I’m a fiction judge for this year’s Best Translated Book Award, which means evaluating the English translations of dozens of novels and story collections by writers representing many countries and languages, a thrilling assignment and one that richly sustained my 2016 reading. By happenstance a number of the books that I’ve read most recently explore the theme of redemption—fertile ground for authors to delve into a character’s sense of moral self, the tangle of thoughts and motivations that enable her to marginalize wrongs or justify culpability. The gifted authors of these books deserve our admiration for creating character-driven narratives that artfully articulate humankind’s innate hopefulness that past wrongs can be rectified and personal guilt, absolved.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s Reputations (translated by Anne McLean) places readers in the fictional world of Javier Mallarino, a renowned Columbian political cartoonist. Mallarino prides himself in exposing his country’s corruption and political scandals through his daily newspaper cartoon. He possesses the unwavering conviction that his drawings are vitally important for delivering potent truths, “like a stinger dipped in honey.” Years after one of his caricatures destroys the life of a prominent politician Mallarino becomes acquainted with the man’s alleged victim, and their discussions cause him to question the infallibility of his prior condemnation and the consequences of his influence. In an effort to rectify what might have been defamation Mallarino decides to go public with his doubts about the politician’s guilt, an act that will cause the media to turn on him, humiliating him in much the same way that his cartoons humiliated countless others in the past. Reputations is a fascinating study of a man whose entire sense of self-worth is his reputation—the very thing that he must sacrifice in order to redeem himself.
Good People by Israeli novelist Nir Baram (translated by Jeffrey Green) is a work of historical fiction set in Eastern Europe during the early years of World War II. The ironically labeled “good people” of the title are Thomas Heiselberg, a German advertising executive recruited by the Nazis to provide advice on how Polish civilians are likely to respond to Germany’s annexation of their country, and Russian Sasha Weissberg, who works as a Soviet secret police interrogator. Both Thomas and Sasha build names for themselves by furthering the ideologically justified crimes of their governments. For Sasha this means obtaining false confessions from dissident writers and poets, many of whom were her family’s friends and arrested along with her parents on grounds of government sabotage. Baram’s story excavates some well-trod ground: Soviet and Nazi officials’ capacity to self-manipulate their consciences in order to excuse their part in atrocities. But Baram’s portrayal of Sasha is extraordinary—a young, female interrogator who betrays family, friends and her own sense of self as the price for her survival. Her resolve to be remade, to become one of the persecutors rather than the persecuted both contradicts and enhances her omnipresent sense of guilt and desire for repentance.
The opening chapters of Tomáš Zmeškal’s Love Letter in Cuneiform (translated by Alex Zucker) play a beguiling trick on the reader, giving the impression that what will unfold is the precious story of newlyweds Maximillian and Alice (the book’s cover art facilitates the ruse). Actually the novel depicts the complex and fraught history of another marriage, that of Alice’s parents, Josef and Květa, during Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Freed after several years of exile in a labor camp, Josef resumes life with his wife, Květa and young daughter, Alice. Years later Josef discovers that while he was in prison Květa carried on an extended affair with his former classmate who, unbeknownst to Květa, also played a role in Josef’s arrest and torture. Unable to forgive Květa’s past betrayal, Josef leaves her. In the months just before his death, Josef pens a letter to Květa in cuneiform, an ancient script that was a hobby of the couple when they were first married. In the letter Josef seeks Květa’s forgiveness. His use of cuneiform, a script that is practically indecipherable to all but a small group of scholars, symbolizes Josef’s inability to communicate to Květa his steadfast love and acceptance of the circumstances that led to her betrayal. Zmeškal’s compelling narrative mixes realism and fantasy, philosophical musings on mortality and Kafkaesque absurdity, to unspool the poignant story of the damage wrought by Josef’s unyielding self-pride.
Reading these contemporary novels called to mind some of my favorite, older works that feature redemption as a central concern such as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s’ Crime and Punishment and William Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom. It also prompted my first reading of another classic, Silence by Shūsaku Endō (translated by William Johnston), reprinted earlier this year in advance of the Martin Scorsese film based on it. Silence is set in seventeenth century Japan where a jailed Portuguese priest, Father Rodrigues, must choose between defaming an image of Christ and refusing to do so, which will make him, in effect, complicit in the continued torture and death of Japanese peasants who have converted to Christianity. Endō’s novel is a close examination of the Father’s gradual and painful recognition that his prideful principles of faith are not more important than others’ lives. Father Rodrigues undergoes a transformation of conscience, an inherently solitary journey but one that Silence and the other books discussed here invite readers to share.
Lori Feathers is an Assistant Managing Editor at Asymptote, a freelance book critic, and member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her recent reviews can be found at The Rumpus, Words Without Borders, World Literature Today, Full Stop, Three Percent, Rain Taxi, and on Twitter @LoriFeathers.