Reading the World: Important Fiction in Translation Beyond the Best Sellers

Abdel Aziz, Basma. The Queue. Melville. May 2016. 224p. tr. from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette. ISBN 9781612195162. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781612195179. F

A psychiatrist who treats torture victims at Cairo’s Nadeem Center, Abdel Aziz has denounced government injustice in a weekly newspaper column and three published books. So she has earned the right to offer this debut novel about an unnamed, apparently Egyptian city ruled by the Gate, a political authority so dominant that doctors cannot operate without permission and even window shopping is taxed. With authorization required for everything, a long queue has formed outside the perpetually closed Gate (recalling Olga Grushin’s The Line). Among those waiting are Yehya, injured in a squelched popular uprising called the Disgraceful Events; Ines, in trouble for allowing a student to read a provocative essay aloud; journalist Ehab, shocked to learn that he’s been spied on; and Shalaby, a Servant Force guard seeking justice for a cousin felled in battle. Dr. Tarek Fahmy, his conscience increasingly pricked, intervenes throughout. VERDICT The increasingly driven narrative deftly weaves together the characters’ disparate stories to provide an arresting portrayal of totalitarian control.

redstarChiziane, Paulina. The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy. Archipelago. Jul. 2016. 250p. tr. from Portuguese by David Brookshaw. ISBN 9780914671480. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9780914671497. F

firstwife.jpg6916Mozambique’s first woman novelist, Chiziane has crafted a story that is at once an affirmation of African feminism and a rousingly entertaining tale of female friendship that would please any fan of best-selling women’s fiction. A dynamic mother of five who sees herself as a modern woman, Rami despairs because husband Tony, the police chief, is rarely at home. Her challenge to rival Julieta starts with fisticuffs and ends with wary friendship—and the realization that Tony has left Julieta and their children for another woman. In fact, Tony lays claim to five women, and though Rami initially seeks sometimes mocking advice for getting him back for herself—interestingly, not just generational differences but cultural differences between northern and southern Mozambique show up here—she eventually turns polygamy on its head and successfully schemes with her rival “wives” to put Tony on the spot. VERDICT Both informed reading and terrific fun for a wide range of readers.

Duras, Marguerite. Abahn Sabana David. Open Letter. Jun. 2016. 108p. tr. from French by Kazim Ali. ISBN 9781940953366. pap. $12.95; ebk. ISBN 9781940953403. F

It’s hard to imagine anything by durable French author Duras left to translate into English, but here it is. Written late in her career, when she was abandoning her communist sympathies, this novel is set in 1968 in an unnamed country controlled by a repressive political party. As night falls coldly, Sabana and David arrive at an isolated house to stand guard over Abahn, who will be executed in the morning by local party leader Gringo for certain offenses—what Abahn has done and why remain vague even to him. Abahn is also called the Jew, though Jews here seem to stand for anyone in opposition; the appearance of another man named Abahn further clouds the situation. In fact, David, who claims he’s not part of Gringo’s party, has surprising reasons of his own for being there. VERDICT Beautifully cut to the bone yet increasingly absurdist, the narrative delivers an unsettling sense of ideology run amok. It’s challenging and not always satisfying but will attract those serious about their reading.

Furukawa, Hideo. Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale That Begins with Fukushima. Columbia Univ. Mar. 2016. 160p. tr. from Japanese by Doug Slaymaker with Akiko Takenaka. ISBN 9780231178693. pap. $20. F

Published shortly after earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown laid waste to northeast Japan on March 11, 2011, this genre-shock blend of fiction, memoir, history, and reportage captures interior reaction, the sense of being “spirited away.” After meeting a teenage refugee at a Tokyo book event in late March, award-winning author Furukawa determines to head toward Fukushima, his hometown, with three companions in tow. They encounter endless debris and schoolchildren in gas masks (unlike the adults), but most telling are the injured horses, refugees themselves. Furukawa meditates on the horse’s age-old presence in the region, tying equine history to Japanese history and finally world history. He also highlights the eerie parallel between the dates 3/11 and 9/11, ending with the affecting image of a starving white horse freeing itself to find grass. VERDICT Unexpected and rewarding for ambitious readers.

Halberstadt, Michèle. Mon amie américaine. Other. Apr. 2016. 176p. tr. from French by Bruce Benderson. ISBN 9781590517598. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781590517604. F

A film producer (Farewell My Concubine) and prize-winning novelist (The Pianist in the Dark), Halberstadt offers the portrait of a friendship upended by medical catastrophe. Meticulous Frenchwoman Michèle and over-the-top, Manhattan-based American Molly are both in the film industry, but Halberstadt shows that their bonding has resulted less from the weightiness of mutual values or interests—in fact, Michèle always teased her friend relentlessly about her eating habits and dreadful fashion choices—than shared moments and a reverberant appreciation of each other’s quirks. Then Molly suffers a brain aneurysm at age 40 and ends up in a coma, and the novel unfolds as Michèle’s soliloquy to and about her friend, a veritable cri de coeur from a soul rocked to its bottom. ­VERDICT Brief, poignant, and affecting.

Jaber, Rabee. Confessions. New Directions. Mar. 2016. 160p. tr. from Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. ISBN 9780811220675. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9780811220682. F

In this spare, intense volume, winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Lebanese novelist/journalist Jaber parallels family intimacy and wartime suffering. The story is narrated by Maroun, who lives with his family in war-shattered Beirut’s Christian east during the Lebanese Civil War. When his younger brother was kidnapped and killed, their father became a killer himself; one chilling scene shows him joining in the slaughter of a family quaking in their car and bringing home the injured young son to raise as his own. It slowly emerges that Maroun is that child, and he tells his story not with bitterness but almost wonder as he tries to sift the truth from his memories, which include many tender moments with his new kin. Meanwhile, his coming of age is defined by falling bombs and risky but exhilarating trips to the demarcation line. VERDICT Quietly and absorbingly told, Maroun’s journey is Lebanon’s, and it’s valuable reading.

Levental, Vadim. Masha Regina. Oneworld. May 2016. 288p. tr. from Russian by Lisa Hayden. ISBN 9781780748610. $20; ebk. ISBN 9781780748610. F

In this engaging debut from Levental, which was short-listed for Russia’s Big Book Award, vividly fanciful young artist Masha is scorned as different by everyone around her. She’s tired of being stuck in the sticks with her alcohol-drenched father and clingy mother and ambitiously persuades them to let her study at a boarding school in Petersburg. She initially fails the entrance exam but perseveres with the help of a teacher who becomes her somewhat soppy and unsatisfying lover. Masha’s attracted, too, to a film student “with the face of a crown prince” whom she met on the train to Petersburg. Transferring her interest from art to art films, she becomes a famed director throughout Europe, ever conscious that “the longer she’d lived, the more cogs would begin catching each other.” VERDICT What starts as a charming and fabulist coming-of-age tale ends as a serious study of the artist’s struggle in society and the way cogs catch us all.

Mingarelli, Hubert. A Meal in Winter. New Pr. Jul. 2016. 144p. tr. from French by Sam Taylor. ISBN 9781620971734. ebk. ISBN 9781620971741. F

Grenoble-based Mingarelli, winner of France’s Prix de Médicis, shows us World War II through one spare, fierce, quietly affecting moment. Deep in the Polish winter, three German soldiers are sent from their barracks on a standard mission—go into the surrounding countryside and round up a Jew for execution. They’re not altogether happy with their task—one of the soldiers, named Emmerich, is more worried about his son at home—but they haven’t reached a point of aroused conscience either. After locating a victim and dragging him from his underground hideout, they wind up in a dark, freezing hut, trying to build a fire and cook a meal. A Pole knocks to be let in, and the entire group shares a tense and sullen meal. It does prompt Emmerich to cry out, “ ‘How many have we killed?’…it’s making us sick.” Yet will that change their actions—or their fate? VERDICT Fine reading, not just for those interested in the war.

redstarModiano, Patrick. Villa Triste. Other. May 2016. 176p. tr. from French by John Cullen. ISBN 9781590517673. pap. $13.95; ebk. ISBN 9781590517680. F

villatriste.jpg6916An elliptical narrative with a submerged past and memory shifting like smoke, this story has all the hallmarks of Nobel Prize winner Modiano’s writing. But with more details forthrightly given and a franker sense of the erotic, it is refreshingly different, too. In the early Sixties, a restless young man who calls himself Count Victor Chmara hides out in a fashionable French resort town on a lake near Switzerland. What he’s hiding from remains uncertain, though brief reference is made to the ongoing Algerian War and shadowy events in prewar Berlin. Soon he’s linked up with aspiring actress Yvonne Jacquet and Dr. René Meinthe, an older friend of hers whose sexual proclivities briefly touch the narrative’s surface. This mysteriously wealthy twosome invites the young man to leave his dowdy boardinghouse and move into their elegant abode, and he pursues an increasingly heated affair with Yvonne. Suddenly, it all falls away, and our young hero is left with questions while remaining a question mark himself. VERDICT Adding more color to Modiano’s exquisite palette; highly recommended.

N’Sondé, Wilfried. The Heart of the Leopard Children. Indiana Univ. (Global African Voices). Jul. 2016. 100p. tr. from French by Karen Lindo. ISBN 9780253021908. pap. $20; ebk. ISBN 9780253021922. F

Born in 1968 in the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville) and raised in France, N’Sondé has won major awards for his four novels, including this first novel, also his first to be translated into English. His nameless narrator, from a housing project outside of Paris, has spun recklessly out of control during a confrontation with the police and finds himself in a cold, filthy cell. There he rages, not certain what has happened, challenging the police and calling on his leopard-imprinted ancestor for help. He also recalls best friend Drissa, who never fit in and is now in a psychiatric hospital, and luscious Jewish girlfriend Mireille, who’s abandoned him for Israel. In the end, he says, “I pissed out all my frustrations, on the officer, my fear of the future, the love that left me, a devastated Congo, my friends’ distress,” and so much more. But he’s left unbowed. VERDICT Densely and beautifully written, the chapterless narrative absorbs like a thriller and reads like a prose poem. Sophisticated readers should grab.

Sönmez, Burhan. Istanbul Istanbul. OR. May 2016. 192p. tr. from Turkish by Ümit Hussein. ISBN 9781682190388. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9781682190395. F

Four men inhabit a dank cell in Istanbul: the Doctor; the student Demirtay; troublesome Kamo the Barber; and Uncle Küheylan, an older man from the mountains who has always dreamed deliriously of coming to Istanbul. As they wait tensely for guards to drag out one of them for the next round of torture, they tell one another stories they already know, stories that take them beyond their cell walls to the larger world. From the wily nun who escapes a rapist to hunters trying to undo fate decreed by a fairy, these tales are engrossingly rendered, and they eventually lead to Istanbul itself, fighting to defend its beauty. An award-winning Turkish author and former lawyer, Sönmez spent five years in the UK being treated for injuries sustained in an assault by the Turkish police, and he captures the chill of anticipating torture with quiet authority. But his book is ultimately and persuasively about what imagination can do. VERDICT A real find; highly recommended. [Note: Print-on-demand only; order directly from orbooks.com.]

Teixidor, Emili. Black Bread. Biblioasis. Jul. 2016. 400p. tr. from Catalan by Peter Bush. ISBN 9781771960908. pap. $14.95. F

In this richly written saga, set in the Catalan countryside in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, 11-year-old Andreu has gone to live with his grandparents while his father awaits execution for reputedly subversive activities. Initially, Andreu enjoys romping with cousins Quirze and Núria—the old plumtree is their base of operations—and Teixidor’s details of family, school, and country life are homey and surprisingly gratifying. The story gets darker and increasingly interesting as we learn more about Andreu’s parents, with Andreu reflecting bitterly on his meek mother’s single-minded obsession with saving his off-balance father and proclaiming, “Love burns. Love destroys. Love kills.” His confusion is compounded when he’s distracted from Núria’s teasing sex games by the sight of a young man stretched out naked in a monastery garden. Eventually, Andreu must leave his own garden for the wider world, convinced that he’s a monster. VERDICT A taut and tender coming-of-age story that’s both resonant and intriguingly different.

redstarUrroz, Eloy. The Family Interrupted. Dalkey Archive. Aug. 2016. 160p. tr. from Spanish by Ezra Fitz. ISBN 9781564787330. pap. $15. F

familyinterrupted.jpg6916In 1938, at the height of the Spanish Civil War, the distinguished poet Luis Cernuda left England with the help of a still moony former lover who promised him readings and lectures that never materialized. As depicted here, he broke free to find rooms of his own, getting by on a job tending refugee Basque children and arguing with a compatriot that the Left is as oppressive as Franco’s Fascist Right. A child’s death prompts a poem read decades later by young Mexican filmmaker Luis Salerno Insausti when his nephew dies. New York–based Salerno, estranged from his family in Mexico because his father refuses to acknowledge a half-sister, discusses the issue of children (as well as meaning in a Godless universe) with friend Jacinto, then lover Alfredo. The two narratives are further linked by Cernuda’s only play, rediscovered by Octavio Paz, but more importantly by Urroz’s (Friction) fluid, propulsive language and passionate exploration of ideas. VERDICT Shifting voices may confuse momentarily, but what unfolds is a magnificent and heartfelt novel.

Barbara Hoffert is Editor, Prepub Alert, LJ

This article was published in Library Journal's June 15, 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.