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In the Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review.

"Fiction in Translation" is this week's theme. For some crazy reason, three of the nine authors don't figure in the cover illustration; nor do their photographs appear in the "Up Front" column. Maybe they're shy.

With a cover review of Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives by James Wood, the Review clearly means to aim high, but it's business as usual within this issue's pages. There are two resounding Noes, books of which their reviewers think so little that it's hard to know why they were reviewed at all. (Make that three, if you include Elfriede Jelinek's Greed.) Fiction in Spanish is preposterously overrepresented - understandable, but regrettable. A few of the books seem to have been chosen because they're weird, as in "foreign = ".

Even Mr Wood's review is far from his best work; like the rest of us who don't have literate Spanish, he's new to Bolaño and his thought has not had time to ripen.


The following titles appear to deserve coverage in the Book Review. The reviews may still be inadequate or useless.

The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño (Translated by Natasha Wimmer). James Wood's review of this newly-translated novel by the late Chilean author cannot be favorable or sympathetic enough, and it's as good as things get in the Book Review. It is too dense for quotation. Between extensive storytelling and a boggy fastidiousness about getting across the details of Bolaño's life - the Anglophone publishing world, at least in the United States, is running around its bedroom as if in the middle of the night, scurrying to get dressed in order to respond to the sudden appearance of, and urgent need to explain, Roberto Bolaño - the review is considerably flatter than Mr Wood's best work. There is one sentence that I found totally inscrutable: "The terror of the MacGuffin always hangs over Bolaño's work." I catch the reference to Alfred Hitchcock but have no idea what the sentence means.

Nada, by Carmen Laforet (Translated by Edith Grossman). Here we have a newly-translated novel from 1945, set in Barcelona. Fernanda Eberstadt's review suggests that it may replicate the sensation that the book made in Barcelona when it first appeared.

Nada depicts on the one hand the sordid collapse of a family whose fratricidal hatreds mirror those of the Civil War, and on the other hand the struggle of its youngest member for simple freedom. What gives the novel its unlikely freshness is the contrast between the melodramas to which Andrea is witness and humorous restraint of her narration.

Delirium, by Laura Restrepo (Translated by Natasha Wimmer). Although he calls this novel of Colombian dysfunction "disconcertingly lovely," Terrence Rafferty is disappointed that it "trickles to something like a happy ending."

But by the end it seems a fair description of Delirium, which is both sweeter than you'd expect and less nourishing than you'd hope.

I've got no idea what that's supposed to mean. Or, rather, I do, and it's nonsense. Books are not food.

The Story of the Cannibal Woman, by Maryse Condé. According to Elizabeth Schmidt's review, this novel, set in South Africa but written by a native of Guadeloupe, is a successful blend of "the fragmented interior monologue and the psychological thriller."


It is difficult to tell whether these books are actually as indifferent or pointless as the reviews suggest.

All Whom I Have Loved, by Aharon Appelfeld (Translated by Aloma Halter). Liesl Schillinger is fundamentally unhappy with this book. Unfavorably comparing it to Louis Begley's Wartime Lies, she writes,

Like Maciek, the character of Paul Rosenberg has been created by a mature author whose own thoughts and images inform his portrait. But because Appelfeld relays his story in Paul's immature voice and with his stunted understanding, the book suffers from Paul's limitations. How can the reader analyze Paul's feelings and religious leanings when Paul can't do this and the author won't?

Grotesque, by Natsuo Kirino (Translated by Rebecca Copeland). Sophie Harrison's review made me wonder if she has read much modern Japanese fiction.

The murders themselves are dealt with only obliquely, through hearsay and court reports: the narrative concentrates instead on the victims' school days and their subsequent murky careers with a thoroughness that promises explanation but instead provides mere information. Yuriko's diaries document her transformation for teenage nymphomaniac to haggard streetwalker in the most matter-of-fact way; Kazue's journals detail her life as an office worker and prostitute, but again we're given little understanding of why her life took this turn.

I've always found the information-without-explanation one of the charms of the novels of august writers such as Tanizaki and Abe. 

Greed, by Elfriede Jelinek (Translated by Martin Chalmers). If it weren't for the Nobel Prize that Ms Jelinek won in 2004, I'd place this book, on the basis of Joel Agee's review, among the Noes. Mr Agee has almost nothing good to say about it; indeed, he makes the reading of it sound positively penitential.

Instead you will find the purely rhetorical life of a language engaged in a program of perpetual derision and snide deprecation. It does not help that Jelinek's style displays verbal dexterity, that she juggles high diction together with low dialect and jargon, erudite reference with wordplay and puns. Every witty turn comes with full marching orders. There is no freedom in this play.

This is the kind of massively unsympathetic review that we don't need. If the book is really that bad, then who needs to hear about it?


These books, if they deserve coverage at all, ought to grace other sections of The New York Times.

Depths, by Henning Mankell (Translated by Laurie Thompson). Lucy Ellmann's dislike of this book is incandescent.

What Mankell seems to know least about is something you can research without much effort: women. Though he gives his two female characters oddities that distinguish them somewhat, and awards them the moral high ground too, their lives are airless and dull, their only recourse for excitement being announcements that they're pregnant. For Tobiasson-Svartman [the protagonist], if not Mankell, women are big ballooning blanks, their motives and meaning more opaque than any fog at sea. But why? Women are right here to be seen and understood. It's infuriating when male writers make such a mystery of them, which is always ultimately a mockery.

That last needs to be said until the murky mythologizing stops. At the same time, the book appears to be utterly unworthy of mention in the Book Review.

Ice, by Vlladimir Sorokin (Translated by Jamey Gambrell). Ken Kalfus writes,

Ice is much less a satire than a single monstrous vision: human beings are no more than "meat machines," a race unable to communicate on a truly intimate scale and unworthy of continued existence. Purity lies in a universe without thought or language. In his frigid antihumanism, Sorokin parts company with Russian satirists like Gogol, Bulgakov, Yuri Olesha and, more recently, Viktor Pelevin.

Not to be philistine, but who needs this?


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