A round-up of reviews of works in translation from Bahasa Indonesia, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Pali, Bengali, Tamil, Farsi, Armenian and Arabic: classics, contemporary fiction, short stories and poetry.
From roughly East to West:
The Wandering by Intan Paramaditha, translated by Stephen J Epstein
The story begins in Jakarta, a hubbub of street vendors, motorbikes, and calls to prayer from mosque loudspeakers. “Travelling is the most ancient desire”, writes Intan Paramaditha in her first novel, a choose-your-own-adventure story published this February as global mobility ground to a halt. The wandering narrator, addressed in the second person befitting the conventions of the form, travels along multiple routes to Berlin, New York, and even outer space as she faces ordeals that illustrate the privileges of going abroad and the limitations of individual choice.
Other Moons: Vietnamese Short Stories of the American War and Its Aftermath, translated by Quan Manh Ha and Joseph Babcock & The Republic of Vietnam, 1955–1975: Vietnamese Perspectives on Nation Building, edited by Tuong Vu, translated by Sean Fear
45 years have passed since the Vietnam War formally ended. The two books indicate that for the first and second generations, the scars of the war have not yet healed. Finding forgiveness might not be the main consideration for my generation and for those that follow. Our enemies are not people but the difficulties and struggles of our daily lives and the endless seeking for a place in a globalized world. The key to dealing with the war might be a willingness to approach those who have experienced it and are conscious of the history of the country. Curiosity, indeed an eagerness to ask questions, combined with the capacity to listen critically to our grandparents’ and parents’ stories could serve us as the first step before their memories of the war disappear with them.
A New Sun Rises Over the Old Land: A Novel of Sihanouk’s Cambodia by Suon Sorin, translated by Roger Nelson
A rare and precious glimpse of pre-Khmer Rouge literature, Suon Sorin’s recently translated novel is set during Norodom Sihanouk’s Cambodia. Originally published in 1961, it harks back to the late colonial and post-colonial eras. The first English-language translation of A New Sun Rises Over the Old Land translation is both a significant effort in itself and provides an opportunity to widen the readership of a gripping story. Roger Nelson’s formidable feat is testament to a deep respect towards the source material. The prose remains airy while helpful notes contextualize locations and terminology for readers unfamiliar with Phnom Penh’s history and landscape.
India: Bengali, Tamil, Pali
This Could Have Been Ramayan Chamar’s Tale: Two Anti-Novels by Subimal Misra, translated by V Ramaswamy
In translating Subimal Misra’s Two Anti-Novels, V Ramaswamy brings to English readers a radical Bengali author from India. These are jarring, even disturbing, compilations of snapshots of reality. There is neither plot nor character in the conventional sense. The collage of diary, newspaper articles, metafictional ruminations work towards pointing toward the impossibility of enjoying literature as pleasure and making readers very conscious of the fact that reading for story is also a pitiable form of consumerism.
Estuary by Perumal Murugan, translated by Nandini Krishnan
Perumal Murugan’s Kazhimugham is an ugly novel. Ugly, that is, as Umberto Eco would have it: its subject is ugliness and it is a work that the author claims breaks the conventional rules of beauty. The novel’s contemporary small town setting is depicted as the world of demons; even the characters’ names are suffixed with “asura”, a word for the devils in the Hindu hell. Translated as Estuary by Nandini Krishna, the novel is a case study in the pleasure of deviance.
The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns, translated by Matty Weingast
Matty Weingast’s The First Free Women, is a new translation of a collection of poems known as the Therigatha, or Verses of the Elder Nuns, a Pali text dating from about 80 BCE collecting together poetic utterances by early Buddhist women living shortly after the time of Buddha himself who put their “womanly role” behind them in favor of service to Buddhism as nuns, and celebrated the experience of their freedom in (mostly) short poems.
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar
Not everyone takes to magical realism, with the “one hundred years” in Gabriel García Márquez’s groundbreaking work being taken as a description of the time needed to finish it. Since that, the “magical realism label” has been assigned to a bandwagon’s-worth of Latin American writers, from Isabel Allende to Laura Esquivel and, more recently, Junot Diaz. The influence has extended very far afield, it seems, for García Márquez’s book and characters are even alluded to in Shokoofeh Azar’s Farsi novel, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, now available in English.
The Door Was Open by Karine Khodikyan, translated by Nazareth Seferian
Karine Khodikyan is one of Armenia’s foremost writers, with a body of work encompassing plays, film and TV scripts, fiction, and journalism. Armenian literature, like others of the Caucasus, is surely under-represented in the English-speaking world, but now Khodikyan’s collection of short fiction, The Door Was Open, has—via Nazareth Seferian’s smooth translation—been made available in English with the support of the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Armenia.
Impostures by al-Ḥarīrī, translated by Michael Cooperson
The title of this book is the first “imposture”, flouting the venerable approach of calling this 12th-century Arabic classic the “Assemblies” or the “Seances of Hariri”. Maqamat means a halting place, where an audience might sit around and tell stories. It can, at a stretch, mean “to get up”, focusing on the storyteller standing before his audience. With “Impostures” as the title, Michael Cooperson, a professor of Arabic literature at UCLA, puts us on notice not to expect a traditional translation.
Gold Dust by Ibrahim al-Koni