it seems, and there are no easy answers. Here, instead, is an artist preoccupied with questions. ~Eileen Battersby, The Guardian

Sometimes sentences balloon to nearly Krasznahorkai scope and complexity; in other places, traditional dialogue and pacing situate scenes squarely in more familiar twentieth-century literary territory. References permeate throughout, making this work less distinctly a novel at times and more a metacommentary—a sort of thinking script, which benefits the more cultural ballast one can bring to it. Pushkin and Kafka seem as present at times as the book’s ostensibly main cast: Leo, Marie-Sophie, Karl, the Archangel Gabriel, and all the rest. ~Andrew Singer, World Literature Today


Bricks and Mortar
by Clemens Meyer
translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
(Germany/Fitzcarraldo Editions)

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Bricks and Mortar is the story of the sex trade in a big city in the former GDR, from just before 1989 to the present day, charting the development of the industry from absolute prohibition to full legality in the twenty years following the reunification of Germany. The focus is on the rise and fall of one man from football hooligan to large-scale landlord and service- provider for prostitutes to, ultimately, a man persecuted by those he once trusted. But we also hear other voices: many different women who work in prostitution, their clients, small-time gangsters, an ex-jockey searching for his drug-addict daughter, a businessman from the West, a girl forced into child prostitution, a detective, a pirate radio presenter…

In his most ambitious book to date, Clemens Meyer pays homage to modernist, East German and contemporary writers like Alfred Döblin, Wolfgang Hilbig and David Peace but uses his own style and almost hallucinatory techniques. Time shifts and stretches, people die and come to life again, and Meyer takes his characters seriously and challenges his readers in this dizzying eye-opening novel that also finds inspiration in the films of Russ Meyer, Takashi Miike, Gaspar Noé and David Lynch.

While all the “tricks of the trade” prostitutes advertise (another of AK’s services) are described, there is no pornography here. With the conceit of prostitution as the quintessential expression of capitalism, though, Meyer savages all forms of exploitation with darkly perverse humor. As befits the span of subjects and voices, the language ranges from the arcana of high finance and law to the street argot of the underworld. This language plus all of Meyer’s wordplay make Katy Derbyshire’s translation of this shadowland symphony a positively gargantuan achievement. ~Ulf Zimmermann, World Literature Today

The language is dizzying at times, frank and colloquial in others, but through Katy Derbyshire‘s glorious and award-winning translation, the reader is guided around this intoxicating, unflinching underworld without getting lost. Some of the content in Bricks and Mortar will be shocking to many, but this sombre drift through lonely nights and clandestine activities offers a fascinating and compelling take on post-Cold War Germany. ~Reece Choules, Culture Trip


Comemadre
by Roque Larraquy
translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary
(Argentina/Coffee House)

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In the outskirts of Buenos Aires in 1907, a doctor becomes involved in a misguided experiment that investigates the threshold between life and death. One hundred years later, a celebrated artist goes to extremes in search of aesthetic transformation, turning himself into an art object. How far are we willing to go, Larraquy asks, in pursuit of transcendence? The world of Comemadre is full of vulgarity, excess, and discomfort: strange ants that form almost perfect circles, missing body parts, obsessive love affairs, and man-eating plants. Darkly funny, smart, and engrossing, here the monstrous is not alien, but the consquence of our relentless pursuit of collective and personal progress.

Part of the horrifying joy of this novel is how safely you can rest in the hands of a maniac as the narrative world is built and burned down around you. In a scene in the first story, we encounter Quintana persuading a patient to consent to the life-ending experiment. The man is of Italian descent and Quintana explains that Mother Nature is wise and it had endowed southern Italians with high levels of potassium. Unfortunately, he says, the potassium affects the chemical structure of the serum (a placebo) they had used to try to fight the patient’s cancer. Quintana is clear and confident, and the patient agrees to the experiment. “The patient doesn’t understand,” Quintana says, “but it’s enough for him that I do.” No reader would be able to know where this story is going. But it’s enough that Larraquy does. ~Nathan Scott McNamara, The Los Angeles Review of Books

With clear prose, dark humor, and a sense of humanity tucked behind all the morbidity, Comemadre is an uneven novella with one classic scene and a grim reminder of the disintegration of the body and the even quicker decay of the morality of powerful men. ~J. David Osborne, World Literature Today


Bottom of the Sky
by Rodrigo Fresán
translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden
(Argentina/Open Letter)

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An homage to American science-fiction films and novels, The Bottom of the Sky is the story of two boys, a disturbingly beautiful girl, and their joint love for other planets. Their friendship is formed during the heyday of sci-fi writing, a time defined by almost cult-like literary groups and pulp covers awash in gaudy alien landscapes. But time has passed, and the three members of The Faraways have drifted apart. The future they once dreamed of is now happening, but interstellar travel to Urkh 24 has been replaced with 9/11, the Gulf War, and a mysterious “incident” at the center of it all.

A Kurt Vonnegut novel told by David Lynch, filtered through the madness of Philip K. Dick, The Bottom of the Sky is a triumph of style, or, as Fresán says in the afterword, “a clump of simultaneously broadcast messages, like a storyline that only wants to be a succession of marvelous moments seen all at the same time.”

At key moments, Fresán’s prose turns incantatory and deliberately repetitive; in one chapter, he begins seven consecutive paragraphs with “They say.” Though this can be effective, it’s a technique that he employs a little too often, perhaps. But this book’s flaws are minor when compared to its narrative vitality. Some horrors are almost impossible to confront head-on, and it can take the proper medium—in this case, an engrossing paean to science fiction—to help us understand them. ~Kevin Canfield, World Literature Today

Fresán’s paragraphs can be mere single lines, his lines phrasal, his phrases elliptical, his ellipses infuriating and provocative, but in the end his prose bristles with energy. He never lets the reader feel totally comfortable or linger in the groove. He withholds resolution until the reader just about wants to give up — but then he delivers. The Bottom of the Sky is another mutant novel about the most basic of human experiences. All of them. ~Joey Rubin, The Los Angeles Review of Books


Moon Brow
by Shahriar Mandanipour
translated from the Persian by Khalili Sara
(Iran/Restless Books)

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Before he enlisted as a soldier in the Iran–Iraq war and disappeared, Amir Yamini was a carefree playboy whose only concerns were seducing women and riling his religious family. Five years later, his mother and sister Reyhaneh find him in a mental hospital for shell-shocked soldiers, his left arm and most of his memory lost. Amir is haunted by the vision of a mysterious woman whose face he cannot see—the crescent moon on her forehead shines too brightly. He names her Moon Brow.

Back home in Tehran, the prodigal son is both hailed as a living martyr to the cause of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Revolution and confined as a dangerous madman. His sense of humor, if not his sanity, intact, Amir cajoles Reyhaneh into helping him escape the garden walls to search for Moon Brow. Piecing together the puzzle of his past, Amir decides there’s only one solution: he must return to the battlefield and find the remains of his severed arm—and discover its secret.

All the while, to angels sit on our hero’s shoulders and inscribe the story in enthrallingly distinctive prose. Wildly inventive and radically empathetic, steeped in Persian folklore and contemporary Middle East history, Moon Brow is the great Iranian novelist Shahriar Mandanipour’s unforgettable epic of love, war, morality, faith, and family.

Moon Brow eschews propriety for disturbing realities. The Dav?lp?’s suffocating grip appears to extend to the rampant misogyny that Amir, his friends, and his fellow soldiers entertain. War especially offers a hyper-masculine landscape on which every enemy’s mother and sister is a hypothetical object vulnerable to violent sexual desires. Judgment is administered through the use of the angel of sin and the angel of virtue, who sit on Amir’s shoulders and act as scribes. The angels take turns recounting events depending on the matter at hand and often dispute what should be written and by whom.  ~Damara Atrigol Pratt, Words Without Borders

Like his previous novel, Mandanipour is concerned with the idea that readers glimpse both the specifics of Iran and Iranian history (his novel is replete with references to the events of Iran’s revolution and aftermath) but, more importantly, engage with the ideas of freedom and restriction and of the power of love to transport us beyond social, spiritual, and political confinement. He draws our attention to both the possibilities for freedom and redemption as well as the soul-crushing realities of war and power to imprison the human soul and psyche. Mandanipour’s ambitious and highly complex novel demands from his readers an attention to the much bigger questions of human life—both the idiosyncratic and the predictable as well as the comic and tragic. His highly inventive and playful writing as well as Moon Brow’s structure cast the reader into a psychological minefield that captivates and leaves us in awe of the writer’s ability to move from the historical and political reality of his own society to the poetic and elusive power of universal human love. ~Persis Kerim, World Literature Today


Ahmed Bouanani The HospitalThe Hospital
by Ahmed Bouanani
translated from the French by Lara Vergnaud
(Morocco/New Directions)

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“When I walked through the large iron gate of the hospital, I must have still been alive…” So begins Ahmed Bouanani’s arresting, hallucinatory 1989 novel The Hospital, appearing for the first time in English translation. Based on Bouanani’s own experiences as a tuberculosis patient, the hospital begins to feel increasingly like a prison or a strange nightmare: the living resemble the dead; bureaucratic angels of death descend to direct traffic, claiming the lives of a motley cast of inmates one by one; childhood memories and fantasies of resurrection flash in and out of the narrator’s consciousness as the hospital transforms before his eyes into an eerie, metaphorical space. Somewhere along the way, the hospital’s iron gate disappears.

Like Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl, the works of Franz Kafka?or perhaps like Mann’s The Magic Mountain thrown into a meat-grinder?The Hospital is a nosedive into the realms of the imagination, in which a journey to nowhere in particular leads to the most shocking places.

Bouanani, who died in 2011, was a prolific artist whose work was constantly censored, stifled, sidelined, ignored, or damaged, by men and sometimes by natural catastrophe. In his lifetime he published only The Hospital and three slim poetry collections, and made one feature-length film—and even that was almost entirely lost. His work, which was always deeply concerned with the question of memory, both personal and national, has been rescued from near oblivion in recent years by the efforts of a small circle of admirers and the dedication of a surviving daughter. Now The Hospital and a collection of his poems (combining two original volumes), The Shutters, have been translated from the French, and are available in English for the first time. ~Ursula Lindsey, The New York Review of Books

The narrator uses the dreamlike aura of the hospital in a self-conscious way as he wonders for “the thousandth time” what he’s doing there and questions whether his experience is “dream or reality”—and he then aptly alludes to his earlier reading of Kafka and Borges. Nothing ever becomes quite clear in the narrator’s experience but rather remains murkily allegorical. Whatever else it may be, the hospital is definitely a microcosm of suffering humanity: “Regardless of where I look, even in the depths of my sleep, I see nothing but men set upon by a decay greater than ever before. It’s not just disease wearing them down.” A puzzling but haunting novel. ~Kirkus


Transparent City
by Ondjaki
translated from the Portuguese by Stephen Henighan
(Angola/Biblioasis)

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In a crumbling apartment block in the Angolan city of Luanda, families work, laugh, scheme, and get by. In the middle of it all is the melancholic Odonato, nostalgic for the country of his youth and searching for his lost son. As his hope drains away and as the city outside his doors changes beyond all recognition, Odonato’s flesh becomes transparent and his body increasingly weightless. A captivating blend of magical realism, scathing political satire, tender comedy, and literary experimentation, Transparent City offers a gripping and joyful portrait of urban Africa quite unlike any before yet published in English, and places Ondjaki, indisputably, among the continent’s most accomplished writers.

Despite Transparent City’s focus on a community slipping down a precipice and toward urban demise, Ondjaki’s prose pulses with life. In the hours before a cataclysmic fire and a historic eclipse, a politically estranged father scours the underbelly of Luanda, Angola, for his mortally wounded son. However, to cite this endeavor as the novel’s primary thread could prove problematic as Ondjaki bounds between perspectives with the fluidity of consciousness. ~Daniel Bokemper, World Literature Today

These disparate stories are woven into a beautiful narrative that touches on government corruption, the privatization of water, the dangers of extracting oil for wealth, and the bastardization of religion for profit. The novel reads like a love song to a tortured, desperately messed-up city that is undergoing remarkable transformations. ~Publishers Weekly


Pretty Things
by Virginie Despentes
translated from the French by Emma Ramadan
(France/Feminist Press)

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Claudine has always been pretty and Pauline has always been ugly. But when Claudine wants to become famous, she enlists gloomy Pauline?with her angelic voice?into pretending they’re the same person. Yet just as things take off, Claudine commits suicide. Pauline hatches a new scheme, pulling on her dead sister’s identity, inhabiting her apartment, and reading her mail. As the impersonation continues, Pauline slowly realizes that the cost of femininity is to dazzle on the outside while rotting away on the inside?and that womanhood is what ultimately killed her sister.

Pretty Things is a fast-paced meditation on the precarity and disposability of the sexualized feminine body. ~Nathan Scott McNamara, The Los Angeles Review of Books

The characters in the novel are both vivid and allegorical (as perhaps are people). In this way, the post-mortem reconciliation of the sisters demonstrates, however imperfectly, a way out of the dialectical thesis/antithesis model of femininity. ~Lindsay Semel, Asymptote


Öræfi: The Wasteland
by Ófeigur Sigurðsson
translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith
(Iceland/Deep Vellum)

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After a grueling solo expedition on Vatnajökull Glacier, Austrian toponymist Bernhardt Fingerberg returns to civilization, barely alive, and into the care of Dr. Lassi. The doctor, suspicious of his story, attempts to discover his real motives for venturing into the treacherous wastelands of Iceland—but the secrets she unravels may be more dangerous than they’re worth.

That the protagonist of this novel is not only called Bernharður but was also born in Austria gives a rather large clue to one of the author’s key influences: Thomas Bernhard. Unlike Bernhard, though, Bernharður is rather kind about Vienna, and, while certainly darkly humorous, less prone to bilious scorn. But the novel certainly inherits Thomas Bernhard’s style of reports of reports of reported speech, leading to sentences like the following which closes the first section, much as mathematical brackets close a formula. ~Paul Fulcher, The Mookse and the Gripes

A delightfully complex play on the epistolary novel, the narration of Öræfi is layered, at times coming to us through five or six levels of character interpretation. ~Claire Pincumbe, The Arkansas International


Congo Inc.: Bismarck’s Testament
by In Koli Jean Bofane
translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager
(Democratic Republic of Congo/Indiana University Press)

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To the sound of machine gun fire and the smell of burning flesh, award-winning author In Koli Jean Bofane leads readers on a perilous, satirical journey through the civil conflict and political instability that have been the logical outcome of generations of rapacious multinational corporate activity, corrupt governance, widespread civil conflict, human rights abuses, and environmental degradation in Africa. Isookanga, a Congolese Pygmy, grows up in a small village with big dreams of becoming rich. His vision of the world is shaped by his exploits in Raging Trade, an online game where he seizes control of the world’s natural resources by any means possible: high-tech weaponry, slavery, and even genocide. Isookanga leaves his sleepy village to make his fortune in the pulsating capital Kinshasa, where he joins forces with street children, warlords, and a Chinese victim of globalization in this blistering novel about capitalism, colonialism, and the world haunted by the ghosts of Bismarck and Leopold II. Told with just enough levity to make it truly heartbreaking, Congo Inc. is a searing tale about ecological, political, and economic failure.

Congo Inc. is vivid in its description — in some places arguably disturbingly so — and gives a great sense of the city, and the country’s recent history, and what the population has had to deal with. It’s also well plotted, a novel that brings together various lives and stories in both realistic and unexpected ways. Bofane does skim over this and that, but there’s considerable depth, and profound reflection, too. An impressive work of the heart of contemporary Africa, and an excellent introduction to the vast country, culture, and history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. ~M.A. Orthofer, The Complete Review

The difficult style and painful depictions will put off some readers, but this scalding indictment of Western interference in Africa should give proponents of pell-mell progress pause. ~Publishers Weekly


People in the Room
by Norah Lange
translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Whittle
(Argentina/And Other Stories)

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A young woman in Buenos Aires spies three women in the house across the street from her family’s home. Intrigued, she begins to watch them. She imagines them as accomplices to an unknown crime, as troubled spinsters contemplating suicide, or as players in an affair with dark and mysterious consequences.

Lange’s imaginative excesses and almost hallucinatory images make this uncanny exploration of desire, domestic space, voyeurism and female isolation a twentieth century masterpiece. Too long viewed as Borges’s muse, Lange is today recognized in the Spanish-speaking world as a great writer and is here translated into English for the first time, to be read alongside Virginia Woolf, Clarice Lispector and Marguerite Duras.

Though the three figures are almost always sitting in the same room, smoking and silent, she imagines countless insidious versions of their lives, and the fear of their deaths is her constant refrain. The short chapters read at times like a sequence of dreams as the reader follows her thoughts and reflections. The writing is crisp and direct, in stark contrast to the intricate psychological darkness the narrator inhabits, and it leaves the reader questioning every detail. Unsettling and masterful, this short but dense novel should entice fans of literary giants like Virginia Woolf and Clarice Lispector. ~Kirkus

The narrator, impressionable and impulsive, sometimes overplays the romantic mystery of imagined events (‘the small, secret fire of white paper, with an “I love you” that blackened no sooner than it was consumed by flames’) or trivialises important subjects (“death always comes when it’s least expected”). When mere observation is no longer enough, the dose of magic realism has to be boosted, and the girl’s fantasies grow more feverish, revolving around “slit wrists underwater” and “hands with the tingling ants”. There are moments when this unceasing hallucinatory state resembles someone else’s dreams, compulsively recounted, but the sheer drive of imagery compels you to listen. ~Anna Aslanyan, The Guardian


Flights
by Olga Tokarczuk
translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft
(Poland/Riverhead)

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From the incomparably original Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, Flights interweaves reflections on travel with an in-depth exploration of the human body, broaching life, death, motion, and migration. Chopin’s heart is carried back to Warsaw in secret by his adoring sister. A woman must return to her native Poland in order to poison her terminally ill high school sweetheart, and a young man slowly descends into madness when his wife and child mysteriously vanish during a vacation and just as suddenly reappear. Through these brilliantly imagined characters and stories, interwoven with haunting, playful, and revelatory meditations, Flights explores what it means to be a traveler, a wanderer, a body in motion not only through space but through time. Where are you from? Where are you coming in from? Where are you going? we call to the traveler. Enchanting, unsettling, and wholly original, Flights is a master storyteller’s answer.

Tokarczuk makes a strong link between travel around the world and the mapping of the human anatomy. The narrative notes that in 1542, just as Copernicus’s revolutionary (pun intended) map of the solar system (Revoltionibus Orbium Coelestium) omitted Uranus, so Vesalius’s equally important map of the human anatomy (De Humani corporis fabrica) “lacked a number of specific mechanical solutions in the human body, spans, joints, connections — such as, to give just one example, the tendon that joins the calf to the heel.” It was to be 1689 before Filip Verheyen, a contemporary of Ruysch, discovered and named the archilles tendon, and Flights also tells us his story and draws the aforementioned connection: “How could this tendon never have been noticed? It’s hard to believe that parts of one’s body are discovered as though one were forging one’s way upriver in search of sources.” ~Paul Fulcher, The Mookse and the Gripes

Flights, by the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk (Riverhead), is exciting in the way that unclassifiable things are exciting—that is to say, at times confoundingly so. It is intermittently a work of fiction, but it is also an exercise in theory, cultural anthropology, and memoir. ~James Wood, The New Yorker


Wedding Worries
by Stig Dagerman
translated from the Swedish by Paul Norlen and Lo Dagerman
(Sweden/David R. Godine)

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In Dagerman’s last novel, by many considered his best, he returns to the setting and the people of his childhood farm. The novel takes place during the day, and night, when the young daughter on the farm marries the considerably older village butcher. In a burlesque and often comical style, reminiscent of Faulkner, Dagerman explores the eternal themes of existential loneliness and a longing for connection through the many characters. It is also here that he, for himself, stakes out a different path toward inner freedom.

Dagerman may have intended the wisdom with which the novel concludes to be transformative (essentially: “make do with what you have”), but more than anything it simply feels sad. Life is static; fate is inescapable. There’s little comfort to be had. By turns devastating, antic, and lewd, Dagerman’s final novel is a forceful testament to his skill as a writer. ~Kirkus

Twenty-five years ago I considered De dömdas ö to be the best of Dagerman’s works, seduced into that judgement by the atmosphere of Angst and the many suicides. I still regard it as a great work of art, and a central contribution to the ideological debate. Now, however, the last of the novels, Bröllopsbesvär (Wedding Worries), stands out as the masterpiece. ~Olof Lagercrantz, Swedish Book Review


A Dead Rose
by Aurora Cáceres
translated from the Spanish by Laura Kanost
(Peru / Stockcero)

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Published in Paris in 1914, Cáceres’s novel La rosa muerta, translated by Laura Kanost as A Dead Rose, stands today as the most influential modernistaprose work penned by a woman. In this audacious story of an ailing woman who initiates an affair with her gynecologist, Cáceres not only defies cultural conventions of feminine modesty to speak publicly about women’s health and sexuality, but does so by appropriating the language of a literary movement that silenced women.Unlike her most of her contemporaries, Cáceres does not reduce illness to a clinical case, an example of degeneration, or a symbol of social ills -nor does her protagonist’s affliction merely signal the social deviance of the modernistaintellectual or the beauty ascribed to the objectified modernistawoman, seen as still more beautiful if languishing or dead.

Rather, Cáceres portrays illness as a multifaceted experience that is affected by the social context within which it takes place and ultimately is not overcome through modern medicine. Left to carry on into the future are two characters who thrive because they are not constrained by gender conventions: a nurturing, selfless male doctor devoted to science, and his beautiful and deeply intelligent young daughter.

A Dead Roseis an extension of Cáceres’s cosmopolitan identity and feminist stance developed over a lifetime of travel and scholarship. The daughter of a Peruvian president, Cáceres was equally at home in the Americas and Europe. She founded numerous feminist and cultural organizations and authored essays, novels, short stories, and life-writing, including a memoir of her turbulent marriage to famed Guatemalan modernistaEnrique Gómez Carrillo.

Steeped in the modern technologies, fashions, and social networks of early 20th-century Paris and Berlin, this brief and engaging novel will appeal to readers interested in gender and women’s studies, global literature, and medical humanities. Dr. Kanost’s introductory study contextualizes the novel within the author’s production and explores its connections to modernismo and feminism, engaging the critical conversation that developed in the wake of the novel’s second edition, prepared by Dr. Thomas Ward (2007).


Some statistics:

Countries: Japan (3), Argentina (3), France (2), Iran (2), Iceland (2), Martinique, Croatia, Haiti, Mexico, China, Russia, Germany, Morocco, Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Poland, Sweden, Peru

Languages: French (7), Spanish (5), Japanese (3), Icelandic (2), Croatian, Chinese, Russian, German, Persian, Portuguese, Polish, Swedish

Publishers: Coffee House (2), Open Letter (2), FSG (2), Deep Vellum (2), New Press, New Directions, University of Virginia Press, Two Lines Press, Grove, Yale University Press, Europa Editions, Fitzcarraldo Editions, Restless Books, Biblioasis, Feminist Press, Indiana University Press, And Other Stories, Riverhead, David R. Godine, Stockcero

Judges:

  • Pierce Alquist
  • Caitlin L. Baker
  • Kasia Bartoszynska
  • Tara Cheesman
  • George Carroll
  • Adam Hetherington
  • Keaton Patterson
  • Sofia Samatar
  • Ely Watson
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