Someone asked me the other day for the titles of five great books she’d never read or heard of. I started with “Rasero,” by Francisco Rebolledo, a Mexican chemistry teacher who hit it out of the park in his first novel in 1995.
Rasero is a bald Spanish nobleman who meets everyone during the French Revolution: Robespierre, Diderot, Voltaire, Madame de Pompadour, Antoine Lavoisier, Rousseau, Goya and David Hume. There’s a wonderful scene in which Rasero sees the child Mozart play the piano.
Why this novel and its author are not universally acclaimed is beyond me. Rasero is available in paperback in a good English translation.
“A Wilderness of Mirrors” is probably the best-known book of the five, though I’m sure that fewer than 1 in 100 U.S. citizens know of it or its author, the late, great Max Frisch. Frisch — Swiss architect, playwright and novelist — was a perennial dark-horse bet for the Nobel Prize in Literature until he died in 1991, at 79. He never got it due to the arcane politics of the Nobel Prize Committee.
In “A Wilderness of Mirrors” (1964) a fellow who calls himself Gantenbein pretends to be blind for seven years, after faking an auto accident. He does it because he thinks that if people think he’s blind, they will be more honest with him, frankly describing themselves and their surroundings. But he finds that what they do is tell outrageous lies about themselves, to make themselves look better than they are. The presumed Gantenbein (the German title, Mein Name Sei Gantenbein, translates, roughly, as “If My Name Were Gantenbein”) is married to a famous actress, whom he greets at the airport every time she returns from filming a movie, always with a handsome actor, obviously her lover, from whom she parts only a few feet away from our hero. But this doesn’t distress him. He finds it easier, and himself happier, to go along with the fiction that he doesn’t know a thing about it.
Also on my list would be Frisch’s novella, “Man in the Holocene,” in which the mind of an old fellow seems to unravel as he’s trapped by an avalanche in his ski cabin in the Alps. This book defies description. I count these two books as one in my list. Unfortunately, Frisch’s weakest novels, “Homo Faber” and “Montauk,” have racked up the most sales in the United States, probably because they’re set here. Ignore them. Read all his other ones, though, especially his two volumes of “Notebooks,” written in the years after World War II.
The third great book no one has heard of is “History of the World Conqueror,” by Ata Malik Juvaini, a history of Genghis Khan that Juvaini began writing sometime after 1250. It is available online, if you can stand to read hundreds of pages like that. But a hard copy will cost you $200 to $1,000. It was beautifully translated into English in 1958 (Harvard University Press) and is mostly known today, if at all, for its tale of The Old Man of the Mountain, the leader of a sect that lived in a virtually impregnable clifftop fortress, who survived — until Genghis — by threatening to assassinate his enemies — from which word, assassin, we derive the word hashish.
Pablo Neruda’s autobiography, “I Confess I Have Lived,” is a wonderful book by the greatest poet of the 20th century. It’s been translated into English twice. Do not buy the one called “Memoirs.” The translation with the real title is way better.
Finally, I recommend Naufrágios (Shipwrecks) by Álvaro Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, who was shipwrecked off the coast of La Florida in 1528 and spent the next 8 years wandering toward present-day Mazatlán, where he was rescued by a shipload of conquistadores, by which time he had almost forgotten how to speak Spanish. It’s the best record ever of life in pre-Columbian America, with the possible exception of Bernal Díaz de Castillo’s “True History of the Conquest of New Spain,” which I disqualify because it’s well-known — also terrific, and easily found in paperback. Díaz said on Page 1 that he’d come to the New World to Christianize it for the glory of God — “and also to become rich.”
I know of only one translation of Naufrágios, and it’s no good. It’s too severely edited — cuts out too many good parts. If you don’t read Spanish, you’re out of luck.
So there’s my list of summer reading.
It has not escaped my attention that all of these books are translations: one reason, no doubt, that they are little known nor long-remembered here. But if you’re looking for a rollicking read, check them out. Beats looking at the TV.