2015 Books in Translation

Out in the Open by Jesús Carrasco

Out in the Open Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

Five words from the blurb: boy, hiding, violence, landscape, goatherd

Out in the Open is a short, but powerful book about a boy who runs away from home. Whilst avoiding a search party, he meets an old goatherd and the two form an unlikely friendship. They begin to rely on each other for survival; showing how love and respect can span the generations.

The story takes place in a drought-ridden country where society appears to have broken down. The lack of any real reference means that it could be set in any time or place and this gives the book the feel of a timeless classic – further reinforcing its brilliance. The boy’s reasons for leaving home are eventually revealed, but they almost don’t matter. The focus is on how the boy survives and learns who he can trust in this harsh landscape.

Much of the book reminded me of The Road – the only real difference being that the central relationship is with a stranger. It was slightly lighter in tone, but should still be avoided by anyone looking for a happy story.

Again he tries to open his eyes, but without success. His eyelids weigh as heavy as curtains made of embossed leather. Infernal screams push the walls of his brain inwards. He feels a pounding in his translucent temples and his eyes bob about in their sockets like ice cubes in a glass. The person sitting inside his brain is searching for alternatives. He travels through his hollow body as far as his fingertips. He sends an electrical charge through them, even kicks them, but there’s not a flicker of movement. He’s clearly trapped inside his head, and the only option now is to wait for death.

The writing quality was excellent. The text initially appeared quite simple in structure, but a lot was happening beneath the surface and more is revealed with each re-read. The translation was excellent and it didn’t feel Spanish at all. It had a universal quality that means it should appeal equally to everyone, no matter which country they come from. 

My only criticism is that the book was relentlessly bleak. I’d have liked to see a bit more happiness, or even hope, woven into the story. Despite this, I’m still glad I read Out in the Open and will remember this little boy for a long time to come. 

Recommended to anyone who enjoys stories about the darker aspects of life.


2000 - 2007 Books in Translation Chunkster

The Book of Fathers by Miklós Vámos

The Book Of Fathers Translated from the Hungarian by Peter Sherwood

Five words from the blurb: Hungarian, family, generations, gift, epic

The Book of Fathers is an epic piece of historical fiction. It follows twelve generations of first-born sons through 300 years of Hungarian history. The book has been a bestseller throughout Europe, but has had less success here in the UK. This is a shame because it is the sort of thing that fans of historical fiction love.

The Book of Fathers is very readable. It is packed with period detail and has been incredibly well researched. I immediately bonded with the characters and enjoyed learning about Hungarian history. I was especially grateful that everything was explained in sufficient detail for me to understand what was happening, despite knowing little about the country’s history.

Unfortunately as the book progressed I became frustrated by the way the years slipped by so quickly. New characters were continually introduced and I began to lose track of who was who. Each chapter concentrated on a new generation and it began to feel more like a series of short stories. I wish that it had contained a fewer number of sons; enabling us to see each life in greater depth.

Szilard showed him the pocket timepiece and the medallion he guarded with his life. Yanna gave a squeal of joy when the face of her firstborn stared back at her from the gold locket. Richard Stern’s hook of a hand pulled Szilard towards him and the old man’s wet kisses fell upon the boy in a shower. This is how it is with us, though Richard Stern, moved: We keep losing members of the family, only to get them back again in the course of time.

Each son was also blessed with a clairvoyant ability. I was initially worried that this might interfere with the realism of the text, but these concerns proved unfounded as Vámos seemlessly blended the magical realism with the historical fiction. I think those who enjoy reading contemporary fairy tales will appreciate the folklore involved in this story.

I’m pleased that I read The Book of Fathers as I now have a greater knowledge of Central European history, but I’d only read another Vámos if I knew it concentrated on a smaller period of history. Recommended to those who love historical epics, especially when they’re sprinkled with folklore.


I read this for Stu’s Eastern European Month. Head over to his blog for more recommendations from this part of the world.




1950s Books in Translation Thriller

The Darkroom of Damocles by W.F. Hermans

The Darkroom Of Damocles Translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke

Five words from the blurb: occupation, Holland, assassinations, traitors, impossibility

The Darkroom of Damocles is set in Holland during WWII. It centres on Henri, a young man who is approached and asked to perform a series of assignments. These become increasingly dangerous, but his loyalty to the British is unwavering and he puts his job above relationships with his own family. Henri only starts to question his actions when the war ends and he begins to discover the truth behind the secrets of war. This leads the reader to question whether there can ever be a “right” side to take in a conflict situation. 

This book was very readable. Much of it felt like a fast-paced spy novel, but as it progressed it was increasingly possible to see the depth and complex moral issues that the author was trying to address. 

Unfortunately I felt the book was too long for its plot. There were several sections in the middle where I lost interest and I wish that some of these had been edited out. I’m not normally a fan of spy novels so I think this probably contributed to my boredom as after a while one chase scene seemed very much like the next:

Osewoudt turned round, the pistol in his trembling fist almost level with his eyes. He positioned himself with one foot forward while keeping watch on the door to the kitchen, which was slightly ajar. He couldn’t see into the kitchen because the door was at right angles to the passage. He should have left it open, he now realised. He listened intently, but could hear only the muffled sound of Lagendaal’s footsteps approaching.

Luckily the ending made up for some of excessive middle section. I was impressed by the way everything came together, but I was hoping for a greater emotional impact than I found.

I’m pleased I’ve read this Dutch classic, but I wish it had been half the length.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

Though The Darkroom of Damocles is full of action, it was the parts where nothing was happening that I liked best. The Asylum

The action is thrilling, the detail grounded and real, the prose (and the exceptional translation) deceptively simple and fluid. Lizzy’s Literary Life

It’s a book to make you think, and go on thinking for some time after you’ve put it down. Fleur in her World


2015 Books in Translation

The Room by Jonas Karlsson

The Room Translated from the Swedish by Neil Smith

Five words from the blurb: colleagues, different, fable, reality, office

The Room is a short, but entertaining fable about an office worker who discovers a room that no one else can see. Björn begins a new job at the “Authority” and when trying to find the toilet he accidentally walks into a strangely calming room. He becomes increasingly drawn towards it, discovering that he is easily able to perform complex tasks whilst there. The only problem is that his new colleagues are unable to see the room and become convinced that Björn is losing his mind.

“I passed the room twice that day. Once on my way to the toilet, and once when I tidied my desk and went to put two old journals in the recycling bin. I tried not to think about it. I did my best to imitate the others and pretend the room didn’t exist. It felt utterly ridiculous. Of course there’s a room there, I thought. After all, I can see it. I can touch it. I can feel it.

This book was very easy to read and managed to combine a satire of office politics with a surreal story that questions our perception of reality. I loved the way that the bizarre circumstances were made to feel completely normal and I felt great sympathy for those on both sides of the argument.

If you’ve ever worked in an office you’ll appreciate the humorous observations about working with people with whom you have nothing in common and if you enjoy Kafka’s books then I’m sure you’ll appreciate this modern equivalent of his style. Recommended to anyone looking for something a little different.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

For something that sounds and appears so bare and simple it is a richly complex and refreshing read. The Literary Tree (warning this review contains spoilers)

The Room has the makings of a cult classic. Learn this Phrase

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this on my Books of the Year list come December. Me and My Big Mouth

Note: I couldn’t find any negative reviews of this book. I don’t know if that is because it has only just been published or because it is universally loved!

2000 - 2007 Books in Translation

Minor Angels by Antoine Volodine

Minor Angels Translated from the French by Jordan Stump

Five words from the blurb: postcataclysmic, immortal, angels, avenging, dark

I bought a copy of Minor Angels after seeing several people (I’m afraid I can’t remember who) raving about it on Twitter. I can see why the book is highly regarded, but my opinion of it is very mixed.

Minor Angels is set in a postcataclysmic world and revolves around a nursing home where all of the residents appear to be immortal. It is narrated by 49 different angels, each given their own chapter (or narract, as the author likes to refer to them).

The book could be described in two ways:

  1. A masterpiece, which reveals more with every reading.
  2. An confusing, impenetrable piece of work.

I can’t decide which it is! The writing was outstanding and individual scenes were dazzlingly vivid, but I struggled to understand the overall concept. Each chapter was so short that the book felt fragmented and I failed to see many links between the narracts. Volodine states that the connections will only become obvious in the dreams of the reader;  but I’m unlikely to dream about it so it remains a mystery to me!

I loved the imagery of the book and admired the portrayal of the angels:

A dense arch took shape over me, formed of warm breath and arthritic hands and coarse, rutted faces. The intermingled fabrics whirled this way and that, the dust wheeled from one mouth to the other. Their words described the state of things after and before the world revolution, pelting me like falling hail. I took all this in, all these sentences, all those gutturals recounting a universal disaster, and, second by second, my understanding of the situation grew.

It all felt incredibly realistic. It’s just a shame that I failed to understand the overall concept as I’m sure a lot of the wisdom was lost on me.

Recommended to those who enjoy piecing together the symbolism in a complex set of texts.


2000 - 2007 Books in Translation

Strangers by Taichi Yamada

Strangers Translated from the Japanese by Wayne P Lammers

Five words from the blurb: ghost, parents, grief, isolation, reality

Strangers begins with Harada, a recently divorced scriptwriter, spotting a man who looks like his father. This is impossible as Harada’s parents died when he was just twelve-years-old, but a deep longing leads him to ignore this fact and he finds himself in a relationship with the parents he lost all those years ago:

A thirty-something couple could not possibly be the parents of a 47-year-old man – no, make that a 48-year-old man, as of today. But being with them had made me feel like a boy again. Of course, a boy could not have been drinking whiskey, but in a moment of alcohol-induced carelessness, I had actually addressed the man as “Dad”, and he had answered “Yeah?” exactly as if I were indeed his little boy.

Strangers is one of those rare novels that can be enjoyed on many different levels. It may simply be read as a gripping ghost story, but it also contains many layers beneath the surface and with thought it quickly becomes more complex than it initially appears.

This book encapsulates everything I love about Japanese literature. It is weird, but wonderful and contains a unique approach to literature that you won’t find in many Western novels. The simple, but powerful text seamlessly blends the Japanese spirit world with reality – creating a strangely convincing situation that the reader never questions.

I loved the way it captured the emotional intensity of grief without becoming depressing. The need for an adult man to maintain a relationship with his parents was wonderfully portrayed and I found the entire book touching. There was also a beautifully creepy atmosphere, but it retained a hopefulness and never became overbearing or scary.

The pacing of the book was perfect and I was gripped throughout. The simple, pared-back language allowed the reader to fill in the blanks and, whilst this won’t appeal to everyone, it allowed me to immerse myself in this bizarre situation. The ending was particularly satisfying and I’ll be thinking about this book for a long time to come.

Highly recommended, especially to those wanting to try Japanese literature for the first time.


I read this book for Tony’s January in Japan project. Head over there to find out about many more wonderful Japanese books!