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The Watchlist: August 2019

By Tobias Carroll

Each month, Tobias Carroll shares a handful of recently released or forthcoming titles in translation that he’s especially excited about.

From Open Letter | The Translator’s Bride by João Reis, translated from the Portuguese by the author | Fiction | 118 pages | ISBN 9781940953 | US$14.95

What the publisher says: “Darkly funny, filled with acidic observations and told with a frenetic pace, The Translator’s Bride is an incredible ride—whether you’re a translator or not!”

What Publishers Weekly says: “Adhering to a rather loose plot, Reis follows the translator for two days, and the action stays rooted in the character’s rambling thoughts, written as paragraph-length run-on sentences, which often clash with his faux cheerful conversations. These juxtapositions result in hilarious exchanges as the translator gradually loses his patience with humanity.” 

What I say: The Translator’s Bride brings together two seemingly disparate qualities: an ecstatic use of language and a sensitivity to the tenuousness of a life lived in the arts. Over the course of this short novel, that can be dizzying; the protagonist at times feels like a hapless underdog, while at others he can be almost bullying. But for those who savor language, there’s plenty to delight in here.


From Pantheon Books | The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder | Fiction | 274 pages | ISBN 9781101870600 | US$25.95

What the publisher says: “On an unnamed island off an unnamed coast, objects are disappearing: first hats, then ribbons, birds, roses—until things become much more serious. Most of the island’s inhabitants are oblivious to these changes, while those few imbued with the power to recall the lost objects live in fear of the draconian Memory Police, who are committed to ensuring that what has disappeared remains forgotten.” 

What NPR says: “We are used to the American style of science fiction, while Ogawa is playing with another deck. Her intent is to analyze not only memory but the creative process—we read parts of a novel in progress which the protagonist is tackling—using very precise language. At times the result is something hauntingly sad, and at others it felt like my feet were being glued to the ground.” 

What I say: For the first half or so of Yoko Ogawa’s novel, I embraced its overtly dystopian elements: the mysteries of its narrator’s family history, the pervasiveness of the totalitarian society in which she lived, the overwhelming sense of loss that suffused every page. Slowly, that gave way to a more surreal quality, which infiltrated my dreams and caused many a sleepless night. I mean that as the highest possible compliment: this is a novel that establishes its own logic, even as it documents the destructiveness of a different sort of logic being imposed on its characters. 


From Farrar, Straus and Giroux | When the Plums Are Ripe by Patrice Nganang, translated from the French by Amy B. Reid | Fiction | 348 pages | ISBN 9780374288990 | US$28.00

What the publisher says: “Moving from Pouka’s story to the campaigns of the French general Leclerc and the battles of Kufra and Murzuk, Nganang questions the colonial record and recenters African perspectives at the heart of Cameroon’s national history, all the while writing with wit and panache. When the Plums Are Ripe is a brilliantly crafted, politically charged epic that challenges not only the legacies of colonialism but the intersections of language, authority, and history itself.” 

What Kirkus Reviews says: “The fate of the plum is not happy: So many of them flood the marketplace that at the end of the day any unsold surplus is simply tossed into the street to be crushed by passing cars and trampled underfoot. Just so, Nganang writes, did the country discard its young men when they were pressed into service as riflemen fighting the Axis powers and Vichy France to liberate their Nazi-occupied colonizer.” 

What I say: A very rough sketch of this novel might look like a classic war story: a mismatched group of fighters helps the Free French cause during World War II. But as the book’s author phrases it, this is far from his intention: “. . . if Hollywood ever thought about telling their story, there’d be no speaking parts for the tirailleurs.” When the Plums Are Ripe has the sweep of an epic, but it’s also a surreal and philosophical meditation on colonialism and how it made the seemingly familiar arc of this war take on a host of surprisingly different qualities. 


From Bellevue Literary Press | From the Shadows by Juan José Millás, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn | Fiction | 208 pages | ISBN 9781942658665 | US$16.99

What the publisher says: “Laid off from his job, Damián Lobo obsessively imagines himself as a celebrity being interviewed on TV. After committing an act of petty theft at an antiques market, he finds himself trapped inside a wardrobe and delivered to the seemingly idyllic home of a husband, wife, and their internet-addicted teenage daughter. There, he sneaks from the shadows to serve as an invisible butler, becoming deeply and disastrously involved with his unknowing host family.” 

What Publishers Weekly says: “The dark and humorous narrative is often told through the internal monologue of Damian, who obsessively imagines himself a celebrity being interviewed on TV, allowing the reader insights into his thoughts and slowly deteriorating mind.” 

What I say: There’s deadpan comedy aplenty to be found in the pages of From the Shadows: the circumstances under which the novel’s narrator finds himself trapped within a massive piece of furniture is a great comic setpiece, and his decision to effectively act as a friendly poltergeist has a bizarre logic all its own. There are a few dissonant notes, especially as the narrator shares details of his attraction to his adoptive sister, but the eccentricities of this novel are largely charming. 


From Biblioasis | The Dishwasher by Stéphane Larue, translated from the French by Pablo Strauss | Fiction | 406 pages | ISBN 9781771962698 | US$16.95

What the publisher says: “It’s October in Montreal, 2002, and winter is coming on fast. Past due on his first freelance gig and ensnared in lies to his family and friends, a graphic design student with a gambling addiction goes after the first job that promises a paycheck: dishwasher at the sophisticated La Trattoria.”

What the Montreal Review of Books says: “The Dishwasher is powered by Larue’s kinetic, heavily descriptive writing. Quoting short extracts would not do it justice—it is the accumulation of detail over several galloping pages that creates immersive scenes of sensory and affective precision.” 

What I say: Heavy metal, compulsive gambling, and an immersive look at the restaurant world make for a gripping read in The Dishwasher. Beyond the nods in the direction of various metal bands, Larue’s novel also abounds with plenty of literary references. It’s an often gripping take on a damaged young man finding his place in a particular subculture, and the precise details make for a work that sits comfortably beside works by Anthony Bourdain and George Orwell. 


Looking for more reading suggestions? Check out Tobias Carroll’s recommendations from last month.

Published Aug 21, 2019   Copyright 2019 Tobias Carroll

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