The OF Blog: 2009 in Review: Translated Fictions

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009 in Review: Translated Fictions

Rightly or wrongly, this blog over the past few years has earned a reputation for covering fictions written in the non-Anglophone regions of the world.  Although most of my readings are in the original languages (mainly Spanish, but now also Portuguese, French, and Italian with very little aid and Serbian with lots of aid required), there are several books I read each year that have been translated into English.  However, the majority of those books weren't published in 2009, so after looking through my written-down list of books read this year, there were only seven books published in 2009 that were originally written in another language that I read this year.  One book that I read last year and reviewed, Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction, was not read this year, but it deserves a mention and a link back to the original review posted in November 2008. 

Due to time constraints, I will not be able to discuss at length just why the following fictions are worthy of being read, but I will try and sum things up succinctly for three works and list the others as honorable mentions.  Despite my preference for Romance language readings when I'm not reading in English, there is only a single French-language original (by an American-born author, no less!) among the works I've read.  Two others were originally written in Serbian, another in Czech, with three others first being published in Japanese.  The stories range from having the feel of a Kafka or Borges to SF thrillers to something that touches upon the horrors of the worst act of genocide in human history.  If anything, these books represent the diversity of storytelling as much as they illustrate just how many national fictions are becoming available in English translation.

Michael Ajvaz, The Other City

This short novel is hard to describe. It is on the surface a sort of alt-Prague, a world within itself where some of the more macabre musings that a Kafka could have dreamt co-exist with everyday people.  Ajvaz's writing is very surreal at times, creating a haunting atmosphere that stays with the reader long after the final pages are written.

But this is merely a reaction, not a review.  I did not write a formal review for this one because I would have preferred to have re-read this a few more time before I would feel comfortable with the notion of wrestling with its prose, its layers of meaning, and with its use of Prague as a sort of meta-character here.  But for those of you willing to take a chance on discovering some excellent Central European literature, The Other City certainly is among the best that I've read in recent years.

Zoran Živković, Impossible Stories II

Živković has been a favorite of mine for five years now.  His stories, whether they be novels like The Fourth Circle or Hidden Camera or "story suites" like Impossible Stories or its sequel Impossible Stories II, are simultaneously simple and complex.  Simple in the sense that the characters are easy to relate to, the prose is clear and uncluttered, with the ultimate effect being a quick read.

However, there are multiple layers to his stories.  While readers may get caught up in just how "effortless" the story feels, once one pays closer attention, there is much that is transpiring under the surface.  Things are not always as they seem.  And in Impossible Stories II, there are a number of repeating themes that surface in surprising ways as the reader continues reading the "suites."  Živković rarely hits a wrong note or has a false step in the course of telling these stories, illustrating perhaps that sometimes a well-told tale just might still be one of the most effective ways of communication around.

Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones

Taken from my earlier review:

Almost 64 years after the liberation of the Nazi death camps, the Shoah/Endlösung/Holocaust (each of those words bearing its own indelible image) remains an extremely controversial topic. From those like David Irving who have tried to downplay (if not deny outright) the horrors of the situation to those like Daniel Goldhagen, who in his 1996 book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, sought to spread even further the blame for the atrocities against the Jews to those who note that the very real sufferings of the millions of other ethnic groups, such as the Gypsies, need to be brought to the spotlight, how one chooses to discuss the events of 1933-1945 can easily will determine who will condemn and who will praise that intrepid soul. It is little surprise, therefore, that American/French writer Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones has drawn fierce criticism and received lavish praise from writers and critics in both France and the United States over the past three years.

The Kindly Ones is a fictional first-person narrative of the Alsatian factory owner (and former Nazi Sicherheitsdienst (SD) officer) Dr. Maximilien Aue, as he writes a quasi-confessional memoir from the vantage point of at least 30 years after the war. Over the course of this nearly 1000 page narrative, Littell's Aue rambles, digresses, retrenches, emphasizing before decentering his actions during World War II on the Russian front. There might be a dozen pages or more devoted to his relationships with both men and women, followed by a paragraph or two that seemingly glosses over the death and suffering of millions of Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs.

For many readers, Littell's prose will be unsettling. Aue, by nature of his office as a SD officer in the Nazi SS, will leave many readers uncomfortable just by knowing that they are reading about some of the 20th century's worst deeds from the point of view of one of the perpetrators. Others will find details of Aue's personal life, from his bisexuality to the gradual uncovering of the specifics behind the one "loving" relationship in his life (and I put "loving" in quotes, because the nature of that relationship is very debatable, to say the least) to be disturbing. I myself could understand why others would be at unease reading about these events from Aue's perspective, but I found myself drawn further and further into the narrative due to how Littell chose to tell this story.


As an account of the Holocaust and how "ordinary" people can get caught up in such actions, Littell's novel is provocative and for the most part, rings true. As a narrative, there are several weak points, starting with Aue's inconsistency as a character. By this, I am referring more to how "strong" he is in relation to the events he narrates, as often I felt as though Aue "disappeared" for dozens of pages at a time. Also, I have to question the effectiveness of having Aue be a closeted bisexual, as well as how his relationships with family members were depicted. I believe that Littell loses some of the power of his novel by having Aue take on characteristics that make it easier to view him as a pervert or a monster than it would have been if he had been an "everyman" character whose actions during the course of the novel would have forced readers to confront more directly the idea that they too could easily have been caught up in the hatred and the killing of former friends and neighbors.

While the mythic Kindly Ones do not make an appearance at all until the final page, The Kindly Ones does give hints of the tortures that Aue faces as a result of his sometimes-passive participation in the Final Solution. It is a shame, however, that it took so long for Littell to build to that point. Yet despite the rambling, digressive narrative, despite the inconsistencies of Aue's character, despite the difficulty in accepting the premise behind Aue, The Kindly Ones is a powerful work. Messy, disturbing, and more than a little graphic in places with its scatological and sexual references, Littell's novel deserves praise for its attempts to tackle an event that is still an explosive minefield for anyone trying to unravel its mysteries. It is a mess, but it is a glorious, necessary mess and for that alone readers ought to read it. Just don't be surprised if virulent reactions follow.

 Honorable Mentions:

Zoran Živković, The Bridge (novella)

Issui Ogawa, The Lords of the Sands of Time

Hiroshi Sakurazaka, All You Need is Kill

Otsuichi, ZOO (collection) 


Unknown said...

I actually bought The Other City some weeks back because it sounded weird as hell and quite awesome. Hopefully when I get a chance to read it I will enjoy it.

Larry Nolen said...

It certainly is that and more. I know some reviewers have compared this book in tone and feel to some of Borges' work, but I believe it'd be better to ground it in Central European fabulist works more than trying to make the Borges comparison. Hopefully, you'll find it to be as full of win as I did...and I might just shoot myself for using that term! :P

James said...

I said it earlier in a post on my blog, The Other City is the book that finally kicked my ass into gear to read more translated fiction. One of the best books I read this past year and one that definitely deserves a reread or three.

This post has added a couple names to my list as Littell's book seems just the sort of thing I'd like.

Larry Nolen said...

Cool! By the way, be sure to check out the blog This Book and I Could Be Friends. E.L. Fay covers translated fictions of all sorts there and she does an excellent job. I've found some enjoyable books due to reading her blog.

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