We’ve all got the one friend who won’t read anything unless the author is obscure, foreign, dead or all three, which makes Christmahanukwanzaakah shopping downright terrifying. You still remember the effete sneer that greeted your Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing last year, and don’t care to have it repeated. These three books will help you along.
I Served the King of England , by Bohumil Hrabal
(New Directions Press, 256 pages, $14.95)
Deep-thinking sorority girls love Kundera, but the Czechs themselves claim Bohumil Hrabal. A sort of Journey to the End of the Night for the hospitality industry, I Served is a satirical account of the protagonist’s exuberant short man’s complex. Jan Ditie begins his working life as a Depression-era bellhop, drinks beer and beer, moves up to high-class waiter and whorehouse habitué, dresses fancy, loves a Nazi occupier, jumps himself into a prison for millionaires and loses out to the Commies (no spoiler there). In fulfilling his outsized ambitions Ditie remains to the end a true naïf-savant, a moron of politics, even as his fortunes are inextricably bound up in the major historical events of his time. Bartleby-like in his stubbornness, he chalks up every success—each one lost to the world—to a single fact: “I served the Emperor of Ethiopia.” Out of print and obscenely unfindable for far too long in the U.S., Hrabal’s work has finally, thankfully, been reprinted this year.
Missing Soluch , by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi
(Melville House Press, 507 pages, $16.95)
Mergan’s husband, Soluch, who had already pretty much disappeared from their marriage, disappears also from their agrarian Iranian village, which is gutted by belated mechanization. She’s left with packs of scheming suitors (she’s a bit like Penelope), camel-killing sons, rapists afoot, etc. This personal loss is paired with the loss of an entire village culture, old world and new held uncomfortably in suspension. And just as Mergan misses Soluch after she thought she no longer loved him, everything else unloved is felt only in its absence. There are no easy answers on offer, little in the way of sentimentality to sugar up the land’s brutality. On the contrary, hyperbolic loss and violence become commonplace—the simple fact of things—until redemption and the unredeemed begin to feel like the same thing (here’s lookin’ at you, Cormac). This is a hell of a book, inexplicably unavailable in translation until now, almost 30 years after its writing. Feel lucky.
The Savage Detectives , by Roberto Bolaño
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 592 pages, $27)
You’ll recognize this one near the top of every book critic’s list this year. Just as with García Márquez a while back, the heart of Latin American literature today is clutched tightly in the fist of Roberto Bolaño (Chilean, deceased). His style takes root in Cortázar and Borges, but while they always felt like European-Argentinian hyphenates, Bolaño in The Savage Detectives seems homegrown and impossibly vital. The book is a palimpsest of diaries and voices, springboarding from the story of a young Mexican poet to interviews with over 50 different characters who had encountered the ghostly, itinerant ringleaders of the avant-garde “visceral realist” poets Ulises (!) Lima and Arturo Belano (a thinly veiled Bolaño). It’s smart and sad and full of bawd, and somewhere along the way almost everyone has sex or dies. Somehow poetry seems fun again.