Tongue Me! Summer Fiction in Translation.
Juni, junho, juin, and, er, rokugatsu—however you say "June" in these books' original language, their authors are no doubt thrilled to have their fiction published here in English next month. Below, reviews of four summer offerings from around the globe.
By Maxim Biller
Translated by Anthea Bell
Simon & Schuster, 224 pp., $23
"Love comes in spurts," sang proto–punk rocker Richard Hell, indulging in some unabashed sexual innuendo. German-Jewish author Maxim Biller takes a similar view of modern romance: The characters in his striking short-story collection Love Today pursue intimacy in fits and starts.
Biller's paramours are members of the well-educated, cosmopolitan set. They hop from New York to Israel to Eastern Europe, migrating from continent to continent but never shaking their claustrophobia, which is the prevailing mood in this book. An actor in Berlin can't get out of bed when he learns be might be a father; a bride finds out that her fiancé has been unfaithful and locks herself in her honeymoon suite in Tel Aviv.
Love is thwarted by sexual and emotional routines. Biller's characters manically strive to avoid former mistakes, but their efforts inevitably leave them paralyzed. In "Seven Attempts at Loving" and "Ziggy Stardust," childhood sweethearts relive their affairs over and over again, attempting—without success—to forge a more permanent connection. A lonely husband in "It's a Sad Story" looks for intimacy on a sex-chat hotline, yet can't help but sabotage himself: " 'Are you unhappy?' he said, and before she could answer he pressed zero and she was cut off. He heard music, the music they'd been playing on this line for years while you waited for the next woman."
When dealing with sex, Biller doesn't settle for innuendo. Taking his cues from Philip Roth, whom he has cited as one of his influences, he prefers to write about it in vivid (often diagrammatic) detail. But his spare and taut prose style—in Anthea Bell's translation—evokes Hemingway more than Portnoy's Complaint. Biller delivers a collection in which nothing feels extraneous, where gestures may be slight but never insignificant. — Tatyana Gershkovich
The Book of Chameleons
By José Eduardo Agualusa
Translated by Daniel Hahn
Simon & Schuster, 129 pp., $12
The gecko who voices Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa's The Book of Chameleons cannot save you 15 percent or more on your car insurance. But he can narrate the fantastical tale of an albino who creates false genealogies. Eulalio the gecko (who may be a reincarnation of Jorge Luis Borges) shares a house with Felix the albino, whose business card reads: "Guarantee your children a better past." The novel, set in Angola and written in Portuguese, concerns a photographer, José, who arrives at the albino's home demanding a deluxe package. He requires "a large family . . . portraits and anecdotes," as well as a new name and various supporting documents. But in a country with a history as bloody as Angola's, meddling with the past proves a fraught and dangerous affair.
Like Borges, Agualusa (in Daniel Hahn's translation) writes relatively straightforward prose embellished by vivid visual details. Unlike Borges, Agualusa has a tendency toward the precious—a woman who Polaroids rainbows, a chortling lizard. Agualusa's novel is gentler than Borges's fictions, but less intricate and arresting. At only 129 pages, the book also feels unnecessarily slimmed, with characters more cited than enfleshed. Agualusa describes memory as "a landscape watched from the window of a moving train." Perhaps with his next book he'll have the patience to slow that journey down and disembark at more stops along the way. — Alexis Soloski
By Florian Zeller
Translated by William Rodarmor
The Other Press, 259 pp., $23.95
A word of advice to young writers: You're not J.D. Salinger, so please ignorethe nagging impulse to attempt the next Catcher in the Rye.
Popular young French author Florian Zeller won the 2004 Prix Interallié for his third novel, Fascination of Evil (2004), which some critics said was influenced by bad-boy author Michel Houellebecq. In his fourth book (and first U.S. publication), he chronicles the late-night (mis)adventures of 14-year-old Julien Parme, a typically emotional teenager chafing against the restrictions of family and school. A bit of a Holden Caulfield lite, Julien nurtures delusions of one day becoming a famous novelist.
Tonight, however, his concerns are more immediate. After being grounded by his hectoring mother—and discovering that her "loser" boyfriend is going to make her his wife—Julien sneaks out to meet his friend at a party, hoping to woo his young crush, Mathilde. On the way to the party, he runs into his teacher, Madame Thomas, who consequently becomes his imagined mistress in the web of lies that he gradually unfurls during the course of the night. His wanderings through the streets of Paris lead him into a few bars and a run-down motel room, culminating with Julien alone at the train station, contemplating an escape to Italy as he devours Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf. Will he toss it all and run away to Rome, or return to the relative comforts of home? Despite some endearing insights, Julien's musings do little to prop up the meandering narrative, as the book's few moments of genuine pathos continue to evaporate into the Parisian night. — Eric Liebetrau
The Glass Slipper and Other Stories
By Shotaro Yasuoka, translated by Royall Tyler
Dalkey Archive Press, 146 pp., $22.95
Success greeted the Japanese author Shotaro Yasuoka, now nearly 90, immediately upon the publication of the short stories that make up The Glass Slipper and Other Stories. With frugal, occasionally lyrical prose (translated by Royall Tyler), these works, from the early 1950s, prize emotional and psychological depth over narrative propulsion, and feature hapless, illness-prone, passive narrators. "Like someone who's just fallen asleep," muses one, "I was drawn along through the empty city as if by an irresistible force."
The city is Tokyo, emptied out by the ravages of World War II, and Yasuoka's misfits glide through it in search of a decent job or some other sense of direction. Many have college degrees, but even they seem indivisible from the school-age protagonist of "Homework," the longest and most elusive tale included here. Today, readers might suspect that these anxiety-ridden twenty- and thirtysomethings are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Half a century ago, though, they roamed freely and fumbled through relationships with dainty, equally sensitive girls, as in the gorgeous title story. They also frequently deceive one another, like the strutting gang of dandy provocateurs in "The King's Ears," or writhe in impotent frustration beneath the chain-like bonds of family, like the son who falls "into a sort of weary resignation about being stuck" with his eccentric, self-sabotaging father in "The Sword Dance." Building upon the foundation laid by figures like novelist Yasunari Kawabata and filmmaker Yasujiru Ozu, Yasuoka has created a sturdy framework for these unsparing, deft character studies. — Brian Sholis
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