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The Watchlist: October 2016

By M. Bartley Seigel

Every month, Words without Borders reviews 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 our good attentions.


From New York Review Books Classics, His Only Son: with Doña Berta by Leopoldo Alas, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa; 336 pages; ISBN 9781681370187; US$17.95

Says the publisher: “The unlikely hero of His Only Son, Bonifacio Reyes, is a romantic and a flautist by vocation—and a failed clerk and kept husband by necessity—who dreams of a novelesque life. Tied to his shrill and sickly wife by her purse strings, he enters timidly into a love affair with Serafina, a seductive second-rate opera singer, encouraged by her manager who mistakes Bonifacio for a potential patron. Meanwhile, Bonifacio’s wife experiences a parallel awakening and in the midst of a long-barren marriage, surprises them both with a son—but is it Bonifacio’s? In the accompanying novella, Doña Berta, the heroine of the title, an aged, poor, but wellborn woman, forfeits her beloved estate in search of a portrait that may be all that remains of the secret love of her life.

“While largely unknown outside of Spain, Leopoldo Alas was one of the most celebrated writers of criticism in nineteenth-century Spain and employed his satirical talents to powerful and humorous effect in fiction. His Only Son was Alas’s second and final novel, full of characteristic humor, naturalistic detail, descriptive beauty, and moral complexity. His frail and pitiful characters—irrational, emotional actors drawn inexorably toward their foolish fates—are yet multidimensional individuals, often conscious of their own weaknesses and stymied by their very yearnings to be more than the parts they find themselves playing.”

Says Azorín: “His Only Son is the most intense, the most refined, the most intellectual, and the most sensual novel that nineteenth-century Spanish literature has produced.”

Says me: “While you are undoubtedly much better educated than little ol’ me—good for you, reader!—Alas and His Only Son were brand spanking new to this guy. The book, catching me thus by surprise, proved all the more delightful. Like Costa in her introduction, I too was ‘bowled over by the audacity of the plots, by the diverse cast of characters, and by Alas’s ability to be entirely engaged by his characters.’ If you’re looking for a deep dive this month, I could do worse than point you here.”


From Text Publishing Company, Men: A Novel of Cinema and Desire by Marie Darrieussecq, translated from the French by Penny Hueston; 272 pages; ISBN 9781925240917; US$15.95

Says the publisher: “Winner, Prix Médicis, Prix des Prix, France, 2013 . . . The French title of Men plays on a quote by Marguerite Duras: ‘We have to love men a lot. A lot, a lot. Love them a lot in order to love them. Otherwise it’s impossible, we couldn’t bear them.’

“With her characteristic intensity, edginess and humor, Marie Darrieussecq explores female desire, what it means to be a woman. Solange was a provincial teenager in All the Way; now in her thirties, she’s not a great mother, is a mediocre actress, but in Hollywood she falls for a charismatic actor, Kouhouesso, who wants to direct a movie of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—in Africa. He’s black; she’s white—what’s the difference when it comes to love, she wonders?

“Solange follows her man to Africa, determined to play a main role in both his film and his affections. But nothing goes to plan in this brilliantly droll examination of romance, movie making, and clichés about race relations. After all, there’s no guarantee you’ll be loved by the one you love.

“Personal and political, passionate and engaged, Men is a novel that will make you see things differently.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Readers looking for a feminist hero probably won’t find her in Solange, the white film actress at the center of Darrieussecq’s exploration of race, celebrity, and (mostly) unreciprocated love . . . A sometimes biting, often sharply observed take on a relationship one would surely rather read about than be part of.”

Says you: Read an excerpt in Translation Tuesdays, a collaboration between The Guardian and our friends at Asymptote. 


From Deep Vellum Publishing, Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi, translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman; 160 pages; ISBN 9781941920404; US$14.95

Says the publisher: “With brutal honesty and poetic urgency, Ananda Devi relates the tale of four young Mauritians trapped in their country’s endless cycle of fear and violence: Eve, whose body is her only weapon and source of power; Savita, Eve’s best friend, the only one who loves Eve without self-interest, who has plans to leave but will not go alone; Saadiq, gifted would-be poet, inspired by Rimbaud, in love with Eve; Clélio, belligerent rebel, waiting without hope for his brother to send for him from France.

“Eve out of Her Ruins is a heartbreaking look at the dark corners of the island nation of Mauritius that tourists never see, and a poignant exploration of the construction of personhood at the margins of society. Awarded the prestigious Prix des cinq continents upon publication as the best book written in French outside of France, Eve Out of her Ruins is a harrowing account of the violent reality of life in her native country by the figurehead of Mauritian literature.”

Says Le Figaro: “Devi writes about terrible and bitter events with a soft, delicate voice.”

Says me: “Why so many translations from the French this month, you want to know? Mostly it just shook out that way, jeesh, get over it. But as long as we’re being honest, you and I, I’ll say this: In paying special attention this month to women writers and translators (shout out to Margaret Carson, cofounder of the Women in Translation Tumblr, for calling me to task in a recent interview), I’ve found that French publishers, and/or French writers, and/or French culture in general appears to be doing something very right. Whatever that right thing may be, I say to it, liberté, égalité, and vive la France. American publishers, take stock.”

Also Nobel Prize winner J. M. G. Le Clézio, in his introduction to Eve Out of Her Ruins, declares Devi “a truly great writer.” Shazaam! Read Ananda Devi, now (you can read her story “Weaving Dreams” in the May 2012 issue of Words without Borders).


From Two Lines Press, A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska, translated from the Macedonian by Christina Kramer; 428 pages; ISBN 9781931883559; US$14.95

Says the publisher: “Zlata and Srebra are twelve-year-old twins conjoined at the head. It is 1984 and they live in Skopje, which will one day be the capital of Macedonia but is currently a part of Yugoslavia. A Spare Life tells the story of their childhood, from their only friend Roze to their neighbor Bogdan, so poor that he one day must eat his pet rabbit. Treated as freaks and outcasts—even by their own family—the twins just want to be normal girls. But after an incident that almost destroys their bond as sisters, they fly to London, determined to be surgically separated. Will this be their liberation, or only more tightly ensnare them?

“At once extraordinary and quotidian, A Spare Life is a chronicle of two girls who are among the first generation to come of age under democracy in Eastern Europe. Written in touching prose by an author who is also a master poet, it is a saga about families, sisterhood, immigration, and the occult influences that shape a life. Funny, poignant, dark, and sharply observed, Zlata and Srebra reveal an existence where even the simplest of actions is unlike any we’ve ever experienced.”

Says basically everybody: Publishers Weekly said English-language readers would be poorer without Dimkovska and called A Spare Life “a kaleidoscopic, bighearted novel.” The Poetry Foundation says of her: “The truth is she’s unstoppable and will not be ignored.”

Says me: “Dimkovska’s résumé reads like a beehive of transnational literary success in the making and A Spare Life will only intensify the righteous buzz. Maybe you’ve already seen her read this month, or will soon get a chance to, as she’s currently on a ten-city US tour. Regardless of all that, this latest book is weird, weirdly generous, and generously beautiful—which is the best combination, in my honest opinion—and is maybe my favorite read from October.”


From New Directions, Alice Iris Red Horse: Selected Poems by Yoshimasu Gozo, translated from the Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu, Hiroaki Sato, Eric Selland, Jeffrey Angles, Richard Arno, Derek Gromadzki, Sayuri Okamoto, Auston Stewart, Kyoko Yoshida, and Jordan A. Y. Smith, and edited by Forrest Gander; 240 pages; ISBN 9780811226042; US$18.95

Says the publisher: “Yoshimasu Gozo’s groundbreaking poetry has spanned over half a century since the publication of his first book, Departure, in 1964. Much of his work is highly unorthodox: it challenges the print medium and language itself, and consequently Alice Iris Red Horse is as much a book on translation as it is a book in translation. Since the late ’60s, Gozo has collaborated with visual artists and free-jazz musicians. In the 1980s he began creating art objects engraved on copper plates and later produced photographs and video works. Alice Iris Red Horse contains translations of Gozo’s major poems, representing his entire career. Also included are illuminating interviews, reproductions of Gozo’s artworks, and photographs of his performances.”

Says Guernica: “He became famous for his avant-garde work, which employs chance operations and other techniques, pushing Japanese poetry in radically new directions.”

Says Two Lines Press: Where you can listen to a Gozo performance, and a conversation with Forrest Gander and Two Lines Press’s Emily Wolaha.

Says me: “Yoshimasu was born in Tokyo, but he has given performances worldwide, and he’s received many literary and cultural awards, including the Takami Jun Prize, the Rekitei Prize, the Purple Ribbon, and the 50th Mainichi Art Award for Poetry. I have found the work in Alice Iris Red Horse to be both maddeningly complicated and profoundly rewarding. If poetry is your thing, this is on your booklist.”


From Archipelago Books, Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated from the French by Jordan Stump; 170 pages; ISBN 0914671537; US$14.99

Says the publisher: “Imagine being born into a world where everything about you—the shape of your nose, the look of your hair, the place of your birth—designates you as an undesirable, an inferior, a menace, no better than a cockroach, something to be driven away and ultimately exterminated. Imagine being thousands of miles away while your family and friends are brutally and methodically slaughtered. Imagine being entrusted by your parents with the mission of leaving everything you know and finding some way to survive, in the name of your family and your people.

“Scholastique Mukasonga’s Cockroaches is the story of growing up a Tutsi in Hutu-dominated Rwanda—the story of a happy child, a loving family, all wiped out in the genocide of 1994. A vivid, bittersweet depiction of family life and bond in a time of immense hardship, it is also a story of incredible endurance, and the duty to remember that loss and those lost while somehow carrying on. Sweet, funny, wrenching, and deeply moving, Cockroaches is a window onto an unforgettable world of love, grief, and horror.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Harrowing . . . Mukasonga’s powerful and poignant book plants itself in that terrible absence, its stone etched with a difficult, necessary grief.”

Says me: “At our best we bear witness to the horrors of the human condition with solemnity and respect that we might learn from our collective histories and move forward together with some hope for a shared future. That Mukasonga’s lyricism allows us to endure those troubling spaces with grace and wit is not just deeply moving, it’s a blessing.” 


From New Vessel Press, The Madonna of Notre Dame by Alexis Ragougneau, translated from the French by Katherine Gregor; 183 pages; ISBN 9781939931399; US$15.95

Says the publisher: “Fifty thousand believers and photo-hungry tourists jam into Notre Dame Cathedral on August 15 to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption. The next morning, a stunningly beautiful young woman clothed all in white kneels at prayer in a cathedral side chapel. But when an American tourist accidentally bumps against her, her body collapses. She has been murdered: the autopsy reveals disturbing details. Police investigators and priests search for the killer as they discover other truths about guilt and redemption in this soaring Paris refuge for the lost, the damned, and the saved. The suspect is a disturbed young man obsessed with the Virgin Mary who spends his days hallucinating in front of a Madonna. But someone else knows the true killer of the white-clad daughter of Algerian immigrants. This thrilling novel illuminates shadowy corners of the world’s most famous cathedral, shedding light on good and evil with suspense, compassion, and wry humor.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Near the start of playwright Ragougneau’s arresting first novel, a beautiful young woman dressed in white in Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral falls to the floor from a bench where she appeared to be praying . . . the devastating truth proves that the line between good and evil isn’t always so clear.”

Says me: “The book starts slow, but once rolling, the complexity of the characters and the plotting win the race. And the ending—c'est magnifique. I’d call this a good beach read, but it’s October, so instead I’ll recommend you use this to ameliorate the existential dread of this year’s American presidential election, and you’ll learn some interesting details about the Notre Dame Cathedral in the bargain. Deep, cleansing breaths, my friends—it’s almost over.”


From Open Letter, A Greater Music by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith; 128 pages; ISBN 9781940953465; US$13.95

Says the publisher:Near the beginning of A Greater Music, the narrator, a young Korean writer, falls into an icy river in the Berlin suburbs, where she’s been house-sitting for her on-off boyfriend Joachim. This sets into motion a series of memories that move between the hazily defined present and the period three years ago when she first lived in Berlin. Throughout, the narrator’s relationship with Joachim, a rough-and-ready metalworker, is contrasted with her friendship with M, an ultra-refined music-loving German teacher who was once her lover.

“A novel of memories and wandering, A Greater Music blends riffs on music, language, and literature with a gut-punch of an emotional ending, establishing Bae Suah as one of the most exciting novelists working today.”

Says Korean Literature Now: “With concise, evocative prose, Bae merges the mundane with the strange in a way that leaves the reader fulfilled yet bewildered, pondering how exactly the author managed to pull this all off.”

Says you: Read an excerpt here.

Says me: “Unconventional in the extreme—I’d say quirky if I didn’t hate the word so much—reading Bae is to immerse oneself in the rambling intimacy of very smart, very scattered friends. Where are we going? you might be tempted to ask, but you know the destination will remain a surprise, even if the journey promises from the get-go to be an adventure.”


Published Oct 18, 2016   Copyright 2016 M. Bartley Seigel

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