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The Watchlist: November 2016

By M. Bartley Seigel

Every month, Words without Borders book review editor M. Bartley Seigel shares a handful of recently released or forthcoming titles he’s excited about, books he hopes you’ll agree are worth all our good attentions.


From Soho Press, Blood Crime by Sebastià Alzamora i Martin, translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent and Maruxa Relano || 304 pages || ISBN 9781616956288 || US$25.95

Says the publisher: “It is 1936, and Barcelona burns as the Spanish Civil War takes over. The city is a bloodbath. Yet in all this death, the murders of a Marist monk and a young boy, drained of their blood, are strange enough to catch a police inspector’s attention. His quest for justice is complicated by the politics, dangers, and espionage of daily life in a war zone. The Marist brothers of the murdered monk are being persecuted; meanwhile, a convent of Capuchin nuns hides in plain sight, trading favors with the military police to stay alive. In their midst is a thirteen-year-old novice who stumbles into the clutches of the murderer. Can she escape in this city of no happy endings? Narrated by a vampire who thrives in the havoc of the war, this stunning novel, inspired by the true story of a massacre in the early days of the Spanish Civil War, is a gothic reflection on the nature of monsters, in all their human forms.”

Says the New York Times Book Review: “Startling . . . Blood Crime (beautifully translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent) has a sort of concentrated power that’s rare in horror novels. It’s akin to poetry.”

Says me: Blood Crime won Alzamora i Martin the prestigious Sant Jordi Prize for Catalan Literature and scored the above praise from the New York Times which should be enough for most mortal readers. Being myself a closet freak for horror fiction still in the throws of a post-Halloween sugar rush, I’m throwing caution aside and reaching back to this September release because you shouldn’t pay for my not having included it in my watchlist earlier. It’s spooky scary good, cinematic, gothic, and beautifully written, and that shouldn’t be limited to October.

From Open Letter, Justine by Iben Mondrup, translated from the Danish by Kerri A. Pierce || 218 pages || ISBN 9781940953489 || US$14.95

Says the publisher: “Stylistically provocative, Justine tells the story of a young female artist whose life is upended when her house burns down with all of the artworks for her upcoming exhibit inside. With little time left to recreate everything she’s lost, Justine embarks on a series of sexual escapades with a sort of doomed intensity that foreshadows the novel’s final, dark twist. Through flashbacks and fragmented memories, we see Justine as a student at the Art Academy first discovering the misogynistic order that rules the Danish art world, and later on as she constantly challenges its expectations—both in the studio and in bed. A personal meditation on artistic identity, creative process, and the male-dominated art scene, the novel veers between the erotic and the savage, resulting in a spellbinding read from one of Denmark’s edgiest contemporary feminist writers.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Mondrup depicts the sexism and grittiness of the art world and the ambivalence of the artists convincingly . . . But the increasingly unreliable narrator remains enigmatic, and her energetic self-destruction feels postured . . . A dark, ultimately frustrating tale of an enfant terrible wannabe.”

Says me: Let’s chalk this one up to special interest. I don’t disagree with Kirkus, per se. My own patience and empathy for characters dripping in privilege and behaving badly is slim at best. However, if you, like me, have spent any time immersed in the worlds of art, poetry, publishing, MFA programs, or any other hotbed of narcissism, self-indulgence, and bad adulting, you’ll find something to love/hate in this tale of Justine’s train wreck. If that’s not your thing, so be it, and be warned, but the writing and the translation are superb, and there’s much to savor in the telling.

From Graywolf Press, Cabo de Gata by Eugen Ruge, translated from the German by Anthea Bell || 120 pages || ISBN 9781555977573 || US$14.00

Says the publisher: “Sometimes a cat comes into your life when you least expect it. An unnamed writer finds himself in Cabo de Gata, a sleepy, worn-down Andalusian fishing village. He’s left behind his life in Berlin, which it turns out wasn’t much—an ex-girlfriend, a neighborhood that had become too trendy for his taste. Surrounded by a desolate landscape that is scoured by surprisingly cold winds (not at all what he expected of southern Spain), he faces his daily failures: to connect with the innkeeper or any of the townsfolk, who all seem to be hiding something; to learn Spanish; to keep warm; to write. At last he succeeds in making an unlikely connection with one of the village’s many feral cats. Does the cat have a message for him? And will their tenuous relationship be enough to turn his life around? With sharp intelligence and wry humor, Eugen Ruge’s Cabo de Gata proposes the biggest questions and illustrates how achieving happiness sometimes means giving oneself up to the foreign and the unknown.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Cabo de Gata is a refreshing excursion, its moments effortlessly building meaning throughout.”

Says me: Generally speaking, I eschew reading writers writing about writers writing—just reading that sentence should be painful for you, let alone an entire book—mental onanism at its absolute worst. Perhaps because the bar is set so very low for this kind of thing in the first place, when a book comes along that gets it right, it feels especially good. I wanted to hate this book, I really did, and I couldn’t. It’s that good.

From City Lights Publishers, Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism by Philippe Soupault, translated from the French by Alan Bernheimer || 118 pages || ISBN 9780872867277 || US$13.95

Says the publisher: “Poet Alan Bernheimer provides a long overdue English translation of this French literary classic—Lost Profiles is a retrospective of a crucial period in modernism, written by the co-founder of the Surrealist Movement. Opening with a reminiscence of the international Dada movement in the late 1910s and its transformation into the beginnings of surrealism, Lost Profiles then proceeds to usher its readers into encounters with a variety of literary lions. We meet an elegant Marcel Proust, renting five adjoining rooms at an expensive hotel to “contain” the silence needed to produce Remembrance of Things Past; an exhausted James Joyce putting himself through grueling translation sessions for Finnegans Wake; and an enigmatic Apollinaire in search of the ultimate objet trouvé. Soupault sketches lively portraits of surrealist precursors like Pierre Reverdy and Blaise Cendrars, a moving account of his tragic fellow surrealist René Crevel, and the story of his unlikely friendship with right-wing anti-Vichy critic George Bernanos. The collection ends with essays on two modernist forerunners, Charles Baudelaire and Henri Rousseau. With an afterword by Ron Padgett recounting his meeting with Soupault in the mid 70s and a preface by André Breton biographer Mark Polizzotti, Lost Profiles confirms Soupault’s place in the vanguard of twentieth-century literature.”

Says Andrei Codrescu: “Poets must encourage each other because time is indifferent to the lives that flow through it. Time is what we are made of, but we are a rare school of fish that can see, in Rimbaud’s sense, the substance that everyone disregards even as it dissolves them. We have to be young because we are the only force that can slow time down to reveal the beauty of its devastation. Reading Alan Bernheimer’s splendid translation of Soupault’s memoir, I forgot that it was a translation, that it was Soupault writing or talking about another time, about his friends of one century past. I read myself into these vivid and virile (so, sue me!) assaults on time, and Time stopped.”

Says me: Assuming you don’t already, you’ll wish you had been there yourself. I certainly do.

From Restless Books, The Winterlings by Cristina Sánchez-Andrade, translated from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter || 240 pages || ISBN 9781632061096 || US$14.99

Says the publisher: “Galicia, Spain’s northwest region, in the 1950s. After a childhood in exile, two sisters return to their grandfather’s cottage for the first time since his shocking murder during the civil war. The ‘Winterlings’ try to keep their dark secrets buried and carve out a peaceful existence in Tierra de Chá, an idyllic village host to a cast of grotesque but charming characters: a powerful psychic, a madman who believes he is a bus, a woman who refuses to die and the obese priest who heaves up a steep hill each day to give her last rites, a cross-dressing dentist who plants the teeth of the deceased in his patients’ mouths. Tension mounts when the sisters, once united by their passion for Hollywood cinema, compete for the chance to stand in for Ava Gardner in the nearby filming of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. Meanwhile, a mutual suspicion develops between the mysterious sisters and the eccentric villagers: Why have the women returned, and what are they hiding? What perverse business arrangement did the townspeople make with their grandfather, and why won’t they speak of his death? Enchanting as a spell, The Winterlings blends Spanish oral tradition, Latin American magic realism, and the American gothic fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson into an intoxicating story of romance, violent history, and the mysterious forces that move us.”

Says El Correo Gallego: “Cristina-Sánchez-Andrade is, simply, one of the best writers in Spain. Her language is vastly rich. A memorable narration. A flawless and unusual novel.”

Says me: I’m a sourpuss, the kind of guy who makes reductive claims like there are only three kinds of books and we just write/read them over and over again. And yet every month I’m confronted by at least a few titles that catch me with my proverbial pants down. The Winterlings was one of these, somehow balancing the blunt and the sentimental, making you feel all the feels despite your best intentions, and captivating from beginning to end.

From Dalkey Archive Press, Mannequin by Ch’oe Yun, translated from the Korean by Yewon Jung || 100 pages || ISBN 9781628971521 || US$14.00

Says the publisher: “Ch’oe Yun’s Mannequin is a novel that reflects on the meaning of beauty and its many facets of existence. The beauty of the main character, Jini, is captured through a carefree imagination that describes it as ‘the music of the wind,’ or something that can’t be described in words. Through the beauty that penetrates and captivates us in fleeting moments, the novel leads us to critically reflect on the question of what true beauty is in a world where people are captivated by the beauty of advertising models in a flood of new products. In that respect, Mannequin, as the title implies, is a sad allegory on a capitalistic society in which a woman’s body, artificial and standardized, becomes a product.”

Says Theodore Hughes, assistant professor of modern Korean literature, Columbia University: “Winner of the prestigious Tongin and Yi Sang literary prizes, Ch'oe Yun has had more impact on the South Korean literary scene than any other contemporary woman writer.”

Says me: Frankly, I don’t think twice about recommending anything from Dalkey Archive Press—call me what you will, I can take it—but even I’ll admit that I generally put them in the category of deep cuts and generally reserve them for when I’m in a particularly academic mood. That said, Ch’oe Yun’s Mannequin is on point. Whatever zeitgeist synchronicity is going on right now between Korean literature in translation and this American reader, I’m lovin’ it.

From Margellos World Republic of Letters, At Twilight They Return by Zyranna Zateli, translated from the Greek by David Connolly || 528 pages || ISBN 9780300200713 || US$35.00

Says the publisher: “Zyranna Zateli’s ambitious, multigenerational saga is the story of Christoforos, who first weds Petroula, and then Eftha, followed, after her death, by Persa; of his sexually promiscuous son Hesychios and the many bastard children left on the doorstep following the untimely demise of so many would-be daughters-in-law; and of the sisters, brothers, children, and grandchildren who inhabit a household and a history expanding to near-bursting. Rich in symbolism and magical realism, this complex and wondrous family story unfolds nonsequentially in ten interrelated ‘tales,’ in a magnificent new English language translation by David Connolly. Unique in structure, style, and narrative voice, Zateli’s novel, considered to be her masterpiece, combines classical mythology, ethnic folklore, and actual historical events with ingenious invention. It is a touchstone of contemporary Greek literature, awarded the Greek State Prize for Best Novel in 1994, and is an essential introduction to this rightfully celebrated author.”

Says George Syrimis, Yale University: “The superb translation by David Connolly of Zateli’s masterpiece At Twilight They Return weaves Greek folklore with magical realism; like a snake shedding successive skins, ten stories slither through history and fact into the wondrous and the marvelous. A book guaranteed to charm.”

Says me: I’ll call it epic and meandering, but by turns both intense and compelling. A page-turner it isn’t, but if depth of field and the fabric of language are your thing, put this one aside for a long and satisfying winter read.

From Arcade Publishing, Remembering 1942 and Other Chinese Stories by Liu Zhenyun, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin || 332 pages || ISBN 9781628727128 || US$24.99

Says the publisher: “Sweeping, humorous, and moving tales from one of contemporary China’s greatest writers. The bestselling and award-winning author of novels satirizing contemporary China, Liu Zhenyun is also renowned for his short stories. Remembering 1942 showcases six of his best, featuring a diverse cast of ordinary people struggling against the obstacles—bureaucratic, economic, and personal—that life presents. The six exquisite stories that comprise this collection range from an exploration of office politics unmoored by an unexpected gift to the tale of a young soldier attempting to acclimate to his new life as a student and the story of a couple struggling to manage the demands of a young child. Another, about petty functionaries trying to solve a mystery of office intrigue, reads like a survival manual for Chinese bureaucracy. The masterful title story explores the legacy of the drought and famine that struck Henan Province in 1942, tracing its echoes in one man’s personal journey through war and revolution and into the present. Each story is rich in wit, insight, and empathy, and together they bring into focus the realities of China’s past and present, evoking clearly and mordantly the often Kafkaesque circumstances of contemporary life in the world’s most populous nation.”

Says Zhenyun, himself: Read Memory, Loss, from the November 30, 2012, edition of the New York Times.

Says me: I’d known this book only from the 2012 Xiaogang Feng film adaptation, Back to 1942. That movie, both powerful and unrelentingly grim, did a good job of bringing the book to life. And both book and film do a good job a contextualizing Chinese character—insofar as one can generalize such a thing—for an American audience that seems at times to have but the thinnest grasp of Chinese history and culture. Reading this book while walking up to the gallows of November 8, I’m reminded how much “kafkaesque” compels as literary conceit, but how much of a nightmare it is as a lived political reality

Published Nov 7, 2016   Copyright 2016 M. Bartley Seigel

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