The Best Translated Book Award Shortlist

For those of you who like to wait until the shortlist is announced to really dig into a prize, today is your day. The Best Translated Book Award shortlist of 10 books was announced today at The Millions!

There are some big surprises here. For example, if you, like me, thought Sjón’s CoDex 1962 was going to be a favorite to win the whole thing, you’ll be surprised it is not on the shortlist. Also, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, which won the Man Booker Prize International, did not make the final cut. I’m excited to see Slave Old Man and Fox on the list, though. And I’m excited to check out some I still haven’t started . . .

So peruse below! What are you picking up?

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)

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

Convenience Store Woman
by Sayaka Murata
translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori

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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

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

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

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


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