Book Reviews

Durs Grünbein’s The Bars of Atlantis

Despite its brief history, East Germany held potent sway over the Western imagination

Olga Tokarczuk’s “Primeval and Other Times”

Then there is Primeval: protozoic, foundational, “the place at the centre of the universe.”

Romain Gary’s “Hocus Bogus”

In the 1970s the French writer and film director Romain Gary had grown, in his own words, “tired of being nothing but myself.”

Jo Nesbø’s “The Devil’s Star

Twenty-three-year-old Camilla Loen has been found dead in her Oslo apartment, her finger severed, a red diamond star under her eyelid.

Martin Page’s “The Discreet Pleasures of Rejection”

Virgil is a navel-gazing thirty-one-year-old who lives in Paris, works as an advertising copywriter, and always dresses in corduroys

Horacio Castellanos Moya’s “She-Devil in the Mirror”

She-Devil takes place entirely in the mind of a single protagonist who is on the precipice of madness.

Jorge Volpi’s “Season of Ash”

Season of Ash (originally published as No será la Tierra in 2006) may be only Jorge Volpi’s second book to be translated into English but, to my mind, he is as thrilling a discovery as Chilean Roberto Bolaño. This ambitious and complex novel covers some of the most significant events… more »

The Horse Has Six Legs: An Anthology of Serbian Poetry

Translation of poetry should always motivate two kinds of fidelity

Ernest Farrés’s “Edward Hopper”

American realist painting has long fascinated poets. Edward Hopper’s desolate landscapes, jewel-toned New York interiors, scenes of Cape Cod, and portraits of commuters on trains lend themselves especially well to commentary in verse;  his art has inspired The Poetry of Solitude, edited by… more »

Emmanuel Moses’s “He and I”

Emmanuel Moses makes his introductory appearance to an Anglo-American readership with a collection of poems, He and I, translated by Marilyn Hacker. He and I is in fact a compilation of writings that are scattered across three different books in their original French: L’Animal (Flammarion, 2010),… more »

Alicia Borinsky’s “Frivolous Women and Other Sinners/Frivolas y pecadoras”

Alicia Borinsky’s book Frivolous Women and Other Sinners (Frivolas y Pecadoras) consistently surprises with its verve and stamina

Ornela Vorpsi’s “The Country Where No One Ever Dies”

In this bleak but sentimental work, Ornela Vorpsi writes a bitter letter home to Albania, The Country Where No One Ever Dies. Vorpsi's book, though described as a novel, does not fit tidily into anyone's sense of that form. There's no common narrator in this fragmented series of recollections,… more »

Rieko Matsuura’s “The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P”

Twenty-two-year-old Kazumi, an otherwise typical girl, wakes up one morning to find that the big toe on her right foot has turned into a penis. Suddenly everything in her life is upended. After dumping her boyfriend, who reacts unfavorably to the new toe-penis (he tries to cut it off), Kazumi begins… more »

Nicolas Bouvier’s “The Way of the World”

Two Swiss men are at the Iranian border. The year is 1953, just a few months prior to the CIA-sponsored coup. The night is dark. A customs officer emerges from his pavilion and shines his acetylene lamp on the men: “I am sorry my friends,” he says, “you must have a soldier to escort… more »

Orhan Pamuk’s “Museum of Innocence”

Orhan Pamuk’s mesmerizing meditation on love and loss in a bygone Istanbul opens with a quotation from Coleridge’s notebooks: “If a man could pass thro’ Paradise in a Dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his Soul had really been there, and found that flower… more »

Ninni Holmqvist’s “The Unit”

Only a Scandinavian dystopia would unravel in a setting “furnished in a modern style and tastefully decorated in muted colors” such as “eggshell white.” And only a Scandinavian dystopia, perhaps, would see mandatory paternal leave as a slippery slope to compulsory childcare and… more »

Dino Buzzati’s “Poem Strip”

“To me, painting is not a hobby, but a job—writing is my hobby. But painting and writing are ultimately the same thing for me. Whether I write or paint, I pursue the same goal—telling stories.” The avant-garde Italian writer Dino Buzzati is better known as the author of the existentialist… more »

Mario Bellatin’s “Beauty Salon”

Mario Bellatin’s Beauty Salon, translated elegantly from the Spanish by Kurt Hollander, is a strange and beautiful parable about human bodies living and dying on the fringes of society. The brevity of Bellatin’s novella is deceptive—in just sixty-three pages, the story of this unnamed… more »

Grigoris Balakian’s “Armenian Golgotha”

On April 24, 1915, some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were arrested in Constantinople. Grigoris Balakian, a Christian vartabed, or priest, was among them. "It was as if all the prominent Armenian public figures—assemblymen, representatives, revolutionaries, editors, teachers,… more »

Max Aub’s “Field of Honour”

In The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel of shadowy plots and anarchist intrigue, the characters wade through a watery murk that befits their scheming and double-dealing. One enters the London streets like "a descent into a slimy aquarium;" those who step outside are "enveloped" in "a murky,… more »

Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s “Summer of the Ubume”

There is a Japanese folktale about a village that was once plagued by a demon. Each night the villagers hear its cries emanating from deep within the surrounding woods and shut themselves in their homes, paralyzed by fear. Crops wither, trade halts, and society begins to unravel at the seams. Unable… more »

Jean Philippe Toussaint’s “Running Away”

Many of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s novels share a certain structure: a nameless narrator drifts through minimalist plots that are almost completely lacking in drama but pervaded by a sense of lightness and quiet humor. This lightness and humor is a hallmark of his previous work, including his novels… more »

Andrzej Stasiuk’s “Fado”

"Everything happens at the same time. In the shadow of the nuclear power station at Cernovoda on the Danube, you can hear the rumble of carts drawn by donkeys, while herds of cattle wander across..."

Breyten Breytenbach’s “Voice Over: A Nomadic Conversation with Mahmoud Darwish”

"Wait a little so that wind/not bewilder me"; this slim collection of verses sketches out the spiritual geography of a friendship between the author, the South African painter and playwright Breyten Breytenbach, and the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish who passed away in August last year following heart… more »

Yu Hua’s “Brothers”

It is a shame that Groucho Marx is not available to appear on film in the role of Baldy Li, the ridiculous, hedonistic, almost vaudevillian main character of Brothers, Yu Hua's epic comic novel of China's thirty-year transformation from Maoist horror show to capitalist horror show. Only Groucho… more »

“Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch”

If Israel had a Mount Rushmore-type memorial for poets, the late Dahlia Ravikovitch would be part of the monument. Although little known to American readers, she is admired in Israel as much, if not more, than Yehuda Amichai and viewed as a canon unto herself. Born in Ramat Gan in 1936, she published… more »

Guillermo Rosales’s “Halfway House”

The Halfway House is one of only two novels Guillermo Rosales—the respected though to date largely unknown Cuban writer—did not destroy before committing suicide in 1993. It is a short but affecting account of the hellish squalor of life in the boarding houses of 1980s Miami, where privately… more »

Sergio Ramírez’s “A Thousand Deaths Plus One”

Sergio Ramírez's A Thousand Deaths Plus One, translated from Spanish by Leland H. Chambers, interweaves historical fact with outrageous fiction, painstaking truth with barefaced lies. In the novel, author and narrator become indistinguishable, memoir and invention collide, and the reader becomes… more »

Friedrich Holderlin’s “Selected Poems” and “Odes and Elegies”

Translation, according to John Tipton in the afterword to his English translation of Sophocles's play, Ajax, is a kind of forgery: " . . . akin to building a copy of a house seen across a river. We cannot ferry the house over to our side and cannot even cross the river to get a close look at it from… more »

Merce Rodoreda’s “Death in Spring”

For the novel to emerge as a form, it had to lure readers away from the period's main form of prose publication: religious literature. And fiction has been playing with—and crossing—that old fault line ever since. Modernist literature, for example, found a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle… more »

Andrey Platonov’s “Foundation Pit”

A nation's literary patrimony is a strange thing. We can never be quite certain of our holdings. Americans, in 1900, did not know they had Melville. From the 1930s till his death prompted a revival in the 1940s, F. Scott Fitzgerald fell into relative obscurity. It was through no fault of our own… more »

Can Xue’s “Five Spice Street”

Who is Madam X? Madam X sells peanuts at the stand with the red-painted sign. Madam X is an occultist, a collector of mirrors and corrupter of neighborhood children. Madam X is a home wrecker. Madam X is a threat to communal harmony and morality. Madam X is a sexual deviant. Madam X is a virgin. Madam… more »

Franz Kafka’s “Amerika: The Missing Person”

Literary translators strive to make their texts count as literature in the language they are translating into. In English, more often than not, this means producing a text that will not threaten to break the spell of reading. Sensitive translators know that there are any number of things that can sever… more »

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