5 Novels in Translation That You Should Read

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 Švejk by 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.


BOOK REVIEW: Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan

Life and Death are Wearing Me OutLife and Death are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page


This strange title turns out to be a perfect summation of the book. The narrator / protagonist was a wealthy land owner named Ximen Nao who was executed when the Communists gained power in China. In heaven, Lord Yama (the judge in Chinese folklore’s version of the afterlife) sentences Ximen Nao to be sent back to Earth as a donkey, and—in subsequent lives—as an ox, a pig, a dog, and, finally and briefly, as a monkey. He’s always sent back to the family of one of his former underlings, Lan Lian, and the story follows that family over the course of several decades through the Cultural Revolution and China’s grand reforms.

The early parts (the lives of donkey, ox, and part of pig) are centered on Lan Lian’s decision to remain an independent farmer. Mao Zedong promised all farmers the right to remain independent contractors if they wished, but there was great pressure—first from the community and later from his own family—to become part of the commune. This ends up dividing the family, and ultimately Lan Lian ends up on his own. The latter part of the book (i.e. dog and monkey lives) deals with Lan Lian’s children (and eventually their children), and—particularly–with Lan Jiefang who shares a birthmark and a stubborn streak with his father. Lan Jiefang’s stubbornness is revealed as a desire to divorce his wife and to marry a younger woman. His equally stubborn wife refuses the divorce, and Jiefang and his young lover become ostracized. At the tail end of the book we see how Lan Jiefang’s son is afflicted by the same dogged determination to pursue a costly path—as a respected member of the police force he falls for a former classmate who has become a pariah.

The book mixes humor with tragedy. The animal incarnations of Ximen Nao each have its own personality, but retain some of the landlord’s character and memories. The animal stories are both part of and comedic counterpoint to the tales of woe experienced by Lan Lian’s family. Mo Yan has cameo appearances throughout the book, though in the dog’s life section he plays a more substantial role. References to Mo Yan’s character invariably come with self-deprecating humor. The author creates characters that the reader is interested in. What I call stubbornness is really a tenacious willingness to suffer for the principle of pursing one’s own happiness. In the case of Lan Jiefang and his wife, the reader is likely to be torn by the gray situation. The wife seems the more sympathetic character, but, still, one can’t help but appreciating the tenacity of Lan Jiefang and his willingness to suffer so greatly on the principle that “the heart wants what the heart wants.”

In addition to a good story with vibrant characters, this book offers a birds-eye view of China in the latter half of the 20th century. What is happening in the lives of the characters isn’t divorced from what is going on in the world, but is shaped by it. One notices this most vividly across the three generations over which the book’s story unfolds—with the middle generation (Lan Jiefang’s) serving as hinge point. When Lan Jiefang’s half-brother goes from being a Communist Party apparatchik to the wealthy CEO of a large firm, it’s a reflection of the societal undercurrents.

I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it for readers of fiction—and particularly translated literary fiction.

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READING REPORT: January 30, 2015

Welcome to my second weekly dispatch on what I’ve been reading. Owing to my weird approach to reading, I tend to finish books in clusters, and this week I polished off the novel The Martian, the horror short story anthology 999, and three nonfiction books (Principles of Tibetan Medicine, The Key Muscles of Hatha Yoga,  and How Pleasure Works.) The only one of these that I’ve completed a review on is Principles of Tibetan Medicine, but reviews of the others will be in the works in the upcoming week(s.)

The star of my completed pile was Andy Weir’s The Martian. It’s a spectacular science fiction read that’s engaging from beginning to end. Readers who love science will find it particularly fascinating and well-researched. For the yogis and yoginis out there, Ray Long’s book on muscles as applied to Hatha Yoga is well-organized, easy to follow, and easy to use.


The completion of several books this week creates openings in what fiction and poetry I’ll be reading on Kindle in the coming weeks. Drum-roll please… I will be starting the following books this week:


1.) Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan: Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature back in 2012, and this 2006 book is about a benevolent land owner who is killed on orders by Mao Zedong, and is subsequently reincarnated as a series of farm animals.



2.) I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison: The title of this collection of short stories is also the title of the most prominent piece in it. The 1968 Hugo winning story is a post-apocalyptic tale of artificial intelligence run amok.



3.) The Aeneid of Virgil: I’m overdue to read this epic poem by the famous Latin poet written during the first century B.C.


In nonfiction, I made an impulse purchase this week that I’m about half way through reading. It’s called Zen Mind, Strong Body and it’s by Al Kavadlo. I’m having minor buyer’s remorse, not because it’s a bad book, but because it turns out to be a collection of blog posts, and so I could have probably gotten all this for free by digging around the world wide web a little. (Moral: always read the fine print on the dust jacket. I wouldn’t mind, but it was a bit pricey for rehashed blog posts.) Kavadlo is a personal trainer and advocated of calisthenics and advanced bodyweight exercises, and he has many interesting ideas on both mind and body. It has provided some interesting food for thought, but I don’t really need the hundreds of pictures of the author with his shirt off.



I’m about halfway through Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s latest book, Antifragile, and would like to make some headway on that in the upcoming week. While I’m a fan of Taleb’s work, I’ve gotten bogged down in this one because it keeps going and going and going on about a rather simple concept–i.e. that some things become stronger or more robust when exposed to stressors. I’m not sure the book needed to be this long. I suspect that Taleb is the kind to throw a world class tantrum if an editor took a hatchet to a word of his writing–and now he has the following to make it work. He’s a smart guy and raises many excellent points, but he seems like a major prima donna. At any rate, maybe he’ll surprise me in the second half with something novel and interesting–in lieu of endless restatement of his (admittedly fascinating) thesis.



I also started a book a few weeks back called Zen and the Brain by James H. Austin that I’d like to get back to. It examines what science has to say about the practice of meditation from the perspective of a neuroscientist who’s also a Zen practitioner.



At the end of last year, I did a post about the Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge. It’s a sort of scavenger hunt for readers. There are 25 categories of books, of which one is supposed to read at least one book each. If you can count the same book for several categories (I don’t see why not as long as they fit the description) then I have so far covered seven categories. (Not bad for the first month of the challenge.)

-Collection of short stories: 999: New Stories of Horror and Suspense

Author of a different gender: Tears in Rain (Rosa Montero) and Principles of Tibetan Medicine (Tamdin Rither Bradley) [Both females]

Science-fiction novel: The Martian

Collection of poetry: Leaves of Grass

A book recommended for you by someone else: The Key Muscles of Hatha Yoga

-A book originally published in another language: Tears in Rain  (Spanish)

A book published in 2014: The Martian (Some might dispute this as it was self-published in 2011, but not picked up by a publisher until 2014.)