Pages in Translation

This month's best foreign fiction.

Little Boys Come from the Stars
By Emmanuel Dongala

Anchor (2002), $12

Michel is a precocious teenager growing up in an unnamed country in equatorial Africa. His nickname is Matapari, meaning “trouble,” and in the tradition of coming-of-age novels, he is just enough of an outsider to provide sardonic commentary on his family as they head into turmoil when the Marxist government gives way to democracy. Matapari is a lovable character. He drinks Coke, reads comics, falls painfully in love — characters such as these are hard not to like. The story is told with soft, nostalgic good humor. The narrative is breezy and rarely challenging, really a joy to read. This is probably why it fails as political satire. The best satires are written by the bitter and the angry, and there are no good guys. Congolese writer Dongala’s imaginary country is corrupt and dangerous, but its inhabitants seem like so much fun. Sham trials, fixed elections, and corrupt leaders are shown as absurdly funny. Michel is a little too glib when describing these things, like an African Mort Sahl. Giving scant sense of tragedy, or of the fear that people must feel living under totalitarian governments, this is a good read, though the subject begs a bit more depth.
— Owen Hill

Boy Genius
By Yongsoo Park

Akashic (2002), $14.95

Sometimes it’s hard to be a boy genius. And almost every moment in this pugnacious new novel is one of those times. Its eponymous protagonist goes from sunny South Korean television celebrity to starvation and exile, and on to running with wild dogs in New York, enduring the war crimes of public-school officials, race-change surgery, gullet journeys à la Jonah, and murder, intrigue, and betrayal at every turn. To say it’s a wild ride sounds like hackneyed hyperbole, but it’s an understatement. It would be imprecise to say that Park makes us believe his hero’s satirical misadventures, but he makes it easy to swallow all the allegory on its own terms. Park’s furious prose is land-mined with exploding ethnic stereotypes, from the kindly African-American GI Choco Joe to Boy Genius’ own crippling case of “Middle Kingdom Syndrome.” Readers prudish about their politics might want to steer clear, but that’s satire for you. Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke — because underneath the outrageous humor and humorous outrageousness, this book is no joke at all.
— Sam Hurwitt

Beyond Illusions
By Duong Thu Huong

Hyperion (2002), $23.95

This lyrical novel’s strong-willed, idealistic young heroine struggles with her own unflinching beliefs about politics, marriage, commitment, and the notion of true love under the harsh realities of life in Hanoi. Upon discovering that, for years, her journalist husband has been writing articles that toe the Communist Party line and have not been true to the couple’s shared ideals, she’s shocked: “What insanity. How could I have loved him that much?” Her initial amazement and repulsion gives her, she thinks, no choice but to leave her marriage and child. Falling under the spell of the charismatic, womanizing composer Tran Phuong, she believes she’s found a soulmate. Yet having sacrificed so much, she begins to discover that trying to live by one’s long-held convictions is not so romantic after all. Duong’s poetic prose provides a complexity reflecting both her heroine’s strong character and the lonely world she now inhabits. In a powerfully romantic yet unflinchingly realistic story, Duong offers a thought-provoking read that speaks not only to the universal yearning to realize our own dreams, but also the dangers and losses that this quest can bring.
— Carol Jameson

The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature
Edited by Amit Chaudhuri

Vintage (2002), $16

You won’t find a fiercer defender of native literature than Bombay’s Chaudhuri. The award-winning writer has carefully selected nearly forty stories in English and a variety of Indian languages to demonstrate that there’s more to the Indian mind than the popular postcolonial magical epic would have us believe. Like the subcontinent itself, India’s literary history is a complicated, multilingual morass; even so, this book’s pieces — which range from the late 19th and early 20th centuries’ Bengali Renaissance to the present — reveal a deep collective consciousness. Bibhuti Bhushan Banerjee’s “Pather Panchali” (in a new translation by Chaudhuri) is as immediate and vivid as the film it later inspired; Vikram Seth’s crazysexycool piece of narrative fiction and poetry, set in the Bay Area, serves as a great introduction to the country’s modern canon. But Chaudhuri’s passionate introductions to writers who sometimes fly under the radar, from young Pankaj Mishra to Calcutta’s sometimes-difficult-to-uncoil Sunetra Gupta and Bihar’s Rohit Manchanda, are uniquely rewarding. No matter what language is being spoken in a region, no matter what troubles Partition brings or to what caste one belongs, the cultural obsession on the subcontinent is with universal understanding: It’s the moment that matters. And right now, it’s India’s moment.
— Denise Sullivan

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