There’s a great quote by Haruki Murakami: “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” This, of course, is two-fold, because it also means that if you want to think more broadly and gain a larger understanding of the world, you will seek out lesser known books, and from different places.
In 2016, small publishers like New Directions and Coffee House Press and lauded indie powerhouses like Melville House continue to bring many deserving international voices to the forefront. And in an election year that has many Americans wondering what in the bloody hell is going on around here, books from other parts of the globe can be a welcome treat to help counterbalance the chaos. So here are five of this year’s best works of literature in translation.
In The Clouds, first published in Spanish in 1997 and now translated by Hilary Vaughn Dobel, Juan José Saer tells the unforgettable tale of Pinchón Garay, a man who happens upon a floppy disk containing the absurd story of Dr. Real, a nineteenth-century physician. Is Real’s book a work of fiction? Memoir? This imaginative novel traces the journey of Dr. Real and his mentor as they work treating patients at an insane asylum in Argentina. Saer’s prose, while often likened to Proust, carries a beautiful quality that is also uniquely his. Page after page, The Clouds is a poem to be savored.
Originally published in German, Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear, translated by Susan Bernofsky, is broken into three sections, following the lives of three generations of polar bears. The grandmother (who “accidentally” writes a best-selling book), the mother, a former ballet dancer, and her estranged son, who is raised in the zoo by a zookeeper. The stories are imbued with art and politics, philosophy and a sense of longing. Yet for all the wonderful workings of plot and structure in Memoirs of a Polar Bear, what is truly affecting is Tawada’s writing, which jumps off the page and practically sings.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez is Colombia’s most celebrated living novelist. In Reputations, translated by Anne McLean, he cements himself as one of the best doing it today in any language. It’s the story of Javier Mallarino, a respected political cartoonist who has made many enemies through his work at the influential newspaper El Independiente. Mallarino is seasoned, successful, and feared by many. But things take a dark turn when a young woman claiming to be a reporter interested in an interview enters his life. What follows is a suspenseful story about the ways in which our past can come back to haunt us, whether we like it or not.
A masterful novel by Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun, The Happy Marriage, translated by André Naffis-Sahely, delves into the complicated nature of one of society’s oldest institutions, marriage. Ben Jelloun tells the story through his characters’ two points of view: An embittered husband, an artist who has been paralyzed after having a stroke, and his wife, whose story is presented as a kind of counter-narrative addressing her husband’s claims – and who describes her marriage as a “certificate of my slavery, confinement and humiliation.” In this enlightening book, Jelloun brilliantly tackles issues of love, women’s rights, and the grief that inevitably comes with a deteriorating relationship.
With over 60 books to his name, the prolific César Aira is a creature of seemingly endless invention. His often brief — yet wonderfully bizarre — novels have long been praised for their odd twists and turns, his characters never landing anyplace you imagined they might. In Ema the Captive, translated by Chris Andrews, his words come fast and infectious. Originally published in 1981, the novel centers on a young mother, “a tiny, dark, deranged cloud,” who is held captive by soldiers. She takes many of them as lovers as she navigates a complicated life, which in turn makes her one of of Aira’s most absorbing characters. One of the Argentine master’s oldest works, it’s also one of his most memorable.
Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR Books. He’s on Twitter: @itsjuanlove