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The Watchlist: September 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 Open Letter Books | The Clerk by Guillermo Saccomanno, translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger | Fiction | 138 pages | ISBN 9781948830256 | US$15.95

What the publisher says: “The Clerk tells a story that happened yesterday, but that still hasn’t happened, and yet is happening now. A story we didn’t even notice because we’re too tied up in our own jobs, salaries, appearances. This novel embraces an anti-utopia, a world of Ballard but also of Dostoyevsky.”

What translator Andrea G. Labinger says: “. . . [T]his is a relatively slim novel whose characters are as schematic as they are scheming: anonymous, pathetic creatures who could easily be spinning out their lives anywhere, at almost any intersection of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.”

What I say: The Clerk is a short novel, but it doesn’t lack for ambition. It’s a portrait of a dystopian society, a chronicle of its protagonist’s psychosexual obsessions, and a noir-tinged story of secrets and betrayal. What lingers after reading this are the normalizing effects of violence and authoritarianism—a decidedly unsettling read for any year, but especially this one.


From NYRB Classics | Valentino and Sagittarius by Natalia Ginzburg, translated from the Italian by Avril Bardoni | Fiction | 144 pages | ISBN 9781681374741 | US$15.95

What the publisher says: “Valentino and Sagittarius are two of Natalia Ginzburg’s most celebrated works: tales of love, hope, and delusion that are full of her characteristic mordant humor, keen psychological insight, and unflinching moral realism.”

What Publishers Weekly says: “Each of the narrators of these two novellas of Italian family life is a studious young woman in her 20s whose relationship to her mother carries important weight. . . . In both tales character molds the action with a compelling inevitability that marks Ginzburg as one of Italy's master storytellers.”

What I say: If your literary tastes run toward perfectly composed novellas and chamber pieces where every character interaction has massive repercussions, this pair of Natalia Ginzburg works might be an ideal read. Ginzburg’s skill at illustrating when the quotidian crosses the line into something unforgivable is second to none, and it’s on display in both of these novellas.


From Two Lines Press | Home: New Arabic Poems by Samer Abu Hawwash, Iman Mersal, Mohamad Nassereddine, Saadiah Mufarreh, Riyad al-Salih al-Hussein, Ines Abassi, Ahmed Shafie, Ashjan Hendi, and Fadhil al-Azzawi; translated from the Arabic by Rawad Wehbe, Robyn Creswell, Robin Moger, Huda Fakhreddine, Allison Blecker, Rana Issa and Suneela Mubayi, Koen De Cuyper and Hodna Bentali Gharsallah Nuernberg, Hodna Bentali Gharsallah Nuernberg and Ahmed Shafie, Moneera Al-Ghadeer, and William M. Hutchins | Poetry | 152 pages | ISBN 9781949641073 | US$16.95

What the publisher says: “The worlds these poets traverse are not devoid of politics, wars, and global migrations, and yet by taking the minutiae of everyday life as their subject they remind us of the need to periodically turn inward and find meaning in the specific and deeply personal.”

What editor Sarah Coolidge says: “Well beyond a mere introduction to Arabic poetry, this collection was born out of a curiosity to find the kind of work we felt was underrepresented in English translation, work that felt universal in its intimacy and radical in its sincerity.”

What I say: The poems in this anthology abound with vivid imagery and moving remembrances of the past. They’re also a powerful demonstration of how, using only a handful of words, a poet can create an entire world—as Mohamad Nassereddine does in “The Mechanic's Heresy.” Observe: “When the mechanic in blue / stares up at the sky, / for a minute, he thinks himself God.” Haunting and resonant throughout.


From Other Press | Straight from the Horse’s Mouth by Meryem Alaoui, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan | Fiction | 304 pages | ISBN 9781892746795 | US$16.99

What the publisher says: “In her breakout debut novel, Meryem Alaoui creates a vibrant picture of the day-to-day challenges faced by working people in Casablanca, which they meet head-on with resourcefulness and resilience.”

What BookPage says: “Straight from the Horse’s Mouth follows a familiar rag-to-riches storyline, but Jmiaa’s unfaltering optimism will keep readers hooked. She is matter-of-fact about the day-to-day details of her profession, boasting of her ability to provide for her family and proudly defending the women who share the streets with her.”

What I say: In telling the story of a sex worker whose complex life becomes even more complicated when she becomes involved with the production of a film, Alaoui’s novel blends kitchen-sink realism with more than a few comedies of manners; it’s a novel that keeps you on your toes while remaining true to its characters and setting.


From Catapult | High as the Waters Rise by Anja Kampmann, translated from the German by Anne Posten | Fiction | 320 pages | ISBN 9781948226523 | US$26.00

What the publisher says: “High as the Waters Rise is a stirring exploration of male intimacy, the nature of memory and grief, and the cost of freedom—the story of a man who stands at the margins of a society from which he has profited little, though its functioning depends on his labor.”

What Publishers Weekly says: “The beautiful English-language debut from German poet Kampmann tells the story of a middle-aged oil rig worker’s emotional crisis after the death of his friend.”

What I say: Anja Kampmann’s High as the Waters Rise succeeds on a number of levels: it’s an evocative road novel, a powerful account of grief and loss, and a subtle portrait of the dangers facing the working class. When you add an array of stark, beautiful sentences into the mix, the result is a thoroughly haunting, deeply moving novel.


From Archipelago Editions | Igifu by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated from the French by Jordan Stump | Fiction | 160 pages | ISBN 9781939810793 | US$18.00

What the publisher says: “Scholastique Mukasonga’s autobiographical stories rend a glorious Rwanda from the obliterating force of recent history, conjuring the noble cows of her home or the dew-swollen grass they graze on.”

What Foreword Reviews says: “These stories are intimate portraits of young people with no choice but to carry on. The heartbreaking realities of their plights are balanced by absorbing glimpses into Tutsi culture and the characters’ unquenchable senses of hope. Their resilience is inspiring, while their need to be resilient is a tragic reminder of the consequences of prejudice and unthinking hatred.”

What I say: The characters in the stories contained within Scholastique Mukasonga’s Igifu deal with familial crises, tensions in small communities, and the challenges of a rural economy. But they’re also living in the shadow of colonialism and genocide, which lends even the most quotidian actions a great deal of emotional weight. The results are frequently revelatory.

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 Sep 28, 2020   Copyright 2020 Tobias Carroll

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