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The Watchlist: March 2017

by M. Bartley Seigel

Image of The Watchlist: March 2017


Every month, Words without Borders reviews editor M. Bartley Seigel shares a handful of recently released or forthcoming titles he’s excited about, books he hopes you’ll agree are worth all our good attentions:
 

From Phoneme Media, An Eternity in Tangiers by Titi Faustin and Eyoum Ngangué, by way of Ivory Coast, Cote D'Ivoire, Camaroon, and France, and translated from the French by André Naffis-Sahely | 60 page | ISBN 9781939419798 | US$16.95

Says the publisher: “An Eternity in Tangiers tells the story of a teenager named Gawa, on his journey to emigrate from his hometown, the imaginary African capital of Gnasville, to Tangiers, where he hopes to escape the economic, political, and social suffering that plague his home country. Ivorian author Titi Faustin and Cameroonian illustrator Nyoum Ngangué tell this contemporary African story from an African perspective, countering the exoticism and stereotypes of classics like Hergé’s Tintin in the Congo and offering an intimate account of one of the sociopolitical tragedies of our time.”

Says me: “I’m a Phoneme fanboy and I’m not ashamed to admit it; there’s a written record, so why obsfucate? In a nutshell, nobody is doing what they do in the way they’re doing it, and they’re single-handedly filling all the obscure holes in the puzzle that is literary translation in America. Furthermore, they’re doing it with some small press hustle and verve that hits me square in my sweetspot (substance, check; cool, hell yeah). They knock it out of the park yet again with Faustin’s and Ngangué’s graphic novel An Eternity in Tangiers. Africa (it never gets less weird sweeping up an entire continent into that one word, like it’s Nebraska) has been strong with the literary force recently, and by the metric of my terrible metaphor, this little book is Yoda. Get it, you will (sorry). Read it. Love it.”

***

From Dalkey Archive, Beauty Looks Down on Me by Eun Heekyung, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell | 160 pages | ISBN 9781628971774 | $15.00

Says the publisher: Beauty Looks Down On Me is a collection of by turns sad and funny stories about the thwarted expectations of the young as they grow older. HeeKyung’s characters are misfits who by virtue of their bodies or their lack of social status are left to dream of momentous changes that will never come. Unsatisfied with work, with family, with friends, they lose themselves in diets, books, and blogs. Heekyung’s collection humorously but humanely depicts the loneliness and monotony found in many modern lives.”

Says me: “As I read these stories I kept flashing back to Linklater’s 1991 film Slacker. ‘Man, I just had the weirdest dream . . .’ But having myself come of age in late ’80s and early ’90s, I’m OK with this, just felt grafted onto Korea. As much of a fan as I am of Dalkey’s consistent output, I’ll be the first to admit their catalog often feels more required than compelling. Take your vitamins, kid, they’re good for you. And I do. I do. But not with this title. I picked up Beauty Looks Down On Me and I couldn’t put it back down. This doesn’t happen to me often. I’m a put books back down kinda guy. But HeeKyung’s misfits were my kind of misfits, and in their fortunes and misfortunes, I felt like I’d gone home.” 

***

From Other Press, Who You Think I Am by Camille Laurens, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter | 208 pages | ISBN 9781590518328 | US$14.95

Says the publisher: “This is the story of Claire Millecam, a forty-eight-year-old teacher and divorcée who creates a fake social media profile to keep tabs on Joe, her occasional, elusive, and inconstant lover. Under the false identity of Claire Antunes, a young and beautiful twenty-four-year-old, she starts a correspondence with Chris—pseudonym KissChris—which soon turns into an Internet love affair. A Dangerous Liaisons for our times, Who You Think I Am exposes the disconnect between fantasy and reality. Social media allows us to put ourselves on display, to indulge in secrets, but above all to lie, to recreate a life, to become our own fiction—magnifying and manipulating the double standards to which older women are held when they refuse to give up on desire. Simultaneously sensual, intellectually stimulating, and utterly relevant, this page-turner will stick in your mind long after reading.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Intricate and cerebral . . . Who You Think I Am explores the construction of identity and the politics of age, gender, and desire . . . Laurens crafts the novel’s nested secrets meticulously, producing tricky and thought-provoking surprises until the very end.”

Says me: “I’m filing this one under not-so-guilty pleasure. This book is both smart and incredibly well written, and let’s be honest with one another, most ‘page-turners’ aren’t either of those things. This novel was a long shot for me, personally, because I’m clearly not the target demographic of the blurb department (and I’m not always as hep to that jive as I should be, mea culpa). But, being in translation, it fell upon my radar and I’m glad it did. Did someone say scintillating? Pop this in your tote for your first beach day of summer and be a smarty smart, too.’ 

***

From Ugly Duckling, The Most Foreign Country by Alejandra Pizarnik, by way of Argentina, and translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert | 56 pages | ISBN 9781937027605 | US$14.00

Says the publisher: “First published in 1955 and now translated for the first time into English, The Most Foreign Country is Alejandra Pizarnik’s debut collection. Here, the nineteen-year-old poet begins to explore the themes that will shape and define her vision: the solitude of the poetic self, the longing for artistic depth, and the tenuous nearness of death. By turns probing and playful, bold and difficult, Pizarnik’s earliest poems teem with an exuberant desire ‘to grab hold of everything’ and to create a language that tests the limits of origin, paradox, and death.”

Says the Argentina Independent: “Estranged, helpless and anguished, Pizarnik’s haunting words have garnered a forty-year following, earning her a reputation as perhaps Argentina’s most important female poet.”

Says me: “I’d read a dirty napkin upon which Pizarnik had scribbled in lipstick, so don’t take my word for anything. Or do, and read this book. Speaking as a poet, if at forty a poet could hold a candle even close to Pizarnik at nineteen, I bet you could count them on just your fingers and toes. Fight ensues.” 

Read Emily Lever’s essay “When the Woman Writes the Poem Herself: On Alejandra Pizarnik” on Words Without Borders.

***

From NYRB, Ernesto by Umberto Saba, translated from the Italian by Estelle Gilson | 160 pages | ISBN 9781681370828 | US$14.95

Says the publisher: Ernesto is a classic of gay literature, a tender and complex tale of sexual awakening by one of Italy’s most admired poets. Ernesto is a sixteen-year-old boy from an educated family who lives with his mother in Trieste. His mother is eager for him to get ahead and has asked a local businessman to give him some workplace experience in his warehouse. One day a workingman makes advances to Ernesto, who responds with willing curiosity. A month of trysts ensues before the boy begins to tire of the relationship, finally escaping it altogether by engineering his own dismissal. And yet his experience has changed him, and as Umberto Saba’s unfinished, autobiographical story breaks off, Ernesto has struck up a new, oddly romantic attachment to a boy his own age.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “One of the greatest modern Italian poets . . . What sets Ernesto apart (and Saba’s prose) is the equanimity, the sparkling irony of the sensibility with which he greets this unexpected turn in his life . . . a lovely, bright, wise fragment that by comparison makes most other adolescent sex-memory fiction read like drying cement.”

Says me: “Lucid, quick, utterly honest, wise, but unaffected, Ernesto was an unexpected treat. I generally go into coming of age stories with great trepidation. I left this one alive to what Saba calls ‘red hot center of life.’”

***

From Coffee House Press, Camancha by Diego Zúñiga, by way of Chile, and translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell | 128 pages | ISBN 9781566894609 | US$15.95

Says the publisher: “A long drive across Chile’s Atacama desert, traversing ‘the worn-out puzzle’ of a broken family—a young man’s corrosive intimacy with his mother, the obtrusive cheer of his absentee father, his uncle’s unexplained death. Camanchaca is a low fog pushing in from the sea, its moisture sustaining near-barren landscape. Sometimes, the silences are what bind us.”

Says Electric LiteratureCamanchaca has one of the strongest novel openings I’ve read in years, a knockout vignette that disarms the reader with a few beats of unnecessarily specific detail, and then seamlessly shifts into fast and steady motion while glancing across a violent mystery all in just a quarter of a page . . .”

Says me: “There were a lot of slim little books this month, but this one packed the biggest punch. Parents can suck and adulting is hard. If you’re down with that, a little brutality, and a lot of plain old coming up hard, you’ll find some gems amongst the shards of glass. It’s a beautifuly observant novel and is my personal pick of the March litter.”

Read an excerpt from Camanchaca on Words Without Borders.


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