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The Watchlist: June 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 Milkweed Editions | The Blue Sky by Galsan Tschinag, translated from the German by Katharina Rout | Fiction | 224 pages | ISBN 9781571311399 | US$16.00

What the publisher says: “In the high Altai Mountains of northern Mongolia, the nomadic Tuvan people’s ancient way of life collides with the pervasive influence of modernity as seen through the eyes of Dshurukawaa, a young shepherd boy.”

What Books and Bao says: “ . . . the relatively slow and still pace of the novel reflects the pace of the lifestyle in the steppes, which contrasts drastically with the sudden change of the modern world that is beginning to exert its pull even in these remote parts. The setting and the thematics work hand in hand to magnify the threat and show us what stands to be lost.”

What I say: Galsan Tschinag’s The Blue Sky is a largely episodic novel that juxtaposes its protagonist’s development with changes in the society in which he lives. What makes it stand out is the emphasis on lived-in details; this is the sort of book where, reading it, you feel as though you could step directly into its setting and find yourself living there.


From Comma Press | The Book of Shanghai by Dai Congrong and Jin Li (editors), translated from the Chinese by Lee Anderson, Yu Yan Chen, Jack Hargreaves, Paul Harris, Frances Nichol, Christopher Macdonald, Carson Ramsdell, Josh Stenberg, Katherine Tse, and Helen Wang | Fiction | 196 pages | ISBN 9781912697274 | UK£9.99

What the publisher says: “The characters in this literary exploration of one of the world’s biggest cities are all on a mission. Whether it is responding to events around them, or following some impulse of their own, they are defined by their determination—a refusal to lose themselves in a city that might otherwise leave them anonymous, disconnected, alone.” 

What Lunate says: “The project as a whole, a collaboration between The Manchester Confucius Institute and the city’s inimitable Comma Press, acts as a showcase for both new and established Chinese voices. On that basis, it serves as both guidebook and history, referencing key periods of China’s literary development (from the left-leaning ethos of the original New Sensation school, to the later shift towards a stark social realism as encouraged by Chairman Mao Zedong’s call for the proletariat to tell their stories) and functioning as a stirring state of the literary nation address.”

What I say: The short stories collected in The Book of Shanghai offer a panoply of modes and styles, from the deeply realistic to the bizarre and outlandish. A few of these gradually moved from one to the other: the collection’s highlight, Shen Dacheng’s “The Novelist in the Attic,” begins as a wry literary satire and ends with a violent postmodern tableau that reads like a Brian Evenson nightmare.


From Catapult | Magnetized: Conversations with a Serial Killer by Carlos Busqued, translated from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter | Nonfiction | 192 pages | ISBN 9781948226684 | US$25.00

What the publisher says: “Magnetized is a riveting psychological portrait—a captivating story about one man’s crimes, but also about a way to inhabit the world, or to become absent from it.” 

What Kirkus says: “The author’s interviews with Ricardo Melogno detail not only his crimes, which took place during one week in 1982, but also his motivations—or lack thereof—and the killer’s fascinating, disturbing psyche.” 

What I say: Carlos Busqued’s Magnetized is a thoroughly haunting work of nonfiction. It manages the difficult task of revisiting the life of someone who’s done horrendous things and explaining the circumstances that brought them to that point. It does indeed offer a firsthand look into the life of a serial killer—but it does so without ever feeling sensationalistic or gratuitous.


From New Vessel Press | I Belong to Vienna: A Jewish Family's Story of Exile and Return by Anna Goldenberg, translated from the German by Alta L. Price | Nonfiction | 207 pages | ISBN 9781939931849 | US$16.95

What the publisher says: “Goldenberg reconstructs this unique story in magnificent reportage. She also portrays Vienna’s undying allure—although they tried living in the United States after World War II, both grandparents eventually returned to the Austrian capital. The author, too, has returned to her native Vienna after living in New York herself, and her fierce attachment to her birthplace enlivens her engrossing biographical history.” 

What Publishers Weekly says: “Through family photos, school report cards, letters, and Nazi documents detailing the liquidation of Jewish businesses, Goldenberg presents a vivid picture of life in Vienna under Nazi rule.”

What I say: In telling the story of her family’s harrowing history through Austria in the 1930s and 1940s, Anna Goldenberg explores questions of national identity and personal trauma. What emerges from the pages of I Belong to Vienna is a fascinating look at how two Jewish families navigated an increasingly hostile nation. As someone whose own familiar history includes similar experiences, I found this book both historically and personally relevant.


From Amazon Crossing | A Man by Keiichiro Hirano, translated from the Japanese by Eli K.P. William | Fiction | 302 pages | ISBN 9781542006880 | US$24.95

What the publisher says: “In A Man, winner of Japan’s prestigious Yomiuri Prize for Literature, Keiichiro Hirano explores the search for identity, the ambiguity of memory, the legacies with which we live and die, and the reconciliation of who you hoped to be with who you’ve actually become.”

What the Arts Desk says: “Hirano uses the meticulous investigations of the lawyer Kido to throw into relief the insistent messiness of identity, both from a legal and philosophical perspective. The more the mystery reveals about the backstories of Daisuké and the man posing as Daisuké, the more blurred truth and deception become, until Kido can no longer be certain of the validity of either.”

What I say: What sort of novel is A Man? Hirano dangles a number of possibilities before the reader, from existential thriller to full-on spy novel. That a novel that deals so thoroughly with the ambiguities of identity should have its own identity be in question is utterly fitting. Did I mention it’s also a gripping read?


From And Other Stories | Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichý, translated from the Swedish by Nichola Smalley | Fiction | 176 pages | ISBN 9781911508762 | UK£9.99

What the publisher says: “From sprawling housing projects to underground clubs and squat parties, Wretchedness is a blistering trip through the underbelly of Europe’s cities. Powered by a furious, unpredictable beat, this is a paean to brotherhood, to those who didn’t make it however hard they fought, and a visceral indictment of the poverty which took them.”

What The Guardian says: “There’s a sink-or-swim quality to all this, offset by the sheer vigor of the brawls, binges, and comedowns that bubble up from the narrator’s past, as he recounts his life prior to entering adult education.”

What I say: Some novels meander or saunter along; Wretchedness hurtles from beginning to end. In telling a story about art, class, despair, and community, Andrzej Tichý offers readers a propulsive glimpse into his narrator’s mind. Throw in a few choice pop culture references and you have a thrillingly original work of fiction.


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 Jun 25, 2020   Copyright 2020 Tobias Carroll

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