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Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Translated Fiction Courtesy of the Best Translated Book Awards

On May 27th, the winner of the eighth annual Best Translated Book Awards was announced at Book Expo America. The winner for the fiction category - from a longlist of twenty-five titles was Can Xue's The Last Lover (translated from Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen).  As explained on their website, the Best Translated Book Award is an American literary award launched by Three Percent in 2007 to bring attention to the best original works of international fiction and poetry published in the U.S. during the previous year

You're probably wondering why I'm bringing up this award? Well, when I was checking out the 2015 longlist I noticed two novels by African authors on the list. Naturally, this got me curious about what the other longlists were like in terms of African authors. So, I went back to the first longlist in 2008, scrolled through the past lists and here are the 12 books (including the 2 from this year's longlist) I spotted.* 



*I was unable to find the 2009 longlist and I didn't spot any on the 2012 list, and I may have also missed some out in the other years. 

I may have only been able to find 12, but from young women in an elite boarding school in Rwanda to suicide bombers in Morocco and a white woman and her black domestic worker in South Africa, the Best Translated Book Awards have a delightful selection of translated African fiction on their longlists. So why not give some of these works - from Angola, Djibouti, Egypt, Rwanda, Morocco, and South Africa - a try. Read on to find out more.



From the 2015 longlist:

Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret by Ondjaki, translated from the Portuguese by Stephen Henighan (Angola; Biblioasis)
By the beaches of Luanda, the Soviets are building a grand mausoleum in honour of the Comrade President. Granmas are whispering: houses, they say, will be exploded, and everyone will have to leave. With the help of his friends Charlita and Pi (whom everyone calls 3.14), and with assistance from Dr. Rafael KnockKnock, the Comrade Gas Jockey, the amorous Gudafretov, crazy Sea Foam, and a ghost, our young hero must decide exactly how much trouble he's willing to face to keep his Granma safe in Bishop's Beach.

Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated from the French by Melanie Mauthner (Rwanda; Archipelago Books)
In her first novel, Our Lady of the Nile, originally published in 2012 by Gallimard, Rwandan Scholastique Mukasonga drops us into an elite Catholic boarding school for young women perched on the ridge of the Nile. Parents send their daughters to Our Lady of the Nile to be moulded into respectable citizens ... and to escape the dangers of the outside world. Fifteen years prior to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, we watch as these girls try on their parents' preconceptions and attitudes, transforming the lycee into a microcosm of the country's mounting racial tensions and violence. In the midst of the interminable rainy season, everything unfolds behind the closed doors of the school: friendship, curiosity, fear, deceit, prejudice, and persecution. With a masterful prose that is at once subtle and penetrating, Mukasonga captures a society hurtling toward horror. 


From the 2014 longlist:
Horses of God by Mahi Binebine, translated from the French by Lulu Norman (Morocco; Tin House)    
On May 16, 2003, fourteen suicide bombers launched a series of attacks throughout Casablanca. It was the deadliest attack in Morocco’s history. The bombers came from the shantytowns of Sidi Moumen, a poor suburb on the edge of a dump whose impoverished residents rarely if ever set foot in the cosmopolitan city at their doorstep. Mahi Binebine’s novel Horses of God follows four childhood friends growing up in Sidi Moumen as they make the life-changing decisions that will lead them to become Islamist martyrs. 

The seeds of fundamentalist martyrdom are sown in the dirt-poor lives of Yachine, Nabil, Fuad, and Ali, all raised in Sidi Moumen. The boys’ soccer team, The Stars of Sidi Moumen, is their main escape from the poverty, violence, and absence of hope that pervade their lives. When Yachine’s older brother Hamid falls under the spell of fundamentalist leader Abu Zoubeir, the attraction of a religion that offers discipline, purpose, and guidance to young men who have none of these things becomes too seductive to ignore. 

Narrated by Yachine from the afterlife, Horses of God portrays the sweet innocence of childhood and friendship as well as the challenges facing those with few opportunities for a better life. Binebine navigates the controversial situation with compassion, creating empathy for the boys, who believe they have no choice but to follow the path offered them.
From the 2013 longlist:

Transit by Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated from the French by David Ball and Nicole Ball (Djibouti; Indiana University Press)

Waiting at the Paris airport, two immigrants from Djibouti reveal parallel stories of war, child soldiers, arms trafficking, drugs, and hunger. Bashir is recently discharged from the army and wounded, finding himself inside the French Embassy. Harbi, whose wife, Alice, has been killed by the police, is there too—arrested earlier as a political suspect. An embassy official mistakes Bashir for Harbi's son, and as Harbi does not deny it, both will be exiled to France, Alice's home country. This brilliantly shrewd and cynical universal chronicle of war and exile, translated into English for the first time, amounts to a lyrical and reflective history of Djibouti and its tortuous politics, crippled economy, and devastated moral landscape.

From the 2011 longlist
A Splendid Conspiracy by Albert Cossery, translated from the French by Alyson Waters (Egypt; New Directions)
Summoned home to Egypt after a long European debauch (disguised as "study"), our hero Teymour - in the opening line of A Splendid Conspiracy - is feeling "as unlucky as a flea on a bald man's head." Poor Teymour sits in a provincial cafe, a far cry from his beloved Paris. Two old friends, however, rescue him. They applaud his phoney diploma as perfect in "a world where everything is false" and they draw him into their hedonistic rounds as gentlemen of leisure. Life, they explain, "while essentially pointless is extremely interesting." The small city may seem tedious, but there are women to seduce, powerful men to tease, and also strange events: rich notables are disappearing. Eyeing the machinations of our three pleasure seekers and nervous about the missing rich men, the authorities soon see - in complex schemes to bed young girls - signs of political conspiracies. The three young men, although mistaken for terrorists, enjoy freedom, wit, and romance. After all, though "not every man is capable of appreciating what is around him," the conspirators in pleasure certainly do. 

The Jokers by Albert Cossery, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis (Egypt; New York Review Books)
Who are the jokers? The jokers are the government, and the biggest joker of all is the governor, a bug-eyed, strutting, rapacious character of unequal incompetence who presides over the nameless Middle Eastern city where this effervescent comedy by Albert Cossery is set. The jokers are also revolutionaries, no less bumbling and no less infatuated with the trappings of power than the government they oppose. And the jokers are Karim, Omar, Heykal, Urfy, and their friends, free spirits who see the other jokers for the jokers they are and have cooked up a sophisticated and, most important, foolproof plan toenliven public life with a dash of subversive humour. The joke is on them all.

The Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito, translated from the French by Robyn Creswell (Morocco; New Directions)
Abdelfattah Kilito's The Clash of Images is a sweet, Borgesian mix of bildungsroman memoir, family history, short-story collection, fable, and literary criticism. Written in a graceful and charming style, Kilito's story takes place in an unnamed coastal city of memories where a child experiences first-hand the cultural clash of text and image in a changing, modern society. The story unfolds in the medina, the msid (or Koranic school), the neighbourhood hammam (or bathouse), summer camp, and the local cinema - canished sites that inspire Kilito's meditation and eulogy. The Clash of Images is a celebration of the pleasures of storytelling, a magic lantern that delicately reveals how the world of books intimately connects with the world outside their pages,

Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns (South Africa; Tin House)
Set in apartheid South Africa, Agaat portrays the unique, forty-year relationship between Milla, a sixty-seven-year-old white woman, and her black maidservant turned caretaker, Agaat. In 1950s South Africa, life for white farmers was full of promise - young and newly married, Milla raised a son and created her own farm out of swathe of Cape mountainside with Agaat by her side. By the 1990s, Milla's family has fallen apart, the country she knew is on the brink of huge change, and all she has left are memories and her proud, contrary, yet affectionate guardian. With haunting, lyrical prose, Marlene van Niekerk creates a story about love and loyalty.

From the 2010 longlist:
The Zafarani Files by Gamal al-Ghitani (translated from French by Farouk Abdel Wahab)
An unknown observer is watching the residents of a small, closely-knit neighborhood in Cairo's old city, making notes. The college graduate, the street vendors, the political prisoner, the café owner, the taxi driver, the beautiful green-eyed young wife with the troll of a husband all are subjects of surveillance. The watcher's reports flow seamlessly into a narrative about Zafarani Alley, a village tucked into a corner of the city, where intrigue is the main entertainment, and everyone has a secret. Suspicion, superstition, and a wicked humor prevail in this darkly comedic novel. Drawing upon the experience of his own childhood growing up in al-Hussein, where the fictional Zafarani Alley is located, Gamal al-Ghitani has created a world richly populated with characters and situations that possess authenticity behind their veils of satire.

In the United States of Africa by Abdourahman Waberi, translated from the French by David and Nicoel Ball (Djibouti; University of Nebraska Press)
In a literary reversal as deadly serious as it is wickedly satiric, this novel by the acclaimed French-speaking African writer Abdourahman A. Waberi turns the fortunes of the world upside down. On this reimagined globe a stream of sorry humanity flows from the West, from the slums of America and the squalor of Europe, to escape poverty and desperation in the prosperous United States of Africa. It is in this world that an African doctor on a humanitarian mission to France adopts a child. Now a young artist, this girl, Malaïka, travels to the troubled land of her birth in hope of finding her mother—and perhaps something of her lost self. Her search, at times funny and strange, is also deeply poignant, reminding us at every moment of the turns of fate we call truth.

From the 2008 longlist:
The Book of Chameleons by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Angola; Simon & Schuster)
Félix Ventura trades in an unusual commodity; he is a dealer in memories, clandestinely selling new pasts to people whose futures are secure and who lack only a good lineage to complete their lives. In this completely original murder mystery, where people are not who they seem and the briefest of connections leads to the forging of entirely new histories, a bookish albino, a beautiful woman, a mysterious foreigner, and a witty talking lizard come together to discover the truth of their lives. Set in Angola, Agualusa's tale darts from tormented past to dream-filled present with a lightness that belies the savage history of a country in which many have something to forget -- and to hide. 

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (Morocco; Europa Editions)

Renée Michel is the dumpy, nondescript, 54-year-old concierge of a small and exclusive Paris apartment building. 

Paloma Josse also lives in the building. Acutely intelligent, introspective and philosophical, this 12-year-old views the world as absurd and records her observations about it in her journal. 
These two characters provide the double narrative of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and you will -- this is going to sound corny -- fall in love with both. 
Tender and satirical in its overall tone, yet most absorbing because of its reflections on the nature of beauty and art, the meaning of life and death. The intelligent Muriel Barbery has served readers well by giving us the gently satirical, exceptionally winning and inevitably bittersweet The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

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