Beyond Borges: Recent Translations in Fiction from Argentina
By Samuel Rutter
Everybody loves Borges. No one figure has exerted greater influence over the literary tradition of Argentina than the author of masterpieces like “The Aleph” or “Funes the Memorious.” If you haven’t read him, you should.
But there’s so much more to Argentine fiction than Jorge Luis Borges. Other writers in his coterie include Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina and Victoria Ocampo. The recently departed Ricardo Piglia wrote many exceptional novels, including Respiración Artificial, and Alejandra Pizarnik and Alfonsina Storni were poets of the highest caliber. César Aira is fast becoming famous.
The list below covers some very recent translations of writers that have been largely inaccessible to readers in English. There are some oft-overlooked greats (di Benedetto, Saer, Uhart) as well as some of the most exciting contemporary authors at work today (Schweblin, Oloixarac, Ronsino, Almada), and even a few that still await translation.
This list is by no means exhaustive, containing instead personal favorites and even some shameless self-promotion. Argentina is an intensely literary society (Buenos Aires has more bookstores per capita than anywhere else in the world) and its independent publishing scene is booming—so we can expect a steady flow of great literature for a long time to come.
Fever Dream, By Samanta Schweblin (Riverhead Books, 2017)
TransLated by Megan McDowell
Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream is a strange and vibrant novella—technically ambitious and morally prescient, it tells the story of Amanda, who lies in hospital dying as a mysterious boy named David urges her on, guiding her through the telling of her own story. Part horror, part ecological cautionary tale, there are few books that create such an ambience of the uncanny. Samanta Schweblin is also one of the best contemporary practitioners of the short story, in any language, so keep an eye out for her collections Pájaros en la boca and El nucléo del disturbio when they emerge in English.
Zama, By Antonio di Benedetto (NYRB Classics, 2016)
Translated by Esther Allen
For many years, di Benedetto’s Zama has been something of a secret handshake among writers and readers of Latin American fiction. Now available in Esther Allen’s excellent translation, it will also grace the silver screen later this year in Lucrecia Martel’s adaptation, after an arduous filming process reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s efforts to adapt Heart of Darkness.
Zama will remind the reader of Beckett, and of Kafka: set in the 1790s in a colonial backwater, Zama is an administrator whose career has plateaued because of his birth – born in the Americas, he can rise no higher. Waiting for a transfer that will never materialize, di Benedetto’s pared-back prose follows Zama through a cinematic lens that tracks the violence (both sexual and physical) of the protagonist’s existence and his particular search for meaning.
Savage Theories, Pola Oloixarac (Soho Press, 2017)
Translated by Roy Kesey
I’ve been a fan of Oloixarac’s work for a long time now, so I was thrilled to see the publication of Savage Theories in English earlier this year through Soho Press. The great achievement of this novel is just how many registers it manages to combine. It’s a savage satire of élite campus life at the University of Buenos Aires and all its attendant theoretical wankery, and also a parody of the sacred cow of 1970’s student militarism in Argentina. I particularly admire the metafictional and avant-garde aspects of the novel—it asks questions of where the contemporary novel meets technology, history and politics, and wraps it all up in a wicked sense of humor.
The Clouds, by Juan José Saer (Open Letter, 2016)
Translated by Hilary Vaughn Dobel
It has always bewildered me that Saer is not more widely known, as there is certainly an argument to be made that he was one of the most important writers of the second half of the twentieth century. The author of some twenty novels and story collections that together form a glittering narrative constellation known as “La Zona,” Saer’s fiction is grounded aesthetically and geographically away from the cosmopolitan capital of Buenos Aires, in the provincial city of Santa Fe. Saer’s writing centers on the lives of a group of friends across a period of nearly sixty years. This novel, The Clouds, while set in the 18th century, is elegantly linked to Saer’s larger story cycle by the fact that we happen to be reading a manuscript found on a floppy disk in Paris by Pichón Garay, a character some critics consider a sort of alter ego for Saer.
The novel follows the efforts of Doctor Real, charged with the transport of five mentally ill patients across the Pampa as they encounter perils both natural and human. The real pleasure in reading Saer comes from the Proustian quality of his prose, with its flowing sentences and attention to the relationship between time and language.
Glaxo, by Hernán Ronsino (Melville House, 2017)
Translated By Samuel Rutter
I was delighted at the opportunity to work with Melville House to bring Hernán Ronsino’s novel to readers in English. Like Faulkner and Saer before him, Ronsino has found his “postage stamp” of literary territory, which happens to be the small town of Chivilcoy in the Pampas, and he is at work on an ever-expanding cycle of stories and novels that revisit and develop his narrative world.
Glaxo is a taut novella that chronicles a single crime from four different points of view, across four different points in time. Described as a “sly western novella,” it captures the small town boredom of adolescence and subtly weaves the upheavals of Argentina’s political history in the 1970s into an atmospheric crime novel.
El viento que arrasa, By Selva Almada (Mardulce, 2015)
Not yet translated into English
Selva Almada is an author of great range—from short stories and reportage, she is now expanding into theater and cinema. Her first novel, El viento que arrasa (The Scorching Wind) is set in the far northern territory of the Chaco, and the oppressive heat and humidity of the region radiates up from the page. Reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Almada’s novel tells the tale of a traveling evangelical pastor and his daughter as their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Almada’s language is effortlessly cinematic and I’ve no doubt she’ll eventually find an enthusiastic readership in English.
Cuentos Reunidos, by Hebe Uhart (Alfaguara, 2010)
Not yet translated into English
Hebe Uhart has been, for the longest time, the best literary travel writer at work in any language. An unassuming and almost secret author, for decades she has led writing workshops through which many of Argentina’s great authors have passed, with a short collection of her teaching materials published last year to rave reviews. Her short stories and vignettes from daily life shimmer with truth—“Guiando la hiedra” (Guiding the Ivy”) is a minor masterpiece. Fans of writers from Alice Munro to William Trevor will find Uhart’s work, whenever it appears in English, a delight.
Samuel Rutter is a writer and translator from Melbourne, Australia. You can find his fiction in journals including Overland, Meanjin and Kill Your Darlings. He has translated four novels from the Spanish and in 2015 his work was recognized with a Pen Translates Prize. He currently resides in Nashville, Tennessee, where he is a candidate in the MFA program at Vanderbilt University.