Category Archives: InTranslation

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Translated from the Russian by Olena Bormashenko

Chicago Review Press, Chicago, 2012

Written in 1971, finally published in 1980.

I’ve been drawn to reading mysteries,fantasy and science fiction of late.  Not sure where I first heard of this one, but a foreword by Ursula K. LeGuin and a film by Andrei Tarkovsky based on this novel written in 1971 convinced me I had somehow missed a science fiction classic.

Alien visitors have come and gone, without so much as a “hello”.   They left stuff behind, just like a family who stops by the roadside for a picnic lunch and fails to pick up their trash.  The Zones where they landed are filled with strange artifacts coveted by the authorities.  They are also the stuff of a thriving black market.  We’ve figured out how to put some of these things to good use.  Others, as well as certain areas in the Zones, have proven to be deadly.  That doesn’t stop the stalkers.

Redrick Schuhart is a stalker, driven to enter the Zone and collect the mysterious objects left scattered between the bug traps and the slime.  Written like a noir thriller, Roadside Picnic is a portrait of humans in thrall to possibility of unending power and wealth.  Greed, loyalty and despair are presented without a political agenda, this from authors writing in Russia in the years before perestroika and glasnost.  Ursula LeGuin puts it best in her Foreword.

     Science fiction lends itself readily to imaginative subversion of any status quo.   Bureaucrats and politicians, who can’t afford to cultivate their imaginations, tend to assume it’s all ray guns and nonsense, good for children.  A writer may have to be as blatantly critical of utopia as Zamyatin in WE to bring the censor down on him.  The Strugatsky brothers were not blatant, and never (to my limited knowledge) directly critical of their government’s policies.  What they did, which I found most admirable then and still do now, was to write as if they were indifferent to ideology–something many of us writers in the Western democracies had a hard time doing.  They wrote as free men write.  From the Foreword to the new edition, page vi.

Boris Strugatsky’s Afterword is a fine description of the struggle he and Arkady went through to get Roadside Picnic published.

I really enjoyed this novel.  It is powerful, controlled and parts of it are truly creepy.  My only quibble is the presentation of women as cooks, maids and sex toys, typical for the time period.  I had hoped that kind of gender imaging was changing, but with the retro-fifties Mad Men backlash and the 50 Shades fiasco maybe I’m wrong.  The Tarkovsky film can be seen here.  There is also a series of video games inspired by the novel.



Filed under InTranslation, Russia, SciFi, Thoughts

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer.

Picador, New York, 2008

Originally published in Spain by Editorial Anagrama as Los dectectives salvajes in 1998.

From my TBR shelf.

Wow.  Reminds me a bit of the old days.  A four-day weekend, a beach house, lots of wine and plenty of weed.  Loud music, creative energy, you get the idea….

The Savage Detectives runs to over 600 pages and is divided into three sections.

The first, Mexicans Lost In Mexico, is told through the diary entries of  Juan García Madero.  Juan is a 17-years-old  law school student who dreams of becoming a poet and is suddenly invited to join the Visceral Realists.  Who are the Visceral Realists?  A group of poets and want-to-be poets striking out against the mainstream and spending a lot of of their time stoned, drunk and changing lovers like musical chairs.  The two poets who head this movement are Arturo Belaño, a Chilean of questionable character and his best friend Ulises Lima, the quiet one.  Are these two poets or small-time thieving dope dealers?

The middle section of the novel, The Savage Detectives, is made up of brief interviews with more than fifty characters.   Belaño and Lima are on a search for the vanished poet, Cesárea Tinajero, the “mother of Visceral Realism” and travel to many places tracing her history.  Or are we actually tracing their history?  The timeline runs from 1976-1996, the characters run the gamut from poets to police detectives.  I found myself constantly moving back and forth within the text tracking who knew whom, who slept with or fought with whom.

In the last section, The Sonora Desert, we return to García Madero’s diary.  Juan,  Arturo, Ulises and their friend Lupe, a prostitute from Mexico City, are zeroing in on the mysterious Cesárea.  They are being chased by Lupe’s pimp, Alberto.  It is a wild road trip through Sonora that ends in Santa Teresa, the city based on Ciudad Juárez, that plays such a vital part in the 2666.

The Savage Detectives is a Chinese puzzle box of a novel.  Like one of those old desks with a multitude of drawers, cubby holes and hidden spaces,  I would open it and find something new, sometimes enticing, often frightening.  Autobiographical,  containing people, events and bits of history from 1970’s Mexico, The Savage Detectives is a rant and a love letter, filled with rebellion and with regret, I think, for lost loves and lost friendships.  Frustrating at times, as I found the writing in 2666, I am astounded at Bolaño’s creative energies, the multiple voices, places, the literary and political arguments.   It is a very moving, funny and terrifying look at youth, love and violence.

I am not a literary critic or Latin American literary scholar.  There is really no way that I can summarize or analysis this novel.  All I can tell you is my personal experience with Bolaño’s words and that they have an effect on me, both intellectually and emotionally.  His words and the way he puts them together, as translated by Natasha Wimmer, and the short stories and interviews I have read, have me wanting to read as much of Roberto Bolaño’s work as I can find.

Thanks to Rise and Richard for organizing this group read.   Maybe we can do it again.  I tried to read Hopscotch once, would be willing to try it again.


Filed under Group Read, InTranslation, LiteraryFiction, Roberto Bolano

Underground by Haruki Murakami

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami

Translated from the Japanese by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel

Vintage International, New York, 2001

Borrowed from my local Library.

After reading Kafka on the Shore, and not being sure what I thought of Haruki Murakami, I decided to read his book on the 1995  Aum Shinrikyo Tokyo gas attacks.  Murakami says in his introduction that he was motivated to write Underground because he had been living away from Japan, wanted a deeper understanding of his home country and felt an obligation to those who had died in and survived the attack.  He wanted to have their voices heard.

Underground is actually two books that were published separately in 1997 and 1998.   The first part,. Underground, is made up of interviews with survivors of the 1995  attack in the Tokyo subway system, the second part, The Place That Was Promised, contains interviews with people who had been involved with Aum Shinrikyo.

From the interview with Toshiaki Toyoda, a Subway Authority workman.

    There were ordinary passengers who unfortunately lost their lives or suffered injuries just because they were traveling on the subway.  People who are still suffering mentally or are in pain.  When I consider their lot, I don’t have the luxury to keep seeing myself as a victim.  That’s why I say: “I’m not a sarin victim, I’m a survivor.”  Frankly, there are some latent symptoms, but nothing to keep me bedridden.  I’m just glad I survived.

The fear, the mental wounds are still with me, of course, but there is no way to flush them out of my system.  I could never find words to explain it to the families of those who died or sacrificed their lives on the job.  From page 38.

Murakami shows great respect for the people he interviewed, never interfering with their answers and yet drawing them out.  I am deeply impressed by his level of caring and by his commitment to his fellow citizens.  I am also moved by the survivors, their willingness to share their stories and their commitment to their culture and to each other. I find the difference between our two culture profound.

I also really appreciate the depth of Murakami’s intelligence, his clarity of thought and willingness to probe deeply into his own psyche.

From Blind Nightmare: Where Are We Japanese Going?

            …I am a novelist, and as we know a novelist is someone who works with “narratives”, who spins “stories” professionally.  Which meant to me that the task at hand was like a gigantic sword dangling over my head.  It’s something I’m going to have to deal with much more seriously from here on.  I know I’m going to have to construct a “cosmic communication device” of my own.  I’ll probably piece together every last scrap of junk, every weakness, every deficiency inside me to do it.  (There, I’ve gone and said it – but the real surprise is that it’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do as a writer all along!)

So then, what about you? (I’m using the second person, but of course that includes me.)

Haven’t you offered up some part of your Self to someone (or something), and taken on a “narrative” in return?  Haven’t we entrusted some part of our personality to some greater System or Order? And if so, has not that System at some stage demanded of us some kind of “insanity”?  Is the narrative you now possess really and truly your own?  Are your dreams really your own dreams?  Might not they be someone else’s visions that could sooner or later turn into nightmares?  From page 233.

The second part of this book is made up of interviews with people connected to Aum Shinrikyo at the time of the attacks.  It is chilling how easily these people, all of whom seem intelligent and humane, were disconnected from their families, their peers and any sense of empathy or compassion.  They became “mindless” but sincerely thought otherwise.  Read that quote from Blind Nightmare again.

I will definitely read more of Murakami’s work, even as I struggle to make sense of it.

Other reviews:


Dolce Bellezza


The Parrish Lantern

things mean a lot

Thyme for tea


Filed under Culture, History, InTranslation, JapaneseLiteratureChallenge 5, Nonfiction, Review

The Lake – Banana Yoshimoto

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto

Translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich

Melville House, Brooklyn, 2011

Borrowed from my library.

This is another beautiful book from Banana Yoshimoto.  I now want to read all of her work.

The Lake starts out slowly.  I found I had to slow down, quiet down, before I could be comfortable with these pages.

Chihiro, a young mural artist, is trying to understand the relationship that is developing with her neighbor, Nakajima. After caring for her mother through a long illness, Chihiro has just returned from her funeral.  She feels disconnected from her father and can’t figure out her emotional attachment to the strange young man who has started sleeping over.

Yoshimoto’s writing is simple and subtle, her characters are  lovable and a bit odd.  The mystery pulls you in like quicksand, before you know it you are caught.  This story feels old-fashioned but Yoshimoto breaths life into language and plot in a way I find extraordinary.  There are little gems hidden in places that surprise.

That’s how it goes.  Things look different depending on your perspective.

As I see it, fighting to bridge those gaps isn’t really what matters.  The most important thing is to know them inside and out, as differences, and to understand why certain people are the way they are.  From page 127.

You don’t necessarily have to want to become an adult; it happens as a matter of course, as you go, making choices.  The important thing, I think, is to choose for yourself.  From page 136.

It would give too much away to tell more of this story.  If you liked Kitchen or Lizard I think you will enjoy The Lake.

I read this novel as part of the Japanese Literature Challenge 5.  Why don’t you join in?


Filed under InTranslation, LiteraryFiction, Review

Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras

Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras

Translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne

Black Cat, New York, 2010

Borrowed from the library.  I have to thank Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog for introducing me to this wonderful, funny and moving book.  This book was nominated for the Booktrust 2011 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

What does a child do when the world around him starts to fall apart?  Kamchatka is a story of  a ten-year-old boy and his family living in Buenos Aires in1976.  The boy, who eventually calls himself Harry after Harry Houdini, and his brother, the “Midget”,  live in a world of school  and comic books, TV, friends and loving parents.  His biggest thrills are the games of Risk he plays with his father.

As the military takes over the country, Harry’s parents friends start disappearing.  Eventually his mother pulls him from school and the family travels outside of the city to stay in a country house.

Kamchatka is  Harry’s story, we hear him looking back on his life as a ten-year-old.  I found this to be one of the best portrayals of a young person I have read in quite a while, and knowing some of the history of Argentina during that time only added to the tension that Figueras creates in his novel.

Since the uncertainties of the present weighed heavily on me, I had been spending a lot of time thinking about my future.  The idea of becoming an escape artist struck me as clearly as a vision: once the notion was firmly planted in my brain, all my worries disappeared.  Now I had a plan, something that, in the near future, would tie up all the loose ends of my circumstances.  From page 95.

Then there is Harry as an adult, looking back on his life, his family, his country.

We get our first glimpses of the big wide world from those we love unconditionally.  If we see our elders suffer because they cannot get a job, or see them demoted, or working for a pittance, our compassion translates these observations and we conclude the world outside is cruel and brutal. (This is politics.)  If we hear our parents badmouthing certain politicians and agreeing with their opponents,  our compassion translates these observations and we conclude that the former are bad guys and the latter are good guys.  (This is politics.)  If we observe palpable fear in our parents at the very sight of  soldiers and policemen, our compassion translates this observation and we conclude that, though all children have bogeyman, ours wear uniforms.  (This is politics.) From page 39.

Kamchatka is presented not in chapters but in periods, like a school day: Biology, Geology, Language, Astronomy, History,  allowing Harry to integrate as an adult the lessons he learned as a child, allowing him to tell his story.  He constantly references his favorite books, books that help him make sense of his past and help him to move into his future.  Kamchatka, like most books I love, is a novel about stories.  It is through stories that we tell our truths and hold on to our histories.

I believe that stories do not end, because even when the protagonists are dead, their actions still have an impact on the living.  This is why I believe that History is like an ocean into which rivers of individual histories flow.  Everything that has gone before underpins the present; we continue those stories just as those who come after us continue ours.   We are bound together in a web that spans all of space; a web large enough to include all those alive today, but also all those of yesterday and tomorrow.  From pages 273/274.

I think Frank Wynne has done a fantastic job of translation, maintaining the spirit of Figueras’ intention. I hope there are other Figueras translations in the works,  I cannot wait to read more.


Filed under Argentina, ContemporaryFiction, InTranslation, Review

Agaat: A Novel by Marlene Van Niekerk

Agaat: A Novel by Marlene Van Niekerk

Translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns

Tin House Books, Portland, 2010

Borrowed from the library.  Winner of the Three Percent 2011 Best Translated Book Award.

When I started reading Agaat, I wasn’t sure whether I would stick with it.  Milla, the widow of a white South African farmer, is dying of a creeping paralysis and struggling to communicate with her caretaker, Agaat, a black women born with a shriveled arm.  Parts of the novel are written from Milla’s point of view as she becomes unable to speak, move and breath.  I found it difficult to read.  Through first person and third person points of view  Milla mulls over her life on the farm and her disturbing history with Agaat.  It was these two women, one white, one black, and their connection through time, that held me,.

Their relationship is an allegory for South Africa’s final struggles with apartheid and that country’s history during the last half of the twentieth century.  Now it is Agaat who is in control, who cares for Milla, and who manages to work out her needs through a series of eye blinks.

The morning sun lights up Agaat’s cap from the back.  Full of embroidery holes it is, densely edged with shiny white thread.  The points of light in the weft flicker as she approaches.  She hesitates over my bed, inclines her head, feels along the high peak with both hands, touches the base on both sides, whether it’s well pinned, whether it’s properly seated.  If the caps is on as it should be, she’s empowered to walk through fire.  Her crown of glorified cotton, her mitre, her fire-barrel speckled with light, that gives her dominion over the underworld.  She deliberately touches it in such a way that there should be no doubt in my mind of her intention.  She is mustered, she is prepared, I mustn’t give any more trouble, she’ll sort me out here, she’s the commander of my possibilities.  From page 47.

But it hasn’t always been this way.  Childless after seven years of marriage, Milla “rescued” Agaat from a life of “misery” and raised her, grooming her to become a house-maid.  We learn of this history through a collection of diaries.

Today she is sitting in the corner in a little heap with her knuckles in her mouth.  A sign of progress already, I suppose, that at least she’s sitting up.  Yesterday she crawled under the bed.  I had to drag her out of there three times.  Clung to the bed-leg with the good hand.  Surprisingly tough, the little monkey, that hand I just about had to prise open to get her to let go.  The third time I gave her a sharp slap over the buttocks.  She must learn, my goodness.  She can’t come and play her tricks on me.  Showed her Japie.  A Good old-fashioned duster with a solid wooden handle.  From page 393.

She’s in thrall to my eyes now.  She looks everywhere that I look.  Ever more complicated bluffing games we play, surprise games, guessing games.  I could never have dreamed you can achieve so much with your eyes.  From page 403

As we begin to understand Milla and Agaat’s history, Grootmoedersdrift, the farm they live on, becomes another character in this novel.  The farm, along with others owned by white farmers, and what happens on them is as much a part of the struggle for freedom as the Afrikaaner owners and African workers who toil on them.

There is Milla’s husband, Jak, violent and abusive, unwilling to face the changes that are in the wind, and their son, Jakkie, a boy growing up with two mothers, one distant and demanding, the other offering only love and comfort.  It is Jakkie who sees the struggle coming, who is aware of the effects of apartheid, and who finally leaves, with Agaat’s help and support.

I am not a professional reviewer.  There is really no way I can completely do justice to this novel except to say that it is, in the end, a love story.   I can suggest, if this time and place in world history are of interest to you, that you read it.  Marlene Van Niekerk, a poet and novelist, has written what I consider a masterpiece.  There many layers of Afrikaans culture woven throughout this novel, bits of songs, games, rhymes and lore.  Michiel Heyns, also a  novelist and academic,  has done an extraordinary job of translation and has included a glossary of Afrikaans and South African words.

Other Reviews:

Literary License


Filed under ContemporaryFiction, InTranslation

Touch by Adania Shibli

Touch by Adania Shibli

Translated from the Arabic by Paula Haydar

Clockroot Books, Northhampton,  2010

Borrowed from the library.

A short book, just 72 pages, made up of brief pieces that read like prose poems.  It is as if I had up and read bits of paper that were scattered about, and by reading them, learned of the life of a Palestinian girl, the youngest of nine sisters.   Through everyday occurrences that gather weight and substance, in language that is ordinary and yet eerily dreamlike, Shibli tells the story of the tragedy that is modern-day Palestine.  It is beautiful.

Black swallowed all the colors.  She lit the lantern in the room, and the white paint jumped into it while the blackness stood on the windowsill , carelessly filling in the spaces between the windows bars…
Before the sun was created , black alone filled the universe.  Black was there before the creation.  Before she was born.  And after she would die , blackness would return to its place, her empty place.  From page 13.

Learning to read and write changes this young woman’s life.  Although we can not see into her future we can hope that her world will become a more peaceful place.  This book is layered and meaningful,  feel my understanding of Touch will increase as I read it again.


Filed under ContemporaryFiction, InTranslation, Review