End of the Year Review 2020

You don’t need me to tell you that this has been a grim year, with Covid and Trump, Brexit and Putin and the world generally seeming to be going to the dogs. I have certainly found reading a relief, partially from the lockdown – we have essentially had three in the UK – but also from the grim news.

One other person who seems to have been reading well during the pandemic is Michiko Kakutani, the former New York Times critic, feared by authors and publishers. In an interview she mentions some of her reading.

The interview was because of the publication of her book of essays on her reading, called Ex Libris, which I have read. While I do not particularly share her taste in reading (she’s a big fan of Muhammad Ali and Dr Seuss, for example, but not a very big fan of translated literature – I only counted five works of translated fiction all stunningly obvious and including The Odyssey), she makes an interesting point in the book, namely that she is writing less as a critic than as an enthusiast. In other words, when writing for the New York Times, she presumably had to review whatever she was given, good, bad or ugly, while, in this book, she can read and review what she wants.

That, of course, is the huge advantage of being a blogger. I read the books that I want to read and ignore those that I do not want to read, which means a certain amount of books which get a lot of publicity or which others enjoy, I do not read.

Equally, it means that I can abandon books that I find that I am not enjoying. This is actually quite rare but, most unusually, it happened three times this year. I shall not name them as others may enjoy them and I do not want to put people off, just because I did not finish them. There was only one novel I finished this year that I did not enjoy and I read it only because it appeared in in a list of the 100 best novels in Spanish of the 21st century.

One advantage of the lockdown was that not only did I read more books than in previous years but I also read a few longer ones – several over five hundred pages and two over a thousand pages (the latter two not, of course, available in English, though one of them should appear in 2021 in English).

I did try to avoid books about pandemics, plagues, etc. No Station Eleven, La Peste (The Plague), Defoe’s Plague Year and the like. Both Olga Tokarczuk‘s Księgi Jakubowe (The Books of Jacob) and Agustina Bazterrica‘s Cadáver exquisito (Tender Is the Flesh) mentioned plagues but only in passing. If you are interested in apocalyptic books, with plagues, zombies and the like, here is a list for you.

One slightly disturbing theme I did find was cannibalism. I read three books where cannibalism featured: Agustina Bazterrica‘s Cadáver exquisito (Tender Is the Flesh), Shalom Auslander‘s Mother for Dinner and Yan Ge‘s 异兽志 (Strange Beasts of China). With food shortages caused by climate change, maybe it is a coming thing. The Russians don’t seem to like it.

I do not do a best of for two simple reasons: there are loads of excellent books that came out this year that I did not get around to reading and because a lot of the books I read this year (as every year) were older books and it seems to silly to compare some random older books with the new books. However, I will mention a few books I particularly enjoyed. This does not mean that the other books I read were in any way of less worth – nearly every one I read was worthwhile except, as mentioned, the three I abandoned and the one I did not abandon.

My annual one-country marathon this year was Brazil and of the twenty Brazilian books I read, the one I think I enjoyed most was not, in fact, a novel but a history written as a novel – Euclides da Cunha‘s Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands; later: Backlands: The Canudos Campaign), a wonderful 500+ page epic. I also really enjoyed Bernardo Carvalho‘s Mongólia [Mongolia], sadly not available in English.

I have already mentioned Shalom Auslander‘s Mother for Dinner, one of the cannibal novels, but it was undoubtedly the funniest novel I read this year. Cannibalism funny? You have to read it to see why. The other very amusing and decidedly quirky novel I must mention is Anne Serre‘s Voyage avec Vila-Matas [Journey with Vila-Matas], about a writer going to a literary festival where she meets Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas. Or does she? This book has not been translated but her quirky Les Gouvernantes (The Governesses) has been translated into English.

Probably the best book published this year that I read is not, sadly available in English – Martín CaparrósSinfin [Endless], an ambitious dystopian novel from Argentina. Another interesting and somewhat disturbing novel not published (yet) in English (the last one not published in English, I promise) I enjoyed was Hervé Le Tellier‘s L’Anomalie (The Anomaly) with several stories converging and all involving an Air France flight from Paris to New York which goes wrong.

Of books that have been translated into English I would mention Agustina Bazterrica‘s disturbing Cadáver exquisito (Tender Is the Flesh), Joseph Roth‘s Die Geschichte der 1002. Nacht (The String of Pearls; The Tale of the 1002nd Night), Miljenko Jergović‘s epic Bosnian novel Dvori od oraha (Walnut Mansion), Volter Kilpi‘s unfinished but finished by translator Doug Robinson updating of Gulliverin matka Fantomimian mantereelle (Gulliver’s Voyage to Phantomimia) and Miklós Szentkuthy‘s exuberant Fejezet a szerelemről (Chapter on Love). I had previously enjoyed Sayaka Murata‘s ンビニ人間 (Convenience Store Woman). This year I really enjoyed her 地球星人 (Earthlings), about three young people trying to live a sensible alternative way.

Of the new publishers that appeared this year I read a book from two. V&Q Books is run by superb German translator Katy Derbyshire. I read Francis Nenik‘s interestingly titled Reise durch ein tragikomisches Jahrhundert (Journey Through a Tragicomic Century), another non-fiction work written as a novel, about Hasso Grabner, a colourful German writer who seemed to be involved in various often dubious activities in Germany in the last century.

Fum d’Estampa specialises in Catalan books translated into English. As I have read and reviewed quite a few Catalan books (twenty-eight to be precise), too many of which have not been translated into English, I really welcomed this press. I read Narcís Oller‘s La bogeria (The Madness), a fascinating 1899 novel about insanity.

I must mention several other small presses as I read a lot of their books: five from Glagoslav, four from And Other Stories, four from Archipelago, four from Deep Vellum, four from Maclehose, three from Lavender Ink / Diálogos (a publisher I only discovered this year), as well as two each from several others. Please support all of these small publishers. They need your support and they are producing first-class works for your reading entertainment and edification.

Before getting into the numbers, I would mention one piece of good news. The Untranslated blog sadly went into hiatus in 2019. He was still very active on Twitter so we did not lose out entirely. However, the good news is that he is back with a Patreon blog to which I would strongly urge you to subscribe. You will learn a lot.

In 2018 and 2019 I read 138 books in each year. Yes, it was a coincidence. This year, thanks (?) to covid I am up to 154 and, if I counted the pages, which I do not and have no intention of doing, the gap would probably be higher. I have said elsewhere that I consider the most interesting fiction writing to be coming from Latin America and Eastern Europe. This year I read twenty-six books from Eastern Europe and forty-two from Latin America. The Latin American figure was inflated by the twenty Brazilian books I read as part of my annual one-country marathon.

A book from Chukotka

Of individual countries, Brazil, of course, came out top with 20, followed by France (13), Argentina (10), Hungary (10), Austria (6), Poland (6), Spain (6), England (4), Germany (4) and Italy (4). There were four new countries: Chukotka, Liechtensein, North Korea and Taiwan. Less well-represented countries include Afghanistan, Albania, Bosnia, Costa Rica, Estonia, Finland, Guinea-Bissau, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Latvia, Occitania, El Salvador, Slovenia, Syria, Ukraine and Wales. The sex ratio is, as usual, dismal. Forty-three of the books I read were by women, marginally better than last year (thirty-six).

Last year I read twenty-six books that had not (yet) been translated into English, this year thirty-two. Some of them will make it into English; sadly some of them will not.

I do not know what next year will bring. There have been various indications of next year’s offerings, such as this list from Beyond the Epilogue and this list of lists from the Complete Review. Solenoid was to have appeared but now seems to have been pushed back to 2022.
Olga Tokarczuk‘s The Books of Jacob should appear in 2021.

J. G. Farrell‘s The Singapore Grip was the most read page on my site presumably because of the TV version of the book, which I also saw and enjoyed. Surprisingly, number two was Kyusaku Yumeno‘s ドグラマグラ (Dogra Magra), a relatively obscure Japanese novel. Another relatively obscure Japanese novel also got a high rating – Kaori Ekuni‘s きらきらひかる (Twinkle Twinkle). In third place was Paul Auster‘s City of Glass. The only other novel not originally written in English in the top ten was Rita Indiana‘s La mucama de Omicunlé (Tentacle).

Will 2021 be better than 2020? Maybe, maybe not. However, of the books I read this year, there were twelve authors I had not heard of a year ago so this year I am looking forward once more to discovering authors I have not heard of to distract me from the problems of the world. I hope that you will do the same and I hope you will find some of them on this site.

Have a covid-free 2021!

Jan Balabán: Kudy šel anděl? (Where Was the Angel Going?)

The latest addition to my website is Jan Balabán‘s Kudy šel anděl? (Where Was the Angel Going?). The novel is set in Ostrava, site of a huge coalfield, with many of the people involved in mining. We follow primarily Martin Vrána but also various others as they struggle with life. Martin’s first romance (with Eva) goes wrong but he never really gets over her. He later has a failed marriage, before finally meeting Monika. Like for most people in the book, life is grim and the normal recourses – alcohol and sex/love – offer temporary relief but they too have a cost. Even in the post-Communist era, though things are somewhat better – no secret police, for example – they are not hugely better and life remains a struggle, particularly as far as love and sex are concerned. Martin has a glimmer of hope at the end but it really is only a glimmer. For others, things do not work out.

Almudena Grandes: Las edades de Lulú (The Ages of Lulu)

The latest addition to my website is Almudena GrandesLas edades de Lulú (The Ages of Lulu). This is undoubtedly the most erotic/[pornographic novel I have ever read. Our eponymous heroine, Lulu, the seventh of nine children is essentially neglected by her parents and looks for love in all the wrong places, the wrong places being unlimited and hugely varied sex, prompted by a romp with her brother’s best friend, who is twelve years her senior and who, when she is fifteen, essentially sexually assaults her, albeit with her not unwilling consent. They will maintain a highly colourful and varied sexual relationship and have a daughter, till she moves away from him, and finds sex elsewhere, including on her own. It made a list of the 100 best novels in Spanish of the 21st century but did not really work for me.

Alexander Grigorenko: Мэбэт (Mebet)

The latest addition to my website is Alexander Grigorenko‘s Мэбэт (Mebet). This book is set among Siberian tribes with no contact with or even mention of Russia and Russians. Mebet is known as God’s Favourite. Orphaned at a young age, he has has always lived alone. He is very strong and courageous. He ignores all tribal laws and customs, even abducting his wife, instead of paying a bridal price. Their son, Hadko, however, though strong, is more inclined to respect custom and tradition, even paying a bridal price. When this is refused, his father abducts a woman for him.His son, Sevser, becomes the apple of his grandfather’s eye. However, for Mebed, time is running out and to persuade the gods to allow him to live long enough to see Sevser reach adulthood, there is a heavy price to pay, an ordeal which even for Mebed is onerous. It is a fascinating book, particularly following the Siberian tribes without any Russians appearing.

Joseph Roth: Die Geschichte der 1002. Nacht (The String of Pearls; The Tale of the 1002nd Night)

The latest addition to my website is Joseph Roth‘s Die Geschichte der 1002. Nacht (The String of Pearls; The Tale of the 1002nd Night). This is another excellent novel by Roth, focussing on three characters whose life all takes a turn for the worse, particularly as a result of the visit of the Shah of Persia to Vienna in 1873. The Shah wants a particular Austrian countess to sleep with and in order to placate him and preserve her, Baron Taittinger comes up with a look-alike, Mizzi, one of his former flings. The Shah is not too happy but Mizzi is rewarded with a string of pearls. As in other novels, by Roth and others, the pearls bring bad luck for the Baron and Mizzi as well as the owner of the brothel where Mizzi works. We gradually follow the downfall of all three, as a combination of bad luck and trying and failing to function outside of their normal sphere of activity, leads them to disaster. The novel is superbly well told and must rate as one of Roth’s finest.

Henri Calet: La Fièvre des Polders [Polder Fever]

The latest addition to my website is Henri Calet‘s La Fièvre des Polders [Polder Fever]. Calet’s third novel is set in Burrh, a small Belgian town near the Dutch border, where there are polders, i.e. land reclaimed from the sea and rivers. Ward Waterwind sells beer but drinks too many of the profits and spends too much time with the customers, to the disgust of his wife, Nette. She runs an inn where the beer is sold, helped by her daughter Odilia, a quiet and unassuming young woman, but who is having sex with various people, including her brother. Ward has grandiose plans but lacks brains, business sense and a sense of responsibility and on the day celebrating the opening of the new quayside development, it all goes horribly wrong for Ward and his family. It is an excellent story of a backward small Belgian town and its residents but sadly has not been translated into any other language.

Wioletta Greg : Guguły (Swallowing Mercury)

The latest addition to my website is Wioletta Greg‘s Guguły (Swallowing Mercury). This is a delightful and poetical tale of a girl growing up in rural Poland, a village called Hektary, during the 1970s and 1980s. Despite the changes taking place in Poland at that time, these seem to have only minimal impact on Hektary. We follow the story of Wiola, a wilful and independent-minded girl for whom things often go wrong but she seems to generally take it in her stride, going her own way. Greg is poet and she writes the story with a poet’s eye, observing the details of the natural life of the village but also the customs and behaviour of the people, religious and yet superstitious, though living under a communist regime. We end as Wiola is becoming a woman and Poland is becoming free

Ingeborg Drewitz: Gestern war heute [Yesterday Was Today]

The latest addition to my website is Ingeborg Drewitz‘s Gestern war heute [Yesterday Was Today]. The novel follows fifty-five years in the life of Gabriele, from her birth in 1923 to the birth of her granddaughter in 1978. Unlike her mother and previous generations of women in her family, Gabriele seeks far more independence but very much struggles with her own role, both as a teenager (teenage angst) and then later when she, too, becomes a wife and mother. While we are following her struggles and search for identity (as well as those of other women), we are also following events in Germany and the world, particularly the rise of the Nazis and World War II. As Gabriele and her family are in Berlin, they particularly suffer, even though Uncle Bruno is a Nazi. Above all, however, the focus is on Gabriele and her search for her own identity and role in the world.

Miklós Szentkuthy: Fejezet a szerelemről (Chapter on Love)

Latest on my website: Miklós Szentkuthy‘s Fejezet a szerelemről (Chapter on Love). Set in a small unnamed Italian town, probably towards the end of the Renaissance, this book is about love but not, I would think, love as you know it. The town’s most famous son, the Pope, whom we know only as Pius but whose biography does not conform with any of the real popes of that name, has died, possibly murdered. We follow his story, the stories of the mayor of the town, his newly appointed secretary, the Donna, a former mistress of the mayor and a powerful woman in the town, and Angelina, niece of the Pope and of his brother, a priest still living in the town. As this is Szentkuthy, it is wild, exuberant, highly colourful and thoroughly original. He can take pages to describe the bed and bedroom of the mayor’s mistress, a prostitute, and then have an imagined dialogue between the Pope and a bandit who has been hanged for his crimes before getting onto love described in a highly imaginative and highly colourful manner. It is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, even if it is one you may wish to read more than once to fully understand what is going on.

The Untranslated

It was very sad news when The Untranslated discontinued his blog in October 2019, though you could still follow him on Twitter. However, he has now started a new blog – https://www.patreon.com/andreispage – through Patreon. You will have to pay or wait a month but it is worth every penny/cent/centavo/centime. I have already ordered his first recommendation which, of course, I had never heard of. I am looking forward to many more interesting posts and recommendations.