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Foreign Literature

A guide to the best foreign novelists you've never heard of

Roberto Bola, the Chilean author whose posthumous publications are causing a stir in literary circles, is not the only author who was regarded as something of a sensation in his mother country years before becoming known in the United States. Of all the books published in the United States in 2004, less than 3 percent were translated from other languages--and English-language books make up only 30 percent of literature published worldwide. Here is a selection of foreign authors whose domestic reputation exceeds their standing in the United States, and whose work has recently become available in English:

    Cesar Aira. Argentinean author Cesar Aira has had an extraordinarily prolific career, writing 26 novels since 1975. Two novellas, Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (New Directions, 2006) and How I Became a Nun (New Directions, 2007), demonstrate the range of his subjects; Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter fictionalizes an encounter between nineteenth-century German painter Johann Moritz Rugendas and the explorer/naturalist Alexander Humboldt, while How I Became a Nun stems from the cyanide-induced delirium of a poisoned child. Both novellas also exhibit his distinctive hallucinatory style, which blends together reality and fiction, the waking world and the dream world.

    Ersi Sotiropoulus. Greek novelist Ersi Sotiropoulus's fifth novel, Zigzag Through the Bitter-Orange Trees (Interlink Books, 2006), is her first to be published in English and the first ever to win both the Greek National Literature Prize and the Greek Book Critics' Award. The labyrinthine plot brings together four characters--a dying girl, her disaffected brother, a bored adolescent, and a bitter male nurse--in a fast-paced, yet elegant narrative. Classicist Peter Green's translation is a pleasure to read, bringing lyricism to the mundane: A ringing phone creates "an insistent hammering note that opened holes in the warm, muggy air"; oil stains on water gleam "like discs of light."

    Peter Stamm. As the title of his novel Unformed Landscape (Other Press, 2005) and his collection of short stories Strange Gardens and Other Stories (Other Press, 2006) imply, Swiss author Peter Stamm's characters are deeply affected by their surroundings. The Norwegian fishing village where Katharine, the central character in Unformed Landscapes, resides is a gray place, enlivened only by her increasingly complicated affairs and fantasies of life elsewhere. Like the landscapes of his novels, Stamm's prose is spare and graceful. (Harold Braswell reviewed Unformed Landscape for TNR Online in 2005.)

    Tim Winton. Some foreign authors, such as Australian literary phenomenon Tim Winton, have difficulty breaking into U.S. markets even when language is not an obstacle. The Turning (Scribner, 2005), Winton's latest collection of short stories generated some interest when it was published in the United States, but in general his work does not receive the same acclaim here as in Australia, where his novel Cloudstreet (Scribner, 2002) was ranked the country's fourth favorite novel of all time according to a poll conducted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. With a style that sometimes echoes Joyce or Faulkner, Winton specializes in the downtrodden; his characters draw you into their harsh worlds with a force that is hard to resist.

    S. Yizhar. Written in 1996, Preliminaries (Toby Press, 2007), the autobiographical novel of Israeli author S. Yizhar, who passed away last year, will be published in English this spring. (Look for a review in The New Republic.) It is the first novel to be translated from this author, an important figure in the founding of modern Hebrew literature. The book is a reflection on becoming a writer and grappling with language. His work has been plumbed for political resonance, but this work stands on its own as a literary marvel.

By Chloë Schama