Papers In The Wind by Eduardo Sacheri (translated from Spanish by Maya Faye Letham)

Sacheri_PapersintheWindThe 2014 World Cup is almost upon us. Making it the perfect time to pick up a book about soccer – but nothing too technical. Something that taps into the passion of the fans, but doesn’t require that the reader be a fan herself. And, of course, it can’t be all about soccer.  That would be a bit much for someone who has never watched an entire game in her life.

I think I’ve found just the thing.

Eduardo Sacheri’s first novel to be translated into English, The Secret In Their Eyes, was a taut and suspense-filled thriller. His second novel is something completely different.  In Papers In The Wind Sacheri again returns to Buenos Aires, this time to tell the story of four childhood friends. When the youngest of their group, Alejandro “Mono” Raguzzi, dies of cancer his elder brother Fernando and best friends Daniel “Ruso” and Mauricio are devastated but determined to honor his memory.

A few years earlier Mono had used his entire life savings, $300,000.00, to buy a promising young soccer player.  The player never lived up to that initial promise.  And so after Mono’s death the normally level-headed Fernando hatches a scheme  to sell the player and use the money to secure his niece’s, Mono’s daughter’s, financial future. What ensues is a picaresque-style comedy as the three men attempt – through all kinds of harebrained shenanigans – to make a star out of a Striker who is too big and too slow to score a goal.

And hilarity ensues, as they say.  Papers In The Wind is very funny, but it’s also a book with immense heart. That strikes a nice balance, since the overall premise can  seem a bit far-fetched at times.  Eduardo Sacheri is an extremely talented writer whose characters are both perfectly, and imperfectly, drawn.  Their flaws make them real.  And as the story unfolds – both in the present and in flashbacks to Mono’s illness – you find yourself believing in these men. And in their friendship. And, subsequently, in their crusade.

The interactions between the friends, along with a huge cast of supporting characters (at one point a transvestite  wanders into the story, bonds with Fernando and wanders back out again purely for the fun of it), provides a nuanced portrait of friendships between men. Women, with the exception of Mono’s daughter Guadalupe, exist only on the periphery of this masculine microcosm.   The action bounces between present day – with Fernando, Ruso & Mauricio desperately trying to sell the Striker while still grieving the loss of their friend & brother – and flashbacks to Mono’s illness.  In the flashbacks the men bicker and laugh and support each other in ways we’ve been conditioned to expect only from female characters. It’s still a novelty to see this kind of tenderness depicted in men.

Admittedly, where some of that tenderness is directed may seem a little strange to the uninitiated.  Mono has a tendency to wax philosophic on life and fútbol, and his love for the fútbol club Independiente (a.k.a.the Red)*  borders on religious fervor. In one scene Fernando promises his brother that he will make sure that little Guadalupe grows up an Independiente fan, despite the fact that the club’s glory days have long been a thing of the past.

“You don’t have to worry, Mono.”

“About what?”

“She’s going to be an Independiente fan.  The rest of it I don’t know. I mean, about the cups and the mystique, I can’t say for sure. Maybe it comes back, maybe it doesn’t. But we’ll  get her to root for the Red.”

The romance attached to a favorite team or sport might be difficult for non-fans to understand.  Except, caught up in the world of Sacheri’s characters, it isn’t difficult at all.  Moments like the one aboveare incredibly touching.  Fútbol and Independiente become metaphors for something else.  What that something else is: faith, friendship, life, loyalty, tradition… I don’t think it really matters.  The power lies in the attachment. And different readers will take away different things.

Papers in the Wind, and Sacheri, are at their finest in the moments when the main characters are together – the dialogue is a joy to read and the timing is impeccable.  Sometimes Sacheri takes two or three chapters, interspersed between other chapters, to get to the punchline of some joke. Leaving readers giggling along with Mono, Ruso, Fernando & Mauricio like little kids.  And he provides enough twists and surprises throughout to remind his readers that his last book was a thriller. Papers in the Wind, like The Secret In Their Eyes before it, is an extraordinarily well-crafted novel.  Disarmingly entertaining; wonderfully nuanced – it’s clever without showing off. Like a great soccer player, Eduardo Sacheri manages to make what he does on the field appear easy for the fans.


Publisher:  Other Press, New York (2014)
ISBN:  978 1 59051 642 3


*A little background: Independiente was one of the great Argentine fútbol clubs until the 1980’s when a began its slow but steady decline.  Prior to that period Independiente won a number of international titles, had the first fútbol stadium in Latin America and was considered one of Argentina’s premier fútbol clubs. In the 2013-2014 season, after 101 consecutive years as a Division One team, it dropped into second division for the first time in the club’s history.

Navidad & Matanza by Carlos Labbé (translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden)

Navidad & MatanzaWhat kind of writer eviscerates his own novel?  What drives a person  to that extreme?  And – just so we’re clear – we’re not talking about paring down the prose or making a few surgical edits to tighten up the plot. Carlos Labbé rips out entire chapters of his book and leaves huge, gaping holes behind.  That takes guts. When it works it’s exciting and innovative.  And, yes, disturbing. When it doesn’t it’s frustrating and… well it’s frustrating.

There are two parallel narratives in Navidad & Matanza. The first, which opens and closes the book, is narrated by a journalist investigating the 1999 disappearance of the teenage son & daughter of a video game executive – Alicia & Bruno Vivar.  The Vivar family is fabulously wealthy.  And, if Domingo the journalist is to be believed, fabulously debauched. The youngest, fourteen year old Alicia, is the most jaded of the clan. Wise, as the saying goes, beyond her years.  Her education has been taken in hand by a much older “friend” of the family.  A Congolese theremin musician who goes by the name of Boris Real.  Domingo’s pet theory is that Real is linked to the siblings disappearance.  But it is only one of his many theories. He is constantly revisiting and re-imagining moments and scenarios; gathering first hand accounts from men and women who were witnesses to crucial events.

Domingo’s obsession with Alicia & Bruno’s disappearance is, perhaps, too personal.  His speculations on what could have happened – and on the daily lives of the brother & sister before they vanished – are exercises in voyeuristic fantasy.  Domingo displays all the tell-tale signs of an unreliable narrator. There’s obviously more going on here than the reader is privy to; Labbé manipulates us until we’re desperate to see those missing chapters. And yet the narrative remains solid despite their omission.

The man from the service station accompanied Alicia to the beach, walking two steps behind her for several kilometers through the night. She asked many questions and he answered them, aware all the time of the cash he’d make housing this strange group of people for a few days. Afterward everything would be calm and normal again. That’s what he believed, he said. But it wasn’t so. Every once in a while the girl would yell: Right? Left? And now, which way? It was like she was walking with her eyes closed, like she wanted to be guided in the darkness.  Then all of a sudden the sound of the sea was very near. When the sand and docas came into view, Alicia started to run.  Rising up from down below he heard a shrill, sharp sound. At first it seemed to him that a woman was screaming. The he though someone was doing something bad to the young girl. He quickened his pace across the beach. The night was moonless, and there were no streetlamps in the town, and so he was barely able to make out two distant silhouettes approaching the water. Little by little the shrill sound turned into a birdsong, into the gurgle of an immense stomach, and finally into a strange music. “A female robot, singing with her mouth shut in the shower,” that’s how Patrice Dounn’s theremin sounded to the man from the service station. The foreigner was standing on a dune, an open case beside him – a different case, not the one he’d opened in the kitchen – his left hand suspended above a strange gleaming, blue instrument. The other hand, the right hand, moved slowly toward and away from the object. The music was very beautiful.

The insertion of a second narrative complicates the story.   Domingo, we learn, is a test subject in an experiment.  He and six others are housed in an underground laboratory and administered a drug called hadon, making them fearful and prone to violence. They play the “novel-game” to pass the time;  writing and exchanging chapters, they all contribute to the plot of a single story.  They are writing the Vivar family history. Domingo is one of them.  Not only a character in the story; he is a writer.  Not just imagining scenarios as we suspected in the first narrative; but authoring them in the second.

Will Vanderhyden translation provides two separate styles for the two separate narratives in Navidad & Mantanza.  The portion set in the “real world’ is written in lush, sultry prose. In the emails that comprise the novel-game the prose is emptier, cleaner and more clinical. The missing chapters are even more keenly felt (is that possible?) because there is so little to go on – no landscapes, no physical descriptions or a sense of time.  Just excerpts from a correspondence, given without a context to place them in.

And yet the mind naturally reaches out to fill in the blanks left by those missing chapters, like water will fill crevices in rock. Not at first, but in the weeks afterwards I began to take ownership of Domingo’s and Labbé’s story, making my own assumptions on what was going on. Adding to and shaping the plot all on my own.  Until suddenly I realized I’d joined the game. That I’d become another player. A neat trick.


Publisher: Open Letter Books, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 92 4



Europe In Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic (translated from the Croatian by David Williams)

Europe in SepiaDubravka Ugresic’s second collection of essays to be translated by Open Letter, Karaoke Culture, enjoyed quite a bit of success on its release in 2011.  Since then Dubravka Ugresic’s fans have been rabidly awaiting the release of her next book.  Though I haven’t read Karaoke Culture… yet. It’s a lapse that will soon be corrected.  A copy was downloaded even before I finished Europe In Sepia.

To truly appreciate the popularity of Ugresic you have to experience her voice.  Direct, ironic and slightly irritated.  As a citizen (or should I say former citizen? what is exactly is the proper terminology?) of the now defunct nation of Yugoslavia she can legitimately claim the status of consummate outsider.  And so she does – with gusto – spending more then a few chapters focusing on the strangeness of her personal situation.   There is an unanticipated absurdity that comes with being a woman without a country.  Ugresic gets to explore something she calls “Yogonostalgia” in one breath and comment on the quasi-fascism of Starbucks in the next.  In a way she’s the Dennis Leary of essayists – raising an eyebrow at her readers as she describes  the idiocy she gleefully observes happening around her.

When a bouncy young Starbucks barista asked my name for the first time,  I articulated it with conviction and clarity.

“Say what?!”

“Du-brav-ka,” I repeated.

“Say whaaaat?!”

I said it again, and then again, just louder. The people in line were already bitching. A short while later, a plastic cup with “Dwbra” scribbled on it arrived. I relayed the episode to a countryman who lives in Los Angeles, where my Starbucks initiation had occurred.  That was twenty years ago.

“Jesus, what a dumbass! Who told you you’ve got to give your own name?!”

To be honest, it hadn’t occurred to me not to.

“I always say Tito!” he fired.


“And nothing. I just love hearing: Titoooo, your coffee’s reaaaadyyyy!”

I took his advice and tried using Marx and Engels, but the Starbucks crew didn’t get the message I was sending.  In the end I chose a regular name.  At Starbucks, I’m Jenny.

There’s so much I love about that passage that has nothing to do with the joke (though I love that too): its overall rhythm; the fact that all of Tito’s sentences end in exclamation points; the 3+3 syllabic beats in the closing sentence.  (David William’s translation makes it seem impossible that Ugresic ever meant to express herself in any language other than English). And the fact that the particular essay from which it’s taken is about the career challenges Dubravka Ugresic has dealt, perhaps still deals, with: her name, her gender, her nationality, the fact she’s still alive (dead authors command more respect). All inspired by an innocent question from a child.

Great writing.  Wickedly entertaining.  Not necessarily what you’d expect from a book of essays.

Ugresic  covers all kinds of topics, from Zuccotti Park, to a sketch from the Muppet Show, to the need for a women’s literary canon.  She has a talent for handling serious subjects lightly without trivializing them. The essays on writing, literature and translation were my favorites, but that’s just where my tastes lie.  Europe in Sepia is organized into three sections, dishing out a little something for everyone.  The first section, the titular Europe In Sepia, focuses on the author’s Eastern European ties.  The second,  My Own Little Mission, is oriented more towards pop-culture and social criticism.   In the second section you’ll find an excellent essay Who Is Timmy Monster? (the theme of which is: we are our own worst enemies).  And another on preparing for food shortages –“Thank God I’ve got a copy of the Croatian translation of the famous Apicius cookbook. Flamingo was one of the greatest delicacies on the ancient Roman table and luckily Amsterdam Zoo is full of the elegant pink birds…” – which spurred me to re-read sections of Johnathan Swift’s infamous A Modest Proposal.  Endangered Species, the third and final section, is where the essays on literature are gathered.  Of course there is overlap – all the essays are told from and relate back to the unique Eastern European in exile perspective that is Ugresic’s trademark.  Even Who Is Timmy Monster? is a reference to a Muppet Show sketch that featured Zero Mostel, an American comedian of Eastern European Jewish descent. Europe in Sepia is also  firmly grounded in contemporary culture (something that has me wondering if it will feel dated ten years from now) – Oprah, Angelina Jolie, Hilary Clinton and E.L. James all get a mention.  As does a former dictator.  And vampires. And (my personal favorite), she takes a dig at Quirk books classics* series.

You will become a Dubravka Ugresic fan after picking up one of her books.  Don’t bother fighting it.  It’s as inevitable as passing a Starbucks in Manhattan.

Europe In Sepia is rare in that it contains complex examinations of human nature and still somehow manages to be funny (and never sanctimonious).  This book lingered with me long after I put it down. So don’t be surprised if you find yourself going back to it weeks after finishing, flipping through the pages looking for a passage that’s been teasing at your brain. That’s the whole purpose of a good essay collection – to captivate readers; to make them laugh (if they’re lucky); and, hopefully, to  get everyone thinking about the things that matter.



Publisher: Open Letter Books, Rochester (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 89 4


*In full recognition of my own dorkiness: I just made air quotes at my computer screen. 





A Voltaire for the New Millenium

Title:  Cairo:  Memoir of a City Transformed by Ahdaf Soueif
Publisher:  Pantheon Books, New York (2014)

The questions that are being settled on the streets of Egypt are of concern to everyone. The paramount one is this: can a people’s revolution that is determinedly democratic, grassroots, inclusive, and peaceable succeed?

Cairo erupted during eighteen days between January 25th and February 11th, 2011.  It was one of the first in what became the string of global protests that were held in 2011 & early 2012.  That chain included the Tunisian “Jasmine” Revolution; America’s Occupy Wall Street (the OCCUPY banner of which was taken up by groups in England, Germany and Ireland, among others); the 15-M Movement in Spain and the protests in Italy and Greece.  Most of these movements continue barely acknowledged by the media.  The common cause of the protesters: income inequality.   In the West this was and is represented by the banking system and finance industry – the ubiquitous 1%.  Government corruption are also being targeted.  And while most of these protests began peacefully, few have ended so.

Ahdaf Soueif is perhaps best known for her novels In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love; and her marriage to the late author Ian Hamilton. She is also a journalist, translator, and political activist who calls both London and Cairo home.  Her son, Omar Robert Hamilton, is a filmmaker and a founding member of the activist media collective Mosireen.  Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed expands on her earlier account of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution Cairo:  My City, Our Revolution, published in 2012 by Bloomsbury UK.  This new edition includes a final chapter entitled “Eighteen Days Were Never Enough”.

What happened during those original eighteen days?  The Egyptian people, led by the Egyptian youth (Shabaab) , descended on Tahrir Square demanding that Mubarak step down and Democratic elections be held.  The political factions – and they were many – formed a temporary truce in support of the greater good.  The Egyptian Army stood with the protesters.  At least for a time.  Mubarak’s people sent wave after wave of attacks, sometimes covertly through saboteurs who infiltrated the Square.  Many young people were injured or killed.  Their leaders were imprisoned.  Throughout this time, Tahrir Square was transformed.  Much like Zuccotti Park in NYC, it became a campground, a festival and a political stage.

Both books seem to be based on the journals and notes Soueif kept as events were happening; she frequently refers to her determination to act as a witness  But her writing is more polished, more novelistic, than a simple journal entry.  Her words lack the immediacy of a true, first hand report.  Ms. Soueif narrates in over-ripe prose; managing to capture all of the romance, exuberance and child-like euphoria of those early days of revolution.  Every moment is saturated with portent and emotion.  Her family members stride, godlike across the pages – often appearing and acting as a collective.  The scenes where she describes them coming together take on the characteristics of the magical realism genre.  As in the scene where they celebrate her nephew’s release from prison and the birth of his son (the newest member of this tightly knit family).

We swept and cleaned the house I’d refurbished in my mother’s orchard. We laid out tables and chairs and strung up colored lights and strings of Egyptian flags. We set up a barbecue, and all our family and friends and friends of friends came and brought lots of food. We played music and danced and carried Khaled in a satin-lined sieve into every room and into all the dark corners so he would know his wa;y and know there was nothing,ever, to be afraid of, and we sprinkled the seven seeds in his path so he would always have plenty, and we sang to him the old instructions to obey his mother and father and added that he must never ever obey SCAF or a government. My mother’s orchard was teaming and buzzing and radiating love and light. And just before midnight, we all drove to Tahrir – the biggest family home in the world.  And despite the dark days, Tahrir was full of hope and joy, and there was music and song and a church choir and people all the time gathering around Alaa and talking talking talking about the future and what we need to do.*

This isn’t meant as a negative criticism – quite the opposite. Cairo is the antithesis of what we’ve come to expect from the political book.  The novelistic quality – the over exuberance – of Soueif’s narrative voice is precisely what makes it so accessible and addictive.  It balances the obvious care taken revising and re-editing the text.  There is even a post-modern element – Soueif is very aware that the present in which these words are being read is different from her present.  That her readers exist in an uncertain future.

And so we follow the author as she moves between Tahrir Square, the various homes and offices of her family and the news studios from which she sends out dispatches to contradict the “official” reports being released by the government.  There is an emotional investment in what is happening – remember, these are her children and this is her city. Souef’s son, nieces and nephews, sisters and brothers, friends and neighbors all play a part.  Her worry and pride is palpable, stirring the same in her readers.  While her generation is involved,  the 2011 Revolution is primarily led by the  Shabaab.  They are the front line.  And there are times when the streets surrounding the Square were a war zone.

For those who only know Soueif as a novelist, Cairo is a vivid reminder of her roots in journalism.  She possesses the ability to step back and recognize the larger implications of what is happening in her home country.  And so she interrupts herself (in a chapter called, appropriately, “An Interruption”.  Interjecting from 18 months in the future to report on the current state of the Revolution.   The format is the same one she uses throughout the entire book.  The narrative loosely organized into days and hours.   But the exuberance is momentarily gone.  The movement’s leaders, many of the same nieces as nephews who we stood in the Square with a few pages ago, are now being accused and arrested.  Fissures are forming between the different political parties.  The population of the city is growing weary of the interruptions to their lives.   A lot has changed.  Soueif acknowledges that even more time has passed for the reader.  That even more changes of which she is unaware will occur.  “You… are in a future unknown to me”.  And of course she is right.

In the present we know that Mubarak was forced out, that general elections were held and Mohamed Morsi became Egypt’s first democratically elected president.  In June of 2013 public protests were held calling for his resignation and in July he was forcibly removed by a military coup.  Adly Mahmoud Mansour was appointed interim president.  The military has in recent months begun a crackdown on leaders of the 2011 revolution and Morsi is facing charges of incitement of murder, violence and of espionage.  A police station in Mansoura was bombed on December 24th and the government is declaring the Muslim Brotherhood responsible (despite the group’s denials).  They’ve been labeled a terrorist organization in Egypt.  The network that ran Mubarak’s security state, by many accounts, is back.  Violence swells, breaks and recedes for a time, only to swell again.  And readers outside of Egypt are left trying to sift the news for truth.

“This book is not a record of an event that’s over; it’s an attempt to welcome you into, to make you part of, an event that we’re still living.  And there are two problems in the writing of it.  One is that while the eighteen days are locked into the past, the revolution and the fight to hold on to it continue, and every day the landscape shifts.  THe other is that you – my reader – are in a future unknown to me, and yet I want to tell a story that will ease the leap you need to make between where this book stops and where Egypt is as you read.”

For those interested in learning more, the New York Times publishes up to date news on events in Egypt here. You can follow Ahdaf Soueif on Twitter @asoueif and her son, Omar Robert Hamilton, @ORHamilton.

* To clarify: Khaled is the infant

Publisher: Pantheon Books, New York (2014)

ISBN: 978 0 307 90810 0

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter

A True Novel SlipcaseA True Novel by Japanese author Minae Mizumura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, has been receiving a lot of positive attention since its release this past November by Other Press.*  Not least because it comes in a lovely two-volume, illustrated and slip-cased edition.  Most readers will come to A True Novel, or avoid it, based on the Wuthering Heights connection. But this reinvention of that classic novel, set in post-war Japan, manages to transcend the material on which it is based.

The major themes are the same: gorgeous landscapes; a tragic love story; ghosts; unreliable (and multiple) narrators. And if that was all A True Novel was – a simple retelling of a classic tale, with the same characters placed in a more modern setting –  getting through 880 pages might have been more of a challenge.  But the differences are significant.  Mizumura’s decision to set her story in the affluent and tranquil Summer community of Karuizawa, Japan – at a time of major social transition – instead of the tempestuous and dramatic Yorkshire moors changes the overall tone.  And the way she playfully approaches the act of homage transforms it into something else entirely: an elaborate version of whisper down the lane.

The novel has three distinct narrators. The first is Mizumura herself, who spends the first 150+ pages explaining her connection to the characters she writes about. This Preface and Prologue is meant to establish the illusion that the book is a work of non-fiction. An “I novel“. She explains how the bulk of the story was told to her by the second narrator: a young man named Yusuke who corresponds with the Lockwood character.  Yusuke, in turn, learned most of what he tells Mizumura through a third narrator: Fumiko is the maid who was actively involved in the lover’s adventures – Nelly Dean if you’re keeping track.  And so we are four times removed, reading Mizumura’s transcription of Yusuke’s retelling of Fumiko’s version of the events she witnessed (and influenced).  All of which is, once again, loosely based on Emily Bronte’s original Wuthering Heights. I use the term loosely because this is a version of Wuthering Heights as translated through the dual lenses of Japanese culture and language.

There’s a cleanness to Japanese translations that I adore. A sharpness and a clarity.  A characteristic stripping away of extraneous adjectives and sentimentality.  Juliet Winters Carpenter’s translation is a sharp contrast to Bronte’s 19th-century Gothicism.  For an example: compare the words of the two heroines, Cathy & Yoko, describing their connection to their respective heroes –

“My great miseries in this world have been  Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger; I should not seem a part of it.” – Cathy

“I feel as if I’ve disappeared, myself.” She sounded even more remote.  It was as if while she was standing there her spirit had gone off to wander some far corner of the earth…  “I will never, ever forgive him,” she said in a low firm voice, and bit her lip again. “Never. Not as long as I live.” She put up a good front, but she may finally have begun to understand what it meant to be loved that much by someone like Taro – in a life she was given only one chance to live. – Yoko.

Yes, Mizumura’s prose (in Carpenter’s hands) is minimal. Particularly when compared to Bronte’s. But that doesn’t mean the words suffer from a lack of substance or are devoid of poetry. There is an aching sense of loss that permeates every character in every word on every page of A True Novel.  And it is still very much a ghost story; more so even than the original.  The characters in Wuthering Heights (including the dead) are vibrant, full of life and passion. Yoko and her lover Taro, Fumiko, the three sisters (who feature prominently and who I’ve intentionally avoided describing so that you can discover them for yourselves), even Yusuke… they are all haunted. Each has crossed an invisible line.  Their connections to the past  is stronger than their grounding in the present. As a result the reader instinctively understands that this story is over, the characters left wandering among shades, even as we are experiencing it for the first time.

 Anyway, in the end, as he alone knew – and knew only too well – she held absolute sway over him.

“You apologize!” The demand rang out more insistently.

In the white light of the full moon I saw Taro drop down on his knees and, supporting himself with both hands, lay his forehead flat on the ground in an attitude of abject apology.  The flashlight he’d laid down shone on the pebbles. I gasped as Yoko slipped off one wooden clog and put her bare foot on his head to press it down farther. There was no need for me to intrude, however. As soon as her toes touched his head, she lost her balance and toppled over, landing on the ground beside him. Now she began bawling even harder, fists in her eyes, elbows sticking out in the air. Taro jumped up, grabbed her by the hands, and pulled her up off the ground.  Then he was on his knees again. He took her bare foot in his hands and slipped the wooden clog back on, then brushed the dirt off the hem of her yukata. His slim figure was radiant in the light of the moon.

I watched in bemusement as the two children disappeared hand in hand up the dark mountain path to the strains of the “Tokyo Ballad.”

One item the many reviewers and fans of this book don’t seem to be discussing (except in passing) are the photographs.  Lovely black & white pictures with simple captions of the places where they were taken: “Western-Style Summer Villa With Bay Windows”; “Chikuma River”; “Oiwake Station”.  All places mentioned book. But deserted. Emptied of people. Brilliant.  The illustrator N.C. Wyeth once said that his goal was to illustrate the scenes that were not fully developed or described by the author.  His illustrations were created to add and build on the author’s text, not just interpret it. His portrait of blind Pew in Treasure Island being the most famous example.  Toyota Horiguchi’s gorgeous photographs are the next stage in the evolution of this tradition.

Toyota Horiguchi's black & white cover photos.
Toyota Horiguchi’s black & white cover photos.

A True Novel is a favorite among the judges of this year’s Best Translated Book Award. It’s a foregone conclusion that it will be on the long list.  I’d be shocked if it didn’t make the shortlist.  Should it win… well…  it would be a huge departure from past winners which have fallen into the category of less traditional (less accessible, even) works.  It’s looking to be an interesting contest and I can’t wait for  March 11th to see how it plays out.

Publisher:  Other Press, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 159051203 6

*Other Press consistently gives as much care to the quality of the physical book as it does to the words it contains.  They are one of my favorite publishers – always interesting and always innovative. And yet they’ve surpassed even my expectations with the loveliness of this book.