The 9 Foreign Books We Think You Should Read in 2017 and Why
Matador Network editors Matt Hershberger, Ana Bulnes, and Morgane Croissant rounded up 9 books not originally written in English. This selection comprises works of fiction and non-fiction that will help you discover something new about the World, without leaving the couch.
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
I always used to forget about Denmark. To me, it was the country where people liked bicycles and where the Little Mermaid was the national hero. What changed since last year is that I read the Danish author Carsten Jensen’s epic novel We, the Drowned. Jensen’s book unfolds over 100 years, and it centers on the people of his seafaring hometown, Marstal, where traditionally the men go to sea and die, and the women stay at home and pick up the pieces. It’s epic and swashbuckling and humane, and it’s all the excuse you’ll ever need to remember Denmark on the map.
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
“That book is really hard to read,” the guy at the bookshop told me. “You’ll get through like, two stories and quit.” I bought Labyrinths anyway (it felt like a dare at that point), and it is admittedly a tough read. But the ideas are mind-blowing: there’s a character who remembers every detail of every second of his life in one story, in another, an Aztec priest discovers the language of omnipotence in a jaguar’s fur, and in another, an academic discovers that the real savior was Judas Iscariot, who is the one actually burning in hell for our sins. It’s the perfect book for lovers of books, and for people who hoard strange ideas.
Resistance, Rebellion, and Death by Albert Camus
Camus’ philosophy is a pain in the ass to get through, but his journalism is an entirely different thing. Camus wrote for the resistance during World War II, he fought against colonialism in his native Algeria, he opposed the death penalty, and he was one of the rare leftists who refused to become an apologist for Stalin. I hate to say it, but he might be a good person to start reading in the political climate of 2017.
The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante
I’m a sucker for coming-of-age stories and feminism is my jam, so Elena Ferrante’s four-book series hit all the right spots. The Italian author who writes under a pseudonym has filled my summer with four page-turners. I spent two months totally engrossed in the lives of female childhood friends, Elena and Lila, and their sinister relationship, but what I found the most compelling were the struggles the female characters faced in 1950s Southern Italy and how little they differ from ours nowadays.
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
Some find family sagas tedious to read because of the many details and characters they must keep track of; personally, I find them fascinating. They force you to focus, dive deep into a story, and dissect everything. The House of the Spirits is one of those family sagas; it twines family, politics, magic, love into something vibrant and mesmerizing. It is a very female-focused novel, but anyone who enjoys amazing characterization and great story-building will love The House of the Spirits. It took me 30 years to read my first Allende novel, but I can say without the shadow of a doubt that it won’t be the last.
Consolation of the Forest by Sylvain Tesson
The first travel book I ever read was Sylvain Tesson and Alexandre Poussin’s On a roulé sur la Terre, a narrative about the two friends’ trip cycling around the world. I was 20 and until then I had no idea people traveled in such ways — their fearlessness and boldness still shape the way I travel today. When I came upon Sylvain Tesson’s novel Consolations of the Forest at a charity shop, I gladly paid the 50 cents for my copy and lost myself into Tesson’s account of his living alone in a remote cabin in Siberia for five months. The simple, yet harsh, life he leads on the shore of Lake Baikal is told with such peacefulness that you’ll want to get away from it all and experience the luxury that is space and time. His soul-searching moments are oppressive, but they bring the reader to understand the necessity for one to face solitude to better understand themselves, their needs, and their drive for life.
When the Doves Disappeared, by Sofi Oksanen
When I was in college, I had a Contemporary History professor who had lived in East Germany for several years — his wife was from there. His course was about the Eastern Bloc, as he thought — and he was right — we only knew what had happened in the west and had no idea about the other side. When the Doves Disappeared, by Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen, takes us to Estonia in the 40s and the 60s, where we follow relatives Edgar, Roland, and Juudit back and forth in time, from the Soviet occupation to the brief Nazi ‘liberation’ — that’s how many people in the Baltic countries viewed them when they invaded them in WWII — and back to the Soviets again. As they change sides, opinions, and sometimes even their own identities, a central mystery keeps us reading compulsively — who killed Juudit’s sister and Roland’s fiancée Rosalie? We won’t have an answer until the last page.
The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato
There’s something unsettling about loving so much a novel written from the perspective of a man, painter Juan Pablo Castel, who’s in prison for murdering his lover, María Iribarne; but I guess that’s what good books manage to achieve — they make you uncomfortable, but they also keep you glued to their pages, wishing they’d never end. This is a short, dark, and gorgeously written novel about a self-deluded stalker, rapist, and murderer. The most troubling part? Sometimes you forget and find yourself smiling and nodding to some of his elitist remarks — but c’mon, who can stand people who speak in jargon?
Nada by Carmen Laforet
Note: the English translation kept the original title.
Catalan writer Carmen Laforet was 23 when she wrote this beautiful novel about Andrea, a 18-year-old orphan who moves from the country to Barcelona to study. But don’t imagine today’s Barcelona — the novel is set in the 40s, just after Spain’s Civil War and under Franco’s dictatorship; it was also written and published at that time (1944). While not overtly critic to the political situation, the book is not completely oblivious to it. Post-war Spain is dark and poor, and so is everything that surrounds Andrea’s life in Barcelona — her family, her hunger (both for freedom and actual food), the house where she lives. But despite all this, she’s still a young woman in a new city, making new friends, feeling her life is about to start. Nada has been called existentialist, impressionist, and even Spain’s The Catcher in the Rye (it’s so much better!), and its sometimes poetic prose feels easy and effortlessly written. I devoured it in 2 days and, like Andrea, felt I was taking nada (‘nothing’) from it. Just, you know, a few big lessons about life.