Reading Around: Absurd Science Fiction in Translation and the Ongoing Triumph of Bach


A laugh-out-loud apocalypse, a daft two-against-the-world love story, and a slashing yet humane science-fiction satire of our faith in corporate designers and the godawful way advertising can cram everything but itself right out of our brains—Andri Snær Magnason’s LoveStar (SevenStories Press, $16.95, 320 pages) is the rare novel that violates a reliable rule-of-thumb: Avoid new books compared to those of Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams.

Perhaps inspired by but never indebted to the best of those writers’ works, Magnason’s novel (translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb) withstands the comparisons whatever you may make of those perennials.

As sharp-elbowed end-times lit, LoveStar falls more on the Cat’s Cradle end, but cheerier, its quest for God and love and everything undampened by the brittle loneliness that afflicted poor Vonnegut. And, unlike The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s a smartly structured novel, written with feeling and fire, rather than being a print variation on a clever radio show.

Briefly: Icelandic tech titan Lovestar has liberated humanity from devices and cords after working out that we can transmit every wave we might want to transmit through bees and birds. (Bees are big in this future: As drones, they video everything they see, and for some reason they’ve destroyed Chicago.) Next Lovestar hits on a spectacular alternative to burying the dead: Fire them into the edge of space, chuck them from a rocket, and watch them go all shooting star on re-entry. Then he mastered love, discovering that each of us sends out a wave pattern identical to that of exactly one other person – a soulmate. The LoveStar corporation sets out pairing up all people, achieving perfect match after perfect match.

But what about our beleaguered hero, in love already with a woman who adores him back—yet who is soon “matched” by LoveStar with a new man? The grand illogic of love is pitted against cold science, of course, but that lovers-versus-society plotline takes up less than half of the novel’s pages. The rest concerns LoveStar the company’s chilling, hilarious marketing innovations—the speech centers of debtors are forced to shout about new products to passersby—and Lovestar the man’s quest to discover what happens to the strangest waves that people send off: prayer. It’s a seriously funny book, but also a serious one, translated with raucous grace.

There’s too few new novels in translation, so here’s a surprise that might make you feel better about one of our own change-how-you-live LoveStars, Amazon. Since 2010, the online giant has been offering works in translation under its AmazonCrossing imprint, books with titles like The Dead Man or Season of the Witch that you can dump onto a Kindle for five bucks. This month I tried two more ambitious new Amazon translations, both from the Spanish. The first, Wendy Guerra’s Everyone Leaves (Amazon Crossing, $4.99 download, $7.47 paperback), is teased in the press materials as “Cuba’s answer to The Diary of Anne Frank”—as if Frank has needed to be taken down a peg.

The book itself is fine: the fictional diary of a fictional girl with an abusive father. (The best-seller lists confirm that abuse is big on Amazon.) As she ages, the prose goes from stilted to flowery, and everyone who matters to her flees Cuba for freer nations. Eventually, she loses her virginity to an artist who pours milk all over her crotch, which—I just checked—does not happen to Anne Frank.

Much better is Rosa Montera’s Tears in Rain (Amazon Crossing, $4.99 Kindle, $9 paperback), an emotionally rich robots-and-aliens noir set in Madrid and inspired—the back cover assures us—“by the movie Blade Runner.” But that’s no slight to Philip K. Dick’s actual novels, as in Montera’s future everyone calls their androids “replicants” because, being real people, most of them have seen the movie but not read (or downloaded) the book.

The story is one of those pretzeling noirs, where the detective—a beautiful combat replicant named Bruna who drinks to blackout—is forever unsure just what she’s investigating, or why, or whether the people who have hired her might be worse than the bastards she’s after. Hunting down the source of corrupted memory implants that spur replicants to murder, Bruna confronts profound questions about memory itself. She also gets her ass stomped and at one point tries to shake a clue out of a pet space monkey. Montera prizes character and storytelling over what science-fiction fans call “worldbuilding,” so even the occasional wiki-style info-dumps cleverly advance the mysteries.

Unfortunately, the artless AmazonCrossing translation—by Lilit Zekulin Thwaites—routinely kills the narrative dead. Infelicities abound, some true gobstoppers. “By the great Morlay!” Bruna shouts, a reference to the rep philosopher Morlay but also a dare to grown-ups to keep reading. Toward the end, when the mystery has—in noir fashion—been covered up by the authorities, Bruna thinks of the official story not as “bullshit” or “ass-covering lies” but as “all that fake waffle.” That’s worth $5 right there.

Another oddity of Amazon: the fact that you can score the Bach Guild’s nine-hour set of Bach music for less than 10 bucks. That’s something to give Walter Benjamin fits. What listener will truly concentrate on such a surfeit of genius so easily available? In his illuminating study Reinventing Bach (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 498 pages, $30), Paul Elie offers something of an answer. From his discussion of Bach’s nearly 300 works for organ, “all of it so good”: “The effect of hearing all the music all together is not one of loss or diminishment, of thinning out or dumbing down. No, on the contrary, it is the experience of boundless abundance—an experience that is very close to the experience, the distinctive soul-swelling delight, that characterizes the encounter with Bach’s music generally.”

Go ahead, then, and download. And read Elie, if the composer’s radiant figures concern you. Reinventing Bach, while occasionally purple, is invaluable, a history not just of Bach but of his 20th-century interpreters (Schweitzer, Gould, Casals, Ma), their recordings, and in vital counterpoint the history of recording itself, always with an eye toward the way that record-making has altered our relationship to this music once meant to be played in church or court—and only heard, the poor souls, a couple of times per life. Elie is perceptive, inviting, and occasionally catty—the pop-crossover hits of Vanessa-Mae, he sniffs, now look as dated as Switched on Bach. He’s particularly good on the music’s secularization, over time, and the question of how we use it today, in our “Rome of aural superabundance.” His advice is sound, even thrilling: stop worrying and go with it.