The 2016 Best Translated Book Award longlist has been announced!
As I’ve said in years past, this is my favorite book prize. It has introduced me to many of my favorite books, and through them to the great publishers out there who support literature in translation.
Below, find the twenty-five 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)!
I’ve put together some stats and thoughts at the bottom of this post.
The shortlist will be announced on April 19 (that’s soon!); the winner 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
Nowhere to Be Found
by Bae Suah
translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell
A nameless narrator passes through her life, searching for meaning and connection in experiences she barely feels. For her, time and identity blur, and all action is reaction. She can’t quite understand what motivates others to take life seriously enough to focus on anything—for her existence is a loosely woven tapestry of fleeting concepts. From losing her virginity to mindless jobs and a splintered, unsupportive family, the lessons learned have less to do with the reality we all share and more to do with the truth of the imagination, which is where the narrator focuses to discover herself.
- Bae relates that distant “me alone” to us with an almost preternatural poetic vision and an architect’s structural precision. The only fully inhabited space in Nowhere to Be Found is what Bae described in the same interview as the “landscape of my youth,” which she then clarified: “anxiety.” Another symptom of the narrator’s fernweh is her inability to hold down a conversation with friends, family, acquaintances or lovers, and Bae and Kim-Russell’s dialogue is convincingly stilted. Bae’s protagonist becomes truly unsettling: moving furtively through the city, trusting no one, shunning companionship, each relating only to her own thoughts, without any explanations for her actions — he is a law unto herself; an island, never anywhere to be found because there is no one to witness her. She is, in effect, a ghost, and appropriately enough this word appears for the first time in the last scene, “the center of [her] bleak hour” where she spots, in the flesh, an allegedly murderous couple she had read about (much earlier in the novel) on an old wanted sign: “It is so dark out that I see them brushing past the car like ghosts, but he [her companion] does not.” By the end of Nowhere, the narrator has fully assumed her condition as a ghostly, impervious being: “And that is how I became an absolutely meaningless thing and survived time,” she concludes. ~Sophie Hughes in Music & Literature
- Nowhere to Be Found is a compact, personal account of anomie and withdrawal in a time of rapid social and economic change (something that bubbles constantly in the novel-background). The narrative conveys the sense of drift — in part in its very precision. With few wasted words or scenes — even as many of the events she describes and her observations can seem, superficially, to be almost trivial — Nowhere to Be Found is an easily digested short book that nevertheless feels much very substantial — a very full story. ~M.A. Orthofer in The Complete Review
The Meursault Investigation
by Kamel Daoud
translated from the French by John Cullen
He was the brother of “the Arab” killed by the infamous Meursault, the antihero of Camus’s classic novel. Seventy years after that event, Harun, who has lived since childhood in the shadow of his sibling’s memory, refuses to let him remain anonymous: he gives his brother a story and a name — Musa — and describes the events that led to Musa’s casual murder on a dazzlingly sunny beach.
In a bar in Oran, night after night, he ruminates on his solitude, on his broken heart, on his anger with men desperate for a god, and on his disarray when faced with a country that has so disappointed him. A stranger among his own people, he wants to be granted, finally, the right to die.
The Stranger is of course central to Daoud’s story, in which he both endorses and criticizes one of the most famous novels in the world. A worthy complement to its great predecessor, The Meursault Investigation is not only a profound meditation on Arab identity and the disastrous effects of colonialism in Algeria, but also a stunning work of literature in its own right, told in a unique and affecting voice.
- The novel is the poignant account of a man whose life has been warped, from the beginning, by his mother’s legacy of rage and grief. This is a familiar theme of postcolonial literature and one that Daoud will shape into a critique of revolutionary and postrevolutionary Algeria, a country that, in Harun’s view, is not much better off than in its previous incarnation. ~Claire Messud in The New York Review of Books
- When it was published in Algeria in 2013, “The Meursault Investigation” was rightly met with wide critical acclaim, but it was only after its phenomenal success in France last year (Daoud was a finalist for the Prix Goncourt) that a cleric named Abdelfatah Hamadache called the author an “apostate” and demanded that he be tried for blasphemy. Daoud remains steadfast. He continues to live and work in Oran, where he writes for the newspaper Le Quotidien d’Oran. By doing so, he honors the words of another Algerian writer, Tahar Djaout, murdered by the Armed Islamic Group during Algeria’s civil war of the 1990s: “If you speak, you die. If you do not speak, you die. So, speak and die.” ~Laila Lalami in The New York Times Book Review
by Amir Tag Elsir
translated from the Arabic by William M. Hutchins
A deliriously dark comedy exploring the absurd tragedy of the human condition when left to the devices of our tech-obsessed society. “I had many things in mind that I wanted to achieve before the Frenchwoman Katia arrived . . .” So begins the story of Amir Tag Elsir’s French Perfume as told by Ali Jarjar the town gossip and schemer of a poor community rich with sleazy bachelors, desperate women, soothsayers and secret police. Tasked to introduce his impoverished town to a chic foreign visitor, Ali’s attempts to make the best first impression are left in limbo as the newcomer perpetually postpones her trip. Quickly escalating to a terrifying conclusion, Spike Jonze’s Her crashes into Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot as our charming narrator allows his attraction for a stranger s online existence to become a frightening obsession in the real world.
- I cannot find a review of this book. If you know of one, please direct me to it so I can post an excerpt here.
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
by Anne Garréta
translated from the French by Emma Ramadan
Sphinx is the remarkable debut novel, originally published in 1986, by the incredibly talented and inventive French author Anne Garréta, one of the few female members of Oulipo, the influential and exclusive French experimental literary group whose mission is to create literature based on mathematical and linguistic restraints, and whose ranks include Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, among others.
A beautiful and complex love story between two characters, the narrator, “I,” and their lover, A***, written without using any gender markers to refer to the main characters, Sphinx is a remarkable linguistic feat and paragon of experimental literature that has never been accomplished before or since in the strictly-gendered French language.
- The porous membranes of Sphinx let it be a novel of openness, as if a living being, letting you in and out, affected and changed each time you begin or cease reading. Those membranes are all over, walls put up so they can be phased through. ~P.T. Smith in The Mookse and the Gripes
- At times a frustrating read, Sphinx unexpectedly prompts feelings of liberation, too. While je’s description of the first time they have sex—“Crotches crossed and sexes mixed, I no longer knew how to distinguish anything”—isn’t lush with details, it also doesn’t rely on gender tropes to move the action forward. It’s easier to focus on emotions as well, without associating them with female or male points of view. ~Jane Yong Kim in Words without Borders
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
The Sleep of the Righteous
by Wolfgang Hilbig
translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole
Doppelgängers, a murderer’s guilt, pulp noir, fanatical police, and impossible romances — these are the pieces from which German master Wolfgang Hilbig builds a divided nation battling its demons. Delving deep into the psyches of both East and West Germany, The Sleep of the Righteous reveals a powerful, apocalyptic account of the century-defining nation’s trajectory from 1945 to 1989. From a youth in a war-scarred industrial town to wearying labor as a factory stoker, surreal confrontations with the Stasi, and, finally, a conflicted escape to the West, Hilbig creates a cipher that is at once himself and so many of his fellow Germans. Evoking the eerie bleakness of films like Tarkovsky’s Stalker and The Lives of Others, this titan of German letters combines the Romanticism of Poe with the absurdity of Kafka to create a visionary, somber statement on the ravages of history and the promises of the future.
- In this accretion of detail, Hilbig’s masterly work captures the angst of a man unable to escape the wreckage of his past. ~Joshua Hammer in The New York Times
- In a brief but effusive introduction to the text, Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai has this to say about Hilbig: “He discovered a wondrous language to describe a horrific world. I admit this is a sick illumination. Nonetheless, it is illumination.” Krasznahorkai, himself no stranger to “sick illuminations,” is an ideal candidate for such prefatory remarks, as both he and Hilbig share certain sensibilities: endlessly unspooling sentences; revelatory prose styles; incandescent moral outrage. They are poets of disintegration, Stygian fabulists in whom one locates a kind of profane radiance. But whereas I read Krasznahorkai’s work as insular and claustrophobic, Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous emerges as something that feels somehow both intimate and cosmic. ~Dustin Illingworth in Words without Borders
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
Beauty Is a Wound
by Eka Kurniawan
translated from the Indonesian by Annie Tucker
The epic novel Beauty Is a Wound combines history, satire, family tragedy, legend, humor, and romance in a sweeping polyphony. The beautiful Indo prostitute Dewi Ayu and her four daughters are beset by incest, murder, bestiality, rape, insanity, monstrosity, and the often vengeful undead. Kurniawan’s gleefully grotesque hyperbole functions as a scathing critique of his young nation’s troubled past:the rapacious offhand greed of colonialism; the chaotic struggle for independence; the 1965 mass murders of perhaps a million “Communists,” followed by three decades of Suharto’s despotic rule.
Beauty Is a Wound astonishes from its opening line: One afternoon on a weekend in May, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years . . . . Drawing on local sources — folk tales and the all-night shadow puppet plays, with their bawdy wit and epic scope — and inspired by Melville and Gogol, Kurniawan’s distinctive voice brings something luscious yet astringent to contemporary literature.
- Disaster upon disaster has been visited upon Dewi Ayu’s daughters and grandchildren. She realizes that her family has been targeted by an evil spirit, the ghost of a long-dead fisherman exacting revenge for an injustice committed by her grandfather, the Dutch plantation owner. You can read that as a metaphor for how Dutch colonial rule caused generations of tragedy in Indonesia, or you can read it as a tale of the supernatural. It works either way. ~Sarah Lyall in The New York Times
- Beauty is a Wound is a sweeping saga, focused on one family in a provincial Indonesian city, but reaching far beyond, as the complicated family-tree, like Indonesia’s own complicated history, lead repeatedly to terrible tragedy. Yet for all that, and its length, Kurniawan’s novel never bogs down, flitting across the decades, Indonesian history passing through it yet never weighing it down too much. There’s also considerable humor to it — even if it is often sharp, and sly — making for a welcome lightness (though it never becomes a complete relief). ~M.A. Orthofer in The Complete Review
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
by Fiston Mwanza Mujila
translated from the French by Roland Glasser
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Two friends, one a budding writer home from abroad, the other an ambitious racketeer, meet in the most notorious nightclub — Tram 83 — in a war-torn city-state in secession, surrounded by profit-seekers of all languages and nationalities. Tram 83 plunges the reader into the modern African gold rush as cynical as it is comic and colorfully exotic, using jazz rhythms to weave a tale of human relationships in a world that has become a global village.
- For years now, postcolonial studies have battled ethnocentrism, and writers like Mujila’s compatriot, V.Y. Mudimbe, have asserted Africa’s centrality to any thorough understanding of human history. Still, an interest in the continent’s art, literature, or cinema has an air of the exotic or offbeat. Eventually, this will have to change. With Deep Vellum’s release of this remarkable debut and such honorable initiatives as Tilted Axis Press, which will be publishing translations exclusively from outside of Europe, perhaps this will happen sooner rather than later. ~Adrian Nathan West in Words without Borders
- Structured more around refrains than it is around plot, Tram 83 is as much a musical work as it is a fictional one. The most frequent refrain is “Do you have the time?,” the come-on repeated by the baby-chicks, single-mamas, and other carefully delineated species of hookerdom who pass their days and nights at Tram 83. ~Geoff Wisner in The Quarterly Conversation
The Body Where I Was Born
by Guadaulpe Nettel
translated from the Spanish by J.T. Lichtenstein
From a psychoanalyst’s couch, the narrator looks back on her bizarre childhood — in which she was born with an abnormality in her eye into a family intent on fixing it. In a world without the time and space for innocence, the narrator intimately recalls her younger self — a fierce and discerning girl open to life’s pleasures and keen to its ruthless cycle of tragedy.
With raw language and a brilliant sense of humor, both delicate and unafraid, Nettel strings together hard-won, unwieldy memories — taking us from Mexico City to Aix-en-Provence, France, then back home again — to create a portrait of the artist as a young girl. In these pages, Nettel’s art of storytelling transforms experience into inspiration and a new startling perception of reality.
- One of the fascinating qualities of this book is the unsparing testimony, somewhere between religious confession and secular disclosure, that gives a sharp sense of a woman’s harrowing girlhood. Nettel’s candid, unaffected prose hews closely to the strictures of the therapy session. In this, she runs the risk of turning her story into a “case.” We’re listening to a voice tell of the speaker’s childhood, often with metaphor in place of reflection. ~Amy Rowland in The New York Times
- The present-tense version of Nettel’s narrator is never developed; “The Body” is told as a series of disconnected stories from the narrator’s past. Is this deliberate obfuscation of the present central to the narrator’s idea of how she defines her adult self? If so, a piece is missing that would orient the reader. Nettel hints that she wants to blur what is real. “Perhaps when I finally finish [telling my story],” the narrator says, “for my parents and brother this book will be nothing but a string of lies. I take comfort in thinking that objectivity is always subjective.” ~Heather Scott Partington in The Los Angeles Times
The Things We Don’t Do
by Andés Neuman
translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia
Playful, philosophizing, and gloriously unpredictable, Andrés Neuman’s short stories consider love, lechery, history, mortality, family secrets, therapy, Borges, mysterious underwear, translators, and storytelling itself.
Here a relationship turns on a line drawn in the sand; an analyst treats a patient who believes he’s the real analyst; a discovery in a secondhand shop takes on a cruel significance; a man decides to go to work naked one day. In these small scenes and brief moments Neuman confounds our expectations with dazzling sleight of hand.
With a variety of forms and styles, Neuman opens up the possibilities for fiction, calling to mind other greats of Latin American letters, such as Cortázar, Bolaño, and Bioy Casares. Intellectually stimulating and told with a voice that is wry, questioning, sometimes mordantly funny, yet always generously humane, The Things We Don’t Do confirms Neuman’s place as one of the most dynamic authors writing today.
- After reading his coda to this collection, I realized that Neuman is the rare storyteller who not only understands but also feels how to go about his job. He takes it seriously because it’s part of what keeps his own heart beating. I went back and admired his work even more. ~Trevor Berrett in The Mookse and the Gripes
- Neuman’s forte is observational philosophy. On occasion, this means too much technical analysis of the emotions while his storylines are suggestive and implicit. The autobiographical pieces which allude to his East European Jewish-Argentine roots come nearest to a satisfying narrative. The sketches of totalitarian politics may be the most accessible but the more abstract jottings compliment them well. ~Joseph Crilly in The Irish Times
by Per Petterson
translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Per Petterson’s hotly anticipated new novel, I Refuse, is the work of an internationally acclaimed novelist at the height of his powers. In Norway the book has been a huge bestseller, and rights have already been sold into sixteen countries. In his signature spare style, Petterson weaves a tale of two men whose accidental meeting one morning recalls their boyhood thirty-five years ago. Back then, Tommy was separated from his sisters after he stood up to their abusive father. Jim was by Tommy’s side through it all. But one winter night, a chance event on a frozen lake forever changed the balance of their friendship. Now Jim fishes alone on a bridge as Tommy drives by in a new Mercedes, and it’s clear their fortunes have reversed. Over the course of the day, the life of each man will be irrevocably altered. I Refuse is a powerful, unforgettable novel, and its publication is an event to be celebrated.
- Yet Petterson also transforms the unremarkable into magic. ~Harriet Lane in The New York Times Book Review
- The Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano claims to have written a version of the same novel throughout his career; in a sense so has Petterson, but his anguished precision is such that no one should complain. ~Catherine Taylor in The Telegraph
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
One Out of Two
by Daniel Sada
translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver
The most distinctive thing about the Gamal sisters is that they are, essentially, indistinguishable (except for a modest mole). The twin spinsters spend their time trying to mask any perceptible differences they have while working hard at their thriving tailoring business in a small town in rural northern Mexico. When? Thirty years ago? Fifty years ago? Who can say — the world seems not to intrude on Ocampo very much.
Gloria and Constitution take an almost perverse delight in confusing people about which one is which. But then a suitor enters the picture, and one of the sisters decides that she doesn’t want to live a life without romance and all the good things that come with it. The ensuing competition between the sisters brings their relationship to the breaking point until they come up with an ingenious solution that carries this buoyant farce to its tender and even liberating conclusion.
Suffused with the tension between our desire for union and our desire for independence, Daniel Sada’s One Out of Two is a giddy and comic fable by one of the giants of contemporary Latin American literature.
- This brief book lacks the emotional heft of some of Sada’s longer novels, but for readers new to his work, “One Out of Two” offers a bewitching introduction to one of Mexico’s most inventive prose stylists of the last 50 years. ~Idra Novey in The New York Times Book Review
- Despite the hazards of translation, this ticklish, deceptively slim treat of a novel is suffused with the timelessness of a fable. ~Marie Mutsuki Mockett in The Los Angeles Book Review
by Aleš Šteger
translated from the Sloven by Brian Henry, Forrest Gander, and Aljaz Kovac
Berlin is a lyrical account of the city as well as a book of discoveries, allusions, and traces, an homage to great literary figures who have lived in Berlin. 31 prose miniatures are combined with 21 black-and-white photos taken by Šteger in the city. Instead of describing, Šteger works to create a web of Benjaminian passages and allusions, a flaneurian book full of small details that takes the reader on a smooth yet unpredictable journey through the city, which turns out to be a city of texts.
- Berlin is a book of quick prose pieces by a Slovenian poet about his time in Berlin. Most of the miniature essays are accompanied by photos, some of which make up the most stunning parts of the book. There are allusions to other great writers who walked the Berlin streets, as well as a humorous exchange with a fellow poet, and tiny details (food, bakeries, the weather) that add up to something indeed, though I will admit that I am not exactly sure what. This is evidence of my response as a reader, not Šteger’s failure as a writer, though it makes an objective review difficult. ~Vincent Francone in Three Percent
The Big Green Tent
by Ludmilla Ulitskaya
translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon
With epic breadth and intimate detail, Ludmila Ulitskaya’s remarkable work tells the story of three school friends who meet in Moscow in the 1950s and go on to embody the heroism, folly, compromise, and hope of the Soviet dissident experience. These three boys — an orphaned poet; a gifted, fragile pianist; and a budding photographer with a talent for collecting secrets — struggle to reach adulthood in a society where their heroes have been censored and exiled. Rich with love stories, intrigue, and a cast of dissenters and spies, The Big Green Tent offers a panoramic survey of life after Stalin and a dramatic investigation into the prospects for individual integrity in a society defined by the KGB. Each of the central characters seeks to transcend an oppressive regime through art, a love of Russian literature, and activism. And each of them ends up face-to-face with a secret police that is highly skilled at fomenting paranoia, division, and self-betrayal. A man and his wife each become collaborators, without the other knowing; an artist is chased into the woods, where he remains in hiding for four years; a researcher is forced to deem a patient insane, damning him to torture in a psychiatric ward. Ludmila Ulitskaya’s novel belongs to the tradition of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Pasternak: it is a work consumed with politics, love, and belief — and a revelation of life in dark times.
- Ludmila Ulitskaya’s latest novel, “The Big Green Tent,” is as grand, solid and impressively all-encompassing as its title implies. ~Lara Vapnyar in The New York Times Book Review
- A book can be an inspiration or a murder weapon. Ulitskaya is fascinated by these transformations, but even more so by the peculiar trajectories that create fate — the travels of a person, a picture, a book. If there is a strange journey to be traced, she cannot resist the retelling. ~Masha Gessen in The New Yorker
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 Four Books
by Yan Lianke
translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas
From master storyteller Yan Lianke, winner of the prestigious Franz Kafka Prize and a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, The Four Books is a powerful, daring novel of the dog-eat-dog psychology inside a labor camp for intellectuals during Mao’s Great Leap Forward. A renowned author in China, and among its most censored, Yan’s mythical, sometimes surreal tale cuts to the bone in its portrayal of the struggle between authoritarian power and man’s will to prevail against the darkest odds through camaraderie, love, and faith.
In the ninety-ninth district of a sprawling reeducation compound, freethinking artists and academics are detained to strengthen their loyalty to Communist ideologies. Here, the Musician and her lover, the Scholar — along with the Author and the Theologian — are forced to carry out grueling physical work and are encouraged to inform on each other for dissident behavior. The prize: winning the chance at freedom. They’re overseen by preadolescent supervisor, the Child, who delights in reward systems and excessive punishments. When agricultural and industrial production quotas are raised to an unattainable level, the ninety-ninth district dissolves into lawlessness. And then, as inclement weather and famine set in, they are abandoned by the regime and left alone to survive.
- With a creative structure, strong episodes, and some inspired inventions (and re-invention of myths, ranging from the ancient Greek to the Biblical to the Chinese), culminating in a powerful conclusion, The Four Books impresses more in the abstract. Still, it’s in many ways an impressive attempt at trying to convey this strange and horrible episode in Chinese history. ~M.A. Orthofer in The Complete Review
- Stark, powerful and compelling, this book is not “a joy to read”, but reading it is certainly a privilege. ~Jonathan Gibbs in The Independent
Mirages of the Mind
by Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi
translated from the Urdu by Matt Reek and Aftab Ahmad
Basharat and his family are Indian Muslims who have relocated to Pakistan, but who remain deeply steeped in the nostalgia of pre-Partition life in India. Through Mirages of the Mind’s absurd anecdotes and unforgettable biographical sketches — which hide the deeper unease and sorrow of the family’s journey from Kanpur to Karachi — Basharet emerges as a wise fool, and the host of this unique sketch comedy. From humorous scenes in colonial north India, to the heartbreak and homesickness of post-colonial life in Pakistan, Mirages of the Mind forms an authentic portrait of life among South Asia’s Urdu speakers, rendered beautifully into English by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad.
- Written in 1990, Yousufi’s Mirages of the Mind describes with acuity the changed ambience of India after the Partition, We, twenty-five years after the novel’s release, having witnessed the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the rising military violence in Kashmir, the 2002 genocide in Gujarat, the innumerable fake encounter cases, the victory and rise of Hindutva politics, and the very recent execution of Yakub Memon (to name a few incidents) know that Yousufi’s understanding of the Indian situation was nothing but prescient. ~Saudamini Deo in Words without Borders
- Mirages of the Mind is nothing like any sort of traditional novel, yet there’s no question that it is a larger, cohesive whole — just that instead of slowly building up a larger picture-portrait, Yousufi leaps all across his canvas, pointing here and then there and then adding a bit more about this or that corner. It makes for a work that can be exhaustingly anecdotal — but readers open to the experience can have a lot of fun with this. This is a very funny work, but there’s also more to it than just the humor. ~M.A. Orthofer in The Complete Reivew
The 2016 judging panel:
- Amanda Bullock
- Heather Cleary
- Kevin Elliott
- Kate Garber
- Jason Grunebaum
- Mark Haber
- Stacey Knecht
- Amanda Nelson
- P.T. Smith
Let’s have some fun with statistics, even though the books themselves are far more important:
- This list features books from an astounding twenty-one countries. Only two countries feature more than once: France has two books on the list, and Mexico excelled with four.
- The books represent sixteen languages, with a few taking a larger portion: Portuguese has two on the list, but both Spanish and French have five apiece.
- Though still outnumbered, female authors did better on this year’s longlist than in years past. Nine of the authors above are female.
- As for U.S. publishers, there are eighteen represented. Those with multiple books are Deep Vellum (2), Graywolf Press (2) New Directions (4), and Open Letter (3).
- There is overlap with the recently unveiled longlist Man Booker International Prize: seven of the thirteen titles on that longlist were eligible for this year’s Best Translated Book Award, and four of those are on both lists: A General Theory of Oblivion, The Story of the Lost Child, Tram 83, and The Four Books (though Eka Kurniawan has a book on each list).
- I myself have read only four of the twenty-five titles: Arvida (which I read because it was shortlisted for last years Giller Prize), The Physics of Sorrow, The Things We Don’t Do, and Murder Most Serene. All were strong books in their ways, though I only pegged The Physics of Sorrow and Murder Most Serene (which I just finished) as personal longlistees. I’m personally happy to see The Things We Don’t Do on here. On this site we also have a review of Sphinx, from none other than judge P.T. Smith — we should have seen that coming . . . of course, we did.
- What didn’t make it that I expected would?
- Any books by Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano. He had three eligible books: After the Circus, Paris Nocturne, and So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood. Did they work against each other, splitting Modiano’s votes?
- Speaking of Nobel laureates who failed to make the cut, Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Discreet Hero and Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind (which did make the Man Booker International list) were left off.
- While not Nobel laureates, Milan Kundera’s The Festival of Insignificance and Haruki Murakami’s Wind/Pinball are also not going to win the BTBA this year.
- What didn’t make it that I hoped would?
- Any of the three excellent books by Enrique Vila-Matas, though my preferred title was Because She Never Asked. Perhaps as I speculated above with Modiano, they counted against each other, splitting Vila-Matas’s votes.
- Either of the two César Aira books that were eligible, and I’m very surprised The Musical Brain didn’t. Here we are waiting for a collection of Aira’s stories for years, and when we get it it’s as brilliant as we’d hoped! Oh well . . . we can still go out and enjoy it even if it isn’t on the list.
- What’s going to be on the shortlist? I don’t know, but we’ll be speculating about just this thing while we discuss the books over at the new GoodReads Group (here). Please come join in!