Franz Kafka wrote: “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” If we take this definition of a book then Kristensen’s Havoc comes out on top. Havoc is now considered a classic of Danish literature and, accordingly to one author, “one of the best novels to ever come out of Scandinavia”. The main character here is Ole Jastrau, a thirty-something literary critic living with his wife and small child in Copenhagen, Denmark, a city that is going through some kind of a political upheaval. Disillusioned with his work and desperately searching for meaning in his day-to-day existence, Jastrau starts to slowly succumb to the rhetoric of his eccentric friends (Catholics, communists and poets) and also to the only thing that starts to make sense in his life – alcohol. Jastrau sees his apartment being taken over by others, his addiction to the popular Bar des Artistes growing daily and his faithfulness to the core moral principles of life crumbling before his eyes. Will there be a limit to Jastrau’s “fall” and humiliation? Can there be hope amidst all the boundless despair? With his razor-sharp prose, Kristensen paints a vivid picture of an ordinary man on a swift ride to hell.
“But mind, the mountain’s magic-mad tonight, And if you choose a will-o’-the-wisp to light Your path, take care, ’twill lead you all astray”
(Goethe, Faust (tran. H. T. Lowe-Porter)).
Hans Castorp is a young man on a threshold of a very successful career of an engineer at a prestigious shipping firm in Germany when he enters an international sanatorium Berghof in the picturesque Swiss Alps for three weeks and only to support Joachim Ziemssen, his sick cousin, and keep him company. Little does Castorp suspect that the sanatorium, with its orderly routine and confused sense of time, will start working insidiously on his mind the moment he steps onto its premises and he will end up living there for the next 7 years. During that time, Castorp will make friends with the most extraordinary individuals, engage almost daily in deep philosophical discussions on virtually every topic under the sun, fall hopelessly in love, and in that whole process entangle his body, mind and spirit so deeply in this “enchanted” place with its own particular passage of Time that any disentanglement will become out of the question. In this story, matters of science and spirituality converge, forces of time sweep people off their feet and then the re-consideration of what is Life and what is Death, and what is to be healthy and what is to be sick, may lead to some divine insights and instances of ultimate self-discovery. Translated from the German, The Magic Mountain is a masterpiece of the world literature, a splendid study of a man undergoing inner transformations in an environment of perpetual unchangeability.
French author Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922 –2008) was one of the main proponents of the experimental Nouveau Roman (French New Novel) style in literature. In this book of his, translated from the French by Richard Howard, the story concerns special agent Wallas who arrives to one obscure Flemish town to investigate the murder of one Professor Dupont. He is only yet another one dead in the series of gruesome murders that have already been committed in town: “in nine days, nine violent deaths have occurred one after another, of which at least six are definitely murders” [Robbe-Grillet/Howard, 1953/64: 57]. One possible witness is Professor Dupont’s housekeeper Madame Smite, but she cannot provide any help. On the scene was also Doctor Juard who took the victim, the wounded man, to the hospital where he allegedly died. Commissioner Laurent and Wallas have started a murder investigation, seeking an assassin, but was there even a murder? Was there even an assassin? Then, there emerges one horrifying and unbelievable possibility – did the guilty man himself [took] charge of the investigation? [1953/64: 200].What is the truth? The Erasers is a mystery novel that constantly questions reality, offering multiple perspectives on the same situation. It is a refreshingly different, kaleidoscopic murder mystery that puts the absurdity and the ambiguity front and centre.
I got inspired to write this post byFeminist Texican Reads. Translated literature remains somewhat under-read and under-appreciated so I have decided to highlight some of my favourite translated-from-a-foreign-language books. I am presenting five categories of five recommendations each and limiting my descriptions to three lines maximum.
The Phantom of the Opera  by Gaston Leroux
In 1880s Paris, the Opera House is haunted by the Phantom of the Opera who then seems to form an unlikely friendship with an aspiring lead singer. The 1986 musical is based on this book, and Gaston Leroux is also famous for writing an “impossible crime” story The Mystery of the Yellow Room.
The Maias  by Eça de Queirós
This classic novel from Portugal is a tale about the power of love and friendship focusing on my well-to-do family The Maia. Eça de Queirós (The Crime of Father Amaro ) was the early master of subverting expectations.
The Betrothed [1827/1972] by Alessandro Manzoni
This multi-themed Italian classic tells of a pair of lovers separated by unforeseen circumstances and fighting to preserve their love and faith in the face of oppression, betrayal and despair; see my reviewhere.
This short existential noir thriller tells of Albert, a thirty-year-old man, who arrives to his Paris apartment where he grew up. His mother died some years before, and, feeling nostalgic, Albert wonders around his Parisian quartier, trying to recall happy memories from his childhood. His day-dreaming is cut abruptly short when he meets a beautiful and enigmatic young woman with her daughter at the restaurant he never dared to go into before. Like some nightmare that he is unable to shake off, Albert soon finds himself trapped in a mystery so confusing and layered it is beyond his wildest imaginings – a dead body and a seemingly impossible crime emerge, and accounts of what happened are all as numerous as they are all improbable. Recalling the work of Georges Simenon, Bird in a Cage is a disturbingly delightful read, which is also suspenseful. Perhaps Dard is not as clever as he thinks he is with his big reveal, and much is left both unaccounted for and unbelievable in the story, but his concise and stylish approach to telling the story, that includes both existential and erotic themes, is rather fitting and appealing.Continue reading “Review: Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard”→
I decided to create this tag because I read a lot of books translated from a foreign language, and sometimes I read books in Spanish and Russian. In my blog, I often try to bring attention to books translated from another language and there are many gems to discover in this category. I am not tagging anyone and everyone is free to participate.
I. A translated novel you would recommend to everyone:
Silence by Shūsaku Endō (translated from the Japanese)
Itis easy to choose some Russian classic here, but I thought I would bring attention to this novel by Shūsaku Endō. This 1966 historical fiction novel tells of a Jesuit missionary sent to Japan in the 17th century at the time when Christians were persecuted. This powerful novel explores many themes, including the strength and limits of faith and belief, betrayal, and religion vs. particular culture and history. There is also a movie of the same name directed by Martin Scorsese, who is probably the world’s biggest fan of this book. Continue reading “The Translated Literature Tag”→
Portuguese novelist José Maria Eça de Queirós has been compared to Russian Leo Tolstoy and French Honoré Balzac, and for a good reason – his debut (without a collaboration) book The Crime of Father Amaro (translated by Nan Flanagan in 1962) is a multi-faceted novel of great ambition and skill. In it, he tells of events taking place in a small cathedral town of Leiria, north of Lisbon. Father Amaro, a handsome young priest arrives to Leiria to take the position of a parish priest and soon falls under the spell of the most beautiful girl in town – good-natured Amelia, who lives with her strict and apparently religious mother Joanneira in the heart of the city. Amaro is an honourable guest and a lodger in the comfortable house of Amelia and Joanneira, and he soon finds that his duties of a priest clash with his physical desires, and, in particular, with his burning romantic passion for Amelia. Amaro is also caught up in the town’s complex politics, in a clash between the clergy of the town and the governmental powers. The forces within Amaro, as well as from outside of his influence, conspire to lead the young parish priest to making some unprecedented choices. This beautifully-written novel may start as one’s usual tale of sympathetic and doomed love, but – and here the readers will be in for a surprise – it will finish as a more complex story that subverts all expectations. If Italy has Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed , Portugal can pride itself on having José Maria Eça de Queirós’s The Crime of Father Amaro; Eça de Queirós is a brave author who was not afraid to twist common literary tropes and introduce his own, unique versions of main characters, producing an unputdownable tale of one passionate love’s consequences, while also offering an insightful satire on the ways of a provincial town.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead [2009/18] – ★★★★1/2
This book by Olga Tokarczuk (the winner of the International Booker Prize Award for Flights) was translated from the Polish in 2018 by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. In this story, an eccentric elderly woman Janina Duszejko recounts a series of murders happening in her small village near Kłodzko, Poland. Her neighbour’s death follows that of other hunting men in the vicinity, and suspicions begin to mount. Janina has her own unusual theories about the murders, and these involve animals. But, is she really a new Polish Miss Marple? Tokarczuk did not just write a detective story – her book combines existential philosophy, animal rights and village politics (small people vs. big power) theses, unchangeable horoscope arguments and literary (William Blake) references to produce one of a kind story whose main narrator steals every other page with her insightful and often bizarre observations. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a strange literary concoction, but also an atmospheric and intelligent one.
Yoko Tawada sets her book in near-future Japan where the elderly regain their powers and live beyond one hundred years old, while the young become weak and sickly. Everyone is concerned in the story because, due to some catastrophe, “the human race may be evolving in a direction no one ever imagined” [Tawada, 2014: 14]. The central characters are an old man called Yoshiro and an orphaned boy named Mumei. While Yoshiro is the very definition of health and vigour at his age of one hundred plus, his great-grandson Mumei is feverish, vitamin-deficient, and in the course to face a slow death. This short dystopian novella, translated from Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, is both beautiful and unsettling, and is a fascinating read, even though most of the time it reads like an essay on some highly imaginative dystopian future, rather than like a story with a linear plot. Continue reading “Review: The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada”→
The Time of the Hero (La Cuidad y Los Perros) is a controversial novel written by the Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa. The fictional story takes place in Lima, Peru at the Leoncio Prado Military Academy, a military educational establishment once attended by the author. In the story, a group of cadets is trying to steal the questions to the forthcoming chemistry exam, while being involved in a number of other similar “illicit” activities, such as fighting among themselves, bullying younger year groups and drinking. Little everyone knows that one careless action while trying to copy the exam leads to one irreparable tragedy and the shocking cover-up. It is without any doubt that The Time of the Hero is a literary work of great importance. The novel may not be easy or enjoyable to read, but its message is powerful, its themes – timeless, and its simple story is all the more significant for portraying what it means to be human and good in a society where cunningness, forcefulness and competitiveness are encouraged and lauded. Continue reading “Review: The Time of the Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa”→