By Zack Rogow
I remember when I first started traveling abroad, if French people realized I was an American interested in books, they wanted to tell me how much they admired and enjoyed the novels of Chester Himes. “Chester who?” I would ask. Well, it may be that Chester Himes is a writer we should all know more about—he was an African American mystery writer of the 1950s and 60s, totally unknown to me or any of my acquaintances. In France, he was one of the most famous American novelists. It’s true, Himes wrote about race relations at a time when few were taking on that subject: “All that tight, crazy feeling of race as thick in the streets as gas fumes. Every time I stepped outside I saw a challenge I had to accept or ignore.” (from If He Hollers Let Him Go). But even if Himes deserves a closer look, he’s no Langston Hughes or Zora Neale Hurston. Why is Himes so popular in France?
French readers also all seem to know authors of the Beat Generation, especially Jack Kerouac. But very few are aware of most of the terrific poets and novelists in the U.S. since the Beats.
Similarly, readers in the U.S.A. and all over the world are fascinated with Gabriel García Márquez. Márquez is one of my favorite novelists, too—Love in the Time of Cholera is right near the top of my all-time list. But there are other equally deserving classics in El Boom, the wave of magical realist writers, books that don’t seem to attract as large a following—novels such as Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral and Manuel Puig’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth; or Julio Cortázar’s stellar collection of short stories, All Fires the Fire. I believe that their reputations will equal Márquez’s novel in the long run.
Haruki Murakami, also a big favorite of mine, has millions of readers worldwide. But other Japanese authors such as Kenzaburo Oe, who, unlike Murakami, has actually won the Nobel Prize for Literature; or the poet Yosano Akiko, author of 50,000 tanka poems, are relatively unknown outside their own countries.
Why do certain writers attract readers in other countries, and others do not? Some of it may have to do with having a connection to a particular country. Chester Himes, for instance, moved to France in the 1950s, and he had the advantage of being able to publicize his books on the ground in that country. Jack Kerouac’s ancestors came from Brittany (the name “Kerouac” is like “Smith” in the Celtic region of Northwestern France), but I don’t think that’s the key to his success in the land of Sartre and de Beauvoir. There is something about Kerouac’s spirit of adventure and vitality that says “American” with a capital “A” to people in other countries, similar to the way that cowboys and gangsters do.
Haruki Murakami is immersed in the popular culture of the U.S. and Western Europe, even naming one of his novels after a Beatles song, “Norwegian Wood.” That might explain part of why readers in the West find his work so accessible, even though his books are mostly set in Japan, and the world of his novels often shades into fantasy, which only a minority of English-language novels do. But why is Murakami one of the ten top-selling foreign authors in Mainland China? True, he’s a terrific writer, funny, thought-provoking, moving, willing to take on the status quo and business as usual. Well, O.K., I think I just explained his global popularity to my own satisfaction.
It does seem to me that certain writers just translate better into other cultures, maybe because they play off the stereotype that we have of those cultures in a complex way.Love in the Time of Cholera is about a passionate, Latin lover, but Márquez takes that stereotype and inflates it so much it explodes into thousands of fragments, into meandering sentences that each has a life of its own. Kerouac’s On the Road takes place in the wide-open spaces of North America where the cowboys toted six-shooters and the buffalo roamed, but his bebop descriptions of the West in the 1950s create a new American myth that seems more applicable to our time. Haruki Murakami's characters refuse the image of the Japanese “salaryman” and stay-at-home woman and become instead existential heroes who buck the system, almost in spite of themselves. It’s these new turns on the old national and regional clichés that make these books accessible but still eye-opening for cultures outside the ones that give rise to them.
Zack is the poetry editor for Catamaran. Zack is a poet, playwright, editor, and translator. He has written seven collections of poetry, and his most recent book published in 2012 is My Mother and the Ceiling Dancers. His poems have appeared in a variety of magazines from American Poetry Review to ZYZZYVA. He is the editor of an anthology of U.S. poetry, The Face of Poetry, which was the culmination of his 15 years presenting national poets at the Lunch Poems Reading Series at UC Berkeley.