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.
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.
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.
This week, our Editors-at-Large bring us up to speed on literary happenings in South Africa, Central America, and Brazil.
Alice Inggs, Editor-at-Large, South Africa:
South Africa has eleven official languages, a fact not often evident in local literary awards and publications, which generally skew towards English and Afrikaans as mediums. However, the announcement of the 2017 South African Literary Awards (SALA) has done much to change this perception.
In addition to including five contributors to narratives in the extinct !Xam and !Kun languages (drawn from the Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd archives), a biography in Sepedi (Tšhutšhumakgala by Moses Shimo Seletisha) and poetry collections in isiXhosa (Iingcango Zentliziyo by Simphiwe Ali Nolutshungu) and the Kaaps dialect (Hammie by Ronelda S. Kamfer) have been shortlisted.
Singapore has one of the world’s lowest homicide rates, but much like its partner in (low) crime, Iceland, it’s fertile ground for noir stories. Launched this month, ten years after the release of Brooklyn Noir, is Brooklyn-based Akashic Books’ newest title in its bestselling series of Noir anthologies, Singapore Noir, edited by the Singaporean writer Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, a former staff writer at the Wall Street Journal and author of A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family.
Nicole Idar: Singapore is the fourth Asian city to boast an Akashic Books Noir anthology, after Delhi, Manila, and Mumbai (Seoul is forthcoming). Can you tell us how Singapore Noir came about?
Cheryl Tan: I’d long admired New York publisher Akashic Books’ award-winning Noir series—a series of anthologies, and there are dozens by now, each one set in a country or a city. Brooklyn Noir was a personal favorite but you also have everything from Baltimore Noir to Paris Noir. Some really big names have edited these collections of dark stories set in these locales—Joyce Carol Oates edited New Jersey Noir, for example, and Dennis Lehane edited Boston Noir.
In November 2011, I was at the Miami Book Fair, speaking about A Tiger in the Kitchen, my first book. At the authors’ party, mystery writer extraordinaire S.J. Rozan introduced me to Johnny Temple, Akashic’s publisher. I told Johnny how much I loved his noir series but asked why there hadn’t been a Singapore Noir. He said it was because he didn’t know any Singaporean writers. And S.J. said, “Well now you do.”