Juan Cárdenas: Ornamento (Ornamental)

The latest addition to my website is Juan CárdenasOrnamento (Ornamental). This is another dystopian novel from Latin America, this one from Colombia. Our unnamed narrator is testing a new drug on four women (it only works on women) and while three sleep through the test but later report a pleasurable sensation, one, known only as no 4, remains awake and talks throughout. Her ramblings, about her rebuilt mother, her son, her father and stepfather and others topics, will continue to interrupt throughout the book. Our narrator is married to a not very talented but highly successful cocaine-sniffing artist and No 4 is brought into the relationship. Indeed, our dilatory narrator had considered leaving his wife for her. It is all ornamentation, “good taste”, cheap thrills. This is what the world is coming to.

Rafik Schami: Die dunkle Seite der Liebe (The Dark Side of Love)

The latest addition to my website is Rafik Schami‘s Die dunkle Seite der Liebe (The Dark Side of Love). Coming in at around 900 pages this may be a suitable book for the lockdown. It will keep you entertained for days. It is about the love affair between Farid and Rana, whose families have been having a bitter feud for some time and are of different religions, not Muslim vs Christian, but Catholic vs Orthodox. We follow not only their stories, but the stories of their relatives, families and friends, many of which are violent. Sex abounds but so does mistreatment of women, abuse of human rights and other unpleasantnesses. The story starts with a murder, that of a secret service officer, which is seemingly resolved quite quickly. Culprits are found but though they are punished, they are not guilty. The rest of the book is the background to the murder and, given the length, we soon forget the murder victim, who only pops up late in the book. It is colourful, at times funny, often grim but a wonderful set of stories to keep you entertained during lockdown.

Dola de Jong: De thuiswacht (The Tree and the Vine)

The latest addition to my website is Dola de Jong‘s De thuiswacht (The Tree and the Vine). This book became famous as it is about lesbianism at a time (1954) when respectable Dutch women did not write about the topic. Bea is a sensible and responsible young woman. She meets Erica, an erratic and unpredictable young woman. Both are trainee journalists. It is 1938. They soon become close friends and move in together. Bea finds Erica’s behaviour both trying yet fascinating. They fall out when Bea’s boyfriend, Bas, and Erica clash. Erica wins and Bas is gone. It is only halfway through the book that Erica admits to Bea that she is lesbian and feels sure that Bea is too. Bea is certainly spellbound by Erica but she is resolutely heterosexual. The two continue their up and down relationship but Erica is half-Jewish and a German invasion is imminent. The book has now just been published for the third time in English and clearly the lesbianism helps but what makes it, is the complex and unpredictable relationship between two very different women.

Sándor Márai: Bebi, vagy az elsö szerelem [Bebi or First Love]

The latest addition to my website is Sándor Márai‘s Bebi, vagy az elsö szerelem [Bebi or First Love]. the novel recounts the story of Gaspar, a fifty-four year old Latin teacher in the Hungarian town of Z. Though he gets on well enough with his colleagues, he lives a solitary life, having no friends, no romantic life, no family, no pet and no connection with religion. As he is getting older, he is starting to feel his loneliness more and more and frequently complains about it. He is persuaded to go on holiday – the first time in twenty-eight years – and visits the somewhat seedy resort town he visited twenty-eight years ago. He meet another solitary man but though they briefly connect, the man lives in Vienna. Back in Z. things get worse, particularly, when he starts obsessing about the relationship between Madar, a poor but very good student, and Margit, a girl in the same class. Márai gradually and skilfully develops Gaspar’s increasing irrational behaviour.

Gustavo Faverón Patriau: Vivir abajo [Living in the Basement]

The latest addition to my website is Gustavo Faverón Patriau‘s Vivir abajo [Living in the Basement]. This novel, already declared a key novel of twenty-first century Latin American literature by some critics, is a brilliant and complex novel about the politics and violence of Latin America and the United States but also of their culture. We follow around a dozen stories, with all of the key characters having a dark past, sometimes more than one past, and invariably very dark, which we gradually learn about during the course of the book. The stories all eventually link up, directly or indirectly, with characters from one story appearing in unexpected ways in another story. All are involved with violence in one way or another, though they also get involved in culture, particularly literature and cinema, though also art and music. The main point is to show the violence in Latin America, with particular reference to Peru, Paraguay and Chile, and US involvement in this violence but also to show the cultural background to the region. It is a brilliant book and it is to be hoped that some publisher will be brave enough to publish it in English.

Patrick Modiano: Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue (In the Café of Lost Youth)

The latest addition to my website is Patrick Modiano‘s Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue (In the Café of Lost Youth). While there are similarities with his other novels, this is unusually narrated by four different narrators, including the usual Modiano-like naive wannabe writer, but also the inevitable mysterious woman and two other characters. All the characters meet at the café Condé, including real-life writers as well as other literati. Louki, the mysterious woman, joins them but never seems fully integrated into the group, though she does have an affair with Roland, one of the narrators. We follow Roland, who becomes Louki’s boyfriend and believes in the idea of the eternal return and what he calls neutral zones in cities, Louki’s troubled life and the theory of how we all need fixed points to cope with the maelstrom of the city. Of course, it all ends miserably as people die, disappear and move on but it is till one of Modiano’s best.

Clara Usón: Corazón de napalm [Heart of Napalm]

The latest addition to my website is Clara Usón‘s Corazón de napalm [Heart of Napalm]. There are two stories going in. The first concerns Fede, an overweight thirteen year old boy, whose parents spend their life partying and doing drugs. When it all goes wrong, the parents split up and Fede and his father move to Santander, where his father has a new wife. Fede and his stepmother hate each other and Fede decides to run away to find his mother. It does not work out well. Meanwhile, Marta is painting for the famous artist, Maristany. He has a tremor so he has the ideas and she carries them out. The clients are none the wiser. However, she is fired by Maristany’s new wife, Solange. Sometime later she meets Juan, a judge specialising in juvenile crime. They start an affair, which has its ups and downs, while she struggles to make a living, till Solange phones her after Maristany’s death, to carry on her work. Though various things go wrong in both stories, the two do converge and in a surprising way. It is a very clever book with interesting ideas on art and juvenile crime but sadly not available in English.

Sara Mesa: Cuatro por cuatro (Four by Four)

The latest addition to my website is Sara Mesa‘s Cuatro por cuatro (Four by Four). This is a somewhat chilling novel. Most of the action takes place in Wybrany College, a mixed-sex boarding school, presumably in Spain. Most of the students come from rich families, though there are some poorer students on scholarships or children of the staff. The college is geographically isolated, as the rest of region seems to be suffering from a breakdown in law and order and environmental problems. Though the school is meant to be a haven, it gradually becomes apparent that something is wrong. Celia, the narrator of the first part of the book, and the assistant headmaster disappear, no-one knows why. In the second part, narrated by a new substitute teacher, Isidro, it gets worse with more disappearances and deaths and strange goings-on and not just in the school. Mesa cleverly builds up the tension, showing a world slowly falling apart but with people unsure of the cause and unable to deal with it.

The Independent Publisher Crisis

I have pointed out several times that the most interesting books being published in translation into English are being published by small, independent publishers. While all parts of the book trade are being hit by Covid-19, the independent publishers, often run on a shoestring with few not very well paid staff, are being particularly hit.

Yesterday’s Bookseller had an article on this topic. The Bookseller did a survey on the topic and it does not make for happy reading.

Two publishers, the excellent Jacaranda, publisher of books by writers of colour and Knights Of, publishers of children’s books, have started a crowdfunder. Please help if you can.

Several of the publishers mentioned in the Bookseller article will sell you their books directly from their website rather than your going to online behemoths (though you can also get the books from your local book shop, many of whom will now deliver). In the US Bookshop uses local bookshops as does Indiebound, while in the UK Hive supports local bookshops.

The publishers mentioned in the Bookseller article who sell on-line include:

Dead Ink Books, the experimental literary publisher
Bluemoose Books, publisher of the legendary Ben Myers, Ronan Hession and Ian MacPherson’s Sloot
Galley Beggar, publisher of Toby Litt, the brilliant Ducks, Newburyport, Eimear McBride, Alex Phleby and Gonzalo Garcia
Pluto Books,a publisher of radical non-fiction
Orenda Books, publishers of literary and crime fiction
September Publishing who publish books in which to lose yourself and find yourself again
Fledgling Press who publish and promote debut authors and new voices who have never been published before
Seren who publish a host of Welsh writers, writing in English, including Caradoc Evans, Clare Morgan, Dannie Abse,Emyr Humphreys, Kate Roberts, Niall Griffiths snd Russell Celyn Jones but also a lot of other interesting authors from other countries.
Firefly Press, the Welsh children’s publisher.
Lilliput Press, the Irish publisher of both fiction and non-fiction, including Sam Coll, James Joyce, Benedict Kiely, Flann O’Brien and Colm Tóibín
Guppy Books, publisher of children’s books

It would not be fair to omit those excellent independent publishers whose books you can buy directly from them but who did not appear in the article. These include but are certainly not limited to the following. Some of them also sell subscriptions, which are usually a good deal. Note that some publishers are not included as they do not sell directly to the public from their website. My apologies to any publisher inadvertently omitted.

404 Ink
Akashic
Alma
And Other Stories
Bloodaxe
Boiler House Press
Carcanet Press
CB editions
Charco Press
City Lights
Coffee House Press
Comma Press
Dalkey Archive Press
Deep Vellum
Fairlight
Featherproof
Feral House
Fitzcarraldo Editions
Fly on the Wall
House of Anansi
Influx Press
Istros
Les Fugitives
Melville House
New Island Press
New Vessel Press
Nightboat Books
Noemi Press
Open Letter
Persephone
Peter Owen
Peepal Tree Press
Peirene Press
Polygon
Route
Salt
Saraband
Seagull
Serpent’s Tail
Slavica
Soho Press
Tachyon Publications
Tilted Axis Press
Tramp Press
Transit
Tupelo Press
Two Lines Press
The Unnamed Press
Vagabond Voices
Valley Press
Verso
Wrecking Ball Press

I must also mention the Borderless Book Club, a group of presses who meet online using Zoom to discuss translated literature. Here is their forthcoming programme, which shows you that you get discounts when ordering the books under discussion.

I urge you to support these publishers and initiatives. Without these and other independent publishers, the outlook for quality literary fiction will be grim. Over the past few years, we have enjoyed something of feast of new books in translation, even if, as I frequently remark, there are still far too many worthwhile books that have not been translated into English, though, in many cases, have been translated into other languages. if we lose any of these publishers, it will be a great loss.

Hye Young-Pyun: 선의 법칙 (The Law of Lines)

The latest addition to my website is Hye Young-Pyun‘s 선의 법칙 (The Law of Lines). This is another first-class novel from the South Korean writer. It tells the tales of two young women who both have tragedies. In one case her house burns down and her father is badly burned and later dies. In the other case, a teacher’s half-sister kills herself. Both women feel someone is to blame for what happened and both set out to investigate. Inevitably the two stories intersect. The root cause seems to be poverty and what people do to escape it, not always making wise decisions. Indeed, as well as the two women and the two victims, we see quite a few others who suffer and, in some cases, die because of the poverty trap. It may be grim, as are his other books, but it is a very well-told tale, with twists and unexpected turns.