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3 works in translation tell tales of standing up to right wrongs

3 works in translation
Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR

Rebellion is one of the great themes of American literature, which makes sense given our founding national narrative of revolution.

Generation after generation of U.S. students has read about Holden Caulfield revolting against the phonies around him and Atticus Finch standing up to his town's prejudiced pieties. But U.S. readers would be missing out if we turned away from the rest of the world's stories of resistance and spirited rejection.

All three of the newly translated works below emerge from acts of rebellion: two sisters' disobedience in Itamar Vieira Junior's Crooked Plow, a bourgeois lawyer's compulsion to speak the truth in Miroslav Krleža's On the Edge of Reason, and a frustrated wife's decision to make herself into a wilderness in Maru Ayase's The Forest Brims Over. Really, what better way than rebellion is there to start a plot?

Crooked Plow

Crooked Plow, the Brazilian novelist Itamar Vieira Junior's debut, opens with a shocking scene. A pair of young sisters, Bibiana and Belonísia, break their grandmother's rule against going in her room and, while snooping, find a knife. Out of the sort of mysteriously rebellious impulse to which children often yield, both girls put it in their mouths. One is essentially unharmed; one cuts her tongue so badly she never speaks again. Vieira waits until the novel's opening section ends to reveal which one is which, though it hardly matters: They come of age, as Johnny Lorenz writes in his gorgeous translation, "sharing the same tongue."

Crooked Plow is, centrally, about sharing and cooperation. Bibiana and Belonísia grow up in a Black sharecropping village, daughters of a midwife and a witch doctor who is the "spiritual father of the whole community." Both girls learn young that it is no bad thing to support or rely on others, and yet womanhood complicates that lesson. Bibiana falls in love with a union organizer who galvanizes the community, even as landowners' resistance to his work puts his family in danger. Meanwhile, Belonísia, chasing her curiosity about intimacy, goes to live with a loutish drunk who, at best, ignores her. Sex with him is "like cooking or sweeping the floor, just another chore," and yet Belonísia does not stop pursuing either pleasure or independence. Vieira brings both sisters to electric life, but Belonísia's narration is especially immediate and moving. It would be a privilege to share a tongue with her.

On the Edge of Reason

In 1939, Miroslav Krleža, now seen as the Croatian language's greatest 20th century author, got ejected from the Communist Party for refusing to adapt his work to the Socialist Realist style. It should be no surprise, then, that his 1938 novel On the Edge of Reason, translated by Zora Depolo and newly reissued, is a tale of refusal to match Herman Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener — though its nameless protagonist has more fun than Bartleby ever does.

Krleža's narrator, a small-town lawyer, begins the novel leading "the dull and monotonous life of an average bourgeois." His main entertainment is his quiet study of "human folly," which he tells himself he views with affectionate empathy. But one night at a dinner party, his affection runs out. His host, Director-General Domaćinski, a local dignitary and "dullard, obsessed by his own words," begins "telling a gay anecdote of how, in 1918, he had shot four men there like four dogs." The narrator calls him a murderer — and all hell breaks loose. Less than a week later, the narrator's wife has left him, Domaćinski is suing him, and the local gossip mill has put him "in the middle of a wasp's nest of prejudice and mindless folly" that he enjoys far more than one would guess.

On the Edge of Reason is a highly interior novel, nearly a monologue, which is not a type of story that works without an insightful, charismatic protagonist — which Krleža's speaker, luckily, is. Once he gets ejected from polite society, he starts glorying in nonconformity, arguing strenuously for his right to do so the whole time. His arguments are highly persuasive, as is the fun he has as a newly minted "lecher, slanderer, paramour, divorced through my own fault, involved in promiscuity." Sure, he gets lonely at times, but as he points out to the reader, "loneliness is not proof of not being right." He's correct, of course — so much so that, in addition to being a highly satisfying read, On the Edge of Reason may well help some too-well-behaved readers let themselves get less reasonable.

The Forest Brims Over

Ordinarily, I hate to lump writers together based on their language or nation of origin, but it's difficult to approach Haydn Trowell's translation of the Japanese writer Maru Ayase's The Forest Brims Over, outside the context of the past decade's spike in novels by Japanese women getting translated into English. It would be easy to call this increase a trend, and from some publishers' perspectives it may be, but really it's a correction of a longstanding gender disparity — far more male than female writers have been translated from Japanese to English — and the result in part of the work and advocacy of exceptional translators like Polly Barton, Sam Bett, Juliet Winters Carpenter, Allison Markin Powell, Ginny Tapley Takemori, Lucy North, and more. The Forest Brims Over, which is Ayase's 18th novel, certainly has a corrective spirit: It's a feminist literary satire that borrows aspects of Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman to spice up an assertive but one-note critique of mistreatment of women in Japan's publishing world.

The Forest Brims Over begins with Nowatari Rui, the demure-but-sexy wife and muse of a successful novelist named Nowatari Tetsuya, eating a bowl of seeds and beginning to sprout saplings. Nowatari puts her in a tank with some dirt and starts writing a book about her, leaving his editor, Sekiguchi Masahi, to care for Rui. Of course, this situation is philosophically intriguing — Sekiguchi, watering Rui, wonders, "was she still a woman? a clump of earth? a person? a nursery bed?" — but Ayase quickly abandons existential inquiry in order to focus tightly on the literary misogyny that led Rui to eat the seeds. Indeed, Ayase seems so set on skewering the woman-hating culture in which Nowatari flourishes that she does not allow him, or any other character, to surprise the reader. As a result, the novel quickly gets polemical and dull. From a correcting-inequity perspective, even this is, perhaps, a good thing: Gender equality is tough to achieve if only the best novels by women get translated. Yet The Forest Brims Over is so haunted by ideas about how men behave and what men feel they're supposed to write that, really, it doesn't feel like a creative or feminist step forward for anyone at all.

Lily Meyer is a writer, translator, and critic. Her first novel, Short War, is forthcoming from A Strange Object in 2024.

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