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The Watchlist: October 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 White Pine Press, Purifications of the Sign of Retaliation by Myriam Fraga, translated from the Portuguese (Brazil) by Chloe Hill | poetry | 120 pages | ISBN 9781945680076 | US$16.00

Says me: “Because there is nada on this book, even from the publisher. C’mon, White Pine! The book won the 2017 Becker Book Prize and judges Aron Aji and Diana Thow had this to say (pulled from Amazon via the ALTA website): ‘These are dense, florid, strange, and beautiful poems that rewrite the Greek pantheon into a feminist Brazilian landscape. Beginning with an invocation, they ask us to bear witness and reflect familiar myths upon the body of the poet. The collection makes its way from these abstract, timeless myths to vibrant present tense. Chloe Hill has created a beautiful voice in English, paying special attention to the clean sound, powerful movement, and aching pulse of each line, making this translation a pleasure to read and reread.’ True that. What they said. Fraga died in February 2016, but was a leading literary figure of Salvador da Bahia during her lifetime and likely from beyond the grave. The collection is a rich contemplation on collective memory and history and is a mesmerizing addition to the shelf shy on feminist poetics, though it’s so much more than that. The translation by Hill is pitch perfect.” 

***

From Europa Editions, Ferocity by Nicola Lagioia, translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar | fiction | 464 pages | ISBN 9781609453824 | US$9.99

Says the publisher: “Winner of the 2015 Strega Prize, Italy’s preeminent prize for fiction, Ferocity is a cinematic suspense novel that also addresses vital social questions, a combination of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, filtered through the fierce Mediterranean vision of Elena Ferrante. Southern Italy, the 1980s. On a hot summer’s night under a full moon, far from the outlying neighborhoods of a southern Italian metropolis, Clara stumbles naked, dazed, and bloodied down a major highway. When she dies no one is able to say exactly how or why, but her brother cannot free himself from her memory or from the questions surrounding her death. The more he learns about her life and death, the more he uncovers the moral decay at the core of his family’s ascent to social prominence. At once an intimate family saga, a history of an entire region, and a portrait of the moral and political corruption of a whole society, Ferocity is an exhilarating, ambitious, and vivid work of fiction by Italy’s foremost literary novelist.”

Says Library Journal: “The narrative is satisfyingly packed and textured beyond the needs of basic plot; often, two events or conversations take place simultaneously, dizzily clarifying the characters’ mental states and motivations. A rich and readable cautionary tale for strong-minded readers.”

Says me: “It’s always painful to watch a press squeeze its authors into a sweater knit for someone else. Granted, it has to be hard to get past a writer like Ferrante, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, Europa. Thankfully, this book is not an amalgam of Flynn, Franzen, and Ferrante, alliteration aside, but is instead a deeply satisfying read all its own, unique in more ways than it is similar. A page-turner, sure, but smart, smart, smart.” 

***

From Two Lines Press, A Working Woman by Elvira Navarro, translated from the Spanish (Spain) by Christina MacSweeney | fiction | 200 pages | ISBN 9781931883658 | US$14.95

Says the publisher: “Globally acclaimed as a meticulous explorer of the psyche’s most obscure alleyways, Elvira Navarro here delivers an ambitious tale of feminine friendship, madness, a radically changing city, and the vulnerability that makes us divulge our most shameful secrets. It begins as Elisa transcribes the chaotic testimony of her roommate Susana, acting as part-therapist, part-confessor as Susana reveals a gripping account of her strange sexual urges, and the one man who can satisfy them. But is Susana telling the truth? And what to make of Elisa’s own strange account of her difficult relationship with Susana, which blends her literary ambitions with her deep need for catharsis? Is this a true account of Elisa’s life, or is it the follow-up to her first novel that she has long been wanting to write? In one final surprise, A Working Woman concludes with a curious epilogue that makes us question everything we have just read. With her penchant for finding the freakish side of the everyday, her precisely timed, mordant sentences, and her powerful, innovative style, A Working Woman confirms Elvira Navarro as ‘the subtle, almost hidden, true avant-gardist of her generation’ (Enrique Vila-Matas, El País). A Working Woman masterfully uncovers the insecurity lurking just beneath the surface of every stable life, even as it points the way toward new concepts of what the novel can be.”

Says Daniel Saldaña París: “A Working Woman invents a language and a structure to portray the outskirts of the city and job insecurity like no novel has done before. Elvira Navarro is one of the most intelligent and daring writers in the Spanish-speaking world.”

Says me: “Good design is invisible, I’ve been told, and genius expresses its width and breadth both simply and directly. If you aren’t careful, while you’re enjoying yourself a little too much, you’ll have finished Navarro’s novel in a very different place from whence you came.”

***

From Amazon Crossing, Happy Dreams by Jia Pingwa, translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman | fiction | 492 pages | ISBN 9781611097429 | US$14.95

Says the publisher: “From one of China’s foremost authors, Jia Pingwa’s Happy Dreams is a powerful depiction of life in industrializing contemporary China, in all its humor and pathos, as seen through the eyes of Happy Liu, a charming and clever rural laborer who leaves his home for the gritty, harsh streets of Xi’an in search of a better life. After a disastrous end to a relationship, Hawa ‘Happy’ Liu embarks on a quest to find the recipient of his donated kidney and a life that lives up to his self-given moniker. Traveling from his rural home in Freshwind to the city of Xi’an, Happy brings only an eternally positive attitude, his devoted best friend Wufu, and a pair of high-heeled women’s shoes he hopes to fill with the love of his life. In Xi’an, Happy and Wufu find jobs as trash pickers sorting through the city’s filth, but Happy refuses to be deterred by inauspicious beginnings. In his eyes, dusty birds become phoenixes, the streets become rivers, and life is what you make of it. When he meets the beautiful Yichun, he imagines she is the one to fill the shoes and his Cinderella-esque dream. But when the harsh city conditions and the crush of societal inequalities take the life of his friend and shake Happy to his soul, he’ll need more than just his unrelenting optimism to hold on to the belief that something better is possible.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Interwoven with references to China’s tumultuous political history and rich artistic tradition, Pingwa’s novel captures a nation undergoing change and brutally illustrates what that change might actually cost . . . [An] optimistic yet heartbreaking tale of the life of Hawa ‘Happy’ Liu.”

Says me: “Sometimes a good book highlights our similarities, sometimes our differences. Sometimes it stays inside its borders, sometimes it strays across. The rare book manages all of the above, and sometimes deceptively so—perhaps a common thread running through my picks this month. Enter Pingwa’s Happy Dreams, a book I kept trying to hate for a variety of deeply subjective and petty reasons that I won’t go into because they are embarrassing. But I couldn’t. It was too good for me, did its job too well, for which Harman also certainly enjoys a heaping helping of praise.” 

***

From Other Press, To the Back of Beyond by Peter Stamm, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann | fiction | 160 pages | ISBN: 9781590518281 | US$14.99

Says the publisher: “Happily married with two children and a comfortable home in a Swiss town, Thomas and Astrid enjoy a glass of wine in their garden on a night like any other. Called back to the house by their son’s cries, Astrid goes inside, expecting her husband to join her in a bit. But Thomas gets up and, after a brief moment of hesitation, opens the gate and walks out. No longer bound by the ties of his everyday life—family, friends, work—Thomas begins a winding trek across the countryside, exposed as never before to the Alpine winter. At home, Astrid wonders where he’s gone, when he’ll come back, whether he’s still alive. Unfailingly perceptive and precise, Peter Stamm gives form to doubts that disturb us all at times: Are we being true to ourselves? Are we loved for our true selves? Following Thomas and Astrid on their separate paths, To the Back of Beyond eloquently traces the effects of loss and the limits of freedom.”

Says the Guardian: “As usual with Stamm, the story gets its energy from an intriguing blankness about motive, with nothing presented by way of justification for Thomas’s actions . . . exceptionally moving writing.”

Says me: “As a working-class kid at heart, I have scant patience for the ennui of the privileged, particularly that expressed in novel or cinema. I’m not trying to deny that thin slice their humanity, but as there are many more people who are living and dying not by choice or design or artifice, but because they simply have no other say in the matter, I generally choose to look away from a Rabbit, Run and toward lives and matters more pressing. Fine, fine, there’s plenty of critique to heap on my own shoulders for saying that out loud. All I’m pointing out is if I come to any book deeply cynical, so much more so a novel like To the Back of Beyond. To hell with Astrid and Thomas, I want to say, except Stamm isn’t writing about them, he is writing about me, and that’s a tricky maneuver to pull off. Quickly lost inside that funhouse of mirrors, I was forced to look hard, hard at myself, and you can’t ask much more of a book than that, regardless of its class pretensions.” 


Published Oct 13, 2017   Copyright 2017 M. Bartley Seigel

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