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Books from Mexico, Netherlands, and Japan bring rewrites of history, teen tales

Meghan Collins Sullivan

One of the pleasures of reading widely in translation is getting to juxtapose books from completely different literary traditions, letting them inform each other in a new language in ways they could not do in the original.

The Mexican writer Álvaro Enrigue has been a favorite of mine for years, and while I did not expect to find myself reading the two other books below — Simone Atangana Bekono's Confrontations and Kiyoko Murata's A Woman of Pleasure — through the lens of Enrigue's newly translated You Dreamed of Empire, doing so feels natural. They may not come from the same place, but that's no reason they can't be in conversation.

You Dreamed of Empires

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When Álvaro Enrigue's sixth novel, Sudden Death, the story of a fictional tennis match between the Italian painter Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Quevedo, came out in English in 2016, Enrigue told a New York Times interviewer curious about his attraction to the past, "I work with history because I come from a country that has a tremendous thirst for reality." History, he went on, lets him "take a step back, through metaphor," in his analysis of the present.

In his latest novel, You Dreamed of Empires — translated, like Sudden Death, by the brilliant Natasha Wimmer — Enrigue takes two steps back from reality. You Dreamed of Empires is a counterfactual history of Hernán Cortés' arrival at Moctezuma's court. It's also a drug novel. Moctezuma is high on mushrooms for the whole book. In one climactic scene, he and Cortés take peyote together, which may sound like a gag but is, in Enrigue's skillful hands, the culmination of political maneuvering almost too intricate to follow.

You Dreamed of Empires is full of pettiness and intrigue, its characters scrambling for power on all levels. It's got glorious, but never self-serious, levels of historical detail — Moctezuma's gold-and-gem sandals bother his feet; a Spanish major is late to meet a superior officer because he's cutting his toenails, and doing so "with a dagger is no easy thing, let alone putting boots back on with bleeding fingers" — and the constant shimmer of mild hallucinations. All this melds into a drugged-out Mexican Wolf Hall, a novel that, much like a mushroom trip, rewards the reader who relaxes into it, not the reader who tries to take control.

It isn't hard to see the link between Enrigue's Tenochtitlan and the United States or Mexico today. You Dreamed of Empires is a portrait of people, mostly men, jockeying for influence in a government whose sustaining alliances, overt and not, are on the verge of blowing up. But Enrigue's not offering allegory here. Neat comparisons and takeaways aren't available. In a note to his Anglophone readers about the Nahuatl he integrates into the text, Enrigue suggests, "Don't worry too much about [understanding]... Mexican readers won't know right away what a macehuatl or a pipil is either. Let the meanings reveal themselves." It's good advice for reading his large and compelling cast of characters, too. Cortés' translator Malinalli is clumsily drawn — after Cortés assaults her, Enrigue writes, "The rape had made her feel vulnerable," a staggeringly obvious line in a work that otherwise resists obviousness — but everyone else is slippery and fascinating, easy both to empathize with and to hate. Getting that balance right is tricky in any novel, let alone one set in an alternate version of the 16th century. Here, it's a colossal achievement. Early in the book, Enrigue writes of the conquistadores, "They were making things up as they went along, with extraordinary results." The same could be said of him.

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Reading Confrontations, the Dutch writer Simone Atangana Bekono's debut novel, alongside You Dreamed of Empires is more illuminating than the books' subjects and settings would suggest. Confrontations, translated into English by Suzanne Heukensfeldt Jansen, is contemporary — well, nearly: Its characters listen to Chingy CDs — and as self-serious and limited as Enrigue's novel is imaginative and freewheeling. It appears in English as an adult literary novel, but, in the original Dutch, won awards for both best debut and best book for young readers. Certainly it feels adolescent: Atangana Bekono succeeds in capturing her teenage narrator's voice and emotional state, but at the expense of the complexity and perspective that readers of all ages should expect.

Confrontations is, theoretically, set in a juvenile detention center, where its protagonist Salomé, the working-class daughter of a Dutch mother and Cameroonian father, is serving six months after violently assaulting a pair of bigoted, bullying classmates. (Technically, that was a spoiler: The precise nature of Salomé's crime isn't revealed until late in the book, but it's easy to guess almost immediately.) But the detention-center setting is underdeveloped, the other girls in it mere stick figures. Her therapist, Frits, is patently useless, a symbol of institutional racism who cannot possibly help either Salomé or the narrative. Really, then, the whole book takes place in Salomé's head, where she weighs the two competing sets of adult instructions by which she has attempted to live — her dad's advice, which is "Work hard. Don't moan," and her intellectual aunt Céleste's reminders that "the systems [of power] are aligned against you" — and decides that Céleste is right.

Céleste is right, of course. Atangana Bekono seems to assume from the start of the book that her readers know as much, though she does find it necessary to include a letter in which Aunt Céleste assures Salomé that the boys she beat up "represent an extremely malicious system!" Such a plainly explanatory approach on the writer's part leaves very little room for Salomé to explore or develop: she is present on the page to learn lessons, not to surprise herself with her thoughts or emotional capabilities. It doesn't help that in dramatic moments, Atangana Bekono, a poet as well as a novelist, shifts into a dreamlike stream of consciousness that is all impression and no analysis, effectively curtailing another avenue for Salomé to break the novel's didactic mold. As a result, Confrontations cannot startle or challenge any reader who agrees with the basic premise that the systems of power are aligned against its protagonist. It delivers that message clearly and repeatedly, but both Salomé and her readers deserve more.

A Woman of Pleasure

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Kiyoko Murata's A Woman of Pleasure is proof that a novel can opt for clarity without sacrificing complexity. Set in a fancy brothel in turn-of-the-century Kumamoto, Japan, it is at once a detailed character study, a beautifully researched work of historical fiction, and a plain declaration of both women's rights and workers' rights. Murata is a major literary voice in Japan, but her books have never appeared in English before, an injustice made slightly better by the fact that she's now being translated by the incomparable Juliet Winters Carpenter. (Among Carpenter's many gifts is great taste: A good rule of thumb is to read any book with her name on it.) In Carpenter's English, A Woman of Pleasure is brisk but lyrical, moving but unsentimental, able to range easily from haiku to sex talk to the broken journal entries of its protagonist, Ichi, a girl from a rural island who, when she gets sold to a brothel at 15, speaks only her island's dialect and barely knows how to write.

Ichi's education gives A Woman of Pleasure its shape. At first, it seems to be the book's only plot — which would be more than enough, given how compelling Ichi is. She attracts the attention of Tetsuko, a kindly teacher at the Female Industrial School where Kumamoto's sex workers get their education and gynecological care; at the brothel to which she's been sold, she's placed under the tutelage of Shinonome, the oiran, or highest-ranking prostitute. Shinonome is so highly valued that her body is metaphorically "made of money;" to the awed, frightened Ichi, Shinonome "was Kannon, the goddess of mercy, and other times she was the female sex itself." But the lessons Ichi learns from Tetsuko and Shinonome — how to write; how to do Kegels; how to advocate for herself even in the heartbreaking context of indentured sex work --- happen in the context of labor unrest across Japan.

Slowly but surely, Murata builds a collective consciousness into her novel, juxtaposing other women's perspectives to Ichi's. She lets the reader into Tetsuko's rejection of the condescending, "egotistical compassion" that reformers show sex workers; she draws out Shinonome's slow rejection of her claim, early in the novel, that "there's nobody in the world as free as a prostitute." By the novel's stirring end, when Shinonome leads her colleagues in a quest for real freedom, A Woman of Pleasure has become an ode to self-determination — physical and intellectual both.

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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Lily Meyer