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Time Out (Chicago): "Novels about imminent death rarely strike such celebratory notes."

Date: Aug 25 2009

Nearly all of the summer’s major releases are on bookshelves by June. That’s largely because the publishing industry—industrious community that it is—tends to take the latter half of the summer off. So while you await the big fall books on the horizon (check out TOC’s Fall Preview issue on August 27), you might be wondering what new novel to bring when you hit the beach in a sweater to pretend it’s actually summer. For this, we look across the seas. Books in translation get short shrift at nearly any time of the year, but with a few prominent titles washing ashore this August, it’s worth expanding our horizons.

Maybe the most anticipated translated work comes from French novelist Muriel Barbery, whose The Elegance of the Hedgehog last year earned sky-high praise from The New York Times, The Washington Post and just about every major newspaper (which don’t spend much time considering non-English work). Her new novel, Gourmet Rhapsody (Europa Editions, $15), serves as a prequel to Hedgehog, though the characters only tangentially overlap. In Gourmet, the Parisian food critic Pierre Arthens has been told by his doctor that his heart has about 48 hours of beats left in it. The crank—all critics are cranks, didn’t you know?—lives a somewhat jaded existence, and he becomes convinced that he must recall a particular taste from his youth, “the first and ultimate truth of my entire life, and that it holds the key to a heart that I have since silenced.”

From there, the book dives into his past, and past meals, searching for that moment. The hunt brings back some sensuous memories, the kind only a foodie could love (toast gets toasted, for instance), but chapters devoted to people in his life aren’t so pleasant. His daughter, for instance, proclaims: “Die in your silk sheets, in your pasha’s bed, in your bourgeois cage, die, die, die.” The novel progresses as a series of philosophical vignettes wrapped around some elegant food writing. Novels about imminent death rarely strike such celebratory notes.

Not to suggest the end of your summer should be filled with books about the end of life, but Italian novelist Elsa Morante hits a similar vein in her probing final novel, Aracoeli (Open Letter, $14.95). Manuel, the middle-aged antihero of Morante’s 1984 novel—just now translated into English—decides it’s time he learned something of his mother, Aracoeli, who died when he was only six. He sets out from Milan for El Almendral, the Spanish village where his mother grew up. He finds scant trace of her there but eventually tracks down some painful truths. Turns out, his mother contracted a mysterious disease that turned her into a nymphomaniac before she died. Not the best way to remember Mom.

Plot is secondary in Aracoeli, however. Unlike Gourmet Rhapsody, which methodically pieces together the mystery memory that’s at the heart of Pierre’s search, Aracoeli winds through fuzzy memories, fever dreams and unreliable accounts. It’s the kind of book that takes some digging, but once you’re down in it, it’s easy to get lost.

Everyone seems lost in Czech novelist Michal Ajvaz’s The Other City (Dalkey Archive, $13.95). Called a “guidebook to the invisible other Prague,” Ajvaz’s work populates the town with ghosts and shadowy figures. The narrator finds a strange book written in another language, which opens him to this new Prague. At a college, he’s pursued by weasels harnessed to a sled from which a television broadcasts a bizarre lecture. Later, he walks down the street and happens upon an ocean liner standing in the snow. You get the idea.

For much of the novel, the narrator simply eavesdrops on this other world, reporting the strange conversations of the invisible. It’s a beautiful, disturbing vision of the city, and the kind of transporting fiction that the end of summer calls for.