Not only does a good chunk of Russia, most of it in fact, lie in Asia, but Russian-language writers (not all of them Russian) have works set in whole or in part in Asia. 2020 saw new translations of modern classics by Sergei Tretyakov and Alexander Grin, as well as translations of new novels set in the Arctic, Caucasus and Central Asia.
The year also saw English translation of French works set in Cambodia, Iran and Korea and the publication of a “reader” of Spanish-language primary sources about from the colonial era.
Mebet by Alexander Grigorenko, translated by Christopher Culver
The fact that Alexander Grigorenko’s Mebet is set among the Nenets of northern Siberia would be enough reason to read it, even if it weren’t entrancing in the most literal sense of the term. Once one enters this world of forest, snow, reindeer, bear, sable and fish, of furs, sleds, bows, spears, shamans, deer-skin chums and dug-out coffins left to rest in the branches of trees, it is hard to leave.
Three Apples Fell from the Sky by Narine Abgaryan, translated by Lisa C Hayden
Located along the slopes of Mount Manish-kar, the tiny village of Maran is connected only by “an ancient telegraph wire and a perilous mountain road that even goats struggle to navigate.” Maran is ancient, even more ancient than its residents, a place where time appears to have stood still. The villagers use telegrams for communication, rely on a single local postman for letters, and have only one means of transport, a “squeaky wooden cart harnessed to a donkey” which was driven “to the valley twice a week for goods.”
Gaia, Queen of Ants by Hamid Ismailov, translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega
Few contemporary works of fiction from Uzbekistan are translated into English directly. Those that have found their way into the English language are usually classical texts or themselves translations of Russian translations of the Uzbek originals. Given this scarcity of accessible modern Uzbek literature, the casual English language reader could be forgiven for not knowing upon what basis to judge the relative worth of a novel like Gaia, Queen of Ants by Hamid Ismailov.
Roar, China! by Sergei Tretyakov, translated by Stephen Holland
Roar, China!, translated by Stephen Holland, appears in a new collection of Tretyakov plays. It is a fascinating period piece. This is a China of white villains—Americans, English and French all come in for a shellacking. There is of course the bombastic English captain, and the arrogant American businessman, but also two clueless American tourists, a smarmy journalist, a whiny French trader, his wife and spoiled coquettish daughter. The Chinese are similarly made up of types: the put-upon proletariat of dock-workers, an old woman who trades in young girls, an honorable mayor who must nevertheless deliver up two innocent men for execution in order to save the town, a hot-headed student intellectual.
Fandango and Other Stories by Alexander Grin, translated by Bryan Karetnyk
One has to be pretty dedicated to Russian literature to run across Alexander Grin (1880-1932). Nor, if this newly translated collection of (long) short stories is any indication, once one has found him, does Grin fit any expected mold. Several of Grin’s stories take place in some vague tropical location, perhaps the South Seas or Southeast Asia, perhaps Australia—lands of monkeys, palm trees and durian, about as climatically and culturally as far from Russia as one can get and a place dubbed “Grinlandia” by his followers—and have protagonists with English-sounding names like Strock, Horn, Guppy and Tart. There’s a feel of Robert Louis Stevenson about them—ships, travelers, inns, dusky maidens, guns—except that Grin, unlike Stevenson, never made it to the tropics: the closest he got, other than Crimea, was Alexandria during a short stint as a sailor.
The Spanish Pacific, 1521-1815: A Reader of Primary Sources, edited by Christina H Lee and Ricardo Padrón
I mean no disrespect in saying that The Spanish Pacific, 1521-1815: A Reader of Primary Sources presents like an early-modern era “Reader’s Digest” for the Asia-Pacific. The selections are well-chosen and wide-ranging; each is prefaced by a readable and illuminating introduction. Some, in their way, are even charming (not an adjective often deployed in the context of books from academic presses).
My Part Of Her by Javad Djavahery, translated by Emma Ramadan
Presented as a confession, this first novel in English from screenwriter and Iranian exile Javad Djavahery is a deeply nostalgic tale of love and loss set against the revolution of 1979. The unnamed narrator, relating events to an unnamed companion, has some odious wrongdoing to admit. He reveals himself to be self-serving and cowardly as the story progresses. Yet such is Djavahery’s skill that the reader never entirely loses sympathy with him.
Year of the Rabbit by Tian Veasna, translated by Helge Dascher
Year of the Rabbit is a graphic memoir that follows the journey of Lina, Khim, their son Chan, and their extended family members, as the Khmer Rouge take over Phnom Penh. Graphic in format, graphic in content, it is a story of resilience and hope, a profound testimony to one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century.
Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins