The OF Blog: 2009 in Review: En Otros Idiomas

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009 in Review: En Otros Idiomas

As I just said in my previous post on 2009 books translated into English, this blog perhaps is best-known for its promotion of authors, mimetic and speculative alike, whose works were not written in English.  Although I did manage to read close to 100 books in Spanish and over 30 others in French, Portuguese, Italian, and Serbian, most of those works were not released for the first time in 2009.  Perhaps I will do a summation in the near future of works read this year that are worthy of readers' considerations that will cover pre-2009 releases in any idiom.

But for now, I guess I should note that there were six books read in 2009 that were not read in English.  Four of them are Spanish-language fictions, another is a Spanish non-fiction work that I'll cover in more detail in the section on 2009 non-fictions read, and the final book is a Brazilian anthology of Steampunk stories that I felt was among the best anthologies I read this year.  Furthermore, two of the four Spanish-language fictions are actually translations from the original Polish of Andrzej Sapkowski, creating a sort of gray area, since my "translated fictions" post could have covered these translations as well, but since this section is for works not read in English, I guess this is best placement for them.

The variety of books read is as follows:  one anthology, one YA fiction not covered in that section since I plan on reviewing it next year or in 2011 when the English translation is available, one popular history of the ancient greeks, one historical novel without magic, another historical novel with magic, and one epic fantasy work.  Since there will be reviews in 2010 of the two Sapkowski and since I'll be covering Javier Negrete's excellent history of the ancient greeks elsewhere, most of the book-specific comments will be limited to just a couple of prior reviews reproduced in excerpts.

Ildefonso Falcones, La mano de Fátima

From the review posted on Omnivoracious:

Christian-Muslim relations have never been easy, history bearing witness to attacks by partisans of both religions, with the attendant martyrs and villains. Nowhere is this more evident than in Spain, where for almost 900 years the Reconquista was waged to win back the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim control, culminating in the expulsion of the Moors and Jews from the Iberian peninsula in 1609.

Spanish author Ildefonso Falcones sets out to explore the tensions that existed in late 16th century Spain in his new novel, La Mano de Fátima. Over the course of over 900 pages, Falcones covers the period from the Alpujarras revolt of 1568-1571 to the 1609 expulsion through the character of Hernando Ruiz. Young Hernando, the offspring of the rape of a Moorish woman by a Catholic priest, serves as a small-scale representation of the divisions that rent Spain after the fall of Granada in 1492. Rejected by his fellow Moors as being a "Nazarene"and condemned to be treated as a Moor by the Christians due to his crypto-Muslim Morisco culture (public Muslim practices being banned in 1499), Hernando bears witness to the mutual distrust that Morisco and Spaniard alike felt toward one another.


There are three main conflicts in this story: 1) Hernando’s wavering commitment to the Moriscos and the crypto-Muslim faith that they hold, 2) Hernando’s treatment by both the Christian Spaniards and the Moriscos, and 3) Hernando’s relationships with Fatima and certain other people later in life. Falcones does an excellent job with the first two, with the exception of the main "villain" of Brahim, whose character rarely fails to rise above that of an implacable, diabolical foe of Hernando and of his desire for peace between the faiths. It is in the third main conflict, that between Hernando and those closest to him, where Falcones falters.

In large part, this is due to the 41-year span of the novel. In attempting to illustrate the atmosphere of the times and how attitudes began to change toward the Moriscos after the failed Alpujarras revolt, Falcones unfortunately padded the novel in places, creating quite a few turns and introducing a new character dynamic that feels a bit forced after the action of the first few hundred pages. As a result, important characters fade away for long stretches, reappearing only fitfully until the final scenes, where their reemergence feels forced and underdeveloped.

Yet despite this, La Mano de Fátima contains several moving passages that speak to the hope of Hernando (and presumably, of Falcones) for a more peaceful co-existence between the Christian West and the Muslim East. Hernando, despite the unevenness of the second half of the novel, serves as an excellent reminder just what was lost when Christianity and Islam began their ideological war, as well as the hope that many adherents of both faiths have for a reconciliation. Falcones’ novel, coming as it does on the 400th anniversary of the expulsion of the Moors, bears witness to the optimistic faith and tolerance that those like Hernando have managed to uphold in the face of the tumults of the past few centuries.

Gianpaolo Celli (ed.), Steampunk:  Histórias de um Passado Extraordinário

From my original review:

In many senses, steampunk is the one of the first truly "international" subgenres of speculative fiction, as its appeal quickly spread from one country to the next, without a single country or language region dominating the literary landscape. In the past twenty years or so, ever since K.W. Jeter's use of the term "steampunk" in a 1987 letter to Locus to describe this nascent movement, steampunk literary and fashion circles have sprung up in cities all across the globe.  It truly is an international movement, one that adapts to fit the needs of each country's literary scenes.

This certainly was the case with the release this summer in Brazil of Steampunk:  Histórias de um Passado Extraordinário (Steampunk:  Stories of an Extraordinary Past would be a good English translation of the title).  Edited by Gianpaolo Celli and published by the São Paulo publisher Tarja, this original anthology of nine stories written by several of Brazil's leading SF writers serves to highlight not just Brazilian interpretations of what constitutes "steampunk," but also that this emerging world power has the potential in the next few decades, as linguistic and trade barriers continue to fall, to play a larger role in the rapidly-growing global SF conversation.

I read each of these stories three times over the past four months, since my reading fluency in Portuguese is less than that of Spanish.  What I discovered with each read is that most of these stories took on additional layers of meaning for me.  There is no single common approach to telling a steampunk story in this collection. Some stories, such as the opening "O Assalto ao Trem Pagador" are a bit more heavy on overt action involving steam-driven trains, boats, and dirigibles than some of the others, but there are certain nuances in the writing that refer more specifically to issues of Brazilian history.  In the footnotes to Romeu Martins' "Cidade Phantástica," the author refers to how the character João Fumaça has been utilized by other authors, including an alt-history where Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay lost the 1864-1970 War of the Triple Alliance against Paraguay.  In Jacques Barcia's "Uma Vída Possível Atrás dad Barricadas," Barcia references the long-standing popularity of communists among the proletariat.

These are elements that are often downplayed in much of North American and British steampunk literature.  Yet the 19th century was certainly a time of social unrest, so when reading these stories, I found myself curious to know more about the root causes that the authors referenced in passing.  Fábio Fernandes' "Uma Breve História da Maquinidade" goes a step further, as he utilizes fictional characters such as Doctor Frankenstein to underscore just how stratified social classes were in the 19th century in Europe and the Americas.  António Luiz M.C. Costa's "A Flor do Estrume"in many ways was the most mysterious story in this collection.  Referencing the 19th century Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis,who wrote a fictional memoir of Brás Cubas, his story was the one where I felt lost at times, not because his writing was poor (if anything, the quality of the writing was almost uniformly high in this collection), but because there were references to Brazilian history that I did not know well, if at all.


Most of these tales were very enjoyable to read and the undercurrents noted above never threatened to overwhelm the stories being told.  Although there were a couple of stories that didn't work as well for me as did the others, Steampunk:  Histórias de um Passado Extraordinário is one of the most taut and enjoyable anthologies that I have read in 2009 in any language.  Hopefully, in the coming decade, the writers that appear in this collection will see more of their stories translated into various languages (from what I recall, several already have appeared in English and Romanian translations at least). There appears to be a growing, if still somewhat small, SF culture developing in Brazil.  I suspect with time, that several of these writers will craft new narratives of Brazil that will challenge not just current Anglo-centric conceptions of that emerging power, but which will influence global conversations on steampunk and SF fiction. 

 Other Works to be Covered in Other Sections or in Future Reviews:

Rafael Ábalos, Grimpow y la bruja de la estirpe (second volume in a YA series that I thought was one of the more enjoyable ones I read in 2007).

Andrzej Sapkowski, Narrenturm (first volume in his Hussite Wars trilogy where magic exists with the religious struggles of the early 15th century); La dama del lago, vol. 1 (the first half of the original last volume in La saga de Geralt, which I'll review once the second half appears, hopefully sometime in 2010).

Javier Negrete, La Gran Aventura de los Griegos (non-fiction that will be covered in that section)

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