I’m lucky enough to be able to read books in a couple of languages other than English, but there is so much out there that doesn’t get translated and that I can’t read. Luckily, there are a few independent publishers who are exploring cultures which have hitherto been closed to me: Charco Press with Latin American literature, Istros Books (now merged with Peter Owen) with trans-Danubian countries and the Balkans, Pushkin Press with the Russians (and others), Strangers Press for Japanese literature (which I’d now struggle to read in the original – perhaps in a bilingual edition?) and Seagull Books for pretty much everything else, especially its African and Arabic lists.
For those books below, they fall into what my friend Emma from Book Around the Corner classifies as a ‘translation tragedy’ category – or ‘what a shame that this hasn’t been translated, what are you waiting for?’ So here are my favourite reads of 2017 which deserve to find a publisher in the English-speaking world soon:
Crime fiction with a difference, a strong musical element, a playful use of language and a way of blending farce and strong emotions which reminds me of Antti Tuomainen’s latest book. Malte is a poet with a plot. (France)
Slightly biased here because of the Romanian background, but this is a thought-provoking book about political intrigue, mass manipulation via the media and how easy it is to create a sense of ‘perfidious other’ at the national level. (Romania)
It was Catherine from the wonderful Blog du Polar de Velda (if you read French and like crime fiction, this site comes highly recommended) who introduced me to author Marcus Malte in Lyon four years ago. I read two or three of his books (none of which have been translated into English yet) and found them all very different from each other, quite dark, highly imaginative and experimental.
In the meantime, he has won the prestigious Prix Femina with his novel Le garçon (which I haven’t read yet, but you can read Emma’s review), so here’s hoping at least that will get translated. However, in Lyon this year, I picked up one of his earlier books, Les harmoniques, which makes full use of his love of music, especially jazz. Malte is frequently described as a ‘noir’ author, but this book had moments of hilarious fun, almost farce-like, which surprised and enchanted me. Moreover, it did nothing to detract from the rather serious subject matter, proving that it’s not always grim and tortuous which is memorable or worthy. (Oscar selection committee, take note! How could you ignore ‘Hidden Figures’ so badly?)
The subtitle of the book is Beau Danube Blues (Beautiful Danube Blues) and this is a hint of the European tragedy that lies at its heart. It starts off with a chapter that resembles jazz improvisation, with two people talking (we have no idea who they are at first), and musical interludes between their words.
‘Believe it or not, there was a time when I thought I was immortal. But I fear that has gone. For good.’
‘That’s called wisdom.’
‘I’d rather call that giving up.
‘Wisdom includes giving up.’
This might seem like a pretentious and unnecessarily difficult way to hook a reader into a novel, but if you move on to the next chapters, you realise it gives you a good insight into the two main characters: Mister and Bob.
Mister is a jazz pianist and one of his favourite fans, beautiful young Vera, has just been murdered and burnt alive. The police has arrested two suspects, who have confessed to the crime, but Mister is convinced there is more to it than meets the eye.
Bob is his friend and favourite taxi driver, a mighty unusual one, former philosophy professor, prone to enigmatic quotations and only occasionally charging his clients. Together, they set out to discover the truth about Vera’s death. In due course, they discover more about her life: she came to France to study theatre, but she was originally from the Balkans, from the Croatian town of Vukovar, where in 1991 an 87 day siege was followed by a whole-scale destruction and ethnic cleansing of the town by the Serbian army. But what could this long-gone war have to do with her present-day murder?
We never get to see Vera herself, she is dead at the outset of the novel, but we do see her through other people’s eyes and through short, poetic chapters, very much like musical interludes, which seem to delve into her mind, although they are in the third person:
This war which she escaped but which she carried everywhere with her. In her head. Secretly. Even in the most tender moments.
They come across a series of paintings of Vera in an art gallery and decide to visit the artist Josef Kristi, a strange, reclusive character, to find out more about the relationship between Kristi and the model. Although the artist tells them a little about Vera’s past, they don’t quite believe he is not involved in her death, so they decide to do some very amateurish surveillance. What follows is a very funny scene, where they end up in the middle of a field of beetroots (or maybe turnips or potatoes or pumpkins, they are not quite sure), just opposite the Kristi house. Mister fears they are too conspicuous, but Bob says they can always claim that they are waiting for a pick-up truck. And then a farmer passes by and stops to see what these incompetent investigators are up to… I was giggling all the way through this scene.
There are serious and dangerous moments too: they get involved with nasty and brutal people, some of them in positions of power, and make some unlikely allies – a blind, elderly accordeon-player and a young, tone-deaf singer. While this is not a plot-driven book, the build-up of tension was working well until about the last 100 pages, when it all descends into a lengthy explanation and is wrapped up too quickly, as if the author had lost interest.
But the crime element is not the main reason to read this book: it is a wonderful piece of rhythmic and musical writing, with many passages designed to be read out loud (as the author did, with musical accompaniment, in Lyon. You can read Emma’s thoughts about the event here). It is a melancholy look at all the ‘forgotten’ towns and victims, and a reminder that the consequences of war rage on long after the conflict is officially over. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I am always curious to see what Marcus Malte writes next: he is most certainly not an author to be pigeon-holed.
This fits in well with the #EU27Project, since it is written by a French writer, deals with a recent conflict in Croatia and reminds us of the purpose of the EU.
WWW Wednesday is a meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.
Marcus Malte: Les harmoniques (not yet translated into English)
Vera has been murdered, burnt alive. Mister, the pianist, loved her, as much as she loved his music, so he needs to know who killed her and why. With his friend Bob, a philosophical, multilingual cab driver, he sets out to search, interrogate, sniff out bit by bit Vera’s earlier life, beyond some distant shore on the river Danube, to corpse-strewn Balkanic regions.
We met Marcus Malte in Lyon and he recommended this book as being the one where his love for music is most obvious. He has also created a concert around it, which you can listen to here.
Two books for review on Crime Fiction Lover (the reviews will be up very soon):
I used to love the Falco series set in Ancient Rome, but this is the first in the Flavia Albia series which I have read. You can’t help but see some political parallels to the present-day with a totalitarian, paranoid ruler and the fear of an Eastern Empire taking over…
Kjell Ola Dahl: Faithless, transl. Don Bartlett (Orenda Books, coming out 8th April)
When the body of a woman turns up in a dumpster, scalded and wrapped in plastic, Inspector Frank Frølich is shocked to discover that he knows her—and their recent meetings may hold the clue to her murder. As he begins to look deeper into the tragic events surrounding her death, Frølich’s colleague Gunnarstranda finds another body, and things take a more sinister turn. With a cold case involving the murder of a young girl in northern Norway casting a shadow, and an unsettling number of coincidences clouding the plot, Frølich is forced to look into his own past to find the answers—and the killer—before he strikes again.
Fiona Melrose: Midwinter
Father and Son, Landyn and Vale Midwinter, are men of the land. Suffolk farmers. Times are hard and they struggle to sustain their property, their livelihood and their heritage in the face of competition from big business.
But an even bigger, more brutal fight is brewing: a fight between each other, about the horrible death of Cecelia, beloved wife and mother, in Zambia ten years earlier. A past they have both refused to confront until now.
Bogdan Teodorescu: Spada (not yet translated into English, transl. in French by Jean-Louis Courriol)
A little tramp is found with his throat slit in the streets of Bucharest. A second and a third victim are assassinated with the same deadly weapon and it becomes clear that there is a serial killer on the loose in the Romanian capital. His victims all have two things in common: they are Roma (gypsies) and all have a criminal record. A powerful political thriller, indictment of mass media, political parties and slogans, this is a true Balkanic Borgen.
Have you read any of these or do any of them tempt you?