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The Watchlist: April 2018

By Tobias Carroll

Each month, Tobias Carroll shares a handful of recently released or forthcoming titles in translation that he’s especially excited about.


From Biblioasis | Transparent City by Ondjaki, translated from the Portuguese by Stephen Henighan | Fiction | 324 pages | ISBN 978-1771961431 | US$15.95

What the publisher says: “In a crumbling apartment block in Luanda, Angola, impoverished families hoard memories to survive a corrupt regime. Odonato—nostalgic for the days of socialism—searches for his son whose life as a petty criminal he laments. As his hope drains away, Odonato’s flesh becomes transparent and his body increasingly weightless. Transparent City confirms Ondjaki as one of Africa’s major writers.”

What the translator says: “Since this is Ondjaki’s big urban novel, and one that’s set in the near-present, the characters speak a real postcolonial Portuguese that takes on board every source of authority with which ordinary Angolans have come into contact. In many scenes, characters with a moderate level of education are repeating, and often parodying or reinventing, phrasing they’ve heard from some official source.”

What I say: “Ondjaki’s novel is set in Angola’s capital city of Luanda and, over the course of several days, follows a series of disparate characters, from middle-aged family man Odonato to a visiting American scientist to city dwellers trying to earn a living. The novel’s tone shifts between realism, bleak absurdism, and magical realism—its central character gradually becomes, as the title indicates, transparent. The prose in which Ondjaki tells this story is deftly stylized, suggesting the hazy interconnections between the cast of this sprawling, stunning work. Over time, the plot threads begin to converge, and both the miraculous and the absurdist aspects take on tragic qualities as the novel reaches its stunning conclusion.”


From Open Letter | Fox by Dubravka Ugrešić, translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać and David Williams | Fiction | 308 pages | ISBN 978-1-934824-76-2 | US$16.95

What the publisher says: “Using the duplicitous and shape-shifting fox of Eastern folklore as a motif, Ugrešić constructs a novel that reinvents itself over and over, blending nuggets of literary trivia (like how Nabokov named the Neonympha dorothea dorothea butterfly after the woman who drove him cross-country), with the timeless story of a woman trying to escape her hometown and find love to magical effect.”

What Kirkus Reviews says: “By making the fox a sort of mascot to the first part of her novel, a section called ‘A Story about How Stories Come to Be Written,’ Ugresic is creating an affinity between the writer and the trickster. Even at her most straightforward, Ugrešić is a sly storyteller, and here she is using every trick in the postmodernist playbook.”

What I say: “Ugrešić’s work spans styles and genres, and some of her most memorable writing comes when she is offering up unexpected observations or jarring cultural juxtapositions. Fox immerses the reader in a number of literary lives and milieus, and delves briefly into the lives of writers and others who, in history and in previous narratives, have been relegated to a marginal status. (It would make for an interesting pairing with Lisa Cohen’s All We Know: Three Lives.) Interspersed within are more modern scenes in which Ugrešić evokes the life of the writer as traveler, delving into her own experience and sometimes revisiting past observations from a new vantage point. The result is heady and frequently compelling.”


From Archipelago Books | The Farm by Héctor Abad, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean | Fiction | 468 pages | ISBN 978-0914671923 | US$20.00

What the publisher says: “In The Farm, Héctor Abad illuminates the vicissitudes of a family and of a people, as well as of the voices of these three siblings, recounting their loves, fears, desires, and hopes, all against a dazzling backdrop. We enter their lives at the moment when they are about to lose the paradise on which they built their dreams and their reality.”

What Publishers Weekly says: “A history of Colombia in miniature, Abad’s arresting novel (after the memoir Oblivion) tells the story of La Oculta, a farm hidden in the mountains outside Medellín that has weathered guerrilla and paramilitary violence but whose future is anything but secure.”

What I say: “At the center of Abad’s sprawling novel is an archetypal scenario: three grown siblings wrestling with what to do when they inherit their family’s farm upon the death of their mother. Abad divides the narrative among the three siblings, each of whom illuminate a different aspect of the family and the land, from its long history to the dangers posed by violent factions in the present day. The overall effect creates a fantastic sense of the place described, while also illuminating the way that gaps in knowledge can shape who we are today.


From Phoneme Media | Stormwarning by Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir, translated from the Icelandic by K. B. Thors | Poetry | 72 pages | ISBN 9781944700683 | US$16.00

What the publisher says: “Part lambasting of gender roles and capitalist absurdity, part investigation into human-nature relationships, Stormwarning is the third collection of poetry by Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir. An up-and-coming poet in Iceland and abroad, Tómasdóttir imbues her work with dark humor and understated Scandinavian dread, playing with language and expectations to leave her reader in breathless anticipation of the coming storm.”

What the Harvard Review says: “Slim yet ambitious, Stormwarning traces the tension between economic interests and environmental damage with dreadful realism. This matter-of-fact manner also applies to morality and is all the more condemning for Tómasdóttir’s calm, self-deprecating delivery.”

What I say: “This collection of poetry opens with a work titled ‘Bubby in the Vulva,’ which references a kind of celebratory excess and features a decidedly unexpected nod to the Icelandic children’s show Lazytown. It firmly establishes the irreverent tone of many of the poems to come. Tómasdóttir also precisely evokes melancholic landscapes and the ways in which modern technology intersects with the ancient. ‘I read eulogies of people long dead / and tend to my melancholy like a precious plant,’ she writes—a perfect summation of a particular state of mind.”


From Deep Vellum | Bride and Groom by Alisa Ganieva, translated from the Russian by Carol Apollonio | Fiction | 240 pages | ISBN 9781941920596 | US$15.95

What the publisher says: “From one of the most exciting voices in modern Russian literature, Alisa Ganieva, comes Bride and Groom, the tumultuous love story of two young city dwellers who meet when they return home to their families in rural Dagestan. When traditional family expectations and increasing religious and cultural tension threaten to shatter their bond, Marat and Patya struggle to overcome obstacles determined to keep them apart, while fate seems destined to keep them together until the very end.”

What the Guardian says:Bride and Groom bristles with these tensions. Its central characters are Patya and Marat, both in their twenties and both heading home to rural Dagestan after living and working in Moscow. They each find themselves on the brink of an impossible choice: making a life away from their country and their families, a life that offers freedom through career; or maintaining links with the place they come from, a life of compromise through marriage.”

What I say: “At the heart of Ganieva’s novel are Patya and Marat, two star-crossed lovers in contemporary Dagestan. Patya’s initial quarrels with her family, who criticize her for being single at the age of twenty-five, suggest that we’re in the land of romantic comedy or farce, but soon enough, Ganieva leads the narrative into some unexpected places, grappling with the weight of history and questions of corruption along the way. In an afterword to this edition, Ganieva also explores the influence of Sufism on her novel—one more layer in a meticulously arranged narrative.”


From New Directions | The Desert and Its Seed by Jorge Barón Biza, translated from the Spanish by Camilo Ramirez | Fiction | 240 pages | ISBN 978-0811225809 | US$15.95

What the publisher says: “Based on his own true, tragic family story, Jorge Barón Biza’s The Desert and Its Seed was rejected by publishers in Buenos Aires and was finally self-published in 1998, three years before the author committed suicide. Written in a captivating plain style with dark, bitter humor, The Desert and Its Seed has become a modern classic, published to enormous acclaim throughout the Spanish-speaking world and translated into many languages and now, for the first time, into English.”

What Publishers Weekly says: “By day, Mario tends to his mother; by night, he drinks his way through louche escapades with the prostitute Dina and her clients. Both sides of Mario’s double life serve as a way for him to probe the gestalt of the female body, in which he sees by turns deceitful shape-shifting and the divine grace of regeneration.”

What I say:The Desert and Its Seed opens in the aftermath of a terrible event: the narrator, Mario, has just witnessed his father, Aron, throw acid in the face of his mother, Eligia—the culmination of a dysfunctional, abusive relationship that lasted for decades. As Eligia seeks treatment for her wounds, Mario tends to her, while also drinking heavily and struggling with his father’s legacy of toxic masculinity. The resulting work is an emotionally (and physically) harrowing account of isolation, violence, and hypocrisy.”

Published Apr 16, 2018   Copyright 2018 Tobias Carroll

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