In this new bimonthly series, “Best of the B-Sides,” critic and bookseller Lori Feathers recommends a new work in translation along with a number of backlist (“B-Side”) titles that you might have missed. The books selected might explore a similar theme, or include various titles from an author’s body of work. With this series we hope to draw readers to timeless works in translation.
Art reflects our desire to understand. We turn to it when the objective and factual feel inadequate to satisfy our longing to fully comprehend another person, to gain an appreciation of their essence—the inner life where their thoughts, feelings, and impressions reside. The effort to better understand another life through art drives the narratives of these thought-provoking novels.
Spanish author Javier Cercas’s The Impostor: A True Story, translated by Frank Wynne and just published by Knopf, is a work that the author refers to throughout as “a novel without fiction.” In it, Cercas provides a first-person account of his investigation into the true life of fellow Spaniard Enric Marco, the prominent leader of Spain’s Holocaust Remembrance Society who was exposed as a fraud in 2005 after decades of lying publicly about having spent time in a Nazi concentration camp.
As he pulls together the threads of Marco’s actual history, Cercas’s interpretation of Marco’s motivations and intentions comes into focus. With each successive chapter, Cercas deconstructs the fraudulent Marco and fills in the contours of the real Marco, portraying a man who believed himself to be exceptional but who lacked the courage to ever do anything extraordinary:
This, then, is what Marco is: the man of the majority, the man of the crowd . . . who never says No because he wants to be liked, to be loved and respected and accepted . . . the man who lies to hide what he’s ashamed of . . . Marco is what all men are, but in a form that is larger than life . . .
The Impostor is a layered work of art: it is Cercas’s literary creation about Marco, who made his own life an invention of his imagination. Along the way, Cercas questions his authorial duty—specifically, whether explaining Marco’s motivations will unintentionally justify his fraud and whether the book, no matter how damning, will feed Marco’s ego and bring him a new wave of attention. Using his craft to reveal the true Marco, Cercas not only exposes the depth of his subject’s fraudulent existence but also makes a compelling case for how art that reveals and explains evil, if executed carefully, can speak to our universal frailties without redeeming them.
French author Agnès Desarthe’s Five Photos of My Wife (Flamingo/HarperCollins, 2001), translated by Adriana Hunter, is a beautiful story of loss, regret, and renewal. Eighty-year-old Max mourns his wife, Telma, who died the year before. He feels her angry presence all around him in the home that they shared and he is unsettled by it. To appease her spirit, Max decides to commission an oil painting of her:
Now that she was no longer there to protest, he took pleasure in the idea of fixing her once and for all, of capturing her pretty triangular face in a golden frame and of spending hours in her motionless company talking in silence.
Max selects five photographs of Telma, each from a different time in her life, to show to the artists he interviews. In the end, he commissions three separate artists to paint a portrait but ultimately finds none of their work satisfactory. For Max, they all fail to capture Telma: the twinkle in her eye, her glow, her uprightness and permanent air of defiance. Max’s frustrated desire to immortalize his version of his wife underscores his need to reach closure about their often prickly, fifty-year relationship. Now that she is deceased, Max acknowledges that there was much about their feelings toward each other that was never addressed and many misunderstandings and resentments that remain unresolved. Reflecting upon what the artists missed in their portrayals of Telma provides Max with a window into the parts of his wife’s personality that confused, angered, and frightened him, and in this way, he learns to accept the imperfect love that he and Telma shared.
Russian-born French author Andreï Makine’s novel A Woman Loved (Graywolf Press, 2015), translated by Geoffrey Strachan, explores the limits of film to faithfully portray a person’s inner life. Oleg Erdmann is a screenwriter living in 1980s Moscow. He is obsessed with Russia’s Catherine the Great and makes her the subject of his latest project. He’s read all the histories and biographies and learned every detail about her, from the way she washed her face in the morning to how she preferred her coffee. Yet he wants to capture something more in his film—the authentic Catherine. As Oleg’s girlfriend states:
“There must have been times in her life that allowed her to be herself. She wasn’t just a machine for signing decrees, writing to Voltaire, and devouring her lovers . . .”
They had just touched upon the truth about a human being, this Catherine, of whom, for months now, he had only succeeded in capturing the gestures and the actions.
The unknowable parts of Catherine, her empty spaces, become for Oleg a springboard to imagine what she was truly like. Oleg’s Catherine is not only hard and conquering but vulnerable and romantic, a woman whose actions control the fates of peoples and nations but who desires nothing more than to love and to be loved in return.
Eva, the actor who portrays Catherine in the film, personifies Oleg’s romanticized Catherine both on and off the set, and soon the two become involved. Fourteen years later, Oleg travels to East Berlin to reunite with Eva, who is now a poor translator faced with the daily struggles of living under Communism. Eva is no longer Oleg’s Catherine, and he finds that his feelings for the real, the deromanticized, Eva must evolve as well. Ultimately, Oleg’s obsession with bringing the real Catherine to life becomes something far more personally profound: a quest for self-awareness.
Finally, Stefan Hertmans’s eloquent autobiographical novel, War & Turpentine (Pantheon, 2016), translated from the Dutch by David McKay, also speaks to the longing to understand life through art. Inspired by the approaching centennial of World War I, Hertmans immerses himself in the hundreds of pages of memoir that his grandfather and war veteran, Urbain Martien, gave him years earlier, shortly before he died. Throughout his life, Martien was compelled by a sense of duty—the duty to support his mother and siblings after his father died; the duty to fight in the trenches during WWI instead of becoming a professional artist; and the duty to marry his fiancé’s older sister after his betrothed died all too young from the Spanish flu. Hertmans takes these episodes from his grandfather’s story and decides to “rediscover it in my own way” by visiting the places that Martien wrote about and viewing the original masterpieces that he reproduced with his painting.
As Hertmans reimagines his grandfather’s life, he shines a light on the strong emotions of a man who, in Hertmans’s memory, maintained an almost stoic countenance. Although duty set the course for Martien, the enduring passions that gave him sustenance were painting and his undying love for his fiancé. From close study of his grandfather’s paintings, Hertmans discovers the secret way that Martien joined these two obsessions. War & Turpentine is a sensitive and moving hymn to an ordinary man who each day faced “the battle between the transcendent, which he yearned for, and the memory of death and destruction, which held him in its clutches.”
Hertmans’s novel depicts so poignantly the ache of coming to fully appreciate the depths of another person only after it is too late.