Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)

Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)
"A curious and wonderful work of great human value by a Danish master." Sebastian Barry, Man Booker finalist (Click on the picture to go to the book's Amazon page)

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Read More Foreign Literature, Pretty Please! (Introducing Three Scandinavians and a Pole)

Americans don't read foreign literature.

Why should they? All good writers in the world write in English. If you write in any other language, it's probably because there's something wrong with you. You must be sick or suffer from a slight retardation.

I should know because my retardation is called Danish. I can't help it, I was born this way, so being an endangered species myself it would be nice with a little compassion ...

What, am I being facetious? Maybe, but unfortunately it's a fact that Americans aren't interested in foreign literature. Less than 1%of the novels that come out in the US are translations. And most of them are published by small university presses, selling about 400 copies each. Thus, the American market is the hardest in the world to break into. You need luck, a great book, and a courageous publisher who has fallen in love with say, Hungarian haiku or Peruvian poetry.

One of my own novels, The Tsar's Dwarf is coming out in English in October, but let's forget about that for now (even though it's hard) and concentrate on four truly great writers from my neck of the woods - four books you simply have to read:

Three of the writers are Scandinavian and one is Polish. None of their books have broken any sales records in English. However, reading them will make you a better person. These books are original; they will entertain you and force you to think, and they'll show you that there actually is life outside the English speaking world, how strange that may seem to any Republican.

Here we go:

1. Tales of Protection by Erik Fosnes Hansen (Norway). One of the best books I ever read. A masterpiece of storytelling that mixes four stories from four different time periods: contemporary Norway, 19th century Sweden, 15th century Italy, and 20th century Africa. A novel about chance, coincidences, and how we humans are connected in the strangest ways.

This novel can be understood on many levels. Is its approach to life scientific, philosophical or religious? Fosnes Hansen's masterly novel is an interesting meditation on the word protection, whether its divine intervention, or ordinary people who support and help each other for no apparent reason.

No matter what your perspective is, Tales of Protection is an allegorical romp through the ages and is beautifully translated by Nadia Christensen. Read it, buy it, swallow it. I'm envious of those who haven't read it yet. They're in for a treat.

2. Prince by Ib Michael. (Denmark) Danish magical realism, any one? That sounds oddly contradictory, doesn't it? Ib Michael's novel takes place on a beach in Denmark in 1911. It's a lyrical, mysterious coming-of-age novel full of ghosts and ancient mariners that will blow you away if you're a lover of poetic language and writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Denmark has never been more exotic than in this dreamy tale that will speak to the child and the poet in you. And hey, the sun shines every day on this Danish beach. Magical realism indeed.

Prince sold 14.000 copies in the US, a decent amount for an "unknown" Scandinavian writer. However, this wasn't enough for the big bad publisher in New York, so they haven't picked up more titles by this great Danish writer. A crying shame!

Barbara Haveland is the translator of Prince and she has done an excellent job capturing Ib Michael's lyrical style. Great translations are hard to come by, but this is definitely one of them.

3.Popular Music From Vittula by Mikael Niemi (Sweden). Hey, all Scandinavians know that Swedes aren't funny. Just ask any Norwegian or Dane about that. The Swedes are overly serious, overly disciplined, and overly organized to the point of being anal - they're the Germans of Scandinavia. But why is it that they fail to live up to our ugly prejudices? Actually, Swedes make funny films, Swedes even write funny books, and this is definitely one of the very best.

Popular Music from Vittula is a hilarious coming-of-age story that takes place in Northern Sweden among the Finnish minority. But the beauty of this book is that it isn't "just" funny. It's incredibly well written, the language is beautiful, and the novel keeps on taking you by surprise, mixing reality with dreams and the weird imagination of an adolescent.

Matti is a young kid who discovers Beatles, homosexuality, girls, and loss. And the reader is in for a funny ride in this book of sunny snapshots of religious fanaticism, sulky Finns, witches in the forest, and black Volvos.

Popular Music is the most sold novel in Sweden ever. It gave a voice to a minority in an isolated part of Sweden that was exotic to the Swedes themselves. And hey, if you ever had a dream of becoming a rock star - I take that back: If you ever were fifteen years old, felt out of place and struggled with puberty, this is the book for you.

4. House of Day, House of Night by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland).
The word masterpiece is overly used, but this book is a damn masterpiece. It's a post modern novel full of amazing stories that are poetic, funny, strange, and stay with you for years. Olga Tokarczuk's book is not really a novel; it sure as hell isn't a collection of short stories, either. So what is it? I have no idea, I just enjoy the hell out of it.

What I can say is that House of Day, House of Night doesn't have a traditional plot but is the collected history of Silesia, a region in Southern Poland where everything and everybody, from mushrooms to tourists, have a story that demands to be told.

I bet you'll never forget House of Day, House of Night . You only go wrong with this book if you demand a traditional plot and characters with traditional arcs. In Tokarczuk's world, characters show up and disappear into thin air. Some are drunks, others are lovers, astrologers or collectors of dreams. Silesia itself, however, is the main protagonist. It sits on the border with the Czech Republic and Germany - very symbolic indeed because this novel sits on the border between reality and dreams, between myth and the collective unconscious.

Needless to say, House of Day, House of Night hasn't sold well in the US, but it won the Günther Grass prize in Europe and Olga Tokarczuk is a big name in her native Poland.

That's it: Three Scandinavians and a Pole for you to savour. Obviously, a lot of great books are written in foreign languages. Most of them you'll never hear about. They die a slow and painful death in their own languages. They fade away like ghosts on their dark and sinister continents while the world choke on Dan Brown and John Grisham.

But perhaps there is a ray of hope.

In Great Britain, about 2% of the published books are translated from a foreign language. Compared to the rest of Europe, it's an appalling low number, but it's still four times better than good, old USA.

Embrace the world, you wonderful Yanks.

Buy a foreign novel today. It might become the best friend you ever had ...

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