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The Watchlist: January 2020

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 Europa Editions | The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar, translated from the Persian by Anonymous | Fiction | 256 pages | ISBN 9781609455651 | US$18.00

What the publisher says: “The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree speaks of the power of imagination when confronted with cruelty, and of our human need to make sense of trauma through the ritual of storytelling itself. Through her unforgettable characters, Azar weaves a timely and timeless story that juxtaposes the beauty of an ancient, vibrant culture with the brutality of an oppressive political regime.”

What Publishers Weekly says: “Azar’s florid style emulates the rich storytelling tradition of bygone Persia, redolent with Zoroastrian lore and mired in magical vegetation 'containing a thousand memories,' clearly meant as a bulwark against the oppression of the present-day regime.”

What I say: The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is a hugely ambitious book, blending familial drama with the history of a nation during a conflicted era. At times, those shifts between the micro and the macro—and back again—can be dizzying, but I appreciated Azar’s sense of scale throughout. Even more effective, and frequently heartbreaking, was the way Azar’s narrative allowed the border between the living and the dead to be porous, making for some of this novel’s most moving and disquieting sections.


From Farrar, Straus and Giroux | The Black Cathedral by Marcial Gala, translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner | Fiction | 256 pages | ISBN 9780374118013 | US$26.00

What the publisher says: “In a neighborhood that roils with passions and conflicts, at the foot of a cathedral that rises higher day by day, there grows a generation marked by violence, cruelty, and extreme selfishness. This generation will carry these traits beyond the borders of the neighborhood, the city, and the country, unable to escape the shadow of the unfinished cathedral.” 

What Kirkus says: “Award-winning Cuban writer and architect Gala links the fate of a community with the doomed construction of a cathedral in this dark, violent, often comic novel, his first to be translated into English.”

What I say: What happens when the most idealistic of intentions overlap with the most sinister of personalities? Marcial Gala’s The Black Cathedral juxtaposes these seemingly contradictory elements, offering readers a host of characters who are passionate about their faith and its transformative power—as well as one figure whose penchant for criminal activity knows no bounds. Told via a shifting array of narrators, this is a hard one to shake.


From Open Letter | The Teacher by Michal Ben-Naftali, translated from the Hebrew by Daniella Zamir | Fiction | 184 pages | ISBN 9781948830072 | US$14.95

What the publisher says: “Ben-Naftali’s The Teacher takes us through a keenly crafted, fictional biography for Elsa—from childhood through adolescence, from the Holocaust to her personal aftermath—and brings us face to face with one woman’s struggle in light of one of history’s great atrocities.” 

What Foreword Reviews says: “When a teacher takes her life, an unnamed narrator proves determined to ensure that her story is not lost to memory. Driven more by psychology than its plot, The Teacher is a chronology-jumping character study about the individual experience of a collective trauma.” 

What I say: History, memory, and speculation converge in Michal Ben-Naftali’s The Teacher. It’s at times reminiscent of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral in the way that the blurred boundaries between these genres is a feature rather than a bug. Ben-Naftali begins with the death of a beloved teacher, and gradually reveals the story of a life abounding with historical trauma and impossible ethical decisions.


From NYRB Classics | The Criminal Child: Selected Essays by Jean Genet, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell and Jeffrey Zuckerman | Nonfiction | 128 pages | ISBN 9781681373614 | US$15.95

What the publisher says: “The Criminal Child offers the first English translation of a key early work by Jean Genet. In 1949, in the midst of a national debate about improving the French reform-school system, a French radio station commissioned Genet to write about his experience as a juvenile delinquent. He sent back a piece about his youth that was a paean to prison instead of the expected horrifying exposé.” 

What Kirkus says: “This brief collection of eight essays by Genet (1910–1986) were written from 1949 to 1958. All are deeply infused with his sexuality, philosophy, and bizarre, metaphysical writing style. In a footnote to one of them, he writes, 'with my cold chisel, words, detached from language, neat blocks, are also tombs.'” 

What I say: This collection of short nonfiction writings offers an interesting overview of Jean Genet’s preferred themes and areas of interest. The title essay memorably eludes easy categorization, and a long essay about Alberto Giacometti is arguably the book’s highlight—one singular artist using the extent of their abilities to write about another.


From Hogarth | The Circus by Jonas Karlsson, translated from the Swedish by Neil Smith | Fiction | 184 pages | ISBN 9781101905173 | US$23.00

What the publisher says: “The gentle, off-beat narrator of The Circus is perfectly content with his quiet life. By day he works in a bakery, and by night he obsessively organizes and reorganizes his record collection: it’s all just the way he likes it. But when his childhood friend Magnus comes calling out of the blue, the contours of our narrator’s familiar world begin to shift.” 

What Publishers Weekly says: “Karlsson’s knack for Kafkaesque surrealism and suspense is wonderfully paired with sardonic humor and a deeply sympathetic protagonist. This excellent, clever yarn is Karlsson’s best yet.” 

What I say: It’s the lived-in details that really hit home in Jonas Karlsson’s The Circus. As the book’s narrator looks back over his troubled childhood and searches for a friend who mysteriously vanished, his musings on music and his own record collection struck a chord with this particular music enthusiast. Sharp pop culture observations dovetail with narrative ambiguity to make for a compelling read.


From Amazon Crossing | Dark Mother Earth by Kristian Novak, translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać | Fiction | 304 pages | ISBN 9781542093569 | US$24.95

What the publisher says: “An amnesiac writer’s life of lies and false memories reaches a breaking point in this stunning English-language debut from an award-winning Croatian author.”

What Kirkus says: “Novak captures well the way that grief may isolate, dislocate, and unmoor the bereaved, especially if it's a child left largely to fend for himself. The boy Matija wanders the countryside looking for his dead father and trying to negotiate for his return—from the police, from the land itself, and from the folkloric 'will-o'-the-wisps' who inhabit the region.”

What I say: Kristian Novak’s Dark Mother Earth evolves through a series of permutations before reaching its unsettling conclusion. It begins as a tale of a conflicted and blocked writer, and gradually moves back in time, focusing on his troubled childhood during a period of strife for his country. The addition of some possibly uncanny elements into the mix brings another disquieting element to this frequently unpredictable novel.

Looking for more reading suggestions? Check out Tobias Carroll’s recommendations from last month.

Published Jan 29, 2020   Copyright 2020 Tobias Carroll

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