Reading translated novels is a good way to gain insight into the culture and history of a country in a way that is both entertaining and that exposes the deep nuances of national character. I’ve selected works that both highlight aspects of culture and / or history and that are pleasant reading–some are humorous and others are adventures, but none are drudgery. (Includes two Nobel Prize winners and one guy who gets nominated every year only to have the prize handed to folk-rock musicians or the like.)
[The hyperlinks go to my review of said book in GoodReads.]
1.) The Good Soldier Švejkby Jaroslav Hašek (Czech): The lead character in this farcical comedy is a bumbling, but likable, idiot who is drawn into military service. The book highlights the fact that in times of war the greatest acts of idiocy are not perpetrated by greatest idiots.
2.) After Dark by Haruki Murakami (Japan): One can’t go wrong with Murakami. I almost picked Norwegian Wood, which is more a work of realist literary fiction, but this novel about what happens when the trains stop running in Tokyo may shed a little more light on Japan. (anti-pun not intended.)
3.) Eclipse of the Crescent Moon by Géza Gárdonyi (Hungary): The story of how a small Hungarian castle village held out against a siege by the Ottoman juggernaut.
4.) Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru): When three men disappear from a small mining village in the Andes, the Army sends a Corporal and his deputy to investigate.
5.) Life and Death are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan (China): A wealthy land owner is executed during the Communist revolution and must live out several lives as various animals in the service of the family of his [former] beloved hired-hand. The books shows the generational change between when China first became Communist through the reform period that led to a more market-friendly approach.
This book is the English translation of a volume originally written in Hungarian and titled Egri Csillagok, i.e. “Stars of Eger.”
Historical fiction works best when the event it’s built around requires no fictitious embellishment to fascinate the reader. Eclipse of the Crescent Moon takes place during the 1552 siege of Eger. During this siege, 2,000 Hungarians held off at least 40,000 Turkish invaders for over one month. (In the book the Turks have a two order of magnitude advantage.) The Turks retreated despite having had superior armaments as well as a massive numeric advantage. It’s the perfect underdog story.
Reading a purely historic account would be interesting enough, but Géza Gárdonyi creates value-added by imbuing his characters with depth, particularly his lead Gergely Bornemissza. There wasn’t much known about Bornemissza. He was a minor character in history compared to Eger’s commander, István Dobó. However, his expertise in explosives did play a role in this Hungarian success story.
The book begins when Bornemissza is a young boy. He and a girl named Éva are captured by a Turk. The couple escapes and manages to free others. They later elope to avert Éva’s arranged marriage. They have a child who is later captured by the same Turk who had captured them.
A major subplot is a trip made to Istanbul in the heart of enemy territory to attempt to aid in the escape of Bornemissza’s adoptive father.