Best Translated Book 2008 Longlist: I'd Like by Amanda Michalopoulou
For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.
I’d Like by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich. (Greece, Dalkey Archive)
For me, this collection of linked stories (or collection of unwritten novels? or metafictional labyrinth?) has been the most pleasant surprise on the Best Translated Book fiction longlist so far.
Back a few years ago, when I was working at Dalkey Archive, I wrote the grant application that got this book a decent amount of funding from the NEA and Greek Government as part of the “International Literary Exchange” program that Dana Gioia of the NEA had put together. Anyway, at that time, Ana Lucic had found out about Amanda Michalopoulou and was able to give me a reader’s report and a short sample of the book to help with writing the grant. (In case you’re wondering, it’s great fun writing grants about books you haven’t read in their entirety. On one hand, providing details about why a book is grant-worthy becomes a bit more tricky, but it’s easier to believe that a book is “one of the most important works of the time” without any contradictory literal evidence.)
The sample that I remember reading is the story “What Will You Do Next?” in which a character and his author have a conversation on the phone. It’s a very playful, and very well done story, that got me excited about the book as a whole. (And btw, Karen Emmerich’s translation was incredibly well done. The Emmerich family is a wee bit talented.) But I left Dalkey before the finished translation arrived and over the winter break, finally had a chance to read this book and see just how imaginative, captivating, and complex it is.
When I read “linked stories” in jacket copy, I assume that some of the same characters appear from one story to the next. A baker in story one becomes the protagonist of story four, etc. But I’d Like is a bit more complicated than that. In her own words, Michalopoulou tried “to write stories that would read like versions of an unwritten novel. Or, better, to write the biography of those stories as well as their fictional writer.”
The result is somewhat reminiscent of Nicholas Mosley’s Impossible Object in which a character in one story seems to the be author of a few others, but each time the reader feels she’s figured it all out, the line between fiction and reality jumps once again, and you’re left wondering just how these gem-like stories really fit together.
I’m probably making this sound more confusing than it is . . . Part of Michalopoulou’s triumph is the way in which each story can be read and thoroughly enjoyed independent of the others, but the motifs littered throughout the book help create a sort of grand mosaic when taken as a whole. And it’s through these recurring lines and scenes—the older sister who dies in a car accident, the mom who is tragically injured, the idea that rain only exists inside us and we see it externally when it’s “raining for enough people,” the red beret, etc.—that the reader starts to see a knotted metafictional pattern emerge.
Monica Carter (curator of Salonica World Lit) reviewed this for us a few months back and called for publishers to bring out more of Michalopoulou’s work . . . More recently, Monica interviewed Michalopoulou for Context that touches on the “recurring motif” aspect of the book (and other things):
MC: It’s interesting that you felt you need to strengthen the presence of the red beret. I loved its appearance throughout I’d Like. I also felt that there was a definite drive to communicate certain ideas and themes, as though these stories were a form of release. Were you conscious of that, or was it more of an exploration of each character?
AM: It was both. Characters are the vehicles of ideas, but they have to work as characters. If not, you’re writing theory, not literature. The idea behind the characters in this book is that family can be a mechanism of oppression. I guess all my characters feel very clearly that they are obeying other people’s wishes. Writing can be a true act of disobedience, so the desire the younger sister has to write these stories down is a step towards salvation. I believe that writing can and should do that: save characters who are suffering, and, possibly, their author as well.