Before we say adios, au revoir, arrivederci, auf wiedersehen, do svidaniya, or sayonara to 2021, we offer one last roundup of the world’s finest literature in (English) translation, combining releases for both November and December. Whether you’re seeking gift ideas for your worldly friends and family or simply new titles to help you while away the winter months, below you’ll find the year’s most expansive selection of fascinating fiction from afar, including Welsh post-apocalyptica, a German masterwork of darkness and dislocation, a “mathemagical” Norwegian debut, a foreboding Hungarian novella of paranoia and pursuit, modern fairy tales from Russia, a Colombian literary thriller, a satirical send-up of contemporary Iran, the new novel from a Peruvian Nobel laureate, a gorgeous new work from a 98-year-old Uruguayan poet and writer, a Bosnian-German novel “blending autofiction, fable, and choose-your-own-adventure,” Swiss short stories from a Booker shortlister, a modern-day Argentinian Romeo and Juliet, “one of the greatest novels in the history of Mexican literature,” and excellent new works from Spain, France, Italy, Cuba, Korea, Chile, Austria, and elsewhere.
Thanks to each and every one of you who followed our “Mundi Libris” column this year; we’re grateful. If you discovered a new favorite author (or translator!) or a book you just cannot forget, please take a moment to leave a comment and let us and others know. Here’s to another year of reading the world!
Argentinian author Selva Almada’s first novel in English, The Wind That Lays Waste, was called “elegant and stark….beautiful as it is unnerving” by Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers author Paul Harding. Her second book in translation, Dead Girls, was a devastating work of journalistic fiction about femicide in her home country. Almada’s much-anticipated new novel, Brickmakers, is a modern Romeo and Juliet-like tale set in rural Argentina, contending with patriarchy and violence.
A finalist for both the prestigious Prix Goncourt (France’s highest literary award) and the Orange Book Prize, Bénédicte Belpois’s debut novel, Suiza, was inspired by her work as a midwife and is a tale of life-changing love and second chances, set in Spain’s Galician countryside. Swiss broadcaster RTS calls Suiza “moving….a first novel of rare intensity” and Publishers Weekly says “Immersive and disturbing….This rough-edged anti-fairy tale is not for the faint of heart.”
Late Spanish author Rafael Chirbes (1949-2015) was called "the best writer of the twenty-first century in Spain" by Spanish daily ABC. Longlisted for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award, his previous novel, On the Edge, was a dark, delirious masterwork set following The Great Recession. His new novel, Cremation, is a polyphonic tale of family drama, rampant growth, and capitalist excess, described by The Guardian as “an overflowing, mesmeric masterpiece about greed.” Kirkus, in their starred review, calls Cremation “a challenging excursion from one of Europe’s most distinctive voices.”
Mexican author and diplomat Rafael Bernal (1915-1972)’s first book in English, The Mongolian Conspiracy, was a high-paced detective thriller, described by novelist Francisco Goldman as "the best fucking novel ever written about Mexico City.” Composed nearly 75 years ago, Bernal’s His Name Was Death is a fantastical and allegorical, science fiction-like novel — way ahead of its time — about colonialism and mosquitos, noted by poet/researcher Francisco Prieto as “without a doubt, one of the greatest novels in the history of Mexican literature.”
One of the year’s finest works of fiction, The Interim is a nearly flawless, late-career literary gem from German writer Wolfgang Hilbig (1941-2007). An angst-filled novel, set in the late 1980s, about a drunken antihero novelist torn between East and West Germany and evading anything that would provide grounding or stability, Hilbig’s portrayal of a broken, ineffectual man awash in an age of dislocation is vigorous and unyielding. British novelist Hari Kunzru calls it, “Bilious and bleakly funny….captur[ing] the despair and disorientation of a generation of German intellectuals who found themselves without a side to join.”
In her debut novel, Lean Your Loneliness Slowly Against Mine, Norwegian writer Klara Hveberg uses her doctorate in mathematics to meld fractals and music into a tale which examines the intricacies of love and loneliness. Oslo’s daily newspaper, Dagsavisen, says “A mathemagical debut. This incredibly strong novel makes music out of mathematics and turns life into poetry. Bravo!”
The third new Sébastien Japrisot novel on this list in as many months, The Sleeping Car Murders is another crime classic from the author of A Very Long Engagement. Adapted into a 1965 film of the same name (Compartiment tueurs), Japrisot’s 1962 novel is a Parisian murder mystery par excellence. Publishers Weekly says, “The surprising murder motive is worthy of Agatha Christie herself, and the twisty plot contrasts nicely with the prosaic, appealing sleuth. Georges Simenon fans will be engrossed.”
Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai is one of the most singular artists at work today and each new book is cause for celebration. His latest, Chasing Homer, is a profound work of paranoia and pursuit, with a nod to the great titular Greek himself. Krasznahorkai’s tense, foreboding novella is excellent in and of itself, but is enriched further by the abstract paintings of German artist Max Neumann and an eerie chapter-by-chapter percussive soundtrack by Hungarian jazz drummer Szilveszter Miklós (accessible by QR code). Kirkus puts it succinctly in their starred review: “Allusive and acerbic: a brilliant work that proves the adage that even paranoiacs have enemies.”
Italian author and screenwriter Domenico Starnone’s previous novel, Trick, was a finalist for the National Book Award for Translated Literature. His newest, Trust (translated by author Jhumpa Lahiri), contends with the intricacies of relationships and the divide between our private and public selves. Booklist calls Starnone’s latest, “A sweeping examination of aging, love, and success….This is the third of Starnone’s novels that Lahiri has translated over the last six years, and her deft hand seamlessly reveals Starnone’s masterful narrative at every turn.”
Winner of several literary awards in her home country, Welsh fiction writer (and children’s author and dramatist and musician) Manon Steffan Ros’s The Blue Book of Nebo was translated into English by the author herself. A postapocalyptic tale of survival after nuclear disaster, Ros’s novel is the story of a mother and son contending with a brave new world all but bereft of survivors. Welsh poet Sonia Edwards says, “Gentle and tender, stark reality and loss and suffering….I didn’t want it to end.”
Set in 1993 during a tumultuous era in Cuba’s history, Havana Year Zero is the first of Karla Suárez’s books to appear in English. Named to the original 2007 Bogotá39 list of promising Latin American writers under the age of 39, Suárez has already bagged several literary prizes. Marie Claire calls Havana Year Zero “The Name of the Rose Cuban-style….A masterpiece.” Spanish newspaper El Mundo says, “Equal parts historical novel, comedy of errors and detective story, Suárez portrays with extraordinary voluptuosity and suggestiveness one of the toughest periods of this Caribbean island.”
German writer Juli Zeh has been translated into 35 languages and her books have won several awards. Her latest in English, New Year, is a familial thriller about parenthood and past trauma. French lit mag Lire says, “An experience of psychological dissection. New Year is a vertiginous plunge into the psyche of a man straining under the weight of what he believes he must achieve and, in a subtle game of smoke and mirrors, into our own neuroses. With the tale of a mad ascent, the novel defuses, with the author’s characteristic scathing and elegant irony, the diktat of perfection and permanence extolled by the media that has invaded the sphere of social life and intimacy, and invites us to respond with a middle finger stuck up with pride.”
Mexican writer Fabio Morábito’s Home Reading Service is the charming tale of a man sentenced to community service: reading novels and poetry to the area's aged and infirm. Morábito's novel is a humorous and lively one, told in first-person perspective by an unforgettable lead. Samanta Schweblin, author of Fever Dream, says “First, the tempting promise of an almost existential discovery, then bewilderment, subtle humor, and then everything in this story that seemed small and simple strikes back with extraordinary resonance. What a pleasure it always is to read Morábito.”
Korean author Sang Young Park’s Love in the Big City, his English debut, was a publishing phenomenon in his home country. It’s the tale of a young student trying to find happiness in the Korean capital city. Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, says “Sang Young Park is my new favorite writer, as in his work we see life in modern Korea in what I think of as a fuller way, due to the inclusion of queer lives there. This novel is bawdy, hilarious, heartbreaking, fearless.” Real Life author Brandon Taylor adds, “This novel made me want to dance all night and fall in love. Sang Young Park writes honestly, tenderly, and with irresistible humor and charm.”
Octogenarian Russian writer and There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya has had several of her books translated into English. Her latest, The New Adventures of Helen, offers a collection of quirky modern fairy tales for adults. The New York Times has called Petrushevskaya “One of Russia’s best living writers….Her tales inhabit a borderline between this world and the next.”
French author Fatima Daas counts both Marguerite Duras and Virginie Despentes among her influences — and her debut novel, The Last One, is the story of a young woman contending with both her identity and sexuality. Mostly Dead Things author Kristen Arnett says, “The Last One is a thoughtful examination of a character who deeply wants to be known despite lacking the tools to do any of that self-excavation. The work is tender and sweet, lyrically built, and reprises itself in fascinating ways. Who are we apart from our family? Can we face ourselves? Can we love? Fatima Daas asks these questions the way many of us do: plaintively, longingly, and with a tremendous amount of heart.”
Colombian author and journalist Santiago Gamboa writes darkly tinged, beautifully composed literary thrillers about crime, greed, and sociopolitical decay — with both unforgettable characters and irresistible plots. His latest, The Night Will Be Long, is about a violent act that leads to the uncovering of corruption in the church. Mexican writer Martín Solares says, “Each novel by Santiago Gamboa is at the forefront of the best Latin American novels. Gamboa dismantles the legacy of Chandler and Hammett, adapting it to the craggy environs of Colombia, and adds to it a tireless sense of ethics. His novels revitalize a genre that we thought could do no more.”
French author and Oulipo member Hervé Le Tellier has had several of his works translated into English, each as delightful as they are dissimilar from one another. His newest, The Anomaly, was awarded France’s top literary honor, the Prix Goncourt, last year. Transcending genres, The Anomaly “blends crime, fantasy, sci-fi, and thriller” into a doppelgänger-ish tale about a transatlantic flight that defies all logic. Nebula Award-winning author Sam J. Miller calls it, “A uniquely, gloriously, provocatively French contribution to the sci-fi thriller genre — it will keep you guessing, get your heart pounding, and make you feel and wonder and — above all — think.”
Mario Vargas Llosa — Peruvian author, Nobel laureate, and “Elder Statesman of Latin American Literature” (New York Times) — has written nearly two dozen novels (most of which are available in English). His latest, Harsh Times, is set in 1950s Guatemala, around the time of the U.S.-backed coup which deposed President Árbenz. In a starred review, Booklist says, “Thematically, it's classic Vargas Llosa in its obsession with power struggles, military hierarchies, and brothels. But it's also an unsettling reminder of the complicated relationship between storytelling and politics.”
Iranian fiction writer Mahsa Mohebali’s new novel, In Case of Emergency, is a satirical send-up of contemporary Iran, taking on family, gender, drugs, capitalism, authoritarianism, and more. Justin Torres, author of We the Animals, says "Utterly shattering — I could hardly catch my breath. I read In Case of Emergency in one sitting without meaning to. Every page is a jolt, a catastrophe, a galloping, desperate search among the wreckage of state, family, and gender, hunting for that ever-elusive fix. At turns hilarious and deeply unnerving, here is contemporary Tehran as never glimpsed before. Mariam Rahmani's pitch-perfect translation is intoxicatingly energetic, capturing all the poetry and pathos of disintegration. Read this now."
Québécois author Jacques Poulin has won several Canadian literary awards for his writing over the years. His 1993 novel, Autumn Rounds, is the tale of an itinerant bookmobile driver and the friendships he makes with villagers throughout his countryside route — described by Kirkus as offering “a deeply felt meditation on loneliness, age, and the improbability of human connection.” Saskatoon Star-Phoenix says, “Poulin shares a mix of detached humor, fantasy, and compassion with Vonnegut and Salinger.”
Uruguayan poet and writer Ida Vitale turned 98 this month and was named one of the most influential women in the world by the BBC in 2019. Despite works, accolades, and awards spanning a half-century, unfortunately, very little of Vitale’s work is available in English. Luckily, we have Byobu, a gorgeously written and wise work about a melancholy man who spends his time meandering through life, seemingly content to observe and reflect, spectate and ruminate. British poet Fiona Sampson says, “In Byobu, the veteran Uruguayan poet Ida Vitale gives us a holy fool for the twenty-first century. The responses of her childish everyman to the contemporary life she's constructed for him are puzzled yet direct, wry yet fresh. A series of exquisitely rendered vignettes see him struggle, existentially alone, to make sense of park life, insomnia, or a conference roundtable. But behind the humour and pathos rumbles the entire western philosophical tradition. This complex late masterpiece, published when Vitale was 95, offers plenty of questions but — of course — no answers.”
Lutz Bassmann is one of French writer Antoine Volodine heteronyms (along with Manuela Draeger, whose Eleven Sooty Dreams was featured on our February list earlier this year). Part of his wildly imaginative, even more wildly ambitious decades-long “post-exoticism” project (a 49-book cycle), Black Village is a Bardo-set fantastical tale of postapocalyptic happenings. Art Press says, “With Black Village, Lutz Bassmann, a heteronym of Antoine Volodine, pens a collection of rare intensity, carried by writing of staggering power. By breaking the codes of narrative, by upsetting genres, he offers, within the disaster that this book tells, a literature that reinvents and affirms the infinite potential of language.”
Italian author and translator (of Kurt Vonnegut, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Dave Eggers, and more) Francesco Pacifico’s new book, The Women I Love, is a satire on contemporary masculinity, about a wannabe novelist attempting to write about love and relationships. Alexandra Kleeman, author of Something New Under the Sun, says, “Razor-sharp and mordantly funny, Pacifico's savage and startlingly, unsettlingly tender new novel is a masterful ode of the different forms of love, attachment, and obligation that hold us and, occasionally, hold us back.”
Bosnian-German writer Saša Stanišic — author of Before the Feast and How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone — has been published in 30-some languages and won several literary prizes, including the German Book Award for his latest, Where You Come From. “Blending autofiction, fable, and choose-your-own-adventure,” Stanišic’s new book is the tale of mother and son escaping war-torn Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, as well as a reckoning with identity, memory, and the past. Ryan Chapman, author of Riots I Have Known says, "A Speak, Memory for 'The Garden of Forking Paths,' Stanišic's tour of his lost homeland is imbued with wit and affection. He knows stories are all we have, and that some stories can't be bound by a single ending. A marvel and a delight."
Several of Booker-shortlisted author Peter Stamm’s works have been rendered into English, written in “a subtle but deadly style” (Zadie Smith). The Swiss writer’s latest book, It’s Getting Dark, is a collection of short stories about “how fragile our reality really is, how susceptible to tricks of the heart and mind.” A House Is a Body author Shruti Swamy says, “A casual, effortless voice belies the intense structural formality in these stories, which take place on the blurred edge between reality, memory, and dream. Language is wielded subtly, sharply, in masterful hands. It’s Getting Dark burns like ice.”
From Christine Angot — the French author of the novel, Incest — comes a new autofictional work about a mother and daughter. An Impossible Love earned a starred review from Kirkus: “[C]ontroversial French literary phenomenon Angot brings her unflinching intelligence to a terrible childhood trauma….Described without overstatement or sensationalism, raw and honest, [Rachel and Christine’s] experience rings brutally true....Disturbing, powerful, a deeply personal story that is also searingly political.”
Carla Guelfenbein’s 2015 novel, In the Distance With You, won the Alfaguara Prize and she is a perennial bestseller in her native Chile. Her new book, One in Me I Never Loved, melds together the stories of several women into “a compelling novel about freedom, love, sex, and the possibilities women have to discover their own limits.” Marjorie Agosín calls Guelfenbein’s new work "A mesmerizing novel that explores women's quest for identity as well as independence. Using the character of Gabriela Mistral and her companion Doris Dana as the centerpiece, these stories are intertwined with grace and passion. An extraordinary book and a delight to read for its inquisitive nature and audacious perspective."
Austrian author Heimito von Doderer (1896-1966) was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature five times and was awarded his home country’s highest literary honor, the Grand Austrian State Prize (in 1957). Originally published in 1951 and now available in English for the first time, The Strudlhof Step is a snapshot of early 20th-century Vienna, populated with lively characters and a vivid portrayal of the Austrian capital. Kirkus says “von Doderer ably captures a lost world in a book that belongs alongside the works of Stefan Zweig and Karl Kraus...A swirl of complicated characters and plot turns makes this a rewarding if sometimes demanding read.”
An early member of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and a former French Ambassador to Senegal, Jean-Christophe Rufin has written several bestsellers and was twice awarded France’s Prix Goncourt. Rufin’s latest novel, The Hanged Man of Conakry, is a murder mystery about the death of a tourist in French Guinea, mingling politics and psychology. French weekly Paris Match says “Humor without borders….The unmistakable backdrop to this tasty comedy of manners is the inglorious history of French diplomacy in Africa.”