Bigger than the Burj Khalifa [Some November Translations]

This post is being written under extreme jet lag. Last Saturday I flew out to attend the Sharjah International Book Fair (the slogan for which is “A Book for Every Person,” which is not to be confused with Dubai’s Film Festival slogan, “A Movie for Every Person”) and then, yesterday, flew for approximately 200 hours to attend this season’s Consortium Sales Conference. I have no idea what day it is, much less what time. So, expect some insanity below. Like, even more than usual.

Which is kind of in keeping with the part of the United Arab Emirates where I just was. For anyone who doesn’t know, Sharjah is basically a twenty-minute drive from Dubai, which is an hour or so from Abu Dhabi. This is a part of the world that doesn’t understand the concept of “right-sized.” This is particularly true in Dubai, where the Burj Khalifa makes the rest of the skyscrapers in the world look like dollhouse toys.

This building, which I think looks like something a Fantastic Four cosmic villain would crash into our planet, is next to the largest “mall” ever. (I think. I am in Minneapolis right now though, where the Mall of America people have something to say about that.) Mall is in quotes because a shopping mall shouldn’t have a 10 million gallon aquarium and an olympic-sized hockey rink and an amusement park and a massive dancing fountain. According to Wikipedia (The Worlds Finest Source of Accurate Information ™), over 750,000 people visit the mall every week. That’s fucked.

Unlike my other trips to the UAE, this time I planned ahead and booked a trip to the top of the Burj Khalifa. That’s basically what big buildings are there for, right?—to go up to the top and repeat over and over, “Wow! Look how far I can see! I’m so high!! This is totally cray!”

The most interesting part of the “At the Top” experience are these cool digital cameras that allow you to look out over Dubai and, with the click of a button, see what it looks like at night, in the day, and “historically.” The historical setting is fascinating because, spoiler alert!, all it shows you is fucking sand. Miles and miles of sand. A flat, barren desert. The gigantic lagoon adjacent to the Burj Khalifa? Completely manmade. I searched and searched and finally found a historical group of tiny houses that has now been replaced by three ginormous buildings. That’s Dubai in a nutshell—a futuristic metropolis dropped onto a formerly sterile landscape. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the UAE didn’t exist until 1972. It’s barely older than I am.

There are dozens of great pieces that have been written about the bizarre nature of Dubai. (And about the horrible way immigrants are treated there. More on that below.) But what interests me is why this all came about. At risk of sounding completely ignorant, which I am, Dubai and Abu Dhabi seem almost non-Arab when compared to the other Arabic countries in the world. I know Sheik Zayed was the force behind the creation of the UAE and, I think, a lot of these mega-projects, but why? Why did everyone decide to scrap the existing ways of life, the traditional Arab nation, and choose to make something that’s almost a parody of itself. (When I was in the Dubai Mall with Janis Oga of the Latvian Literature Center, we couldn’t decide if this was the greatest thing ever or the end of the world. It’s both.)

Along those same lines, how do the other Arab nations react to the UAE sheiks? Granted, Sheik Abu Dhabi and Sheik Dubai have tons and tons of oil, thus power and money, and Sheik Sharjah has the biggest book fair!, but do these other leaders really consult them on larger Arab world issues? Or are they just dismissed for the constant catering to ex-pats, allowing them to get wasted, sing karaoke in hotel bars, and display styles of clothing that are “inappropriate” in most surrounding countries, like Kuwait and Qatar.

It just seems so weird to me that this city just popped up out of seemingly nowhere and doesn’t really fit. I tried to find a book about this (and about the construction of the Burj Khalifa) when I was in the World’s Largest Bookstore in the Dubai Mall, but I came up empty. Someone needs to write this book. I want those stories, that context. I’ll bet it would be fascinating.

Indigo by Clemens Setz, translated from the Germany by Ross Benjamin (W.W. Norton)

I’m almost done reading this, and will definitely write a full review in the upcoming weeks. It’s a strange book about “Indigo Children,” kids who make everyone within a 12-foot radius physically sick. Parents get headaches, rashes, nosebleeds, and this before the kids are teenagers! Structurally, it’s also really interesting, with two time lines and two narrators: Clemens Setz, a former teacher who lost his job working with I-Children and is now researching the phenomenon, and Robert Tätzel, a “burnt-out” Indigo who knew Setz and struggles to keep his shit together. There’re a lot of ideas at play here, which is probably why Pynchon is referenced in the jacket copy. (Although unlike Pynchon’s books, Indigo really isn’t that funny.) Definitely worth checking out. I think there will be a lot of reviews for this in the next few weeks.

End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)

A new Erpenbeck is always cause for celebration, and this one sounds like one of her best. It’s basically five books in one, each leading to the death of an unnamed female protagonist. Repetition and difference! Also, Susan Bernofsky. Another book that’s a must and which will be talked about a lot in the next month.

My least favorite panel at the Sharjah Book Fair was “Show Me the Money! New Business Models for Digital and Digital Book Business.” First off, that phrase. So stupid. And, as you can predict, none of the people on here—all brilliant, all great in their own way—said anything specific about any new business models. Instead, they collectively came in second for working in the most trite cliches into one presentation. “Print and e will always co-exist!” “You have to digitize and monetize your source material!” “The future is digital!” AAARRGGHHH!

(BTW, John Ingram—“I prefer win-win solutions to win-lose,” “I own failure and share success”—won the “Most Cliches per Minute” contest. His talk was some Guiness World Records style shit.)

The one “idea” that was proposed as a digital business model was based on an app that’s popular in Brussels. Apparently, when you get on the subway, you can click this app, tell it the length of your journey, like 30 minutes or an hour, and it will “provide the user with the appropriate amount of content.” First off, that really is how these people talk. “Content” and “users” and “digital environment.” Based on those phrases, I assume this “content” is literally just a string of nouns and random adjectives. Fuck art, we just need thirty minutes of text! Gross. But really, this idea is idiotic. Are people really too stupid to figure out what to read if they want to finish in thirty minutes? Is that even an important issue to anyone anywhere? That’s what fucking bookmarks are for. And magazines. “Users would love a content distribution system whereby they could get short pieces on a variety of topics that they could read while being transported.” “Holy shit! You’re a genius! Let’s build an app and call it ‘Magazine.’” Fuck everything.

The Cold Centre by Inka Parei, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (Seagull Books)

One other thing that struck me during that panel was the way in which agents talk about “authors” instead of “books.” The agent on this panel brought it up a number of times in a number of different ways. The idea that a new book will help a reader (or “book user”) discover an author. That the industry must find business models that will allow authors to feed their family. Which raised a fundamental question to me: How many people really deserve to have a full-time career as a writer? Does the world need a million “writers” who produce a book every couple of years from the time they are 20 until they die?

I’m not arguing against professional novelists, but to be honest, most talented writers will produce 3 to 5 great books over their lifetime. If those books are successful, and the novelist can live off of that success, great. But publishing/the marketplace doesn’t owe them a lifetime of royalties just because they wrote one decent book. I might be too jet lagged to make my point clearly, but I think it’s a strange way of looking at the world. Authors have periods of creativity and it’s not terrible for them to have to have a second job teaching or doing something else. (Especially once their piece has been said and they start repeating themselves. Or if their last name is Franzen.)

Also, if we really believe this, that there should be hundreds of thousands of professional novelists, then we should adopt a more European model in which writers are actually supported by the government. We should set aside significant amounts of money (think the NEA times ten or more) to support the creation of culture. With a few exceptions—James Patterson, J. K. Rowling, Danielle Steel—the market is much more book-centric than author-centric.

Just Call Me Superhero by Alina Bronsky, translated from the German by Tim Mohr (Europa Editions)

Last night I was going on and on about starting a publishing/bookselling war. That it’s ridiculous for Open Letter to be all, “well, it’s cool that Bookstore X can’t carry our books because they only have room for James Patterson and Penguin classics.” Or that Book Review Y doesn’t have space for our translations because they have to review the two that FSG came out with this year. That’s bullshit. You never hear a Hollywood producer say something like, “Well, at least people are seeing movies!” (Thanks to Caroline Casey for that joke.)

I think our books are better for the world than a lot of the books that are out there. I want to fight for our books and get them into the hands of as many readers as possible. And if this is somewhat of a zero-sum game (only so much shelf space, only so many reviews a year) then we should be fighting for our books to be included. Street of Thieves is a million times better than that Harry Quebert book. Yet that got all kinds of (mostly negative) reviews and has sold 20,000 copies via supermarkets. Fuck that shit. All that space should be given to the best books, not the ones with the largest marketing budget. Every time you sell or review John Grisham, a LOL Cat dies.

Traces by Gamal Al-Ghitani, translated from the Arabic by Nadar Uthman (Bloomsbury Qatar)

Finally, Bloomsbury Qatar books are coming out in the U.S.! Maybe. They’re not listed on Amazon, or B&N, or the Bloomsbury website, so this might not be out for a while. As soon as it is though, I’m going to get a copy. I LOVED The Zafarani Files and would love to publish a paperback version. (Supposedly University of Cairo Press has one in the works, but I haven’t seen an official listing yet.) Al-Ghitani is one of the most interesting modern Arabic authors I’ve read and I hope more of his books are translated. (And stocked, sold, reviewed, and read.)

Random Sharjah Jokes, Part I:

My favorite drink from last week was the “Sharjito.” It’s just like a mojito, but without alcohol. Refreshing and you can still wake up in the morning!

When I was in Dubai for the night, I found a hotel bar showing Arsenal’s Champions League game. (This is my superpower: finding sports bars in random cities.) Anyway, right next door was a bar where a live band was performing. As I went over there to check it out, I remembered the time I was in Abu Dhabi with Ed Nawotka and saw a live band perform “Zombie” by the Cranberries over and over again. It was like a one-hit wonder band of one-hit wonder songs. (Sorry sole Cranberry fan out there, but really.) Anyway, I walked into this Dubai bar, went to get a drink, and thought, “hmm, this baseline sounds really familiar,” just as the band started screaming “ZOMMMBIEE! ZAHAHMBEEEE!!!” What the fuck, UAE? This song wasn’t even that popular back in 1994. They followed this up with “Wiggle” (not even kidding) and then a reprise of “Zombie.” So inexplicable.

Beirut, Beirut by Sonallah Ibrahim, translated from the Arabic by Chip Rossetti (Bloomsbury Qatar)

One of the strangest parts of my Sharjah experience was the apples. Every time I left my hotel room, someone would come in and leave a plate of three apples in Saran Wrap along with a knife, fork, and plate. This happened over and over again for no apparent reason. And because this is how I am, I made it my mission to eat every last apple. There’s nothing like eating three apples in a row right before bed. The UAE is a crazy place.

Random Sharjah jokes, Part II:

This isn’t so much a joke as a disturbing experience. On the cab ride to Dubai, a sports car cut us off, pissing off my cabbie, “Fuck you rich man!” He then explained how all cabs are tagged in the UAE, and if you go a mile over the speed limit, or cut someone off, or do anything wrong at all, you are fined. In the four years he’d been there since moving from Pakistan, he’d accumulated 23,000 dirham in fines. (Like $7,000.) He works 14-hour days and can’t save any money. But the Petrol People race their Ferraris and cut us off and overall hold down the immigrant working class. This is some serious shit and is very much the dark side of this part of the world. He also told me about a fellow cabbie who, while swerving to avoid a car, injured the wrist of a passenger. He lost his passport for three months and was fined some huge amount of money. When he got the passport back, he tried to fly home and was denied at the airport because his fine hadn’t been settled. Literally indentured servitude, and such an insidious way of keeping the lower classes down.

I had to buy a notebook in Sharjah, and found this amazingly soft, really cool one that has all sorts of great facts on the back of it, like how to determine the volume of a cone and what a scalene triangle is. It also has useful symbols, including greater than (>), maps to (->), and symmetric difference (∆). I know that ∆ is “alt-j” thanks to the band, but I have no recollection of ever learning about “symmetric difference.” Apparently, it’s the non-overlapping part of a Venn Diagram. This is amazing and I want to figure out how to use it in a conversation.

By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila, translated from the Spanish by Laurel Jethro Soutar (And Other Stories)

On the flight to Sharjah, I read all of Carrere’s Limonov, and sat next to a really friendly Pakistani couple who were very curious about this book that I couldn’t put down. I explained what it was about, how crazy Limonov’s life was, all the various stages of his life, etc. The response? “No one’s going to read that. It’s too academic. I like to read too. Right now I’m reading Your Atomic Self. It’s about how we’re all made of atoms. Changes your perspective. But when I read, I read a paragraph and then like to sit back and think about it. I don’t know about this book of yours.”

This is why publishing can be a bit discouraging at times.

Street of Thieves by Mathias Enard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (Open Letter)

The follow-up to Zone is finally available! And, unlike Zone, it includes a plethora of periods!

This book is really spectacular as it traces the young adulthood of a Moroccan boy who is kicked out of his family for fooling around with his cousin. He eventually gets to Spain where things don’t go much better for him, culminating in a really intense ending. The best thing about this novel is the encroaching sense of dread that builds throughout the narrative. You know things are just going to get worse, that something big is going to happen, but you’re never sure what or how or exactly why. It’s a great feeling and it takes a master to create such a suggestive atmosphere.

Self-Portrait in Green by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (Two Lines Press)

This. “Asked to write a memoir, [NDiaye] turned in this paranoid fantasia of rising floodwaters, walking corpses, eerie depictions of her very own parents, and the incessant reappearance of women in green.”

Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano, translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti (Yale University Press)

Yale really got lucky with this book. Although Godine has a few Modiano books in print, I suspect that this trilogy, which contains some of Modiano’s most beloved novels, will sell amazingly well. If the Nobel Prize is good for one thing, it’s that it usually brings a lot of sales revenue to relatively small presses. Over the past few years, New Directions, University of Nebraska, Serpent’s Tail, Seagull Books, and Godine have all benefitted by having published that year’s Nobel Prize winner. And then all the pundits complain that they’ve never heard of these authors, probably because they’re too busy reading and writing about the trendy, of-the-moment books instead of the best ones. Great job, media! If there’s one moment every year that makes it clear that the U.S. book culture is out of joint with the rest of the world, it’s the announcement of the Nobel Prize.

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