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Our Favorite International Reads from 2016 (and What We’ll Be Reading in 2017)

By The Editors


As the year draws to a close, our team, board members, and friends of WWB select favorite works-in-translation of 2016 and look ahead to the exciting reads forthcoming in 2017. 

 

Eric M. B. Becker
Editor

In the first half of 2016, Two Lines Press came out with the first of two novels the press will publish by contemporary Brazilian writer João Gilberto NollQuiet Creature on the Corner, translated by Adam Morris, is nothing if not timely. The slim volume follows an unemployed poet in 1980s Brazil who finds himself thrown in jail after inexplicably raping his neighbor. But the poet finds his time in the slammer mysteriously cut short when he’s abruptly taken to a new home—a countryside manor where his every need is seen to. Like many a character throughout Noll’s work, the protagonist and narrator of Quiet Creature is very much subject to the impulses of his body and adrift in a world that appears empty of meaning. The senselessness and alienation that permeate this novel in many ways capture the delirium that often seems to best define this year in world politics.

On to 2017: Igiaba Scego’s Adua, forthcoming from New Vessel Press in June, promises to be a captivating read. The story follows Adua, a Somali immigrant to Italy, who has lived in Rome for nearly forty years. She fled Somalia to escape a strict father and an oppressive regime and to pursue the dream of becoming a film star. Those plans did not work out and with the civil war in Somalia over, Adua feels the pull to return to the country of her birth. But things aren’t so simple, as Adua’s husband—a young immigrant who crossed the Mediterranean to make it to Italy—needs her. When her father dies and she inherits the family home, she must decide whether to return to Somalia and set her future course. You can read Scego’s contribution (in Antony Shugaar’s translation) to our April Women Write War issue (it was also published in Portuguese as part of our content partnership with Revista Pessoa).
 

 

Liz Cettina
Development & Communications Intern

One of my favorites this year was Patrick Modiano’s Villa Triste (Other Press), translated by John Cullen. The narrator of this novel lives under a fake name and title, “Count Chmara,” and avoids not only the war in Algeria but also anything unpleasant. Instead, he surrounds himself with the purely pleasurable. He falls in love with a young actress and befriends a doctor. Their times together are misty and surreal—the narrator struggles to remember exactly what they did and exactly where they went. This forgetfulness is, in fact, exactly what the narrator wants. This is a novel about sentiment and aesthetics. I did not grapple with the narrator’s fear of avoiding the war in Algeria—I knew he was wrong for doing so and it seems he did, too, because the novel is constantly interrupted by moments in which fear or panic take hold of him. This is a novel whose purpose is to paint a picture of a specific time and place. The New York Times writes, “It’s often said that Patrick Modiano keeps writing the same book. That is partly true, but only in the way that Cézanne kept painting the same apples.” 
 


Abby Comstock-Gay
WWB Campus Associate Editor

Inspired by the Japanese manga that we’ve published on WWB Campus this year, I have read a lot of graphic literature this year. My most memorable read in translation is the second volume of Riad Sattouf’s graphic memoir The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1984-1985 (Metropolitan Books). Sattouf continues the story of his childhood in Homs, Syria with his French mother and Syrian father. This memoir (parts three and four forthcoming) stuck with me because of the challenge it presents to the idea of knowing another culture or country. Sattouf’s critical portrayal of his life in Syria has been regarded as an orientalist and anti-Muslim perspective by some, an accurate portrayal by others; others point out that his critical view of Syria and his life there only echoes his personal problems with his father. Elias Sanbar, Palestinian writer and diplomat, wrote in the New Yorker, “The problem isn’t Sattouf, who has written a funny and sympathetic book. It’s the readers who think they’ve understood a society as complex as Syria because they’ve read a single comic book.” This year I find this to be an especially important lesson. 

I’m looking forward to reading Hiromi Kawakami’s new novel, The Nakano Thrift Shop (Europa Editions), translated by Allison Markin Powell. (Read fiction by Hiromi Kawakami in WWB.) And as with many fans, I’m looking forward to reading 2015 Nobel Prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich’s collection of love stories, The Wondrous Deer of the Eternal Hunt, although I’m not sure if it will be out in 2017The title story, which we published in 2005, will appear in the Russia unit of WWB Campus.
 

 

Jessie Chaffee
Associate Editor & Blog Editor

One of my favorites this year was Alejandra Pizarnik’s Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962–1972, translated by Yvette Siegert. The Argentine poet’s work went largely untranslated until relatively recently, and I was grateful to be introduced to it by New Directions. In visceral, lyrical, and often surprising language, Pizarnik wrestles with the complex relationship between creativity and madness, between passion and pain. In one haunting poem, “Ring of Ash,” she writes:

And at night, always,
a tribe of mutilated words
looks for refuge in my throat

Looking ahead, Jenny McPhee’s translation of Natalia Ginzburg’s A Family Lexicon, due out from New York Review Books Classics in 2017, cannot come quickly enough.
 

 

Bruna Dantas Lobato
Contributing Writer & Translator

One of my favorites this year was Sjón’s novella Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb, about a gay sixteen-year-old boy on the fringes of Reykjavik in 1918. There are apocalyptic threats everywhere in this book: the boy’s sexuality is rejected, the Katla volcano erupts, the Spanish flu arrives, and the First World War might spread north. While the protagonist’s world is turning to ashes, he retreats into the imaginary worlds of black-and-white films. Fiction—through the privacy and intimacy that it affords—helps him escape his nightmares. I was moved by this little book on the magic and limitations of storytelling and survival.

Among the many books I can’t wait to read in 2017 is Antonio Di Benedetto’s upcoming Nest in the Bones (Archipelago), the first comprehensive volume of his stories to appear in English, translated by Martina Broner.
 

 

Susan Harris
Editorial Director

One of my favorites this year was Michèle Audin’s One Hundred Twenty-One Days (Deep Vellum)translated by Christiana Hills. A mathematician and member of the Oulipo, Audin blends the abstract rationality of numbers and the fraught history of France between the two world wars in the tale of two mathematical geniuses. In her use of multiple forms—diaries, letters, newspaper articles, interviews—within Oulipian constraints, Audin delivers elegant proof of the unsolvable.

Among the many books I’m looking forward to is Juan Rulfo’s Golden Cockerel and Other Stories (Deep Vellum), translated by Douglas Weatherford, a “lost” novella and other untranslated work from the author of the masterpiece Pedro Paramo
 

 

Lavinia Liang
Development & Communications Intern

One of my favorite reads of 2016 (technically published in 2015) is the much-lauded The Story of My Teeth (Coffee House Press) by Valeria Luiselli. Surprising and evocative, a kind of magic settles over the entire story so that the adventures of the protagonist Highway, as specific as they are, could in some strange world be anybody’s experiences. You can read Valeria Luiselli’s nonfiction in WWB.

Looking ahead, I am beyond excited for the 2017 arrival of Ties by Italian novelist Domenico Starnone, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri and forthcoming from Europa Editions. I had the opportunity to meet Starnone and hear him read from Ties this fall when he came to Princeton to do an Italian-and-English reading with Lahiri. Ties is straightforward in writing style and in its age-old story of infidelity, yet it boasts originality in the startling sensitivity of its prose. Editorial director Susan Harris interviewed Domenico Starnone for WWB Daily.

 

Maaza Mengiste
Board Member

I intended to read José Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion (Archipelago) in small chunks of time, between other readings and impending deadlines, but I was engrossed from the first page and let everything else go. Agualusa’s tale is a delightful, sweeping story set during Angola’s fight for independence from Portugal and the resulting civil war. The story challenges what we imagine to be the clearly drawn lines between “hero” and “villain” and forces a reconsideration of history and our fictions. It does what the best of literature ought to do: keep us glued to our seats, unable to break away. You can read José Eduardo Agualusa’s fiction, translated by Stefan Tobler, in the January 2010 issue of Words without Borders. And if you haven’t read Burhan Sönmez’s Istanbul Istanbul (OR Books)—a stunning portrait of a country’s terrifying betrayals and its hopes—or Blinding (Archipelago) by Mircea Cărtărescu, add them to your list as fast as you can. 

In 2017, I’m very excited to dig into Adua (New Vessel Press) by Igiaba Scego
 

 

Cristóbal Pera
Board Member

Not in my wildest literary dreams would I have imagined my favorite Spanish poet ever, Francisco de Quevedo, playing a tennis match. Less so with another “monster” of the arts in the Baroque and convulse times of Europe in the seventeenth century. The author of this amazing novel is Álvaro Enrigue, who dared to set Sudden Death (Riverhead) as a tennis match in which the ball is made with hair from Anna Bolena’s fallen head, taking the reader through a historical tapestry of the Spanish Empire and the consequences for the people of the new world, among many other subjects. It is probably the first and last time that I will read a book through sets instead of chapters. The translation by Natasha Wimmer is a prowess of adaptation to the historical and vernacular language that go from the baroque to the current Mexican slang.

For the new year I will be expecting the new unpublished novel by Roberto Bolaño, El espíritu de la ciencia ficción (The Spirit of Science Fiction), a surprisingly complex novel—written around 1984 and connected in setting, context, and characters with The Savage Detectives—in which two young Chilean writers living in Mexico City during the year of the coup are trying to find literature and love (and sex). A gift for fans, and the best Bolaño for young readers.
 

 

Samantha Schnee
Founding Editor & Chairman of the Board

One of my favorite reads in 2016 was long overdue—Penguin Classics’s edition of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas in Robin Buss’s translation. It’s hard to find time for a 1250-page read in the Twitter era, but it was worth it ten times over. Dumas’s command of plot and his eye for detail in drawing characters are both masterful and instructive.

And next year I’m really excited about reading Shelby Vincent’s translation of Heavens on Earth (Deep Vellum), in which (according to World Literature Today), “Carmen Boullosa imagines a postapocalyptic world where spoken and written language is banned, memories are obliterated, and history is erased.”
 

 

Pooja Shankar
Development & Communications Intern

My favorite pick of 2016 has to be Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Penguin Random House), translated by Bela Shayevich. Alexievich records harrowing and inspiring tales of Russia during and after the fall of the Soviet Union. The sorrows, oppressions, and famine are contrasted with the ironic and uplifting sense of hope reflected by the citizens. 


In 2017, I am eager to read The Twenty Days of Turin (Norton/Liveright) by Giorgio De Maria, translated by Ramon Glazov. This dark novel speaks of the twenty day period during which the citizens of Turin experienced the phenomenon of collective psychosis.
 

 

Douglas Unger
Board Member

The book I’ve read this year that keeps haunting me is Heidegger’s Shadow, by José Pablo Feinmann, translated from the Spanish by Joshua Price and María Constanza Guzmán, and published by Texas Tech University Press. It’s a philosophical spy novel, written as an epistolary confession to his son by one Dieter Müller, Heidegger’s most faithful doctoral student, telling a tale of intrigue, mystery, and ideas, including Heidegger’s notorious love affair with Hannah Arendt, his public flirtation with Adolf Hitler, and his direct influence on Jean-Paul Sartre. Finally, the story explores the horror at how both Heidegger and his German populist thought system could justify Nazism and mass murder. What a book for philosophy nerds! And what a cautionary reminder that it’s so often hermeneutics—the theory and methodology of interpretation, particularly of scripture—that fuels the most destructive politics.

This spring, I’m looking forward to two novellas by Argentine phenom César AiraThe Little Buddhist Monk & The Proof, to be published by New Directions, translated by Nick Caistor. My best writing students are amazed by Aira’s books, as I often am, too, plus I’m a great fan of the novella as a form and wish publishers would bring out more of them. You can read Aira’s fiction in our February 2004 issue.
 

 

Margo Viscusi
Board Member

In 1987 Eliot Weinberger published 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, a small but essential book, with Moyer Bell Limited, republished this year with additional material by New Directions. The first line reads: “Poetry is that which is worth translating.” In it, he takes a four-line poem by Wang Wei (c. 700–761) and sets out to examine “What happens when a poem, once Chinese and still Chinese, becomes a piece of English, Spanish, French poetry?”  His “19 ways” start with the text in Chinese, a transliteration, a character-by-character translation, and sixteen versions dating from 1919 to 1978, one in Spanish, two in French, and the rest in English, each followed by often thrilling commentary. As Octavio Paz says in an article first published in Mexico and included here as an Afterword, “Eliot Weinberger’s essay on the successive translations of Wang Wei’s little poem illustrates, with succinct clarity, not only the evolution of the art of translation in the modern period but . . . the changes in poetic sensibility.” This new edition contains “more ways,” versions produced from 1988 to 2009, three in German, three in French, and nine in English. Throughout both the original and the added text, Weinberger’s lucid commentary and his wit (follow the story of the Furious Professor, who seems to live in order to take issue with the book) make material that could become tedious a treat as well as a precious lesson in both poetry and translation. You can read a series of poems by Wang Wei, translated by David Hinton, in the May 2004 issue of Words without Borders.

Looking ahead to 2017, Clare Cavanagh was just at Poets House speaking about spiritual poetics in contemporary Polish poetry. She told me her translation of Ryszard Krynicki’s Magnetic Point will be published in 2017. WWB published Ryszard Krynicki’s poems, translated by Alissa Valles, in our 2004 and 2005 issues. 
 

 

Savannah Whiting
Development & Communications Coordinator

This year I really enjoyed Tolstoy, Rasuputin, Others, and Me, a collection of autobiographical stories by the Russian writer Teffi, put out by NYRB. Her stories are wry, sensitive, often political, and funny in a way that’s very relatable, even though many of them were written almost a century ago. Here’s an example, from a story called “The White Flower”:

Our friends the Zaitsevs live out of town.
“The air is so much better out in the suburbs,” they say. 
That is, they can’t afford to live where the air is bad.

The collection includes new translations of short writings that span Teffi’s career. She was famous as a satirist in pre-revolutionary Russia, and she went on to write some of her most famous stories from Paris in the 20s and 30s. She writes about her meetings with larger-than-life historical figures like Tolstoy and Rasputin, and her involvement in émigré literary and political circles there. I most liked the first two sections, in which she writes about her personal life with varying degrees of facticity. But the later sections offer both lessons in history and a reminder of the human threads running through it. In times like these, it’s consoling to feel so much candor and warmth emanate from a book written in such a different time and place.


Published Dec 21, 2016   Copyright 2016 The Editors

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