It's good for you. That's the pale impetus so many of us use to immerse ourselves in foreign works of art. We should watch Bergman films, and look, we've got some in our Netflix queue! It's just that Speed was on cable again last night and, well ... the time just slipped away!
But the inescapable truth is, sampling world culture is an essential and powerfully enriching experience — as anyone who has consumed the twisted and beautiful novels and poetry of this year's Nobel Prize winner Herta Muller knows. The works of foreign fiction listed here are about romance, family duty, sex, travel, violence and spirituality. In other words, they are books about life. They just happen to be set in slightly unfamiliar locales. Like Pittsburgh.
Season Of Ash
Season of Ash: A Novel in Three Acts, by Jorge Volpi (translated from the Spanish by Alfred Mac Adam), paperback, 464 pages, Open Letter, list price: $15.95
For too long, the word nerd has been misused to describe the videogame-playing and Buffy-obsessed men and women of this world. That's geek culture. For a proper definition, look no further than Jorge Volpi's Season of Ash, which, in its depth (it spans the years 1929 to 2000), breadth (it crisscrosses from Zaire to Berlin and Pittsburgh to Siberia) and bookish preoccupations (scientific advancements in genetic research, artificial life and biochemistry), is unapologetically nerdy. But it's quality airplane reading, too.
Volpi's sweeping story, about three brilliant women and the way their lives connect to the sociological chaos of the 20th century, is told from the perspective of a man who, it's revealed early on, has murdered one of them. Volpi is the author of the internationally best-selling In Search of Klingsor, and he writes like a young Michael Crichton, but with twice the IQ and a historical perspective. Nerd. (Read Volpi's description of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.)
There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor's Baby
There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers), paperback, 224 pages, Penguin, list price: $15
A small village cuts itself off from civilization and becomes the "new Robinson Crusoes," fearing the day "they" show up. A plague carried by mice turns another family into savages. And, yes, in the uncanny realm created by Soviet author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, there once lived a woman who tried to kill her neighbor's baby (by pouring bleach under the nursery door). Petrushevskaya's short stories — which use fairy-tale imagery and allegory to comment on Russia's Soviet past and corrupt present — combine Gogol's depths of absurdity and Shirley Jackson paranoia, to disturbing effect. It's an insane world in which these characters live, and they respond in kind.
Lately, much has been made about the absence in contemporary Russian literature of worthy heirs to the realist masters Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. But the rise of the tightly constructed "weird" tales of Petrushevskaya, Victor Pelevin and Tatyana Tolstaya suggests a secure Soviet literary future. (Read the title story from Petrushevskaya's collection.)
The Armies, by Evelio Rosero (translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean), paperback, 208 pages, New Directions, list price: $14.95
Despite being set amid the festering present-day violence of Colombia, life appears normal at the outset of Evelio Rosero's The Armies. An elderly Ismail peeps over his neighbor's wall to watch the young woman sunbathe naked. People visit Hortensia Galindo's house to offer sympathy for her disappeared husband, but joke that he ran off with a mistress. Ismail's account of how he met his wife, Otilia — which begins with a man shot dead, by a child, in front of him — is almost casually told.
Soon, however, guerrillas invade their rural town of San Jose, and Otilia becomes one of the missing. Winner of the 2009 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, The Armies is a realistic account of Colombia's civil unrest told in a tense, stripped-down style. It avoids slipping into polemic by keeping at its emotional center an old man interested not in taking sides but just the safe return of his wife. (Rosero's narrator explains the complex relationships between his neighbors.)
The Confessions of Noa Weber
The Confessions of Noa Weber, by Gail Hareven (translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu), paperback, 330 pages, Melville House, list price: $16.95
Noa Weber lives a public life of feminist authority. A single mother living in Israel, lawyer and author of a best-selling series of novels featuring a hard-boiled, "don't need a man" superheroine who fights injustices against women, she presents herself as a strong and independent role model. In actuality, she is obsessed with and almost entirely subservient to Alek, the nonreciprocating father of her daughter.
Feeling trapped in the contradiction of her public and private life, Noa sits down to write her story, unflinchingly and unforgivingly. By deciding to mine one character's psychology so thoroughly, Israeli novelist Gail Hareven risks not only believability but the chance that readers won't stick around for 300 pages. Noa is a fine companion, however: intelligent, self-aware, charming and darkly witty. That risk earned Hareven Israel's Sapir Prize and, one hopes, a growing presence in the English-language market. (Read Noa's memory of her wedding arrangements to Alek.)
The Twin, by Gerbrand Bakker (translated from the Dutch by David Colmer), hardcover, 250 pages, Archipelago, list price: $25
They're loath to admit it, but all parents have their favorite kid. In The Twin, Gerbrand Bakker's quiet story set in the Dutch countryside, Henk is always favored over his identical brother, Helmer. Successful at school, athletic and with the perfect girlfriend, Henk has the full and loving attention of his father, while Helmer lags behind. But after Henk's fatal car crash, Helmer is forced to abandon his education and move back to the family farm. He can barely stifle his resentment.
In its candor about the bitterness that can arise from family obligations and the responsibility of caretaking, The Twin is both touching and surprising. Bakker's beautiful and uncluttered prose style is almost old-fashioned. A character's remark about the farm — "It's here on this road now, but it might just as well be 1967 or 1930" — could refer to the novel itself. Family drama, after all, is timeless. (Read Bakker's description of Helmer's homecoming.)
Prelude: Ruins, 1986
Enough rot, howled Anatoly Diatlov. The alarm went off at 1:29 A.M. Moving at 300,000 kilometers a second, the photons passed through the screen — rendered brick-colored by the dust — pierced the air saturated with smoke from Turkish cigarettes, and, following a straight line through the control room, smashed into his pupils just before the blare of a siren, traveling at a mere 1,200 kilometers per hour, reached his eardrums. Unable to distinguish between the two stimuli, his neurons generated an electric whirlwind that engulfed his body. While his eyes focused on the scarlet iridescence and his ears were thrashed with sound waves, his neck muscles tensed, the glands in his forehead and armpits accelerated the production of sweat, his limbs stiffened, and, without the assistant to the engineer noticing, adrenaline infiltrated his blood stream. Despite his ten years of experience, Anatoly Mihalovic Diatlov was dying of fright.
A few meters away, another chain reaction was following a parallel course. In one of the side panels, the mercury was flying to the top of an old thermometer, while the iodine and cesium particles were becoming unstable. It was as if those inoffensive elements had plotted a revolt and, instead of being suspicious of each other, had joined to destroy the bars and torture the guards. The creature wasted no time in taking control of Reactor Number Four in an open challenge to the emergency rules. It was taking revenge and accepting no excuses: It would execute its captors and establish a kingdom of its own. Ever more powerful, it sped to conquer the plant. If the humans did not take immediate steps, the massacre couldn't be contained. Thousands would die. And the Ukraine, Byelorussia, perhaps all of Europe, would be forever devastated.
Flames were devouring the horizon. Far away, the Pripiat shepherds, accustomed only to events as severe as meteor showers, confused the columns of smoke with artillery practice or the celebration of some victory. Makar Bazdaiev, tending sheep, became tongue-tied as he watched the sky — an aftertaste of vodka in his throat — not knowing it heralded his death. Nearer to the fire, engineers and chemists, builders of stars, recognized the nature of the cataclysm. After decades of alarms and vigilance, the unthinkable had actually occurred, the often-postponed curse, the feared surprise attack. Old people still dreamed of German tanks, impaled children, and rows of graves: The enemy would decimate the forests again, burn the shacks, and drench the altars with the blood of their children.
At 1:30 A.M., Diatlov decided to do something. He'd always hated spring — the sunflowers, the songs the townspeople sang, the need to smile for no good reason. That's why he stayed inside the plant, safe from the euphoria. Only vodka and extra work enabled him to survive the holidays. And now this! The wise men of Kiev and Moscow, cities of wide avenues, had sworn that nothing like this would ever happen. A Party boss had reproached him once upon a time: There is no room for error. You have the manual in front of you, just follow instructions.
The manual was now useless. The needles were spinning wildly, like helicopter blades, and the protective barriers erected thanks to the indefatigable will of socialism — thousands of workers had built the secret citadel — were collapsing. This is how Sodom must have looked. The night was pierced by shouts; the air was filled with the stink of scorched flesh, and panting dogs blocked the side streets. The peasants confused the black smoke with the angel of death. And all because of a whim: the desire to test the resistance of the plant, to go beyond standard precautions, to surprise the Minister.
Only a few hours earlier, Diatlov had ordered the cooling system disconnected. Just routine. Within seconds, the reactor fell into a lazy sleep. Who could suspect it was faking? Its breathing became slower and its pulse was barely perceptible: less than thirty megawatts. Finally, it closed its eyes. Fearing an irreversible coma, Diatlov abandoned common sense: We must increase power again.
The technicians retracted the barium carbon rods, which restrained the beast, and it recovered its powers. Its vital signs stabilized. It was breathing again. The technicians cheered, not knowing that those rods were the only thing that protected them: The manual stipulated fifteen as the lowest acceptable number, and now there were only eight. How stupid! That error would result in thousands of casualties. The monster's heartbeat quickly reached six hundred megawatts, and in the blink of an eye it had enough strength to demolish the walls of its cell. Its roars shook the fir trees of Pripiat like the howl of a thousand wolves. Sand crackled and steel blistered. The nucleus of Reactor Number Four had almost attained the heat of the stars — magma pouring from its jaws — but Diatlov stubbornly insisted on floating above the void. Let's go on with the test.
The beast took no pity on him or his crew. It attacked its guards and devoured their guts; then, angrier and angrier, it began its pilgrimage across the plant's galleries, spreading its fury through the ventilation system. Disregarding orders from his superiors, Vladimir Kriachuk, a thirty-five-year-old technician, pushed the AZ-5 key to stop the entire process. Two hundred carbon rods cascaded into the body of the intruder — vainly. Instead of succumbing, it went back on the offensive, becoming even more dangerous.
It's out of control! Olexandr Akhimov, the team leader, wasn't lying: The monster had won. It plucked out Yuri Ivanov's eyes and smashed Leonid Gordesian's skull like an almond shell. Two explosions signaled its victory. Reactor Number Four ceased to exist.
The plant was the pride of the nation. In secret, over the course of toilsome months, an army of workers, supervised by hundreds of functionaries from the Ministry along with various security groups, built the reactors, the electric transformers, the water distribution system, the telephone lines, the workers' houses, the schools for the workers' children, the community centers, the firehouse, and the local centers for the Party and the secret service. A city in miniature, an example of order and progress that was self-sufficient; a perfect system erected in a place that didn't appear on any map—a genuine utopia, proof of Communism's vigor.
Besieged in the rubble, Diatlov ordered the activation of the emergency cooling system (his hands were trembling like wheat in a gale). He thought that water, as it did in ancient eras, would defeat the fire.
Comrade, the pumps are offline. It was the voice of Boris Soliarchuk. Diatlov remembered that he had ordered them disconnected only the day before. What is the radiation level? The maximum our instruments can register is one millirem, and we went beyond that hours ago.
That was a hundred times the allowed norm. Diatlov furrowed his brow and imagined a cortege of cadavers.
From Seasons Of Ash: A Novel In Three Acts by Jorge Volpi. Translated from Spanish by Alfred Mac Adam. Published by Open Letter and used with permission of the publisher.