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The Watchlist: December 2016

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 White Pine Press, Returnings: Poems of Love and Distance by Rafael Alberti, translated from the Spanish by Carolyn Tipton || 158 pages || ISBN 9781935210917 || US$18.00

Says the publisher: “Rafael Alberti was one of the greatest poets of twentieth-century Spain. At the age of twenty-two, he won the National Prize for Literature, and he was soon drawn into the circle of poets who came to be known as the Generation of  ‘27. This group, which included Federico García Lorca, Pedro Salinas, Jorge Guillén, Luis Cernuda, and Vicente Aleixandre, among others, and who often gathered together in the cafés of Madrid, brought about a literary renaissance there in the late 1920s. Alberti continued to publish and also, like many of the other poets, became politically involved and helped to bring about the birth of the Spanish Republic. When Franco’s Fascists rose up against the Republic in 1936, beginning the Spanish Civil War, Alberti was very active in the Republic’s defense. When Franco ultimately triumphed, Alberti, along with the rest of his generation who had not been caught or killed, fled. His exile from Spain was to last almost forty years. He was finally able to return to Spain in 1977, and shortly thereafter, he received Spain’s prestigious Premio Cervantes in honor of a lifetime of literary achievement. When he died at the end of 1999, he had published some twenty-four volumes of poetry, several plays, some non-fiction prose, and a five-volume autobiography.”

Says Christopher Merrill, prize judge of the 2016 Cliff Becker Book Prize in Translation (which Returnings won): “In Returnings, we are treated to an essay on the imaginative possibilities of a great poet, long exiled from his native land, turning memory into verse, recovering from the past everything that counts: love and friendship and the landscapes that shaped him. Through alleyways and storied ruins, colors and autumn and war, Alberti discovers poetry at every turn.”

Says me: “If the warmth of nostalgia—for the friendships, loves, and landscapes of homeland—moves you, this is a collection worth turning to on a cold winter afternoon. By turns erotic and melancholic, Alberti’s poetry is riveting, urgent, and imminently accessible.”



From Deep Vellum Publishing, Heavens on Earth by Carmen Boullosa, translated from the Spanish by Shelby Vincent || 384 pages || ISBN 9781941920442 || US$16.95

Says the publisher: “Three narrators from different historical eras are each engaged in preserving history in Carmen Boullosa’s Heavens on Earth. As her narrators sense and interact with each other over time and space, Boullosa challenges the primacy of recorded history and asserts literature and language’s power to transcend the barriers of time and space in vivid, urgent prose.”

Says World Literature Today: “In Heavens on Earth, Carmen Boullosa imagines a post-apocalyptic world where spoken and written language is banned, memories are obliterated, and history is erased. The novel is narrated through the voices of three translators—Hernando de Rivas, Estela Ruiz, and Lear—who live in three different eras. Narrating from colonial Mexico, Hernando begins to write the history of El Colegio de la Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco in Latin. Five hundred years later, Estela is given Hernando’s recently discovered manuscript and begins to translate it into Spanish, interweaving vignettes from her own life, family lore, and Mexican history into alternating sections of her translation.” Read an excerpt here

Says me: “There’s a lot of debate online about when you’ll actually be able to get your hands on this book. Deep Vellum still maintains this month. Amazon says not until next June. Fiction Database lists the release for a nearer January date. Regardless of where and when you get your hands on it, do, because Boullosa is a masterful commander of fantastic language. Robert Bolaño called her ‘Mexico’s best woman writer,’ for crying out loud.”



From Pegasus Books, The Boy Who Escaped Paradise by J. M. Lee, translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim || 288 pages || ISBN 1681772523 || US$19.40

Says the pulisher: “An astonishing story of the mysteries, truths, and deceptions that follow the odyssey of Ahn Gil­mo, a young math savant, as he escapes from the most isolated country in the world and searches for the only family he has left.”

Says Booklist: “Lee creates a dignified and moving portrait of North Koreans’ struggle for freedom at home and abroad, and intertwines it with a rogue genius adventure―all without sacrificing the appeal of either plot line. Another outstanding thriller from Lee (after The Investigation, 2015), whose novels have garnered massive acclaim in Korea.”

Says me: “The literary force is strong with Korean writers and J. M. Lee is no exception. While I’m an admitted pushover for any book selling me adventure and mystery in a literary package, The Boy Who Escaped Paradise excels at making global connection both complicated, mesmerizing, and fun. This book pleases me.”



From New York Review Books, The Return of Munchausen by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov || 160 pages || ISBN 9781681370286 || US$11.96

Says the publisher: “Baron Munchausen’s hold on the European imagination dates back to the late eighteenth century when he first pulled himself (and his horse) out of a swamp by his own upturned pigtail. Inspired by the extravagant yarns of a straight-faced former cavalry officer, Hieronymus von Münchhausen, the best-selling legend quickly eclipsed the real-life baron who helped the Russians fight the Turks. Galloping across continents and centuries, the mythical Munchausen’s Travels went through hundreds of editions of increasing length and luxuriance.

“Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, the Russian modernist master of the unsettling and the uncanny, also took certain liberties with the mythical baron. In this phantasmagoric roman à clef set in 1920s Berlin, London, and Moscow, Munchausen dauntlessly upholds his old motto ‘Truth in lies,’ while remaining a fierce champion of his own imagination. At the same time, the two-hundred-year-old baron and self-taught philosopher has agreed to return to Russia, Lenin’s Russia, undercover. This reluctant secret agent has come out of retirement to engage with the real world.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Playful and erudite, sprinkled with philosophy and politics, funny in places and melancholy in others, this novella, like most of Krzhizhanovsky’s work, remained unpublished during his lifetime; how lucky that we can read it now.”

Says me: “It’s hard for me to express with brevity what a weird and wonderful book this is, so you’ll have to just take me at my word. The reading experience was intellectually analogous, at least for me, to reading Gabriel García Márquez or Umberto Eco. I came out the other end as if having passed through a wormhole, and while nothing much seemed to have changed, nothing was the same either.



From Europa Editions, The Gardens of Consolation by Parisa Reza, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter ||  271 pages || ISBN 9781609453503 || US$16.00

Says the publisher: “In the early 1920s, in the remote village of Ghamsar, Talla and Sardar, two teenagers dreaming of a better life, fall in love and marry. Sardar brings his young bride with him across the mountains to the suburbs of Tehran, where the couple settles down and builds a home. From the outskirts of the capital city, they will watch as the Qajar dynasty falls and Reza Khan rises to power as Reza Shah Pahlavi.

“Into this family of illiterate shepherds is born Bahram, a boy whose brilliance and intellectual promise are apparent from a very young age. Through his education, Bahram will become a fervent follower of reformer Mohammad Mosaddegh and will participate first-hand in his country's political and social upheavals. Against the backdrop of a rapidly changing Iran, Parisa Reza has written a powerful love story filled with scenes of hope and heartbreak.”

Says Booklist: “This engaging novel is a must-read for anyone interested in trying to understand the true nature of Iran, a country often demonized in the West but that Reza reveals as a place of universal human experiences.”

Says me: Publisher’s Weekly named The Gardens of Consolation one of the best books of 2016 and I’m going to go ahead and agree. It’s an intimate, beautiful, heartbreaking family drama set amidst the stage of pre-cultural revolution Iran. Reza’s dissection of the rural/urban dichotomy in Iran reveals much about that country and more than a little about my own.”



From Riverhead Books, Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell ||  192 pages || ISBN 0399184597 || US$25.00

Says the publisher: “A young woman named Amanda lies dying in a rural hospital clinic. A boy named David sits beside her. She’s not his mother. He's not her child. Together, they tell a haunting story of broken souls, toxins, and the power and desperation of family.      

Fever Dream is a nightmare come to life, a ghost story for the real world, a love story, and a cautionary tale. One of the freshest new voices to come out of the Spanish language and translated into English for the first time, Samanta Schweblin creates an aura of strange psychological menace and otherworldly reality in this absorbing, unsettling, taut novel.”

Says Electric Literature: “In spare, lucid prose, Schweblin demonstrates again and again that she knows the weight of what is left unsaid in the comings and goings of everyday life. Then, in the turn of a phrase, she forces the reader to shift perspective; she has a gift for sketching comfortable worlds and then disrupting them with images of dark, startling power.”

Says me: “There aren’t too many books that set off my anxieties (in a good way) the way Schweblin’s did. I left each reading vibrating and injured. She is a meticulous and wise writer. The book is a masterful vocabulary of vulnerability, of what it might mean to be human at our current moment.”

Published Dec 20, 2016   Copyright 2016 M. Bartley Seigel

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