In a new column for the WWB blogs, we will be reaching out to booksellers to let us know what their favorite new works in translation are and to speak a little about their choices. In our first post, Monica Carter, of Skylight Books gives us her reading list.—Editors
Short, But Not Always Sweet
If you think reading translated literature involves heavy tomes that chronicle generations of tragic loss, or that you need to dedicate a year of your life solely to reading books in translation before you get anywhere, think again. I have chosen four books that can be read in one evening. One short evening. But don’t think that a one-night read will not be impacting or substantial. Au contraire, my friends. The following four books are well-written, intriguing, provocative and they just happen to be short.
First up we have Camera by Jean-Phillipe Toussaint. Having read most of Toussaint’s work, I can tell that he is quirky. His first person narrative immediately immerses you into his world, carrying you speedily along to the finish. Camera has to be the favorite of his works that I have read, solely because, besides its quirkiness, it is decidedly poignant. In Camera we meet a man who catalogs his every thought; you feel like you’re getting a glimpse at the diary of an obsessive-compulsive. It just so happens that the subject is the diarist. The only thing that can shake this man from thinking about himself, is the thought of another; more precisely, a woman he ends up loving after an odd and tender courtship. She teaches people to drive. He wants to learn how to drive. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a romance.
This is where Toussaint is at his best—delivering the slyly humorous and unusual love story in a detached style that eschews the overly sentimental. He never is mawkish, adding just a hint of sweetness that has the perfect effect. All of the characters in this novel are likeable because of their little human idiosyncrasies. I guarantee you will fall for everyone in this book from the narrator to the girl’s gruff father. Go ahead, take the night off and treat yourself to a French sort-of love story.
By Jean-Phillipe Toussaint
Translated from the French by Matthew B. Smith
Paperback, 125 Pages
Next on my list is Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra. Speaking of love stories, this one isn’t for the weak of heart. What is interesting about this novella from the Chilean-born Zambra is that it tells a story in an indirect way. Meaning, he gives you very few details, but the right ones. This coupled with what he decides to leave out makes for a disturbing and affecting story. Zambra’s style is distinctive and mesmerizing enough to keep you hooked when you least expect it to. Bonsai centers on the college relationship between Julio and Emilia and her friend, Anita. Through small snapshots from their lives told years later, we see how each of the characters has been affected by their relationship with the others. Melancholy infuses the tone and the distance of its third person narrative underscores the harshness of the reality it depicts.
In the beginning, we are given the picture of a typical college romance, of a first love. They read Proust and had sex whenever and wherever they could. This first love romance is presented in a wistful tone, as they usually are. But as Anita enters and we find out that she doesn’t like Julio, the novella shifts its focus from Emilia and Julio to the lives of three people whose lives continue on without each other and they only learn about each other through bits of information from friends. Anita gets married, Julio becomes a writer and Emilia’s fate is not what we would have wanted. This novella will get you thinking about past relationships, how they effected you no matter how minor they seem, and the trajectory of life and fate.
By Alejandro Zambra
Translated from the Spanish by Carolina De Robertis
Melville House Publishing
Paperback, 84 Pages
Now we leave love altogether and turn our hungry eyes on the state. That totalitarian state that, frankly, never ends up looking good. Imre Kertész pens Detective Story, a chilling tale of Antonio Martens, a veritable henchman for the secret police of a fallen South American dictatorship. He is in jail waiting for his execution for the murders of a father and son who Martens was led to believe were planning to participate in overthrowing the regime. From the outset, we hear Martens version of why he killed the father and son of a well-off Salinas family, why he had the blood of the dictatorship on his hands but never seemed to question his directive to kill these two men. We see a man who followed in blind ignorance in order to justify the ethics of the state. This jarring narrative should warn against the terrors of dictatorship and a government with too much power. While reading Detective Story, I couldn’t help but compare it to another novel with similar political sentiments, Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (well worth the read). The book discusses how one adheres to the morals and ethics of a government, even devotes ones life to them, only to be persecuted for the exact same behavior once the regime changes.
This story is horrifying because of Kertész’s approach; he has Martens try to figure out why the system operates the way it does, but never refute its orders. And as we read about the aimless rich kid Enrique Salinas who opposes the regime, we see that he is not an agitator, just a kid looking to do more than quietly oppose the regime like his father. But when a government wants to make you a villain, paint you as a threat, they will succeed. One thing to note, this work is not as stylistically clean as Kertész’s other works, but the terrifying nature of the story overrides the minor style flaws.
By Imre Kertész
Translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson
Alfred A. Knopf
Paperback, 112 Pages
And lastly, we come to a personal favorite of mine, The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre. When anyone asks me to recommend a book to read, this is always one that I praise. It’s a first-person masterpiece that is moving and somber, utterly compelling. Do yourself a favor and get a copy of this book. It’s the kind of book you can reread and love as much or more every time you do.
This slip of a novel illuminates the sensitive musings of fifty-six-year-old Pierre, a bartender in a Parisian café. He has just found out that the café will close and he is forced to pick a new direction in life. In direct and elegant prose, Fabre delivers a worn yet empathetic Pierre whose first-person voice hypnotized me. The cadence of his deep philosophical musings countered by his lighthearted and tender realizations produces an urban lullaby on humanity. I read this in French as well and can attest to Stump’s spot-on translation. A one-sitting read that is full of substance and meaning and whose characters will “keep me company when they’re not around.”
The Waitress Was New
By Dominique Fabre
Trans. from the French by Jordan Stump
Paperback, 117 Pages
So, the next time you have a night off and are looking for something to inspire, intrigue, or interest you, pick up one of these books. You won’t regret it and hopefully, you’ll pass it on to another who might have an evening free and is looking for something to capture their imagination.
Monica Carter is a writer currently working on a novel, Eating the Apple. She has published short stories with the most recent piece, “Metal,” being published in the 2008 August issue of The Battered Suitcase. A frequent reviewer for Three Percent and Kissed by Venus, Ms. Carter also runs her own blog dedicated to international literature, Salonica. Her interview with Greek writer Amanda Michalopoulou is featured in the issue #22 of Dalkey Archive’s Context magazine. She is also featured in the January/February 2009 issue of Foreword Magazine. She works at Skylight Books, an independent bookstore in Los Angeles.