The OF Blog: 2010 in Review: Foreign Language Fictions

Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 in Review: Foreign Language Fictions

Over the past decade, ever since I took an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) social studies teaching position in South Florida in 2001, I have had a growing interest in other languages and non-Anglo-American literatures.  I first began reading Spanish-language novels in 2004 and my fluency has steadily improved.  Over the past couple of years, I have managed to learn enough Portuguese, Italian, and even a bit of French to the point where I could understand most, if not all, of what I've read.  As I said in the introduction to my 2010 in Review posts, I became a freelance translator this year, in both Spanish and Portuguese.  It has been fun working in these languages and a few others which I want to learn how to read proficiently.  For this past year, I read 100 books published in Spanish and another 25 published in Portuguese, Italian, French, and Serbian (with the aid of a dictionary and English and Spanish translations).  The majority of these books were published prior to 2010, but there were nine books released in Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian this year that I read and, for the most part, enjoyed quite a bit.

Back in March, yet another posthumous work by Chilean writer/poet Roberto Bolaño, El Tercer Reich (The Third Reich), came out.  This "trunk novel," apparently written sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, showcases some of the techniques that Bolaño later developed in Los detectives salvajes and 2666.  However, the plot is not as complex or as refined as those two latter works and I felt that the work could have used more editing to smooth out some of the prose and plot inconsistencies.  It is, however, a book that Bolañonistas should consider picking up in the near future in English or other languages if they cannot read Spanish.

In July, I read Argentine writer/translator Carlos Gardini's Tríptico de Trinidad, which was one of the best speculative fictions that I've read this year.  Here is an excerpt from my August review:

Basilisca habla, Séptimo escucha, Ostremón mira los frisos de la sala conciliar. (p. 117)

Basilisca speaks, Séptimo listens, Ostremón looks at the friezes of the conciliar room.
There is almost a chant-like rhythm to passages like this and Gardini employs this to great effect later in the novel.  This creates a greater awareness of the philosophical and cosmological questions that are being raised throughout this novel.  This greater awareness in turn causes the reader to focus not just on the story at hand, but the underlying motives behind the story.  Gardini's poetic repetitions thus serve to create a sort of ripple effect through the narrative, as little scenes end up being magnified due to how they are presented and this in turn adds a gravity to the work that would otherwise be lacking if it were told in a more conventional fashion.

It is very difficult to discuss this novel without wanting to devote thousands of words to its themes and their applications throughout the text.  Constrained by the limitations of reviews as opposed to literary critiques, I find myself circling around the edges of this book here in this review.  Not wanting to "spoil" the reading experience for those bilingual readers such as myself who may be curious about a "deep" fantasy work, all I can say is that Gardini is an extremely talented writer who has created one of the deepest, most philosophical fantasy novels that I have ever read in any language.  There are no real good comparisons to what he has accomplished here.  Perhaps I could cite some of Gene Wolfe's works, but those are more oblique references to human cosmologies than what Gardini has written here.  In less than 300 pages, he constructs a vivid setting, introduces some intriguing conflicts, and then tops it off with a conclusion that has the reader wanting to re-read the entire book in light of what is revealed.  If that is not a strong testimony to what Gardini has accomplished here, then I would be hard pressed to think of anything better to describe this outstanding novel. 

Around the same time, I read and reviewed Portuguese writer David Soares' O Evangelho do Enforcado, which was also a very impressive mixture of historical and speculative elements.  Here too is an excerpt from my review of it:

And I, what is it that I have?, thought Maria.  They say that I am beautiful, that all the men want to fuck me...But what is that worth in the hour of death?  It's not possible to eat beauty.  She shook her head.  There is no good death.  Death hurts.  It is cruel.  It makes us pass away in shit.

Where is this promised resurrection?  We will rise up on the other side?  A side more luminous than this?  Heaven.  So that hunger is turned into an insupportable light.

Perhaps all of us go to Hell.

They say that the whores are going to Hell.

If it exists, it is a whorehouse, she thought.  But how?  Then, is it possible to have hunger in Hell?  Is this the punishment for the sin of luxury?  Then what is the punishment for gluttony?  If I were a philosopher, capable of great thoughts, perhaps I would find an answer for this, but I am no philosopher.  I am not capable of great thoughts.  I only want to find something to eat.

Whether it is a focus on Nuno's increasingly capricious behavior that fuels his artistic genius or if it is a look into the complex relationships between the royal family, there is a sense throughout this novel that the Devil is lurking somewhere in the vicinity.  He may not appear directly, but when, in the guise of Geronte, he does show up, the developments that have occurred take on an aspect that can be frightening at times, especially considering how well he develops his characters and setting.  In many ways, O Evangelho do Forcado is a morality play writ large, using the Portuguese court and its most enigmatic genius, Nuno Gonçalves, as its actors and actresses.  The result is a gripping story that has a broad appeal, whether it be to those who enjoyed the late medieval period pieces of say an Ildefonso Falcones or the historical-slash-metaphysical stories of a Carlos Ruiz Zafón.  Soares is equally comfortable with both the historical and supernatural aspects of this tale and each element blends into the other, creating an exciting story that likely will be featured at the end of the year in my lists of best 2010 novels.  Hopefully, there will be a publisher willing to take a chance and translate this into English, as it is the sort of story that I think can be marketed easily to Americans wanting great, dark historical fantasies.
Another intriguing summertime read was the 2010 Premio Alfaguara novel, Hernán Rivera Letelier's El arte de la resurreción.  Set in the Chilean mines in the early 1940s, it is a story of a worker who becomes convinced that he is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.  Letelier's portrayals of this potentially inscrutable character are mostly spot-on and the developments by the end of the novel give the reader much more to consider than what might have been expected after beginning the work.

In early October, I finished reading Brazlian author Max Mallmann's O Centésimo en Roma, a historical novel that I reviewed later that month:

Set in Rome in the months and year following Nero's "suicide" in 68 AD, the story revolves around the centurion Publius Desiderius Dolens, a veteran of the wars on the German frontier, and what he experiences after he arrives in Rome.  Known as the Butcher of Bonna, Dolens discovers that his previous deeds have created a mixture of awe, respect, fear, and hatred among the Roman populace.  Ambitious, Dolens reaches for the Equestrian rank, but he discovers that there are some dangerous currents swirling in the Eternal City, currents that can be deadly for those caught up in them.

From this premise, Mallmann has developed a fast-paced, exciting story that unfolds at a rapid pace across nearly 400 pages.  Mixing in excerpts from an apparent fictitious work called Vita Dolentis with Dolens' "present" story, Mallmann constructs a vivid rendition of first century Rome in the years immediately following the Fire.  Via his extensive use of these quotations from the Vita Dolentis, Mallmann manages to develop finely-described snapshots of Roman politics and society during this time around Dolens' story of ambition and political survival.  For the most part, this juxtaposing of montages with the main action works well, as the rapid-fire alternation between the two creates a sense that not only is the story moving rapidly, but also that it contains both breadth of action and depth of characterization and events.

In mid-October, I received a copy of the Luso-Brazilian steampunk anthology, Vaporpunk, edited by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro and Luis Filipe Silva.  Along with Fábio Fernandes, I helped translate the opening paragraphs to the eight stories in this original anthology.  Consisting almost entirely of stories that would be novelettes or novellas, Vaporpunk was both a joy to read and an absolute bitch to translate due to several authors writing in an nineteenth century idiom that is far more florid than what twenty-first century readers may be accustomed to reading.  For the most part, these stylistic choices added to the narratives and the emphasis on the alt-history aspects, particularly surrounding the Kingdom of Portugal and the Brazilian Empire of the 19th century, made this anthology stand out from the majority of steampunk novels and collections that I have read in recent years.

Toward the end of October, I read and reviewed 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Mario Vargas Llosa's newest novel, El sueño del CeltaI reviewed that one as well:

The result of this "middle ground" approach is the portrayal of Casement as neither saint nor devil.  Vargas Llosa presents him as a conflicted, complex individual who warred with his own self as much as he did in his latter struggles against the forces of imperialist aggression, whether they be present in the Congo River valley, the interior of Brazil, or Ireland after the latest round of Home Rule talks had been suspended on the eve of World War I.  Vargas Llosa's prose is elegant but never verbose.  He does not eschew criticizing his subject whenever Casement's actions warrants such treatment, but he also portrays this historical figure as containing admirable elements.  Through it all, Vargas Llosa chooses to emphasize the humanitarian aspects, even when those aspects falter in the face of Casement's many personal demons.

El sueño del celta works as a historical novel because Vargas Llosa keeps the focus squarely on Casement and his internal and external struggles.  Despite the jumping back and forth in the narrative between 1910 and 1916, there is rarely confusion about the sequence of events.  If anything, the "present day" scenes serve to reinforce the developments shown in the extended flashback sequences.  The end result of this is a vivid portrayal of a fascinating historical figure, told in crisp, evocative prose that adds vitality to the scenes without distorting what happened during this time.  El sueño del celta may not be one of Vargas Llosa's greatest novels, but it certainly is a very good piece that compares favorably to most of his outstanding œvre.  Highly recommended to both Spanish speakers and to English readers whenever the translation comes out in the next year or two. 

In early December, I read Umberto Eco's sixth novel, Il Cimiterio di Praga, in both the Italian original and the Spanish translation (just as backup, as I did understand most of what I read in Italian).  I have chosen to forego reviewing this book until the English translation is published in a year or two, in order that I could then write a review that centers as much on the translations as it does on the text.  However, I will briefly note my initial reactions.  This novel, written in the style of late 19th century sensationalist novels, with its paranoid, Anti-Semitic lead, epistolary sections, and imitation 19th century illustrations, fails at the end to have the full conspiracy theoryish impact that Eco perhaps would have liked, simply because the protagonist is portrayed perhaps too well in his nasty, vile Anti-Semitic writings and devising.  However, that perhaps might be exactly the point and it might behoove the reader to consider this novel not just from the context of a conspiracy theorist at work but rather from the vantage of how does a contemporary reader interpret what is happening in those scenes?  Nineteenth century Europe certainly contained quite a few skeletons in the closet, to say the least.

Finally, I read Spanish writer (and Professor of Ancient Greek) Javier Negrete's Atlántida.  Set in the near future, it is simultaneously a thriller involving the discovery of the lost city of Atlantis (Santorini) and a warning about human meddling with nature.  The action is fast and furious and although the characters weren't as well-developed as I would have liked, for the type of story that Negrete was writing, that is mostly forgivable.  Not the heaviest of stories that I've read, but certainly a well-told SF thriller that provides just a little bit of food for thought for those who want to ponder longer some of the implications of a few of the scenes found within the novel.

Now that I'm slightly behind with these writings, hopefully the next few will be briefer in length, as I do hope to have things finalized before midnight CST.  Was going to do two separate posts on speculative and non-speculative readings, but I believe that each would easily be twice the length of this one, so it'll be short fiction collections and anthology and then a post discussing intriguing reads from this year.

No comments:

Add to Technorati Favorites