This week I’m bringing you a short list of what I’ve been enjoying from distant shores lately.
The Wall by Max Annas, translated from the German by Rachel Hildebrandt
I was fortunate to receive an advance reader copy straight from the translator. Winner of the 2017 German Crime Writing Prize, The Wall was a thrilling chase through an unusual and surprisingly frightening setting: a well-to-do gated community in South Africa called “The Pines”. Moses, a young college student who just wants to get home to his girlfriend and a beer, finds himself stranded on a deserted stretch of road outside of a gated community when his car breaks down and his phone dies. Thinking he knows somebody who lives inside and can help him complete his noble mission, he slips in undetected, and the reader is instantly aware that he is in a dangerous place. Meanwhile, a robbery is occurring in a home in the housing development and a shocking discovery is made by the thieves. Moses is a compelling every-man protagonist, caught up in a case of mistaken identity, and the cinematic quality to the story telling takes you running right alongside him as he eludes capture.
Bright by Duanwad Pimwana, translated from the Thai by Mui Poopoksakul
According to the publisher this is the first English translation of a novel by a Thai woman, a fact I find astounding in 2019. I have not actually read this yet but I’m including a plug here as one to watch for. It’s also from one of my favorite independent presses, Two Lines Press, part of the Center for the Art of Translation, and they have never once let me down. “When five-year-old Kampol is told by his father to sit in front of their run-down apartment building and await his return, the confused boy does as he’s told—he waits and waits and waits, until he realizes his father isn’t coming back anytime soon. Adopted by the community, Kampol is soon being raised by figures like Chong the shopkeeper, who rents out calls on his telephone and goes into debt extending his customers endless credit.” Literature has a way of taking us on a journey through another’s point of view, which for the curious, is a welcome vacation from one’s own perspective.
The Devil’s Dance by Hamid Ismailov, translated from the Uzbek by Donald Rayfield
I’m not sure how I feel about this, but it seems to be trendy in book reviews right now to add “Game of Thrones” to the end of something, like adding “in bed” to your cookie fortune, to the delight of your fellow diners, as in the “Jamaican Game of Thrones” or, in this book’s case, the “Uzbek Game of Thrones“. Fantasy epics have been around for a while, and are a continuation of ancient oral traditions. This book, the 20,000£ winner of the 2019 EBRD Literature Prize is no mere GoT knockoff (nor was Marlon James’ masterful African folktale fantasy epic, Black Leopard, Red Wolf). Another author banned in their home country (see below), The Devil’s Dance is the first Uzbek novel to be translated into English. Another first! Some time last year I recommended the first Malagasy novel (from Madagascar) ever to be translated into English. There is a vast world of literature out there and I want it all. If I had a superpower it would be the ability to read and understand any language. The jacket copy instantly grabbed my attention: “On New Year’s Eve 1938, the writer Abdulla Qodiriy is taken from his home by the Soviet secret police and thrown into a Tashkent prison. There, to distract himself from the physical and psychological torment of beatings and mindless interrogations, he attempts to mentally reconstruct the novel he was writing at the time of his arrest – based on the tragic life of the Uzbek poet-queen Oyxon, married to three khans in succession, and living as Abdulla now does, with the threat of execution hanging over her. As he gets to know his cellmates, Abdulla discovers that the Great Game of Oyxon’s time, when English and Russian spies infiltrated the courts of Central Asia, has echoes in the 1930s present, but as his identification with his protagonist increases and past and present overlap it seems that Abdulla’s inability to tell fact from fiction will be his undoing.” Ismailov’s intricately woven tale is beautifully translated, propulsive, and very witty.
Death is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa, translated from the Arabic by Leri Price
This is one of those book recommendations I hand out eagerly, and then describe the plot and watch people slowly back away. It’s a really incredible feat to write about what this author wrote about and inject just the right amount of humor to keep you going, but yeah, it’s pretty grim. It’s a road novel about 3 siblings transporting their father’s slowly decomposing body across war-torn Syria to bury him at home. It’s not the road to Damascus, but the road from Damascus, to Anabiya, that we travel. We learn about the family through memories and shifting perspectives to gain a deeper understanding of why they must do something, and stay together, as everything around them has fallen apart. “After all,” Khalifa admonishes, “you have to do something if you aren’t just going to lie down and die — if you don’t want to sink down to the center of the earth.”
The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya, translated from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda
This bizarre, and at times downright uncomfortable but very funny, short story collection, is the first book by Motoya to be translated to English. “A housewife takes up bodybuilding and sees radical changes to her physique, which her workaholic husband fails to notice. A boy waits at a bus stop, mocking commuters struggling to keep their umbrellas open in a typhoon, until an old man shows him that they hold the secret to flying. A saleswoman in a clothing boutique waits endlessly on a customer who won’t come out of the fitting room, and who may or may not be human. A newlywed notices that her spouse’s features are beginning to slide around his face to match her own.” Every story is a trip to an absurdly skewed but familiar place. If I were pressed to name a favorite it would have to be the dressing room story but the newlywed’s story is a close second.
The Day the Sun Died by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas
Perhaps inspired by a recent, protracted bout of insomnia, I picked up two science fiction novels about viral sleep disorders at the same time: The Day the Sun Died, a new translation of “China’s most banned author”, Yan Lianke, and The Dreamers, another imaginative, deliriously immersive novel by Karen Thompson Walker. The Day the Sun Died, is a fable set over a period of 24 hours, in a remote mountain village. Teenage Li Niannian notices “dreamwalkers”, people walking around asleep, carrying on normal activities and causing chaos. As the night wears on, more and more the actions of the zombie-like sleepers turn sinister and the bodies begin to pile up. Part horror story, part social comedy, Yan Lianke’s novel is one to check out.