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.)
GOING TO THE RABBINATE
I didn't look at him or at anyone else when I said: "Yes, I want to." And the next thing he said was: "Okay, then let's go and do it now, just tell me where to go."
At that moment he was a king, he was their prince, they admired him more than ever, and some of that admiration was directed at me too, so that the doubts as to whether we were "really going to do it" were addressed to us in the plural. For a few minutes "you" meant both of us, and that "you" — the crazy, impulsive, glamorous, free-spirited you — was intoxicating. At the first words of doubt Alek threw the cracked pecans into the basket, and on the spot, accompanied by all of them, we set out for the Rabbinate on Havatzelet Street.
I recall the movement with which he aimed the pecans and hold it in my imagination, and Alek in his white tee shirt looks like a boy, slender and cropped. He was then twenty-eight, almost as old as Hagar today. But even today when the touch of his thinness sometimes feels like the touch of old age — and only rarely like the touch of a slender boy — he is still the same Alek who clenched fist over fist, and so he will apparently always remain, never mind the metamorphoses of his body.
Dalit, Hyman, and two others I barely knew, dropped out on the way on various pretexts. Perhaps things had gone further than they intended, perhaps they had been infected by some other embarrassment, but three of them, surrounding the pair of us like tipsy bodyguards, accompanied us into the Rabbinate building and testified that they had known us from early childhood, and that they knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that Alexander Ginsberg and Noa Weber were single. And when the officials of the Holy One Blessed Be He began to inquire as to the exact date of Alek's arrival in Israel, it turned out that one of our witnesses was also a Ginsberg, just like Alek, and this Ginsberg quickly improvised all kinds of fibs about the family connection, about uninterrupted correspondence and frequent visits in Paris. "Alexander Ginsberg," babbled the ginger-haired Ginsberg, imitating the gossipy tone of the clerks, "Alek, as we call him in the family, is a confirmed bachelor. To such an extent that his mother began to worry that she wouldn't have any grandchildren, and my mother told her, send him to Israel, and you'll see that he'll soon find himself a nice Jewish girl to marry." And we all smothered hysterical giggles.
Alek was surprised to discover that we couldn't finish what we had come to do on the spot. The men were sent outside, and I was sent to have a talk with the rabbi's wife as a necessary preliminary to setting the date.
In the years to come I told the story of this interview countless times, it became part of my anecdotal stock-in-trade, which I polished up from time to time, perfecting the details of the scene, the asides and the timing. Now I'll be brief and stick to the facts: A short woman with her hair covered in a brown snood greeted me from the other side of a scratched office desk and without any preliminaries began to explain to me what a mistake it would be to bake my husband a chocolate cake every day, even if he hinted that he wanted it and even if he demanded it, because you get tired of even the best cake if it's served up every day. She reminded me of my mother with her nagging about the proper eating habits — "Chew, Noa, chew before you swallow." — except that my mother is a thin woman, and this one had a double chin tucked in over a swelling bosom. In my innocence I replied that I didn't know how to bake, and only when she sighed, and I, suddenly embarrassed without my male support group, stared at the bucket someone had left by the door, only then did I realize what the woman was talking about.
In the face of my surprising naiveté she abandoned the culinary metaphors and asked for details about my menstrual cycle. Was it regular? How long did it last? And when exactly was it due? I thought about the four who were presumably waiting for me outside, about Alek's impatience, and about what I would have to tell them in a few minutes, and with this to inspire me, as soon as I realized where all these questions were leading, I whispered that there was a problem, you understand, we have a problem because I'm pregnant. That's why we have to get married as quickly as possible, a quick, discreet wedding...perhaps right here in the Rabbinate? My face burned with a shame whose origins were different from what the rabbi's wife supposed.
Overflowing with concern she waddled with me to the clerk, who set the date for ten days' time, right after the holiday of Simchat Torah. "Light Sabbath candles," she recommended in parting, "forget the past, and explain to your husband that this is the time to make a new beginning and fortify yourselves with tradition. It's important to him too for his child to grow up like a Jew, why else did he come to Israel?... The mother is the foundation of the home, the wife is the foundation of the home, you'll see how your husband will respect you when you make him a Jewish home. You'll make him a Jewish home, and he'll make you a queen." The really crazy joke in this story, the joke I never tell when I'm delivering the shtick, is that while I was inventing my urgent dilemma for the benefit of the rabbi's wife, the first cells of Hagar were already dividing inside me. And that I didn't have the faintest idea that I was pregnant.
From The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven (Translated by Dalya Bilu). Copyright 2009 by Gail Hareven. Excerpted with permission by Melville House
We may wish our ex-lovers would do the decent thing and move to Bolivia after the breakup, but then how to explain the nights we're up decoding their blogs to determine if they've forgotten us, or the very slow drives past their houses? Those who have indulged in such behavior might find themselves growing uncomfortable reading Gail Hareven's story of romantic obsession, The Confessions of Noa Weber.
From the moment Noa met Alek, she was stripped of her dignity. He signaled from across the room, beckoning her with two fingers, as one would a dog, and she heeled. Almost 30 years later, she is admitting to all of the humiliating details, from her decision as a teen to keep his child because she thought he'd then have to stay, to her ongoing mad dashes to Moscow whenever he called. Noa — a Jerusalem-based novelist who writes "feminist fairy tales" starring the powerful, independent, crime-fighting Nira Woolf — is now telling her story of Alek "because only in this way can I exorcise the demon."
Hareven, one of Israel's finest writers, has a keen insight into how a toxic relationship can consume a woman. Noa never seems pathetic; she's too sympathetic and self-aware. She has her blind spots, obviously, but through her, Hareven examines the tension between a secret life and a public persona, how we hide things from our female friends and how we feed our obsessions until they take over our lives.
Despite Hareven's renown as a prolific novelist, playwright and short story author, The Confessions of Noa Weber — winner of Israel's prestigious Sapir Prize — is her first work to appear in English. It's not a casual read; Hareven's insights into desperate yearning are so dead on and painfully astute, the experience can be eviscerating. That the work is also witty and compelling will leave American readers, encountering Hareven for the first time, almost certainly pining for more.