Friday, January 22, 2010

Fiction in Translation - Part I

Every once in a while I get asked a question along the lines of "why write crime fiction?" in a way that implies that I could be spending my time in much more worthwhile pursuits. And many reviewers still insist on bestowing backhanded compliments on crime writers who blow them away by criticizing the genre they write in. For example, take this sentence from the Denver Post's recent review of Sleepless, by Charles Huston (Ballantine Books): "He is a standout young voice in what might be considered the genre of crime fiction, but his writing is simply too good to be genre-constrained." Jeez, enough already.

Seeing as how there isn't much I can do about the condescension or outright prejudice against crime, mystery and detective fiction, I will, instead, continue promoting crime writers and books whenever I get the opportunity; readers you take it from there.

In the spirit of internationalism, I present a list of recent crime fiction (or novelas negras, if you prefer) originally written in Spanish (or Portuguese) and now translated into English. There's got to be one, at least, on this list that will grab your attention; introduce you to a new writer; or turn out to be the best read you've had in months. This is Part I; Part II continues next week. The text is taken from publisher or author summaries.

This also feels like a good time to congratulate two finalists for the Edgar Allen Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Luis Alberto Urrea is one of five finalists in the Short Story category for Amapola in the Phoenix Noir anthology (Akashic Books); and Robert Arellano is a finalist in the Paperback Original category for Havana Lunar (Akashic Books). Urrea has an essay about his surprise when he learned he had been nominated for an Edgar® posted on his website. Michael Sedano reviewed Havana Lunar for La Bloga, here. The Edgar® Awards will be presented to the winners at the MWA Gala Banquet, April 29, 2010 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, New York City.

[NOTE: This list comes from two sources: Border Patrol, newsletter of The International Association of Crime Writers, Winter, 2010, and Cynthia Nye of High Crimes Mystery Bookshop. Some titles might seem to stretch the definition of "crime fiction." However, I am willing to go along with the International Crime Writers and the mystery bookseller - they should know.]


Field of Honour
Max Aub, translated by Gerald Martin

A contemporary of Lorca and Buñuel in Spain’s Second Republic, Max Aub escaped into a life of exile after General Franco seized Barcelona. His masterpiece, acknowledged in Spain as one of the best accounts of the Spanish Civil War, is the six-novel cycle known as The Magic Labyrinth — never before translated into English. A playwright as well as a novelist, he brings the period alive through vibrant dialogue and a story that navigates the factional intrigues that eventually erupted onto the streets in violence.

The protagonist of the first novel is Rafael López Serrador, whose coming of age in Barcelona introduces a cast from all walks of city life—Catalan nationalists, anarchists, Falangists, government ministers and showgirls. Just as central a character is Barcelona itself, lovingly depicted. Rafael’s adventures bring him into contact with the forces that were to destroy the Republic and determine the bloody course of the Spanish Civil War.

Masterfully translated by Gerald Martin, author of Gabriel García Márquez: A Life, Max Aub’s novel is set to introduce to an English-speaking audience a classic of Spanish and Latin American literature—an account of the Spanish Civil War to compare with Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Dream of Reason
Rosa Chacel
, translated by Carol Maier
University of Nebraska

A masterpiece of modernist fiction about one man’s search for meaning, Dream of Reason (La sinrazón) reveals Rosa Chacel as an intellectual and literary innovator whose work stands alongside that of Joyce, Proust, and Woolf. This meditative novel, grounded in the thinking of Spain’s great modern philosopher Ortega y Gasset, unfolds as the journal of a bourgeois chemist who makes his way in Buenos Aires just before and during the Spanish Civil War. Tracing his relationship with three women, Santiago Hernández explores the power of his own intentions and the limits of human reason. His introspective experiment, set against the background of world-altering events, documents the workings of a self-absorbed mind speculating on the inseparability of self and circumstance and is a brilliant enactment of how, from such tensions, narrative emerges.

Rosa Chacel (1898–1994), one of the most promising pre-Civil War writers, was “rediscovered” in her native Spain after returning to Madrid from an exile of more than three decades. In addition to La sinrazón, her many works include Teresa, Memorias de Leticia Valle, and Barrio de Maravillas (The Maravillas District, Nebraska 1992).

Op Oloop
Juan Filloy
, translated by Lisa Dillman
Dalkey Archive (originally published in Argentina in 1934)

Mr. Optimus Oloop is a Finnish statistician living in Buenos Aires. His life runs according to a methodical and rigid schedule, with everything—from his meals down to his regular visits to the city brothels—timed to the minute. But when an insignificant traffic delay upsets this sacred schedule, and on the day of Oloop's engagement party, the clock begins ticking down towards a catastrophe that no amount of planning will avert. A playful and unpredictable masterpiece of Argentinean literature, raising comparisons to Ulysses and serving as a primary inspiration to authors such as Julio Cortázar and Alfonso Reyes, Op Oloop is the first novel by lawyer, Hellenist, boxing referee, and decagenarian Juan Filloy (1894-2000) to be translated into English.

Juan Filloy was an excellent swimmer, dedicated boxing referee, and talented caricaturist; he spoke seven languages and he practiced as a judge in the small town of Río Cuarto, 200 kilometers from Córdoba, where he spent nearly the whole of his life. He died in 2000 at the age of 106. A world champion palindromist, he made use of the entire dictionary in his books, coined new words, and used only seven letters in all the titles of his works. He received various distinctions during his lifetime and was nominated for the Nobel Prize.

Juan the Landless
Juan Goytisolo, translated by Peter Bush
Dalkey Archive

Juan Goytisolo's radical revision of his masterpiece Juan the Landless is the starting-point for this new translation by renowned translator Peter Bush. The new text focuses on Goytisolo's surreal exploration and rejection of his own roots, Catholic Spain's repression of Muslims, Jews and gays, his ancestors' exploitation of Cuban slaves and his own forging of a language at once poetic, politic and ironic that celebrates the erotic act of writing and the anarchic joy of being the ultimate outsider. In Juan the Landless the greatest living novelist from Spain defiantly re-invents tradition and the world as a man without a home, without a country, in praise of pariahs.

Born in 1931, Juan Goytisolo has lived a life of political and cultural exile. A bitter opponent of the Franco regime, his early novels, including Marks of Identity, were banned in Spain. Since leaving Spain, he has lived mostly in France and Morocco. He is the author of a number of novels, many of which, including The Young Assassins, Count Julian, Makbara, The Marx Family Saga, and Quarantine, have been translated into English.

The Book of God and Physics: A Novel of the Voynich Mystery
Enrique Joven, translated by Dolores M. Koch

In his search for truth, a young Jesuit joins a group that has for centuries been trying to decipher the secrets of a mysterious book known as the Voynich Manuscript. This manuscript has developed a global cult following of cryptographers, none of whom has been able to crack its code. Written in an unknown language and illustrated with enigmatic drawings that no one has been able to interpret, the work first surfaced in the court of Rudolf II of Bohemia.

This same Bohemian court also gave refuge to two of the greatest, and most controversial, scientific minds of all time: famed Dane Tycho Brahe and German Johannes Kepler. These two astronomers—together with their contemporaries Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei—were engaged in the most formidable dialogue in the history of science and laid the groundwork for nearly all of contemporary astronomy and physics.

Is there a connection between Voynich and the brilliant scientists who frequented the court? Could the manuscript perhaps be the codified findings of either Brahe or Kepler, written in a special language to conceal their scientific discoveries from the Church and its brutal Inquisition?

When a key to unlocking Voynich is discovered in the church where the young Jesuit teaches, powerful forces conspire to keep the contents of the manuscript from being decoded. It is then up to the young Jesuit to unlock these secrets hidden in plain sight for centuries.

Departing Dawn: A Novel of Argentina's Dirty War

Gloria Lisé, translated by Alice Waldon
Feminist Press

March 23, 1976. Berta watches as her lover, Atilio, a union organizer, is thrown from a window to his death on the sidewalk below. The next day, Colonel Jorge Rafael Videla stages a coup d’état and a military dictatorship takes control of Argentina. Though never a part of Atilio’s union efforts, Berta is on a list to be “disappeared” and flees to relatives in the countryside. There she becomes part of the family she knows only from old photographs: Aunt Avelina, who blasts records from an old player; Uncle Nepomuceno, who watches slugs slither in the garden every afternoon; and Uncle Javier, who sits in his tiny grocery store day and night. When Berta learns that government officials are still looking for her, she realizes she must run even further to save her life.

Gloria Lisé describes a terrifying period in her nation's history with a touch that is light yet penetrating. A powerful portrait of Argentinians caught up in traumas that have haunted the country ever since.

Your Face Tomorrow, Volume Three: Poison, Shadow, and Farewell
Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa
New Directions

Poison, Shadow and Farewell, with its heightened tensions between meditations and noir narrative, with its wit and ever deeper forays into the mysteries of consciousness, brings Marías’ three-part Your Face Tomorrow to a stunning finale. Already this novel has been acclaimed “exquisite“ (Publishers Weekly), “gorgeous” (Kirkus), and “outstanding: another work of urgent originality” (The Independent, London). Poison, Shadow and Farewell takes our hero Jaime Deza—hired by MI6 as a person of extraordinarily sophisticated powers of perception—back to Madrid to both spy on and try to protect his own family, and into new depths of love and loss, with a fluency on the subject of death that could make a stone weep.

“This brilliant trilogy must be one of the greatest novels of our age.”
Antony Beevor, The Sunday London Telegraph (Books of the Year)

Your Face Tomorrow is already being compared to Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, and rightly so. It is a novel of extraordinary subtlety and pathos. The next thing Marías deserves is the Nobel Prize.” — The Observer

“By one of the most original writers at work today, Your Face Tomorrow [is] as accomplished and sui generis as all his mature work [and the] most affecting narrative feat in Marías’s work to date.”
Wyatt Mason, The New York Times Book Review

“Sexy, contemplative, elusive, and addictive.”
San Francisco Bay Guardian

Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, translated by Nick Caistor
Serpent's Tail

Pepe Carvalho, ex-cop, ex-Marxist and constant gourmet, is working as a private detective in Barcelona, when a body is pulled out of the sea, its face so badly destroyed that the only way of identifying it is through a tattoo that says: ‘Born to raise hell in hell’.

A local hairdresser hires Carvalho to find out who the man is. Meanwhile, the Barcelona police make a connection between the murder and local drug dealers and prostitutes, and they begin raiding bars and brothels.

A lead on the identity of the murdered man brings Carvalho to Amsterdam, where he gets entangled with a drug gang. As the pace accelerates, Carvalho realizes that this is no straightforward John Doe case.

Part II next week.



Mario Acevedo said...

Great post. My TBR stack just got taller. With so much reading, when do you make time to write?

Anonymous said...

Ditto. I just added two of the titles to my list of books in Spanish to read. And two to the books in translation list. Keep them coming, Manuel. Congrats to Edgar winners. LCCC

Viva Liz Vega! said...

same as the last two, my pile keeps getting taller and to find the time. Great post!

Manuel Ramos said...

So many books, so little time. I believe in the old saying, to be a good writer, be a good reader first. I may not be all that good of a writer, but I do read all right, even though it seems that it takes me much longer to get through a book these days. The books on this list do sound intriguing. I hope to soon have a review of Max Aub's classic ready for La Bloga. Maybe those of you picking up a few of these books will also review them for La Bloga? But wait, there's more next week.