This Week’s Hot Reads: Nov. 25, 2013

From a legend of Mexican crime fiction and a biography of Modest Musorgsky to a giant of Spanish literature.

The Mongolian Conspiracy by Rafael Bernal, trans. by Katherine Silver.

Rafael Bernal was a legend of Mexican crime fiction, but he never achieved international renown. Thanks to translator Katherine Silver, his 1969 masterpiece El Complot Mongol, or The Mongolian Conspiracy, is available for the first time in English. Filiberto Garcia is a hitman who knows exactly what gun to use for killing at short range, but not much beyond that. A chance assignment lands him in the middle of an international conspiracy that gives Bernal’s book its name. Published just six years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, The Mongolian Conspiracy is very much a product of its time, brimming with paranoia and cloak-and-dagger intrigue. In Bernal’s novel, governments, Western or otherwise, are malevolent entities that always have ulterior motives. References to “Dallas” abound when Garcia discovers that the American president is once again in danger of being assassinated, and the responsible party could be any one of the many spies who turn up in the criminal underworld of Mexico City. Grim and violent, but also at times darkly funny, The Mongolian Conspiracy may well deserve writer Francisco Goldman’s praise that it is, “the best fucking novel ever written about Mexico City.”

The Apartment: A Novel by Greg Baxter.

In Greg Baxter’s memoir from 2010, A Preparation for Death, he described himself as a “failed novelist,” lamenting his frustrations at both the insular publishing industry and his own literary pretensions. With the publication of The Apartment in November, however, Baxter can finally drop the “failed” from his moniker. He is a novelist now, and a capable one at that. The Apartment, set over one day in an unnamed European city, centers on an independently wealthy, comfortably numb, unnamed expatriate. As he wanders the city, aimlessly looking for the titular accommodation, the secret of his wealth and ennui is gradually revealed in a series of flashbacks. Baxter, an American living in Berlin, no doubt drew from his own experiences abroad, which gives The Apartment an engaging specificity that will resonate with anyone who has spent time in a foreign city. Baxter is a very specific writer; much of The Apartment is meticulous descriptions of the minutiae of an ordinary day that thankfully resists ever becoming tedious. Baxter intersperses his hyper-observational style with stream-of-consciousness digressions on topics ranging from Virgil to Islam and Christianity to the Bosnian genocide. The Apartment is an exciting debut novel, and leaves one eager for Baxter’s follow-up, whenever that may be.

Musorgsky and His Circle: A Russian Musical Adventure by Stephen Walsh.

Stephen Walsh’s two-volume biography of Igor Stravinsky was the definitive examination of Russia’s most brilliant composer. His new book, Musorgky and His Circle, is a biography of Stravinksy’s influences, the Russian composers who comprised a group known as “The Five.” Modest Musorgsky, Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Alexander Borodin were, in the mid-19th century, creating out of whole cloth a new Russian identity in classical music free of Western influence. “The mighty little heap” were often criticized on a technical level—they had little formal musical training between them—but Walsh makes the case that their rawness was essential to their iconoclasm. Musorgsky, the true genius of the group, was such a challenging and innovative composer that his work would be performed as “corrected”—in other words, slowed down—for decades after his death. His brilliance, however, was cut short by his alcoholism; addiction would alienate him from his friends, leaving him to die, destitute and alone, at 42. Musorgsky’s extreme personality, which so inhibited his creativity toward the end of his life, was the same mania that produced Boris Godunov, Night on Bald Mountain, and Pictures at an Exhibition. Musorgsky and His Circle is therefore as much about the maddening paradox of the dysfunctional genius as it is about the birth of Russian music.

In the Night of Time: A Novel by Antonio Muñoz Molina, trans. by Edith Grossman.

Four years after it was published in Spain, Antonio Muñoz Molina’s In the Night of Time is now available stateside. Molina, whose 2003 novel Seraphad made the English-speaking literary world take notice of the Spanish master, has written perhaps his most classically ambitious work yet. With its mid-century setting and country-spanning scope, this sweeping novel is the kind that actually deserves to be labeled as an epic. Molina writes about life and death, war and peace, love and loss. Ignacio Abel, a middle aged architect, is forced to flee to America in 1936 to escape the brutal Spanish Civil War. He leaves behind a wife from a loveless marriage, a lover from a passionate affair, and a successful career as a well-regarded, Bauhaus-educated architect. During a two-hour train ride from Penn Station to his professorship at a small private college on the Hudson, Abel reflects on the tumult and violence that forced him to emigrate and precipitated the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. With In the Night of Time, Molina’s cogent examination of war on a scale both large and small reaffirms his place as a giant of Europe’s literary scene, well-worth being discovered by American readers.