Best World Literature of 2020

Translated novels first written in French, Farsi, Spanish, Japanese, and Korean comprise the best world literature published in 2020.

See all of our 2020 Best Books lists

 

Adimi, Kaouther. Our Riches. New Directions. tr. from French by Chris Andrews. ISBN 9780811228152.

Both gorgeous paean to literature and historically astute observation, this elegant and affecting Prix Goncourt short-listed, multi-prize-winning work reimagines Les Vraies Richesses, a bookstore/library blend that opened in 1936 Algiers, published great authors like Albert Camus, and survived war and decolonization only to finally become a beignet shop still haunted by stories and memories meaningful to the community.

 

Appanah, Nathacha. Tropic of Violence. Graywolf. tr. from French by Geoffrey Strachan. ISBN 9781644450246.

In this gut-punch, multivoiced narrative, set on Mayotte, an island in the Mozambique Channel (and a département of France), a nurse lovingly raises a baby with bicolored eyes shoved at her by a superstitious refugee, her spirit lingering after her death to guide him through a tragic coming of age.

 

Azar, Shokoofeh. The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. Europa. tr. from Farsi by Anonymous. ISBN 9781609455651.

The mournfully ironic 1988 enlightenment happens to Mom atop the greengage tree at the exact moment when son Sohrab is hanged without trial. Daughter Bahar is already dead, and yet she exists among the living. The last child, Beeta, still survives. Despite relentless tragedy, Azar’s debut exudes fairy-tale charm that ultimately celebrates human and humane bonds unbroken even in death.

 

Condé, Maryse. The Belle Créole. Univ. of Virginia. tr. from French by Nicole Simek. ISBN 9780813944227.

This heartbreaking if lusciously written work investigates the ongoing burdens of slavery, racism, and colonial rule through the story of reserved young Dieudonné, accused of murdering his employer and lover, a hard-drinking, rebellious upper-crust white woman he genuinely loved. When he’s acquitted, he must ask himself what he’s free for now.

 

Diop, David. At Night All Blood Is Black. Farrar. tr. from French by Anna Moschovakis. ISBN 9780374266974.

In a story both harrowing and enthralling that deepens our understanding of history and colonialism, Alfa, a Chocolat (that is, an African soldier fighting with the French during World War I) cannot bring himself to end the suffering of mortally wounded “more-than-brother” Mademba. To avenge his death—and exercise the moral strength that initially failed him—Alfa regularly sneaks behind enemy lines and cuts off a soldier’s hand, returning to comrades who begin fearing him as a dëmm, a devourer of souls.

 

González, Tomas. Difficult Light. Archipelago. tr. from Spanish by Andrea Rosenberg. ISBN 9781939810601.

In this poignant and realistic study in grief, elderly artist David is losing his eyesight and remains plagued by his wife’s death. He must also face the decision of his oldest son, who has lived for years in excruciating pain, to travel to Oregon accompanied by his brother for an assisted death.

 

Mukasonga, Scholastique. Igifu. Archipelago. tr. from French by Jordan Stump. ISBN 9781939810786.

From a woman imagining she sees the outline of her father’s body in the latrine to an exile wondering if killers ate the cow he proudly tended, Mukasonga, who lost 37 family members during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, makes events real in stories acutely filled with grief and horror. What’s even more chilling here is not the violence depicted but the violence anticipated.

 

Ono, Masatsugu. Echo on the Bay. Two Lines. tr. from Japanese by Angus Turvill. ISBN 9781949641035.

The English title is an exquisite reduction of a slim, albeit mighty, narrative that begins comically wry and ends with shocking resonance. In a remote coastal village, the new policeman endures a steady stream of regular visitors. Their stories quickly turn dark, echoing far beyond in time and location, reverberating with evidence of horrific inhumanity. Understated, yet unforgettably stunning.

 

Paek, Nam-nyong. Friend: A Novel from North Korea. Columbia Univ. tr. from Korean by Immanuel Kim. ISBN 9780231195607.

Two unhappy couples eventually reconcile, and Paek’s story triumphs despite a conventional ending. Officially sanctioned by the North Korean government and often offering subtly deployed propaganda, this work is especially valuable for affording a rare glimpse into everyday life under the totalitarian regime.

 

Yu, Miri. Tokyo Ueno Station. Riverhead. tr. from Japanese by Morgan Giles. ISBN 9780593088029.

“I did not live with intent, I only lived. But that’s all over now.” Kazu’s dead, but his spirit won’t rest. He traverses Tokyo’s Imperial Gift Park, where he was once a homeless wanderer, as memories, visions, and hauntings reveal his difficult past. An ethnic Korean in Japan, Yu channels her own disassociation in a surreal fable exposing humanity’s ultimate devaluation.

 

See all of our 2020 Best Books lists

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