Anticipating reading resolutions for next year, one is definitely to review more SFF in translation. Over the past couple of years of blogging, I’m appalled to see that I’ve only reviewed nine translated works, though each of these is a masterpiece in its own way. If I were to include all the international SFF I’ve reviewed, much of which is written in English, the list would be much longer, but translation is an art in itself and represents only a small fraction of the SFF that reaches the English-reading public. Translated work needs much more exposure. (See Rachel Cordasco’s essential Speculative Fiction in Translation for a comprehensive listing of what’s available.) Here is a summary of these nine, in reverse chronological order of my posting, with links to the full review for each work. These are European and Middle Eastern, but my upcoming choices span the world of SFF in translation.
Frankenstein in Baghdad.
In Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, it takes a neighborhood of strange characters, rather than an over-reaching scientist as with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to create a monster. And it takes a good story, whether or not it is true, just so long as it is believed.
There are many stories and levels of truth in this remarkable novel, beautifully translated by Jonathan Wright. Frankenstein in Baghdad is a portrait of a shattered society, full of people trying to capture something missing from their lives. They all tell stories that help make sense of fantastic events in a war-torn city.
Baghdad under American occupation following the 2003 invasion seems made up of disjointed parts, much like the body of the monster that has taken to killing people, apparently at random. In the midst of car bombs that kill indiscriminately, American and government troops rounding up and torturing suspects, Sunni and Shiite militias fighting to control different sections of the city, terrorists carrying out their deadly mission, even stranger events start happening on Lane 7 in the Bataween district. Read the full review.
Nexhuman by Francesco Verso brilliantly blends the story of a young man’s obsessive love for a transhuman being with a vivid depiction of a consumerist society strangling on its own trash. Skillfully translated by Sally McCorry, the novel poses powerful questions about what it means to be human.
We see this world through the eyes of Peter Payne, a fifteen year-old learning the trade of salvaging trash, or kipple (a term borrowed from Philip K. Dick). Relentlessly shamed and manipulated by a bullying older brother, Peter immerses himself in fantasies. When he’s not learning his hardscrabble trade in kipple, he spends his time in the virtual “gamesphere” pursuing adventures around the world. But all that changes when he finds someone to love. Read the full review.
Rita Carla Francesca Monticelli’s Red Desert four-part series reads like a single captivating novel with a fascinating character named Anna Persson at its core. She’s an exobiologist sent on a mission to colonize Mars, yet her impulsive, angry, headstrong nature breaks the psychological mold of an astronaut and plunges her into one difficult situation after another.
Consider this quote from Anna on finally having to admit to her lover, Jan DeWit, that she will leave him forever for the sake of her mission to Mars:
“He had considered me an egoist and I had hated him because of that. Because I actually felt that, if I had abandoned the mission for him, then I would have been an egoist. Because I wanted him more than the mission. But life has always taught me that the things we want most are those which make us suffer, as it happened to my mother. You live better if you stay away from them.”Red Desert: Point of No Return – Kindle edition location 582
The Street of Crocodiles
Bruno Schulz’ The Street of Crocodiles (1934), translated by Celina Cieniewska for a 1989 edition, is one of those completely original works that defies categorization. I guess I would call it fantastika. It’s a linked collection of stories about a boy’s view of his Polish hometown filtered through the adult mind of an amazing writer. That hometown becomes a fantasy city like nothing I have encountered before. Reading Schulz for the first time is like discovering another Kafka or Borges or Calvino but different from them all.
The words on the page begin to transform into mythical and unreal objects as you read. Schulz is building a fantasy city that follows its own rules on top of the drab reality of his Polish hometown, one that could only exist in the rich language of his crowded imagination.
Schulz spent most of his life in that town, Drohobycz, in southeastern Poland where he taught high school. He refused to leave, even after gaining some fame in the 1930s, and was killed there by Nazi violence in 1942 when he was just 50. Read the full review.
Is understanding the alien even possible for the human mind? That is the question posed by Stanisław Lem‘s Eden, a 1958 novel translated by Marc E. Heine for publication in English in 1989. And has anyone ever had a more exuberant imagination than this great Polish writer in presenting baffling alien civilizations for humans to try to decipher?
This is the third of Lem’s novels I’ve read, the other two being Solaris and The Invincible. All were written in a six-year period, and all focus on differing efforts to understand alien minds, speech and fundamental nature.
None of these expeditions to fictional planets succeed because, Lem suggests, there is something fundamentally impossible about bending the human mind with all its preconceptions to fit the drastically different conditions of alien civilizations. But few writers have as much fun and dramatic flare presenting his human crews as they struggle with things they cannot understand. And understanding the alien is always out of reach, no matter how many theories they devise, corpses they dissect, observations they make or battles they fight. Read the full review.
The Tartar Steppe
This is an absorbing portrait of a soldier, an officer of an unspecified time and place, who devotes his life in a remote fortress to the expectation of achieving military glory by fighting an enemy who never quite arrives. We follow him from the time of his first posting as a young man when he learns that the assignment is one of the worst he could possibly get.
The location is so isolated, high in the mountains, and the likelihood of an encounter with the enemy, and hence the chance to achieve glory, so remote that he tries at first to get out of it. He is persuaded to stay for a short time, and he reluctantly agrees.
However, when his first chance to be reassigned comes up, he is so entranced by the site of the looming mountains and mysterious terrain that he decides to stay on. And at his next chance, after a few years, he finds that the city he grew up in no longer feels like home. He’s grown apart from his friends and lover, and so decides once more to remain at the strange fortress. He returns to his post and finds gradually that everything he initially found irritating becomes not just routine but an irreplaceable part of his life. Read the full review.
I am embarrassed to admit that I started reading Clelia Farris’s brilliant story collection Creative Surgery thinking I was in the middle of a different book. That can happen with Kindle. Everything looks the same. There are no beautiful covers, unique typefaces, pages to turn down. You just open and there is the text. I had lined up several books to read, sampling a little of each one and became engrossed in a story of families in Poland. I put the Kindle aside after checking some of the other books I had promised myself to read by opening them. That did it. I forgot about that last rummaging, and when I opened the Kindle again I wasn’t in Poland anymore.
I was in Sardinia a couple of centuries (?) in the future. A coastal city has been inundated, and people were living in the tops of houses that poked up out of the water. Where was this writer taking me? Here’s an artist character who paddles from one outpost home to another in a boat made of an inverted refrigerator. She has a device, a glass ball, that she uses to paint out memories people want erased. Then another character pops up who makes beautiful forgeries of ancient pottery to fool tomb raiders in another town threatened by an unscrupulous developer. In another story a mirror says it wants to kill the person looking into it every day. What is this? Read the full review.
Olga Tokarczuk’s Primeval and Other Times, finely translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, is a uniquely fantastical search through the multiple worlds and forms of time found in the life of a fictional village in Poland during the 20th century. I’ve never read anything like it. On one level, it depicts the lives of a group of families in a small village through turbulent and bloody times. But it constantly interweaves these stories with those of angels, dead souls, trees, everyday objects, water and animals. Each type of being has its own form of time and way of interacting with life.
I said the novel is a search, but a search for what? Well, that’s hard to pin down as the narrator refracts the everyday world through their multi-faceted vision. Primeval and Other Times presents at once a linear history of several families through the generations that endure two wars and a communist dictatorship alongside other levels of being. Each time I reread parts of the story, I am struck by thoughts – more than that, lived impressions that I had missed before. Read the full review.
Mohamed Kheir has written in Slipping a brilliant series of stories that drop their characters out of time and space for brief periods and interweave their narratives to challenge the limits of story-telling. The effect is like a folding of reality itself as the terms of their lives change directions in a stray encounter here, an impulsive decision there or a meeting with a stranger or with someone they know who is dead.
I’m not sure if Slipping should be considered a set of interrelated stories or a novel, but it hardly matters. I moved through this strange version of more or less present-day Egypt at first unprepared for the reality-stretching surprises. But soon enough I came to expect the sudden turns as one story breaks into another, only to return subtly transformed by the intervening experience. And these are like lived experiences, not just fiction you read at a mental distance. Kheir pulls you into the compelling stories of his characters in the narratives so luminously translated by Robin Moger. Read the full review.