CONTENDERS FOR DANIEL MEDIN’S SHORTLIST (SUMMER READS)
Daniel Medin teaches at the American University of Paris, where he helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators, is an editor of The Cahiers Series ,and co-hosts the podcast entitled That Other Word. He has authored a study of Franz Kafka in the work of three international writers (Northwestern University Press, 2010) and curated the second volume of Music and Literature magazine (Krasznanorkai/Tarr/Neumann), for which he is now the European Editor. He is also Senior Editor ofThe Quarterly Conversation, and advises several journals on literature in translation.
Here are three titles I delighted in, each of which was published before October 1st: Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, The Black Lake by Hella S. Haasse, and The Devil’s Workshop by Jáchym Topol. Below you’ll find excerpts from two essays that articulate precisely what I found so exciting about these books, along with one of my own reviews. Since we, as jury, aspire to select not only an exceptional work of fiction, but an exemplary translation, I’d like to single out Ottilie Mulzet, Ina Rilke, and Alex Zucker for the excellence of their respective renderings—renderings, which through considerable resourcefulness and craft, succeed at suggesting the brilliance of their originals.
Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, trans. Ottilie Mulzet
From review by Andreas Isenschmid
With [Seiobo There Below], something has returned to art that was taken for granted and considered essential by Dostoevsky, and that has since then become more than a little diluted: the question leading toward the truthfulness of life. Krasznahorkai brings his enlightened, relativist present-day Westerners, alienated to a greater or lesser degree, face-to-face with the absolute demands that the sacred makes of existence.
Krasznahorkai does not shy away from superlatives when he aims to convey the presence of the “celestial realm.” But, despite the philosophical appurtenances and the essayistic appearance, these stories are not sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. For the concepts and superlatives are no more than buoys bobbing on the mighty current of Krasznahorkai’s prose. This musical river of language is the true event of this book, and is overpowering in itself. The current lifts up the reader, drags him down, catches him in whirlpools, is caught still, races across rapids, and with all of these qualities generates an experience that bars us from any distanced reading of the stories but forces us to live at the most intense pitch. It is impossible not to identify with these lonely, despairing, tired-of-life or just plain eccentric characters led by Krasznahorkai toward their moment of truth. We are drawn so close to them that it continually astonishes us when we realize that the stories are told not in the first but in the third person.
Of course, what we see here is yet one more balancing act by the great storyteller, László Krasznahorkai: just as he can be essayistic without slipping into didacticism, and emotional without turning bathetic, so too he remains wary of assigning the central position to his solitary and despairing characters, reserving that place to the current that tears everything with it—in one moment narrative, in the next meditative and interpretative—to the current of his prose.
The Black Lake by Hella S. Haasse, trans. Ina Rilke
From review by Madeleine LaRue
Set sometime between the two World Wars, Hella S. Haasse’s The Black Lake is narrated by a boy growing up on a plantation in the Dutch Indies. With parents too distracted by work and their own unhappy relationship to pay much attention to their son, the boy spends his childhood among the native servants, speaking better Soendanese than Dutch and exploring the jungle with Oeroeg, his best friend and constant companion. … At barely over a hundred pages, The Black Lake’s story moves quickly, but its power builds slowly. As the narrator describes the childhood and adolescence he shared with Oeroeg, what emerges is an unassuming but utterly convincing picture of colonial life — the jungle of the island and the mind, painted in broad and careful brushstrokes.
Within its beautifully observed coming-of-age story, then, the novel puts forth a critique of imperialism whose toughness may reveal itself only after the pages have been closed. The Black Lake was originally published in 1948, a full year before Indonesia achieved its independence, yet it displays all the intelligence of hindsight. Haasse writes with remarkable historical prescience, simultaneously exposing the injustices of colonialism and the rampant ignorance that kept it in place. The narrator frequently writes that he did not understand the events of his life as they occurred, and indeed, he can be alarmingly oblivious, misreading all the signs of fracture and turmoil that run through his life and that of the budding Indonesian nation-state. He fails to notice, on the one hand, his mother’s infidelity, and on the other, the caste system that holds the value of his life far above Oeroeg’s. The narrator’s political consciousness awakens so slowly — much more slowly than Oeroeg’s — that the violence of the independence struggle appears tragically inevitable.
Haasse herself suffers from no such blindness. On the contrary, she possesses a rare intelligence completely unhindered by arrogance. The Black Lake is refreshingly free of both commentary and melodrama, and yet the stakes are never in doubt. Haasse poses, with quiet gravity and unfaltering insight, questions about the values and possibilities of colonialism that have not diminished in urgency or importance. The place she leaves her narrator — in radical doubt between imperialism and indigeneity — is where, in some sense, we are still today.
Read the complete article at the new Asymptote blog
The Devil’s Workshop by Jáchym Topol, trans. Alex Zucker
From my own review
When the Czech novelist Jáchym Topol complains that it is impossible to set a story in his country without referring to its tormented history, he does so with a smile. “I’m fed up”, he exclaimed recently (perhaps with tongue held grimly in cheek): “I just want to write about ‘the wonders of the world’ and not all this horrible stuff all the time”. The “horrible stuff”, however—expulsion, imprisonment, the murder of civilians—is never far away from fiction set in the territory once known as Czechoslovakia. It is rich matter for a writer.
The Devil’s Workshop consists of two distinct parts. In the first, we follow the narrator’s efforts to save the town of Terezín, which has fallen into disrepair after the garrison’s closure. Lebo, a charismatic survivor of the wartime ghetto, founds a movement to preserve the crumbling fortress town. A journalist named Rolf joins forces with him, contributing words to the project that people in the West want to hear: “This place of dreadful horror must be preserved for the memory of humanity”. Soon, their roguish entrepreneurial savvy has attracted a stream of tourists and media, along with “piles of cash”.
Driven by Topol’s ingenuity and mischief, these commercial passages are easily the funniest of the novel. From cups and saucers labeled “Greetings from Terezín!” to immensely popular “ghetto pizza” (whose “secret ingredient was a light dusting of Terezín grass”), the author captures the essence of post-1989 commodification through imaginative and fearless hyperbole. Yet the intent is never cynical. As in Topol’s previous writings, the threat of physical violence always lies near. Menace counterbalances comic exaggeration, and vice versa. The effect on the reader is vertiginous.
And indeed, in the novel’s second part, the humor grows corrosive. When Czech authorities finally shut down Lebo’s commune, the narrator flees to Belarus where he has been recruited as an expert on “revitalization of burial sites”. The remainder of The Devil’s Workshop comprises a surreal descent into that country’s lethal past. Topol’s narrative here is defiantly unrealistic, and many developments are intentionally improbable. But their essence remains authentic. In fact, it is these phantasmagoric passages that allow Topol to pilot the reader through treacherous historical terrain without resorting to customary pieties.
The Devil’s Workshop is a miracle of compression, its scope greater than ought be possible for a book of its length. It should help cement Jáchym Topol’s reputation as one of the most original and compelling European voices working today.
Read the complete article at the TLS (if you have a subscription)