Reviews

Collective Memory: Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s Human Matter: A Fiction in Review

An exercise in the resilience of human memory, the novel integrates a broad swath of literary and global cultural touchstones . . .

Human Matter: A Fiction by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Eduardo Aparicio, University of Texas Press, 2019

As noted over the years by scholars such as Arturo Arias, Central American cultural production remains largely at the margins of academic study. As Arias points out in Taking Their Word, because popular knowledge of the region is so sparse, and because geographic ignorance (particularly in the United States) is so widespread, Central American immigrants will often identify Mexico as their country of origin, both for reasons of Latinx solidarity, and to protect themselves from discrimination and prejudice. This erasure is not even a recent phenomenon: the protagonists of the 1983 film El Norte, the Guatemalan-Maya brother and sister Enrique and Rosa Xuncax, are told to tell people that they are from the heavily Indigenous state of Oaxaca, Mexico, to avoid being taken advantage of in both Mexico and the US. However, from the United Fruit Company in the early twentieth century to the practices of Canadian mining companies, and even US president Donald Trump’s facilitating, in the words of the Guatemalan-American author Francisco Goldman, “organized crime” in Guatemala’s 2019 presidential elections, global forces have always played, and continue to play, an outsized role in the region.

Despite its apparently marginal status, the region has made a number of enduring contributions to world literature. Foremost among them is one of the fathers of Latin American modernism, the Nicaraguan Rubén Darío, and the Guatemalan Nobel Laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias, not to mention one of the most important works of Indigenous literature in the Americas, the K’iche’ Maya Popol Wuj. Outside of these points of reference, however, much of the region’s vast, rich literature remains untranslated, which makes Eduardo Aparicio’s translation of Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s El material humano as Human Matter all the more important.

Rey Rosa, perhaps Guatemala’s most important living novelist, has had an eclectic literary trajectory. Having gone to New York in the early 1980s, he eventually became the protégé of the US-expatriate author Paul Bowles, spending a good deal of time with the author in his adopted home of Tangier, Morocco, and even becoming executor of Bowles’s literary estate upon the author’s death in 1999. Tellingly, one of Rey Rosa’s previously translated novels, the magnificent The African Shore, deals with the intersection of tourism, privilege, and migration in the border zone not between Guatemala and the US, or even between Guatemala and México, but between Morocco and Spain.

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What’s New in Translation: August 2019

Noirs, voyeurs, and sensuality abound in this week's reviews of the newest in translated literature.

This week’s reviews of the newest and most compelling translated literature include the latest work by Poland’s preeminent writer, Olga Tokarczuk, a fascinating portrayal of manic self-interrogation and class by Stéphane Larue, and a darkly dionysian tale of the female gaze by the award-winning Nina Leger. Our editors burrow into the philosophy, language, and atmosphere of these three novels to give you some extra additions to your reading list.

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Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Riverhead Books, 2019

Review by Andreea Scridon, Assistant Editor

Janina Duszejko is the kind of woman that many would call “eccentric”: she’s in her mid-sixties, often bordering on paranoia, and she’s firmly convinced by astrology, absolute vegetarianism, and William Blake. In rural Poland, Janina—as she hates to be called—lives peacefully and in relative solitude as a guardian for the summer cabins surrounding her home. However, she quickly comes into conflict with the insensitive and barbarous hunters who reign over the area. The death of a neighbor escalates such tension, creating a series of mysterious murders that Janina will be privy to, and which will culminate in an unexpected twist.

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Announcing Our July Book Club Selection: History. A Mess. by Sigrún Pálsdóttir

We forget that we are reading someone else’s testimony and begin to take speculation as hard truth.

This month’s Asymptote Book Club selection, History. A Mess. by Sigrún Pálsdóttir, asks us to reconsider our understanding of how history is constructed. The protagonist, an academic who “leads an almost unpunctuated domestic existence of solitude and paranoia,” makes a shocking discovery about the secret identity of a seventeenth-century writer—and then seems to disprove her own theory. As the protagonist becomes increasingly unstable, her erratic prose leads the reader to reflect on the tenuous boundary between stories and history.

Lytton Smith’s translation of History. A Mess. is the twentieth title selected by the Asymptote Book Club, which brings outstanding translated fiction to readers each month. You can sign up to receive next month’s book on our website or join the online discussion on our Facebook page.

Translator Lytton Smith told Splice that “the Icelandic language doesn’t have two distinct words for story and history. It uses the same word, saga, and so those two ways of writing are more closely connected for Icelanders than they are for us.” As such, they are more concerned with storytelling as a craft, fidelity to emotional truth above accuracy to facts. Yet Sigrún Pálsdóttir’s novel, History. A Mess., seemingly centers around historical fact: a text whose existence could make or break an academic career.

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What’s New in Translation: July 2019

Four reviews of translations you won't want to miss this month!

From translations by heavyweights like Ann Goldstein and Jennifer Croft to novels by writers appearing for the first time in English, July brings a host of exciting new books in translation. Read on for coming-of-age stories set in Italy and Poland, a drama in rural Argentina, and the tale of a young man and his pet lizard in Japan. 

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A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions, 2019

Review by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor

In A Girl Returned, Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s award-winning novel, a nameless young woman retrospectively narrates the defining event of her adolescence—the year when the only family she has ever known returns her to her birth family. From the title, the reader can already sense the protagonist’s conundrum. A passive object of the act of being returned, her passivity in her own uprooting threatens to define her identity. Ann Goldstein’s searing translation from the Italian inspires the reader both to accompany the narrator as she wades through the tender memories of that time and to reflect on her or his own family relationships through a new lens.

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That Unnameable “Something”: Mario Levrero’s Empty Words in Review

This struggle for clarity through self-regulated therapy-by-writing is what makes the novel so compelling.

Empty Words by Mario Levrero, translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott, Coffee House Press, 2019

“The best part about Coffee House Press books is that they are often difficult to categorise, difficult to describe . . . because they are pushing the boundaries of form, language, syntax, genre, and so on,” says Chris Fischbach, publisher for Coffee House, in a recent interview with Asymptote’s Sarah Moses. Empty Words, the first book by Uruguayan author Mario Levrero to be translated into English (by Annie McDermott), fits this description to a tee. The premise is simple: the narrator, whose voice Levrero claims to be his own with some (potentially heavy) editing, is determined to alter his personality through altering his handwriting. Since, according to graphology, “there’s a profound connection between a person’s handwriting and his or her character,” surely altering one’s handwriting through diligent daily practice would bring about discernible changes in personality.

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Intricacies Through Imagination: The Book of Cairo in Review

The Book of Cairo invites us to this very complex city without committing the crime of exoticizing it.

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The Book of Cairo, A City in Short Fiction, edited by Raph Cormack, translated from the Arabic by multiple translators, Comma Press, 2019

The Book of Cairo, A City in Short Fiction, edited by Raph Cormack, is the newest addition to the “Reading the City” series published by Comma Press (Manchester, UK), collecting stories by local authors from cities around the world. Each story in the book (like those of the other books in the series) is translated into English by a different translator, which makes the book even more multi-vocal, introducing readers to not only writers, but also to translators working from a particular language into English, in this case Arabic.

The stories (except for one) were originally published between 2013 and 2018, making them of the present time and place, and giving us access into the current literary scene of Cairo. The authors are all born in the late 1970s and the ’80s, which makes them part of the young, hopeful generation who took part in the Tahrir Square protests, who made the Arab Spring possible, and who imagined a different future for their country. And it is through the diverse, imagined worlds in the present collection that they investigate the present moment of a city mutually rooted in history and moving toward the future.

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Impossible Technologies: Pola Oloixarac’s Dark Constellations in Review

The characters and plot points can be imagined as stars in the night sky . . . that give the novel its visible, traceable structure.

Dark Constellations by Pola Oloixarac, translated from the Spanish by Roy Kesey, Soho Press, 2019

The Incas, according to Pola Oloixarac’s Dark Constellations, didn’t see the night sky as we do: instead of what we might call “connecting the dots,” they focused on the darkness between the stars, the shapes formed by negative space. If true—and it’s hard to know what, exactly, is true in Dark Constellations—it’s an intriguing image, one that informs our understanding of the novel’s structure as well as its content.

Dark Constellations, translated into English by Roy Kesey, is the second novel from Pola Oloixarac, one of Argentina’s rising literary stars (pun intended). Like her countrywoman Samanta Schweblin, whose story collection Mouthful of Birds has recently garnered considerable attention, Oloixarac tends to blur the line between science and the supernatural, taking a certain kind of pleasure in repeatedly throwing the reader off balance. Dark Constellations, however, has a much wider range than Schweblin’s stories, skillfully handling subjects as varied as botany, world history, and computer programming. The book’s publisher, Soho Press, calls Dark Constellations “ambitious,” and while I agree completely, I would argue that the novel’s ambition is its greatest weakness as well as one of its strengths. 

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Announcing Our June Book Club Selection: Transfer Window by Maria Gerhardt

Transfer Window is a dispatch sent from a kind of hell, but Gerhardt reports with something approaching panache.

Transfer Window was Maria Gerhardt’s last novel: she died within a week of its publication, having battled breast cancer for half a decade. Transfer Window is a dispatch from the front line of that battle, offering a series of wry and witty observations on the “mistakes of the healthy” and a vision of a futuristic Danish society that occupies the liminal space between utopia and dystopia. In Lindy Falk van Rooyen’s English translation, it “fully deserves the international recognition its author never quite received in her own lifetime.”

In nineteen months, the Asymptote Book Club has brought subscribers selections of the best newly translated fiction from nineteen different countries. You can sign up in time to receive the next title via our website, or join the online discussion on our Facebook page.

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Review of Mars by Asja Bakic

[B]eing forced to live on Mars—named for the god of war and the male counterpart to Venus—makes her sick . . .

Mars by Asja Bakić, translated from the Croatian by Jennifer Zoble, Feminist Press, 2019

From a journalist reporting from inside a cult village to children who are convinced their neighbor is a forest monster, the characters portrayed in Mars, the debut short story collection by Bosnian poet, writer, and translator Asja Bakić, are forced to figure out how to survive in their strange realities. Bakić, playing a role reminiscent of Rod Serling in “The Twilight Zone,” carefully pushes aside the curtain on these parallel universes to underscore the uncanniness of everyday life. Each story in the collection takes place in a world that looks and feels familiar at first, but becomes stranger and more foreign the longer you spend in it.

Bakić was born in Tuzla, Bosnia, where she obtained a degree in Bosnian language and literature, two themes deeply explored in the collection. Mars, originally published under the same title in 2015, was shortlisted for the Edo Budiša Award. The stories shift seamlessly in genre from science fiction to dystopian horror, and Bakić deftly combines aspects of speculative fiction and realism to form a cohesive collection that explores universal issues. Bakić has a unique, perceptive voice and was selected as one of Literary Europe Live’s New Voices in 2017. Her work has been translated into seven languages. She currently lives and works in Zagreb, Croatia. READ MORE…

What’s New in Translation: June 2019

The best new reads from across the world, selected and reviewed by members of the Asymptote team.

Not sure what to read this summer? Our team has you covered with reviews of this month’s most anticipated literature in translation, including a Brazilian bestseller set in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, an Egyptian writer’s take on life in the USSR, and an entertaining novel from a beloved Bengali author.

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The Sun on My Head by Geovani Martins, translated from the Portuguese by Julia Sanches, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019

Reviewed by Daniel Persia, Editor-at-Large for Brazil

Look out for blowtorches and the BOPE in Geovani Martins’s debut, The Sun on My Head, a collection of thirteen short stories that bring us into the heart of twenty-first century life in Rio’s favelas. Tensions run high between the police, drug slingers and traffickers, and the men, women, and children trying to live their everyday lives. Martins shows us that the language of the favelas is just as legitimate as the language of the academy, keeping “literature” true to everyday form. Julia Sanches preserves this legitimacy in English, delivering a carefully crafted translation filled with colloquialisms, slang, and Portuguese. The result is “some real trifling shit”—a wild ride that exposes us to the complexities of life in the periphery and the complexities of translating that life from one language into another.

Published in Brazil just last year, 2018, O sol na cabeça became an instant bestseller—a literary sensation that brought the voice of twenty-six-year-old Martins into the spotlight. Martins draws on his experiences of living in a favela to paint a modern-day picture of an ever-evolving Rio—particularly around the time of two major international events: the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. In “Spiral,” we see how racial and class profiling begins at a young age, and how irrational assumptions are perpetuated through inherited distrust. Those who live in the favelas are feared by the private school kids, the teenagers taking tennis lessons and the people waiting, anxiously, at the bus stop. “I remembered how that same old woman who’d trembled with fear before I’d given her reason to certainly hadn’t given any thought to how I probably also had a grandma, a mother, family, friends,” the narrator reveals, in a statement that demonstrates one of the overarching premises of the collection: to turn these stories on their head, to legitimize the experiences of those who face prejudice by representing them as whole human beings. The old lady walking on the street, clutching her bag, eyes turned sideways, isn’t the one telling the story anymore…

Martins takes us in and out of the favelas, introducing us to characters who are often in the heat of action (or one step away). In “Russian Roulette,” a young Paulo traces his dad’s gun down his body, into his pants, “savoring the hot-and-cold sensation”—a sign of both his innocence and a complicated relationship with power. In “The Case of the Butterfly,” a young boy fails to save a butterfly as it flitters into the kitchen and falls into a pool of leftover oil on the stove. The narrator in “TGIF”, fed up with collecting tennis balls for rich kids day after day, heads to Jacarezinho to get his fix, only to be robbed by a crooked cop. Each recollection is more of a vignette than a full-fledged story, where image (rather than plot) holds the metaphor. Though these images are strikingly clear, they (intentionally) leave us with minimal resolution—with an uncertainty as to how these characters endure, or overcome, the situations that they do.

The favela, the morro, the barraco: these are complex, distinctly Brazilian, places. Readers who are familiar with them will have an easier time navigating Martins’s text, while those who aren’t might find themselves a bit lost on “the hill”—particularly amidst the vernacular of stories like “Lil Spin,” “The Tale of Parakeet and Ape,” and “The Crossing,” where words are exchanged as quick as drugs. In her latest essay, Sanches points out that Martins seems to choose “to not explain; to let certain readers in and keep others out; there’s something for everyone here, but more for some than for others.” This is a book that lives on the streets, among the people of Rio’s favelas. And life there doesn’t slow down just because we might be unfamiliar with it.

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Ice by Sonallah Ibrahim, translated from the Arabic by Margaret Litvin, Seagull Books, 2019

Review by Sam Carter, Senior Editor

Between 1971 and 1973, the Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim studied at the All-Soviet Institute of Cinematography in Moscow. Yet there he spent less time learning the craft of filmmaking than engaging with cinema as spectator, and, by the time he returned to Egypt in 1974, he had confirmed that his preferred medium was the written word rather than the silver screen. That meant a return to a form in which he was already famous. 1966’s That Smell, which had been banned even before its printed copies could be distributed, was a loosely autobiographical account of a political prisoner after his release yet still under house arrest in Cairo. It is now widely regarded as one of the most significant texts written in Arabic in the second half of the twentieth century.

Margaret Litvin’s deft translation of Ice, which originally appeared in 2011 after being written the year before, sharply observes the Soviet situation in roughly the same period as Ibrahim’s stay there. But rather than a writer interested in potentially becoming a filmmaker, the novel features a scholar pursuing further study in history. Ibrahim’s style, though, resembles nothing so much as that of slow cinema as it stitches together an array of episodes that never yield to the exigencies of a plot and instead offer us the subtle intricacies of life in the USSR.

The result is a compelling depiction of the listlessness that often besets student life. Shukri, the historian, spends some of his time sitting down at a typewriter without producing many pages or sifting through an extensive set of Egyptian newspapers given to him by a journalist and creating a collection of cuttings whose ultimate purpose is unclear even to him. Yet most of this novel suffused with vodka and frequently frustrated sexual desires revolves around the social space of the obshchezhitie or dormitory, where he lives with a rotating cast of roommates that includes Hans, a German student who often attracts the interest of the women Shukri lusts after. These young people have come to Moscow from many parts of the world unsure of what exactly awaited them, and many of them seem to leave with an even less clear idea of what the future will hold after their Soviet sojourns.

Although it is a novel about indecision—about the inability to figure out both what one is doing right now and will then do next—Ice decisively deploys what Litvin calls a “flat style” and does so to great effect. There is something intensely absorbing about the abrupt prose that traces the numbing experience Shukri has as he finds only convolution and irresolution in what had promised to be a place of revolution.

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Harbart by Nabarun Bhattacharya, translated from the Bengali by Sunandini Banerjee, New Directions Press, 2019

Review by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor

By the time he died in 2014, Nabarun Bhattacharya, the author of Harbart, had a Bengali cult following. Through translator Sunandini Banerjee’s mediation, his pool of post-mortem admirers is sure to expand throughout the anglophone world.

Harbart, born into a wealthy family, but orphaned as a young boy and abandoned to the care of his father’s unloving relatives, grew up reading books about the occult. One day, he has a dream in which his Naxalite revolutionary cousin Binu, who’d been shot by the police, reveals the location of a diary hidden behind a picture of Kali in his aunt’s prayer room. He directly sets up a lucrative business; “Conversations with the Dead. Prop: Harbart Sarkar,” says the sign over his door. “Harbart could sense it. He would have to charge-barrage now. Binu had had his time. It was Harbart’s time now. He would have to produce pandemonium—rip apart everything, turn everything upside down until the entire universe reeled in the dance of devastation.” He’s a fake, but also not. True, he lies to his customers. But another truth it that the dead stand on the sidelines of the novel, coexistent with the living, squabbling and commentating. Harbart is a haunted man, and the telling of his own death bookends the rest of the narrative. The reader has the impression that he’s not as much a fraud as a victim-participant in the forward march of capitalism and of the impetus to assign significance to the pointlessness and chaos of material existence.

We meet Harbart, already dead, through the eyes of a lizard. He’s “so still that the lizard crawled across his chest and then down his arm to his left hand, only to find it immersed in a bucket of blood-smelling cold water.” We proceed to learn about him by having a look around his room with him dead in the middle of it. This opening scene is characteristic of the rest of the novel. The perspective is askance, never straight on, and driven by happenstance—a narrative style that playfully destabilizes the gravitational pull of the central plot, protagonist, and message in a traditional novel.

This decentralization, the focus on society’s castaways and their surroundings and vernacular, is typical of Bhattacharya’s body of work. Banerjee’s acrobatic translation is both enormously fun and true to the radical content. The writing disrupts the hegemony of the English language from the inside by celebrating the multilingualism possible within it. Harbart’s English is characterized by staccato dialogue, aurality, sensory experience, and inventive swearing: “Illi! Fucking willy! So many big people—lawyers—doctors—everyone—believed but now all of a sudden blam, it’s a sham! Some strand of pubic hair from somewhere—and I have to go to him and confess. Why? I am a monkey and you’re my uncle? Carbuncle!”

Additionally, the Bengali original is full of English phrases, which can act as status symbols or simple residue of globalization. The translation maintains these phrases in italics. Their clumsy affectation often makes a buffoon of the speaker: “Then he turned to the cameraclicking girl and said, ‘See, as soon as you expose them, they begin to scream and shout. They think that all this melodrama will help them get away with it.’ ‘But he seems to be a dud,’ . . . ‘Oh, he’s a sweet, cute, small-time crook.’ . . . Harbart got angrier. ‘Don’t think your English talking scares me! Fucking English!’”

Without giving away the ending, I will say that it summarizes what’s been already demonstrated throughout the novel: the most explosive volatility is found in what is most thoroughly overlooked.

*****

Read more reviews on the Asymptote blog:

Philosophical Thriller: Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s Chaos: A Fable in Review

Chaos might have the pace of a thriller, but it has the timely relevance and pointed insight of many a great novel.

Chaos: A Fable by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray, AmazonCrossing, 2019.

Imagine finding yourself in an unknown country, with no understanding of how you got there and the taste of dread in your mouth, and you’ll have a good sense of how it feels to read acclaimed Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novella Chaos: A Fable. According to the publisher’s synopsis, Chaos sets out to be both a “provocative morality tale” and a “high-tech thriller,” and, indeed, it seems to land somewhere between the two: think John le Carré “espionoir” meets Franz Kafka’s The Trial.

Translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray, Chaos is Rey Rosa’s nineteenth novel (the seventh to be translated into English). It follows Mexican writer Rubirosa as he reconnects with an old friend in Morocco and, by agreeing to a seemingly simple favor, finds himself drawn into an international plot to end human suffering by bringing about a technological apocalypse. Chaos indeed.

For a novel titled Chaos, it is perhaps unsurprising that I found the reading experience itself disorientating; so much so, in fact, that as soon as I read the last line, I had to flick back to page one and read it all again to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. (Fortunately, at only 197 pages, you can pretty much do so in one sitting.) Starting—mundanely enough—at a book fair in Tangier, the novella takes the reader on a breath-taking ride via the United States and Greece to Turkey. And I’m sure that, even on a second read, there were allusions and references that went far over my head.

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What’s New in Translation: May 2019

Your guide to this month’s newest literature in translation.

This month brings us a set of novels in translation from some of the giants of international literature: László Krasznahorkai, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Ananda Devi. These reviews by Asymptote team members will give you a taste of an exiled baron’s return to his home town, a meditation on fascism and gender relations, and the decline of an older woman living in a London divided by race and class. 

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Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet, New Directions, 2019

Review by Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor

“With this novel,” László Krasznahorkai told Adam Thirwell in their conversation for the Paris Review, “I can prove that I really wrote just one book in my life . . . When you read it, you’ll understand. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming must be the last.”

Ottilie Mulzet’s English translation of Báró Wenckheim hazatér has, understandably, been one of this year’s most keenly-anticipated books. It opens with a “Warning,” a labyrinthine eight-page sentence ending with a sigh of weariness that merits quoting at some length:

I don’t like at all what we are about to bring together here now, I confess, because I’m the one who is supervising everything here, I am the one—not creating anything—but who is simply present before every sound, because I am the one who, by the truth of God, is simply waiting for all of this to be over.

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Announcing our April Book Club Selection: The Storyteller by Pierre Jarawan

The characters search for a sort of Holy Grail, a mystical solution to complicated problems, and they don’t find it.

The April Asymptote Book Club selection sends us to Lebanon for the first time, trailing the footsteps of protagonist Samir as he searches for his father and “struggles to resolve the contradictions and scars of his upbringing into a cohesive identity.”

Pierre Jarawan’s debut novel, The Storyteller, “does for Lebanon what Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner did for Afghanistan, [pulling] away the curtain of grim facts and figures to reveal the intimate story of an exiled family torn apart by civil war and guilt.” The English version of the novel, co-translated by Sinéad Crowe and Rachel McNicholl, is available thanks to World Editions.

Our Book Club, catering to subscribers across North America and the EU (still including the UK!), has now published titles from seventeen different countries and thirteen different languages, and there’s still an opportunity to sign up for next month’s title via our website. If you’re already a member, join our online discussion here.

The Storyteller by Pierre Jarawan, translated from the German by Sinéad Crowe and Rachel McNicholl, World Editions, 2019

Reviewed by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor

The protagonist of The Storyteller, Samir, is born in Germany to Lebanese parents who fled their country’s civil war in the 1980s. Like many of his real-life contemporaries, he struggles to resolve the contradictions and scars of his upbringing into a cohesive identity. Grazing liberally from various cultures for its influences and allusions, Pierre Jarawan’s debut novel weaves between a past that feels too recent to be considered one, a present that feels too immediate to be already written about, and a future too intangible to trust.

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What’s New in Translation: April 2019

The latest in translated fiction, reviewed by members of the Asymptote team.

Looking for new books to read this April? Look no further with this edition of What’s New in Translation, featuring new releases translated from Thai, German, and Brazilian Portuguese. Read on to find out more about Clarice Lispector’s literature of exile, tales of a collection of eccentric villagers, and a comic book adaptation of Bertolt Brecht.

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Tales of Mr. Keuner by Bertolt Brecht and Ulf K., translated from the German by James Reidel, Seagull Books, 2019

Review by Josefina Massot, Assistant Managing Editor

If Brecht’s bite-sized, biting tales of Mr. Keuner can be thought of as a corpus, it isn’t by virtue of their “what,” “when,” “where,” or “how”: they deal with everything from existentialism to Marxist politics, have often hazy settings, and run the gamut from parable to poem; it’s the titular “who” that pulls these sundry musings together.

Until recently, their fellowship was purely formal: Mr. Keuner (also known as Mr. K) was practically nondescript, a mere “thinking man” whom Walter Benjamin traced back to the Greek keunos and the German keiner—a universal no one. This seemingly baffling figure would have made sense given the original tales’ fifth W, their “why”: since they were meant to edify general audiences, they would have gained from as null a champion as possible. After all, a man stripped of his traits is stripped of individuality, untainted by bias; he is the ultimate thinker, the voice of global truth. READ MORE…