Late on Monday night I heard back from an agent to say we had successfully acquired two novels by a young Argentine novelist, Patricio Pron. Last month Granta produced their list of the 20 Young Spanish Novelists Most Likely to … and Pron was one of the writers deservedly fortunate enough to be included.
His next novel, My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain, will be published in Spain by the excellent Random House Mondadori, this coming Spring. The narrator, a writer living abroad in Germany, returns home to Argentina as an outsider to look after his sick father, and sees his country as if for the first time. Back home he unearths a series of letters, documents, photographs, relating to the disappearance of a local man – a good friend of his father’s – in the 1970s. The story that emerges is a narrative of memory and forgetting, political violence and personal resistance, at a time when tens of thousands of Argentines were ‘disappeared’; a time that still fascinates, appals and stimulates the literary imagination (as evidenced in Nathan Englander’s novel, The Ministry of Special Cases (New York Times review, 03/06/07) .
Acquiring translations as an editor can be a great thrill; sometimes more exciting than acquiring a novel in the English language. Why is this? Every editor thrives on the rush of oxygen a discovery brings to the circulation of the publishing body politic. I touched on this in a post-Frankfurt post about Narcopolis, a debut that has already been acquired for translation into English, French, German, Dutch and Italian. But there’s something about buying a novel in a foreign language that gets the blood up and excites across every publishing discipline.
English language publishing can be an insular, myopic business. We are not a nation of linguists and we still, always, look within, not without, for the novelist imaginatively attuned to the times. British readers and critics very often – in fact almost exclusively – look to the contemporary American novel for the panoptic narrative. The huge claims made for Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel illustrate this in part.
But isn’t it true that Franzen, for all his gifts, is so anointed and applauded because he writes in the language that dominates the cultural landscape? Franzen’s German publishers, Rowholt, might defend the universality of Freedom with reference to 100,000 hardback copies sold in the German language over the past 3 months alone, but does this make him the most relevant and accomplished fictional voice of the times, as a digest of reviews on his publisher’s website seems to attest? I’m sure there are Spanish, Dutch, Italian, French (and perhaps a few British and German and Amerian) readers who might disagree. Franzen for all his gifts as a storyteller and chronicler of early 21st century American malaise, is at an advantage because he writes in English.
Buying fiction in a foreign language is uniquely exciting. To an editor, every new book on the list arrives with the illicit thrill of the gambler’s instinct in its wake; where translations are concerned, this is perhaps even more apparent.
Often, conversations circle around particular figures at exceptional moments (Book Fairs mainly) and an editor will look to identify a pattern, a parade of good indicators: X has bought in Germany and compares to Y and they already publish Z and Z; A tells me it is an epic in miniature; B says their reader (who translates Bernhard and Grass), says it has the whiff of Kafka about it and that the sentences exhibit the elegance of Nabokov. (Yes, conversations do still happen like this.) Reports are commissioned, views exchanged by email and on the telephone, instincts gauged. Grand comparisons are made and hopes are raised that perhaps this is the writer who will land us the Nobel in 2027. Banal and profound questions are posed: Do we really think Portugal is the next Sweden? There is an element of Chinese Whispers about the whole enterprise.
Buying translations allows us to dream a novel and a novelist into existence before we have read. We imagine the landscape, the exotic sense of place, the pure literary sensibility that is at the same time universally accessible and readable. It’s a kind of perfect world, pre-lapsarian, gloriously innocent. And it puts us at the centre of an international conversation around books: we are given the chance to transcend our image as beggars at the feast of International Literature.
It is our responsibility as commissioning editors to find, champion and translate these competing voices from around the world. Recent years have seen numerous celebrated successes in translation: Javier Cercas’ The Soldiers of Salamis, several novels by Michel Houellebecq and Orhan Pamuk, The Shadow of the Wind, the incomparable works of Roberto Bolano, Suite Francaise, Alone in Berlin, Gomorrah, Wetlands, Per Peterson, Lars Saabye Christensen, our very own Dirty Havana Trilogy, and of course, at the business end of the game, the extraordinary success of Stieg Larsson.
Does the accumulated influence of these titles indicate something profound has changed in the temperature of the times?
Are British and American publishers, and more importantly readers, more willing to engage with a voice at one remove, by the art of translation?
Does the act of translation, in a world where national and linguistic barriers are less relevant, no longer bring the intimidating aura of a slim, earnest roman-a-clef about it? And, if so, shouldn’t we be doing even more of it?
Certainly the recent coverage for Houellebecq’s Goncourt triumph suggests there is an appetite for the old-fashioned French cause-celebre this side of la Manche. And the activities of exciting independent publishers like Atlantic, Canongate, Portobello and Serpent’s Tail are encouraging indicators of an editorial willingness to look beyond these shores for new voices. Portobello’s recent critical success with Jenny Erpenbeck should encourage us all.
I’m sure my European peers at Anagrama, Gallimard, Feltrinelli, Einaudi, Fischer etc find it laughable when I boast about the writers in whom we have bought rights from other languages over the past year: Steve Sem-Sandberg (Swedish, The Emperor of Lies), Tristan Garcia (French, Hate: A Romance), Giorgio Vasta (Italian), Yuri Herrera (Mexican), and Patricio Pron.
There’s no debating that five acquisitions over the course of a year in three languages is good going, even for a publisher with such an international (Vargas Llosa, Kundera, Pamuk etc) reputation as Faber. But to Fischer, Feltrinelli et al, and the other great European publishing houses that have built their reputation on brave and beautiful international acquiring (an
d Christopher Maclehose-era Harvill Press belongs in this elevated company), this is not at all unusual or daring.
Of the 34 frontlist fiction titles Faber publishes each year perhaps four are translated. Look at the lists of our aforementioned peers and perhaps as much as half of those 34 titles would be translated.
Still, I can’t help but feel something is changing. And as a small indicator of that, I welcome the arrival of Patricio Pron to Faber.
(More from Patricio Pron here – in Spanish)