Pen Atlas: Best Books

I am a very proud member of English PEN; I am also a huge supporter of PEN Atlas. So I’d like to devote my final Blog before Christmas and New Year – a time when we reflect on what’s good and bad about the world – to draw attention to PEN’s outstanding work on behalf of writers round the world.


A reminder, from their website: English PEN is the founding centre of a global literary network. We work to defend and promote free expression, and to remove barriers to literature.’ And, ‘The PEN Atlas is your gateway to a world of literature. Every Thursday, we post literary dispatches from around the world, showcasing the very best international writers. We hope to bring new insights into the rich literary landscape that may be found beyond the English language’.

And because it’s also the season for giving out ‘gongs’, I’d like to award 2 gongs: one to the tireless Jo Glanville, Director of English PEN (and I’m proud to say, my former BBC colleague) and to the inspired Editor of Pen Atlas, Tasja Dorkofikis. With Tasja’s permission I’m sharing PEN’s Best Translated Books of 2014 – as selected by some of my esteemed writing and translating PEN colleagues. Happy Christmas Reading everyone!

Jo Baker, writer Suspended Sentences, by Patrick Modiano, translated by Mark Polizzotti (Yale University Press) Together, these three novellas form a beautiful evocation of life in and around Paris towards the latter part of the 20th Century. They each centre on a noirish mystery – the search for a shadowy figure, or for something just out of reach – but these are stories that resist resolution. Ultimately, they’re more concerned with absences, with gaps, with what can’t quite be remembered or grasped, than with what has ‘actually happened’… and so they feel like lace, full of elegantly captured spaces. As the narrator of ‘Afterimage’ says: ‘Of all the punctuation marks… ellipses were his favourite’. He’s talking about the photographer Jensen, but that could equally be suggested of Modiano himself.

Alexandra Büchler, director of Literature Across Frontiers Nowhere People by Paulo Scott (And Other Stories) stands way out among the books I read in 2014. It’s the kind of novel you read and already look forward to reading it again although it makes such a painful read. Translated from the Brazilian Portuguese by Daniel Hahn, it is an innovative and emphatic j’accuse by a former lawyer and activist, a great example of the possibility of political engagement through literature, a reminder of one of the worst crimes in the history of mankind, the crime of displacing and annihilating indigenous people around the globe. Read this if you don’t mind crying.  Kirmen Uribe’s Bilbao – New York – Bilbao (Seren Books) translated from the Basque by Elizabeth Macklin is a mix of travel writing, family history and reflections on Basque culture and its place in today’s world. It is a book about journeys, the many journeys made by Uribe’s father and grandfather on Basque fishing boats and his own travels as a writer who has inherited their language. Read this if you want to be moved by the simple prose of an author who is primarily a poet.   Lasha Bugadze was one of the Georgian writers on board of Literature Express, a train carrying some 100 authors across Europe to celebrate the new millenium. His novel of the same title  translated from the Georgian by Maya Kiasashvili (Dalkey Archive Press), is a fictionalized account of that journey. Brilliant, funny, tragicomic, it pokes fun at the construct of Europe with its inherent hierarchies and inequalities played out in the environment of a literary festival on wheels. Read this if you want to laugh.

Robert Chandler, translator from Russian Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, trans. Oliver Ready (Penguin Classics).  At last we have a translation that brings out the wild humour and vitality of the original.  A.N. Wilson, who also chose this as a ‘Book of the Year’, is right to call it a ‘truly great translation’.  Prue Shaw, Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity (Liveright, 2014).  A book about Dante rather than a translation – but Prue Shaw succeeds brilliantly in making a foreign writer accessible to a wider readership, which is, of course, just what a translator does.  I have been reading and re-reading Dante all my adult life and have never read anything better, clearer or more inspiring about him.

Jonathan Coe, writer The book I most enjoyed in English translation this year was Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère translated by John Lambert (Allen Lane). It’s rare to find a book so original in form (is it a novel? is it a biography?) and at the same time so compelling in content. A fascinating portrait, not just of a memorably grotesque, larger-than-life character, but of Russia itself.

Geraldine D’Amico, Folkestone Book Festival and King’s Place Spoken Word Programmer and translator My favourite book this year was certainly Frederic Gros’ A Philosophy of Walking translated by John Howe (Verso Books). This is a book about the simplest, most basic thing human beings have been doing for ever, whether to go from point A to point B, to experience nature or as a form of exercise. Frederic Gros is both a keen walker and a philosopher. In his book he alternates chapters about his experience as someone who simply enjoys walking, preferably slowly, and chapters about famous thinkers and why walking was important for them: from Kant who had such a routine that you could set your watch by the time he appeared at a certain place, to Rimbaud, the wandering poet, Thoreau and his cabin in the woods and many more. It is a delightful book to be read from beginning to end or dipped in now and then, perfect to pack in a rucksack and pull out with one’s picnic, food for the mind and the soul.

Boris Dralyuk, translator from Russian I’ve been lucky enough to review a number of books in translation in 2014 and I would eagerly recommend Bill Johnston’s inspired recreation of the contemporary Polish poet Tomasz Różycki’s mock-epic Twelve Stations (Zephyr, 2014), Bryan Karetnyk’s sensitive re-translation of the Russian émigré novelists Gaito Gazdanov’s ‘metaphysical thriller’ The Buddha’s Return (Pushkin Press, 2014), and John Lambert’s seamless rendition of Emmanuelle Carrere’s rollicking biographical novel Limonov (Allen Lane, 2014). But I’d be a fool to squander an opportunity to praise two more publications that are not to be missed. Anne Marie Jackson, Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Clare Kitson, Irina Sternberg and Natalie Wase have done an extraordinary service to the Russian author Teffi (1872-1952) — and to the Anglophone reader — by selecting and translating Subtly Worded (Pushkin, 2014), a volume of stories that could not be more aptly titled. Teffi was not only a great wit and an impeccable stylist, but one of the twentieth century’s most perceptive and clear-headed observers. Subtly Worded is flawless — a true revelation. This year Antonia Lloyd-Jones, one of the premiere translators of Polish prose, has brought us Mariusz Szczygieł’s remarkably engaging Gottland (Melville House, 2014), an idiosyncratic chronicle of the Czechs’ Kafkaesque journey through the twentieth century. Szczygieł’s book exposes the dangers of compromise, the importance of memory, and the differences between the national experiences of two Slavic peoples – a particularly relevant subject, in a year when the Slavic world is again in crisis.

Maya Jaggi, a cultural journalist and literary critic, a judge of this year’s International Impac Dublin Literary Award Tomás González is among the brilliant Colombian writers emerging from the shadow of Gabriel García Márquez. In the Beginning Was the Sea (Pushkin Press), translated by Frank Wynne, is about a 30-something couple from Medellín who buy a run-down estate on the Caribbean coast to live the good life, but whose rustic dream sours as they fatally antagonise the locals. It’s a forensic portrait of a doomed relationship and environmental hubris, with the irony of a plantation novel – and a cautionary tale for anyone thinking of escaping to the country. Joan Sales’s Uncertain Glory (MacLehose Press), a Catalan-language classic from the 1950s revived in Peter Bush’s translation minus the cuts of Franco’s censors, follows three men in love with the same woman in civil-war Spain. Sales fought for the Republicans in the Aragon trenches, and lays bare the absurdities of war with astringent satire through the disillusioned eyes of the defeated. I would also recommend Kirmen Uribe’s novel Bilbao-New York-Bilbao (Seren Books), translated by Elizabeth Macklin. A reflective insight into three generations of Basque family history, it is crafted with the structure of a trawler’s net by one of Spain’s most exciting young novelists – who writes in Basque – and is the perfect read for anyone on a plane.

Roland Gulliver, Associate Director, Edinburgh International Book Festival He has been hitting all the literary headlines this year but Karl Ove Knausgaard is definitely worth the hype. Reading the first three books in his series, Death in the Family, Man in Love and Boyhood Island translated by Don Bartlett (Harvill Secker), has been an incredible experience. Intense, insightful, funny, addictive; like all great books they make you see yourself and your world afresh, challenging your perspectives on art, literature and society. My great discovery this year was George Simenon (translated by David Bellos, Anthea Bell, Linda Coverdale and many more). Penguin have taken on the admirably impressive task of retranslating all of his novels over a 7 year period. I have to confess I had stereotyped Maigret as pedestrian Sunday night TV but the novels are fascinating. These short novels capture society in post-war France, highlighting the class divide and the rise of the petit-bourgeoisie, the growth of cities and the fear of immigration, and desperate measures people go to out of fear, greed or just trying to survive. Finally, my funniest book of the year is Weapons of Mass Diplomacy written by Abel Lanzac, drawn by Christophe Blain and translated by Edward Gauvin (SelfMadeHero). Set in the French Foreign Office at the time of the Iraq crisis, it is that rare beast of laugh out loud funny. A graphic novel version of The Thick of It with a unique Gallic twist!

Daniel Hahn, translator from Spanish and Portugese My choice would be The Adventures of Shola, by Bernardo Atxaga, and translated by Margaret Jull Costa –  a charming, witty, spirited collection of stories about the exploits of an irresistibly characterful little dog. It’s a children’s book – Atxaga’s first in English – and a great Christmas present for children, but I think I may have to buy a few copies for adults, too…

Amanda Hopkinson, translator from Spanish, Portugese and French One is – or rather are – two children’s books by Erich Kästner, translated from the German by the impeccable Anthea Bell. Just like Emil and the Detectives, Kästner’s best-known tale, The Flying Classroom and The Parent Trap are pitched at 9+-year-olds, and I enjoyed every word of both, before reluctantly passing them onto my grandson. They explore childhood with wit and invention while spinning magical yarns interwoven with the erratic and bizarre actions of adults and the independent-mindedness of children. Small wonder the Nazis saw fit to burn them!  My other choice does not have a translator but is, in a sense, still a translation. Only recently has Turkish novelist Elif Shafak started composing her books in English, and The Architect’s Apprentice is clearly an original, unfiltered through any word-for-word mental process. It spans an elephantine journey from Hindustan through the Ottoman Empire, relaying the adventures of a baby – then growing – elephant and his mahout. Stuffed with histories of new worlds and human ways, this is magical realism as it encounters Orientalism in a literary explosion akin to a New Year’s firework display.

Michele Hutchinson, translator from Dutch and editor There are some fantastic Dutch children’s classics and Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt is one of them. Laura Watkinson’s skilful translation was published this year by Pushkin Press and garnered excellent reviews. The strapline reads, ‘A young messenger. A secret mission. A kingdom in peril’. A perfect gift for a young nephew or niece.  That same nephew or niece might also enjoy The Cat Who Came in off the Roof by Annie M.G. Schmidt, one of the best-loved Dutch children’s writers of all time. Beautifully packaged by (again) Pushkin Press in a retro-looking edition and charmingly translated by David Colmer.

Antonia Lloyd-Jones, translator from Polish One of my favourite books to be published this year is Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal (Archipelago). Any Hrabal fans will recognise the nameless narrator as the beautiful heroine of his earlier work, The Little Town Where Time Stood Still. Now she and her husband Francin, manager of the brewery, and his charismatic brother Uncle Pepin, are finishing their days in a most unusual retirement home – a decaying castle that once belonged to a legendary count, where classical figures continue to pose and battle in crumbling paintings and sculptures. As the narrator reminisces and her fellow pensioners tell their stories of the past, we sense that rather than standing still, time is running in parallel, and the people in their colourful tales are still very much alive, while also being long since dead and gone. Meanwhile, the lovely ballet music of ‘Harlequin’s Millions’ drifts throughout the castle as a constant accompaniment to Hrabal’s lilting prose, which has lost none of its lyricism in Stacey Knecht’s magnificent translation. 

Catherine Taylor, literary critic, Deputy Director of the English PEN Elena Ferrante has been the year’s  most-talked about sensation in literature – quite possibly for the wrong reasons. The extreme reclusiveness of the author has led to debates which go far beyond any assessment of her actual work. And what subversive, sensuous work it is. In Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay, (Europa Editions) translated with aplomb by Ann Goldstein, the third volume in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series of novels about childhood friends Lila and Elena, she explores the intense rivalries of female friendship and nascent feminism against the backdrop of Italy in the 1960s. His first book, Traveller of the Century, was a bulky, quintessential novel of ideas. Talking to Ourselves, Andrés Neuman’s new book (Pushkin Press), is short, intense and unforgettable as a small family comes to terms with the terminal illness of one of its beloved members. Excoriating , painfully soul-searching and impeccably translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza García. Lastly, Isaac Babel, the great Russian writer who died in 1940 at the height of Stalin’s purges, is well-served by a new translation of his best-known collection, Red Cavalry (Pushkin Press). Boris Dralyuk brings to vivid life Babel’s wry, unflinching account of his time as a correspondent in the Red Army during Russia’s civil war.

Adam Thirlwell – writer The translated book I loved most this year was Michel Laub’s Diary of the Fall (Harvill Secker) translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Its themes seem pure grandeur – memory, the Holocaust, writing, nostalgia – but its construction is so original and elegant that the grandeur seeps into you, unawares. What I mean is: it might not seem the perfect Christmas present, but on the principle that you should give the best books to the people you love, then everyone you love should get Michel Laub’s new novel.

Ros Schwartz, translator from French My choice is The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov, translated by Andrew Bromfield (Peirene Press). Exquisitely written and translated, searing, magical, inventive and poignant – one of those books that stays with you for a long time.  

Naomi Wood, writer I’m afraid I’m only just crawling out from my Hemingway-sized reading hole, but the book I really enjoyed reading in translation was Elena Ferrente’s My Brilliant Friend (L’amica geniale, trans. Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions). She describes the intense, passionate and decidedly overwhelming friendship of two young girls in postwar Naples in such vivid prose; I adored this book, and can’t wait to read the next ones in the series.

A.M. Bakalar, author Voices from Tibet: Selected Essays and Reportage by Tsering Woeser and Wang Lixiong, edited and translated by Violet S. Law (Hong Kong University Press). A short but powerful book on China’s rule over Tibet. These essays explore a wide range of topics, from the ongoing destruction of Tibetan culture, environment and freedom to self-immolation as a form of protest against the Chinese heavy-handed control. Wioletta Greg (or Wioletta Grzegorzewska in Polish) is a mesmerising voice of young Polish émigré authors. Finite Formulae & Theories of Chance by Wioletta Greg translated by Marek Kazmierski (Arc Publications) is a delightful collection of selected poems and prose, here published in Polish with English translation. Books that make you laugh are notoriously difficult to write. Two novels, published this year, in particular brought me to tears. Mission London by a Bulgarian author Alek Popov translated by Charles de M Gill (Istros Book) and Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes translated from German by Jamie Bullock (MacLehose Press). The former describes the experiences of a newly appointed Bulgarian ambassador to London, the latter brings Adolf Hitler from the dead into contemporary Germany. I can’t remember when I laughed so much during reading in years.

Rosie Goldsmith

Rosie Goldsmith is a British multi-media journalist with specialist knowledge of arts and international affairs. She has worked across the world on some of BBC Radio’s flagship programmes, speaks several languages and chairs and presents public events. She is member of the ELit Literaturehouse Europe's board.

Rosie Goldsmith ist eine britische Multi-Media Journalistin. Sie ist im Bereich der Kunst und Internationalen Angelegenheiten spezialisiert und hat auf der ganzen Welt an führenden Sendungen von BBC Radio gearbeitet. Außerdem spricht sie mehrere Sprachen, präsentiert und sitzt diversen öffentlichen Veranstaltungen vor und ist Vorstandsmitglied bei ELit Literaturhaus Europa.

Rosie Goldsmith is a British multi-media journalist with specialist knowledge of arts and international affairs. She has worked across the world on some of BBC Radio’s flagship programmes, speaks several languages and chairs and presents public events. She is member of the ELit Literaturehouse Europe's board.

Rosie Goldsmith ist eine britische Multi-Media Journalistin. Sie ist im Bereich der Kunst und Internationalen Angelegenheiten spezialisiert und hat auf der ganzen Welt an führenden Sendungen von BBC Radio gearbeitet. Außerdem spricht sie mehrere Sprachen, präsentiert und sitzt diversen öffentlichen Veranstaltungen vor und ist Vorstandsmitglied bei ELit Literaturhaus Europa.

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