Daniel Medin’s BTBA Favorites: Winter Reading
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), and recently edited a translation issue for The White Review.
Minae Mizamura’s A True Novel was my great discovery this winter. Alongside Faris al-Shidyaq’s eccentric classic, it ranks among the most memorable books I encountered as a judge for this year’s BTBA.
The book’s length is misleading: once caught up in the narrative (which gets traction almost immediately), I found it impossible to read in draughts of less than 150-200 pages. The characters fascinate, as do Mizamura’s manner of relating their histories. But the pleasures of A True Novel exceed those of the conventional storytelling kind. Mizamura is an author profoundly concerned with literary tradition and she pulls off several feats here, merging a shishosetsu work (first-person Japanese autobiographical narrative) into a honkaku shosetsu (panoramic Western novel), while successfully recasting Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in a postwar Japanese setting. Its effect recalls the greatest of Yasujiro Ozu’s films or Chekhov’s shorter fiction: a deep humanism is palpable beneath the dispassionate narrative. I’m still astonished by how much Mizumura has managed to include about Japan’s transformation from defeated imperial power to economic powerhouse—all without sacrificing the intimacy of a chamber play. I first became aware of this novel thanks to Caroline Bleecke’s review at Music & Literature, which provides helpful context about A True Novel’s formal ambitions and Mizumura’s previous efforts.
Writers from Transylvania have a special place in Hungarian literature. Their use of the language is particular and, in many cases, peculiar—they evince a sensitivity to words not uncommon among speakers of a minority language. Ádám Bodor is one of the region’s giants, andThe Sinistra Zone his masterpiece. Entertaining, odd and strikingly true to the spirit of that twilight zone where Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia and Hungary meet, Sinistra is a classic example of what Michael Hofmann has called “celestial provincialism”: a “blend of allegory, surrealism, fantasy and exuberant narrative … derived from Hašek and Kafka.” The world of Bodor’s novel will be immediately familiar to his contemporaries from the once-Soviet Other Europe. Here is a passage by one of its most prominent representatives, Polish novelist Andrezej Stasiuk, about a visit to the region that inspired Sinistra:
We drove to the Sinistra district. Everything here belonged to the mountain refilemen, to Colonel Puiu Borcan, and, when he died, to Izolda Mavrodin-Mahmudia, also holding rank of Colonel and called Coco for short. From the Baba Rotunda pass, we had a view of Pop Ivan; in the valley crawled narrow-gauge, wood-burning locomotives. The inhabitants of Sinistra wore military dogtags on their chests. Everyone who came here and stayed was given a new name … Diluted denatured alcohol was used here to dry mushrooms, and it was drunk with the fermented juice of forest fruits. The frosted glass for the Sinistra prison was made by Gabriel Dunka in his workshop: he frosted a pane by putting it in a sandbox and walking on it with his bare feet for hours. He was thirty-seven and a dwarf. One rainy day he picked up a naked Elvira Spiridon in his delivery van and for the first time in his life smelled a woman’s body, but loyalty triumphed over desire and he turned her in… All this supposedly took place near Sighetu Marmației, but I learned about it only two years later, in Adam Bodor’s Sinistra District, and the story has pursued me since. Pursued me and replaced the flat spot on the map. Once again, the visible pales before the narrated. Pales but does not disappear. It only loses its force, its intolerable obviousness. This is a special quality of auxiliary countries, of second-order, second-tier peoples: the ephemeral tale in different versions, the distorted mirror, magic lantern, mirage, phantom that mercifully sneaks in between what is and what ought to be. The self-irony that allows you to play with your personal fate, to mock it, parrot it, turning defeat into heroic-comic legend and a lie into something that has the shape of salvation.
—from On the Road to Babadag (Harcourt, 2011)
Other highlights of winter readings include A Most Ambiguous Sunday by June Young Moon (Dalkey Archive), whose stories “Mrs. Brown,” “Drifting,” and “Animals Songs of Boredom of Fury” share the deadpan humor that makes reading Beckett or George Saunders such fun;
Bullfight, the flawless debut of Japanese master Yasushi Inoui;
The Errors of Young Tjaž by Florjan Lipuš (Dalkey Archive), a strange and discomfiting account of childhood in postwar rural Austria;
and Life Form by Amélie Nothomb (Europa), a refreshing, funny, and clever counterpoint to some of this season’s sterner submissions—despite its own dark subject matter.
Finally, I’d like to draw attention to three titles that were published in 2013, but proved ineligible because of a previous translation. Stig Dagarman’s A Burnt Child, trans. Benjamin Mier-Cruz (Minnesota); Ahmet Hamdi Tanipar’s The Time Regulation Institute, trans. Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe (Penguin); and Natsume Sōseki’s Light and Dark, trans. John Nathan (Columbia) are all remarkable novels, and would have appeared on my longlist were it not for having been published previously. Here’s hoping they receive the attention they—along with their latest translators, and the publishers who commissioned them—deserve.