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The Watchlist: January 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 The Overlook Press, Powers of Darkness by Bram Stoker and Valdimar Ásmundsson, translated from the Icelandic by Hans Corneel De Roos || 320 pages || ISBN 9781468313369 || US$24.76

Says the publisher: “Powers of Darkness is an incredible literary discovery: In 1900, Icelandic publisher and writer Valdimar Ásmundsson set out to translate Bram Stoker’s world-famous 1897 novel Dracula. Called Makt Myrkranna (literally, “Powers of Darkness”), this Icelandic edition included an original preface written by Stoker himself. Makt Myrkranna was published in Iceland in 1901, but remained undiscovered outside of the country until 1986, when Dracula scholarship was astonished by the discovery of Stoker’s preface to the book. However, no one looked beyond the preface and deeper into Ásmundsson’s story.

In 2014, literary researcher Hans de Roos dove into the full text of Makt Myrkranna, only to discover that Ásmundsson hadn’t merely translated Dracula but had penned an entirely new version of the story, with all new characters and a totally reworked plot. The resulting narrative is one that is shorter, punchier, more erotic, and perhaps even more suspenseful than Stoker’s Dracula. Incredibly, Makt Myrkranna has never been translated or even read outside of Iceland until now.

Powers of Darkness presents the first ever translation into English of Stoker and Ásmundsson’s Makt Myrkranna. With marginal annotations by de Roos providing readers with fascinating historical, cultural, and literary context; a foreword by Dacre Stoker, Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew and bestselling author; and an afterword by Dracula scholar John Edgar Browning, Powers of Darkness will amaze and entertain legions of fans of Gothic literature, horror, and vampire fiction.”

Says New York Journal of Books:Powers of Darkness is an entertaining story and during the read, it is easy to forget what it’s supposed to be―a translation―and think of it as an entirely new novel . . . to quote from the original: ‘There are mysteries men can only guess at, which age by age they may solve only in part.’ Powers of Darkness does exactly that, while offering new mysteries in their place.”

Says me: File this one under weird. If there’s a list of tapped out literary tropes, vampire has to be close to the top of it, yet throw Stoker’s canonical text through the translation mechinations of Ásmundsson and De Roos, and suddenly you have bizarro Bram Stoker on your hands, and it’s a brave new world. With that, I’m guessing you’re either all in, or never will be; behave accordingly. 


From Europa Editions, The Gringo Champion by Aura Xilonen, translated from the Spanish (Mexico) by Andrea Rosenberg || 320 pages || ISBN 9781609453657 || US$17.00

Says the publisher: “Liborio has to leave Mexico, a land that has taught him little more than a keen instinct for survival. He crosses the Rio Bravo, like so many others, to reach ‘the promised land.’ And in a barrio like any other, in some gringo city, this illegal immigrant tells his story. As Liborio narrates his memories we discover a childhood scarred by malnutrition and abandonment, an adolescence lived with a sense of having nothing to lose. In his new home, he finds a job at a bookstore. He falls in love with a woman so intensely that his fantasies of her verge on obsession. And, finally, he finds himself on a path that just might save him: he becomes a boxer. 

Liborio’s story is constructed in a dazzling language that reflects the particular culture of border towns and expresses both resistance and fascination. This is a migrant’s story of deracination, loneliness, fear, and finally, love told in a sparkling, innovative prose. It’s Million Dollar Baby meets The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and a story of migration and hope that is as topical as it is timeless.”

Says Booklist: “From the very first page of this fantastic, magnificent, spectacular debut, Xilonen flings the reader into the maelstrom of her protagonist’s relentless stream of consciousness.”

Says me: “Highbrow lowbrow; sweet spot, too. El Sur said in a review that Xilonen brilliantly transforms the vulgar into art and in cultured diction, with which I heartily concur––though I’m personally less concerned with elitism in language than with finding the beautiful in the ugly and speaking truth to power (shazam!). A migration story for the current moment, large, intense, honest, and somehow still hopeful. Read an excerpt here at Words without Borders.”


From Karolinum Press, God’s Rainbow by Jaroslav Durych, translated from the Czech by David Short || 140 pages || ISBN 9788024632919 || US$17.71

Says the publisher: “This is a book about collective guilt, individual fate, and repentance, a tale that explores how we can come to be responsible for crimes we neither directly commit nor have the power to prevent. Set in the Czechoslovakian borderland shortly after WWII amid the sometimes violent expulsion of the region’s German population, Jaroslav Durych’s poetic, deeply symbolic novel is a literary touchstone for coming to terms with the Czech Republic’s difficult and taboo past of state-sanctioned violence.

A leading Catholic intellectual of the early twentieth century, Durych became a literary and political throwback to the prewar Czechoslovak Republic and faced censorship under the Stalinist regime of the 1950s. As such, he was a man not unfamiliar with the ramifications of a changing society in which the minority becomes the rule-making political authority, only to end up condemned as criminals. Though Durych finished writing God’s Rainbow in 1955, he could not have hoped to see it published in his lifetime. Released in a still-censored form in 1969, God’s Rainbow is available here in full for the first time in English.”

Says me: “No reviews of this first English edition, at least not that I could locate at the time of writing, but if you’re familiar with Durych’s other work, you needn't take my word on its merits. The New York Times has called his work immense, vivid, and brilliant. Feeling as I am particularly apocalyptic this month, I’ll go so far as to call him a torch-bearer in a time of darkness. If a book about ‘the ramifications of a changing society in which the minority becomes the rule-making political authority’ and its dire consequences doesn’t strike the reader as exigent in 2017, the reader isn’t paying very close attention.” 


From Phoneme Media, Mr. Fix-It by Richard Ali A Mutu, translated from the Lingala (DR Congo) by Bienvenu Sene Mongaba and Sara Sene || 108 pages || ISBN 9781944700072 || US$12

Says the publisher: “Ebamba’s name means ‘mender’ in Lingala, but everything in the Congolese twenty-something’s life seems to be falling apart. In the chaotic megacity of Kinshasa, the educated but unemployed young man must navigate the ever widening distance between tradition and modernity—from the payment of his fiancee’s exorbitant dowry to the unexpected sexual confession of his best friend—as he struggles with responsibility and flirts with temptation. The first novel to be translated into English from the Lingala, Mr. Fix-It introduces major new talent Richard Ali A Mutu, who leads a new generation of writers whose work portrays the everyday realities of Congolese life with the bold, intense style associated with the country’s music and fashion.”

Says me: “No external reviews on this one, either (again, that I could locate at the time of writing). Regardless, Phoneme just keeps killing it, this time with Richard Ali A Mutu’s Mr. Fix-It. If you, like me, are even mildly aware of the landscape and limitations of contemporary literature in English translation available in ’Murika, this book will have you at first novel to be translated from Lingala into English. Ali A Mutu was born in Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 1988, won the Mark Twain Award in 2009, and published his first novel, Tabu’s Nightmares (written in French), in 2011. Mr. Fix-It: Troublesome Kinshasa was originally published in Lingala in 2014 and has been previously translated into French, and he was selected as one of the only writers working in indigenous languages for the Africa 39 anthology in 2014, alongside writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Dinaw Mengetsu. Bam. It’s a big, big world out there, peoples; get you some.” 


From New York Review Books, Pretending is Lying by Dominique Goblet, translated from the French (Belgium) by Sophie Yanow || 160 pages || ISBN  9781681370477 || US$19.96

Says the publisher: “The first book to appear in English by the acclaimed Belgian artist Dominique Goblet, Pretending is Lying is a memoir unlike any other. In a series of dazzling fragments—skipping through time, and from raw, slashing color to delicate black and white—Goblet examines the most important relationships in her life: with her partner, Guy Marc; with her daughter, Nikita; and with her parents.The result is an unnerving comedy of paternal dysfunction, an achingly ambivalent love story (with asides on Thomas Pynchon and the Beach Boys), and a searing account of childhood trauma—a dizzying, unforgettable view of a life in progress and a tour de force of the art of comics.”

Says L'Express: “Dominique Goblet spent twelve years putting parts of her life to rest—explicit snippets and fragments that condense her entire childhood and sketch a tender portrait of the adult she is today . . . Goblet hides nothing. And she forgives, weaving together, in gray and black and on yellowing paper, with strokes of her brush, a shocking kind of autobiography.”

Says me: “I would never feign expertise in comics or graphic novels, but Goblet had me at page one and never let me go. Actually, I read it twice in one sitting. Take that for what it’s worth. She is precise, poetic, scathingly honest, and her artwork is both deceptively simple and absolutely, electrically alive, kicking and screaming. If I gave out stars, this book would get them all.” 


From Dalkey Archive Press, Love at Last Sight by Vedrana Rudan, translated from the Serbian (Croatia) by Ellen Elias-Bursac || 204 pages || ISBN 9781628971668 || US$16.00

Says the publisher: “Love at Last Sight is a fierce novel about marital abuse, written for wives, girlfriends, mothers, and all women who have experienced trauma in their relationships. Rudan writes with conviction and strength, drawing upon her own personal experiences to create a book with powerful insight. Like Rudan’s previous fiction, Love at Last Sight moves with a strident feminist voice, and will undoubtedly leave its mark upon any reader sympathetic to Rudan’s story.”

Says The Guardian: “Rudan has a voice that is definitely worth hearing.”

Says me: “From the same list of suspect rules wherein I remind myself never to get stoned with an Israeli, I also maintain one should never look for hope from a Croatian. Love at Last Sight didn’t persuade me otherwise, though what can a reader reasonably expect from a book about the happy subject of marital abuse. It is, however, brutally, beautifully written and translated, profoundly insightful (dare I say, particularly being a male reader), and I challenge even the most callous bibliophile to come through the novel absent a visceral, emotional response to it. As of writing, there’s no link to the book on Dalkey’s website (shakes fist at Dalkey’s website; c’mon guys), but it’s already listed at Amazon if you’re looking for it now (I know, Amazon . . .) and Dalkey does have some very nice Q&As with Rudan currently available in their online archives.” 


It’s a big, big reading world out there, people. Get you some. See you next month.

Published Jan 24, 2017   Copyright 2017 M. Bartley Seigel

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