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The Watchlist: August 2017

By M. Bartley Seigel


Every month, emeritus Words Without Borders reviews editor M. Bartley Seigel reaches out into the wide world from his home on the shores of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to share a handful of recently released or forthcoming titles in translation he’s excited about, books he hopes you’ll agree are worth all our good attentions:

 

From Ugly Duckling Presse, I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio, translated from the Spanish (Uruguay) by Jeannine Marie Pitas | poetry | 320 pages | ISBN 9781937027599 | US$22.00

Says the publisher: “Jeannine Pitas’s new translation of Marosa di Giorgio, one of Uruguay’s most famous poets, includes four book-length poems from the middle of her career: The History of Violets (1965); Magnolia (1968); The War of the Orchards (1971); and The Native Garden is in Flames (1975). Occupying the same childhood landscapes that may be familiar to English-language readers from the previously published volume, The History of Violets (UDP, 2010), these serial prose poems explore memory, familial relationships, erotic desire, and war. Marosa di Giorgio uses the recurring setting of a garden as a stage for the ongoing encounter of nature and the supernatural.”

Says Asymptote: “Di Giorgio’s writing is as foreboding as it is tentacular, as intricate as it is unsettling. Jeannine Marie Pitas’s ongoing and remarkable engagement with di Giorgio has brought us this exciting and valuable gift.”

Says me: “At the risk of pissing off a lot of people in the translation community, I’ll admit to sometimes feeling as though poetry, of all literary genres, just doesn’t translate well. While translation of any stripe is always a balance between what’s retained versus what’s lost, there’s simply too much at stake in the language of poetry for much of anything truly meaningful to make it over the transom intact. That said, for every dozen poetry translations that leave me scratching my head and thinking to myself it should probably just have been left in its original language, there’s always at least one book that lands in my lap and smacks me square in my stupid, smug face. Pitas’s translation of di Giorgio is that book of poems, as real and relevant to the here and now as it was in its own time and place.” 

***

From Columbia University Press, City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, translated from the Russian by Nora Seligman Favorov | novel | 272 pages | ISBN 9780231183031 | US$14.95

Says the publisher: “An unsung gem of nineteenth-century Russian literature, City Folk and Country Folk is a seemingly gentle yet devastating satire of Russia’s aristocratic and pseudo-intellectual elites in the 1860s. Translated into English for the first time, the novel weaves an engaging tale of manipulation, infatuation, and female assertiveness that takes place one year after the liberation of the empire’s serfs. Upending Russian literary clichés of female passivity and rural gentry benightedness, Sofia Khvoshchinskaya centers her story on a commonsense, hardworking noblewoman and her self-assured daughter living on their small rural estate. The antithesis of the thoughtful, intellectual, and self-denying young heroines created by Khvoshchinskaya’s male peers, especially Ivan Turgenev, seventeen-year-old Olenka ultimately helps her mother overcome a sense of duty to her ‘betters’ and leads the two to triumph over the urbanites’ financial, amorous, and matrimonial machinations. Sofia Khvoshchinskaya and her writer sisters closely mirror Britain’s Brontës, yet Khvoshchinskaya’s work contains more of Jane Austen’s wit and social repartee, as well as an intellectual engagement reminiscent of Elizabeth Gaskell’s condition-of-England novels. Written by a woman under a male pseudonym, this brilliant and entertaining exploration of gender dynamics on a post-emancipation Russian estate offers a fresh and necessary point of comparison with the better-known classics of nineteenth-century world literature.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “In her sympathetic depiction of the central mother-daughter relationship Khvoshchinskaya stakes her own territory and widens the boundaries of the nineteenth-century Russian novel . . . Set against a backdrop of the emancipation of the serfs, touching on the (assumed) backwardness of rural Russia and the role of its elite in political reform, the book at its heart is the story of two country women asserting their independence.”

Says me: “It’s rainy and glum in my neck of the woods as I write this column, so as long as I’m admitting that I tend not to dig much on poetry in translation, I may as well also admit that I view nineteenth-century Russian dudes as a literature to be dutifully suffered through because that’s what people like me are supposed to do. Fake it until you make, right? Well, I’ve been faking it hard, until now, and I’m forty-two years old. Resigned to my fate, I sat down with this book expecting yet another winter war, but couldn’t have been further from wrong. Where’s Khvoshchinskaya been all my life? A must-read.” 

***

From Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, I Hear Your Voice by Young-ha Kim, translated from the Korean by Krys Lee | novel | 272 pages | ISBN 9780544324473 | US$13.99

Says the publisher: “In South Korea, underground motorcycle gangs attract society’s castoffs. They form groups of hundreds and speed wildly through cities at night. For Jae and Donggyu, two orphans, their motorcycles are a way of survival. Jae is born in a bathroom stall at the Seoul Express Bus Terminal. And Donggyu is born mute—unable to communicate with anyone except Jae. Both boys grow up on the streets of Seoul among runaway teenagers, con men, prostitutes, religious fanatics, and thieves. After years navigating the streets, Jae becomes an icon for uprooted teenagers, bringing an urgent message to them and making his way to the top of the gang. Under his leadership, the group grows more aggressive and violent—and soon becomes the police’s central target. A novel of friendship—worship and betrayal, love and loathing—and a searing portrait of what it means to come of age with nothing to call your own, I Hear Your Voice resonates with mythic power. Here is acclaimed author Young-ha Kim’s most daring novel to date.” 

Says Bookriot: “Kim, an acclaimed South Korean writer, snares us with his taut and eventful opening . . . a gritty account of what might best be called trying to survive while sinking . . . Kim has created bleak scenarios before . . . but here he goes further, blending dark hues with coarse textures . . . Kim excels with his tour of Seoul’s underbelly and his examination, or evisceration, of urban culture. His warts-and-all portrayal of young disaffected, disenfranchised or delinquent misfits recalls Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, and his characters’ anguished alienation is as palpable as that found in Haruki Murakami’s fiction. Krys Lee deserves credit for her skilled translation . . . An absorbing novel about life lived on the skids, on the margins, and, ultimately, in the fast lane.”

Says me: “Maybe you’ve already encountered this title by way of Words Without Borders’s First Read, or by way of one of the breathless reviews circulating the interwebs. If so, add this to your incentive: I didn’t encounter a more thrilling book this month than Kim’s I Hear Your Voice. If mean streets and hard-boiled are your thing, look no further. If they aren’t your thing, prepare for conversion.” 

***

From Deep Vellum Publishing, Moonbath by Yanick Lahens, translated from the French (Haiti) by Emily Gogolak | novel | 264 pages | ISBN 9781941920565 | US$14.95

Says the publisher: “The award-winning saga of a peasant family living in a small Haitian village, told through four generations of voices, recounting through stories of tradition and superstition, voodoo and the new gods, romance and violence, the lives of the women who struggled to hold the family together in an ever-shifting landscape of political turmoil and economic suffering.”

Says World Literature Today: “Lahens’s ambitious fresco of twentieth-century Haiti through the eyes of peasants depicts the first generation with Romain-like incision.”

Says me: “There are a couple of lines in Moonbath that I’m going to steal and repurpose in an attempt to sum up this surprising and wonderful read. Thus, this is a book of unverifiable legends and tenacious truths where amidst the monotony of very ordinary days we escape only by the graces of the gods, who sometimes straddle us in dreams, tempers, colors, and words. This book felt necessary.” 

***

From Touchstone, The History of Bees by Maja Lunde, translated from the Norwegian by Diane Oatley | novel | 352 pages | ISBN 9781501161377 | US$26.00

Says the publisher: “In the spirit of Station Eleven and Never Let Me Go, this dazzling and ambitious literary debut follows three generations of beekeepers from the past, present, and future, weaving a spellbinding story of their relationship to the bees—and to their children and one another—against the backdrop of an urgent, global crisis. England, 1852. William is a biologist and seed merchant, who sets out to build a new type of beehive—one that will give both him and his children honor and fame. United States, 2007. George is a beekeeper fighting an uphill battle against modern farming, but hopes that his son can be their salvation. China, 2098. Tao hand paints pollen onto the fruit trees now that the bees have long since disappeared. When Tao’s young son is taken away by the authorities after a tragic accident, she sets out on a grueling journey to find out what happened to him. Haunting, illuminating, and deftly written, The History of Bees joins these three very different narratives into one gripping and thought-provoking story that is just as much about the powerful bond between children and parents as it is about our very relationship to nature and humanity.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Norwegian author Lunde puts imagination and research to work in this message-driven novel set in a gloomy past, a doomed modernity, and a dystopian future . . . Illuminating if not much fun.”

Says me: “How about that Kirkus review, eh? Well, comedy aside, it’s true. Lunde’s novel is as richly imagined, beguilingly written, and immensely engrossing as it is simply not fun to read. I’m as good as anybody at resisting the sky-is-falling mood of the moment, but sometimes art just cuts a little too close to the bone. Ouch. Consider yourself warned.” 

***

From Phoneme Media, Croatian War Nocturnal by Spomenka Štimec, translated from the Esperanto by Sebastian Schulman | novel | 120 pages | ISBN 9781944700133 | US$14.00

Says the publisher:Croatian War Nocturnal is a fictionalized memoir of the wars in former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, told from the perspective of a Croatian Esperanto activist and teacher. Composed on an early machine-translation computer while the author hid in her bathroom during bomb raids, the book consists of short, interconnected episodes describing the daily traumas of war and genocide and their effect on life and family, memory and language. Told in a unique and elegant staccato style, it’s an emotional account of a woman trying to make sense of the seeming collapse of the two utopian projects that have framed her life—Yugoslavia and Esperanto. At turns somber and darkly witty, Croatian War Nocturnal is a work of enduring optimism, a cry for peace against violence and indifference.”

Says nobody: So read an excerpt for yourself on Words Without Borders and Electric Literature.

Says me: “Brief, lyric, and lucid, I burned through this slim book like a dog day’s brush fire. In the most difficult of circumstances, how do we pass through our aspirational delusions to something real, but still alive and intact? Štimec has a few ideas worth listening to.”  


Published Aug 14, 2017   Copyright 2017 M. Bartley Seigel

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