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The Watchlist: February 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 Restless Books, The Israeli Republic: An Iranian Revolutionary’s Journey to the Jewish State by Jalal Al-e Ahmad, translated from the Persian by Samuel Thrope || 186 pages || ISBN 9781632061393 || US$14.99

Says the publisher: “Written by a preeminent Iranian writer who helped lay the popular groundwork for the Iranian Revolution, The Israeli Republic should be required reading for Israelis, Iranians, and anyone interested in the ongoing conflict between them. Documenting Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s two-week-long trip to Israel in February of 1963, ‘Journey to the Land of Israel’ caused a firestorm when it was published in Iran, upsetting the very revolutionary clerics whose anti-Western sentiments Al-e Ahmad himself had fueled. Yet, in the thriving Jewish State, Jalal Al-e Ahmad saw a model for a possible future Iran.

“Based on his controversial travelogue, supplemented with letters between the author and Simin Daneshvar (his wife and yet another giant in Iranian literature), and translated into English for the first time, The Israeli Republic is a record of Al-e Ahmad’s idealism, insight, and ultimate disillusionment towards Israel. Vibrantly modern in its sensibility and fearlessly polemical, this book will change the way you think about the Middle East.”

Says the New York Times“One of Iran’s leading writers and social critics.”

Says me: “As perhaps something slightly better than a casual American reader of Iranian, Israeli, and Palestinian politics and contemporary history, I still scratch my head as much as the next person. Ahmad’s account of his journey revealed much about the region’s attitudes toward religious authority, populism, and ‘the West,’ and popped any number of holes in my own misconceptions about the thinking undergirding the Iranian Revolution. Select letters between the author and his wfie, Iranian novelist Simin Daneshvar, proved feminist in a way I couldn’t have guessed. Far afield from my usual reading, I found the book and its supplements absolutely fascinating.” 


From Seagull Books, Things That Happen and Other Poems by Bhaskar Chakrabarti, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha || 184 pages || ISBN 9780857423894 || US$21.00

Says the publisher: “Bhaskar Chakrabarti’s poetry is synonymous with the romantic melancholia inherent to Calcutta. His trenchant poetic voice was one of the most significant to emerge in the 1960s and ’70s—perhaps the most prolific period of modern Bengali poetry. Spanning the rise of militant leftism, the spread of crippling poverty across India, the war in Bangladesh, the influx of millions of refugees, the dark, dictatorial days of Indira Gandhi’s reign, and the disillusionment of communist rule in Bengal, Chakrabarti’s poems plumb the depths of urban angst, expressing the spirit of sadness and alienation in delicate metaphors wrapped in deceptively lucid language. In this first-ever comprehensive translation of Chakrabarti’s work, award-winning translator Arunava Sinha masterfully articulates that clarity of vision, retaining the unique cadence and idioms of the Bengali language.”

Says me: “I've said it before in this column and I’ll say it again: while not much gets written in America about poetry, next to nothing gets written about international poetry in English translation. Add to that nonexistant list Bhaskar Chakrabarti’s new collection, which is a shame. He died in 2005, so while this is his first and last foray in front of American readers, such poetry lovers as there are will be richly rewarded. His work is muscular, sensual, and accessible, painting a picture not only of his unique place and time in the world, but of the human condition in general. It’s everything I could ask for in a full-length retrospective collection, from a corner of the world and a language I don’t often get the chance to read.” 


From Black Cat, The White City by Karolina Ramqvist, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel || 224 pages || ISBN 9780802125958 || US$16.00

Says the publisher: “A celebrated bestseller in Sweden, and the winner of the prestigious Per Olov Enquist Literary Prize, The White City is an arresting story of betrayal and empowerment as a criminal’s girlfriend is left behind to pick up the pieces of her imploded existence.

“With slow-burning psychological intrigue and a seductive atmosphere, The White City is an intimate portrayal of one woman’s struggle to pull herself up from the paralyzing depths of despair and an unflinching examination of what it means to lose control―over your body and your life.”

Says Shelf Awareness: The White City is rich in language and ambience. Moody, mysterious, maternal, and magnetic . . . it is a haunting novel of a woman adrift yet firmly attached to romantic memories of her lover and the simple needs of her daughter . . . Ramqvist is a serious contender for the Swedish literary limelight.”

Says me: “For a thriller, The White City is an unusually quiet, sprawling depiction of the family concerns of mother Karin and infant daughter Dream. Others have suggested it feels more like a parenting allegory than a crime novel, and while this may be true, it’s no detraction from the read. Sometimes the scariest things are those we cannot see, just as sometimes the heaviest loads are those carried over from a former, troubled life. Watching Karin struggle to save Dream from the violence and lies of her former self is a harrowing and rewarding journey.”


From Europa Editions, 2084: The End of the World by Boualem Sansal, translated from the French by Alison Anderson || 240 pages || ISBN 9781609453664 || US$17.00

Says the publisher: “A tribute to George Orwell’s 1984 and a cry of protest against totalitarianism of all kinds, Sansal’s 2084 tells the story of a near future in which religious extremists have established an oppressive caliphate where autonomus thought is forbidden.

“It is the year 2084. In the kingdom of Abistan—named after the prophet Abi, earthly messenger of the god Yolah—citizens submit to a single god, demonstrating their devotion by kneeling in prayer nine times a day. Autonomous thought has been banned, remembering is forbidden, and an omnipresent surveillance system instantly informs the authorities of every deviant act, thought, or idea. The kingdom is blessed and its citizens are happy, filled with a sense of purpose and piety. Those who are not—the heretics—are put to death by stoning or beheading in city squares. But Ati has met people who think differently; in ghettos and caves, hidden from the authorities, exist the last living heretics and free-thinkers of Abistan. Under their influence, Ati begins to doubt. He begins to think. Now, he will have to defend his thoughts with his life.” 

Says The Guardian: 2084 is a powerful novel that celebrates resistance.”

Says me: “If the reasons for1984 currently topping the American best-seller lists are unsettling for you, then Sansal’s reboot, 2084, will likely prove downright unnerving. His world is uncannily familiar with its separation walls, bans on other cultures and religions, and a totalitarian leader uniting people through fear of a faceless enemy. But it’s a powerful celebration of resistance, too, and I’ll put it down, in my humble opinion, as the must-read of my February must-read list.” 


From Phoneme Media, Cold Moons by Magnús Sigurðsson, translated from the Icelandic by Meg Matich || 131 pages || ISBN 9781944700096 || US$16.00

Says the publisher: “Magnús Sigurðsson’s spare poems pay rare attention to the minute revelations of nature rather than allowing the crudeness of machinery to bulldoze our sentiments. Through intricate wordplay and a titanic understanding of his native Icelandic, rendered with perfect tone by award-winning translator Meg Matich, Sigurðsson creates tiny but arresting artifacts—fragments that scale an instant to an aeon, and a thousand millennia to a second. Whether describing the dwarf wasp’s one-millimeter wingspan or the roots of a bonsai, he is a cosmologist of language, and Cold Moons is an intimate map of his distinctive universe.”

Says PEN America: “. . . a collection of sparse, minimalistic ecopoetry . . . that deals with nature’s resilience to the passage of time.”

Says me: “The poems in this collection are as spare and unrelenting as the landscapes out of which Sigurðsson draws his poetics, by turns beautiful and frightening. The scales at play in his poems can be disorienting, in one instant hyperfocused on the minutest of natural details, in the next aperaturing out to the extremes of time and space. While the poems themselves are brief, the language is so expansive and Whitmanesque, containing many of its own multitudes, that when I finally came up for air, I felt I’d been gone an age, much longer than one might reasonably expect from a pocket-sized book of poems.” 


From Dalkey Archive, Five Fingers by Māra Zālīte, translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis || 246 pages || ISBN 9781628971699 || US$17.00

Says the publisher: “Five-year-old Laura was born in one of Joseph Stalin’s prison camps in Siberia. When the book opens, she and her parents are on their long journey back to Latvia, a country Laura knows only from the exuberant descriptions that whirled about the Gulag. Upon her arrival, however, she must come to terms with the conflicting images of the life she sees around her and the fairytale Latvia she grew up hearing about and imagining. Based on the author’s life, and written in lush language that defies the narrative’s many hardships, Five Fingers tells the story of a girl who moves between worlds in the hopes of finding a Latvia that she can call home.”

Says me: “We don’t read enough about the Soviet mass deportations of the post-Word War II period, less about what it was like for deportees who then returned to homelands they no longer recognized in the wake of Sovietization. The effect of that dislocation on people says much about cultures of the Baltics today. It also says much about current trends in Russian expansionism in places like Ukraine and what that means for those self-same people. Zālīte’s dexterity at putting fully realized faces to Latvia’s muddy history, in allowing her characters rich lives in the midst of such suffering, is a testament to the venerable power of her writing.” 

Published Feb 27, 2017   Copyright 2017 M. Bartley Seigel

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