The Global Reader: When Literature Is More Truthful Than the News
Exploring the work of Jorge Zepeda Patterson, Carlos Labbé, and Elias Khoury
As the internet reaches across languages and countries, the world of American literature feels smaller than ever. Despite all of our technological advances (ordering pizza! on your phone! with an emoji!) just three percent of the books in the United States are translated works.
As countries become more nationalistic and America looks inward, we’re here to say that’s unacceptable. In this column, we’ll be featuring a selection of our favorite translated works, centered around one theme. There will be a mix of new and old, although we’re sticking to books published in the past ten years to keep things fresh.
And whether you’re interested in Cuban sci-fi rock novels, Korean metaphysical fairy tales or Saudi Arabian love tomes, you should check it out. Because: Don’t you want to be able to tell your MFA cohorts that you read My Struggle in 2012?
Narrated by journalists and dotted with news articles, the first books for the inaugural edition of The Global Reader all beg the question: Why fiction?
While Mexico’s Jorge Zepeda Patterson uses a head-on approach to ponder the merits of the media industry, Carlos Labbé of Chile and Elias Khoury of Lebanon debate the meaning of truth in general in their lyrical texts, stunningly bending and folding facts.
Grappling with ideas of globalization, corruption, war and violence, all explore the dark corners of the societies that they were born from, leading the reader to wonder, is truth more presentable in a fictional world?
Mexico: Jorge Zepeda Patterson’s Milena, or the most beautiful femur in the world
Set in Mexico City and its outskirts, Jorge Zepeda Patterson’s Milena, or the most beautiful femur in the world shakes the reader awake from its first, startling lines. Very journalistic in both tone and content, this political thriller explores current international trafficking and government corruption.
The second in a series of mysteries featuring “The Blues,” a fortysomething group of childhood friends with divergent lives, the novel hits its stride when dealing with its namesake character, Milena. Tracing the series of events that lead Milena, a Croatian sex slave, to Marbella, Spain and then to Mexico City, the story illuminates the nefarious underbelly of gangsters, politicians and drug lords that run Mexico, and the world.
While sometimes the tale is heavy handed with its exposition, the ground the story covers is truly remarkable. The twisting narrative keeps pace, touching on events like Crimea while building tension and intrigue. Although the perspectives and narrators are constantly shifting, Patterson’s journalistic tone keeps readers grounded, at times elevated by a dark wit.
Verdict: Consider gifting this to your friend who just saw Nightcrawler and wants to be a journalist.
Lebanon: Elias Khoury’s White Masks
Opening with a report of a mysterious body in the heart of Beirut, Elias Khoury’s White Masks challenges the idea of a story from the first sentence, telling readers that, “this is no tale.” Carefully tracing disparate characters who are connected through one man’s torture and murder, the novel has a decidedly modern, cinematic feel, despite first being published in Arabic in 1981.
Completed in what would end up being the first few years of the Lebanese Civil War, Khoury weaves his story around news items, highlighting the stark realties of a war where violence plagues ordinary citizens. Khoury’s multi-narrative approach also works on an abstract level, raising deeply philosophical questions.
Khoury’s skill of presenting a story-within-a-story is tremendous, and draws obvious comparisons with the Arabian Nights, as well as eastern literary techniques in general. Throughout each of these disparate frames, Beirut truly comes to life as its own character thanks to the evocative descriptions of the city, such as, “The clatter of the ancient truck lumbering through the hazy Beirut morning. The sea, the mingled smells of saltwater and fish…Sky, grey clouds, waves.”
As each new character is introduced — a Palestinian freedom fighter, a distraught widow, a wealthy architect — the reader is presented with a new layer of the narrative, that often subverts previous truths. Part commentary on the nature of a civil war in general, this fantastical world where metaphors are the same as facts is very Khoury-esque.
Verdict: Keep this on hand and lend it to the next person who tells you that the traditional Western plot is the only way to tell a story.
Chile: Carlos Labbé’s Navidad and Matanza
In his beautiful style, Carlos Labbé’s Navidad and Matanza draws readers into an obfuscated narrative, guiding them with succinct sentences that has them questioning even premise of this novella.
Set in the Chilean seaside towns of Navitada and Matanza, the tale explores the disappearance of two children — Bruno and Alicia in the summer of 1999. With traditional flare, Labbé sets his story inside a so-called “novel game.” Weaving his narrative around varying news reports and a journalist who may also be the writer, the simple mystery of the disappeared children unravels from the first page, evolving into a discourse on modernity.
A commentary on Chile’s past and present political situation, Labbé’s metafiction raises the question of who is allowed to tell a story, and therefore what information is communicated. As the story oscillates between different vantage points, Labbé deconstructs the idea of nonfiction and journalism. Although the reader could spend years trying to deduce the so-called truth within this narrative, part of the beauty and experience is trusting Labbé.
Verdict: A perfect gift to impress your (sometimes) lover who has been getting their PhD in Philosophy for the past ten years.
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The Politics of Translations
The publication dates of the works are worth mentioning. White Masks, although first published in Arabic in 1981, was not translated into English until 2010. Navidad and Matanza was translated seven years after it was first published in Spanish, while Milena, or the most beautiful femure in the world, was translated three years after it first appeared in Spanish.
Inherently one sided, English works are re-cast into languages all over the world, while very few books from other languages are published in English. With regards to Arabic literature in general, many critics feel that works that offer an anthropological window or voyeuristic “behind-the-veil” setting are published over ones that might offer more literary merit.
What does and does not get translated is an inherently political statement. As much as the publishing industry is controlled by the elite, translated works are more so influenced by power, funding and perceived commercial interest.