The largest publishing industry in the world speaks English. With so many books published in that language, there is barely time to read what the foreign literary market has to offer. Moreover, a foreign novel has its caveats, such as the thorny translation factor. Are we really reading what the author wanted to convey? And yet, once in a while, a foreign book creeps up the Anglo world bestselling list. What would prompt such a feat?
Going over those foreigners who made it to American bestselling lists in the Twentieth and Twentieth First Century, I find several factors that could explain them beating the odds of translation and cultural differences. The first is good references. American readers would be interested in novels that have made it big in the European market, especially if critics have praised the style and prose of novels. That explains the success of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s work.
Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist has also achieved worldwide recognition, but its fame rests not exclusively in the critic´s recommendation. This Brazilian novel includes thought-provoking ideas and a sort of comforting mysticism that makes the reader cling to the book despite its exoticism. In its universal message, The Alchemist manages to cross-over cultural differences.
Almost the same magical message and universality was found in another foreign bestseller. Written in French, but originally published in the United States in 1943, The Little Prince is still one of the most loved books on Planet Earth. At first glance, it may seem a children´s book, but its content hides profound lessons for all the adults who confuse hats with elephant –eating boas.
I was not surprised to find Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate among foreign bestsellers that did well in the American Market. Food is a universal subject, and Esquivel’s depiction of a repressed household in turn- of-the century Mexico, is swamped with themes of food and cooking. The story of Tita, who breaks free from her mother´s machismo via the magic of Mexican cuisine, would seem close and full of identifying factors to cooks, gourmands and women who have known repression. The book, which included several of Tita´s best and most aphrodisiac recipes, opened a new trend of novels dwelling on the relationship between food and sensuality.
One of Tita´s magical meals
Another factor that helps propel a foreign book to the American bestselling lists is genre. People will read mystery novels, historical romances and fantasies regardless of where they take place. That explains the worldwide fascination with the adventures of Inspector Maigret, born from the fertile mind of Belgian writer George Simenon, and our current love affair with Stieg Larsson´s trilogy of Swedish thrillers.
In the post-war period, Finnish author Mika Waltari made it to the American lists with his historical works, particularly Sinhue, the Egyptian. It was one of the favorite novels in the United States in 1949. Sinhue returned to bestselling lists in1954 after it was turned into a Hollywood sword-and-sandal epic.
Dame Jean Simmons in The Egyptian
Another historical novel that became a rage throughout the five continents was Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s Il Gatopardo, the story of a Sicilian aristocrat in the changing Italy of the 1860’s.Two decades later; it was the turn of another Italian writer to cross oceans with a historical novel that was also a thriller. Umberto Eco´s The Name of the Rose had conquered Europe and would go on to become both a bestseller novel and a film in the English-speaking world.
If a foreign book arrives to American bookstores already wrapped in controversy, it is bound to sell well. It happened in the Fifties, when Francoise Sagan’ scandalous first novel Bonjour Tristesse was translated into English. Tristesse’s plot centered on the antics of an epicurean playboy and his spoiled, free-spirited daughter, but what the public found wickedly tempting was its author. At eighteen, Sagan was a high-school dropout who led a fun-loving lifestyle that appealed to the repressed readers of the McCarthy Era as much as her tale did.
|Jean Seberg and Sir David Niven in Bonjour Tristesse|
Less notorious but equally noisy was the arrival of Doctor Zhivago. Boris Pasternak’s chronicle of the Russian Revolution had been refused publication by Soviet authorities. Smuggled to Milan by Sir Isaiah Berlin, the novel was published, in 1957, simultaneously in Italian and Russian editions. Soon, its publisher Giangiacomo Fertrinelli (who was subsequently kicked out of the Italian Communist Party) secured its translation to eighteen languages.
In 1958, Pasternak was awarded The Nobel Prize in Literature. Pressed by the KGB (that threatened to send his mistress back to the Gulag) Pasternak had to decline the award, but that didn´t stop Zhivago from becoming a universal bestseller. According to the Publisher´s Weekly´s list, it was the most popular novel in the United States for two years.
Doctor Zhivago's Trailer
There is a final factor that may influence a reader into sampling a foreign novel, and that is a plot revolving around current or recent events. Two bestselling authors in the 1920’s made it big, both in book-selling and in Hollywood, thanks to their Great War novels. But Vicente Blasco Ibañez and Eric Maria Remarque deserve an entry for themselves. That is my promise for March.
Do you have a foreign novel (modern, not a classic) among your favorite books? Do you remember what made you read it? Do you think there is a bit of snobbery in the English-speaking world against foreign works? Have you ever read a foreign novel that turned you off because its content was too alien for your taste?