So, my 9-year-old daughter recently moved to a new school—one that encourages its students to participate in something called Odyssey of the Mind. If you’re not familiar with this, which I totally wasn’t, it’s basically a competition in which teams perform different tasks that highlight “creativity”: some build a new form of transportation, others make a funny haunted house, or some, like my daughter’s group, act out a scene from a historic royal court and then act out one from an imagined court.
All sounds great, right? Kids learning to work together, doing something that doesn’t involve the Disney channel, learning to compete, etc.
And maybe this is great for some people. But with a team consisting of all fourth grade girls? HOLY SHIT. Basically, our weekly meetings are a competition to see which girl can be the loudest, the most distracting, the “funniest,” mostly at the expense of the hearing and sanity of the two adult coaches. You ever want to know what tinnitus is like? Attend one of these gatherings. WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.
Here’s a little breakdown of how last night’s meeting went just to give you an idea.
Five girls descend upon this poor woman’s house. They great each other banshee style, and are seemingly incapable of understanding that when everyone talks simultaneously, no one hears anything. Keep in mind that these kids all go to the same school, are in the same class, and just saw each other about two hours ago. (As will become clear, spending time around gaggles of young children is turning me into Andy fucking Rooney.)
The primary coach of the team tries, valiantly, but unsuccessfully, to describe once again the nature of the “problem” our team has to work on. Basically, it went a little something like this:
Coach: We need to start by learning about a real king and queen.
Girl #1: KING ARTHUR! THAT WAS A KING!
Girl #2: I LOVE FASHION. I WILL DESIGN ALL THE ROBES.
Girl #3: CAN I BE THE QUEEN? WAIT, I’M THE JESTER!
Girl #4: DO WE HAVE SNACK TONIGHT?
Girl #1: CLEOPATRA! QUEEN ELIZABETH! HENRY THE VIII!
Girl #4: CAUSE, LIKE I’M REALLY HUNGRY.
Coach: Well, yes, if you’d all just listen for a—
Girl #3: WE CAN MAKE A SONG AND THE QUEEN CAN DANCE AND WE CALL ALL BE FUNNY AND OMG I LOVE SEAN!
Girl #2: DID YOU SEE JESSICA’S HAIR TODAY? I CAN BRAID MY HAIR JUST LIKE THAT.
Girl #1: KINGS OF LEON!
In an attempt to remain sane, we let the girls spend 15 minutes researching kings and queens and decrees on their own. This was totally pointless, obviously, but helped to keep the total number of kid strangulations close to zero.
What I hadn’t realized before last night is that kids believe that Siri is the one and only gateway to knowledge. These kids had computers and iPads and phones and all the normal stuff, but not a single one of them went to Wikipedia, or used Google, or anything. They all just took turns yelling shit at Siri and expecting her to provide the answer. Their questions ranged from the reasonable, yet too complex for Siri, “WHAT DECREES DID QUEEN ELIZABETH MAKE?” to the utterly ridiculous “WHAT KING SHOULD WE DO OUR PROJECT ON TO WIN ODYSSEY OF THE MIND?” I always wondered who actually used Siri for things other than cracking wise (“Siri! What is a butt, Siri!”) or setting alarms (“Wake me up when I’m not hungover.”)—it is children. I have seen the future and it is a bunch of hyperactive homunculi expecting a non-existent woman to provide answers to the mysteries of life. We should all be afraid.
We coaches try and regroup and gain control of the team, but shit is too far gone. One girl has decided that the best research option is to play “Call Me Maybe” at like 200,000 decibels, so as to drown out the other screeching noises erupting from her teammates. Obviously.
Our only option to overthrow this band of renegade fourth graders is to bring out the snacks.
Every parent knows this next part. Snacks—which I remember as being peanut butter and celery, crackers, Hi-C, etc.—have become super-potent sugar transporters specially designed to transform every normal kid into Animal from the Muppets.
For example, last night’s snack was popcorn (good, good), fruit juice (made with exactly 1% real juice and 99% aspartame!), and pixy stick infused candy canes. I am not shitting you. As if a candy cane wasn’t sweet enough that we need to actually inject it with ANOTHER CANDY, one that’s simply colored sugar.
Five minutes after they all ingested this terrible Franken-candy, I was ready to bust out a plate of Ritalin and let them snort it until they were zombified. That’s what people should be injecting into candy canes.
In addition to their planned performance, each team also has to participate in a “Spontaneous Challenge” in which they’re given a problem that’s either verbal, hands-on, or hands-on and verbal (don’t ask) and have to solve it in five minutes. According to the coaching manual, this is the part that almost all the teams suck at, so you’re supposed to practice it a lot.
We decided to start with a verbal challenge. The group would be given a question, and then go around in a circle throwing out as many responses as possible in a five minute time period. Each answer would get 0, 1, or 5 points based on creativity, and you would lose points if more than one team member spoke at once. (Needless to say, our team ended with -46.)
Coach: So, here’s your question: “Name something that causes pain, and what pain it causes.”
Girl #1: WELL, SO, UM, DIVORCE? DIVORCE CAUSES PAIN IN YOUR HEART.
Game. Fucking. Over.
After that creepy, heart-breaking answer, everything devolved into a sort of therapy session with all the girls confessing to things that they felt guilty about:
Girl #2: YOU KNOW WHEN YOU TURN SOMEONE DOWN FROM BEING YOUR FRIEND? THAT HURTS IN YOUR CHEST.
Girl #3: WHEN YOU TELL SOMEONE THEIR CLOTHES ARE UGLY IT HURTS ALL OVER HERE (waiving hand over her head and face).
Girl #4: I THREW A BALL AT MY BROTHER AND BROKE HIS LEG. THAT HURT HIS LEG AND MY BRAIN.
Girl #5: FIVE. SQUIRREL. FOUR.
All Girls: HYSTERICAL LAUGHTER
Our official competition is sometime in March. Wish me luck. Not them—they’re totally fine with showing up juiced on Pixy Crack, yelling over top of everyone, and losing by a million points. I just hope my mind—and ears—can last that long.
Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formozov (NYRB)
Probably the book I’m most looking forward to this month. Sigizmund UNPRONOUNCEABLE NAME was one of Russia’s wildest authors of the twentieth century—which is saying a lot. Adjectives tend to fall short in describing his surreal, fantastical, satirical stories, but here’s a great description from Adam Thirlwell’s introduction to this volume:
Krzhizhanovsky’s fiction is based on the fact that language makes things possible that are not possible in reality. If there is a word for “role” and a word for “character,” then naturally it follows, according to this method, that the two could possess separate existences. Or, to put this maybe more precisely, he investigated whether the distinction between what is possible in language and reality is even tenable at all. And so the central mechanism of this writing is metaphor (“a three-by-four-inch slip of paper torn from the notepad had miraculously turned into lodgings measuring one hundred square fee”)—the hinge between animate and inanimate objects, which allows figures of speech to acquire a strange kind of life.
Purity of Vengeance by Jussi Adler-Olsen, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitkin (Dutton)
When Kaija and I were in Copenhagen, we had a chance to meet with Martin Aitkin, one of the premiere Danish translators working today. He’s a great guy, is constantly booked with translation job after translation job (including a lot of Danish mysteries), and showed up to our meeting wearing a My Bloody Valentine t-shirt. That’s bad ass.
A Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wiesław Myśliwski, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston (Archipelago Books)
How many times can we mention this on Three Percent in one week? I read this over the holiday weekend, and although it’s not as immediately gripping and hysterical as Stone Upon Stone, it’s a really solid novel—one of my favorites from this year. I’m planning on writing a real review of it in the near future, but in short, it’s a novel about an old Pole whose village was annihilated in World War II and his ensuing adventures as an electrician and saxophone player. Similar to Stone Upon Stone, the novel runs off of his voice and elliptical story-telling style. Bill Johnston hit another home run with this translation. He’s an absolute genius.
The Conductor and Other Tales by Jean Ferry, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin (Wakefield Press)
This is a combination of a bunch of things I love: Wakefield Press (simply amazing books, and so well designed), Edward Gauvin, pataphysics, and, from the jacket copy, this collection includes a story about “secret societies so secret that one cannot know if one is a member of not.” SOLD.
The King of China by Tilman Rammstedt, translated from the Germany by Katy Derbyshire (Seagull Books)
This novel just sounds like fun. At least at first. It’s about a guy and his grandfather pretending to be on a trip to China, sending wild letters back to their family about their “Chinese adventures.” Along the way though, the grandfather dies unexpectedly and Keith is left writing longer and stranger letters about all sorts of bizarre things, like “non-stop dental hygiene shows on television, dog vaccinations at the post office,” and anything but news of their grandfather’s death and his ruse . . . Plus Katy Derbyshire is definitely on my list of books I read because I like the translator . . .
In the Night of Time by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Even though Esposito shit on this in his recent BTBA post, I actually want to find some time to at least check it out. Molina is a masterful writer, and Scott’s logic—that he’s already read War and Peace so why read the War and Peace of Spain’s Civil War—is incredibly dismissive and flawed. By his logic, since I’ve read Don Quixote, all of contemporary literature can fuck itself. Besides, the Spanish Civil War is fascinating.
Letters from a Seducer by Hilda Hilst, translated from the Portuguese by John Keene (Nightboat Books)
Hilda Hilst is like Clarice Lispector’s raunchy twin sister. In a literary sense of course. Her books are just as experimental as Lispector’s, but are much dirtier. In an strange, complicated, experimental way of course.
Here’s a bit about Hilst from Triple Canopy:
In 1990, the Brazilian author Hilda Hilst—a prolific writer of experimental poems, plays, and fiction, beloved by initiates and completely unknown to the broader public—declared herself fed up with the punishing obscurity of high art and started writing smut for money and fame. Really filthy stuff, like a pornographic memoir narrated by a nine-year-old girl. The literary critics, those few but loyal readers, were left baffled and betrayed. “I think money delicious,” Hilst explained, chain-smoking her way through interviews that accompanied the celebrity with which she was instantly rewarded. She said the idea came to her after witnessing the international success of The Blue Bicycle, a hugely popular erotic French novel—Fifty Shades of Gray for the 1980s. She figured she could make a buck the same way.
Or, at least, that’s one of the versions of events that Hilst slyly propagated. In fact, the bizarre series of obscene books she wrote in the early ’90s—three novels and one collection of poetry—is far from possessing broad popular appeal; the stunt brought Hilst more recognition as a personality than as a writer, and she never got to taste much money.
Clisson and Eugénie by Napoleon Bonaparte, translated from the French by Peter Hicks (Gallic Books)
Not to make fun of Gallic Books—they’re doing a lot of great stuff, including a Pascal Garnier book that I’m really looking forward to—but this “novel” by Napoleon consists of: a 13-page introduction, an 8-page afterword, a 28-page interpretation, a 5-page “Brief History of the Manuscript,” a 3-page “Note to the Readers,” and a 20-page novel. For those keeping track at home, Napoleon’s novel makes up exactly 26% of this total volume.
The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely (Penguin)
The description on Penguin’s site is a bit lacking (SPOILER ALERT: The “Summary” is completely blank), but regardless, I’d read this anyway just because Maureen Freely translated it. Her essay in In Translation about translating Orhan Pamuk is one of the strongest in that collection and has turned me into a Freely Fanatic. Thanks to her essay I’m finally getting around to reading Pamuk’s Snow, and then will dive into this book.
Kopenhaga by Grzegorz Wroblewski, translated from the Polish by Piotr Gwiazda (Zephyr Press)
Pretty sure this is the first poetry collection to appear on one of monthly round-ups. I wrote about this collection a while back though, and I still love these two poems:
You will survive in the minds of distant relatives and cousins, in their memories of you . . . (Motherfuckers! What if they deliberately choose to forget you!) And then, when they also depart, you will be no more.
You’ve got to watch experimental films! Underground. Underground poets. Tripping. Alcohol and sluts. Everything experimental. Nothing ordinary. (A: “Alcohol slows your reflexes.” B: “What reflexes?” A: “Your judgment.” B: “Is judgment reflexive?” A: “Fuck off.”)
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang, translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim (Penguin)
After all that above, it seems fitting to end on a nice, charming, polite, allegorical novel about a hen.
This is the story of a hen named Sprout. No longer content to lay eggs on command, only to have them carted off to the market, she glimpses her future every morning through the barn doors, where the other animals roam free, and comes up with a plan to escape into the wild—and to hatch an egg of her own.
An anthem for freedom, individuality and motherhood featuring a plucky, spirited heroine who rebels against the tradition-bound world of the barnyard, The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a novel of universal resonance that also opens a window on Korea, where it has captivated millions of readers. And with its array of animal characters—the hen, the duck, the rooster, the dog, the weasel—it calls to mind such classics in English as Animal Farm and Charlotte’s Web.
I like the fact that the BTBA has a strong track record for picking not only the massive, monumental doorstoppers that tend to garner the lion’s share of award attention but also the slim, sleek books that are often much richer and better-constructed. The best possible example is our first award, in which we gave the svelte Tranquility by Attila Bartis the nod over the imposing 2666 from, of course, Roberto Bolaño. 2011 saw us pick the slender The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (beating out sizable finalists Hocus Bogus by Romain Gary, Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, and Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss). But we’ve also gone for the bulky books: in 2013 we gave it to the sizable Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, and in 2012 is was Wiesław Myśliwski’s epic Stone Upon Stone.
So, in that spirit, here’s my discussion of some of the more sizable books that I both think are strong contenders for the award, and that I think should be left out.
Blinding by Mircea Cartarescu.
This is, quite simply, one of the most amazing books I’ve read this year. Cartarescu is one of the few authors I’ve read that could legitimately claim the legacy of Thomas Pynchon (now that Pynchon is writing parodies of himself). I’ll have lots more to say about it in an upcoming review at The Kenyon Review, but for now, here are links to a review and interview at The Quarterly Conversation. Read it.
My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard
I have a feeling that when it’s all said and done, this will be many people’s favorite volume of the My Struggle sextet. It’s subtitled “A Man In Love,” and that’s just what it is: the story of Knausgaard falling in love with the woman who is now his wife. There are so many passionate, ecstatic moments in here that anyone who has ever been in love will recognize, wrought extraordinarily well by Knausgaard. Plus, the book also has: his on and off feud with his crazy neighbor, who might be a prostitute; why he hates interviews; and the story of the incident in which he turned his face into a bloody mess with a razor blade.
Leg over Leg, Volume 1 and 2 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq
This is billed as the Arabic world’s answer to Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. Apparently it begins with a lengthy list of synonyms for various parts of the male and female genitalia.
Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai
If the Nobel committee would ever give their award to a writer like Krasznahorkai, this would be the book they would give it to him for. An inquiry into what humanity needs spirituality that is unlike anything I have ever read. Grand in scope, accomplishment, virtuosity. Grand, grand, grand. Read my review in Wednesday’s Washington Post.
Where Tigers Are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Robles
Reviews have made this book sound extremely diverse and remarkably achieved. Could either be incredible or too big for its own good.
A Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wiesław Myśliwski
Okay, the title of this book is not awesome. But it is by the author of Stone Upon Stone, a book that seemingly everybody loves (I did enjoy it). And it is reputed to be even more of a masterpiece than that one.
City of Angels or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud by Christa Wolf
An autobiographical look at ‘90s Los Angeles interspersed with memories of the Eastern Bloc where she re-discovers that she was actually a Stasi agent? Might just be crazy enough to work.
In the Night of Time by Antonio Munoz Molina
Billed as the War and Peace of the Spanish Civil War. Muñoz Molina is certainly one of Spain’s pre-eminent authors, but I’ve already read War and Peace.
Altai by Wu Ming
I’m tossing this on because “Wu Ming” is an awesome name and it’s a pseudonym for a collective of Italian writers. How cool is that? Apparently not cool enough to make something more than middlebrow Dan Brown. The collective’s previous book, Q, was a massive hit: I hope this book makes Verso boatloads of money so they can keep publishing Badiou and Ranciere.Tweet
The only thing more rare than a Three Percent post praising—or at least, gently supporting—NPR is one heaping accolades on a publisher’s website. But, well, this is proof that anything is possible.
NPR, the World’s Greatest Source of Middle-minded Hem-Haw Opinions, is actually doing something bad-ass this year—foregoing year-end book lists:
You love lists. We love lists. Everyone loves lists. And in the past five years, NPR has brought you more than 80 year-end book lists — the best book club books, the best cookbooks, the best gift books, the best guilty pleasures. We listed. You clicked. Everyone was happy.
But as the holidays loomed this year, we were all suffering from a little list fatigue, and we started imagining new ways to approach our year-end best books coverage. And though
Buzzfeedthe Internet may be determined to prove otherwise, we wholeheartedly believe that human beings are capable of absorbing new information in formats that are 1) not sequentially ordered and 2) wait … dammit! and 3) never mind.
Double props for the Buzzfeed insult! Because fuck Buzzfeed. And seriously, they have ruined the idea of lists for everyone.
Instead of NPR’s typical year-end lists, they’ve come up with this discovery tool, which lists a couple hundred books that can be sub-divided into a number of categories. But unlike the normal list, books show up under more than one rubric creating a site that is “more Venn diagram-y than list-y — a site that could help you seek out the best biographies that were also love stories, or the best mysteries that were also set in the past.”
Triple props for invoking Venn diagrams.
I have to admit, this momentary respect I’m feeling for NPR is making me uncomfortable. And maybe a bit mentally aroused.
Thankfully, their selections are pretty much run-of-the-mill. Sure, Ogawa’s Revenge is included along with the new Daniel Alarcon, but Eggers’s The Circle? And that Kite Runner dude’s new book? BORING.
Well, at least we now know that you can take the list out of the Middle Mind, but not the Middle Mind out of the
list Venn diagram. Or whatever.
Aside from every stupid Buzzfeed list ever, the number one link I’ve seen on my social media networks over the past few days has been to the new Words Without Borders issue. On the one hand, this is a testament to the amazingness of WWB; on the other, it illustrates that the vast majority of my friends are book nerds who like a little constraint with their writing.
This month we’re showcasing the sparkling innovations in form and literature produced by the members of the Oulipo. The Paris-based literary collective explores how literature might arise from structures, rules, and constraints, working within restrictions—alphabetical, narrative, rhythmic, metric—to set genres and language loose. Ian Monk’s tour of an apartment building maintains a strict numeric unity in lines and words. Olivier Salon travels through a gradually dwindling alphabet. Michèle Métail claims a chain of possessives, and Anne F. Garréta offers a rogue reading of Proust. In playing with poetic forms, Jacques Bens finds sonnets easy as pi, and Jacques Jouet extends the sestina. And François Caradec’s aphorisms offer less than meets the eye. Guest editor and translator Daniel Levin Becker provides a useful key to the considerations at play in both French and English versions. Join us in marveling at the verbal gymnastics of the writers, and at the dazzling ingenuity of the translators.
To regular readers of Three Percent, it’s clear that anything Oulipo would appeal to us—even more so if Daniel Levin Becker is involved. We’ve run a mini-dissertation on the Oulipo to tie into the publication of his book, Many Subtle Channels, and we also had him on a podcast to talk about the same thing. And with so many great Oulipians involved, this is guaranteed to be one of WWB’s great issues.
Sticking with DLB for a moment, and to give anyone who’s not already brain-deep in Oulipianism a bit more of a context, here’s an excerpt from the introduction to this issue:
As the prevailing image used by book reviewers to praise literary translations is that of transparency—limpid, pellucid, crystalline—it seems clear, so to speak, how ready we are to think of language as a window onto meaning. Whatever difficulties a translator may have encountered in carrying that meaning over into a new syntactic, lexical, and cultural idiom, we tend to expect his or her fingerprints to be wiped away by the time the text arrives before us, and for the resulting view to be more or less the same as the view enjoyed by the native reader. For better and occasionally for worse, we tend to be correct.
The Oulipo—ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or workshop for potential literature, a Paris-based literary collective dedicated to exploring how literature might arise from structures, rules, and constraints borrowed from linguistics or mathematics or parlor games—presents an uncommonly acute challenge to that expectation. To write an Oulipian text is both to draw a picture and to solve a puzzle, and more often than not these two missions blur together to the point where it becomes impossible to discern where the language ends and the meaning, such as it is, begins.
So, as you might imagine, things get doubly complex when a second language comes into play. Each language is a system unto itself, with its own rules and cheat codes, its own alliances and enmities and tunnels and trapdoors—and since exploiting all of these is the very essence of Oulipian methodology, since language is not only the raw material of an Oulipian experiment but also its demonstrandum, we might ask what, in this context, translational transparency even means. What happens when, to bedevil McLuhan, the window is the view?
The selections in this issue are an attempt to hint, by demonstration, at the range of potential answers to those questions.
Exactly. Now go check it all out.Tweet
Formerly an Open Letter apprentice and now his Own Man, Will is the
mustache director behind Deep Vellum Publishing, a soon-to-be year-old literature in translation house based in Dallas Texas. Will knows incredible amounts about Russian literature, and his review on Polonskaya’s collection of poems is enough to make anyone interested. Here’s the beginning of his review:
Paul Klee’s Boat, Anzhelina Polonskaya’s newest bilingual collection of poems available in English, is an emotional journey through the bleakest seasons of the human soul, translated with great nuance by Andrew Wachtel. A former professional ice dancer(!), Polonskaya left the world of dancing and moved back home to the small town where she was born to focus on describing the ice within the human heart. Paul Klee’s Boat is Polonskaya’s first collection of poems published in English since her debut A Voice (Northwestern University Press, 2004), also translated by Wachtel. Her poems have been published widely in the meantime, in World Literature Today, Poetry Review, the American Poetry Review and International Poetry Review, Drunken Boat, The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Prairie Schooner.
Described as “a rising star in Russia,” Polonskaya rose to prominence in the tumultuous post-Soviet 90s. One of the notable things about her is that she does not live in Moscow, but rather in a small town in the outer ring of exurbs outside Moscow. This distance, along with her unique background as an ice dancer with no formal poetry training other than what she read on her own from the great Russian poets, grants her work a sort of outsider status in the Russian poetry scene.
As you make your way through the collection, you will hear echoes of said great Russian poets, none more evident than the anguished voice of Akhmatova, reinvented in Polonskaya’s tragic “KURSK: AN ORATORIO REQUIEM,” a cycle of poems written over several years in remembrance of the 118 sailors killed in the sinking of the nuclear-powered Kursk submarine in August 2000. If there were one reason alone to buy this collection of poems, it would be for this requiem. It is tremendous. Powerful. Epic. Timeless. And so, so sad.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
Sarah Gerard is a writer who used to work at McNally Jackson Books, but recently took a job at BOMB Magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Bookforum, the Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Slice Magazine, and other publications. Her new book, “Things I Told My Mother,” can be purchased here. She holds an MFA from The New School and lives in Brooklyn.
A few of the BTBA judges have talked about how honored they are to be part of this process. I am also, but I want to be clear about one thing: it’s a lot of work.
The above is my tiny home office. It’s located in a small alcove in the hallway between my kitchen and my bathroom, in the studio apartment I share with my husband. The picture is in no way representative of the way my office looks every day. What I mean is this: recently, I left McNally Jackson Books, where I’d been a bookseller for three years, in order to join the team at BOMB Magazine, a publication that consistently pays homage to the art of translation. Because it would be difficult to inform every publisher of my address change, I still receive BTBA submissions at McNally Jackson, and have to return there every few days to pick up my mail. Each time, I find anywhere between two and ten new titles on the hold shelf for me, and add them to these stacks.
Meanwhile, new emails are coming in all the time from publishers; PDFs of books, eBooks, .mobi books. The judges are racing to keep up. And the list is always growing. Here are some of my recent favorites.
The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa (trans. Jeffrey Gray)
I mentioned BOMB Magazine. The current issue, #125, features a truly excellent conversation between Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Francisco Goldman. Rey Rosa was a protégé of Paul Bowles, who translated many of his books. It was under Bowles’s tutelage that Rey Rosa discovered his passion for writing, and it was Bowles who initially recognized Rey Rosa’s talent. Rey Rosa later returned to his home of Guatemala, where most of his books are set, and where he currently lives. But The African Shore is set in Tangier, a textured, mystical place full of almost noir-like intrigue. The possibility of violence hums on the outside of two stories held together by colonialism and the life of a snowy owl. Of the book, Francisco Goldman asks
FG: A propos of The African Shore, were there any special challenges for you in setting a novel in Tangier instead of Guatemala? Did you still consider yourself to be an outsider or a foreigner in relation to Tangier, or did you consider it home?
RRR: I wrote it in 1998. I dared to write the book when I realized that the Tangier that Bowles had written about—or better yet, created—had changed so much that it was no longer the same city. Only the wind remained… I lived there, and partially in New York, from ’82 to ’92, and spent summers in Tangier until 2001. When I started writing the novella, I could sense that I would never live in Morocco again. The book became a sort of farewell. But I never thought of Tangier as a home. I’ve never been at peace at home—but in Tangier I often was.
Regarding Jeffrey Gray’s translation, all I can say is that the book reads like a vivid dream seen through an opium haze, and sentence-by-sentence, is beautiful. I admit that I haven’t read Bowles’s translations, but am inspired now to seek them out and compare styles.
Sleet by Stig Dagerman (trans. Steven Hartman)
Two of Stig Dagerman’s books are up for the award this year: Sleet, a short story collection, and Burnt Child, a novel that I am now, after reading Sleet, very excited to begin. I admit, I had never heard of Stig Dagerman, but was intrigued by Sleet_’s introduction by Alice McDermott, blurbs from Graham Greene and Siri Hustvedt, and my general love of David R. Godine’s Verba Mundi series. As it turns out, Dagerman was a prolific writer in Sweden, who in his time was compared to everyone from Faulkner to Kafka to Camus. While most of the stories in _Sleet are a mote less philosophical than any of these writers’ works, I would be remiss if I didn’t strongly recommend the first and last stories, “To Kill a Child” and “Where Is My Icelandic Sweater?” (Laugh at the second title – it’s fine.) “To Kill a Child” had me hooked immediately and was promisingly quick and devastating, and “Where Is My Icelandic Sweater?”, a nearly novella-length work, had me reduced to a tear-soaked pile of loss and bereavement, and memories of my grandfather. Dagerman’s writing is personal and unsettling, hewing closely to characters being made to undergo humiliation and loss in an environment – mid-century Sweden – that’s almost too quaint for comfort. I would happily read this collection a second and even a third time.
Her Not All Her by Elfriede Jelinek (trans. Damion Searls)
This was one of the last books I staff picked as a bookseller at McNally Jackson:
The irony of a writer (Robert Walser) trying desperately to craft his own identity, only to succeed tragically at channeling through his words the voices of others. Jelinek captures Walser’s sad humor, his loneliness, and the eventual silence (silencing or death) of a voice that spoke through so many other voices. By way of madness? Genius? Damion Searls’s translation captures beautifully the skill of both writers: Jelinek’s performance and her ode to Walser.
I read this entire book in one mad, intensely satisfying, Homerically victorious sitting. I felt compelled despite its many (gorgeous, thrilling) challenges, to reach the end. Added to which, the book itself is lovely to look at – true objecthood achieved, Sylph Editions.
Here I should recall my last BTBA post, wherein I discussed Christa Wolf’s book City of Angels, which is also up for the award this year, and is also translated by Damion Searls. As it happens, Searls also – a trifecta of cool – translated Robert Walser’s A Schoolboy’s Diary, which is up for the award this year, too, and which author figures centrally into this Jelinek book we’re talking about currently – making a complete Searls circle, if you will.
Red Grass by Boris Vian (trans. Paul Knobloch)
I’m currently reading this book and am already completely blown away by it. While I’m not sure I can do it justice here, being that I’m still in the middle of it, I can already say that Vian’s (and Knobloch’s) sentences are some of the most lively I’ve ever read, and that the allegorical nature of the story rivals Kafka and Wells in its grace and complexity. It’s not exactly science fiction, but neither is it exactly Surreal. It’s something entirely its own – no other writer has done what Vian’s done here.Tweet
Thanks to a blown out tire, which forced me to spend most of last Friday riding in a tow truck and sitting in a tire shop, I didn’t have a chance to write my weekly Weekend Reading post.1 So this week, I’m going to triple up on the normal post and write about the three books I hope to spend the next four days reading.
First up is Wiesław Myśliwski’s A Treatise on Shelling Beans, which is translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston and published by Archipelago Books. In case you don’t remember, Bill’s translation of Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone won the Best Translated Book Award in 2012, so I’ve been looking forward to this for a couple years.
And to be honest, I’ve been reading it for the last week. In many ways, it’s similar to Stone Upon Stone—a long, looping monologue detailing the crazy adventures of one person’s life, very plain language, intricate narrative structure—but also a bit different in the way that narrator isn’t quite as self-mythologizing as the guy from Stone Upon Stone, and the general setting (in a part of Poland completely destroyed in WWII). Regardless, it’s an excellent book, and one that I’m definitely going to finish tonight or tomorrow, and will be reviewing in full next week.
Next up is a book I should’ve read years ago: The Girl with the Golden Parasol by Uday Prakash, translated from the Hindi by Jason Grunebaum, and available from Yale University Press. Jason is a good friend, and one of the funniest people I know, which is one reason it’s inexcusable that I’ve had this on my “to read” shelf for so many months.
The main reason I’m picking it up now though is thanks to Jason’s essay “Choosing an English for Hindi” from the invaluable collection, In Translation, which was put together by Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky.
In this essay, Jason invents two possible readers for this novel—Krishna, who lives in South Delhi, is a polyglot who is comfortable reading and speaking in Hindi, English, and Panjabi; and Kris, an English-reader born in Detroit and living in Chicago who has lots of South Asian friends and has attended bhangra dance parties. The crux of Jason’s piece is on whether he should translate The Girl with the Golden Parasol for Krishna (and the potentially huge audience of Indians who would be comfortable reading this book in English), or for Kris (and the much smaller number of American counterparts who might buy this), and what falls out from that particular decision.
Leaving certain words from the Hindi in the English translation won’t be the only difference in strategy if I translate for Krishna. I might also decide to write in a more South Asianized English. I might use an idiomatic phrase like, “I am just coming,” confident that Krishna would take this to mean what in American English would translate as, “I’ll be right back.” Sometimes Uday’s characters use English words in their Hindi or even speak in complete English sentences, like when the protagonist, Rahul, bursts into tears, and his friend implores him (and this is the Hindi), “Don’t be senti, Rahul!” “Senti” comes from the word “sentimental,” and here means an excessive public display of emotion: when someone loses it, can’t keep a grip on himself, fails to keep a grip on himself or hold it together. Krishna would know what “senti” means, and I could leave this, and many other instances of English-in-the-Hindi, as is.
There are several more interesting examples, but you’ll just have to buy, borrow, or steal In Translation to find out what they are.
And the last book I’d like to get to this weekend: The Only Happy Ending for a Love Story Is an Accident by J. P. Cuenca, translated by Elizabeth Lowe, and available from Tagus Press.
First off, this is a Brazilian book, and if you’ve been following this blog at all the past few months, you’ve probably heard about my Brazil obsession. (Which will culminate in our publication of Rafael Cardoso’s The Chronicle of the Murdered House in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation a few years from now.) As a result, I’ve been reading bunches of Brazilian books, but mostly by author’s I’d already heard of. By contrast, I hadn’t heard of J. P. Cuenca until reading “Before the Fall” in Granta’s special young Brazilian authors issue.
It’s also really intriguing that the setting for this book is Tokyo, in the near future, and featuring a mad poet whose hobby is spying on his son. I’ve read the first few chapters in this book, and can confirm that the jack copy is pretty much on target:
In poetic and imaginative language, Cuenca subtly interweaves reality and fiction, creating a dreamlike world whose palpable characters, including a silicone doll,2 leave a lasting impression. Written like a crime novel, full of odd events and reminiscent of Haruki Murakami’s work,3 this disturbing, kaleidoscopic story of voyeurism and perversion draws the reader in from the very first page.
What I really like about this book though is the title. Such a great title. And the fact that it’s from Tagus Press, a relatively new venture specializing in lusophone writing.
Anyway, that’s it for this week—see you after the break!
1 OK, yes, I know this is only “weekly” in my mind, but I do have every intention of making this a more regular feature. Also, to follow up on the last one of these posts—the one about Viviane by Julia Deck—I have to tell you that Viviane turned out to be amazing. So amazing that I’m going to be teaching it in my class next semester, and highly recommend it to everyone.
2 If I had written this copy, I would’ve referred to Yoshiko as a “silicone sex doll.” I’m not sure how accurate that is, but from the first page: “I could not be anything else because I have this body, and I only have this body, I am this body. And the purpose of this body is just one thing: to serve Mr. Okuda.”
3 But better.Tweet
Yesterday, P. T. Smith’s insightful review of Chejfec’s new novel The Dark was published on BOMB’s website:
Much of the response to Sergio Chejfec’s English-language debut, My Two Worlds, published in 2011 by Open Letter, placed him squarely in a Sebaldian camp. The narrator is on a walk, reminiscing both on his past and the historical past of the landscape around him, and it is a novel of a consciousness, of the interior of a single “I.” Although a grounding comparison for that novel, it does a reader little kindness for his most recent book, The Dark. As I read, I did think of Sebald and other authors, other types of novels, and tried to find that grounding—a language, a basic reading to build off. Each comparison got me lost. Any attempt to use them puts us on a stray path. The text demands we abandon those comparisons and learn how to read this specific novel. That alone is a rarity and, for me, a reading experience worth the effort.
This is a novel entirely of the interior—a solipsistic narrator, isolated and writing alone in a room, recounting his relationship with a past love. We have access only to his thoughts and, more particularly, his perception, which we are trapped in. This in itself is nothing new; the recognition of constant subjectivity is old hat, but the absolute consistency of it is the challenge here. “The dark” of the title is everything he does not care to concern himself with, and nearly the only way it expands is through an object of love, Delia. No other character in the novel receives a name, and of the other ones we meet, their stories are always connected with Delia, allowing the nameless narrator to expound further on her existence, the meaning of it.
In his opening lines, Chejfec’s narrator tells us that “It has always unsettled me that geography does not change with time, with the changes that take place within it, within us.” With one stroke, we have the strange tone that will permeate the book. He is an unsettled man, only at ease in the carefully crafted idyllic memories of his past with Delia, and even those are darkly shadowed by the events—the full truth of which is hidden for most of the novel—that lead to his abandonment of her. Even as she is his only way outside of himself, that way is narrow. And we have his confusion: immediately after denying that geography does not change with time, he perceives changes within it as indiscernible from the interior of himself.
This narrator is one of those infamous unreliable ones, but not as a game where you strive to perceive the truth of events—here it can be hauntingly obvious—nor is he not a cleverly withholding narrator confident in his ability to outsmart the reader.
Be sure and click here to read the full piece, and then read the book. It’s one of Chejfec’s best. (Which is saying a lot.)Tweet
The other week, we mentioned the Words Without Borders gala celebrating their first ten years of existence.
Well, to celebrate their first 10 years, WWB has released a special anthology that’s definitely worth buying—not only because it’s loaded with great writing, but also because sales of this volume go to support one of the best nonprofit publishing organizations in the country.
This volume celebrates WWB’s tenth anniversary with fiction, poetry, and essays from our first decade, translated from Dari, Rajasthani, Tigrinya, Urdu, and Yoruba, among others. The collection embraces many moods: antic tales of love triangles, deceptively sweet old ladies turned homicidal, somber accounts of bloody wars and political conflicts, and sly subversion of pompous clergy and other authorities.
There are tales of fantasy from Poland, Canada, and France, and grittier pieces from the many contributors—Iraq’s Najem Wali, Iran’s Kader Abdollah, El Salvador’s Horacio Castellanos Moya, Morocco’s Abdellah Taïa—who have had to flee their birthplaces and write from exile.
The selection of poetry varies from rhapsodic to whimsical: Slovenian lyricism; Polish and Catalan self-portraiture; Argentine and Japanese revelations. And we include two fine essays that provide a road map for full appreciation of both international writing and the translator’s role.
Contributors include Kader Abdolah, Adolfo Albertazzi, Justyna Bargielska, Lúcia Bettencourt, Carmen Boullosa, Horacio Castillo, Ismat Chughtai, Vijay Dan Detha, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, Louis de Paor, Nicholas Dickner, Ernest Farrés, Gabriella Ghermandi, Marek Huberath, Akinwumi Isola, Etik Juwita, Ilya Kaminsky, Rivka Keren, Nomura Kiwao, Fatos Lubonja, Leila Marouane, Mohammad Hussain Mohammadi, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Ambar Past, Tomaž Šalamun, Teresa Solana, Andrés Felipe Solano, Abdellah Taïa, Goli Taraghi, Jyrki Vainonen, Lawrence Venuti, Najem Wali, Ghirmai Yohannes, Yu Hua, Motoya Yukiko, and Zheng Xiaolu.
For the past ten years, The Morning News hosts the Tournament of Books, a March Madness of sorts for works of fiction. Every bracket matchup is decided by a blogger/writer/critic/minor celebrity who picks between the two books on merit, readability, cover design, weight, other intangibles—whatever they want.
As a sucker for a) brackets and b) contests, I usually pay some attention to this every year. Or, I used to. Over the past few years, the “Sweet 16” titles have been overwhelmingly American. Which is fine, obviously, there are great American writers out there, but, well, at the same time, it just seems a bit provincial and lame.
SO. For this year’s Tournament—the 10th!—I’d like to see a few international works make it. More specifically I would give anything1 to get an Open Letter book into the competition.
If you click there and enter in one of the eligible Open Letter titles listed below, and then email me at chad.post [at] rochester [dot] edu, I’ll give you a special gift code to use on our new website.2
Here are the titles that are eligible for this year’s Tournament of Books:
Just choose your favorite, write it in, and email me at chad.post [at] rochester [dot] edu and I’ll give you some thanks.
1 That “anything” is capped at a $5 gift certificate to Open Letter’s website. Well, at least publicly . . . WINK, WINK.
2 More on the new site tomorrow morning when it is live, but it’s basically like the old site, only 100,000,000 TIMES COOLER. All the same products will be available, so if you’ve been holding out to buy a subscription, or waiting to get the First 50 Open Letter titles, or just want a copy of Death in Spring, you can get $5 simply by showing your love for our titles.Tweet
Paul Klee’s Boat, Anzhelina Polonskaya’s newest bilingual collection of poems available in English, is an emotional journey through the bleakest seasons of the human soul, translated with great nuance by Andrew Wachtel. A former professional ice dancer(!), Polonskaya left the. . .
In Seiobo There Below, Lázló Krasznahorkai is able to succeed at a task at which many writers fail: to dedicate an entire novel to a single message, to express an idea over and over again without falling into repetition or. . .
There are curious similarities in three Italian mystery series, written by Maurizio de Giovanni, Andrea Camilleri, and Donna Leon.1
They’re all police procedurals, and all set in Italy: Naples, Sicily, Venice.
The three protagonists are Commissarios: Luigi Ricciardi, Salvo. . .
Poetry always has the feel of mysticism and mystery, or maybe this feeling is a stereotype left over from high school literature class. It is generally the result of confusion, lack of time committed to consuming the poetry, and the. . .
Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic is not only a translation, but a transformation. It is a translation of Jean Genet’s novel Notre Dame des Fleurs, transmuted from prose to poetry. Originally written in prison as a masturbatory aid (Sartre. . .
Equal parts stoner pulp thriller and psycho-physiological horror story, a pervasive sense of dread mixes with a cloud of weed smoke to seep into every line of the disturbing, complex Under This Terrible Sun. Originally published by illustrious Spanish publishers. . .
From the start, Daniel Canty’s Wigrum, published by Canadian press Talonbooks, is obviously a novel of form. Known also as a graphic designer in Quebec, Canty takes those skills and puts them towards this “novel of inventory” and creates a. . .
Throughout his career—in fact from his very first book, Where the Jackals Howl (1965)—the renowned Israeli writer Amos Oz has set much of his fiction on the kibbutz, collective communities he portrays as bastions of social cohesion and stultifying conformity. . .
Antoon gives us a remarkable novel that in 184 pages captures the experience of an Iraqi everyman who has lived through the war with Iran in the first half of the 1980s, the 1991 Gulf War over the Kuwaiti invasion,. . .
Every fictional work set in L.A. begins with a slow crawl through its streets in the early hours of the morning right after sunrise. Maybe it’s always done this way to emphasize the vast sprawl of the city and highlight. . .