Blockbusters Over There

Foreign best-sellers in translation.

Maybe you, too, have friends who follow this hard-and-fast rule when trolling TV channels: after 10 p.m., no foreign accents and no subtitles. At first glance it’s an axiom oozing with utter xenophobia, but a more careful reading reveals a simple truth: when you’re weary and overwhelmed, why make it any harder on yourself?

The World Cup, an authentically global event watched by millions worldwide this month, got minnow-sized ratings here in the United States. Granted, its viewer-unfriendly local airtimes rendered the event dreamlike at best, but the foreign press still didn’t miss the opportunity to point out, as usual, our predilection for a done-deal basketball championship and a desperate heavyweight fight, both amidst a great deal of flag-waving isolationism.

Best-selling Brazilian novelist Luis Fernando Verissimo, whose novel The Club of Angels is out this summer in English for the first time, often writes about soccer in his popular newspaper column. His Spanish counterpart, Javier Marías, includes a poignant tale of a Barcelona player in his graceful new short-story collection, When I Was Mortal. While they avoid athletics altogether, Dutch and Swedish literary hot tickets Maya Rasker and Marianne Fredriksson — whose novels are also new this summer in translation — write with depth, style, and ease. But you’ve probably never heard of them, just as you’ve probably never heard of Verissimo or Marías. Each nation has its own superstar writers, its Michael Chabons and Amy Tans. Their names might be household words throughout a whole region, yet they ring hollow in American ears. Now and then one gets “discovered,” but for every Haruki Murakami there are ten Yuichi Hiranakas. “Javier Marías, a literary phenomenon worldwide, is still in the process of being discovered in America,” reads the discreet yet typical dust-jacket copy on the Madrid-based author’s new book.

Is it because being one language removed makes for a more demanding read? That has hardly hampered the Márquezes and Ecos of this world. Their crossover success might have something to do with literary high-handedness coupled with a universal story, while the four novels considered in this article undeniably have an exotic feel and flavor that couldn’t easily be classified as familiar.

Marianne Fredriksson’s Two Women is mostly staged against the backdrop of Augusto Pinochet’s Chilean coup, although its two lead characters meet and live in Sweden. Chronicling their rocky and at times reluctant friendship and the elaborate cycle of revelations their chance encounter brings to light, the writing is by and large spare and economical, but the plot’s tension propels the book rather than its narrative, which often reads like a summary. Clichéd descriptions such as “quiet as church mice” make the reader long for more of the precise translations, such as “eager harangue,” that appear elsewhere in the text. But lines such as “Those who are no one in themselves can be wonderful mirrors for others” and “No one can live on earth without causing a shadow” suggest a subtly unique perspective.

Fredriksson’s previous novel, Hanna’s Daughters, was an international best-seller spanning three generations. Like Two Women, it had a political backdrop. The author, wildly popular throughout Scandinavia, has explained that politics and World War II shaped her youth and that Pinochet came to remind her of Adolf Hitler. Despite her fame or perhaps because of it, Fredriksson is not immune to controversy, lambasted in the foreign press for both “overbearing feminism” and plagiarism — in 2001, she appropriated the title of a novel by a fellow Swede.

Hailed by Time magazine as one of “Ten Who Make a Difference” in an article introducing “some of those leading the way into the new millennium,” Javier Marías is a sensation in his own country, has been translated into two dozen languages, and has a particularly devout following in Germany. Indeed Marías, whose own translations include books by Thomas Hardy, W.B. Yeats, Joseph Conrad, and W.H. Auden, offers extremely original work that, ghost-frequented, is experimental but not arty. When I Was Mortal reveals his talent for the deft and adept first line. One tale in particular, “Fewer Scruples,” is a concise plot-twister that leaves the reader breathless. “I was so strapped for cash that two days earlier, I’d gone for a screen test for a porno film and was amazed to see how many other women aspired to one of those roles with absolutely no dialog, or rather, only exclamations,” begins the story, which borders on the modern-day classic.

Maya Rasker earned a degree in hotel management before studying German linguistics and literature at the University of Utrecht. Her debut work of fiction, Unknown Destination, was nominated last year for the Netherlands’ most prestigious literary award, the Golden Owl. Barely missing out on that prize but winning the Golden Dog Ear award for best first novel, Unknown Destination is a haunting tale of disappearance with a twist: this time it’s the wife who goes out to buy a pack of cigarettes at the corner store and then never returns. She leaves behind a diary in which she has written, “If there’s such a thing as a landscape of memory, is there also a landscape of hope?” Told from the point of view of Gideon, the increasingly fragile and desperate abandoned husband, the book is poetic if, at times, overwritten and overwrought. “I live as if I’m in an aquarium, separated from the world by water and glass. Sometimes I see a familiar face heading my direction; it presses its nose against the glass to see if everything’s all right in here,” Gideon tells us. “I smile and dive to the bottom.”

Later he compares his love for his five-year-old daughter in an intriguing way to that of the masses’ love for the Pietà. The madonna’s foot “is dulled by the many caresses, the toes have been rubbed away, stroked by thousands of passersby searching for faith, love, hope … whatever it is we believe we are lacking in this earthly life.”

A murder mystery surrounding a sumptuous and moveable feast drives The Club of Angels, a breezy novel from Luis Fernando Verissimo. The Brazilian author, a national institution, is the son of writer Erico Verissimo, who lectured at UC Berkeley in 1943, bringing along his family including young Luis. Later, the younger Verissimo returned to Brazil, where he became a noted journalist whose crônicas appear in major national papers.

In the novel’s opening pages, he confesses: “An invented crime is worse than any real crime. A real crime could, after all, be accidental or the product of a moment of passion, but whoever heard of an unpremeditated fictitious crime?” The book suffers a bit from a tedious sensibility: a group of men gathering for meals, to the chagrin of their wives and girlfriends. One of the group, Samuel, sleeps with camp-follower Milene who then “wanted nothing more to do with the rest of us and followed him everywhere, despite the beatings our idol gave her.” Yet the story provides moments of high entertainment, as when truffles are described as “the result of the amorous frustration of anonymous sows.”

As globalization becomes a media mantra, it is interesting to note that each of these writers puts forth a point of view that by is no means insular yet at the same time embraces and celebrates a strong sense of cultural identity. If the English versions of their works bring these four authors success in America it could be that the future, and not the past, is a different country.

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