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The Watchlist: January 2021

By Tobias Carroll

Each month, Tobias Carroll shares a handful of recently released or forthcoming titles in translation that he’s especially excited about. January's selection includes books translated from Danish, Catalan, Korean, Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese.


From Innsmouth Free Press | The Route of Ice and Salt by José Luis Zárate, translated from the Spanish by David Bowles | Fiction | 196 pages | ISBN 9781927990292 | US$15.59

What the publisher says: “A reimagining of Dracula’s voyage to England, filled with Gothic imagery and queer desire. [. . .] The cult vampire novella by Mexican author José Luis Zárate is available for the first time in English. Translated by David Bowles and with an accompanying essay by noted horror author Poppy Z. Brite, it reveals an unknown corner of Latin American literature.”

What Library Journal says: “A necessary and engaging addition not only to the always popular subset of Dracula-adjacent tales such as Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker, but also to the growing pantheon of retellings of horror classics from a marginalized perspective such as Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom.”

What I say: The Route of Ice and Salt has atmosphere and menace to spare. What makes this short novel so compelling is its blend of the familiar and the unexpected—to any reader familiar with Dracula, the conclusion of this book will come as little surprise, but some of the phantasmagorical imagery here remains stunning. Combine that with the novel’s innovative structure and you have a thoroughly unsettling read.


From Open Letter Books | The Adventures and Misadventures Of The Extraordinary and Admirable Joan Orpí, Conquistador and Founder Of New Catalonia by Max Besora, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem | Fiction | 400 pages | ISBN 9781948830249 | US$17.95

What the publisher says: “Using historical facts as raw material, and with stellar appearances of characters such as Miguel de Cervantes or the brigand Serrallonga, among others, Besora converses with the satirical tradition of works such as Gargantua and Pantagruel, Gulliver's Travels, or Don Quixote, to paint a fresco of Catalonia in the seventeenth century and the Golden Age of the Spanish empire, creating a novel that is fresh, sharp, and bursting with exuberant adventures.”

What A Bookish Type says: “Besora’s dialogue is full of period and anachronistic speech that made me chuckle at the way it wandered through centuries of linguistic evolution. Translator Mara Faye Lethem deserves all kinds of awards for her work on this book. She is pitch-perfect at translating all kinds of voices, dialects, time periods from Catalan, Spanish, and other languages into English.”

What I say: This is a dizzying one. On the surface, Besora’s novel is a knowing riff on historical picaresques, with (perhaps) a bit of Candide thrown in for good measure. But there’s also a layered, metafictional aspect to the book, both in the nestled narratives and in the writing itself. The novel is especially compelling from a linguistic perspective and is worth reading for Mara Faye Lethem’s deft translation alone.


From MacLehose Press | Kokoschka’s Doll by Afonso Cruz, translated from the Portuguese by Rahul Bery | Fiction | 288 pages | ISBN 9781529402704 | UK£14.99

What the publisher says: “Based on a curious true story, Kokoschka’s Doll is an imaginative and playful novel that transports the reader to Dresden, Paris, Lagos, and Marrakesh, introducing them to an unforgettable cast of characters along the way.”

What European Literature Network says: “Portuguese polymath Afonso Cruz presents an array of parallel and tangential stories and themes that propel, then divert, and then re-establish the thrust of the novel’s narrative time and again. Ostensibly, this is the story of two Dresden families, spanning the twentieth century and two continents, but it is in fact more an exploration of ideas for which the characters are a cypher.”

What I say: Kokoschka’s Doll begins in familiar territory, tracing its characters’ initial convergence during a tense moment in history. From there, though, things take a heady turn and the narrative folds in on itself again and again, encompassing books within books within books, sometimes to an absurd extent—though perhaps “absurdist” would be more accurate.


From Forge | My Brilliant Life by Ae-ran Kim, translated from the Korean by Chi-young Kim | Fiction | 208 pages | ISBN 9781250750556 | US$24.99

What the publisher says: “For several months, Areum has been working on a manuscript, piecing together his parents’ often embellished stories about his family and childhood. He hopes to present it on his birthday, as a final gift to his mom and dad; their own falling-in-love story.”

What Korean Literature Now says: “The protagonist has just turned sixteen years old, born to parents who had him in high school. He suffers from the rapid aging affliction progeria. So the stage is set for the story of the impossibly old child with impossibly young parents, told from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old with the face of an octogenarian whose parents are still in their early thirties.”

What I say: The word “tearjerker” comes to mind when writing about My Brilliant Life; given that this novel is about a teenager dealing with a medical condition that will soon end his life, that’s not necessarily surprising. The novel’s greatest strength comes when Kim explores the protagonist’s unconventional family dynamics and the tensions arising from them.


From Scribe | The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett | Fiction | 112 pages | ISBN 9781950354368 | US$20.00

What the publisher says: “They had no idea, when they arrived in Morocco, that their usual freedoms as young European women would not be available. So, when the spry Saleh presents himself as their guide and savior, they embrace his offer. He extracts them from a tight space, only to lead them inexorably into an even tighter one: and from this far darker space there is no exit.”

What Publishers Weekly says: “While the underdeveloped Murat functions primarily as a political symbol, the women’s ill-fated journey leads to an emotionally complex and ultimately chilling transformation. Wieringa hits the mark with this intelligent outing.”

What I say: The shape of Wieringa’s novel—about well-intentioned people who find themselves in way over their heads—feels archetypal in its handling of morality, guilt, and memory. The second half of this book, following its two central characters after the event described in the title takes place, makes for a haunting portrait of psychological distress, with the tension ratcheting up page by page.


From Farrar, Straus and Giroux | The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen, translated from the Danish by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman | Memoir | 384 pages | ISBN 9780374602390 | US$30.00

What the publisher says: “Ditlevsen’s trilogy is remarkable for its intensity and its immersive depiction of a world of complex female friendships, family, and growing up—in this sense, it’s Copenhagen's answer to Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels. She can also be seen as a spiritual forerunner of confessional writers like Karl Ove Knausgaard, Annie Ernaux, Rachel Cusk, and Deborah Levy. Her trilogy is drawn from her own experiences but reads like the most compelling kind of fiction.”

What the New York Times says: “Few writers have written so rapturously of the joy, the necessity, of writing. It became a compulsion for Ditlevsen. Language dulled her pain and papered over the past.”

What I say: Taken separately, each of these three books does a fine job of zeroing in on an aspect of Ditlevsen’s life; in tandem, they make for a heartbreaking exploration of literary ambition, emotional connections, and addiction. They also serve as a subtle and rich portrait of mid-century Copenhagen, with all of the unsettling elements that implies.

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

Disclosure: Words Without Borders is an affiliate of and will earn a commission if you use the links above to make a purchase.

Published Jan 27, 2021   Copyright 2021 Tobias Carroll

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