By Rex Cleaver and Oisin Harris
Here are our reviews of some of our favourite translated books that we have read recently.
The Things We’ve Seen by Agustín Fernández Mallo, translated by Thomas Bunstead and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, March 2021
The idea that the greatest social network is the one linking you to all previous humans on earth runs through The Things We’ve Seen, a book stretching across continents, wars and epochs to seek out reality’s blind spots. Originally published as Trilogía de la guerra (War Trilogy) in Spanish, The Things We’ve Seen is Spanish writer Agustín Fernández Mallo’s fourth novel to be translated into English, after his Nocilla Trilogy which was also published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.
The book is divided into three parts. Starting out from a tiny island that serves as a secret generator for the activation of our world’s biggest social network – one which connects the dead to the living – Book One introduces us to our unnamed narrator. He is attending a conference on digital networks on the Galician island of San Simón. Whilst there, he begins to seek out locations shown in a book about the island’s sombre past during the Spanish Civil War. Next, we move to New York where our narrator meets an artist who also uses pictures of San Simón’s past. Not long after, our narrator (channelling Don DeLillo and Tom McCarthy) is startled by a recurring message on his phone, a line forming the book’s title from the Spanish Poet Carlos Oroza: “It’s a mistake to take the things we’ve seen as a given.” Key to understanding this book is Mallo’s recurring use of the imagery of networks binding dead and living things. Take this key passage from Book Two, for example:
“all human beings, no matter how far apart and unknown to one another they may be, are in fact joined by one war or another... And this doesn’t only go for the present, but joins us all to the dead as well, as far back as cave peoples.”
Book Two recounts the life of Kurt Montana, the fourth astronaut on Apollo 11’s lunar mission, who now works in a retirement home in Florida. One of the book’s themes is that of the missing link, that moment when past, present and future collide in a kind of neurological polaroid. This preoccupies several characters throughout the book: “I want to be the first one to get it down. Like those old cave paintings, all the buffalos and hunting scenes and all, but in the here and now.” Book Three portrays one woman’s journey on foot through Normandy as she re-enacts a trip taken on a previous holiday with our narrator from Book One. Book Three is a reflection on the dead’s globalised social network for those of us living today. Mallo’s book reminded me of an essay by the late John Berger on the prehistoric art of France’s Chauvet Caves. Perhaps these inscrutable yet present echoes from our common ancestors are language’s missing link, reminding us through Mallo’s pages that “…the living and the dead, proceed together in the same universe.”
The Blizzard by Vladimir Sorokin, translated by Jamey Gambrell and published by Penguin Classics, 2015.
Platon Ilich Garin needs to get to the village of Dolgoye urgently. A determined country doctor, he carries the vaccine for a deadly epidemic that is ravaging the country. Asking for a horse, a local stationmaster instead points him in the direction of a snowmobile – “fifty horse-power”, we are told. Upon discovery of the vehicle, it is clear that this will be no ordinary journey, for the snowmobile is indeed fifty-horse-powered – fifty bird-sized, miniature horses. So begins the bizarre, snow-filled odyssey of Vladimir Sorokin’s novel, The Blizzard.
The opening wonderfully encapsulates how Sorokin continually plays with our expectations throughout the novel, twisting the classic Russian novel’s form into a metaphysical and subversive examination of Russian life. Known for his biting political satire – as seen in his earlier novel, Day of the Oprichnik, which largely introduced him to Western audiences – The Blizzard at first seems like a departure for Sorokin. Its 19th century-style prose is a sharp contrast to his earlier frenetic and radically modern style. Sorokin repeatedly alludes to the frost-filled works of many of Russia’s greatest classic writers, from Tolstoy’s ‘The Snowstorm’ and Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter to the poetry of Alexander Blok, a titan of Russian symbolism. Playing on the great Russian writers, Sorokin distorts this classical vision, increasingly adding fantastical elements as we journey into the blizzard.
On their ill-fated journey to Dolgoye, Garin and his driver, Crouper, encounter horses the size of three-storey buildings, embark on a nightmarish hallucinogenic drug trip and even crash their snowmobile into the nostril of a dead giant. Sorokin’s wonderful narrative becomes increasingly disorienting as the characters become further entrenched and lost in the snow. In a story outside of time, the novel is a chilling and beautiful statement on Russia.