Looking at the list of my top 10 books from 2012, plus an added three from 2011 and two from even earlier, I can’t help noticing that besides the geographical commonality (they’re all by writers from Central and Eastern Europe except the Chilean Carlos Cerda, though even he was writing about being in exile in East Berlin) the one feature that unites practically all of them is war. They are written in the shadow of World War II and in mind of its worst atrocities, in the dark thoughts of veterans of Chechnya and the aftermaths of the wars in the Balkans and the Russian Civil War, there is even a very brief spell of combat in the Caucasus. I wasn’t searching this out. These happened to be the best books I came across this past year. And yet none of them can remotely be called war novels; war isn’t their subject, they are all doing something much more universal.
At Literary Saloon Michael Orthofer has already written about the Literary world disconnect, in which the vast majority of “Best-Book” lists that he’s read are books that he hasn’t seen or read. I couldn’t agree more. There are some great books out there and you can’t even blame the dreaded three percent translation figure if instead of these great books you’re reading some of the well-publicized, talked-about-among-your-friends but second-rate novels that seem to be filling out these lists.
1. Seven Terrors by Selvedin Avdić
The great read of the year for me, a book which manages to weave the mythic horror familiar from legend and modern masters of the fantastic like Bulgakov and Leo Perutz with the horrors of the Balkan war and human cruelty. A search for a an old friend who seems to have disappeared into the mythical underworld gets the novel’s protagonist out of bed after nine months of bemoaning his wife’s leaving him. His friend’s traces get him in contact with the other kind of underworld and two of the most deftly drawn villains of contemporary fiction – the Pegasus brothers – lovers of death from childhood and ghostly white from head to toe. The book is an original and compelling approach to understand the way man can become a monster and then man again.
2. Sin by Zakhar Prilepin
Refreshing and extremely vital linked short stories (a novel-in-stories) very different from most of the contemporary Russian writing that makes it into translation (not that much contemporary Russian writing gets translated). Prilepin has an incredible ability to grip the reader without any regard for what, if anything, is “happening” in the story. Read literalab’s review of Sin here.
3. + 4. The Minotaur’s Head by Marek Krajewski (and Death in Breslau)
The fourth and latest of Marek Krajewski’s novels with the hard-bitten, classically trained German policeman Eberhard Mock, though not part of the five-novel Breslau series, the first book of which – Death in Breslau – has just come out in the US. Translated by Danusia Stok, the novel shifts most of the action across the border from Breslau (today’s Wrocław, then in Germany) to Polish Lwów (today’s Lviv in Ukraine) of which Krajewski paints a vivid picture. The novel introduces Mock’s even more eccentric Polish counterpart Edward Popielski, and with the bestial Minotaur and the mysterious traces of high mathematics makes for a compelling read. The same can be said for Death in Breslau and the whole series, to which I am now addicted.
5. Kino by Jürgen Fauth
Weimar and Hollywood decadence, megalomania of the taking over the world and making a film variety, a lost masterpiece, a mystery, a transatlantic chase. That’s pretty much everything. Interesting, well-written, fun to read and re-read. Here is my review of Kino at Readux.
6. The Case of the General’s Thumb by Andrey Kurkov
Like Kurkov’s Penguin novels this one defies categories, containing elements of crime and espionage and then taking it to absurd places that it would never occur to Stieg Larsson to do even if he were alive. Read literalab’s review of the General’s Thumb here.
7. Glorious Nemesis by Ladislav Klíma
Another visionary gem from the 1920s. Klíma’s dreamlike, nightmarish story of obsession is riveting, and the book’s illustrations by Pavel Růt make it absolutely worth having on your shelf. Read literalab’s review of Glorious Nemesis here.
8. A Grain of Truth by Zygmunt Miłoszewski
A crime novel that doesn’t sacrifice a bit of suspense to delve into the fraught subject of anti-Semitism in Poland. While you are seeing the main character try to track down a killer and wondering what, if anything, these series of murders might have to do with the Jewish blood libel or the Holocaust, you are also seeing how many dimensions this contentious and painful shared history has.
9. Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand by Franz Werfel
A man gets a letter from a former lover and the guilt, reflections and request it contains leads from the glitz of Strauss’s Vienna to the Gestapo’s torture chambers. A beautifully-written and perfectly-paced novella. Here is an article I wrote on Werfel and Pale Blue Ink for Beauty is a Sleeping Cat. A review of the novella is forthcoming in The Review of Contemporary Fiction.
10. Thirst by Andrei Gelasimov
A spare, crisply-written novel about a disfigured veteran returning from Chechnya, about art, and about friendship. Translated by Marian Schwartz, who would probably also be on this list for Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair if I had read it (I will though). Read literalab’s review of Thirst here.
Read but not published in 2012
11. Cynics by Anatoly Mariengof
Though this 1928 avant-garde masterpiece was first published in English translation in 1991, Cynics will be reissued as an e-book for the first time in 2013 together with A Novel Without Lies, a book recounting Mariengof’s close friendship and literary association with the revered and tragic Russian poet Sergei Esenin. A review of the latter novel will be forthcoming here and the edition of Cynics will appear with an introduction by yours truly. Read literalab’s review of Cynics here.
12. To Die in Berlin by Carlos Cerda
I can no longer remember if I was clued into the existence of this incredible novelist by mention of his name in the writings of fellow Chilean Roberto Bolaño but I was especially attracted to this book for its being set among Chilean exiles in 80s East Berlin. The novel has a gray, suffocating atmosphere that is extremely vivid and never gray and suffocating for the reader, as is the case all too often in novels showing an oppressive regime. What puts it over the top though are its characters, from the Holocaust survivor turned Communist Party official to the old Chilean leader of the exiled community, his young ballerina neighbor to the female main character desperately trying to cross the wall and get back home.
13. The Letter Killers Club by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Published at the end of 2011 I got to the latest work of the rediscovered Krzhizhanovsky this year in translation by Joanne Turnbull and considering how many of the writers on the Best Books lists are being compared to other writers (like Woolf, like Joyce, blah blah . . and that’s only one book) it’s refreshing to read a writer with such a singular vision.
14. The Wandering Jew by Dennis Marks
What starts out as a travel book looking for traces of the lost world Joseph Roth was born in becomes a highly engaging journey through the ideas and issues that formed one of Central Europe’s defining writers. Here is an interview I did with Dennis Marks.
15. On the Road to Babadag by Andrzej Stasiuk
The Polish writer’s almost indescribable book reflecting on some of the more obscure parts of the more obscure half of Europe, and in doing so, what Europe really is. A lot has been written about this book, justifiably. Here is my review at the Cerise Press.