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Originally published Sunday, January 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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See the world — by book

Three new novels — "The World a Moment Later" (from Israel), "New Lives" (Germany) and "Family Planning" (India) — offer a vicarious form of travel into the very souls of nations.

Seattle Times arts writer

On the Internet

Three Percent

Anyone interested in fiction in translation should visit www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/, a Web site sponsored by the University of Rochester and its new all-translation press, Open Letter. The site offers links to a wide array of articles on literature in translation. As its creators point out: "Unfortunately, only about 3% of all books published in the United States are works in translation. That is why we have chosen the name Three Percent for this site." The result is a terrific resource for anyone wanting to roam imaginative worlds beyond our borders.

A book can be a country.

Think of Gabriel García Márquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude," Günter Grass' "The Tin Drum" or Ben Okri's "The Famished Road," and you'll realize that certain novels take you deeper inside the spirit and contradictions of a nation than any news report could.

That makes reading a form of travel. Like the woman in Eudora Welty's "The Golden Apples" who's been "clear around the world in my rocking chair," I've touched down in Africa, Australia, the Caribbean and a host of other places without ever leaving my couch — covered, this time of year, in quilts and cats.

So how do you get started on this kind of travel? Translators — an underpaid, underappreciated crew — are vital to the process.

There are certain translators who, when I see their names on a title page, automatically make me take a closer look: Marian Schwartz (from Russian), John Brownjohn (from German) and Edith Grossman (from Spanish) are a few of the more obvious.

Jessica Cohen, formerly of Seattle, has translated work originally in Hebrew by David Grossman and Yael Hedaya (scriptwriter of the Israeli TV series that was the basis for HBO's "In Treatment").

Cohen caught my attention two years ago with her translation of "Our Holocaust," a brilliant debut novel by a prodigiously gifted Israeli writer, Amir Gutfreund.

The book was an initially playful but ultimately devastating portrait of two curious youngsters growing up among an eccentric collection of elderly Holocaust survivors in a sleepy suburb of Haifa in the 1960s and '70s.

Now Cohen has translated Gutfreund's equally impressive second novel, "The World a Moment Later" (Toby Press, 497 pp., $24.95), described by its publisher as a "shadow book of the official Zionist lexicon."

Again Gutfreund, blending documentary precision with wild flights of fancy, takes you inside the very process of "becoming" Israeli in the 20th century.

The book, with a scrambled chronology that ranges from 1920 to the '70s, focuses on wild-card individuals who, for various reasons, can't quite get with the Jewish homeland program.

Chief among them is Chaim Abramowitz, who founds a hilltop state-within-a-state. There, he and his followers, pursuing their own libertarian-communal agenda, refuse to have anything to do with Israeli politics, taxes or wars.

Their self-contained citadel is as far removed from its surroundings as Heathcliff's Wuthering Heights was from its pastoral milieu, in Emily Brontë's novel of the same name.

"World" teems with colorful, wayward characters: Chaim's kite-flying stepdaughter/wife, a pair of Yemenites with inexplicably German names, a recluse who isn't concerned that his letters of protest to the authorities, typed on a defective typewriter, read "Dead Government of Israel" rather than "Dear Government of Israel."

There's humor here, but also real drama and insight into how a country, however unified it looks from the outside, is often an unwieldy vessel with a host of contrarian oarsmen trying to steer it in different directions — plus one kite-flier heading off on a tangent entirely her own.

Cohen, as she did in "Our Holocaust," makes the book read as though English were Gutfreund's native tongue.

John E. Woods is another translator whose name automatically prompts me to take a closer look at a book. He's the man behind the new translations of Thomas Mann's novels and the eerie, history-obsessed fiction of Austrian writer Christoph Ransmayr ("The Terrors of Ice and Darkness").

Woods' latest translation is a whopper of a novel by German writer Ingo Schulze, "New Lives" (Knopf, 573 pp., $28.95).

Schulze was born in Dresden in 1962 and spent his first 27 years behind the Iron Curtain. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany would naturally be epochal events for any East German of his generation.

Schulze tackles the flooding of West German cash and culture into the East by offering a variation on the Faust legend, with a perversely ambivalent narrator at its center.

The result is a dense, tricky book that hedges its bets with almost every turn of phrase. It's framed as a collection of letters written in 1990 by a theater-director-turned-newspaperman called Enrico Türmer (Türmer's career path parallels Schulze's 1980s work history).

The Mephistopheles of this tale is a figure named Clemens von Barrista who turns up unannounced with a "wolf" named Astrid at his side.

He has a startling philosophy — "I make money out of ideas in order to have money for my ideas" — and big plans for Enrico to be his right-hand man in building a newspaper empire.

Nothing about Türmer's account of these events or of his boyhood and young manhood can be trusted, however. Schulze, as "editor" of these letters, inserts frequent footnotes contradicting Türmer.

Türmer's own journalist colleagues are soon at odds with him. After a lifetime under a communist regime, they have huge trouble grasping the connection between advertising and revenue.

Türmer, with von Barrista guiding him, catches onto it immediately — and soon enters a world of betrayal and uncertainty.

"New Lives" portrays vividly the accelerating process that led to the Berlin Wall and East German regime crumbling in 1989. Rumors, protests, paranoia, disbelief, the thrill of first seeing West German road signs — they're all on the page with a you-are-there clarity.

News from elsewhere doesn't always have to come through the medium of translation. Case in point: "Family Planning," a pleasurably crazed debut novel by 24-year-old Indian author Karan Mahajan (HarperPerennial, 264 pp., $13.95).

It's the tale of a malcontent New Delhi teenager with rock-star dreams who's mortified by his family — perhaps with reason. His urban planner dad, Rakesh, is attracted only to pregnant women. Result: 16-year-old Arjun has 12 younger siblings, with another on the way.

As if domestic chaos weren't subject enough for him, Mahajan packs this hyperbolic blast of a novel with scathing reflections on government corruption, poisonous Hindu-Muslim relations and Indian TV-soap-opera obsessions (which prove to be surprisingly key to the plot).

New Delhi, by Arjun's account, is a polluter's paradise, its traffic jams amounting to a "slow pilgrimage to lung cancer."

The city's attempts to overcome its traffic congestion will ring a bell with Seattleites wearied by decades of light rail-streetcar-monorail-viaduct debate.

Rakesh is the moving force behind a "Flyover Fast-Track" project, creating elevated freeways around town that seem to slow things down rather than speed them up. Unfinished flyovers haunt the city.

The most striking thing about Mahajan's urban India is how saturated it is with American junk culture — and yet how indelibly Indian it remains. The rhythms of its English, the tangle of its bureaucracies, the sights, sounds and smells of its streets — all spring to hectic life.

When Arjun's father, left out of a communications loop by his political colleagues, starts ranting about all the ways he could have been reached, you feel you're getting the purest essence of the subcontinent.

"One can try one of the twelve cellphones my staff has," he complains. "Then there are a thousand pigeons that migrate between my office and my house. One can tie a locket around one of their green necks. One can e-mail me. You can even call up and tell my children. So?"

Whether you're in your rocking chair or on your reading couch, you're not in Seattle anymore. You're in Delhi, sweating the heat and fighting the frustrations.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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