My five favourite books of 2020

Hunh. Well, this isn’t really what I was envisioning when I promised to write more on this blog in 2020. Five posts in a year is pretty crap, really, and all the possible excuses—aside from the obvious coronaballs, we had a baby this year—shouldn’t get in the way of doing something a little bit more … coherent with this site. I’m going to try to write more often, but that’s a promise I’ve made in the past. Fool me once …

I read 182 books this year, which is about thirty fewer than last year. My brain has felt really mushy for most of the year, partly because of baby-related sleep issues, and partly because everything is a little mushy at the moment. I made more of an effort to do things this year, online mostly, go to poetry launches and poetry readings via Zoom etc., enduring the sweaty ears and all that, but I don’t know if that translates into greater engagement, greater involvement in any kind of poetry | writerly community.

A number of books that I had something to do with made their way through the pipeline and were published in 2020: my version of Aleksandr Tvardovsky’s Василий Тюркин was published by Smokestack in January—it ended up being shortlisted for the International Read Russia Prize, losing out to Antony Wood’s wonderful translations of Pushkin—, and a book of translations from the intense, fascinating, unleashed Spanish poet | novelist Manuel Vilas, Heaven, appeared in February from Carcanet. And I published a book of ‘my own’ this year as well, although I feel quite proprietorial about the books I translate as well, and ‘my’ book was a kind of translation itself: Homunculus, also from Carcanet, came out in September. Maybe I should write about it in more detail, but I wrote at least something about it for the Carcanet blog here, which more or less explains what I was doing, or thought I was doing (and includes a quote from the transparently-named Boris Vymyshlenny).

Everyone is longing for the moment when we can cram into uncomfortable rooms and drink warm wine again, I suppose (and more seriously, I’m due to go abroad for a month-long residency in September), so here’s to things clearing up and general governmental competence. Oh lord.

Anyway, my five favourite books of the year were as follows:

This was short and terrifying: it’s an account, a series of newspaper profile-style articles about various figures and events in the Argentinian dictatorship of the late 1970s, and sums up just how unbearable it must have been to live in Buenos Aires (Graham-Yooll, who died in 2019, was the editor of the English-language Buenos Aires Herald) at the time. A description of a purely ideological world, where everything is impossible to negotiate with, and must simply be negotiated. I lent my copy to a student, so blowed if I’m going to see that again, but just writing about it I want to reread it: as far as I remember it had a cover endorsement from Graham Greene, which sums up the kind of vibe it has. Fear and compromise and guilt and self-disgust.

This, the epic poem of the Oghuz people (the ancestors of, among others, the Turkmen, which is why I read the book) is a riot: lots of standard epic and folkloric elements (and, as the translator Geoffrey Lewis points out, a rather unconvincing Muslim overlay): heroes, battles, monsters etcetera. I loved above all the formulaic parts of it, the ends of every tale asking where man will end up, for all his caravans. Think of death and be still.

This, Mirka Andolfo’s slightly trashy, voluptuous retelling of various tropes from Brave New World and 1984, was perhaps the single most purely enjoyable book I read this year. A comic book, it’s set in a world where various anthropomorphic animals are only allowed to breed with their own kind. The protagonist, a pig called Leslie, is approaching the moment where she is going to have to choose to marry and start to provide children for the state. At the same time, she is troubled by forbidden fantasies … It doesn’t bear much scrutiny, but reading it really was the funnest afternoon I had in 2020, I think.

I loved this. I bought it because of the shape and feel of the book (I’m not proud of how easily I fall for little hardbacks), but when I actually read it rather than fondled it, it was a revelation of sorts, or at least made me return to my occasional wondering about why most of the travel writing I like the most is written by Italians (Silvio Micheli’s lovely Mongolia, for example). It’s an account, anecdotal and with no real aim or axe to grind, of a journey along the Baja California Peninsula: strangers and cactus, and hot nights, hot food. It’s sensuous in a way I find quite attractive, as well as somehow … pleasantly dry? I see I’m making it sound like a bottle of wine, but maybe that’s just because it’s late at night and (see above) my brain is mushy.

I know it’s a bit infra dig to say that you like the books you have to teach, but I had to read this as preparation for teaching the final-year Spanish literature paper (the syllabus has been rejigged, and I like it a lot better now, I think, or maybe that’s just because the convenors’ prejudices coincide more neatly with mine). It’s a funny, wry, sad-yet-cruel novel (for a literature which specialises in sadness-yet-cruelty, you’d have thought they’d have come up with a single term for it by now) about a vague man and his shrewish wife, and how art can’t solve anyone’s problems. It’s also a tiny bit postmodern avant la lettre, which is always a good thing.

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