Wednesday, December 31, 2008
It is no secret to regulars here that I like to read books in languages other than English, particularly Spanish. Over the past two years alone, I have read nearly 200 books in Spanish or Spanish translation. But since there are many reading this who may wonder why I, whose native language is English, will spend hundreds of dollars a year on importing books printed in a language that I did not learn until my late twenties. It is as much for those people as it is for a completeness in coverage that I cover here, in a different format than my other 2008 reviews, seven 2008 Spanish-language releases.
Oftentimes, Anglo-American SF/F readers make the mistake in presuming that the US/UK publishers SF/F publishers represent the Alpha and Omega of SF/F publishing. Works of a speculative nature have been written for centuries in many parts of the world, from the non-English speaking parts of Europe to the ancient civilizations of India, China, and Japan, to stories told by Native Americans or passed on through generations of African griots. In many of these tales, the structure of the narrative varies. What if you grew up in a society where military/political greatness is now centuries in the past, with a populace facing uncertainty in the late arriving Industrial Revolution? That is the backdrop to the 1910s-1930s Barcelona of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's El Juego del Ángel (available in mid-2009 in English as The Angel's Game).
Or how can one approach telling the story of his/her country's fratricidal madness? Carlos Fuentes does so in metaphorical form in his latest novel, La voluntad y la fortuna (Will and Fortune, likely to be published in English either in late 2009 or sometime in 2010), with a severed talking head serving as a narrator of sorts exploring Mexico's often sordid past via personal relationships.
Not all stories have to be region-specific for them to make rhyme or reason. Colombian author Laura Restrepo's novelette, Olor a rosas invisibles/The Scent of Invisible Roses, recently had its American debut. It was a charming story of an aging man's memory of a torrid love affair from 40 years before and his serendipitious encounter with that ghost from his past. It is a tale of adultry, perhaps, but one that is not punished with recriminations or suffering, as is often the case whenever that real-life occurrance is highlighted in novels, but rather it is a wistful reflection on what inspires people to do the things they do.
The Spanish SF/Fantasy/Historical Fiction writer Javier Negrete, who recently won the Premio Ignotus for his 2007 alt-history, Alejandro Magno y las águilas de Roma (Alexander the Great and the Eagles of Rome; no known schedule for an English translation), often mines classical antiquity for many of his stories. His latest novel, Salamina, is a historical novel dealing with the greatest naval battle of antiquity, the Battle of Salamis, that marked the beginning of the end of the Persian War. Historical fictions such as Negrete's are universal, but a writer of his talent for detail and characterization are hard to find, regardless of the idiom used to tell the story.
Although I have read a comparatively small amount of Spanish-language fiction published in 2008 compared to English-language works, the breadth of narrative styles has been a pleasant surprise (or perhaps not, since I do tend to seek out the more experimental works whenever possible). Mexican author Jorge Volpi, one of the authors behind the Crack Manifesto in the 1990s, in El jardín devastado released a story of searching and longing that mimics the form of Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, but with a very different message behind it. I have admired Volpi's writing for three years now and this might be one of his best efforts in a bibliography stuffed with impressive novels.
Uruguayan/Spanish author Federico Fernández Giordano won the 2008 Premio Minotauro for submitted SF novel for El libro de Nobac. It is in turns a mystery, a metanarrative on fate, predestination, and how we view such, and a clever tale involving an otherworldly cipher of a person who has managed to leave behind a book that writes and rewrites itself daily, narrating the events of the person, Nobac, who has come into possession of the book. It is a very literary SF work, one that might remind several readers of some of Jorge Luis Borges' short stories or perhaps Adolfo Bioy Casares' La invención de Morel in its almost horror-like imagery, one that I need to re-read before I can comment much further on it.
Although technically a novelization of a person's actual life rather than anything speculative in nature, Antonio Orlando Rodríguez's 2008 Premio Alfaguara-winning Chiquita contains elements of the grotesque. It is the story of the 26 inch-tall Cuban midget, Espiridiona Cenda, and her experiences traveling in side/freak shows across the US during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rodríguez's tale is a fascinating one that captivates the reader and it was a very enjoyable read for me.
I highly suspect these seven books are but the tip of the iceberg for excellent Spanish-language fictions. Hopefully in future years, I could expand this section further, perhaps also including fictions available in Portuguese or Italian (if my language skills improve enough in those two sister languages to Spanish). Perhaps others here have books published in Spanish (this year or previous) that they'd like to suggest for me or other multilingual readers to consider?
Later today, posts on translated fictions, short fictions, works that disappointed, and a ranking of top books for those who can't read between the lines ;)