It’s easy to fall into the trap of reading nothing but American authors—maybe with a few Brits mixed in for good measure. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with reading what you know and love—but part of the reason we read is to glean a wider understanding of the world, and there’s no better way than to read brilliant books by writers from around the world.
Here are 15 newly translated international novels to add to your reading list in 2019.
Argentina: 77, by Guillermo Saccomanno. Translated by Andrea Labinger.
Saccomanno’s novel is set in Buenos Aires in 1977, during the nightmarish rule of dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, and tells the story of Gómez, a closeted gay man who works as a teacher. Gómez lives in fear of his sexuality being found out, and with good reason: people are being disappeared by the government regularly, and homosexuals are a particular target. As he descends into a Kafka-esque state of permanent paranoia that parallels Argentina’s descent into chaos, the novel delves into difficult questions about what right and wrong even mean when bare-knuckle survival is the best you can hope for.
Sweden: Acts of Infidelity, by Lena Andersson. Translated by Saskia Vogel.
Andersson’s acerbic, sharp-witted novel puts the lie to stereotypes about aloof, chilly Swedes, exploring the heated, constrained relationship between Ester Nilsson and and the actor Olof Sten. Ester enters into an affair with the married man with her eyes open—Olof is up front about the fact that he never plans on leaving his wife. But as their affair unfolds in fits and starts over the course of years, Ester has to wrestle with the fact that on some level, she always thought she’d be more than just someone’s mistress. Ester and Olof are the stuff of great characters: fascinating people engaged in terrible behavior.
Thailand: Bright, by Duanwad Pimwana. Translated by Mui Poopoksakul.
Amazingly, this is the first novel by a Thai woman to ever be translated into English. Kampol is five years old when his father leads him to some sketchy apartment buildings and tells him to wait for him. The young boys does, but his father never returns, and soon he has been adopted by the locals in the desperately poor part of town. As he’s raised by the shopkeepers and neighbors who can barely afford to feed their own children, much less an abandoned boy, Kampol faces poverty and the crushing loneliness that comes with being left behind by the only family you ever knew. Kampol’s journey to adulthood provides a glimpse into not just another culture, but another way of seeing the world.
Syria: Death is Hard Work, by Khaled Khalifa. Translated by Leri Price.
Literature is alive in Syria, even after years of horrifying civil war—and this novel’s award-winning author, Khaled Khalifa, yet lives in Damascus, despite the pervasive danger. This novel tells the story of three siblings who struggle to honor their father’s deathbed wish to be buried next to his sister in their childhood home. Placing his body in the back of a van, they set off across war-torn Syria, risking everything as they encounter unspeakable violence, corruption, and lawlessness as their father’s body rots right there in the vehicle with them. It’s a moving novel that provides a clear-eye vision of what ordinary people face everyday in one of the most turbulent corners of the world.
France: League of Spies, by Robert Merle. Translated by T. Jefferson Kline.
Novels-in-translation need not be weighty tomes. Merle’s famous Fortunes of France series, thirteen novels strong, is filled with action and intrigue. They follow the exploits of 17th-century doctor Pierre de Siorac, who becomes a spy amidst the disruption of religious wars in Europe. The word “swashbuckling” goes a long way toward describing these fun, flawlessly-executed adventure stories, which are only now being translated into English after selling like gangbusters in their home country. There’s another great story off the page: Merle wrote the first book when he was 77, and finished the final volume when he was 95. C’est si bon.
China: Life, by Lu Yao. Translated by Chloe Estep.
If you’ve been paying attention to science fiction in recent years, you know that Chinese writers have been storming into English markets with gusto—so why not other genres? Yao published just two novels in his lifetime, but they were incredibly influential in China. Life captures the chaos, energy, and upheaval of the country in the 1980s, the beginning of a vast cultural and economic transformation whose scope is only now becoming apparent. Gao Jialin is happy with his lot in life as a schoolteacher in a small, rural village. When corrupt officials cost him his job, the disillusioned Gao follows in the footsteps of millions of others from rural China, and leaves the country behind to try his luck in the city. What happens to him next is a grand story of personal courage and cultural surprise.
Japan: Star, by Yukio Mishima. Translated by Sam Bett.
This 1961 novel is finally getting the translation it has so long deserved. The psychologically complex story of Rikio Mizuno, young star of a series of gangster films, is based in part on Mishima’s own experiences as an actor. Mizuno revels in his fame and has a singular ability to disappear into his role, but the always-on life of a famous actor wears on him, and over the course of the novel he begins to lose his grip. The question of whether we are what people see us to be, or if there’s an ineffable us inside, impervious to outside perception, is a fascinating one, rendered with a skill that manages to make Mizuno sympathetic despite his dissatisfaction at having every advantage the modern world can offer. This is a landmark novel of 20th century Japan, and you no longer have to learn Japanese to read it.
Russia: The Coronation, by Boris Akunin. Translated by Andrew Bromfield.
If you thought Americans and Brits had a monopoly on sharp historical mysteries, we’d like to introduce you to gentleman detective Erast Petrovich Fandorin. As Moscow prepares for the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II, Grand Duke Georgii Alexandrovich’s daughter Xenia is the subject of an attempted kidnapping, soon foiled by Fandorin. In the confusion, the Grand Duke’s other child, Mikhail, is taken. The ransom demanded for the young prince is the Orlov diamond, priceless and necessary for the coronation ceremony—and the kidnapper, Fandorin suspects, is international mastermind Dr. Lind. Fast-paced and whip-smart, this is a fantastic thriller in any language.
South Korea: The White Book, by Han Kang. Translated by Deborah Smith.
Kang won the 2016 International Man Booker Prize for The Vegetarian, and The White Book was shortlisted for the same honor last year. With a singularly sparse literary style, Kang explores the many meanings attached to the color white (notably the color of mourning in his native Korea) as a writer imagines the older sister he never knew, who died within minutes of being born. As she mixes her present-day explorations with memories of her childhood, always clouded by the knowledge that she lived when her sister died, the phantom sibling becomes almost a real person, someone whose death allowed the writer to live. It’s a beautiful, quiet novel of regret.
France: Pretty Things, by Virginie Despentes. Translated by Emma Ramadan.
This is a fierce, unsettling story explores issues of feminism, femininity, the male gaze, and identity. Claudine and Pauline are twin sisters brought up by abusive parents who often set them against one another. Claudine has leaned into her good looks, and hopes to use her beauty to become a famous singer—the one major obstacle being that she can’t carry a tune. Pauline can sing, beautifully, but has downplayed her looks. She travels to Paris at her crude, loud sister’s request, but when Claudine commits suicide, Pauline steps into her twin’s life. She soon learns that being perceived as beautiful is more of a trap than she suspected, as the deception reveals things about herself that she would rather not know.
Norway: T Singer, by Dag Solstad. Translated by Tiina Nunnally.
Written in 1999 and released in translation last year, this novel is a good starting point for Solstad, one of Norway’s premiere writers. The titular Singer is a man retreating from the world—slowly at first, then with increasing speed. In-between the myriad events of his life (becoming a small-town librarian, then a millionaire; getting married and gaining a stepdaughter), Singer falls into lengthy obsessions that play out as extended monologues that sharply explore what it’s like to be trapped inside your own head.
South Korea: The Plotters, by Un-su Kim. Translated by Sora Kim-Russell.
This surreal thriller follows an assassin named Reseng, found as an orphan and raised by a Fagin-esque man nicknamed the Old Raccoon, whose home, the Library, teems with contract killers. Reseng and those like him are directed by the Plotters, and invisible, secret cabal. When Reseng makes a mistake and upsets a carefully orchestrated plot, he’ll have to decide if he’s content to remain a pawn, or if he wants to take control. The books is also a commentary on a modern world in which people we’ll never meet make decisions that can devastate our lives, with zero responsibility or accountability.
Chile: The Spirit of Science Fiction, by Roberto Bolaño. Translated by Natasha Wimmer.
Bolaño, who died in 2003, remains a towering literary figure, and any “new” work of his appearing in translation is worthy of note. This novel was written in 1984 and subsequently “lost.” On the one hand, it’s easy to see why: the story of two writers pursuing literary fame along separate paths is an obvious precursor to the later (and superior) classic The Savage Detectives. On the other hand, even early, not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Bolaño is guaranteed to be worthwhile. This work—more a series of brilliant riffs than a narrative—is fitfully brilliant. Jan pursues writing in solitude, serious and curious; Remo plays at being a writer without actually writing much, but practices social climbing along the way. Somewhere between them is a truth, if only they can manage to discover it. This is either a perfect complement to Bolaño’s later work, or a perfect introduction to a brilliant author.
Denmark: The Summer of Ellen, by Agnete Friis. Translated by Sinead Quirke Kongerskov.
Friis offers up a spellbinding mystery totally in step the growing dialog about toxic masculinity and the price we all pay for indulging it. Jacob is in the depths of an alcoholic depression in Copenhagen, drinking his way through a terrible divorce. He is invited by his elderly uncle Anton to come back to the old farm where Jacob spent his summers, but this isn’t to be a pleasurable visit—Anton, in his nineties, wants to put an old mystery to rest. In the summer of 1978, Jacob was obsessed with his beautiful, free-spirited cousin Ellen who came to stay with Anton and his brother Anders—and Anton wants to know the answer to a simple question: what happened to Ellen that summer? It’s a deep dive into dark places.
Zimbabwe: House of Stone, by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma.
While this book is not actually a translation, it’s worth noting just to shine a light on an amazing Zimbabwean writer. If you’re living in a stable (if imperfect) society, be thankful—not all countries are peaceful, or safe. In Zimbabwe, much is in turmoil. Against this backdrop of chaos, a teenager named Bukhosi goes missing. His family’s lodger, Zamani, becomes their greatest help in a horrible moment, working tirelessly to hand out fliers, hang posters, and take part in vigils. But Zamani wants more than to help—he seems to want to become part of the family, to absorb and appropriate their history and past for himself. Drowning in grief and alcohol, Bukhosi’s parents are vulnerable, and Zamani moves inexorably towards his goals.
What other works in translation are you excited about this year?