10 Dystopian Novels in Translation
In these books, worlds themselves are the agents of change and wielders of power
If a dystopia is a place where everyone, or at least someone, lives in abject misery and terror, then most cows, fishes, forests, and humans, right now, today, are living in completely non-imaginary dystopias. The human species’ ravenous egocentrism is the landfill on which such hells are built. The landfill, in turn, consists of dregs of a crumbling but toxic myth; that tall and ancient tale according to which Homo sapiens are the world’s born rulers with the right to consume everything that exists. In the anthropocentric attitude are the social values which enable humanity’s crimes against not-just-human life. Without a thought for the majority of Earth’s inhabitants which, because they are not human, have little to no say in their own fate, our ecocidal behaviors have made an incurable mess of Earthbound existence.
In my novel The Box, the dominant entities are neither humans nor humanoids, not even animals, but limbless, mindless, voiceless things. The human characters stumble and squabble, create and steal and love and die, because ordinary things like cabinets, packages, trains, and snowflakes are the way they are. People exist at things’ mercy, empowered by them and powerless against them. Where characters’ ability to make changes to their world, or even to perceive what is happening around them, is curtailed and overwhelmed by the weather and an unintelligible trinket-size box—such a story’s central actors are not its humans. From their various points of view, their vulnerability makes their world a hell.
The diverse narrative voices of The Box are inspired by literature in translation from around the world, including some of the books on my list. Written in Asia, Eastern Europe, and the southern Americas, some of these dystopias don’t seem especially wretched, at least at first. But in these visionary works, attempts to conquer all existence in the name of anthropocentrism—whether with wars or industries, whether capitalist or communist—must fail. Instead, worlds themselves are the agents of change and wielders of power: humans subsist at the mercy of the plants, animals, buildings, chairs, particles, weather patterns which comprise the worlds they live in and create their inner worlds. World and character become mutually porous, with the result sometimes that language spills out of familiar structures into overwhelming lists, fateful fragments and recursions.
The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated from Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana
A failed detective tracks a runaway couple to the taiga, Siberia’s fabled forest. The woods seem to infect people with madness as if through some black magic or undiagnosed toxicity—or as if being hacked to pieces for industrial resources has driven the land itself insane. Children turn wolfish, feral, possessed by a compulsion to run away and keep running. So vast is the forest that there’s nowhere to which humans can escape and hope to survive. Garza’s narrative is full of gaps, fragments, broken lines; like the taiga itself, it generates more shadow than clarity. The former Soviet Union, especially the Siberian province, is a popular model for dystopias in several languages.
The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada, translated from Japanese by David Boyd
The factory seems the opposite of dystopian: a workplace prestigious and welcoming, manufacturing popular everyday products. But to three highly qualified new hires, the place embodies a massive inside joke: seemingly intelligible, absolutely nonsensical. In fact, colleagues communicate primarily in inside jokes, so the general jollity is a perfect hell for newcomers. The newbies are given mind-numbing busywork, the obvious pointlessness of which destroys their self-esteem even as everyone around them seems content. It’s as if a city’s worth of intelligent humans is being fattened up on ennui and empty jokes. But to what purpose? Has it anything to do with the bizarre birds, reptiles, and rodents which exist only on factory premises? On what does the factory feed?
Radiant Terminus by Antoine Volodine, translated from French by Jeffrey Zuckerman
Dregs of the Second Soviet Union flee to the Siberian wilderness when a century of fighting ends in near total annihilation. Almost nothing survives the nuclear catastrophe, a result of the war and widespread over-exploitation of nuclear energy. Zombies, glowing almost-corpses, post-communist witches—leftovers of the once dominant human species—eke out a sub-existence as prisoners of feral plants and radioactive garbage. As scraps of Soviet rhetoric redden their memories, Volodine buries the characters in lists of weeds and detritus. The world’s invisible rulers are winds and airborne dreams, moods of insane nuclear cores imprisoned in abandoned reactors. Nuclear particles, ubiquitous and without mercy, determine who survives, how they suffer, even what they are.
The Besieged City by Clarice Lispector, translated from Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz and Benjamin Moser
The city of São Geraldo eases into the twentieth century, gradually replacing horses with automobiles and small-town sleepiness with urban bustle. Not dystopia but progress, so it seems. But as São Geraldo becomes all asphalt, noise, and scaffolding, the city molds Lucrécia into what she cannot bear to be: a cog in the machine, or rather, oil for the men who build and constitute the growing capitalist machine. As Lispector describes with characteristic obliqueness, Lucrécia understands much more than she realizes: she intuits her damnation to a life of ornamental thinghood. Trapped within the trinket that São Geraldo wants her to be is the animal she is at heart: the wild horse for whom “progress” has no place.
Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated from Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet
Baron Wenckheim returns from Argentina, fleeing debts and other difficulties, to the bleak Hungarian township of his birth, which everyone else is trying to escape. The town celebrity flees as far as the outskirts, defends his weedy shack with a shotgun. Nobody else gets any farther. Krasznahorkai’s interminable sentences flood the characters in their personal voids. Soon the Baron yearns for exile; but for one reason or another, escaping his hometown just isn’t possible. The train never comes, there’s no gasoline, the buildings and infrastructure are crumbling; everybody is oppressed by decrepitude, poverty, incompetence: accomplishing anything at all is next to impossible as the overabundant absences of things make the town a prison.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder
Things are disappearing from the island. Birds, roses, calendars, stamps, ships, perfume. In the instant of something’s vanishing, everyone immediately forgets what it was and how it made them feel. Then they forget that they’ve forgotten. It’s as if, for example, maps never existed; as if the very idea of maps never occurred to anyone. The extinctions are deliberate: things are disappeared. Humans who forget to forget are arrested by the Memory Police. If your cat fails to unhappen when, by methods unknown, mysterious authorities decree the disappearance of “the cat” as concept, species, and memory, then someone will come for poor kitty, you needn’t worry—just as long as you forget.
City of Torment by Daniela Hodrová, translated from Czech by Véronique Firkusny and Elena Sokol
This is the Prague that no one wants to remember; the dingy Prague of poor people whose role in history is to be mowed down. It’s the Prague of living things: the swivel chair as portal to other Pragues, the tailor’s mannequin and stone angel yearning for love. It’s also the Prague that refuses to finish dying. Ghosts populate the pantry in the apartment where a woman relives her abandonment again and again. The living are trapped in spirals of déjà-vu or obsessed with the non-place between their Prague and the ghosts’. Faintly shimmering is the Prague that might have been, where events that did not happen are almost happening. Or are the Pragues of imagination and reality becoming confused?
The Tidings of the Trees by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from German by Isabel Fargo Cole
On the communist side of the Berlin Wall, a disillusioned factory worker wanders in the garbage dump which, ever expanding, has already engulfed the forest and neighboring village. Shadowy “garbagemen,” a red-faced vulturine figure in black rags, and hosts of mannequins outcast from shop windows populate the dump, voicelessly haunting one another. The longer our narrator spends in the dump, taking up a sort of residence among the junk, the more the junk infects his outlook with junk’s existential (dis)qualities. Everything in existence starts to resemble waste and wasting: East Germany thrown out of the world like so much trash; history itself is time’s cremated castoffs; storytelling, for our narrator, is but a “routine of crossing out words.”
To the Warm Horizon by Jin-Young Choi, translated from Korean by Soje
In another future haunted by the former Soviet Union, Koreans fleeing a pandemic migrate en masse into Russia via Vladivostok. The refugees are overwhelmed by the vastness of the land, the deadly cold, the monotony of the flat and treeless view, and above all the sense of hostile emptiness pervading the region. It’s internal, too, this emptiness, for the characters have lost everything; emptiness infects their very voices with terseness and bleak repetitions. The remnants of a city, which seems to be destroying and rebuilding itself at the same time, turn out to be the splitting image of the 1930s’ Soviet gulags, complete with senseless slogans extolling forced labor.
Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, translated from Russian by Olena Bormashenko
Capitalist extractivism is in full swing in the North American city beside the Zone: a garbage dump left behind by extraterrestrials. On the aliens’ technological detritus, the city’s humans grow rich. Cars no longer need gas or electricity: simply place upon your dashboard a “spacell” or “perpetual battery.” Like living cells, spacells reproduce by division. Many things of the Zone conduct themselves as living things, even as they cannot be. Antennas, as if for televisions, grow hair and defend themselves with violence. Corpses and dismembered limbs acquire “autonomous viability.” Gravity itself seems to grab things and eat them. The Zone curses those who visit: disaster follows them everywhere (hence the city’s emigration ban), and their offspring outgrow their humanity, becoming who knows what.