Indie Fiction in Translation 2014: Don’t-Miss Titles from Around the World

learningcyrillic120914Albahari, David. Learning Cyrillic. Dalkey Archive. (Serbian Literature). 2014. 180p. tr. from Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursac. ISBN 9781628970906. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781628970906. F

The Serbian-born Albahari, who emigrated to Canada in 1994, has made his name with novels like the astute and demanding Leeches. But as evidenced by this sharply perceived collection, he has a flare for short fiction as well. Brief, pointed, and accessibly written, his slice-of-life tales frequently examine familial relationships, from the man who argues with his wife over a dream to a boy recalling his father to a couple drifting apart sexually. A good way to acquaint—or reacquaint—oneself with Albahari.

Aira, César. Conversations. New Directions. 2014. 96p. tr. from Spanish by Katherine Silver. ISBN 9780811221108. pap. $13.95; ebk. ISBN 9780811221115. F

The prolific and prodigiously talented Aira (The Hare) can make much with a little, as exemplified by this slim and effortlessly entertaining book. When two friends discuss a movie they had seen on TV, the narrator laughs about the gold Rolex watch inadvertently revealed on the wrist of the actor playing a lowly goatherd. The puzzled reaction of his friend, who missed the scene, sets off a spiraling conversation about art, politics, killer algae, Hollywood stars, and Immanuel Kant. It’s witty, but it also shows how everything connects.

Ávila Laurel, Juan Tomás. By Night the Mountain Burns. & Other Stories. 2014. 275p. tr. from Spanish by Jethro Soutar. ISBN 9781908276407. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781908276414. F

Born in Equatorial Guinea, Ávila ­Laurel went into exile in Barcelona after a hunger strike in 2011 protesting the rule of President Obiang. The narrative, which draws on memories of the author’s childhood on the island of Annobón, vividly relates a world that’s relentlessly on edge. Mothers leave children with relatives as they go to work on the plantations, and cholera or fire can sweep in to destroy crops, families, and possessions. Quietly crafted, like the canoe in the book’s opening pages; an illuminating read.

de Kerangal, Maylis. Birth of a Bridge. Talonbooks. 2014. 256p. tr. from French by Jessica Moore. ISBN 9780889228894. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9780889228900. F

If you’re not so intrigued by the idea of a book about the engineers, designers, and machinery operators building a bridge in a Macondo-like town in California, think again. In precise, limpid, stringently straightforward language, de Kerangal shows us why we build, what it’s like, and what the impact is on our social fabric. Diamond miners “dig in the glebe, scratch the scree, and sifts the guts, keep watch for the marvellous sparkle,” says the author, and she’s found it. Winner of the 2012 Médicis Prize.

Halfon, Eduardo. Monastery. Bellevue Literary. 2014. 160p. tr. from Spanish by Lisa Dillman & Daniel Hahn. ISBN 9781934137826. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781934137833. F

Named one of the best young Latin American writers by the Hay Festival of Bogotá, Halfon debuted here with The Polish Boxer, whose protagonist—a secular Guatemalan Jew named Eduardo—returns in this well-modulated new work. Israel holds no special meaning for Eduardo when he travels there to attend the wedding of his sister, unrecognizable as an Orthodox woman in a wig, but it prompts reflections on identity as he continues his journeys. Eduardo may be the perpetual wanderer, but his meditations are focused and absorbing.

withmydogeyes120914Hilst, Hilda. With My Dog-Eyes. Melville House. 2014. 96p. tr. from Portuguese by Adam Morris. ISBN 9781612193458. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781612193465. F

Forced to take a leave of absence from teaching because his students “aren’t understanding anything anymore,” mathematics professor Amós Kéres is clearly in the middle of some kind of breakdown. The late Hilst, a leading figure in 20th-century Brazilian literature, shows us a mind unhinging as she lays out Amos’s obsessive and increasingly surreal search for meaning beyond the obvious. Coolly delivered, with depth instead of histrionics, so that we understand we’d be right there with him if only we stopped to think.

Hrabal, Bohumil. Harlequin’s Millions. Archipelago. 2014. 260p. tr. from Czech by Stacey Knecht. ISBN 9780981955735. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9781935744443. F

This charmer from the late, great Czech author (Closely Watched Trains) is set at the castle of Count Špork, which is now a retirement home; its newest residents are the narrator and her husband, Francin. If there’s a castle, there’s a fairy tale, and fairy tales mean adventure (our protagonists make some interesting discoveries as they explore the grounds) and magic, as in magical language, flowingly abundant here (each chapter is a single paragraph). The characters don’t just dwell in the present but reconstruct the past, not always golden—although the book surely is.

Jancar, Drago. The Tree with No Name. Dalkey Archive. 2014. 200p. tr. from Slovene by Michael Biggins. ISBN 9781628970548. $14.95. F

Winner of the European Prize for Literature, leading Slovene writer Jancar opens here with Chapter 87, as a man climbs a tree, then clambers down into the midst of World War II. When Chapter 1 shows up, we’re in postcommunist Slovenia with archivist Janez Lipnik, who is increasingly obsessed with a World War II soldier’s diary of his sexual exploits. Lipnik’s detail chasing can be exhaustive, but there’s a weightiness here clarifying, as the author says, that “this is not just the experience of the Balkans and my country, it’s Europe’s experience in the twentieth century.”

Jerusalmy, Raphaël. The Brotherhood of the Book Hunters. Europa. 2014. 272p. tr. from French by Howard Curtis. ISBN 9781609452308. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781609452438. F

Condemned to death, François ­Villon, the great (and rascally) poet of the French Middle Ages escapes execution when he agrees to a scheme proposed by Guillaume Chartier, bishop of Paris, and Louis XI himself. In a move meant to challenge Rome, he must persuade freethinking German printer Johann Fust to resettle in Paris. Soon, Villon’s mission expands to the Holy Land (French-born Jerusalmy, author of Saving Mozart, sells antique books in Tel-Aviv). The result is a fabulously entertaining picaresque and a great portrait of Villon.

Manea, Norman. Captives. New Directions. 2014. captives120914288p. tr. from Romanian by Jean Harris. ISBN 9780811220477. pap. $17.95. F

Published in the Socialist Republic of Romania in 1970, this debut novel by Bard College’s multi-award-winning writer-in-residence is finally appearing here in a translation of its second edition. The narrative, featuring a schoolteacher, an engineer, and the daughter of a suspected war criminal, is by no means conventional but instead offers distilled moments, as if the characters were too trammeled by postwar communist strictures to let themselves go. Quiet desperation, delivered with dazzling exactitude by a master.

Modiano, Patrick. Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas. Yale Univ. (Margellos World Republic of Letters). 2014. 232p. tr. from French by Mark Polizzotti. ISBN 9780300198058. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780300213379. F

Planned as a February 2015 release but moved up when its author won the Nobel Prize, this volume collects three novellas that are quintessential Modiano. “Afterimages,” whose narrator recalls a photographer acquaintance who was not what he seemed; “Suspended Sentences,” about a boy raised by friends of his touring actress mother; and “Flowers of Ruin,” whose protagonist revisits a site of his youth, where a mysterious double-suicide took place—all concern the uncertainty of memory. The result is elegantly meditative yet remote, a still lake reflecting itself; handy as an introduction to a world figure.

Nakamura, Fuminori. Last Winter, We Parted. Soho. 2014. 224p. tr. from Japanese by Allison Markin Powell. ISBN 9781616954550. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781616954567. F

In Nakamura’s new novel (after The Thief), a young writer is asked to write the biography of a death row inmate who had burned two women alive, hoping to capture their fleeting essence in the flames. The book’s dark, creepy aspect and twist at the end come as no surprise, as The Thief was a finalist for the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Mystery/Thriller. But it also won Japan’s prestigious Kenzaburō Ōe Prize, so the fluid language, sophisticated structure, and reflections on how we know what we know don’t surprise, either. Chilling.

Rahimi, Atiq. A Curse on Dostoyevsky. Other. 2014. 272. tr. from French by Polly McLean. ISBN 9781590515471. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781590515488. F

Afghan-born, Paris-based Rahimi, who’s won the Prix Goncourt for his fiction and numerous awards for his films, daringly references Crime and Punishment from the first page of this page-turning novel. Rassoul takes an axe to the wealthy dowager who has prostituted his beloved Sophia and, true to Dostoyevsky, wishes to expiate his sin by surrendering to the police. But he’s in war-torn Kabul, where absurdity reigns, and his efforts become ever more frantic and darkly hilarious.

crocodiles120914Rakha, Youssef. The Crocodiles. Seven Stories. 2014. 256p. tr. from Arabic by Robin Moger. ISBN 9781609805715. pap. $17.95; ebk. ISBN 9781609805722. F

In poet/journalist Rakha’s brilliant novel, set in Cairo between 1997 and 2011, the suicide of an iconic female activist, the founding of the Crocodiles Movement for Secret Egyptian Poetry by a bunch of young idealists, and the birthday of Nayf, who’s struggling to translate Allen Ginsberg’s “The Lion for Real,” all converge on a single June day. Whether Ginsberg’s lion is God or love, revolution or fate, the young people here aren’t quite ready, though they’re full of talk. The numbered paragraphs read like prose poems and flow like the best fiction.

Rey Rosa, Rodrigo. Severina. Yale Univ. 2014. 86p. tr. from Spanish by Chris Andrews. ISBN 9780300196092. pap. $13; ebk. ISBN 9780300208498. F

Several novels by ­Guatemalan author Rey Rosa have been translated by Paul Bowles, with whom he studied; eventually, Rey Rosa became executor of Bowles’s estate. So the immediacy and closely observed detail displayed in this brief but mesmerizing study of a bookseller who tracks a sultry, dark-haired book thief is perfectly fitting. Rippling with suspense, pasión, and finally a measure of understanding.

Scott, Paulo. Nowhere People. & Other Stories. 2014. 336p. tr. from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn ISBN 9781908276384. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781908276391. F

nowherepeople120914Overstressed Brazilian law student Paulo is driving down the BR-116 when he spots a Guarani Indian girl by the roadside, soaked through in the rain. He picks her up, determines that she is only 14, then finds that she’s unwilling to get out at her roadside indigenous camp, instead begging a ride to the city. As he takes her along, trying to protect her, their uneasy relationship reflects core social tensions in Brazil. Upcoming Brazilian author Scott writes with assured power, offering a local story with universal resonance.

Stockenström, Wilma. The Expedition of the Baobab Tree. Archipelago. 220p. tr. from Afrikaans by J.N. Coetzee. ISBN 9781935744924. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9781935744931. F

Published here in a small edition in the early 1980s, before Stockenström came to prominence and translator Coetzee won the Nobel Prize, this work opens with a slave woman sheltering in a majestic baobab tree. She is the only survivor of an ill-fated expedition deep into Africa and despairs at being spared: “With bitterness, then. But that I have forbidden myself. With ridicule, then, which is more affable.” As she recalls in heartbreakingly lyrical language a difficult life of being passed from owner to owner, she particularizes the African experience while illuminating human values.

Barbara Hoffert is Editor, Prepub Alert, LJ

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @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.