The novel Hocus Bogus by Romain Gary (writing as Émile Ajar) has been nominated for the Best Translated Book Award 2011.
The finalists for the award were announced yesterday ( Thursday 24 March) with Hocus Bogus (translated by David Bellos) receiving a nomination in the Fiction category. The diverse shortlist consists of works translated from French, German, Spanish, Afrikaans, Albanian, Chinese, Czech, Japanese, Slovenian and Swedish. The prize for the winning book in each category is $5,000, which will be awarded to both the author and translator at a ceremony April 29 during the PEN World Voices Festival in New York.
Despite being nominated in the Fiction category Hocus Bogus‘s slippery narrative and semi-autobiographical tone defy traditional genre classification. The story novel’s conception is in itself a fascinating and revealing one.
By the early 1970s, Romain Gary had established himself as one of France’s most popular and prolific novelists, journalists, and memoirists. Feeling that he had been typecast, he wrote his next novel under the pseudonym Emile Ajar. However, Gary’s plan to establish freedom and anonymity under his new alias somewhat backfired, as his second Ajar-novel, Life Before Us, was an instant runaway success, winning the Prix Goncourt and becoming the best-selling French novel of the twentieth century.
The book’s new-found fame made people all the keener to identify the real ‘Emile Ajar’. Stressed by the furore he had created, Gary fled to Geneva. There, he wrote Pseudo (translated now as Hocus Bogus), a hoax confession and an alarmingly effective work of literary slight of hand. Writing under double cover, Gary simulated schizophrenia and paranoid delusions while pretending to be Paul Pawlovitch, who in turn confesses to being the real Emile Ajar. Hocus Bogus deals with the struggle to assert and deny authorship, articulating a wider protest against suffering and universal hypocrisy. Playing with novelistic categories and authorial voice, Gary’s work is a powerful testimony to the power of language, which makes the translation by David Bellos (professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton University) all the more impressive.
Hocus Bogus is part of The Margellos World Republic of Letters series (discussed in a recent post on this blog) which identifies works of cultural and artistic significance previously overlooked by publishers, canonical works of literature and philosophy needing new translations, and important contemporary authors whose work has not yet been translated into English. Another novel in the Margellos series, Cyclops by Ranko Marinkovic, was also praised by the judges of the Best Translated book Award, making the 2011 longlist.