Veer off the best-sellers’ track with our picks of the lesser-known titles bound to take you on a journey across time and space
Everybody knows that books can take you anywhere. They are the most inexpensive mode of transport, in fact. Ignore the orange charms of EasyJet; forego the sorded temptations of the Megabus. There is no need for you to even leave your mouldering bedsit. Simply pick up a library card and get going. Don’t make the mistake, however, of picking up a novel just because it has the name of somewhere good in its title. You don’t have to read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in order to go to Las Vegas, or Down and Out in Paris and London to go to Paris or London. There’s a whole literary world waiting to be explored, but choose books with subtle, strange approaches to geography. Veer off the literary beaten track and follow our itinerary through time and space in ten lesser-known titles.
BRAZZAVILLE, REPUBLIC OF CONGO: AFRICAN PSYCHO, BY ALAIN MABANCKOU (2008)
The title’s clear nod to Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho gives a clue to African Psycho’s content—a guy who is interested in murder. It is roughly twenty times better than its American forefather, however, because Mabanckou’s rendering of Brazzaville is just so hypnotically good. The protagonist Gregoire Nakobomayo is also far more interesting than Patrick Bateman. Basically, do read African Psycho, don’t read the other one.
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA: KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, BY MANUEL PUIG (1976)
Any kind of voice gets boring after a while, which is why Kiss of the Spider Woman is so delightful. It has no narrator! Shifts in perspective are denoted by a simple dash. Parts of it read like psychoanalytical screed, some like bureaucratic documentation, some like garbled nonsense. It seems to be mostly about two gay men in a Buenos Aires jail but frankly it is too riotous to follow with any real degree of accuracy. A joyous book.
COPENHAGEN, DENMARK: MY DIRTY LITTLE BOOK OF STOLEN TIME, BY LIZ JENSEN (2006)
Set at the close of the nineteenth-century, Jensen’s romp through Copenhagen follows Charlotte, who is sometimes a prostitute, and her best mate Fru. When Charlotte takes on a cleaning job, however, she finds a basement that may or may not be haunted. Strange events including time travel come next, but Copenhagen is the real star.
TOKYO, JAPAN: THE LAKE, BY BANANA YOSHIMOTO (2005)
A lot of the action of Banana Yoshimoto’s spooky novel in fact takes place at a secluded lakeside in the country. The isolation of that setting is only perfected, however, by contrast to the frenetic Tokyo lives led and then left by the protagonists.
ROME, ITALY: EXTINCTION, BY THOMAS BERNHARD (1986)
Originally published in German, the main character of the pseudo-autobiography Extinction is in fact Austrian. Obsessed by and alienated from his own Austrian identity, Franz-Josef Murau lives in comfortable exile among the artistic luminaries of Rome. The novel is an odd but sensitive meditation on being from somewhere, and the relationship of birthright to chosen identity.
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA: ZOO CITY, BY LAUREN BEUKES (2010)
Beukes’ novel is science fiction writing at its finest. The backdrop is an alternate reality version of Johannesburg, where criminals are punished by being saddled with a magical animal familiar. If you let your familiar get killed, a cloud comes and kills you. Zinzi has been paired up with a sloth, which makes her task as a novel’s protagonist much more interesting.
MADRID, SPAIN: LEAVING THE ATOCHA STATION, BY BEN LERNER (2011)
As with many of the books on this list, Leaving the Atocha Station is a book about being an outsider and what aspects of subjectivity outsideriness lets a writer access. Adam Gordon is an American poet pissing away his grant in Madrid, kind of learning Spanish and kind of writing poems but mostly smoking hash and feeling weird. Lerner’s book contains some truly exquisite musings on art and weed.
MADRAS, INDIA: THE ILLICIT HAPPINESS OF OTHER PEOPLE, BY MANU JOSEPH (2012)
Joseph’s novel is set in 1990, when Chennai was still called Madras. It has a sad story at its centre, about a father and his dead son. Strange that a book like that would be funny, but this one somehow is. That rare thing one might call a romp through grief.
PARIS, FRANCE: HOW I BECAME STUPID, BY MARTIN PAGE (2001)
Poor Antoine! He is just too clever. Page’s novel stars a sad researcher at a Paris university whose hyperintelligence means he can never be happy, because he just understands too much. The book follows his quest to get stupider, which rapidly spirals into a surreal series of events, both academic and supernatura.
CARDIFF, WALES: THE HIDING PLACE, BY TREZZA AZZOPARDI (2000)
Azzopardi’s debut traces a Maltese family transplanted to Cardiff, focusing on the dad Frankie’s gambling problem and the effect it has on his wife and kids as seen through daughter Dolores’ eyes. Cardiff itself plays a big part in The Hiding Place; the sea, the streets and its people make it particular.