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The Watchlist: September 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 books translated from Bosnian, Chinese, Spanish, and German.


From Sandorf Passage | Call Me Esteban by Lejla Kalamuji​​ć, translated from the Bosnian by Jennifer Zoble | Fiction | 128 pages | ISBN 9789533513249 | US$14.95

What the publisher says: “With unapologetic vividness, Lejla Kalamujić depicts pre- and post-war Sarajevo by charting a daughter coping with losing her mother, but discovering herself. From imagined conversations with Franz Kafka to cozy apartments, psychiatric wards, and cemeteries, Call Me Esteban is a piercing meditation on a woman grasping at memories in the name of claiming her identity.”

What Publishers Weekly says: “[H]er narrator’s emotional landscape and the landscape of the country are intimately connected and vividly described. Stylish and brisk, these stories refuse to wallow in tragedy, becoming instead a convincing testament to the consolations of art.”

What I say: There’s an immediacy to Lejla Kalamuji​​ć’s writing in Call Me Esteban, a haunting portrayal of what it means to live in a society that’s been fragmenting for the vast majority of one’s life. The staccato prose and rapid-fire sentences on display help to further those ideas, as well as giving a sense of the narrator’s anxiety—an experience that takes this book even further into a haunting space.


From Astra House | Moonlight Rests on My Left Palm by Yu Xiuhua, translated from the Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain | Poetry/Essays | 160 pages | ISBN 9781662600470 | US$21.00

What the publisher says: “Starting in the late ’90s, [Yu’s] writing became a vehicle with which to explore and share her reflections on homesickness, family and ancestry, the reality of disability in the context of a body’s urges and desires.”

What Poetry says: “Less confessional than dreamy, Yu Xiuhua’s writing is steeped in the imagination . . . Many of the poems included in this work are moving precisely because of how they register the limits of the imagination, rather than its transformative capacities.”

What I say: The combination of poetry and essays here might seem strange at first, but the juxtaposition of the two ultimately clicks, allowing the reader to watch as the writer’s style emerges and develops over time. And some of the imagery in Yu’s work is jaw-droppingly good, for instance: “I now have doppelgängers: one watches you float in a dream / one floats with you in a dream within a dream / Another presses down the drift patiently.” Fantastic stuff.


From Open Letter Books | Last Words on Earth by Javier Serena, translated from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore | Fiction | 160 pages | ISBN 9781948830324 | US$14.95

What the publisher says: “Told through the voices of Funes’s best friend, his wife, and himself, Last Words on Earth looks at the price—and haphazard nature—of fame through the lens of a Bolaño-esque writer who persevered just long enough to be transformed out of obscurity into a literary legend right at the end of his life.”

What Kirkus Reviews says: “Serena is also alert to details that color and complicate Funes’s obsessive character: his determination to woo Guadalupe (a megaphone is involved), his close critical attention to porn films, his needing to email manuscript instructions to his editor even as he nears death.”

What I say: It’s hard to read Last Words on Earth without thinking of the late Roberto Bolaño, but this novel pulls off the feat of evoking his life without feeling like a thinly disguised biography. Serena’s prose also abounds with minute details told in sprawling sentences, as when we learn that the writer at the heart of the novel “offered technical commentary akin to that of an opera lover” when watching pornography. Concise, bold, and moving.


From Columbia University Press | Faraway by Lo Yi-Chin, translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Tiang | Fiction | 328 pages | ISBN 9780231193955 | US$20.00

What the publisher says: “In Taiwanese writer Lo Yi-Chin’s Faraway, a fictionalized version of the author finds himself stranded in mainland China attempting to bring his comatose father home. Lo’s father had fled decades ago, abandoning his first family to start a new life in Taiwan. After travel between the two countries becomes politically possible, he returns to visit the son he left behind, only to suffer a stroke.”

What The New York Times says: “[W]hile Lo hints that Faraway draws heavily from his own experiences, it isn’t really a memoir either. Like Kenzaburo Oe, Lo has produced a work of autofiction that also functions as critical discourse. A simple train ride is less a single plot point than a thread that conveys us through cultural history: Tarkovsky and Borges, Chekhov and Italo Calvino.”

What I say: Situated somewhere between autofiction and cultural criticism (think Ali Smith’s Artful), Faraway doesn’t lack for massive subjects to tackle. Within its pages, you’ll find everything from the weight of history to the anxiety of parenthood, along with a wholly immersive and frequently nightmarish account of medical treatment gone awry. The result is unpredictable and often gripping.


From Harpervia | I Was Never the First Lady by Wendy Guerra, translated from the Spanish by Achy Obejas | Fiction | 272 pages | ISBN 9780062990747 | US$26.99

What the publisher says: “As Nadia discovers more about her family, her fate becomes entwined with that of Celia Sanchez, an icon of the Cuban Revolution—a resistance fighter, ingenious spy, and the rumored lover of Fidel Castro.”

What Kirkus Reviews says: “Readers begin to see Nadia’s unnamed mother as a stand-in for Cuba: deeply flawed yet adored at her peak, now in failing health and living in Russia. Nadia decides to care for her mother and has her brought back to Havana, where she arrives with pages of writing related to a novel that was never published because it was deemed politically dangerous back in 1980—not unlike Guerra's mother Albis Torres's own poetry.”

What I say: Moving around in time and space, I Was Never the First Lady juxtaposes decades’ worth of Cuban history with the story of a mother and daughter, each struggling to create art. The structure that Guerra employs in this novel at times feels like a collage, with an array of narrators taking center stage and a cohort of voices offering their perspectives on love and power.


From Unnamed Press | Milk Teeth by Helene Bukowski, translated from the German by Jen Calleja | Fiction | 220 pages | ISBN 9781951213350 | US$26.00

What the publisher says: “Beautifully written in immersive, spare prose, Helene Bukowski’s debut novel is about what it means to be a mother at the end of the world, about living with the impacts of climate change, and the way we view ‘outsiders.’” ​​

What Asymptote Journal says: “In some ways, it is a traditional survivalist novel; the narrator rears rabbits, plants potatoes, makes her own soap. Yet in other ways, this book’s eccentricities combine to form a work that is singularly strange: its chapters are inconsistent, the narrator is highly unreliable, and the reader is left with the feeling that everything is distinctly off-kilter, wondering if anything described is even ‘real.’”

What I say: Milk Teeth makes for a bravura read. It’s at once a harrowing example of climate fiction and a work about a small community in isolation—a book that feels plausibly speculative and that plays out with the occasionally nightmarish logic of a fable. Even so, the psychology of Bukowski’s characters feels thoroughly realistic, and that in turn gives this novel even more power. Can a novel feel both inevitable and unpredictable? This one pulls it off.

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 29, 2021   Copyright 2021 Tobias Carroll

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