With the Man Booker International Prize longlist announcement fast approaching on Thursday 10th March, here are some short works of translated fiction I’ve enjoyed recently:
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa, Out in the Open by Jesús Carrasco has been widely compared to ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy. Its unnamed central character is battling to survive in a desolate drought-ridden landscape. Having run away from home for reasons which are revealed towards the end, he strikes up an unlikely friendship with a goatherd. The absence of names for places and characters gives the book a timeless quality and although post-apocalyptic fiction has never been my favourite genre, Margaret Jull Costa’s excellent translation adds colour and depth to a very bleak story.
The only novels I have read which have been translated from Chinese are Decoded by Mai Jia and the IFFP-longlisted The Last Lover by Can Xue both of which I found completely baffling. However, I thought Anna Holmwood’s translation of A Perfect Crime by A Yi was much more readable and offers an unflinching view of contemporary China without circuitous philosophical musings. It is told from the point of view of an unnamed high school student who murders his friend and goes on the run. Although it isn’t the type of crime fiction novel where there is a mystery to be solved, it is a chilling portrait of a psychopath who is easily bored and completely unmoved by the consequences of his actions.
Continuing the theme of unreliable narrators, The Room by Jonas Karlsson comes with a recommendation from none other than Nick Offerman (aka Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation) as “the most effective chapbook on workplace comportment since Glengarry Glen Ross.” Translated from the Swedish by Neil Smith, it tells the story of Bjorn who works in an open-plan office for a sterile corporate organisation known as “The Authority”. Ambitious, pernickety and obsessed with strategic frameworks, Bjorn is unpopular with his colleagues but barely notices their disdain towards him. During one of his scheduled trips to the toilet, he discovers a room he has never noticed before. However, the room is never acknowledged by his colleagues who subsequently try to get Bjorn fired. I really enjoyed both the satirical humour of the book as well as its darker side which examines whether or not the room is a psychological trick and doesn’t actually exist. Highly recommended for anyone who has ever worked in an office and hated it.
As well as more recent translated fiction, I have been gradually working my way through the Peirene Press back catalogue and recently read The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul from the Small Epic series published in 2012. Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, it tells the story of Bess whose husband Halland is shot dead one morning. During the investigation, she discovers that Halland had been keeping a number of secrets from her. Bess is abrupt to the point of rudeness and her eccentric and detached account of what happened ends up posing more questions than it answers without a neat resolution at the end. Like ‘A Perfect Crime’, it isn’t a conventional crime novel but if you have enjoyed other abstract novellas published by Peirene, you will probably enjoy this one too.
Translated from the French by Jessica Moore, Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal (also known as ‘Repair the Living’ or ‘The Heart’ in the United States) tells the story of Simon Limbeau, a teenager who is gravely injured in a car accident after a surfing trip near Le Havre on the west coast of France. His parents, Sean and Marianne, agree to donate his organs and the second half of the story focuses on Claire, the intended recipient of Simon’s heart. I think I had expected to read a dry literary melodrama but I was pleasantly surprised by how engaging de Kerangal’s prose is and the sensitive way in which she explores such an emotive subject. ‘Mend the Living’ is de Kerangal’s fifth novel and the second to be translated into English after ‘Birth of a Bridge’ which I will definitely be tracking down in the future and is also eligible for the Man Booker International Prize this year. Many thanks to Maclehose Press for sending me a review copy of ‘Mend the Living’ via NetGalley.
Translated from the French by John Cullen, The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud is a retelling of ‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus from the point of view of the brother of the Arab killed in Algeria by the infamously indifferent antihero Meursault. In this companion novel set seventy years after the killing, Harun describes the life and death of his brother Musa, mostly dwelling on the injustice of how long it has taken for his version of events to be heard and the absence of Musa’s name in the original story. Harun also recounts the story of postcolonial Algeria through his own personal experiences and reflections concerning his identity. Books which explore iconic characters from classic novels and their alternative stories can be hit and miss but ‘The Meursault Investigation’ is a worthwhile companion to ‘The Outsider’. Although it’s a book which deserves merit on its own terms, I would still say it is essential to have read Camus’ novel in order to understand the context and truly appreciate what Daoud has achieved here in his ambitious debut novel.
Finally, after participating last year for the now-defunct Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, I have joined this year’s Man Booker International Prize shadow panel with seven other bloggers. After the longlist is announced next month, we will be reading the nominated titles before choosing our winner so do look out for our thoughts over the coming weeks. Here are the bios for this year’s shadow panel participants:
Stu Allen is returning to chair the first Man Booker International Prize shadow jury after hosting four shadow IFFP juries. He blogs out of Winstonsdad’s Blog, home to 500-plus translated books in review. He can be found on twitter (@stujallen), where he also started the successful translated fiction hashtag #TranslationThurs over five years ago.
Tony Malone is an Anglo-Australian reviewer with a particular focus on German, Japanese and Korean fiction. He blogs at Tony’s Reading List, and his reviews have also appeared at Words Without Borders, Necessary Fiction and Shiny New Books. Based in Melbourne, he teaches ESL to prospective university students when he’s not reading and reviewing. He can also be found on Twitter @tony_malone
Tony Messenger is addicted to lists, and books – put the two together (especially translated works) and the bookshelves sigh under the weight of new purchases as the “to be read” piles grow and the voracious all-night reading continues. Another Tony from Melbourne Australia, @Messy_tony (his Twitter handle) may sometimes be mistaken for the more famous Malone Tony but rest assured they’re two different people. Messy Tony can be found at Messengers Booker (and more) and at Messenger’s Booker on Facebook – with a blog containing the word “booker” why wouldn’t he read this list?
Lori Feathers lives in Dallas, Texas, and is a freelance book critic and member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her recent reviews can be found at Words Without Borders, Full Stop, World Literature Today, Three Percent, Rain Taxi and on Twitter @LoriFeathers
Bellezza is a blogger from Chicago, Illinois, who has been writing Dolce Bellezza for ten years. She has run the Japanese Literature Challenge for 9 years, and her reviews can be found on publisher sites such as Penguin Random House, Simon and Schuster, Peirene Press, and SoHo Press. It is her great joy to participate in the shadow jury for the Man Booker International Prize with fellow participants who are experts in translated literature.
David Hebblethwaite is a book blogger and reviewer from the north of England, now based in the south. He has written about translated fiction for Words Without Borders, Shiny New Books, Strange Horizons, and We Love This Book. He blogs at David’s Book World and tweets as @David_Heb.
Grant Rintoul is a Scottish reviewer who lives on the coast not far from the 39 steps said to have inspired Buchan’s novel. Luckily the weather is generally ideal for reading. He blogs at 1streading, so-called as he rarely has time to look at anything twice. He can sometimes be found on Twitter @GrantRintoul
Have you been reading any translated fiction recently? Do you have any predictions for what might appear on the Man Booker International Prize longlist?