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The Watchlist: May 2019

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 World Editions | A Devil Comes to Town by Paolo Maurensig, translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel | Fiction | 120 pages | ISBN 9781642860139 | US$14.99

What the publisher says: “Taut with foreboding and Gothic suspense, Paolo Maurensig gives us a refined and engaging literary parable on narcissism, vainglory, and our inextinguishable thirst for stories.”

What Publishers Weekly says: “Maurensig (Theory of Shadows) skillfully handles the tale’s mysteries and ambiguities: has Father Cornelius really spotted the devil, or is he an unreliable narrator in thrall to his own infernal, Faust-inspired fictions? And is the widespread urge to write, to 'indelibly engrave ourselves on the metaphysical plate of the universe,' demonic or divine? This nested narrative is an entertaining exploration of the manifold powers—creative, confessional, corrupting—of fiction.”

What I say: There’s a lot to savor in this bleakly satirical novel, from the description of an isolated town teeming with writers of varying talents to a unique spin on the idea of devils (as opposed to the devil) sowing chaos in the world. The nested structure nods to both nineteenth-century Gothic tales and postmodern lit—which in and of itself suggests the sensibility of this narrative of diabolical interests and literary ambition.  

***

From Oneworld | Things That Fall from the Sky by Selja Ahava, translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah | Fiction | 240 pages | ISBN 9781786075413 | US$24.95

What the publisher says: “Three lives are changed forever by a series of random events: a young girl loses her mother when a block of ice falls from the sky; a woman wins the jackpot twice; and a man is struck by lightning four times. Selja Ahava weaves together these unique stories in a charming, one-of-a-kind tale about just how far people will go to force life into a logical pattern they can make sense of.”

What Booklist Online says: “Finnish writer Ahava’s European Union Prize-winning 2015 novel, now her first to be published in English, is a whimsical and thoughtful rumination on the terrifying randomness that dictates the course of a life.”

What I say: In different hands, the plot of Things That Fall From the Sky, in which a family grapples with a sudden and bizarre death, might have felt self-consciously quirky or cloying. Instead, Ahava embraces the eccentricities of her characters and the role of randomness in the novel’s plot, pivoting from a meditation on grief into something closer in tone to the Ricky Jay-narrated prologue of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia

***

From Yale University Press | The Book of Collateral Damage by Sinan Antoon, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright | Fiction | 312 pages | ISBN 9780300228946 | US$24.00

What the publisher says: “Widely-celebrated author Sinan Antoon’s fourth and most sophisticated novel follows Nameer, a young Iraqi scholar earning his doctorate at Harvard, who is hired by filmmakers to help document the devastation of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. During the excursion, Nameer ventures to al-Mutanabbi street in Baghdad, famed for its bookshops, and encounters Wadood, an eccentric bookseller who is trying to catalogue everything destroyed by war, from objects, buildings, books and manuscripts, flora and fauna, to humans.”

What Maaza Mengiste says: “Sinan Antoon is a master storyteller and The Book of Collateral Damage reaffirms his place amongst some of our very best writers. Vividly imagined and sensitively told, this is a tale of one man's exile and return, and all the distances traveled to find a semblance of home.”

What I say: Antoon’s novel juxtaposes scenes from the life of Nameer, an Iraqi writer living and working in the United States during the second Gulf War, with a series of writings that he receives in correspondence. As Nameer navigates academic life, romance, and his own complex feelings about the war, Antoon balances the philosophical with the visceral, leading to a haunting denouement.

***

From Coach House Books | The Laws of the Skies by Grégoire Courtois, translated from the French by Rhonda Mullins | Fiction | 200 pages | ISBN 9781552453872 | US$16.95

What the publisher says: "Once upon a time, a class of six-year-olds heads into the forest for a camping trip. The innocent children play games where they imagine monsters everywhere: the creaking of trees becomes a growl, the tree trunk becomes an ogre."

What Publishers Weekly says: “Alone in an unforgiving nature and soon separated from any semblance of adult supervision, the brutality of the world is suddenly laid bare for children. Among them, the precociously mature Hugo dares to take a stand against Enzo in a desperate attempt at survival. Unflinching in its savagery, the nightmarish poetry of this modern Lord of the Flies is undeniable.”

What I say: The Laws of the Skies takes its title from a fable told within its pages, about a mouse who learns to fly, becoming a bat—and who is subsequently attacked and blinded by vengeful birds. That description suggests a sharp turn from whimsy to menace, and it serves as a model for the novel as a whole. From the outset, we know that this tale of lost children will not have a happy ending, but the bleakness in store for these characters still has plenty of room to unnerve.

***

From Pica Pica Press | Sun-Tzu’s Life in the Holy City of Vilnius by Ričardas Gavelis, translated from the Lithuanian by Elizabeth Novickas | Fiction | 220 pages | ISBN 9780996630436 | US$13.99

What the publisher says: “Another intellectual horror story by the author of Vilnius Poker. In this, Gavelis's last novel before his sudden death at the age of 52, the master of the macabre takes us through the life of the Sun-Tzu of Vilnius, a warrior of the political and economic changes that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. Sun-Tzu launches attacks on his enemies from his bunker hidden in the legendary underground labyrinths of Vilnius. A fantastic metaphoric voyage into the depths of good and evil.”

What Dalkey Archive Press says: “Ričardas Gavelis, who passed away in August of 2002, also incorporated eastern themes into work, but brought them back to the Lithuanian setting. His last novel, The Life of Sun-Tzu in the Sacred Town of Vilnius (Sun-Tzu gyvenimas šventame Vilniaus mieste; 2003), was well received and seen as his swan song. The work consists of linked non-narrative chapters about a man imbued with the philosophy of Sun-Tzu.” 

What I say: Ričardas Gavelis’s life of an unnamed man coming of age and discovering his own unique philosophy of life abounds with questionable morality, deft wordplay, and jarring narrative transitions. Numerous major characters meet untimely fates, creating a sense of a world in which ethics and fate have been turned on their head—and, in turn, helping to explain just why this novel’s protagonist embraces Sun-Tzu’s ethos for his own life. 

***

From White Pine Press | What Makes a City? by Park Seongwon, translated from the Korean by Chung Hwa Chang and Andrew James Keast | Fiction | 188 pages | ISBN 9781945680205 | US$16.00

What the publisher says: "What Makes a City? provides the reader with an intelligent perspective on the strange culture of our times and a series of adventures through which we explore universal human problems. Family, education, the media, popular culture, technology, alienation, financial power or the lack thereof . . . These are among the most prominent components of the eight stories which comprise this book, in which characters struggle—sometimes in despair, but usually with a sense of humor—to understand or at least accept their place in a world that often makes no sense."

What Korean Literature Now says: “What makes up a city? The novel answers this question by stating that a city has something hidden inside, something that remains untamed by civilization. Through Park’s novel, we come to discover that although we may travel outside a city, the outside is actually the irrational that is hidden inside.” 

What I say: The stories in What Makes a City? abound with contradictions: they incorporate everything from quotidian family scenes to high-concept narratives of cryogenic sleep and futuristic debt. What connects them is a sense of storytelling, in both its power and its limitations. This book abounds with questions of stories, both those we tell ourselves and those we process to make sense of the world—even when the world around us lacks all reason. 

 

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


Published May 15, 2019   Copyright 2019 Tobias Carroll

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