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The Watchlist: December 2017

By M. Bartley Seigel

Every month, from his home on the shores of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, emeritus Words Without Borders reviews editor M. Bartley Seigel reaches out into the big wide world of books to share a handful of recently released or forthcoming titles in translation that he’s especially excited about, books he hopes you’ll agree are worth all of our good attentions:

From Other Press, 1947: Where Now Begins by Elisabeth Åsbrink, translated from the Swedish by Fiona Graham | nonfiction | 304 pages | ISBN 9781590518977 | US$16.99

Says the publisher: “The year 1947 is a turning point in the twentieth century. The surrender and subsequent division of Germany defines the Cold War. The CIA is created, Israel is about to be born, Simone de Beauvoir finds the love of her life, George Orwell is writing his last book, and Christian Dior creates the hyperfeminine New Look while women are forced out of jobs and back into the home. While all of this is happening, a ten-year-old Hungarian Jewish boy in a refugee camp for children of parents murdered by the Nazis must make the decision of a lifetime. What he chooses will determine his own fate and that of his daughter yet to be born, Elisabeth.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Among innumerable turning points in history, 1947, just two years after World War II ended, is a year worth review. Åsbrink’s book, translated from the Swedish, makes some of that year’s neglected history and high drama tangible and meaningful. With a technique reminiscent of John Dos Passos’s ‘newsreels,’ the author records events from across the world (Paris, Palestine, New York, Los Angeles, Budapest, Berlin, Delhi, etc.), using the present tense to create a sense of immediacy . . . Throughout the book, Åsbrink artfully selects her narratives . . . A skillful and illuminating way of presenting, to wonderful effect, the cultural, political, and personal history of a year that changed the world.”

Says me: “Wading through the dreg days of 2017 and, like many, I’m trying to figure out how the heck it all came to this. Along comes 1947 with not complete, but certainly some completely compelling, explanations to this conundrum, and on a human scale often attempted, but seldom mastered. Is this the book upon which, in my maturing middle age, I succumb to the easy chair and the reading of histories? I could do worse. Assuming you haven’t already swallowed that pill yourself, watch out. Åsbrink might nab you, too.” 


From Amazon Crossing, Dark Echoes of the Past by Ramón Días Eterovic, translated from the Spanish (Chile) by Patrick Blaine | fiction | 270 pages | ISBN 9781542046916 | US$14.95

Says the publisher: “Private investigator Heredia spends his days reading detective novels; commiserating with his cat, Simenon; and peering out over the Mapocho River from his Santiago apartment. The city he loves may be changing, but Heredia can’t stop chasing the ghosts of the past. This time, they’ve come to him. Virginia Reyes’s brother, an ex-political prisoner of dictator Augusto Pinochet, was killed in an apparent robbery. Yet nothing of value was taken. The police have declared the case closed, but Virginia suspects that things aren’t quite as they appear and turns to Heredia for help. Heredia couldn’t agree more—but he can’t shake the feeling that there’s something Virginia’s not telling him. Heredia knows this is not a simple crime. His investigation proves it. Drawn back into a world where murderers nest, secrets are to kill and die for, and Pinochet’s legacy still casts a long, dark, and very threatening shadow, it’s all Heredia can do to crawl out of it alive.”

Says the New York Journal of Books: “Señor Diaz Eterovic is both an eloquent writer and a profound one, veiling his philosophical musing in humor which does nothing to disguise the sting of his observations . . . Dark Echoes of the Past is a literary treat for fans of noir.”

Says me: “Full disclosure, I picked this book out of the pile almost exclusively because I’m traveling to Chile over the holidays, and here was a Chilean novel in my lap, snap. But like rushing into the wine store and randomly selecting a bottle solely because I like the font on the label, I am every so occasionally rewarded for my intense hubris. Eterovic was an absolute feast. Erudite and witty, at least through the lens of Blaine's translation, Dark Echoes of the Past was an absolute dream on the page.”


From City Lights Publishers, The Stone Building and Other Places by Asli Erdoğan, translated from the Turkish by Sevinç Türkkan | short fiction | 128 pages | ISBN 9780872867505 | US$14.95

Says the publisher: “Three interconnected stories feature women whose lives have been interrupted by forces beyond their control. Exile, serious illness, or the imprisonment of one's beloved are each met with versions of strength and daring, while there is no undoing what fate has wrought. These atmospheric, introspective tales culminate in an experimental, multivoiced novella, whose ‘stone building’ is a metaphor for the various oppressive institutions—prisons, police HQs, hospitals, and psychiatric asylums—that dominate the lives of all of these characters. Here is a literary distillation of the alienation, helplessness, and controlled fury of exile and incarceration—both physical and mental—presented in a series of moving, allegorical portraits of lives ensnared by the structures of power.”

Says Orhan Pamuk: “Aslı Erdoğan is an exceptionally perceptive and sensitive writer who always produces perfect literary texts.”

Says me: “As if, after Pamuk, you need my word for it. ‘Pamuk liked it, but I wasn’t really sold until this guy on the Words Without Borders blog confirmed it for me.’ I want to hear that sentence come out of your mouth right now. But sure, here it is, in addition to Orhan Pamuk, I also like Erdoğan’s writing. She was imprisoned for months by the Turkish government following the 2016 coup and was the subject of both PEN International and PEN America advocacy campaigns. Assuming, like me, you tend to think muse follows experience, let us all in turn follow Erdogan. This book should be high up in your holiday to-read pile.” 


From Grove Atlantic / Black Cat, The Years, Months, Days by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas | fiction | 208 pages | ISBN 9780802126658 | US$16.00

Says the publisher: “Yan Lianke—‘China’s most feted and most banned author’ (Financial Times)—is a master of imaginative satire, and his prize-winning works have been published around the world to the highest honors. Now, his two most acclaimed novellas are collected here in a single volume—masterfully crafted stories that explore the sacrifices made for family, the driving will to survive, and the longing to leave behind a personal legacy. Marrow is the haunting tale of a widow who goes to extremes to provide a normal life for her four disabled children. When she discovers that bones—especially those of kin—can cure their illnesses and prevent future generations from the same fate, she feeds them a medicinal soup made from the skeleton of her dead husband. But after running out of soup, she resorts to a measure that only a mother can take. In the luminous, moving title story, The Years, Months, Days—a bestselling, classic fable in China, and winner of the prestigious Lu Xun Literary Prize—an elderly man stays behind in his small village after a terrible drought forces everyone to leave. Unable to make the grueling march through the mountains, he becomes the lone inhabitant, along with a blind dog. As he fends off the natural world from overtaking his hometown, every day is a victory over death. With touches of the fantastical and with deep humanity, these two magnificent novellas—masterpieces of the short form—reflect the universality of mankind’s will to live, live well, and live with purpose.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Apocalyptic, eerie visions in two novellas by much-honored Chinese writer Yan . . . Inspired, one imagines, by the terrible headlines of famine, climate change, and simple uncertainty; Yan draws on the conventions of folklore and science fiction alike to produce memorable literature.”

Says me: “Remember when people used to ask you if you’d read something you should have read—Chekov’s The Lady with the Dog, for instance—but you hadn’t, so you lied about it and made a hasty retreat in an attempt to dodge their self-righteous literary piety? I mean, I don’t personally remember that ever happening. I mean, OF COURSE I’ve read Chekov’s The Lady with the Dog, who hasn’t?! Amiright?! But really, stop saying you’ve read Yan and go get this book and, for god’s sake, read it. Most of the books that get rubbed in your underread plebeian face aren’t actually good for much besides rubbing in someone’s underread plebeian face. Not so with the novellas in The Years, Months, Days. They changed me. I’m changed. And don’t think for a second I won’t rub it in your face if you haven’t finally gotten on board the Yan train by the next time we meet.” 


From Phoneme Media, Sonic Peace by Kiriu Minashita, translated from the Japanese by Eric E. Hyett and Spencer Thurlow | poetry | 118 pages | ISBN 99781944700409 | US$16.00

Says the publisher: “‘Even while boasting of its rapid strength and speed,’ Kiriu Minashita says in the afterword to Sonic Peace, ‘the world is being ecstatically eroded by the violent rewriting of meaning.’ Sonic Peace is a work of extreme genius and unassailable critique, fused with beauty and lightheartedness: a love story set against the backdrop of an apocalyptic Tokyo. Published in Japan in 2005, Sonic Peace won the celebrated Chuya Nakahara Prize in 2006, and solidified Minashita’s status as one of the most important critical Japanese voices of her generation.”

Says the Japan Times: “It rings with contemporary loneliness, solitary figures awake in the night and vending machines glowing in the gloom. Many of the voices are personified electronic devices, our phones and computers looking back at us from the ‘blue-darkness.’ The threat of surveillance, of being watched, pervades the work, which is rooted in the artificiality of modern Tokyo. As the voice in ‘March Road’ says, even the horizon is counterfeit.”

Says me: “Let me begin by saying that as a poet (minor though I be), an editor, and a teacher of poetry, I read, what we like to call in the provinces, a [email protected]#-ton of the stuff, but I don’t often fall in love with much of it. It’s a job, it’s work, or my ego gets the better of me and I think, ‘I could have done that better’ (I couldn’t have, just to be clear). Then there’s the fact that I’m something of an Americanist by default, Michigan born and bred, isolated in the bell jar, and even when I’m conscious enough of my own bias and try to avoid its myriad pitfalls and blind alleys, I still sometimes find myself saying things like, ‘there’s too much cultural difference between this or that poetry and me’ (also usually not true). Or worse, I fall back on the old saw about poetry defying adequate translation (three strikes and I’m out). No matter where you go, there you are. Then along come Minashita’s critics, who start throwing words like ‘nature’ and ‘authentic’ into close proximity, and I get really snotty, because I read that Cronin essay in college, too, and we don’t use those words together. Are you tired of me yet? Minashita cut through all of that resistance with a razor. She is a brilliant poet, every line, every poem. The poems themselves are complex, timely, resonant, and simply beautiful. Hyett and Thurlow hit the translation out of the park and across the road. Phoneme delivered an artifact worth holding in your hands (they thus far always have). If you’re traveling light this holiday season, this is the book for your back pocket. I’m on my fourth read through and I’m finding the new in every poem. I think maybe I’m even in love. Preview for yourself here.”


From Oneworld Publications, They Know Not What They Do by Jussi Valtonen, translated from the Finnish by Kristian London | fiction | 496 pages | ISBN 9781780749648 | US$26.99

Says the publisher: “Joe Chayefski has got what he always wanted: a reputation as one of America’s top neuroscientists, a beautiful wife, and two perfect daughters. But when his lab is attacked by animal rights activists, Joe is forced to face the past and reconnect with the son he abandoned twenty years earlier. As he struggles to deal with the sudden collision of his two lives—and to save his eldest daughter from the clutches of an unscrupulous tech company—Joe has to reconsider his priorities and take drastic action to save those he loves.”

Says Paste: “This Scandinavian thriller is the perfect read for long winter nights. Winner of the 2014 Finlandia Prize, They Know Not What They Do weaves family drama and high stakes with chilling results.”

Says me: “The buzz likens Valtonen to Franzen or Eggers, but you know, Finnish. I call the comparisons misleading. They Know Not What They Do is neither indulgent, nor self-satisfied, nor glib, but charts its own course toward an understanding of contemporary society and the importance of perspective. And a page turner to boot—huzzah!” 

Published Dec 14, 2017   Copyright 2017 M. Bartley Seigel

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