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The Watchlist: March 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. This month's selection includes translated books from the Philippines, Germany, Lebanon, Mexico, France, and Finland.

 

From Gaudy Boy | Ulirát: Best Contemporary Stories in Translation from the Philippines, edited by Tilde Acuña, John Bengan, Daryll Delgado, Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III, and Kristine Ong Muslim, translated from the Filipino, Cebuano, Hiligaynon, Ilocano, Waray, Kinaray-a, and Akeanon by Tilde Acuña, Merlie M. Alunan, Roy Vadil Aragon, John Bengan, Erika M. Carreon, Shane Carreon, Bernard Capinpin, Soleil Davíd, Daryll Delgado, Eliodora L. Dimzon, Sunantha Mendoza-Quibilan, Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III, Kristine Ong Muslim, Eric Gerard H. Nebran, and Ariel Sotelo Tabág | Fiction | 378 pages | ISBN 9780999451427 | US$22.00

What the publisher says: “Vigorous writing from Filipino writers living in different parts of the archipelago re-animate Duterte’s Philippines, dramatizing everything from the drug wars and widespread corruption to environmental degradation in surprisingly surreal and illuminating ways. Ulirát, which is Tagalog for “consciousness,” champions a more expansive, nuanced conception of Filipino literature beyond the confines of English-language Filipino literature.”

What Necessary Fiction says: “The writers of Ulirát blend folklore with tropes from the Western canon and brutal colonial history. Layers of references to different times and colonial regimes stack like sediment, threatening to bury the verbal fun and games. There are no fairy-tale endings, just the effects of serial colonization and downstream capitalist economics.”

What I say: Ulirát has virtually everything you might want in an anthology of short fiction: a wide spectrum of authorial voices, thematic concerns, and tones ranging from realism to the uncanny. But the anthology also manages the impressive feat of feeling like a solid survey while also working as a consistent whole. One hopes we’ll see more translated work from these authors, some of whom also appear in WWB’s recent issue of writing from the Philippines. (Full disclosure: I’ve published writing by co-editor Kristine Ong Muslim as an editor.)

 

From Spurl Editions | The Cheap-Eaters by Thomas Bernhard, translated from the German by Douglas Robertson | Fiction | 104 pages | ISBN 9781943679133 | US$17.50

What the publisher says: “The cheap-eaters have been eating at the Vienna Public Kitchen for years, from Monday to Friday, and true to their name, always the cheapest meals. They become the focus of Koller’s scientific attention when he deviates one day from his usual path through the park, leading him to come upon the cheap-eaters and to realize that they must be the focal piece of his yearslong, unwritten study of physiognomy.”

What I say: In Douglas Robertson’s translation, this story of obsession and philosophical fixation is also an utter joy to read, its characters and histories warily circling one another in hyperfocused language. The novel’s balance of a unique approach to prose with a memorable structural kick at the end makes for a thoroughly haunting read.

 

From Yale University Press | Voices of the Lost by Hoda Barakat, translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth | Fiction | 208 pages | ISBN 9780300255263 | US$13.00

What the publisher says: “This profound and disturbing novel by acclaimed Lebanese author Hoda Barakat tells the story of characters living on the periphery, battling with poverty, and fighting their own demons. . . .  Set in an unnamed, war-torn country, the novel consists of six letters—all intercepted by unintended recipients, all of whom are compelled to write their own letters of confession.”

What The Guardian says: “The recitations in Voices of the Lost are searing. Yet the construction of the novel—the device of found letters, the late addition of a heroic postman keeping a register of what cannot be delivered—creates an uneasy space where contrivance is an insistent part of the fabric.”

What I say: Take an innovative structure, add in a host of wounded, conflicting narrative voices, and you have a recipe for a gripping read. Hoda Barakat’s Voices of the Lost is both formally inventive and gripping in its depictions of its characters’ dilemmas. It’s not a long book by any measure, but it’s able to capture the full feeling of numerous lives across its pages.

 

From Pantheon | Horizontal Vertigo: A City Called Mexico by Juan Villoro, translated from the Spanish by Alfred MacAdam | Nonfiction | 368 pages | ISBN 9781524748883 | US$30.00

What the publisher says: “At once intimate and wide-ranging, and as enthralling, surprising, and vivid as the place itself, this is a uniquely eye-opening tour of one of the great metropolises of the world, and its largest Spanish-speaking city.”

What Kirkus Reviews says: “Trained as a sociologist but well known to Spanish-speaking readers as one of Mexico’s most acclaimed novelists, Villoro writes appreciatively of a city that is constantly changing—and whose landmarks are different for each generation, if they haven’t been torn down in the course of rebuilding or destroyed by earthquakes.”

What I say: Just as cities are assembled from people, homes, and institutions, Juan Villoro’s expansive exploration of Mexico City is comprised of a kind of composite structure. This is a book in which observations on politics, food, history, and literature all coexist; ultimately, the reader feels transported to a (possibly) new place with a sense of how it functions on a grand scale.

 

From Transit Books (US) and Les Fugitives (UK) | Poetics of Work by Noémi Lefebvre, translated from the French by Sophie Lewis | Fiction | 112 pages | ISBN 9781945492440 | US$15.95

What the publisher says: “In this Oulipian experiment written without gender markers for its narrator, Noémi Lefebvre presents us with a comic and irreverent reckoning with the rise of nationalism and the hegemony capitalism has on our language, actions, and identities.”

What Publishers Weekly says: “This is not the kind of novel where things happen, but its bracing contemporary rhythms hold the reader’s attention. Lefebvre succeeds at mapping out an unquiet mind in the midst of crisis.”

What I say: Noémi Lefebvre covers a lot of ground in Poetics of Work, from ruminations on the political far right to the narrator’s complex relationship with their father. The entire book moves at a brisk pace even as it maintains a high level of intellectual engagement with its chosen themes; it’s like little else you’ll read this year.

 

From Liveright | My Friend Natalia by Laura Lindstedt, translated from the Finnish by David Hackston | Fiction | 240 pages | ISBN 9781631498176 | US$24.00

What the publisher says: “One of Finland’s most dynamic novelists bursts onto the American literary scene with this erotic story of an ambitious therapist’s sessions with an unforgettable patient.”

What The New York Times says: “Ostensibly recounted with nothing but clinical curiosity, the transgressive patient’s evasions, provocations, and sleights of hand are in this way craftily enacted by the novel itself.”

What I say: Even before a detailed drawing of genitalia showed up with little warning, this was already an unpredictable tale of therapist and patient. Laura Lindstedt uses the tense, surprising relationship at the heart of this book to pose questions about memory, art, and identity. Is its title intended as irony? That’s a subject a therapist could probably have a field day with.


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


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


Published Mar 29, 2021   Copyright 2021 Tobias Carroll

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