In Search Of Identity: Three Of 2013's Best Translated Novels

I tend to like my heroes strong and capable; not self-important, yet with a certain brand of assurance. But in literature, as in life, profound truths often come to us not through confidence but through wrestling — through the quest for who we are and what we hope to become. Three newly-translated novels star not exceptionally robust heroes but unexceptional, aimless ones, each exploring the inward struggles that make us human.

These three international voices offer no barrage of answers. Instead, they remind us of the importance, and the power, of simply asking the questions.

Shantytown

by César Aira

Paperback, 162 pages, W W Norton & Co Inc, $13.95, published November 20 2013 | purchase

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César Aira

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Perhaps Argentina's most renowned and prolific author, César Aira has challenged the boundaries of the novella for decades. No stranger to the odd and fantastical, his work is an exercise in genre-hopping: elements of science fiction, satire, and the allegorical comfortably coexist, often on the same page. Shantytown, one of Aira's most inventive and idiosyncratic novellas to date, takes place in the slums of an impoverished Buenos Aires. Maxi, a hapless bodybuilder, finds himself immersed in the lives of scavengers. "Every time he went down one of those oblique alleys," Aira writes, "under the bunches of light bulbs, he was filled with a feeling of wonder." Cabezas, a corrupt detective attempting to crack down on drug-related operations in the slum, is soon drawn to Maxi and his daily activities. The series of unsettling events that follow further cement Aira as one of the most unconventional authors in fiction today. Translated by Chris Andrews.

The Mongolian Conspiracy

by Rafael Bernal

Paperback, 219 pages, W W Norton & Co Inc, $14.95, published November 25 2013 | purchase

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Rafael Bernal's The Mongolian Conspiracy, written in 1969, is a masterful work of hilarity and noir. Compelling and full of wit, this is a detective story with a cast of memorable characters, delicious Mexican profanities and sharp, well-placed dialogue. The protagonist, Filiberto García, is an ex–Mexican revolutionary hired by authorities to gather intelligence on a rumored assassination plot on the Mexican and American presidents. García, a "private contractor" with a set of indispensable skills, investigates an underworld that reveals spellbinding truths about corruption close to home. When he begins a relationship with Marta, a young half-Chinese woman he meets along the way, his sense of purpose is only heightened. Not especially common in the world of Mexican noir, the love affair serves as an alluring, and inevitably heartbreaking, backdrop for a classic tale wrought with blood and intrigue. Translated by Katherine Silver.

Ways of Going Home

by Alejandro Zambra

Hardcover, 139 pages, Farrar Straus & Giroux, $23, published January 8 2013 | purchase

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Ways of Going Home
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Alejandro Zambra

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Ways of Going Home is an achievement in pace, rhythm, and poetic restraint. Alejandro Zambra, the Chilean poet and novelist, has a special way with sentences: "Back then death was invisible for children like me, who went outside, running fearlessly along those fantastical streets, safe from history," he writes. "The night of the earthquake was the first time I realized that everything could come tumbling down. Now I think it's a good thing to know. It's necessary to remember it every second." In his latest novel he tells, through vivid structural experimentation, the story of a nation's difficult past, one besieged by political unrest. We follow a nameless 9-year-old boy who ditches his parents for an alternate route home; we enter the psyche of a novelist struggling to make sense of the generation he was born into. The interwoven narratives raise questions of belonging and the stories we tell ourselves. At the center is the question of identity: that of our characters and of a turbulent nation. With quietly disarming prose, Zambra captures the spirit of a people struggling inside themselves to tell — and, most of all, live — a better story. Translated by Megan McDowell.

The canon of Latin American literature — or rather, literature produced by Latin Americans — has long been a provocative one, as diverse as it is rich. These three works are among the most exciting to be translated to English this year. They are reminders that countries like Mexico, Chile and Argentina are producing fiction without borders: stories that speak to the uncertain hero in all of us. The world is taking notice.

Juan Vidal is a writer and cultural critic from Miami. He tweets at @itsjuanlove.

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