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  • What to read this month: new books for February 2022


What to read this month: new books for February 2022

Olga Ravn's strange tale of (very) late capitalism, distant transit from Maja Haderlap and where Steph Curry meets Bertoldt Brecht

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“Basketball was a distraction,” writes the US-born Berliner Shane Anderson in his memoir of life, love and sports fandom. “Until it wasn’t.”

At first glance, After The Oracle: How the Golden State Warriors’ Four Core Values Can Change Your Life Like They Changed Mine (Deep Vellum), may seem like a mash-up of themes one tends to diligently avoid: self-help, American sports, chronicles of being young and wild in Berlin clubs. Thankfully, however, this is no “Ted Lasso goes to Bierbaum”. Instead, Anderson – a poet, translator and veteran literary expat who worked for many years at St. George’s bookshop in Prenzlauer Berg – offers up a work of engaging self-scrutiny and genuine philosophical ambition. Beginning with his own experience, he finds himself tackling topics as diverse as rave culture, basketball history, the gentrification of Berlin and the nature of joy.

There are memorable moments of tenderness and wit, and stretches of arrestingly lovely writing. Plus, where else are you going to find Steph Curry sharing the page with Donna Haraway and Bertolt Brecht?

Another fine Berlin-based literary translator is Tess Lewis, currently a fellow at the American Academy. Her newest release is a translation of Maja Haderlap’s achingly beautiful poetry collection distant transit (Archipelago). A prize-winning author of lyric and prose, Haderlap was born into the Slovenian minority of Austria’s Carinthia region – a community whose difficult past and multilingual present she explored in her 2011 autobiographical novel Angel of Oblivion.

Haderlap’s abiding interest in language and the burden of history suffuses distant transit too, as does her powerful sense of landscape. These poems are prickly, alluring, and strangely alchemical; they probe at the possibilities of words in the face of the the past. One particularly fine poem begins: “how much the torn-open field i / stand before betrays.” What Haderlap finds in those fields is elegantly captured in her poems – and splendidly rendered in Lewis’s thoughtful translation.

Finally, moving on to fiction: The Employees (New Directions) absolutely lives up to the hype. Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize and eagerly touted by cognoscenti of contemporary European literature, this novel by young Danish author Olga Ravn (translated by Martin Aitken) is a triumph of imagination – and of literary style.

It takes the form of a series of “statements” made by employees and collected by a sinister corporate HR committee, all relating to mysterious developments that occur during a space mission sometime in the distant future. The human and humanoid residents of Six-Thousand Ship report in confessional fragments – lyrical, gossiping, or depressingly neoliberal – about their hopes and dreams, their memories, their frustrations and their suspicions about what has been happening on board ever since the ship picked up a number of strange objects from a nearby planet.

The novel that results is a poetic and haunting exploration of what it means to be human, even under conditions of (very) late capitalism – and what it might mean to encounter something genuinely Other.