Altan, Ahmet. Endgame. Europa. Apr. 2017. 400p. tr. from Turkish by Alexander Dawe. ISBN 9781609453770. pap. $18. F
Stylish, inventive, and deliciously dark, Altan’s U.S. debut is both an absorbing thriller and an intensive novel of ideas; no wonder he’s an award-winning and best-selling author in his native Turkey. The nameless narrator, a lackluster novelist, impulsively abandons city life for a small coastal town and falls immediately for the beautiful, evasive Zuhal, whose former lover is the all-powerful mayor. The village looks placid enough, but there’s menace beneath the surface; the townsfolk avoid him, mafia-style killings are prevalent, and a buried treasure on the hill beckons. The mayor has his own reasons for befriending the narrator, who is soon drawn into a venture that spirals violently out of his control. Meanwhile, comparisons abound between novelists and God, who can get away with a lot more, and we’re left wondering if we are in control of our lives the way the novelist is in control of his characters. VERDICT Existential questions perfectly blended with atmosphere and rat-a-tat prose; highly recommended.
Antoon, Sinan. The Baghdad Eucharist. Hoopoe: American Univ. in Cairo. Apr. 2017. 136p. tr. from Arabic by Maia Tabet. ISBN 9789774168208. pap. $14.95. F
In this revealing work from award-winning poet/novelist Antoon (The Corpse Washer), an associate professor of Arabic literature at New York University, Maha and her husband have been forced by the ongoing violence to move into her uncle Youssef’s Baghdad home. Maha and Youssef bicker constantly, with Maha accusing Youssef of living in the past and failing to recognize the current persecution of Christians (the family is Syriac Catholic), and Youssef countering that the conflicts are political and are complicated by history. Not surprisingly, the narrative goes on to excavate the past, from the 1941 coup to the passage of the law stripping Iraqi Jews of citizenship, the invasion of Kuwait, and the American occupation, gracefully given context by old family photographs. One senses that the cultured Youssef, however well informed, is perhaps naïve about contemporary currents, and the narrative builds powerfully to a sobering attack that will leave readers shaken. VERDICT This book is an education in Iraq from the inside, and if it occasionally feels like a history lesson, it’s committedly written, and, frankly, many of us could use the lesson.
Daoud, Hassan. The Road to Paradise. Hoopoe: American Univ. in Cairo. Apr. 2017. 304p. tr. from Arabic by Marilyn Booth. ISBN 9789774168178. pap. $17.95. F
Winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, this latest from prolific Lebanese author Daoud (The Penguin’s Song) opens dramatically with the imam of a small Lebanon town being diagnosed with cancer, something he had feared and expected for years. What follows is not, however, his frenzied leap into drinking up life to the very last drop, something fiction readers today might rightly expect. Yes, the narrator contemplates a life gone awry; he was forced by his stern imam father to follow the family tradition and put on the jubba and turban instead of going to university, and his arranged marriage to a pretty but ultimately shrewish woman has been sterile and loveless, with both his sons tragically born deaf. Yet while our hero tentatively explores illicit passion and considers abandoning his mosque, the story he tells slowly and unobtrusively unwinds the small tasks of everyday life, reminding us that truth is in the details. VERDICT Not for the action-oriented, this stately and thoughtful book provides an incisive look at one man’s struggles in smooth, muscular prose.
Depestre, René. Hadriana in All My Dreams. Akashic. May 2017. 160p. tr. from French by Kaiama L. Glover. ISBN 9781617755330. pap. $15.95. F
Originally published in 1988 and written by one of Haiti’s seminal authors, still with us at age 90, this vibrant, erotically charged work shows how humans counter fear—particularly the fear of death—in varied more or less magical ways, even as it paints a fresh and enticing picture of Haitian culture. In the 1930s, teenage Balthazar Granchiré has been turned into an ugly butterfly by his adoptive father, a sorcerer angry at his relentless lechery. In that form, he reputedly engages in a string of excessive deflowerings, and he may be responsible for the death of beautiful, beloved young Frenchwoman Hadriana Siloé on the day of her wedding in a notably mixed marriage to local Hector Danoze. The community immediately splits in its response, assuring “a pitiless battle between the two belief systems that have long gone head-to-head in Haitian imagination”; the French Catholics piously observe a wake while others indulge in the “orgiastic excesses of Vodou.” Afterward, the corpse of Hadriana disappears, with an uncle of the young narrator carefully giving evidence that she has become a zombie. VERDICT Luscious and affirmative reading, this is work both the serious-minded and the lighthearted can enjoy.
de Vigan, Delphine. Based on a True Story. Bloomsbury USA. May 2017. 384p. tr. from French by George Miller. ISBN 9781632868152. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781408878835. F
As the very title suggests, this latest work from Prix Goncourt finalist de Vigan (Underground Time) is metafiction, or memoir as fiction, but it’s also a smart, elegant thriller that generates its chills from the very ordinariness of events as they start unfolding. A novelist named Delphine, fragile and anxious after the unexpectedly overwhelming success of a new novel, attends a party and becomes enchanted with a women named L., who flirtatiously tells Delphine that she’s beautiful when she dances. L. seems perfectly attuned to Delphine and counterbalances her unease with feminine sophistication. Later, after receiving a particularly angry letter from a reader, Delphine gets a call from L., welcome if puzzling; where did she get Delphine’s number? L. explains that away and slides smoothly into Delphine’s life, eventually taking over. In the end, Delphine is caught in a web of her own making. VERDICT A fine portrait of predation as real as anything in the jungle; scary and persuasive for most readers.
Énard, Mathias. Compass. New Directions. Mar. 2017. 464p. tr. from French by Charlotte Mandell. ISBN 9780811226622. $26.95. F
Richly written, baroquely observant, and so terrifyingly erudite in its dizzying display of knowledge that some readers might be overwhelmed, this propulsive work explores the meaning of the Orient and the Orientalist impulse in the West, to use the narrator’s historically suggestive terminology. In the opening pages, fussy, fusty Viennese musicologist Franz Ritter has taken to bed and spends a restless night recalling occasionally opium-infused memories of travel to Istanbul, Aleppo, and beyond, while also contemplating his not-quite-realized relationship with brilliant French scholar Sarah, whom he’s followed around for years. The mutual influences of West and Middle East are iterated, and Franz’s almost fanatical interest with the lands beyond the Mediterranean relentlessly draws us in while begging some questions. What does this fascination have to do with his attraction to melancholy and otherness, and are some travelers and scholars motivated less by understanding the region’s depths than enjoying its surface dazzle? Meanwhile, the lapidary narrative is as much an unsettling portrait of a man who’s missed his chance at life and love as it is a thoroughgoing study of culture. VERDICT An admirably translated Prix Goncourt winner from the author of Zone; highly recommended for sophisticated readers.
Fishere, Ezzedine C. Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge. Hoopoe: American Univ. in Cairo. Apr. 2017. 168p. tr. from Arabic by John Peate. ISBN 9789774168192. pap. $14.95. F
Novelist/diplomat Fishere, who currently teaches at Dartmouth, pointedly portrays the weight and nuance of human relationships, with the immigrant’s dislocation an added complication. Cairo-born, New York–based academic Darwish is throwing a birthday party for granddaughter Salma, whom he’s invited for a visit from Egypt partly because he’s secretly dying of cancer but also to “drag her out of that shell her demented mother kept her in.” Cosmopolitan and imperious, Darwish is aghast with Salma and by extension her entire generation because she’s missed her train from Washington and won’t even make the party. Other guests, including Darwish’s son, Youssef, burned out from his UN work and now unemployed, and the disaffected Rami, a translator and former student of Darwish, are not so eagerly anticipating a gathering that has them pondering (or avoiding) their direction in life. VERDICT Though Fishere can be overly descriptive, he has important things to say about personal, intergenerational, and cultural uncertainty in the current world, and he offers a smart, well-rendered portrait.
Han Yujoo. The Impossible Fairy Tale. Graywolf. Mar. 2017. 192p. tr. from Korean by Janet Hong. ISBN 9781555977665. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781555979607. F
In this first novel after several short story collections from Korean author Han, the writing is dreamlike but the story nightmarish; full-of-herself Mia baldly manipulates her mother and two fathers, while a cruel classmate called only the Child tortures animals and plays nasty tricks on those around her, notably breaking into school to write damning sentences in her classmates’ journals. Not that the classmates are little angels; one chapter opens by blandly observing, “The children are choking one another at the back of the classroom. They call it ‘the fainting game.’ ” Even as Mia and the Child quietly compete, the Lord of the Flies atmosphere shifts subtly to a darker, unrecognizable world bordering on fantasy, a place where the classroom and indeed time itself begins collapsing. But the journals are key; the very act of writing is Han’s subject here. VERDICT Han pushes to the edge contextually but remains lucid in her own way; an ambitious novel for ambitious readers, and Han is a writer for those in the know to watch.
Khalifa, Mustafa. The Shell. Interlink. Jun. 2017. 252p. tr. from Arabic by Paul Starkey. ISBN 9781566560221. pap. $15. F
From 1982 to 1994, Syrian topographer Khalifa was incarcerated in his country’s infamous Tadmur Military Prison, and his decision to present his experiences as fiction results in a document both haunting and bold. Perhaps only fiction could do justice to the suffering he endured, but as the narrator also notes, explaining that he resorted to an Islamist technique called mental writing to store up what he experienced, “I cannot write and say everything.” The selected scenes of beatings, torture, hunger, and executions are scalding enough. Having fatefully decided to return home from France, Khalifa’s young narrator is immediately imprisoned and accused of being a Muslim terrorist. In fact, he is Christian-raised and proclaims himself an atheist, which serves to isolate him from his scornful fellow inmates and makes his imprisonment even worse. The story arcs persuasively from the narrator’s first shocks through his steady endurance in the shell that was his prison to his survival upon release in a second shell that’s “becoming thicker and blacker.” VERDICT Highly recommended.
Laurens, Camille. Who You Think I Am. Other. Mar. 2017. 192p. tr. from French by Adriana Hunter. ISBN 9781590518328. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781590518335. F
In this novel of identity, obsession, and our slippery grip on reality, 48-year-old Claire Millecam is so desperate for news of casually cruel, here-again-gone-again lover Joe that she constructs a false identity as the much younger Claire Antunes and friends Joe’s sometimes roommate Christophe on Facebook. Her interest soon turns to Christophe himself, and it doesn’t end well, as the police recordings and therapist’s interviews opening the book suggest. Soon, however, other material appears, including a therapist’s report, a novel fragment, and the draft of a letter, all of which call into question our initial understanding of what has happened to Claire. Do novelists construct avatars to clarify and shroud the truth simultaneously? Do we all? Prix Femina award winner Laurens (In His Arms) deftly investigates these questions, but the real engine of the narrative is Claire’s dangerous energy and uncomfortable articulation of sexual conflict and inequality. VERDICT A well-constructed example of literary/commercial crossover that will prickle readers.
Louis, Édouard. The End of Eddy. Farrar. May 2017. 208p. tr. from French by Michael Lucey. ISBN 9780374266653. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780374716394. F
Louis was born in a factory town in northern France with the name of his narrator, Eddy Bellegueule, a real tough guy’s name (bellegueule means, roughly, “beautiful trap,” with trap here meaning mouth). But anguished young Eddy is no tough guy, instead suffering constant bullying for his so-called fancy ways; even his parents call him pussy, the worst insult they could deliver. In a place where men are expected to be men and women and children can expect to be belted into submission, Eddy is the relentlessly targeted outsider disproving the adage that names can never hurt you and suffering real beatings besides. Fighting panic attacks, skirting his tormentors, trying to get it on with girls before “losing the battle between my desire to become a tough guy and the desire of my own body,” Eddy finally finds a convincing and satisfying way to triumph, if imperfectly. VERDICT An autobiographical first novel that made Louis a star in France and an international sensation, this work is occasionally repetitious but ultimately deeply affecting. [See Prepub Alert, 12/1/16.]
Majdalani, Charif. Moving the Palace. New Vessel. Apr. 2017. 200p. tr. from French by Edward Gauvin. ISBN 9781939931467. pap. $17.95. F
Winner of the François Mauriac Prize from the Académie Française, this utterly charming and, yes, moving novel takes us on a journey through early 1900s Sudan, Egypt, and the Arabian Peninsula that unexpectedly ends in sweet victory. Unlike other Lebanese emigrants of the era, Samuel Ayyad leaves home not for the United States or even Zanzibar but for the dusty and difficult Sudan, where he serves as translator for a wily and possibly batty British colonel facing rebellion. Samuel, from a distinguished literary family of Lebanese Protestants, is occasionally irked by how he’s treated but does his job well enough to be entrusted with a message and eventually bags of gold for sultan Qasim Wad Jabra, whom the British are wooing. The gold in particular comes in handy when Samuel encounters compatriot Shafik Abyad, who has purchased a palace in Tripoli. Shafik intends to sell the palace, but it has no local bidders, so he breaks it down and loads it up on the backs of hundreds of stalwart camels and wanders the desert, intent on selling the palace only in its entirety. Samuel and Shafik quickly join forces, and the result is a victory of human ingenuity and a joyous picaresque. VERDICT Beautiful fun that also gives a deeper sense of Middle East history.
Pleijel, Agneta. A Fortune Foretold. Other. Jun. 2017. 256p. tr. from Swedish by Marlaine Delargy. ISBN 9781590518304. pap. $14.95: ebk. ISBN 9781590518311. F
“Childhood is a no-man’s-land” proclaims this lucidly written autobiographical novel from distinguished Swedish author/critic Pleijel, which slips among first, second, and third person as it chronicles a difficult 1950s upbringing. With her warm yet self-absorbed professor father and depressed, hypercritical pianist mother incessantly at each other’s throats, Neta ends up full of fear, doubt, and self-loathing, always taking blame on herself. Moving around constantly owing to her father’s job doesn’t help, as she’s ever the outsider, at a new school nearly every year, and she has fantastical moments where she imagines knives flying through the air. Quietly unconventional Aunt Ricki is the one bright spot in her life, and Neta clings hopefully to a fortune-teller’s prediction that Ricki will find true love. VERDICT Neta is a sympathetic character, and readers who enjoy coming-of-age stories will appreciate how Pleijel refreshes the trope, realistically giving us a young heroine who understands the world in bits and pieces, as if flying through clouds.
Sansal, Boualem. 2084. Europa. Jan. 2017. 240p. tr. from French by Alison Anderson. ISBN 9781609453664. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9781609453695. F
Intriguing and potentially controversial because of the unexpected overlay of Islamic belief, this new work by Algerian author Sansal is another example of the dystopian literature attracting interest after the 2016 presidential election. Here, the prophet Abi rules rigidly in the name of the god Yolah, proclaiming that “submission is faith and faith is truth.” Order has been restored after a horrific war left millions dead, and belief in the one true god is mandatory, with punishment swift for anyone who does not conform. Ati has returned to Abistan’s capital after a two-year absence spent in pilgrimage and at a sanatorium. Although he falls into a routine, he no longer takes pleasure in common activities like spying. With a colleague, he begins excursions into so-called ghettos and realizes that somewhere out there are civilizations where freedom is possible and the old beliefs survive. That puts him on a dangerous journey. VERDICT Sharply satiric but portentous and sometimes distancing, the narrative takes some getting used to, but it’s worthwhile watching Sansal dig fiercely into the essence of the all-controlling religious belief he roundly condemns. Winner of the Grand Prix du Roman from the Académie Française.
Scego, Igiaba. Adua. New Vessel. Jun. 2017. 185p. tr. from Italian by Jamie Richards. ISBN 9781939931450. pap. $17.95. F
In her lucid and forthright novel, Italian novelist/journalist Scego—born to Somali parents who fled the 1969 coup d’état—examines the linked consequences of Italian colonization, instability in 1970s Somalia, and the current refugee crisis in Europe. Adua, whose mother died in childbirth, was seven or eight when her father, Zoppe, arrived to take her from caretakers in the bush to the big city. An interpreter for Mussolini’s regime, Zoppe landed in Rome and suffered extreme prejudice and imprisonment for his black skin, experiences that hardened him and that serve as an effective counterpoint to Adua’s own experiences after she herself flees to Rome. Adua was driven out by sectarian violence and the cruelty of her father. But now Somalia’s civil war is over, her father has died, and she has an inherited the family home. Should she return? In Rome, she has a much younger husband, a refugee she married to help him after his arduous Mediterranean crossing and for whom she feels responsible. But her identity could lie in the other direction. VERDICT An illuminating work appropriate for a wide range of readers.