Baltic Adventures [Some June 2014 Translations]
June started a few days ago, which means that my rambling monthly overview of forthcoming translations is overdue. It also means that World Cup 2014 is about to start, which means that for the next month my brain will be as filled with soccer tactics and outcomes as literary ideas . . .
But sticking with the now: For the past two weeks, I’ve been on editorial trips to Estonia and Latvia. So rather than write up a post about forthcoming translations and a separate one about all the interesting stuff I’ve learned about in the Baltics, I thought I would “skin two bears with one trap” (from what I understand, this is the Estonian equivalent of “kill two birds with one stone,” but a bit larger and darker . . . ) and merge my monthly overview with a bunch of observations and comments.
Since Estonia’s HeadRead Literary Festival and the Estonian Literature Centre were the main impetus behind this trip—they arranged for my flight over and back, all the accommodations, tons of great meetings with authors and other literary figures, etc.—I want to take a paragraph and just give some random shout-outs.
First off, Ilvi Liive and Kerti Tergem are two of the best people you could hire as representatives for your country’s literature. Always professional, super smart, incredibly helpful . . . Estonian literature wouldn’t be where it is today without those two. (And don’t laugh—I can name a half-dozen books that would win a couple rounds in the World Cup of Literature . . . if only Estonia’s actual football team wasn’t such shit.)
Also, the two translators who joined us—Matthew Hyde and Adam Cullen—are bloody brilliant and another reason I think we’re going to have access to more Estonian lit over the next few years. Adam recently translated Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Radio for Dalkey Archive, and is currently working on a mammoth book by Mihkel Mutt that should be out in late 2015.
Adam deserves another special shout-out for hanging out so much. He’s a great guy, with fantastic stories, and I really appreciated all the time he took showing me around, explaining things, drinking maybe too much with me at the amazing NoKu . . .
Same goes for Kaisa Kaer, who is probably best well known as the Estonian translator of the Harry Potter books. (See this entry in the Estonian Wikipedia.) She was there for the late nights at NoKu, but also showed me the part of Tallinn where Stalker was filmed. (Which is especially surreal during this white night period when it gets light way, way too early in the morning.)
Finally: All the other publishers on the trip—Gesche from Pushkin Press, Philip Gwyn Jones from Scribe, Frédéric Martin from Tripode, Artur from Piper, and Job from Prometheus—were all fantastic. I could write paragraphs about all the great things about each editors and his/her respective press . . .
I’ll get into some actual Estonian literature below, but for now, I just wanted to thank everyone who made this possible. OK, onto the books and the random shit.
La Grande by Juan José Saer, translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph (Open Letter Books)
This is the third Saer book that we’re bringing out—we already have two more signed on though, so don’t worry—and it may well be the best. It is “grande,” yet a perfect introduction to Saer’s world, with characters from other books making an appearance, all the normal Saer themes being explored, and a shitload of wine being sold and consumed. It also was his final novel and feels a bit like a summing up. Great summer beach read!
For it’s size, Tallinn surely is a grand city. (See what I did there? Sorry, but after hearing foreign, unintelligible—to me at least—languages for the past couple weeks, my brain is responding with terrible puns [the other day I got into an elevator made by “Schindler” which quickly became “Schindler’s Lift”] and cheesy segues.) The Old City is such an interesting collection of very old buildings that are pretty well preserved . . . If ever there’s a city that deserves to be referred to as looking like a “fairy tale,” this one is it.
And while we were there, it was bustling with activity—the aforementioned HeadRead festival with its dozens of authors, a mini-festival of jazz music (which played very loudly over the opening ceremony of the HeadRead), and Olde Towne Days (I assume the “e“s are all supposed to be there), which was mostly people dressing up in Olde-Timey garb and doing crazy shit at the Town Hall, like playing horns out the windows and yelling “VIVA! VIVA!”
Leg over Leg, Volume 3 & 4 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (NYU Library of Arabic Literature)
One of the funniest parts of the Tallinn trip had to be our meals at Pegasus. Pegasus is a huge, beautiful restaurant that’s part of the Estonian Writers’ Union building. It’s a really great place, and one that was always completely empty when our group arrived for lunch. Without fail, the waitress would come up to the table and explain that due to “how busy the kitchen was” they had a limited menu today, and instead of the twenty or so delicious-sounding things on their menu, we’d have to choose between two starters, two entrees, and one dessert, and we must order everything right away, up front. None of this made any sense, but it made for a fun guessing game . . . “Do you think we’ll be able to get the chicken soup today?” “Nope, just the raw salad and the cheese plate.” “OH, ESTONIA!!!!!!”
The Iceland by Sakutaro Hagiwara, translated from the Japanese by Hiroaki Sato (New Directions)
This was my first experience with the “White Nights” that impact most of Northern Europe. (And places like Iceland, which this book has fuck-all to do with.) That, mixed with the jet lag I’ve started to suffer in my oldering age, is really messing me up. It’s just disorienting to have the sun “set” at 10:30-11:00 at night, after which it will be “dark” for approximately two hours before the pre-dawn and official 4 am sunrise. Instead of curing my seasonal affective disorder (fuck you, winter!), it’s sort of driving me insane. I’ve been waking up most nights at 4:30 and having a hell of a time falling back asleep. But beyond that, my internal evening clock—where you can tell that you’ve been drinking long enough, it’s probably right around midnight given that the sun set a couple hours ago—is totally useless. I love these countries, but I don’t think I could live here . . . Not only would I never sleep in the summer, but the winters of no light would wreck my soul. You are all a strong people, which brings me to my next random observation . . .
Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki, translated from the Portuguese by Stephen Henighan (Biblioasis)
Here in Riga, Latvia (which, contrary to Upstate New York beliefs is pronounced “Ree-ga,” not “RYE-ga”), we’re staying at a place on Lāčplēša iela (street). “Lāčplēsis” is the name of the most famous Latvian hero, a “bear-slayer” who “kills a bear by ripping its jaws apart with his hands.” According to Kaija—our resident Latvian and expert on bear slaying—a better translation of “Lāčplēsis” is “bear-ripper,” “the one who rips bears.” Although that didn’t work out so well against the Big Bear of Mother Russia, it’s best not to fuck with Latvians . . .
Plus, the bags Biblioasis gave out at BEA say “Ten Years of Fucking Amazing Books.” For that reason alone you should buy and read this.
Thirst by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, translated from the Persian by Martin E. Weir (Melville House Books)
This entry is a three-parter: First off, I really loved Dowlatabadi’s Missing Soluch. And although I was less into The Colonel, which got a ton of critical acclaim, I can’t wait to get my hands on this novel about the Iran-Iraq conflict and a journalist asked to fabricate a story to demoralize Iranian soldiers. One interesting note: Dowlatabadi has also written a 10-volume, 3,000-page saga about a Kurdish family. Melville should do this and bill him as the Iranian Knausgaard.
Speaking of thirst (again, apologize for my awful segues), the topic of alcoholism came up a number of times in our meetings with Estonian writers. It was most bluntly—and bleakly—presented in the talk with Peeter Sauter. He was reluctant to talk directly about the novel his was “pitching,” so instead he told us a bunch of stories about his life, other writers, Estonia in general. But then things took a turn . . . “When I got divorced, I got mad. I went around town attacking women . . . drunk. I knew this was a bad thing.” Amid the boozing and depression, he met a woman, and they started a relationship. Around that time, Peeter’s twenty-something son came to live with him. Then, suddenly, soul-crushingly, died of a heart attack. Peeter’s new book is about that.
And speaking of alcoholism, if you haven’t been watching Legit, the Jim Jeffries vehicle on FXX, you must. Not only is it a very funny show—a lot of it is laugh till you hurt funny in that way that mixes situational comedy with the sharp perceptions of a stand-up comedian at the top of his game—but over the course of its two seasons, it’s gotten real. It always had an undercurrent of emotional intensity—one of the main characters has MD and is paralyzed—but the second season is a heart-wrenching (to the point I can barely watch) depiction of alcoholism and how much it can ruin your life. Calling something “dark” is totally cliched, but that’s the best word for Legit. It’s a show that hurts in all of the best ways and way more people should be watching it.
Conversations by Cesar Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions)
Although I’m only halfway through it, I’m pretty sure I’ve talked more about Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Radio with people than any other book I’ve read in the past couple years. Part of it is due to the fact that I’m reading it at the exact perfect time—it’s all about Estonia and Livonian history and culture, and I keep running into things referenced in the book—but there’s something to the narrator’s voice that makes this an incredibly easy book to get into and inhabit. Basically, it’s one man’s recounting of his relationship with a famous Estonian singer. Not necessarily a sexual relationship—he’s gay, she’s married—but there is a sort of sorting out on his behalf of how a woman like this, one from humble Estonian origins but converted into an East European diva, is wedded to his own self-perceptions, especially as an Estonian who’s been living in the great metropolis of Paris. It’s a brilliant book and a great entryway to Baltic literature.
The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker, translated from the French by Sam Taylor (Penguin)
Given the fact that this novel has received some truly mixed reviews, and sounds to me like a pop book constructed of well-worn elements of a different age, this seems like the perfect place to talk about music in Eastern Europe. One of my long-running jokes is that Bon Jovi (and Guns ‘n’ Roses) exist only for Eastern European radio stations. This is a harsh truth: traditionally, the pop stations in this part of the world play some really trashy American crap. The 80s never left the Soviet Bloc!
I’ve been pleasantly surprised in our visits to the local cafes here in Riga. For the most part they all have been playing indie rock circa 2012—Foster the People, Grimes, Dirty Projectors—which is both a relief and a disappointment. (We’ve heard some Latvian rock, but mostly stuff that’s more classic.) That said, on the drive home from Open Letter author Inga Ābele’s gorgeous estate we heard “Two Princes” by the Spin Doctors. That’s more like it, Latvija!
(Of course, the Spin Doctors played the largest festival in Rochester last year . . . Because Rochester, NY is basically Eastern Europe—always twenty years behind the time. BOOM.)
Tonight we are going to Ala, a great bar with amazing live culture beer, to listen to folk songs and karaoke. I already know how this ends.
Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Random House)
Inga Ābele lives in one of the most relaxing, amazing estates I’ve ever been privileged to visit. I say “estate,” because there’s a very gorgeous modern house surrounded by three other barns and guest houses, including one that was built like a thousand years ago or something. Plus, they have a sauna next to a little pond and are only a short walk through the woods to a spring with pure, cool water. There are ostriches nearby. And peacocks. And a billion mosquitos.
While walking to the springs I stopped to read a bunch of the little signposts printed in English. Most all of them were about local flora and fauna—including some very rare ants that creeped me out—and were written in janky almost-English. “It is for the sprouting times!” Also, every single one ended with the phrase “PLANT IS SOMEWHAT POISONOUS!” in ALL–CAPS and bold.
I have so many questions about this . . . First off, the pictures on these signs made exactly none of these plant recognizable, and based on where the signs were posted, you may well have been trekking through the “SOMEWHAT POISONOUS” plant just to read about how it may poison you. Also, “somewhat”? The hell does that indicate? Like rashy poisonous or eat-it-and-die poisonous? And poisonous to what and/or whom? Birds? People? SO MANY QUESTIONS, LATVIAN SIGN WRITER!
The Antiquarian by Gustavo Faveron Patriau, translated from the Spanish by Joseph Mulligan (Black Cat)
I talked about this book on an upcoming podcast and it really might be the summer title that I’m most looking forward to. It’s also an appropriate title under which to include the story of the Riga Cat House.
The real story of this cat can be found on Wikipedia with a simple search, but I want to relay Kaija’s slightly embellished version (further embellished by me).
Way back in the middle ages of Latvia—aka the early 1900s—two businessmen got in a huge fight. One lied to the other, the other corrupted the first one’s daughter, there were more lawsuits more complicated than those found in Bleak House, both businessmen wanted the other totally destroyed—it was like a cold war of the merchant class. As a final effort to irritate Businessman A, the other businessman, knowing how much Businessman A hated the “filthy” cats that populate the Old Town of Riga, put a statue of a pissed off, about to poop cat on top of one of his turrets and aimed the cat’s asshole right at the other businessman’s window. This was like nails scratching on a chalkboard. Businessman A went totally insane, petitioning the city council to make Businessman B turn the asshole away from his window . . . “It’s just a cat!” “It’s a cat that wants to poop on me and suck out my soul! Filthy cats!” Eventually, Businessman A’s house burnt down, he died, and, out of a crippling karmic fear, Businessman B turned the cat around so it could shit on his own house, then he went and hid in the countryside and was never heard from again.
Now they sell shirts and coffee mugs and reproductions of the pooping cat. And as legend has it, if you drink Black Balsam (a regional herbal liquor that’s both kind of gross and kind of amazing, and which loosely translates as “Witches Brew”) under a full moon out of a pooping cat shot glass, you can control the mind of the Russian nearest to you. So, that. Rock on, Livonia!
That’s it for now. Enjoy June with all its sun, soccer, and books!