Carrère, Emmanuel. The Kingdom. Farrar. Mar. 2017. 400p. tr. from French by John Lambert. ISBN 9780374184308. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780374714031. F
Though this hefty tome from award-winning French author Carrère (Limonov) is described as a fictional account of the early Christians, don’t expect a swords-and-tattered-sandals biblical epic. Carrère, known for genre blending of the highest order, opens with a prolog about returning to this book after storming out as scriptwriter for a hit French TV series, then offers an extended look at a spiritual crisis of earlier years (though he hates the word spiritual). The account itself, which doesn’t start much before page 100, reads less like fiction than accessible, brightly penned history. Homier scenes (“Luke was a doctor. Paul was sick”) are followed by in-depth reflection (“Thousands of pages have been written on this ‘thorn in the flesh.’ …What could it be?”), and there’s contemporary contextualizing, too (“You can’t say that the Romans invented globalization…but they brought it to a point of perfect”). VERDICT If, as Carrère says, Borges called theology a branch of fantastic literature, this could be it. Strong if sometimes extended reading for sophisticated readers.
Fuentes, Carlos. Nietzsche on His Balcony. Dalkey. Dec. 2017. 192p. tr. from Spanish by E. Shaskan Bumas & Alejandro Branger. ISBN 9781628971583. pap. $16. F
Published posthumously, this final novel from Mexican master Fuentes opens with the author stepping onto a hotel balcony and spotting Friedrich Nietzsche on the balcony next door. What unfolds is as much philosophical treatise as fiction, with the story loosely grounded by the Loredano family, whose once domineering patriarch is shoved into the attic by brazen son Leo over the weak protests of Leo’s brother, Dante. That family power struggle is later mirrored in political struggle, even as other characters appear, from a pedophile murderer to Dorian Dolor, whose name change prompts discussion of the core issue of identity. If we are our history and it’s lost, say, through madness, have we any self left? Yet if we carry the predicating weight of our pasts through time, why did the tiger trainer kill his mainstay, the tiger? VERDICT Limpidly translated, this work is masterly but exasperating, penetrating but disjointed, fascinating but sometimes opaque, with Friedrich’s numbered intrusions intriguing but not always illuminating. Don’t expect Old Gringo, but fans of Latin American literature will surely want to consider.
Lebedev, Sergei. The Year of the Comet. New Vessel. Feb. 2017. 275p. tr. from Russian by Antonina W. Bouis. ISBN . pap. $17.95. F
Like his excellent Oblivion, Lebedev’s absorbing new work opens with a steadily building account of growing up Soviet. Like those around him, the young narrator must carry the weight of the past—in particular, the consequences of a war that wiped out millions—even as he negotiates the stringent everyday. (Grandmother Tanya gives him a little statue that shows “how people really live—see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing.”) He’s torn between wanting to be a Soviet hero and learning his antecedents, even as he feels stifled by his family. Then comes 1986, the fateful year of Haley’s Comet and Chernobyl, serious omens indeed for a boy always looking for them. Tension ratchets up further with “The Summer of Mister,” as the narrator is befriended by an older boy he worships and decides to go after the pedophile killer he’s convinced that only a child can see. In the end, he grows up, sadder, wiser, yet “born anew.” VERDICT A seamlessly written child’s-eye view that conveys an adult understanding of history’s burdens.
Nassar, Raduan. Ancient Tillage. 144p. tr. from Portuguese by K.C.S. Sotelino. ISBN 9780811226561. pap. $13.95.
Nassar, Raduan. A Cup of Rage. 64p. tr. from Portuguese by Stefan Tobler. ISBN 9780811226585. pap. $10.95.
ea. vol: New Directions. Jan. 2017. F
Born in Brazil in 1935 and from a Lebanese family, Nassar has been quietly raising livestock since 1985, a fact reflected in the settings of these two masterly novels, just translated into English. He’s also a leading world writer, offering emotionally wrought scenes in vivid, liquid language, and his discovery will gratify anyone interested in fine literature. Ancient Tillage features André, who lives on a farm dominated by his strict, pious father. There’s a strong religious feeling to the life here: “Love, union, and our work alongside our father was the message of austere purity stored safely in our shrines.” Yet the descriptions of farm life is almost sensual—Sudanesa the nanny goat is “generously formed,” and André has appointed himself her “lyric shepherd.” Given the tension between such opposites in an isolated setting, it’s not surprising that André longs for sister Ana, and the novel crescendos to family crisis told in explosive prose.
Explosive is the operative word for A Cup of Rage, featuring an encounter between an older man on his far-flung farm and a young journalist. Their ferocious sexual exchange is described in luscious language just one step away from violence—“our teeth biting each other’s mouths as if biting into the soft flesh of the heart”—and real violence boils up the next morning when the man notices a gap in his hedge carved by leaf-cutter ants. His intense rage is carried over to the young woman, who remains emotionally in charge and gives as good as she gets; the hapless housekeeper and groundsman clearly know how to manage him. At the end of this acute portrait of frightening human emotion, the man seems as much needy as crazed. Though brief, this book packs a punch, and as with its companion, the sentences can run on for pages but remain readably lucid. VERDICT Both books are highly recommended for ambitious readers.
Padura, Leonardo. Heretics. Farrar. Mar. 2017. 544p. tr. from Spanish by Anna Kushner. ISBN 9780374168858. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780374714284. F
Celebrated Cuban author Padura’s many works include the much-translated Havana tales starring detective Mario Conde. But though Conde appears here, this splendid saga is much more than a mystery. As the doomed St. Louis sails into Havana’s harbor in 1939, carrying Jews seeking asylum, a Polish Jewish boy named Daniel Kaminsky stands on the dock, awaiting his parents and sister with his uncle Joseph (“Pepe the Purseman”). The Kaminskys hope to secure their freedom with a family treasure, a small Rembrandt of Christ, but Cuban corruption combines with U.S. and Canadian indifference to return the ship’s passengers to their doom. Decades later, Daniel’s American son Elias travels to Havana, asking Conde’s help in tracing the history of the painting, now mysteriously up for auction. VERDICT The intensive, richly detailed narrative is at once a portrait of Daniel’s Cuban upbringing, a meditation on anti-Semitism, and an intriguing account of the painting. What did the Cuban police know, and was a murder involved? Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 9/12/16.]
Starnone, Domenico. Ties. Europa. Mar. 2017. 144p. tr. from Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri. ISBN 9781609453855. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781609453862. F
Aside from fine writing and a relentless plot, this portrait of a marriage has lots recommending it. Starnone (First Execution) has claimed Italy’s most prestigious literary honor, the Strega Prize; this book won the Bridge Prize, given jointly by the U.S. Embassy in Rome and the Italian Embassy in Washington, DC; and the translator is Pulitzer Prize winner Lahiri. The narrative opens as a cri de coeur from Vanda, abandoned by husband Aldo for a younger woman; leaps several decades to Aldo’s reflections on why he left and why he returned four years later; and ends with the couple’s adult children venting their spleen. The overly dramatic Vanda claims a need to understand, while the rather spineless Aldo reveals that he could not let go of the exhilaration born of new love, even as he saw he was hurting his family (what a lousy father). And though he cannot relinquish the past, Aldo also can’t see himself in the scrawled letters he left from that time. VERDICT A scalding and incisive display of damage done and people missing their mark.
Volodine, Antoine. Radiant Terminus. Open Letter. Feb. 2107. 500p. tr. from French by Jeffrey Zuckerman. ISBN 9781940953526. pap. $17.95. F
Winner of the 2015 Prix Médicis, this latest exercise in imagination from the prolific Volodine (he’s written 42 novels under various pseudonyms) is set hundreds of years in the future after the fall of the Second Soviet Union, which covered much of the globe. With their home base overcome by enemies of the proletariat, idealistic Ilyushenko, Kronauer, and Vassilissa Marachvili head out on a “communal march toward death,” entering territory rendered toxic for ten millennia by nuclear meltdown. All three succumb quickly, and when Kronauer stumbles forth to find water for nearly dead Vassilissa, he comes upon a rare remaining kolkhoz called Radiant Terminus, run by the tyrant Solovyei. Evidently immune to radiation, which seems to have bequeathed him scary powers—he can speak resoundingly in people’s heads—Solovyei is protective of his three tough if emotionally stunted daughters and profoundly suspicious of Kronauer. What follows is a power struggle involving the entire kolkhoz, told in apt and surprisingly poetic language. VERDICT Readers of both literary fiction and high-end sf can sink into Volodine’s absorbing tale.
Yoshimoto, Banana. Moshi Moshi. Counterpoint. Dec. 2016. 200p. tr. from Japanese by Asa Yoneda. ISBN 9781619027862. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781619028661. F
Though the award-winning Yoshimoto (Kitchen) grounds her new work in a lurid event—Yocchan has just lost her beloved musician father in a murder-suicide pact with a woman neither she nor her mother knows—the narrative itself is measured, tenderly thoughtful, and wholly free of the sort of over-the-top bathos a less practiced or more desperate writer might proffer. Yocchan tries to recover her equilibrium by moving to a funky Tokyo neighborhood called Shimokitkitazawa and ambitiously begins working at the French bistro Les Liens. She’s initially upset when her mother says she wants to move in with her temporarily but then changes her perspective: “I’m on vacation, and Mom’s just visiting. No big deal.” Speaking with colleagues about her father, Yocchan uncovers details about his death and forges ahead, even as her mother liberates herself from her conservative matron role. Though the two imagine that Yocchan’s father is trying to contact them, their healing comes all on their own. VERDICT Refreshingly realistic; a lovely work for most fiction readers.
Zúñiga, Diego. Camanchaca. Coffee House. Mar. 2017. 128p. tr. from Spanish by Megan McDowell. ISBN 9781566894609. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781566894616. F
A Chilean author who’s racked up major honors—e.g., the Chilean National Book and Reading Council Award—Zúñiga here effectively portrays a disaffected but insightful young man whose story emerges on a drive through Chile’s Atacama Desert. The narrative appears as a single paragraph per page, with the white spaces suggesting the emptiness of Chile’s vast stretches and of the narrator’s life. As he explains, his parents separated when he was four, and his father moved while he stayed with his mother in Santiago. Now 20, he remains caught up in her neediness, his jovial noncommunication, a mysterious death in the family, and the sticky web of his father’s new family, these fractured relationships delivered in plainspoken, reportorial prose. But it’s precisely this coolly observant language, deepening with the story, that lets us register the buried despair. VERDICT A fine, disturbing portrait of a broken family that smart readers (including venturesome YAs) will appreciate.