First published in Yugoslavia in 1970, set amidst 1968 unrest, Houses is narrated by Arsenie Negovan, an old-money real estate baron who hasn’t left his apartment in 27 years and has no sense of how his country has changed in this time. Think of him as a Serbian Rip Van Winkle, who “wakes up” when he finally steps outside to see the state of his beloved properties, which he treats like lovers kept all over Belgrade. I picked up this book looking for an under-heralded great read, not for contemporary relevance, and I got both. To hear Negovan’s high-minded speeches, both charming and contemptible, about the moral satisfaction of owning things, and to hear the conflicted reactions of the crowds he regales, is to catch echoes of our current moment in an extraordinarily wry book
Starting with a family in the middle of a meltdown, The Mortifications (Tim Duggan, $27) charts a contemporary odyssey. Set in the early 1980s, Derek Palacio’s remarkable debut novel starts with a Cuban mother and her twins fleeing their home as part of the Mariel boat-lift. Soledad leaves the children’s father behind; still committed to the revolution, he has little to live on but his ideals. The narrative, at least at first, focuses on the emigrants’ life in Connecticut, though Cuba is never far from the characters’ minds, and gradually gains full depth and color. But the novel is most impressive for Palacio’s keen psychological insight. With a rare emotional intuition, he reveals his characters’ deepest motivations in ways so clear and sharp, it’s almost shocking how far he can see. Yet these motives make complete sense, as you realize when one twin, Ulises, takes up the life of a tobacco farmer, and the other, Isabel, pursues a life of spirituality. Via these different paths, the family eventually travels full-circle, returning to Cuba, but, as is the way of myth, undergoing a metamorphosis in the process.
The 2015 death of Nobel laureate Günter Grass deprived the world of one of its most intriguing and controversial literary minds; Grass memorably mixed myth and political reality, and especially appealed to readers intrigued by what it meant to be a German citizen during and immediately after the Nazi era. Now available in English, Grass’s final book, Of All That Ends (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28), is as apt a swan song as you might expect from so large, yet so humble, a figure as Grass. Following a string of late-life autobiographies, this book is a series of vignettes, poems, and Grass’s own pencil drawings. The pieces flow loosely from one to the next, and cycle back through a stream of lyrical images (the coffins in which he and his wife will soon lie, his beloved typewriter, the one original tooth still left in his mouth). In the end, it’s a bittersweet, melodious glimpse of Grass’s life in the twenty-first century, which ranged from watching social media from afar to lamenting Germany’s dominant stance in the EU to (as in his earlier work The Flounder) letting loose some of the most evocative writing about food you’ll find anywhere. No single volume can contain Grass’s whole, magisterial spirit, but this is a beautiful distillation.