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The Watchlist: April 2017

By M. Bartley Seigel

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 Black Ocean, Hackers by Aase Berg, translated from the Swedish by Johannes Göransson | 216 pages | ISBN 9781939568212 | US$14.95

Says the publisher: “‘This is a threat.’ That’s how Hackers, Swedish writer Aase Berg’s seventh book of poetry, begins. Hackers is a furious, feminist book about wanting to ‘hack’ the patriarchal system—both in the physically violent sense and in the sense of computer hacking. But Berg also reveals the ‘hag’ behind the ‘hack,’ channeling the noncompliant rage of Glenn-Close-as-bunny-boiler from Fatal Attraction. The world Berg ‘hags’ back at is a world of sexist, capitalist, environmental, globalized violence. The fury of the hacker/hag/captive/revenger is constantly boiling up on the edges of Berg’s compounds and highways, threatening to infiltrate the center. In these spectacular battle scenes and hacked pastorals, where nature is besieged by the highways of progress and the animals don’t give a damn about the humans, the hag rises.”

Says Jönköpings Posten (in reference to the Swedish edition): “Aase Berg is not only one of Sweden’s most readable poets, but also one of the most important. Since her first book, Hos Rådjur (1997), she has written hard, compressed poetry, full of alliteration and neologisms, in which she deforms the world with an eerie precision. Her compact books scrutinize the common phenomena of the contemporary.
In her new poetry collection, Hackers, she takes feminism one step further, and introduces us to ‘the Hag,’ a more unruly version of the conciliatory cultural figure. Here it’s a matter of self-defense, not to mention threat.”

Says me: “Read an excerpt at Asymptote and see for yourself. Or take my word for it, between the Amazonian mutilations, kidnapped girls, and intestinal parasites, Berg just might be the feminist poet superhero of your fever dreams.”


From New Directions, Compass by Mathias Énard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell | 464 pages | ISBN 9780811226622 | US$26.95

Says the publisher: “As night falls over Vienna, Franz Ritter, an insomniac musicologist, takes to his sickbed with an unspecified illness and spends a restless night drifting between dreams and memories, revisiting the important chapters of his life: his ongoing fascination with the Middle East and his numerous travels to Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus, and Tehran, as well as the various writers, artists, musicians, academics, orientalists, and explorers who populate this vast dreamscape. At the center of these memories is his elusive love, Sarah, a fiercely intelligent French scholar caught in the intricate tension between Europe and the Middle East. With exhilarating prose and sweeping erudition, Mathias Énard pulls astonishing elements from disparate sources—nineteenth-century composers and esoteric orientalists, Balzac and Agatha Christie—and binds them together in a most magical way.”

Says the New Yorker: “Énard’s prose, which tends to pile descriptive clauses ever higher on top of one another . . . can be mesmerizing. But it’s the larger project of his writing that bears particular consideration: in his fiction, Énard is constructing an intricate, history-rich vision of a persistently misunderstood part of the world.”

Says me: “Compass is so aggressively continental in its fetishes (and has been so aggressively fetishized by a lit world itself in love with such things) that the whole show could be interpreted as either antique or feigned, or both. Still, a stickier novel I haven't read in awhile, and against my worst intentions to dislike the book based solely on my abhorrence of mouth foam, I walked away rather pleased for the reading effort, if not exactly swept away. If you're less bothered by such publishing world nonsense than me, my guess is you'll love this smarty pants of a novel. Try it on.”


From BOA Editions, Lighthouse for the Drowning by Jawdat Fakhreddine, translated from the Arabic by Jayson Iwen and Huda Fakhreddine | 128 pages | ISBN 9781942683391 | US$16.00

Says the publisher: “Presented bilingually, this first US publication of Jawdat Fakhreddine—one of the major Lebanese names in modern Arabic poetry—establishes a revolutionary dialogue between international, modernist values, and the Arabic tradition. Fakhreddine’s unique voice is a breakthrough for the poetic language of his generation—an approach that presents poetry as a beacon, a lighthouse that both opposes and penetrates all forms of darkness.”

Says Michael Collier: “‘Words . . . are the lost homeland,’ Jawdat Fakhreddine claims in his ruthlessly self-scrutinizing Lighthouse for the Drowning. Like Paul Celan and Taduesz Rozewicz, words are not the way back to what’s been lost, but rather they comprise the very ‘rubble and remains’ of their losses. They carry as well the echoes of the ‘guiding voices’ that ‘have died.’ Fakhreddine’s dilemma, like Celan’s and Rozewicz’s, is to know what feelings and perceptions to trust. As a result, out of his lost Lebanon, out of his disillusionment in politics, he finds a spirit in poetry ‘that flows from deep and rises effortlessly / to flicker like the passing sky.’ If this sounds evanescent, it’s not because the constant pressure of his lost homeland and of words seek to countermand any hope of finding a way out of history’s dark and confusing labyrinth. Written twenty years ago, Lighthouse for the Drowning is a clear and concise description of the present.”

Says me: “As a poet, teacher, and editor, I feel deeply and personally the daily weight of telling people who won’t pick up their own poets that they should pick up the poets of other cultures and languages. It’s Sisyphean, to say the least. Yet bloodied and battle weary, I’m here again to say it loud and clear, this time read Fakhreddine, put another piece of the puzzle into place. It’s not like, as Americans (or wherever you’re reading this from), you don’t have a relationship with the place. So how about reading one of their best, assuming you haven’t already done so (and let’s be honest, you probably haven’t). Simple and intimate, these poems breathe a nuanced humanity into a place and time we seldom see outside of a news reel, which itself is seldom the bearer of good tidings. Not that Fakhreddine is going to cheer you up, though he will round you out whole.” 


From Soho Press, What My Body Remembers by Agnete Friis, translated from the Danish by Lindy Falk van Rooyen | 304 pages | ISBN 9781616956028 | US$25.95

Says the publisher: “From New York Times bestselling author Agnete Friis comes the chilling story of a young mother who will do whatever it takes to protect her son. Ella Nygaard, twenty-seven, has been a ward of the state since she was seven years old, the night her father murdered her mother. She doesn’t remember anything about that night or her childhood before it—but her body remembers. The PTSD-induced panic attacks she now suffers incapacitate her for hours—sometimes days—at a time and leave her physically and psychically drained. After one particularly bad episode lands Ella in a psych ward, she discovers her son, Alex, has been taken from her by the state and placed with a foster family. Driven by desperation, Ella kidnaps Alex and flees to the seaside town in northern Denmark where she was born. Her grandmother’s abandoned house is in grave disrepair, but she can live there for free until she can figure out how to convince social services that despite everything, she is the best parent for her child. But being back in the small town forces Ella to confront the demons of her childhood—the monsters her memory has tried so hard to obscure. What really happened that night her mother died? Was her grandmother right—was Ella’s father unjustly convicted? What other secrets were her parents hiding from each other? If Ella can start to remember, maybe her scars will begin to heal—or maybe the truth will put her in even greater danger.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “[Friis] expertly weaves Ella’s current life with the days and weeks leading up to the crime . . . A deeply resonant tale about one woman’s attempts to embrace her past while setting herself free.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Devastating . . . Friis’s writing is propulsive, and the book’s twisty conclusion will shock and gratify.”

Says me: “No matter where you go, there you are, or so Friis seems to be reminding us, in a sparkling prose along a twisty plot, and the pages did keep turning. Bravo to Soho for once again bringing their elevated genre sensibility to the table with this one. Book snobs, here’s your first unguilty beach read of spring, assuming you can find a beach warm enough to read unguiltily upon.” 


From Restless Books, History of a Disappearance: The Story of a Forgotten Polish Town by Filip Springer, translated from the Polish by Sean Gasper Bye | 352 pages | ISBN 9781632061157 | US$17.99

Says the publisher: “Lying at the crucible of Central Europe, the Silesian village of Kupferberg suffered the violence of the Thirty Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, and World War I. After Stalin’s post-World War II redrawing of Poland’s borders, Kupferberg became Miedzianka, a town settled by displaced persons from all over Poland and a new center of the Eastern Bloc’s uranium-mining industry. Decades of neglect and environmental degradation led to the town being declared uninhabitable, and the population was evacuated. Today, it exists only in ruins, with barely a hundred people living on the unstable ground above its collapsing mines. In this collection of unsparing and insightful reportage, the renowned journalist, photographer, and architecture critic Filip Springer rediscovers this tiny town’s history. Digging beyond the village’s mythic foundations and the great wars and world leaders that shaped it, Springer catalogs the lost human elements: the long-departed tailor and deceased shopkeeper; the parties, now silenced, that used to fill the streets with shouts and laughter; and the once-beautiful cemetery, with gravestones upended by tractors and human bones scattered by dogs. In Miedzianka Springer sees a microcosm of European history, and a powerful narrative of how the ghosts of the past continue to haunt us in the present day.”

Says European Literature Network: “The desire to uncover the truth about why Miedzianka, a provincial mountain-top town in Lower Silesia with a history stretching back 700 years, literally vanished from the face of the earth between the 1960s and 1980s, turns a journalistic search for documentary evidence into an existential quest of epic proportions. Was the town simply swallowed by the mountain beneath it, the victim of extraordinary geology, or was it deliberately demolished by politicians with dark secrets to hide? Written in the popular Polish reportage genre, rather than as literary fiction, the book nevertheless possesses many features of a thriller: mystery, tension, suspense, horror––all of which are admirably conveyed by the English translation. History of a Disappearance is a tale of traumatic loss for the people who once lived in Miedzianka . . . The book’s most significant achievement is therefore its restoration of individuals––not normally the focus of writers of history or ideologues of change. A town forgotten by the end of the twentieth century has been resurrected.”

Says me: “Americans needn’t look abroad for stories like that of the village of Kupferberg. We’ve got plently of places like Centralia, Pennsylvania, to keep us awake at night. But there is something about layering those stories over a history that extends far back beyond the the reach of American cultural memory. For Americans our ecological disasters are part of our ongoing and glorious zeitgeist, deeply felt, but quickly forgotten, as one might expect of a people with no past (or a past kept locked in the back of a deep, dark closet) and an overblown sense of manifest destiny. It’s Sean Gasper Bye’s unpacking of the before and the burden of memory that struck this reader square in the chest.”


From White Pine Press, Wolves by Jeon Sungtae (with apologies for the Amazon link, but White Pine doesn’t have a page for the book yet, ahem), translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell | 220 pages | ISBN 9781945680014 | US$16.00

Says the publisher: “Sungtae’s short stories build a unique world through their consummate construction and firm roots in reality. With Mongolia as the physical background and through the perspectives of outsiders, Jeon’s imaginative tales mercilessly expose the hypocrisy and duality that lie within all of us. The stories address important issues including North-South Korean relations, migrant workers, capitalism in an era of neoliberalism, and racially mixed families.”

Says you: After you read the title story, “Wolves,” from a 2015 online exclusive at The White Review

Says me: “I've come to Korean literature very late in the game and this was my first experience with Sungtae’s work, but what a first experience it was. Beautifully, delicately wrought, each story is a bird’s-eye view on a world we are seldom otherwise given access to. Usually short-story collections linger on my nightstand where they serve as palate cleansers between longer works of prose. That’s on me, not the genre, but still. Not so, this one.” 

Published Apr 25, 2017   Copyright 2017 M. Bartley Seigel

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