15 of My Favorite Archipelagos

Definitely one of the best translation presses to emerge in recent years is the great, Brooklyn-based Archipelago Books. Probably best-known nowadays as the place that unleashed that Knausgaard guy on all of us, it’s shaped my contemporary reading as few presses have, and it’s safe to say that it has also shaped the face of modern translated literature. Here are 15 favorites out of the many, many titles that it has brought into our world. (And I’m not going to list Knausgaard here because you all already know him.)

From the Observatory by Julio Cortázar (trans Anne McLean). This book is just visually stunning, with photos Cortázar took of a beautiful, cosmic 18th-century observatory in Jaipur, India, mixed in with a book-length poem he wrote about it. He mixes in ruminations on the spawning cycle of the eel with the farthest reaches of space to make something that kinda sorta resembles Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. A wonderful book from the Argentine master, and while you’re at it, get all of Archipelago’s Cortázar translations.

Tranquility by Attila Bartis (trans Imre Goldstein). God damn this book! This has got to be one of the most overlooked books in contemporary translation. Bartis writes amazing sentences, the structure of this book is fascinating, and the tone of this book is just pitch pitch pitch black. I will never forget the part about the priest who feeds his congregation poisoned wafers. TQC review.

Yalo by Elias Khoury (trans Peter Theroux). Set in Lebanon, and digging deeply into the Lebanese Civil War, I love this book not only for its cultural depth but also for its amazing use of the unreliable first-person. Also, just a flat-out great, heartbreaking story of a man who gets caught up in taking the blame for crimes he didn’t commit. TQC review.

Prehistoric Times by Eric Chevillard (trans Alyson Waters). Chevillard is one of those authors who never writes two books that remotely resemble each other in any way. Prehistoric Times begins with the epigraph “only cave paintings seem made to last forever,” and goes on to contemplate artistic posterity over very, very long durations via the story of a man who tries to make his own cave paintings. Fascinating. TQC review.

Return to My Native Land by Aimé Césaire (trans Anna Bostock and John Berger). Just a totally classic work. TQC review.

Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski (trans Bill Johnston). “The Great Polish Novel” is probably not something to get you all excited, but god damn this book is fun to read. It has amazing range, from blackly comic to philosophical to absurdly Beckettian to poignant. It begins with an old man building his grave and goes on to encompass a life and a nation. TQC review.

Auguste Rodin by Rainer Maria Rilke (trans Daniel Slager). Rilke’s book on Rodin (a major influence of his when he was young and freshly arrived to Paris) is utterly fascinating. And it comes with a lengthy introductory essay by William H. Gass and beautiful photographs by Michael Eastman. One of the best-looking Archipelagos there is.

Bacacay by Witold Gombrowicz (trans Bill Johnston). Gombrowicz was really on fire when he wrote these. Somewhere aligned with Bernhard and Beckett, but ultimately completely originally himself, Gombrowicz is a stylistic, comedic, philosophical feast. Check the ridiculous range here: “A balloonist finds himself set upon by erotic lepers…a passenger on a ship notices a human eye on the deck…a group of aristocrats enjoy a vegetarian dish made from human flesh…a virginal young girl gnaws raw meat from a bone…a notorious ruffian is terrorized by a rat.”

Poems (1945-1971) by Miltos Sachtouris (trans Karen Emmerich). I brought this volume to Greece with me when I went there, and it was the ideal companion as I traveled around. Both poetic and engaged with the currents of history (that are obviously still flowing very strongly), this is just a great collection, and it’s wonderfully translated by one of the best translators currently working with Greek literature.

The Great Weaver from Kashmir by Halldór Laxness (trans Philip Roughton). Just a great, really robust coming-of-age novel with an epic, elemental pitch to it. TQC review.

Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu (trans Sean Cotter). This book is enormous, messy, and almost unbelievable imaginative. Cărtărescu is strongly influenced by Pynchon, and you can definitely see it here. Some of the most grotesque, surreal, unforgettable images I’ll ever read in a novel. TQC review and interview with the author.

Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal (trans Stacey Knecht). One of the best by one of the Czech language’s greatest ever. The melancholy, memory-ridden meditative novel of an aged master.

Wonder by Hugo Claus (trans Michael Henry Heim). Undoubtedly the great Michael Henry Heim was one of the few people capable of translating a book like this. A surreal, allegory-like tale of undercovering Nazism and collaboration in post-war Netherlands. Here are some thoughts I wrote down about it.

Job by Joseph Roth (trans Ross Benjamin). An achingly beautiful, necessary retranslation of a great novel from a classic Austro-Hungarian author (the last edition dates from 1931). TQC review.

The Folly by Ivan Vladislavić. Coming this September, Vladislavić is just always so inventive with language, and his profile is finally beginning to heighten in the U.S. This book of his involves a mysterious “plan” that turns into something like a parable/allegory in the best tradition of the likes of Coetzee and Borges. TQC on Vladislavić.

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Thanks for the list! So much to check out. I’ve had Blinding for a while, but it seems quite daunting. I’ll make the plunge as soon as I get some time….


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