The Frontrunners, Part One by BTBA Judge Jeremy Garber
Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
With the start of spring (for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, that is) less than six weeks away, the BTBA longlist announcement draws ever closer (early April!) – and, as such, we judges continue our evaluation of the year’s fiction in translation. Reading and considering so many disparate books never loses its appeal, nor, despite the varying quality of the texts, the pleasure of being exposed to books that might have otherwise been overlooked. With nearly 500 works in contention for this year’s esteemed prize, the list of eligible titles, at first glance, may seem both daunting and overwhelming – yet, as it must, the proverbial wheat separates itself from the chaff. With less than two months to go before the longlist is revealed, a number of books seem to have found favor with many of the judges. The below titles are but a small sample of the exceptional books that more than one jurist has been especially enamored of (and, thus, may – or may not – make their way onto the much-anticipated longlist):
The Symmetry Teacher (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
By Andrei Bitov, translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon
The sixth of Andrei Bitov’s works to be rendered into English, The Symmetry Teacher is a masterful, postmodern metafictional novel long on flair, but short on fervor. Like the nesting dolls mentioned within, The Symmetry Teacher contains stories within a story within a story.
Subtitled “A Novel-echo,” (“Translated from a foreign tongue by Andrei Bitov, retranslated into English by Polly Gannon”), the novel begins with a note by Bitov himself, recalling a book he had read many decades ago by an obscure English author named A. Tired-Boffin (an anagram for Andrei Bitoff). The book, The Teacher of Symmetry, despite Bitov’s exhaustive searchings, was never to be located again – thus he set out to retranslate it from memory. Tired-Boffin’s The Teacher of Symmetry features as its protagonist an enigmatic author named Urbino Vanoski (whom, later in the novel, composes poetry under an anagrammatical pseudonym). Portions of Vanoski’s novels are excerpted as chapters (with names altered by Bitov – as outlined in an included chart relying on Tired-Boffin’s curious propensity to name chapters in a categorical manner based on grammatical tenses) and compose the bulk of Bitov’s singular tale.
Sound confusing? It’s not. Sound tedious? Far from it. Perhaps in the hands of a less talented writer, this construct would seem like mere affectation, but Bitov’s literary gifts are prodigious and nothing about The Symmetry Teacher comes off as contrived. If you like your fiction tidy, plot-driven, full of banal dialogue, and stuffed with artificial flavorings, however, this surely isn’t the book for you.
So many of Bitov’s (Tired-Boffin’s [Vanoski’s]) stories – or novel excerpts, rather – are wonderfully imagined; ranging from a writing society that expels members upon completing a work, to a marooned poet enamored of a woman with transformative abilities, to a king who decides to pen an additional volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica (when not altering the composition of the night sky).
The Symmetry Teacher is bewitching, but never strays into the bewildering. The Russian author’s new novel is frequently humorous and wildly imaginative. Neither a proper puzzle nor riddle to be solved, Bitov’s book instead invites readers to consider language and literary construct through the façade of playful fiction. If there’s anything to be found lacking in The Symmetry Teacher, it’s that while intellectually intoxicating, it has so little emotional effect. Nonetheless, it contains some undeniably gorgeous writing and impressive feats of artistry.
We are capable of destroying a primitive ideal, but are not capable of erecting in its stead a more capacious one that would include what we have ruined. If a person were paid money for what is characteristic of him, and not for those distortions and aberrations by which he accommodates himself to success, the prime minister and great scholar would experience the comfort of their places, and so their happiness, like Gummi out there chopping wood. If everyone, having discovered his inmost secret wish, could be allowed to engage in the simple pastime that made him happy, the world would descend into idiocy and a golden age would reign on earth. It is only due to the fear of loneliness that people are not all mad – and they are all mad because they accept the conventionality of social existence while failing to examine it in their minds. The therapy of real work is possible only in paradise.
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (Semiotext(e))
By Julio Cortázar, translated from the Spanish by David Kurnick
In the Argentinian master’s Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia, literary superfriends (Cortázar, Susan Sontag, Octavio Paz, and Alberto Moravia) battle the forces of capitalist excess and international bibliocide. Inspired by his participation in the second Russell Tribunal (1975, Brussels), as well as his inclusion in an issue of the Mexican comic book series, Fantomas, la amenaza elegante (#201, “La inteligencia en llamas”), Cortázar published this self-referential, metafictional novella to help spread the word about the tribunal’s report (on human rights violations in Latin America).
With numerous cameos by other prominent writers of the era (Norman Mailer, Eduardo Galeano, Carlos Fuentes, José Lezama Lima, et al.), Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires retains the original comic drawings from the Mexican series in which they first appeared. Crafting a fictional narrative around the graphic story and his work with the tribunal, Cortázar takes aim at the various exploits of multinational corporations and the rapacious effects they’ve had (and continue to have) on human rights, environmental well-being, creative culture, and national sovereignty. While very slim in length, Fantomas cleverly combines comedy, politics, literature, and an unsettling reality into a single remarkable work.
Although Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires does not, of course, set out to solve the centuries-old corrupting influences of American corporate interventionism, it does, however, (further) demonstrate Cortázar’s seemingly limitless creativity. Rather than composing an editorial screed, Cortázar instead allowed the brilliance of his storytelling (and the comic book illustrations) to succinctly convey the grave threats that still endure after many decades. Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires is fun, fresh, fantastical, and an absolute delight to behold.
“Yes, Julio, but reality makes itself known in other ways, too – it makes itself known in work or the lack of work, in the price of potatoes, in the boy shot down on the corner, in the way the filthy rich drive past the miserable slums (that’s a metaphor, because they take care never to get anywhere near the goddamn slums). It makes itself known even in the singing of birds, in children’s laughter, in the moment of making love. These things are known, Julio, a miner or a teacher or a bicyclist knows them, deep down everyone knows them, but we’re lazy or we shuffle along in bewilderment, or we’ve been brainwashed and we think that things aren’t so bad simply because they’re not flattening our houses or kicking us to death…”
By Marcos Giralt Torrente, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
By unanimous jury decision (which included Roberto Bolaño), Marcos Giralt Torrente’s Paris was awarded the 1999 Herralde Prize (Andrés Neuman’s as yet untranslated Bariloche was the runner-up). The Spaniard’s debut novel is a remarkable work of remembrance, reconciliation of memory, and the tenacious effects of formative moments. Giralt Torrente’s narrator, a man reflecting back on a number of unanswered questions from his youth (most notably, the time his mother spent living in the French capital city without him – and the relationship they both had to his oft-absent father), spends nearly the entirety of the novel reflecting, recalling, re-imagining, and re-processing the events of childhood. With stunning prose and impressive psychology insight, Paris is a meditation on the nature of memory and the ways it binds our present to the past. Giralt Torrente’s debut novel is a masterful feat.
When we think about the past, it’s hard to resist both dividing it up into blocks in accordance with the pattern of events that have made most impression on us and attributing powers to it that it does not have, allowing ourselves to believe that the arrival of a particular date had the ability to work some radical transformation on us. Until the death of my father, we say, I was like this or like that, when we should really say that on such and such a date, something that already existed inside us began to make itself manifest or visible. Such nonsense is merely the reflection of a still greater error of thinking, the belief that we change suddenly rather than gradually, as if we could not possibly be influenced by opposing but simultaneous impulses.