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.


2012 Books in Translation Chunkster

Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman

Traveller of the Century Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia

Five words from the blurb: mysterious, city, literary, love, translation

When Stu announced he was holding a blog event to celebrate translated literature published by Pushkin Press I immediately pencilled Traveller of the Century onto my list. It had been receiving almost universal praise from the blogosphere and I was keen to sample its literary magic. I’m so pleased that Stu pushed this up my TBR pile as it is one of those timeless classics that encourages you to look at the world in a slightly different light.

The book begins with a man arriving in a mysterious city. Every day he walks around the local area and is slightly puzzled by the way buildings and roads appear to change location overnight. This section had a magical feel that reminded me of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but the writing quality meant I was able to suspend my disbelief and enjoyed reading about the weird occurrences.  

As the story progressed it became more grounded in reality and I found that I had to read the book in small sections as the information was so dense – it felt more like a series of essays than a novel. Much of the book focused on issues around translation, particularly of poetry. I have to admit that I’m not a big poetry fan and so some of the discussions did nothing for me, but luckily these were soon followed by ones that did. 

It’s the opposite of what I expected, she said, metre in German or English poetry resembles a dance, while in Spanish it is like a military march. In German poetry the dancer marks the rhythm until he decides to turn round and go to the next verse, regardless of how many steps he takes. It is more spoken, more from the lungs, isn’t it? Spanish verse is beautiful and yet there is something rigid about it, something imposed that doesn’t seem to originate from speech, one has to count both accents and syllables, it’s almost Pythagorean.

The plot was simple, but contained a beautiful love story and some (interesting?!) sex scenes. There was very little forward momentum, but watching the love blossom between the two characters was so heart-warming. I prefer books that are more plot driven, but it is impossible to ignore the quality of the writing in this book.

If you have any interest in the process of translation then you should buy a copy now!



2011 Books in Translation Chunkster Historical Fiction

The Hand of Fatima by Ildefonso Falcones

The Hand of Fatima Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor

Five words from the blurb: Christian, oppression, Moors, Arab, conflict

It has taken me over six months to complete this 970 page epic. The book gives a detailed history of 16th century Spain, revealing the horrific violence that took place in Grenada when the oppressed Christians battled against the Arabic Moors. The book is narrated by Hernando, the son of an Arab woman who was raped by a Christian priest. Having mixed blood Hernando finds it difficult to be loyal to either side and through strong friendships with those from both religions he tries to bring peace to the region.

This book is massive in terms of both length and scope. I knew nothing about this period of history, but a basic knowledge is assumed and so I found that I had to research some sections in order to understand what was happening. I also found that having a Spanish map available was helpful, as without knowing the geography it was difficult to know the distances involved for each journey.

At daybreak, they began to climb to Moclin, where a commanding fortress defended the entrance to the plains and the city of Granada. They covered the same distance as on the first day, but this time uphill, feeling the cold of the mountains penetrating their rain-soaked clothes until it seeped into their very bones. They could not leave Moriscos on the road, so all the fit men had to help those who were not well or even carry the corpses, as there was not a single cart for them.

The pace was often painfully slow, as many side stories were weaved into the main narrative. I would frequently struggle through 20 pages, abandon the book for a week or two and then try again, only to be caught up in a new plot thread that captured my heart and hurtled me through another 70 pages….where I would then stall again. It was frustrating and gripping in almost equal measure!

This book isn’t for the faint hearted – there are many graphic scenes of rape and violence. The massacres of entire villages are described in vivid detail and I admit that I sometimes skimmed over a few paragraphs to prevent the terrible images from entering my head.

I’m pleased that I read this book, if only to be made aware of this turbulent period of history. I think it could have benefited from being much shorter, but the basic premise of the book was very good.

Recommended to those who love historical fiction and are not afraid to invest a serious amount of time in a long, meandering book.


Stu of Winston’s Dad and Richard of Caravana De Recuerdos are hosting a Spanish literature month.
Head over to their blogs for lots of other Spanish literature recommendations!


2011 Books in Translation

Seven Houses in France – Bernardo Atxaga

Seven Houses in France Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

Five words from the blurb: Congo, fortune, jungle, enslaved, kidnapping

I hadn’t heard of Atxaga before this unsolicited review copy popped through my letter box, but the impressive list of awards he has won (including the Spanish National Literature Prize and a shortlisting for the European Literature Prize) grabbed my attention. The Observer also listed him as one of the top 21 writers of the 21st century, so I was keen to discover why his writing is so highly regarded.

Seven Houses in France is set in 1903 and follows a French Captain who is sent to the Congo to pillage the rain-forest of rubber, mahogany and ivory. He sends a vast amount of wealth back to France, enough to buy the seven houses mentioned in the title.

The quality of the writing was very high, but I hated the actions of the central character so much that I struggled to read it. At one point I almost gave up, but the entire book was a bit like a car crash – you know you are going to witness something horrible, but you are unable to avert your gaze.

The screeches of those vile monkeys was the worst thing about Yangambi, the worst thing about the Congo and about Africa, and he wanted to flay them with his chicotte, to whip them to the bone. He bounded down the first stretch of the path, slithering in the mud, then gradually slowed to a halt.

There were no redeeming scenes – the entire book is about one despicable man who kidnaps young girls from local villages and rapes them; a man who thinks it is entertaining to tie monkeys to posts and use them for target practice – and that is before I even mention the gathering of ivory, the enslavement of local people and all the other shockingly bad things he does without batting an eyelid.

I’m really hoping that Atxaga is being deliberately provocative with his writing; creating an obnoxious character to ensure that we become enraged by his actions. I’m sure some people will love the strong emotions produced by reading this book, but I’m afraid I can’t recommend it to anyone. It is important we know these terrible events happened, but I don’t like the images I now have in my head.


Have you read anything written by Bernardo Atxaga?

Are his other books less disturbing to read?

2009 Books in Translation Chunkster Other Prizes

2666 – Roberto Bolaño. Part 4: The Part About the Crimes

Steph and Claire are hosting a read-along for the highly acclaimed book, 2666, by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. The novel is 900 pages long, and divided into 5 parts. We are reading one part a month.

Here are my thoughts on Part 4: The Part About the Crimes

I loved Part 3, I felt that all the random, seemingly unconnected events of the first two parts were finally coming together. The end of the third section was such a cliffhanger that for the first time in this read-along I was tempted to dive straight into the fourth part. I had also read many reviews for 2666 which stated that all the action finally occurred in Part 4.

Unfortunately, Part 4 did not live up to my expectations, and I found it to be the weakest section so far.

As suggested by the title, this section focuses on the crimes. Throughout the first three sections we had heard snippets of information about the chain of women murdered in the town of Santa Teresa, but no specific facts. This section corrects that by giving detailed information about every victim. Almost every paragraph introduces us to a new victim, noting the month they were murdered, their physical appearance and the way in which they were killed. Instead of giving a voice to each of these unfortunate woman I felt that the repetition distanced me from each of them. The continual jumping from one person to the next meant that I didn’t connect with any of them, and they became of blur of names, dates and physical attributes.

I had been worried about the violence in this section, as several people had warned me about the graphic detail, but because I felt no emotional connection to the victims the violence did not bother me at all. Some of the descriptions were more brutal than others, but none of them affected me at all. In fact this entire section left me cold. It felt more like police notes than a novel and I gained little enjoyment from reading it at all.

I made a note of several quotes that I thought would be representative of this chapter and was interested to discover that they all sounded more beautiful and profound when taken out of context:

I’m talking about visions that would take away the breath of the bravest of brave men. In dreams I see the crimes and it’s as if a television set has exploded and I keep seeing, in the little shards of screen scattered around my bedroom, horrible scenes, endless tears.

It seemed as though being surrounded by the details of the crimes reduced the beauty of everything.

I am now apprehensive about reading the final section. I am really hoping that everything comes together in a complex and impressive way, as otherwise I think I will be disappointed by the book as a whole.


Were you affected by the graphic violence in this section?

Are you looking forward to reading the final part?

2008 2009 Books in Translation Chunkster

2666 – Roberto Bolaño. Part 3: The Part About Fate

Steph and Claire are hosting a read-along for the highly acclaimed book, 2666, by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. The novel is 900 pages long, and divided into 5 parts. We are reading one part a month, for the next five months.

Here are my thoughts on Part 3: The Part About Fate

I loved this part – I found it so much easier to read than the first two. This section reads much more like a normal novel and I now have a fuller understanding of what is happening –  although I guess you can never really tell what Bolaño is up to!

This section focuses on Fate, a reporter sent from New York to cover a boxing match in Saint Terasa, the Mexican city plagued by a serial killer. Fate quickly realises that the killings make a more interesting news story than a boxing match and so starts to investigate them.

This section finally brings things together, connecting the characters so I can finally begin to see their purpose in the book. It was so satisfying to finally discover links between some of the seemingly random events of the first two chapters.

As usual the writing was beautiful. I could have picked quotes from just about every page, but I was struck by the repetitive mention of the sun. It seemed to have great significance within this chapter.

But the sun has its uses, as any fool knows, said Seaman. From up close it’s hell, but from far away you’d have to be a vampire not to see how useful it is, how beautiful.

They crossed the yard and the street and their bodies cast extremely fine shadows that every five seconds were shaken by a tremor, as if the sun were spinning backward.

When the sun comes up everything will be over.

This section was also had a faster pace than the earlier two and had a cliff-hanger ending, making this the first section where I have actually been tempted to dive straight into the next chapter. I’m resisting though, in the hope that the suspense will add to the enjoyment of the book.

It appears this book is improving all the time. I am really looking forward to getting into The Part About The Crimes. I have very high expectations for it. Let’s hope it can live up to them.


Are you enjoying 2666 more now?

Can you wait a full month before beginning Part 4?