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Our Favorite International Reads of 2020 (and What We’ll Be Reading in 2021)

By Words Without Borders


As the year comes to an end, our staff, contributors, and board members share their favorite international reads from 2020 and the titles they’re looking forward to in 2021.

 

Eric M. B. Becker
Editor

This year, I'm keeping my recommendations to the Southern Cone, perhaps out of the wistful recollection that as we face gray, blustery afternoons here in New York, warmer climes hold elsewhere.

Daniel Tunnard'Escapes (Unnamed Press), set in a world in which competitive Scrabble is a globally televised craze under the thumb of the Scrafia (yes, a Scrabble mafia), is an uproarious novel staked on the final encounter between former world champs Florence Satine and Buenaventura Escobar in Argentina's Tigre Delta. Told from the alternating viewpoints of Satine and Escobar as they seek to flee the Scrafia's long arm, this clever novel reads something like the imagined result had Piglia turned his attentions to competitive board games. Tunnard's book is a satisfying read that takes Alfred Mosher Butt's tame pastime and turns it into a brisk, riveting jaunt across languages, crime scenes, and continents.

There are two works I'm very much anticipating in 2021, both by WWB contributors. Borges contemporary Norah Lange appeared in the pages of Words Without Borders in April 2018, with an excerpt from her first novel to be published in EnglishPeople in the Room, translated by Charlotte Whittle and published by And Other Stories. Whittle is back again with more Lange, this time with Notes from Childhood, the author's memoir and arguably her most famous work, and the one that established her as one of Argentina's great modernist writers when it was published in 1937. Don't take it from me: César Aira made the case for Lange in an essay published in Words Without Borders in August 2018.

Come April, Two Lines Press will bring out Bruno Lloret's Nancy, translated by Ellen Jones. A girl of seventeen agrees to marry a gringo on their first date. Nothing in this impulsive start to their marriage hints at the coming misfortunes that will tear them from each other and themselves, just another in a series of misfortunes the title character recounts as she confronts terminal cancer. An excerpt from the novel was featured in WWB's April 2019 issue.


 

Tobias Carroll
Watchlist Editor

There's been no shortage of great work in translation in 2020 from all across the world, and picking one notable book out of an array of strong contenders wasn't easy. This time out, I'm spotlighting Jenny Hval's novel Girls Against God, translated by Marjam Idriss (read an excerpt here). Why? To begin with, I was markedly impressed with Hval's earlier novel, Paradise Rot, which blends psychological acuity with a horror-tinged surrealism. With this novel, Hval's opted to go in a very different direction. Kathy Acker is one notable reference point, both for Hval's anything-goes attitude to storytelling—which here encompasses film history, art criticism, and a whole lot of thoughts on black metal—and for the presence of an uncompromising ethos situated beneath it all. Defiant and eminently readable, this is a fantastic addition to an impressive body of work in multiple disciplines. 

Fiston Mwanza Mujila's novel Tram 83, translated by Roland Glasser, is one of a handful of recent novels I feel almost evangelical about, from its deft use of prose to its haunting depiction of society to its literary satire. I don't know too much about his next book, The River in the Belly (translated by Bret Maney), save that it's out in 2021 and that it combines "musical lyricism, legend, and theology." But given the strength of Tram 83, I'm willing to follow Mujila wherever he goes next. 


 

Jessie Chaffee
Contributing Writer

Over these months at home with my now one-and-a-half-year-old son, I’ve gotten to spend time with many transporting children’s books. One of our 2020 favorites was Hiroshi Osada’s poetic Every Color of Light, translated by David Boyd and out with Enchanted Lion Books. The story is beautifully simple—the way in which rain changes the light and atmosphere of a place. We got lost in Ryōji Arai’s stunning impressionistic illustrations, which capture the shifting hues of the landscape and leave room for a very young reader to find his own shapes, designs, and realities. My son also loved discovering the small details of animals, insects, and constellations throughout. An equally magical book that I enjoyed in my own reading time was Linda Boström Knausgård’s The Helios Disaster (World Editions), translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles. A contemporary mythical journey that opens with the protagonist springing from the head of her father, it’s also a gorgeous and wrenching exploration of mental illness, loss, and longing.

I can’t wait to read Sleepy Stories with my son when it is published next summer by Elsewhere Editions. Translated by Alicia López, it is the first children’s book by Uruguayan writer Mario Levrero to appear in English, and I think that my son will be entranced by Diego Bianki’s fantastical illustrations. And I’m looking forward to a book by Elsewhere Editions’s parent publisher, Archipelago Books: Antonio Tabucchi’s Stories with Pictures, translated by Elizabeth Harris. The decades-spanning stories, essays, and poems in the collection are inspired by paintings, drawings, and photographs from Italy and Portugal, the two countries Tabucchi called home, and touch on themes of time, loneliness, and the nature of art.


 

Lori Feathers
Best of the B-Sides Editor

My favorite book published in 2020 is Tin House’s reissue of the great South African novel Agaat, by Marlene van Niekerk (translated by Michiel Heyns)—one of the most extraordinary works that I have ever encountered (read an excerpt here). Agaat delves into the intense, decades-long relationship between two women—Milla, an affluent Afrikaans landowner, and Agaat, a black orphan whom Milla takes in, rescuing the tiny girl from a life of certain abuse and poverty. Milla sees herself as Agaat’s savior, and her loving, often harsh education of the girl as her Christian duty. For years Milla and Agaat are inseparable despite the disapproval of both white and black communities and the outright hostility of Jak, Milla’s husband. When Milla and Jak have a child of their own, Agaat is relegated to the role of servant and moved out of the main house. But it is Agaat, not Milla, who forms a mother-bond with the boy. Decades later, Milla finds herself entirely dependent upon Agaat’s care as she lies paralyzed and unable to speak, powerless to prevent the slow death wrought by ALS or the memories of her cruelty, of which Agaat is a constant reminder. Van Niekerk exposes all of the nuances of the women’s fraught and volatile relationship with language that is brutally raw, honest, and uncommonly beautiful. Simply a masterpiece.

Looking to 2021, I’m excited about New Directions' April reissue (yes, I love reissues!) of Siegfried Lenz’s The German Lesson (translated by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins). The book opens with Siggi Jepsen, a young man who resides at a juvenile detention center several years following World War II. When one of Siggi’s instructors requires that he write an essay on “the joys of duty,” Siggi recounts the story of his father, a diligent police constable who was ordered to prevent his friend and neighbor from continuing to make his art on threat of arrest. Siggi’s world starts to collapse as he witnesses his respected father betray this family friend out of fear and misguided loyalty. A psychologically taut and illuminating novel that considers the power of ideology and group-thought to crush the ideals of love, friendship, and art. A WWII novel unlike any other.


 

Susannah Greenblatt
Digital Marketing & Communications Coordinator

It's hard to imagine having gotten through 2020 without books—especially the sort that carries you far, far away from your worn living room couch to some other world entirely. In this vein, my favorite book of 2020 begins with its narrator's journey from this world to the next on the back of a hyper-sentient hippopotamus. Written in 1881 by Brazilian master Machado de Assis, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas is like no novel I've ever read. The book's formal risks and cutting humor seem daring even for 2020. Machado de Assis not only executes this all exquisitely but does so with an ardent attachment to the reader that feels unusual in such experimental work. He challenges us to commune with the fictitious and the real, the dead and the living, in ways we may not have thought possible. I read the Flora Thomson-DeVeaux translation, which I thought was excellent, but who knows, I may have to go back and read the Liveright edition, in Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson’s translation.

I am eagerly awaiting the second novel from Anuk Arudpragasam, A Passage North, forthcoming from Hogarth in July 2021. The young Sri Lankan writer's first book, The Story of a Brief Marriage, a shatteringly gorgeous meditation on the devastating violence of the Sri Lankan Civil War, remains one of my favorite novels ever. I am also very excited for Charco Press to publish A Perfect Cemetery, a collection of interlocking stories—each a brilliantly crafted, strange world of its own—written by one of my favorite Argentine writers, Federico Falco, and translated by one of my favorite translators, Jennifer Croft.


 

Susan Harris
Editorial Director

The most startling book I read this year was Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Murata’s previous novel to be published in English, Convenience Store Woman, also translated by Takemori and published in 2018, featured a socially awkward thirty-six-year-old who thrives on the order and rigidity of her job at Smile Mart. Earthlings does that portrait of difference and alienation one better: as a child Natsuki believes she’s an actual alien sent to Earth, taking her marching orders from her best friend, a stuffed hedgehog. Her soulmate is her cousin, Yuu—until the naive eleven-year-olds are caught in a compromising position and permanently separated by their families. The adult Natsuki rejects “the Factory” of social dictates and compulsory love, sex, marriage, and reproduction and finds refuge in a nonsexual marriage of convenience. Escaping “the Factory,” Natsuki and her husband travel to her grandparents’ house in the hills, now occupied only by Yuu. The charged reunion of the cousins builds to an unnerving conclusion. I also liked Juan Pablo Villalobos’s antic I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me, in a larky translation by Daniel Hahn.

Among the books to which I’m looking forward are two by WWB contributors: Hoda Barakat’s novel Voices of the Lost (translated by Marilyn Booth); and Mortada Gzar’s memoir, I’m in Seattle, Where are You? (translated by William Maynard Hutchins).


 

Nadia Kalman
Editor & Curriculum Designer of WWB Campus

My favorite book in translation of 2020 was Charisma and Disenchantment: The Vocation Lectures by Max Weber, translated by Damion Searls. I found Weber's lectures—the first of which was delivered during the Bolshevik Revolution—a bracing, relevant read. I also appreciated Damion Searls's approach to translating from the German, "skewed towards everyday vocabulary whenever possible" to reflect the ethos of a popular lecture series.

In 2021, I look forward to reading Rabbit Island by Elvira Navarro, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney. Sarah Neilson writes of the collection on BookMarks:

In this sometimes unsettling, always engrossing short story collection, the animalistic and the human are one, both physically and metaphorically. Navarro is one of the most celebrated young writers in Spain, and this book is ample evidence of her talent for using spare prose to convey the bizarre and the sublime at once.


 

Varun Nayar
Editorial Fellow

Among the many books set in urban India, Mumbai is a city to which writers turn frequently. But among the many Mumbai books, only a small number have been written in Kannada, one of the several languages comprising daily life in the city. Jayant Kaikini’s collection of short stories No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories (Catapult) offers a new approach to a familiar literary preoccupation as it traverses the many sub-regions of the city, detailing the lives of ordinary people––many of them small-town migrants––as they negotiate their place within its social terrain (read an excerpt here). A cinema sweeper’s wanderings map an unseen personal geography in “The Opera House,” while the opening of a TV studio in the basement of a hospital leads to unlikely encounters in “Tick Tick Friend.” In Tejaswini Niranjana’s attentive and sure-footed translation, Kaikini’s deliberately plain Kannada is adorned with Mumbai’s hybrid public language, producing a distinct sense of place, a “territorial realism,” as she puts it in her translator’s note. Language––heard, overheard, and misheard––acts as a form of map-making, and remaking, across these sixteen stories.

Looking ahead at 2021, I'm excited to read Jung Young Moon’s collection of linked novellas Arriving in a Thick Fog (Deep Vellum), translated from Korean by Mah Eunji and Jeffrey Karvonen. Ever since reading his 2016 novel Vaseline Buddha, I’ve found Jung’s digressive and circuitous style both strange and appealing, and I’m interested in how the fragmented structure of this new book will inform his approach.


 

Nina Perrotta
Assistant Editor & Development Associate

Even before the pandemic, I found Mercé Rodoreda’s Garden by the Sea, translated by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent, to be a welcome escape from daily life. Packed into the New York subway on my wintry morning commute, I was transported to Rodoreda’s seaside Catalonia and lulled by her slow, contemplative prose. Set in the 1920s, the novel is narrated by an elderly gardener who lives year-round at a villa whose owners visit only in the summer. We follow him over the course of six years as he quietly tends his garden during the off season and observes the wealthy young owners as they throw Gatsby-like parties in the warmer months. Equally compelling in its interrogation of class issues and its musings on aging and the natural world, Garden by the Sea left me eager to explore more of Rodoreda’s extensive body of work.

One of the titles in translation I’m looking forward to in 2021 is Shiori Ito’s Black Box, translated from Japanese by Allison Markin Powell. Forthcoming from the Feminist Press in the US and Tilted Axis Press in the UK, this memoir, originally published in Japan in 2017, was a catalyst for the country’s #MeToo movement.


 

Samantha Schnee
Founding Editor & Chairman of the Board

One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that I’ve had more time for reading, so it is difficult to select just one title from 2020. I tore through The Lying Life of Adults in a week and found myself wishing that the protagonist, Giovanna, would become the subject of a quartet like Lila and Lenù of Ferrante's Neapolitan novels. WWB published an excerpt from Ferrante's Troubling Love, also translated by Ann Goldstein, in our July 2005 issue, which was the last issue of WWB I edited, and I’ve been a fan of team Ferrante/Goldstein ever since.

One of the authors I revisited in 2020 was Haruki Murakami, to catch up on one of his older titles, the brilliant Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. He has a new collection coming in April, First Person Singular, translated by Philip Gabriel, which I can’t wait to get my hands on. I’m a vivid dreamer and sometimes awaken with the eerie sense that the person I dreamed about has just had the same dream as me. Perhaps that’s why I like Murakami’s work so much—he’s expert at blurring the line between what happens in the mind and what happens in reality. Just as when I have one of those “shared” dreams, when I read Murakami, I feel less alone. (For more about Murakami and his translators, read David Karashima's "Discovering Murakami.")


 

Rebecca Servadio
Board Member

I loved Ordesa by Manuel Vilas (translated by Andrea Rosenberg), which was published by Alfaguara in Spain and recently became available to US readers with Riverhead. It is unapologetically autofiction but written with such intelligence and a full awareness of Spanish history and ethos. Very little like it has been published in Spain, and I can't wait to read it in English. Through my work as a literary scout, I was able to read another favorite—the forthcoming Ce Qu'Il faut de Nuit by the very interesting and powerful newcomer on the French literary scene Laurent Petitmangin. Published by La Manufacture de Livres in France and sold widely internationally, it will be published in English by Picador (Macmillan UK). I discovered and promptly fell in love with Alba de Cespedes’s Dalla Parte di Lei, originally published in 1949, which is a text of immense literary intelligence. It is an intimate first-person story of friendship, love, and madness that marks the passages and stages of life and is a love letter to feminism as embodied by Aleramo and the eternal friendship brought to life by Elena Ferrante. Ferrante herself was instrumental in the rediscovery of de Cespedes, and she is now being republished internationally slowly but surely. Fingers crossed for the English language! I've also just finished reading The Master Key by Masako Togawa, another rediscovered classic republished by Pushkin Vertigo, but this time from Japan. It is sharp, powerful, and ultimately devastating.  

In truth, the book I am most looking forward to reading is The Books of Jacob by Nobel winner Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft, which will be published in the US by Riverhead! It is sure to be my highlight of 2021. Lucky me and us! 


 

Douglas Unger
Board Member & Education Chair of WWB Campus

Perhaps once in a generation a novel is published that is so ambitious that serious readers must pay attention, because if it succeeds, it will be―or should be―transformational (Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest come to mind). The more than 1,700 pages of the “parts” trilogy by Argentine novelist and literary critic Rodrigo Fresán mean to be such an achievement. Based on the first two volumes, The Invented Part (2017), and The Dreamed Part (2019), I believe it is, though to appreciate what it is doing requires at least an acquaintance with literary and pop culture that embraces as many as two thousand books, five hundred mainstream and “B” movies, and at least as many rock, metal, punk, country, and jazz recordings, then add solid art history combined with a political awareness of the twentieth century’s murderous dictatorships in Latin America and the worldwide machinations of corporate power into the twenty-first century. Fresán insists on the absolute freedom to be excessive, to indulge in “overwriting” as an aesthetic stance, also as an up yours to “reading” dumbed down to bits and pieces of truncated text glanced at on our smartphones. Or as he puts it in The Dreamed Part, he will “float on the surface of everything without boundaries or borders.”

Will Vanderhyden’s translation of the first volume, The Invented Part, won the 2018 PEN America Best Literary Translation Award. That three five-hundred-plus-page volumes of such intricately textured, inventive language are being translated at all is a testament to the commitment to world literature by the University of Rochester’s Open Letter Press. Vanderhyden re-creates Fresán’s wide-ranging narrative voices with astonishing fidelity and ease. Close third person, first person, and godlike omniscience flow in and around one another with shifting tenses and tones, and in almost every imaginable sentence length and structure. The trilogy is not sequential. It comprises one simultaneous expression of the three ways the main character, The Writer, undertakes his creative process: the first volume is what he writes when he’s thinking about writing; the second is what he thinks he’s thinking when he dreams (sleeping or waking); the third, the forthcoming The Remembered Part, is what he writes when he thinks he remembers. This single long novel about writers, books, and writing embraces every possibility for literature that Fresán can dream up and either succeed or fail (and admit he sometimes fails) to express. 

Commentaries on The Invented Part highlight the science-fictive conceit of The Writer to break into the CERN Hadron Collider so he can mind-merge with the “God particle” to achieve absolute omniscience (which he does anyway, in fainter-font passages). In The Dreamed Part, The Writer, afflicted by the “White Plague” of insomnia, struggles to recall his dreams so as fully to comprehend what happened to him and to his mad sister, Penelope (also a writer, now holed up in a convent, hiding out from a narco-family into which she tragically married). Plot holds these volumes together, but plot is merely a device, a writer’s trick, as is characterization, conjured on the page in between meta-meta commentaries on the techniques and conventions of novels. Passages of The Dreamed Part read like personal critical essays with a focus on British and American literature, as in Penelope’s obsession with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and the Brontë family story like a telenovela; then later, The Writer discourses at length about Nabokov, especially his second-to-last novel, Transparent Things. He cites Nabokov’s insistence that great writing depends on shamanstvo, the mysterious ability of the writer to enchant readers.

The challenge of Fresán’s trilogy is that it asks readers to choose to be enchanted. Like a voluntary hypnosis, this ambitious and very long book asks us willingly to take the plunge into its deep, dark waters and risk drowning. I eagerly await the translation of The Remembered Part from Open Letter next year. Even so, I’ve ordered the original in Spanish so I won’t be treading water too long.

 

Looking for more WWB reading lists? Check out the following:

The Best Translated Books You Missed in 2020

The Watchlist: November 2020

10 Translated Books from India to Read Now

 

Disclosure: Words Without Borders is an affiliate of Bookshop.org and will earn a commission if you use the links above to make a purchase.


Published Dec 17, 2020   Copyright 2020 Words Without Borders

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