Welcome to the first installment of Words of the World, a new semi-regular feature we’ll be running to highlight newer, important works of literature in translation from around the globe. You may come across some overly familiar names within these posts from time to time, but ultimately our aim is to draw more attention to some great authors and great titles that you may have missed, and we’ll do it one country at a time.
Are these books the new classics? Time will tell. Either way, they’re most certainly some of our personal favorites from the past few years.
What better place to start then Argentina, a country with a rich literary history whose name comes from a poem dating back to the 1600s? Jorge Luis Borges. Julio Cortázar. Abelardo Castillo. Federico Jeanmaire. Ernesto Sabato. These are but a few of the outstanding names in Argentinian literature that you’ve probably already heard quite a bit about. Below we offer up, for your approval, novels from five more names we think you should familiarize yourself with (that is, if you haven’t done so already).
1. Under This Terrible Sun by Carlos Busqued / Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (2008) 2013
Aside from the train wreck like inescapability of it all, the rubber necking that you take part in as a reader, the realization that as much as you want to you can’t look away, you can’t put down the book, you must keep turning the pages to see what happens next, even though you know it’s going to ruin you emotionally, as if you need more, a big part of what makes Under This Terrible Sun work so effectively is that Busqued refuses to let you escape the grasp of his chosen subjects for even a single second. It’s almost as if they merge with and become an unshakable part of the reader’s psyche. They’re all so impossibly flawed and damaged, and it’s these qualities that make them each so utterly fascinating. [full review]
Carlos Busqued was born in the northern Argentinian province of Chaco in 1970. He has produced the radio programmes Vidas Ejemplares, El otoño en Pekín and Prisionero del Planeta Infierno; and he contributes to the magazine El Ojo Con Dientes. He currently lives in Buenos Aires. Under This Terrible Sun is his first novel. [official bio from Frisch & Co.]
2. Scars by Juan Jose Saer / Translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph
Juan Jose Saer’s Scars opens and closes with the murder of a woman referred to only as La Gringa on May Day of an unknown year. We know that her death was intentionally caused by her husband, but what we don’t know is why. Told by the way of four uniquely different stories featuring characters that overlap from one tale to the next, the novel doesn’t attempt to wrap things up in a nice neat bow for the reader. Oh no, that would be far too easy. Scars, much like life, is a beautifully messy affair. [full review]
Born in Santa Fé, Argentina in 1937, Juan José Saer is the leading Argentinian writer of the post-Borges generation. In 1968, he moved to Paris and taught literature at the university in Rennes, Brittany. In 1988, Saer was awarded Spain’s prestigious Nadal Prize for The Event. His work is translated into all major languages. Saer died in July 2005. [official bio from Serpent’s Tail]
3. The Missing Year Of Juan Salvatierra by Pedro Mairal / Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor (2008) 2013
A living, breathing, often dazzling portrait of the universal familial struggles inherent in growing up desperate to escape one’s roots, Nick Caistor’s translation of Pedro Mairal’s slim, perfect novel is packed with more life than even miles upon miles of artwork, imagined or otherwise, could ever hope to convey. Salvatierra’s sons, in particular his youngest Miguel who serves as the story’s narrator, are vivid, fully realized visions of complex, conflicted, and nuanced human beings who on their quest to unravel the truth about their father’s past, come face to face with portraits of their own futures and the circular nature of time itself. [full review]
Pedro Mairal made a splash with his debut novel, Una noche con Sabrina Love, which tells the story of an 18-year-old boy who wins a night with a porn star of his dreams. That book was made into a film by Alejandro Agresti and was widely translated. Mairal, who was born in Buenos Aires in 1970, is a professor of English literature; he has been recognized as one of the most original voices in Latin American literature today, and in 1998 was awarded the Premio Clarín. He is also the author of the book of short stories Hoy temprano and the novel El año del desierto. In 2007 he was included in the Bogotá 39, which named the best Latin American authors. [official bio from New Vessel Press]
4. The Planets by Sergio Chejfec / Translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary (1999) 2012
Categorizing The Planets as something as simplistic and all-encompassing as a “novel” feels like a complete disservice to Chejfec because what he’s created defines the standard conventions of the typical plot-driven storytelling structure. Calling it some variation of a “memoir” certainly doesn’t ring true either, because if truthful at all, what’s presented is certainly a highly fictionalized version of events. But then again, when compared with the actual facts of a any given situation, whose memories aren’t? [full review]
Sergio Chejfec writes novels, stories, essays and poetry. His works include Lenta biografía (Slow Biography, 1990), Los planetas (The Planets, 1999), Boca de lobo (Wolf’s Mouth, 2000), Los incompletos (The Unfinished, 2004), Baroni: un viaje (Baroni: a Journey, 2007, 2010), Mis dos mundos (My Two Worlds, 2008), La experiencia dramática (The Dramatic Experience, 2012, Candaya 2013) and Modo Linterna (Lamp Mode 2013, Candaya 2014). His novels are usually written in a quiet narrative style in which the plot is interwoven with more cerebral reflections. Memories, political violence and Jewish-Argentine history and culture are recurring themes in his work. [Official bio from Guillermo Schavelzon]
5. Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman / Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (2012) 2014
With Talking to Ourselves, Andres Neuman has meticulously crafted an affecting, absorbing portrait of modern family life, one that’s centered on the mystery and tragedy of death, but ultimately pulses with the overwhelming power of life. His subjects all shine with a sense of reality that’s rarely seen in fiction: they’re flawed, they’re fractured, and they’re fully realized human beings. Within them we are presented with the very best and the very worst pieces of ourselves and are left to wonder, to open a running dialog with ourselves, about the beauty and sadness of our own mortality, and truths and lies we tell ourselves and each other so that we can march forever forward through it all. [full review]
Andrés Neuman was born in 1977 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and grew up in Spain. Neuman was selected as one of Granta‘s Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists and was elected to the Bogotá-39 list. Traveler of the Century (FSG, 2012) was the winner of the Alfaguara Prize and the National Critics Prize, Spain’s two most prestigious literary awards, as well as a special commendation from the jury of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Neuman has taught Latin American literature at the University of Granada. [official bio from Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
Go ahead and berate us for leaving names like Cesar Aira and Carlos Gamerro off the list, but do know that picking only five authors to highlight was an extremely difficult task. Who are some of your favorite Argentinian writers that you feel deserve more mainstream attention? Let us know!