Max’s recent post cataloging 13 years of Anglo-American “Prizewinners” got me wondering… what were the most decorated books in foreign-language fiction during the same period? And how many of them are currently available in English? I assumed that, in an Internet age, this information would be easy to come by in consolidated form; as it turned out, I was wrong. And so, by way of a remedy, I embarked on a tortuous research process.The first step was to figure out what prizes I should be looking at. I tried to identify awards that recognized a single work of fiction annually, or biennially; that focused on a specific linguistic tradition; and that would give a book traction in a market sizable enough to facilitate comparison. That is, I was looking for analogues for the National Book Award or the Booker. The list of prizes I ended up with covers a slightly expanded version of the U.N. Security Council – France and its former colonies, the Spanish-speaking world, Germany and Austria, Italy, Russia, and Japan – which may, in itself, tell us something about the nature of literary laurels.Next, to allow for the time required to translate a book, I narrowed my window to the years 1995-2005, assuming that more recent books may still be in the process of translation. Using Wikipedia, World Literature Today the Library of Congress Catalog, Amazon.com, Babelfish, and other resources, I was able to track down English-language versions of prize-winning titles from those years (though not to rule out the existence of translations the LoC and Amazon might have missed).With its many arbitrary elements, its patent Eurocentrism, and its shaky grasp of some of the languages and cultures involved (readers are encouraged to enlighten me via the comments button), my ad hoc methodology makes the one publisher John O’Brien critiques in the current issue of CONTEXT look positively rigorous. Nonetheless, in light of O’Brien’s argument that “translations have suddenly moved from their marginalized place in the American marketplace,” the resulting list turns out to be pretty interesting. And, no matter how one interprets the data, this “International Edition” of our Prizewinners feature should offer readers who share my passion for contemporary world literature a place to start.(N.B.: Jealous of Max’s arithmetic prowess, I’ve injected some pseudoscience into this post by calculating the Translation Quotient (TQ): percentage of winners of each award that have been translated into English. The prizes are listed in descending order of TQ.)1. French-Language LiteratureIn the Prix Goncourt, France has one of the world’s most venerable and distinguished literary awards. Every December since 1903, it has been given to “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year.” My favorites among the honorees include Marcel Proust’s Within a Budding Grove and Patrick Chaimoiseau’s Texaco. Perhaps because of the prize’s august history, and perhaps because of the intensity with which the French promote their literary culture, the Goncourt has the best Translation Quotient of any of the prizes I looked at. Of the 11 winning books from 1995 to 2005, eight have been translated into English. The 2006 winner, Les Bienveillantes, was written in French by an American, and was one of my Most Anticipated Books of 2008.Goncourt winners in translation 1995-2005 (TQ: 73%)1995 – Andrëi Makine, Dreams of My Russian Summers (Arcade)1997 – Patrick Rambaud, The Battle (Grove)1998 – Paule Constant, Trading Secrets (University of Nebraska Press)1999 – Jean Echenoz, I’m Gone (New Press)2000 – Jean-Jacques Schuhl, Ingrid Caven (City Lights)2001 – Jean-Christophe Rufin, Brazil Red (Norton)2003 – Jacques-Pierre Amette, Brecht’s Mistress (New Press)2004 – Laurent Gaudé, The House of Scorta (MacAdam/Cage)2. Spanish-Language LiteratureNovelists working in Spanish have a number of interesting prizes at their disposal, including the Cervantes Prize, given for lifetime achievement. The premier prize for a single novel is pretty widely recognized to be the semiannual Premio Internacional de Novela Rómulo Gallegos. Three out of the six winners from 1995 – 2005 have been translated into English; some authors, like Enrique Vila-Matas, have had works other than their Gallegos-winners translated.RRómulo Gallegos winners in translation 1995-2005 (TQ: 50%)1995 – Javier Marías (Spain), Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me (New Directions)1997 – Ángeles Mastretta (Mexico), Lovesick (Riverhead)1999 – Roberto Bolaño (Chile), The Savage Detectives (FSG)3. Italian LiteratureThe preeminent Italian prize is the Premio Strega; the Italians seem to do a pretty good job getting books chosen for the Strega translated into English. Of the 11 winners between 1995 and 2005, three have been translated into English, and several authors have had other titles appear in the U.S.Strega winners in translation 1995 – 2005 (TQ: 27%)1999 – Dacia Maraini, Darkness (Steerforth)2002 – Margaret Mazzantini, Don’t Move (Anchor)2003 – Melania G. Mazzucco Vita (FSG)4. Russian LiteratureThis one was a disappointment. Russian is one of the great literary languages, and has its own Booker-Open Russia Literary Prize. Monumental winners like Georgy Vladimov’s The General and His Army (1995) would seem to be right up my alley – but haven’t been translated into English. Vasily Aksyonov, a Millions favorite and winner of the Russian Booker in 2004, has had a number of books appear in the U.S. But apparently, only one book that took home the prize between 1995 and 2005 has itself been translated.Russian Booker winners in translation 1995 – 2005 (TQ: 9%)2003 – Ruben Gallego White On Black (Harcourt)5. German-Language LiteratureI have to admit, this surprised me. I would have expected German speakers, with their robust literary heritage, to coronate a single book each year to present to the world. Then again, given the history of the last 150 years, the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire, and so on, I suppose it’s not surprising that there is some fragmentation when it comes to awards. Perhaps as a remedy, the German Publishers & Booksellers Association in 2005 created the German Book Prize. But according to my (admittedly cursory) research, the preeminent prizes for a single work of German-language fiction during the 1995 – 2005 period would have been Austria’s Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and the Alfred Döblin Prize (endowed by Günter Grass). Surprisingly, out of the 17 combined winners of these two prizes from 1995 – 2005, only one was translated into English. (The percentage goes up slightly, to two out of 20, if we throw in the great Ingo Schulze’s, 33 Moments of Happiness, which won the Döblin “Förderpreis,” [meaning, first novel prize?] in 1995).Döblin and Bachmann winners in translation, 1995 – 2005 (TQ: 6%)1995 – Norbert Gstrein, English Years (Minerva [U.K.])Japanese LiteratureA mixed bag here. The Tanizaki Prize would seem to confer just the kind of distinction a publisher would want – it’s so selective that some years, they don’t even give it out – and yet none of the 12 winners from 1995 to 2005 have been translated into English. (There were two winners in 1997, 2000, and 2005). Then again, Yuko Tsushima, who won in 1998 and Yoko Tawada, who won in 2003, have had other works translated into English, and Ryu Murakami has been translated quite often.Tanizaki Winners in translation, 1995 – 2005 (TQ: 0%)
The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.Signed, Mata Hari by Yannick Murphy recommended by EdanYannick Murphy’s short story “In a Bear’s Eye,” from the O. Henry Prize Stories 2007, stunned me with its beauty and strangeness, and led me to her new novel, which is just as lovely, and just as strange. Murphy’s Mata Hari tells her life story from a prison cell in Paris as she awaits trial for treason. The book fluidly moves from the Netherlands, to Indonesia, to various cities in Western Europe, switching points of view throughout, the language begging to be read aloud it’s so musical, so dream-like. This novel is erotic (oh lord, some parts left me breathless), sad, and fascinating. Check out Bat Segundo’s interview with Yannick Murphy for more.+ Coming Through Slaughter (Vintage) by Michael Ondaatje recommended by AndrewAfter cornet player Buddy Bolden suffered a mental breakdown during a parade through the streets of New Orleans about a hundred years ago and had to be put away, rumors began to swirl about his life. Michael Ondaatje’s first novel, from 1976, is a jazz riff on all the possibilities of Buddy Bolden. A work of fiction, the narrative line running through it involves his friend Webb’s search for Buddy after his sudden disappearance a few years before the breakdown, through the resurfacing, and then his final silencing on that fateful day at the parade.That’s the thread. But this short novel unfolds, or rather, explodes, like a scrapbook filled with bits and pieces of Buddy’s life. Interviews with his former lovers, with his friends and band-mates, with the denizens of the underbelly of New Orleans circa 1907. A poem here, a list of songs there, these fragments seem so haphazard, and yet these contextual glimpses all hang together, swirling around Buddy. And when the music ends, they leave you with a rich story of a jazzman who swung to his own rhythms.+ Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau recommended by GarthTexaco, by the Antillean writer Patrick Chamoiseau, won France’s Goncourt Prize in 1992. It has pretty much everything I look for in a novel: a sweeping plot, a great heroine, a rich setting (geographic and historical), an ingenious structure, and – especially – an exploration of the possibilities of language. In a resourceful translation by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov, Chamoiseau’s fusion of French and Creole seems positively Joycean. Recommended for fans of Faulkner, Morrison, and 100 Years of Solitude.+ My War Gone By, I Miss it So by Anthony LoydRecommended by TimothyWar is not only hell, it’s also addictive, at least for British war correspondent Anthony Loyd, who for severals years covered the conflict in Bosnia for The Times. In this honest and poetic personal account – no index of names and places – the young reporter breaks some of the traditional rules of journalism by taking sides in the multi-ethnic war and revealing how the high he gets from life on the battlefield is matched only by the high provided by heroin during the occasional trip back to London. “War and smack: I always hope for some kind of epiphany in each to lead me out but it never happens,” he writes. In the war zone, Loyd befriends civilians whose resilience is almost unfathomable. He also introduces us to modern-day mercenaries – not the highly organized and well-funded security details found in Iraq, but gritty thrill seekers from across Europe. These are fighters who don’t necessarily believe in a cause, unless that cause is war itself. The book is by no means a primer on the events that unfolded in Bosnia; it simply tells how in war some people get by and others die.+ Hellfire by Nick Tosches recommended by Patrick”The God of the Protestants delivered them under full sail to the shore of the debtors’ colony, fierce Welshmen seeking new life in a new land.” So begins the first chapter of the finest book ever written about rock and roll, Nick Tosches’ brilliant biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, Hellfire. Not a fan of Jerry Lee Lewis? Hate rock and roll? Couldn’t possibly care less? Doesn’t matter. Tosches’ style – mock-biblical, profane, and wild – will amaze you:Old rhythms merged with new, and the ancient raw power of the country blues begat a fierce new creature in sharkskin britches, a creature delivered by the men, old and young, who wrought their wicked music, night after dark night, at Haney’s Big House and a hundred other places like it in the colored parts of a hundred other Deep South towns. The creature was to grow to great majesty, then be devoured by another, paler, new creature.+ Water Music by T.C. Boyle recommended by MaxI’ve read nearly all of Boyle’s books, but his first (and the first I read by him) remains my favorite. Boyle is now well-known for his mock histories that refigure the lives of prominent eccentrics. But if those books are sometimes held back by the inscrutability of their protagonists, Water Music sings on the back of Mungo Park, an 18th Century Scottish explorer who ventured deep into the heart of Africa, and Ned Rise, a thief from the gutters of London who meets him there. It’s part Dickens, part comic book, and, as one reviewer once put it, “delightfully shameless.”+ The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem recommended by EmreEmbedding Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill, racial dynamics and the explosive 1970s at the heart of its narrative, The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem delves into the white world of Dylan Ebdus in the black heart of a changing neighborhood. It is the story of a motherless white kid estranged from his father and “yoked” by his schoolmates. It is also the story of Dylan’s brilliant journey from solitude to friend of burned-out-soul-singer’s-son Mingus Rude, to neighborhood punk, to Camden College drug dealer, to San Francisco-based music reporter. The trip is outward bound, but the reader is given the benefit of also traveling through Dylan’s heart and mind – be it through a delicious sampling of the era’s music, fashion and city life, or through exploits with Mingus and a ring that gives them superpowers. Lethem paints a brilliant cultural portrait of the U.S. by presenting Dylan’s isolation, desire to fit in – somewhere, anywhere – and transformation to readers. And, for music junkies, there is the added bonus of identifying endless trivia.+ Conversation: A History of a Declining Art by Stephen Miller recommended by EmilyStephen Miller’s Conversation: A History of a Declining Art is a smart yet approachable account of an art that most of us take for granted: the lively and friendly exchange of ideas among equals on topics lofty and commonplace, otherwise known as conversation. While Miller’s book is indeed a history – including different manifestations of conversation in the ancient world (the Spartans, for example, were known for their compressed, economical use of words and thus the word “laconic,” Miller tells us, comes from Laconia, the region surrounding and controlled by Sparta) – it focuses mainly on what Miller considers the heyday of conversation, eighteenth-century England, an age in which conversation was considered an art worthy of study and about which manuals and essays were written. Miller’s book – which he describes as an “essay – an informal attempt to clarify a subject, one that includes personal anecdotes” – is a nostalgic one, which views our own culture as averse to genuine intellectual and emotional exchange undertaken in a spirit of goodwill. We are either, he shows, too aggressive or too timid to converse about the opinions we seem to declare so boldly on t-shirts and bumper-stickers, and thereby we deny ourselves what the likes of Adam Smith, James Boswell, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Johnson considered one of life’s greatest pleasures, as well as a means of sharpening one’s intellect, polishing verbal expression, alleviating melancholy, and acquiring new knowledge. “Society and conversation” Miller quotes Adam Smith, “are the most powerful remedies for restoring the mind to its tranquility, if, at any time, it has unfortunately lost it.” A timely, thoughtful book and one not to miss.+ The Art of Fiction by John Gardner recommended by BenOnce upon a time, in a land far, far away, a friend told me that anyone who is serious about writing needs to read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I’ve since read the book a half dozen times and feel confident in amending the statement: “Anyone who is serious about reading needs to read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction.”Although Gardner is best known for Grendel, his retelling of the Beowulf legend from the monster’s point of view, The Art of Fiction, finds him at his most engaging. This is no mere how-to book. In simple, captivating prose, Gardner lays out his theory of writing, stopping along the way to add anecdotes about his own experiences as a novelist and commentary on works he admires. In the process, he thoroughly examines the structure of the modern novel, from plot to word choice. The first read changed the way I viewed both writing and reading, and I’ve come away from every encounter with new insight.If you only read one book about writing, this is the one.
Kenyan writer and political dissident Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s seventh novel, Wizard of the Crow, is unquestionably a work of epic ambition – a quality American readers once found commendable, and perhaps still do. Its achievements are doubly impressive, in that Ngugi first penned this 300,000-word tale of tyranny and freedom in his native Gikuyu, and then translated it himself into English. The translation is supple and swift enough that the novel, at 760 pages, never feels like a slog, and colorful set-pieces abound. Any work that swings this hard for the fences, however, will be judged on runs produced. Readers who admire Wizard of the Crow’s world-historical reach – and Ngugi’s storytelling gifts – may emerge disappointed that it isn’t quite a homer.Ngugi sets his story in the fictional African country of Aburiria, a republic-in-name-only run by a nameless dictator. Decked out in military garb appliqued with the skins of great cats, “The Ruler” instantly evokes Kenya’s Daniel Arap Moi and Uganda’s Idi Amin… and one imagines the resemblance to actual persons is not “entirely coincidental.” Ngugi very much wants us thinking about the recent political geography of Sub-Saharan Africa. But Wizard of the Crow is no naturalist roman-a-clef. As the novel opens, the Ruler has contracted a Rabelaisian affliction – his body is inflating as rapidly and as wildly as Aburiria’s economy. In a typical feat of dialogic energy, Ngugi treats us to five rumored explanations why – thus grounding his third-person narrative directly in the voices of the Aburirian people.The country’s cabinet, scrambling to heal and appease the Ruler, is a political cartoon come to life. Machokali, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, has had his eyes surgically enlarged “to the size of electric bulbs… so that they would be able to spot the enemies of the Ruler no matter how far their hiding places.” Not to be outdone, the head of the secret police, one Silver Sikiokuu, has had his ears lengthened – the better to eavesdrop on potential conspirators. From the ministers’ jockeying for position emerges the book’s Maguffin, a giant construction project called Marching to Heaven (to be funded by a thinly disguised World Bank). If completed, it will allow the Ruler to talk directly to God, “to say good morning or good evening or simply, how was your day, God?”Ngugi gets great comic mileage from his politicians, and there is something oddly sympathetic about the paranoid machinations of Sikiokuu, in particular – as in the old Dan Ackroyd sketches where Nixon talks to the paintings on the West Wing walls. But here the novel’s refusal to settle for mere satire, its flirtation with psychological depth, opens up an instability; one starts to wonder why the Ruler, in a three-dimensional environment, remains flat, an object for fun.This instability deepens when Kamiti, a penniless college graduate, and Nyawira, a receptionist, begin to lay the groundwork for revolution. Kamiti’s depressive asceticism, Nyawira’s spirited sass, and the chemistry between the two (including some of the hottest foreplay I’ve read recently), move Wizard of the Crow firmly into a textured human reality. Ngugi enlivens their romance with some wonderful magical touches. The plot strand in which Kamiti poses as a powerful “Wizard of the Crow,” and then (to the consternation of the authorities) finds himself mysteriously growing into the role, would be enough to fill a lesser novel. And yet, as this book rolls on, the exploits of the Wizard of the Crow start to feel like a subplot. Dramatic cause and effect give way once more to satirical grandstanding.Satire, in my reading, is Ngugi’s least revelatory mode. Absent the historical specificity an actual location might have provided, we are treated to revolutionary platitudes, to the revelation that power corrupts and the World Bank and the mass media are accessories to the crime. Well, obviously, but…Here I find myself running up against the problem of translation. Gikuyu, as I understand it, is largely an oral language. Since deciding for ethical reasons to stop composing in his adopted English, Ngugi has heroically pioneered the use of Gikuyu for literary purposes. And thinking back to the schematics of Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy (a useful companion text for Wizard of the Crow), I remember that the aims and techniques of the griot may differ greatly from those of the workshop-trained novelist. In particular, the oral poet’s mnemonic didacticism clashes with the “literary” desire for understatement.It seems no more fair to tax Ngugi with preachy dialogue, then, than it does to tax The Illiad with flashy similes. (I feel like John Updike missed the boat on this one in his New Yorker review.) Nonetheless, I can’t deny that the antic quality of the second half of Wizard of the Crow frustrated my desire to dwell with Kamiti and Nyawira – to see diasporic political generalities given flesh, as they are in Patrick Chamoiseau’s magisterial Texaco.Still, as hard as it is to discover such shortcomings in a book its author clearly intends as a masterwork, it’s equally hard to dismiss Wizard of the Crow out of hand. Ngugi is a masterful manipulator of narrative time and narrative voice, and the fleetness and charm of the telling tend to blur over some of the novel’s deficiencies. In a particularly moving bit of analysis near the end, Nyawira laments the way the West, with all of its problems, attempts to stamp the developing world’s heterotopic spaces with its own monolithic image, and it is possible to read this review as symptomatic of the problem, and the book as gesturing toward a solution. Wizard of the Crow clears a space within literary postmodernism for African traditions and African characters, and one can only hope Ngugi will use it as a platform for future works that bring his expansive vision to fruition. Haki ya Mungu!