Lonely, desperate, obsessive characters inform the stories in Barba’s latest collection.
Barba (Such Small Hands, 2017, etc.), an acclaimed Spanish writer, is a master of the novella. Shorter than a novel, longer than a story, the novella is an underused form in American fiction. That’s unfortunate because, done right, it’s as exacting and harrowing as anything else you’ll come across. Needless to say, Barba does it right. His most recent book to appear in English contains four novellas. The characters they describe are destructive, lonely, obsessive. In one, a teenage girl, desperate to disappear, becomes anorexic; in another, a newly married man gives himself over to training for a marathon to the exclusion of everything else. They’re each consumed by the need to gain control over their own bodies. In Nocturne, which opens the book, a 56-year-old man takes up with a 21-year-old boy but can’t escape the fear that the boy will leave him. Like the marathoner and the anorexic girl, what he yearns for is a way to control his own desire, to overcome it entirely. Descent, which closes out the book, describes a trio of grown siblings and their tyrannical mother, who has fallen down and broken her hip. But as with the other stories, a plot synopsis doesn’t do Barba justice. These plots are deceptively simple. What’s not simple are the characters themselves, the ways that they struggle, and yearn, and fall down. Barba’s not eager to help them back up. There are no happy endings here, no false resolutions. Instead, we get the uneasy, unsettling mysteries we get in our everyday lives.
A gorgeous, fully realized collection in which each novella can be appreciated on its own as well as in concert with the others.
In his latest autobiographical novel to be translated into English, Guatemalan native Halfon's same-named alter ego continues his far-flung travels to probe hidden family truths dating back to Nazi concentration camps.
The author, whose family relocated to the United States when he was 10, is as much instigator as investigator. Against the wishes of his maternal grandfather, a Polish Jew, Halfon visits the Lodz neighborhood where the old man lived before the Gestapo took him away (and where a former porn star now lives in his old place). Returning to Guatemala, he tries to determine whether it was his father’s brother Salomón who died at age 5 in a swimming accident there. Other Salomóns, including another 5-year-old who died an identical death, spin through the narrative. For Halfon the storyteller, unsolved mysteries and the freest of free associations satisfy his aims better than established facts. Halfon goes by "Hoffman" after someone mistakenly calls him that name—very possibly, Halfon determines, at the exact moment beloved actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died in New York. "Language is also a diving helmet," Halfon writes in recalling how worlds opened to him when he first learned English. With his slender but deceptively weighty books, which are at once breezy and melancholic, bemused and bitter, he opens up worlds to readers in return.
In this follow-up to The Polish Boxer (2012) and Monastery (2014), Halfon constructs a kind of postmodern memorial to his grandfathers, who outlived the horrors of the Holocaust but not its searing emotional aftereffects.
Demoted back to local policing from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s Homicide Division, Kyochiro Kaga (Malice, 2014) makes a deep impression on the quiet Nihonbashi Precinct.
The girl at the rice cracker shop is probably the first to notice Kaga’s novel approach to investigation. Rather than focusing on the crime scene in Kodenmacho where Mineko Mitsui was found strangled in her apartment, Kaga begins by looking at the rhythms of the street. Why do businessmen walking from the Hamacho neighborhood to the Ningyocho subway station still have their jackets on, while the men coming from Ningyocho have them slung over their shoulders? Naho Kamikawa, the shopkeeper’s granddaughter, feigns indifference as she sits sipping her banana juice with Kaga, but still she’s impressed at his perceptiveness. So are Yoriko, owner of a traditional restaurant down the street, and Akifumi, the apprentice at irascible Mr. Terada’s clock shop. As author Higashino describes Kaga’s incursion into the lives he finds at each of the street’s small shops, he seems to be crafting a chain of tiny, gemlike short stories—until the tales start intersecting, scaffolding on one another, and eventually creating a bridge between the lives of the longtime residents of Kodenmacho and the death of a woman who, for her own private reasons, chose to live in this obscure quarter of one of the world’s busiest cities.
Part Sherlock Holmes, part Harry Bosch, Higashino’s hero is a quietly majestic force to be reckoned with. Here’s hoping his demotion continues to bring him to the attention of readers from East to West.
A lively translation of postwar stories from Kono (1926-2015), a Japanese master of the unsettling.
There is a moment in the collection’s penultimate story, “Conjurer,” when the protagonist, Hisako, thinks back to a fight she witnessed between her married friends. They were vehemently arguing about whether a magic show they’d seen was real, and Hisako agreed to buy a ticket to the show to help settle their dispute. As she ponders the couple, she thinks, “They’d been forced to acknowledge something in each of them and also something about their very relationship that they’d been unconsciously avoiding, and, forced to become aware of it, they felt betrayed.” This moment shines a light backward on the rest of the collection: Kono’s specialty is this avoidance of the unconscious and the moments when the darkness of her characters’ psyches finally spills out. In the title story, a childless woman balances a violent misanthropy with an obsession with very young boys. In the opener, “Night Journey,” a couple walks across town to visit friends with whom they’ve tentatively agreed to swap spouses. The Twilight Zone–esque “Final Moments” explores what happens when a woman bargains with death for an extra 26 hours to live. In “Bone Meat,” a woman whose boyfriend has left her becomes increasingly haunted by seemingly mundane objects—clothes, oyster shells—that push her toward destruction. Kono, who died in 2015, structures most of her stories similarly, with an unsettling flashback at the center of a story told in chronological time to show the ways that the dark seeds of our actions are planted, often unwittingly. And though the structures of the stories repeat and the protagonists resemble each other, each story unburies something that feels both thrillingly specific and surprisingly contemporary.
Kono should be an electrifying discovery for English-speaking lovers of short fiction.
The ne’er-do-well scion of a Tehran merchant family emerges from war determined to recover what he lost—an arm, a lover, and crucial memories—in this multilayered, hypnotic tale.
In 1980s Iran, Amir Yamini coolly plays the libertine until one relationship grows serious, then unravels badly. The devastated young man seeks numbness in alcohol, but his drunkenness brings a horrific flogging of 80 lashes. He then enlists in the military during the Iran-Iraq War without telling his family. An explosion takes his left arm and lands him in a hospital for shellshock victims, where his mother and sister find him after a five-year search and take him home. The novel actually starts at this point and soon reveals Amir’s patchy memory and his obsession with finding his left arm to learn whether he was wearing a gold ring linked to his last lost love. History and politics, Islam and Morality Police permeate without overwhelming the narrative as it shifts between Amir’s present and past. His relationship with his sister is also a rich, tender thread throughout. Mandanipour, an Iranian writer whose first novel in English, Censoring an Iranian Love Story (2009), elicited allusions to M.C. Escher and Rubik’s Cube, does not do things simply here in his second, either. Sections alternate between a scribe “on his right shoulder” and one on his left, like good and bad angels, providing both omniscient narrative and Amir’s first-person reveries. The device suggests Amir’s unsteady grasp of reality, his own story, as his damaged, drifting mind tries to paste together dimly recalled shards of a broken life. The prose also reveals a writer in total control, easily moving from the banter of youth to lyrical or sensual flights befitting Amir’s former liking for poetry and seduction, to Persian folktales or hallucinatory fever dreams from a brain unhinged by battle, medication, and remorse.
A remarkable vision of the elusiveness of redemption and love.
Murakami (Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, 2014, etc.) returns with a sprawling epic of art, dislocation, and secrets.
As usual with Murakami, the protagonist of his latest, a long and looping yarn, does not bear a name, at least one that we know. As usual, he is an artist at loose ends, here because his wife has decided to move on. And for good reason, for, as he confesses, he has never been able to tell her “that her eyes reminded me so much of my sister who’d died at twelve, and that that was the main reason I’d been attracted to her.” A girl of about the same age haunts these pages, one who is obsessed with the smallness of her breasts and worries that she will never grow to womanhood—and for good reason, too, since she’s happened into an otherworld that may remind some readers of the labyrinthine depths of Murakami’s 1Q84. Dejected artist meets disappeared girl in a hinterland populated by an elusive tech entrepreneur, an ancient painter, a mysterious pit, and a work of art whose figures come to life, one of them “a little old man no more than two feet tall” who “wore white garments from a bygone age and carried a tiny sword at his waist.” That figure, we learn, is the Commendatore of the title, a character from the Italian Renaissance translated into samurai-era Japan as an Idea, with a capital I, whose metaphorical status does not prevent him from coming to a bad end. The story requires its players to work their ways through mazes and moments of history that some would rather forget—including, here, the destruction of Nanjing during World War II. Art, ideas, and history are one thing, but impregnation via metempsychosis is quite another; even by Murakami’s standards, that part of this constantly challenging storyline requires heroic suspension of disbelief on the reader’s part.
Altogether bizarre—and pleasingly beguiling, if demanding. Not the book for readers new to Murakami but likely to satisfy longtime fans.
A delicate net of intermingled lives underpins this witty, spirited novel about creating: art, love, self-sufficiency, and identity.
Øyehaug’s (Knots, 2017) first novel translated into English, by Dickson in able and deceptively straightforward prose, follows a clutch of loosely connected women pursuing their artistic visions and contending with distraction, most notably the lack, presence, or loss of love. There’s Sigrid—a literature student, “the kind...who has photographs of literary theorists on her wall”—who's beset by all three. Earnest and lonely, Sigrid has just discovered the poetry of Kåre, whose author photo she longingly rubs her cheek against just before chancing upon Kåre himself while on a walk. Caught in the reflected glare of Kåre’s fantasies, Sigrid is blinded to her work and their incompatibilities, not least among them Kåre’s absorption in his ex-girlfriend Wanda, a bassist who hides her insecurity behind a badass exterior. Next there’s Linnea, a young film director scouting locations and wistfully hoping to reunite with a past lover, whose primary connection to the others seems to be through Sigrid’s essay in progress about the prevalence in film of women in oversized men’s shirts. There’s Wanda’s friend Trine, a provocative performance artist and new mother who suddenly finds her methods and very drive for creation called into question. And finally, there’s Elida, the fishmonger’s daughter, also a literature student, who may be enmeshed in a fairy tale coming true. Rich with literary references and knowing authorial winks, is this “a perfect picture of inner life,” our fractured, contradictory desires, our cinematic fantasies, our melodrama and unassuageable aloneness? One of Øyehaug’s many gifts is to induce readers to gently laugh along with her at her characters, helping us, as we see our own absurdities in them, to gently laugh at ourselves.
If it isn’t precisely perfect, it’s awfully damn close.
Starnone’s latest novel describes a man’s visit with his grandson.
A new book from Starnone (Ties, 2017, etc.) is an event to celebrate. An exquisite Italian writer believed to be Elena Ferrante’s husband, he writes slim, elegant, meticulously crafted novels—and this is his best yet. An older man, an illustrator, comes from Milan, where he is currently living, to Naples, where he grew up, to look after his grandson while his daughter and son-in-law attend an academic conference. Mario, the 4-year-old, knows all kinds of things, like how to turn on the stove, how to set the table, and how to change channels on the TV. He’s annoying, in the way that 4-year-old know-it-alls are annoying. Meanwhile, his grandfather, whose health is no longer great and who no longer remembers exactly where he put the phone or whether he closed the balcony door, is struggling to complete the illustrations for “The Jolly Corner,” a Henry James story. In that story, a man returns to his childhood home after a long period of time away and becomes obsessed with the idea of who he might have been, what life he might have led, if he’d stayed. He’s desperate to catch sight of his own ghost. Starnone’s novel echoes James’ story but it also works entirely independently. Mario’s grandpa has ghosts of his own to confront. All the novel’s action occurs over the course of a few days. During that time, our elderly illustrator comes to doubt himself, his life, his achievements. He argues with Mario, and he tries to draw. Deceptively simple, the novel is also witty to the point of hilarity (see Mario’s argument with his grandpa about cartoons) and achingly moving.
A gorgeous account of a man’s struggle to reckon with the life he’s lived and the lives he hasn’t.
Another tricky treasure from an internationally renowned author.
Ugresic has been in exile from her native Croatia since the region emerged as a country after the breakup of Yugoslavia. A vocal critic of nationalism, she was, she says, branded a “whore, a witch, and a traitor.” It’s that second slur that is most intriguing when it comes to reading the author’s work. In Baba Yaga Laid an Egg (2010), she used a magical crone from Slavic folklore as a lens through which to view contemporary women’s lives. Here, she takes inspiration in the vulpine creature who gives this new book its name. As a mythic figure, the fox takes on and sheds attributes as he—or she—travels across cultures, but one characteristic seems to remain constant: The fox is an ambivalent type. By making the fox a sort of mascot to the first part of her novel, a section called “A Story about How Stories Come to Be Written,” Ugresic is creating an affinity between the writer and the trickster. Even at her most straightforward, Ugresic is a sly storyteller, and here she is using every trick in the postmodernist playbook. Indeed, there are moments when it seems like she’s pulling a fast one even when she isn’t. For example, a reader who isn’t knowledgeable about early-20th-century Russian literature might be forgiven for thinking Okay! An American Novel by Boris Pilnyak is an invention simply because that title is just too perfect. If Okay! is Ugresic’s creation, it’s a clever one. But the reader who bothers to Google is in for the delightful discovery that both Pilnyak and his “American novel” are real. Then we’re left to wonder what true and false mean in fiction anyway, a question Ugresic complicates by using a first-person narrator and autobiographical detail. The translators deserves special mention, too. “The fox meets frequently with affliction, and is thus consigned to loserdom, its personal attributes preventing contiguity with higher mythological beings.” The juxtaposition of “loserdom” and “contiguity” is not only funny; it also captures the high-low essence of Ugresic’s style.
Satire meets sci-fi, horror, and social criticism in the prolific Chinese novelist Yan’s latest concoction.
Something is always happening in Yan’s villages: They’re booming in The Explosion Chronicles (2016), turning into Red Disneylands in Lenin’s Kisses (2012), imploding under the weight of profiteers’ schemes in Dream of Ding Village (2011). Our narrator here is 14-year-old Li Niannian, nicknamed “Stupid Niannian,” who laments, “My own reputation is as minuscule as a speck of dust lost in a pile of sesame seeds, or a flea nit hidden on the back of a camel, an ox, or a sheep.” The child of morticians, he lives across the way from a writer named Yan Lianke in Gaotian, a village that, Niannian believe, lies at the center of the world. When we meet him, Niannian is imploring the celestial beings to protect Gaotian, his family, and Yan from decidedly weird events—for the people of Gaotian have turned in for the night, but they cannot sleep, and as they “dreamwalk” they do untoward things: Uncle Zhang goes off to work a field, waking in a start, only to chide himself: “You are truly fucking debased! Your wife ran away with someone else while you were busy working, yet you still come here to thresh grain for her.” More dangerously, Zhang Mutou, sure that his wife is messing around, finds her supposed lover while sound asleep and cracks his skull. Other dark mischief and many deaths—539, precisely—ensue, so that the village’s busiest enterprise is the crematorium, producing a gusher of icy-smelling “corpse oil”: “Most of this coldness was produced from people’s hearts, and without it the barrel would simply have been an ordinary barrel of oil." It’s as if to say that the official dream of “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” is capable of producing only death—a message that surely won’t cheer the Politburo, for which reason Yan's work is often banned in his native country.
As dreamscape realized, however horrible, Yan’s novel belongs in the company of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo and even James Joyce’s Ulysses.