1. The Devil’s Workshop by Jáchym Topol (translated by Alex Zucker)
Like my favorite book of the year before, my favorite book of 2013 delves into the ultimate horrors that man inflicts on his fellow man, but does so with a surplus of imagination, suspense and humor. Whereas Selvedin Avdić’s Seven Terrors dealt with the war in Bosnia, Topol focuses on the genocide that took place in what is now the Czech Republic, and more extremely and lesser known to the world, in Khatyn in Belarus. More than that, he shows how the dark and still often obscure chapters of history in the former Eastern Bloc have been used and distorted by westerners for their own more narrowly personal ends. In expounding very complex and provocative ideas Topol has written a novel that has a uniquely surreal effect.
2. The Bridge Over the Neroch: And Other Works by Leonid Tsypkin (translated by Jamey Gambrell)
A collection by the author of Summer in Baden Baden, including two novellas and a number of short stories is especially notable for the masterful novellas – both autobiographical, yet bringing in history among other elements and layers to give them the kind of depth and dimension you would expect from much longer novels. And the history that enters into the novels in both cases is that which entered into the lives of Russian Jews like Tsypkin and his family in the 20th century in the form of the German invasion and the Holocaust, which he handles with great tragic and artistic force.
My review of the collection in Asymptote
3. The Swimmers by Joaquín Pérez Azaústre (translated by Lucas Lyndes)
Adjectives like “haunting” feel totally inadequate to describe the feeling of this amazing book once the ground slips away from the seemingly realistic drama and people subtly but eerily begin disappearing. It’s just that it’s impossible to think of any single word to describe the effect evoked by Pérez Azaústre. On the novel’s publisher’s website there is a quote from a review in the Diario de León saying, “Something of Kafka, something of Lynch, and something of Auster hovers over The Swimmers.” Yet even here the names are just distant approximations and the best word in the quote is how that something “hovers”.
Read an excerpt from The Swimmers in B O D Y’s Saturday European Fiction
4. The Armenian Sketchbook by Vassily Grossman (translated by Robert Chandler)
Titled a “sketchbook” (yet only in English translation) and seemingly a travel book, this thin volume by the author of the weighty Russian epic Life and Fate actually shares many characteristics of the great Russian novels, including reflections on all the big subjects: the effects of time, suicide, poetry, goodness, faith and its absence, Russianness and death, as well as masterful characterizations and landscapes. And in a world (then and now) of pompous, pretentious authors, has there ever been a more brilliantly humble and self-effacing writer than one who would make the two most action-packed scenes in the book center on his desperate need to find a place to go the bathroom?
5. The Assassin From Apricot City by Witold Szabłowski (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)
In the great tradition of Polish reportage Szabłowski’s book offers some unforgettable scenes and images and explores some of the big issues of our time but gives the reader the sense that these subjects are always part of distinct individual stories and not abstract issues.
Read an excerpt from The Assassin From Apricot City in B O D Y
6. Under This Terrible Sun by Carlos Busqued (Translated by Megan McDowell)
Another great Latin American novel that gets the balance between a “literary” novel (whatever that means) and a noir perfectly right, while also adding a sense of strangeness that puts it somewhere in a twilight zone of its own.
Read my review of Under This Terrible Sun in B O D Y
Read an excerpt from Under This Terrible Sun in B O D Y
7. Mother Departs by Tadeusz Różewicz (translated by Barbara Bogoczek)
Not your typical experimental prose text. Combinations of prose and poetry, multiple narrators – yes, but dealing with the deeply emotional subject of the greatest living Polish poet’s mother and the tragic incidents that marred her and her country’s life. This isn’t experimentation for experiment’s sake but to attempt to approach a complex and ultimately unknowable reality.
8. Paradises by Iosi Havilio (translated by Beth Fowler)
I can’t really describe this strange and mesmerizing book any better than the publisher’s do here: “Is this life in the shadows, an underworld of cut-price Christmases, drugs and dealers, or is this simply life? And why do snakes seem to be invading every aspect of it?” Oddly, this doesn’t only capture this great Argentine novel, but my most recently celebrated holiday season (and I still have no answer for the snakes).
Read an excerpt from Paradises in B O D Y
Read but not published in 2013
9. Living A Life: Totally Absurd Tales by Valery Ronshin (translated by José Alaniz, Joanne Turnbull, Kathleen Cook, Edmund Glentworth, Sofi Cook, John Dewey)
The following is the beginning of the short story “How Tryapkin the Detective Set out to Moscow and Arrived in Arsehole”:
Once upon a time there lived a detective named Tryapkin. One day the detective Tryapkin received an order from a very important general to go and see him. Or rather, her — since the general was a woman, Maria Petrovna.
“Tryapkin,” she began, adjusting her mighty general’s bosom under her uniform. “Tryapkin, I would like to entrust you with a most unusual case.”
“Yes, general,” Tryapkin moved closer to show his readiness to serve.
“All our passenger trains travelling from Petersburg to Moscow have begun simply to disappear! What is more, they disappear without a trace, Tryapkin — without a trace!”
Simply put, if you don’t like Valery Ronshin’s writing, there’s something wrong with you. That’s all there is to it.