Handicapping Margaret Jull Costa's Odds at Winning the BTBA [BTBA 2017]
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Jeremy Garber, events coordinator for Powells and freelance reviewer. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
Esteemed translator Margaret Jull Costa has five books in contention for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award: His Only Son by Leopoldo Alas (New York Review Books), Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso (Open Letter), On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes (New Directions), Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías (Knopf), and Vampire in Love by Enrique Vila-Matas (New Directions). Jull Costa translates from both Spanish and Portuguese and has rendered some of each language’s most well-regarded authors, including Nobel laureate José Saramago, the singular (and multitudinous!) Fernando Pessoa, Eça de Queirós, Luisa Valenzuela, and Bernardo Atxaga, amongst many others. As a working translator for three decades (her first novel-in-translation was published in 1987), Jull Costa has won a number of awards in recognition of her work and was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2014.
Despite Jull Costa’s prodigious output, in the first nine years of the award, she has only once made the shortlist—in 2015, for Medardo Fraile’s evocative short story collection, Things Look Different in the Light (Pushkin Press). With five strong works under consideration for the forthcoming prize, will 2017 be the year Jull Costa finally adds a Best Translated Book Award to her many accolades? In looking more closely at three of these books, it’s evident that her quality translations ought to have her squarely in the conversation.
Spanish novelist Rafael Chirbes passed away in August 2015, leaving behind some ten novels (On the Edge and the long out-of-print Mimoun being, as yet, his only two translated into English). On the Edge is a dark, tense, and foreboding tale set in the wake of the global recession that robbed so many of so much. Easily one of the year’s finest and most important works, Chirbes’s novel stands out as a marvel of what fiction is capable of doing (and, oh, that inescapable cover!). Valerie Miles’s excellent essay, entitled “The Life and Times of he Great Rafael Chirbes,” was used as the book’s afterword and offers an incomparable glimpse of both the author and On the Edge itself (her piece also appeared on Lit Hub). Below is my review of On the Edge (which originally appeared on Three Percent in December):
Let’s not deceive ourselves, man is nothing very special. In fact, there are so many of us that our governments don’t know what to do with us at all. Six billion humans on the planet and only six or seven thousand Bengal tigers: tell me—who needs protecting most? Yes, you decide who needs most care. A dying African, Chinaman, or Scotsman or a beautiful tiger killed by a hunter. A tiger with its pelt of matchless colours and its flashing eyes is far more beautiful than a varicose-veined old git like me. What a difference in the way it carries itself. How elegant the one and how clumsy the other. Look how they move. Put them next to each other in a cage in the zoo. The children gather round the old man’s cage and laugh as they watch him delousing himself or crouching down to defecate; outside the tiger’s cage, though, they open their eyes wide with admiration. The sleight of hand that made man the centre of the universe no longer convinces.
Devastating, desolate, and disquieting, Rafael Chirbes’s On the Edge (En la orilla) ought to rank as one of the decade’s finest novels. First published in its original Spanish in 2013, On the Edge was awarded both Spain’s National Prize for Literature and the Critics Prize the following year. The Spanish novelist (who passed away [in August 2015] at the age of 66) is the author of nine published novels—with a tenth due out posthumously. While billed as his English language debut, On the Edge was actually preceded in translation by Mimoun, Chirbes’s first novel, published some 22 years ago by Serpent’s Tail (and out of print since).
Set in late 2010, following the economic crisis that ravaged the Spanish economy (as well as many others around the world), On the Edge offers an unflinching glimpse of a nation despoiled and reeling. An unemployment rate of 20% (and rising), poverty, prostitution, xenophoboia, Islamophobia, immigration fears, human trafficking, violence, corruption, and environmental decay are the real-life milieu upon which Chirbes situates his unforgiving tale. Septuagenarian Esteban, tasked with end-of-life care for his terminally ill father and burdened with the stresses of his recently bankrupted carpentry workshop (and impending legal charges resulting therefrom), recounts his life, as well as his myriad failures, disappointments, and betrayals, through an unrelenting series of recollections and dirge-like soliloquies.
Taking life is easy, anyone can do that. They do it every day all over the world. Just read the newspaper and you’ll see. Even you could do it, take someone’s life I mean, obviously, you’d have to improve your aim a little (and then he did smile teasingly, the corners of his lively grey eyes etched with a web of delicate lines). Mankind may have constructed vast buildings, destroyed whole mountains, built canals and bridges, but we’ve never yet succeeded in opening the eyes of a child who has just died. Sometimes it’s the biggest, heaviest things that are easiest to move. Huge stones in the back of a truck, vans laden with heavy metals. And yet everything that’s inside you—what you think, what you want—all of which apparently weighs nothing—no strong man can life that onto his shoulder and move it somewhere else. No truck can transport it. Loving someone you despise or don’t really care for is a lot harder than flooring him with a punch. Men hit each other out of a sense of powerlessness. They think that by using force they can get what they can’t get by using tenderness or intelligence.
With shifting narratives and a chorus of other voices (including those of Esteban’s equally-ravished employees, business partners, barmates, and his father’s one-time palliative nurse), On the Edge teems with fear, frustration, anxiety, and despair. Esteban, challenged (and nearly defeated) not only by the plundering economic state, but also by decades of personal degradation (failed romance, compromised loyalties, allegiances upended, and the legacy of his father’s generations’ attitudes following the war), is forced to confront perdition—familial, social, financial, physical, emotional, and even spiritual.
Chirbes, perhaps like a detached reporter chronicling horrors and atrocities espied from the front lines, infuses an abundance of feeling into characters and setting—despite each being startlingly paralyzed by an unyielding torpor. With gifted prose and a confident style, Chirbes deftly (re)creates a world teetering on ruin and irreconcilability (however hopeful certain characters remain). Like the fetid, rancid lagoon which figures so prominently into the story, On the Edge brilliantly captures the collapse of a system once-thriving and supportive, but left in wreckage resulting from avarice, disregard, and myopia.
Rafael Chirbes, called “the best writer of the twenty-first century in Spain” by the Spanish newspaper ABC, tears asunder whatever illusions may have endured after the global economic collapse. Without didacticism or a moralizing tone, Chirbes stands amidst the debris and destruction, and, with an unflinching gaze, attests to and confirms the harrowing aftermath wrought in the wake of international recession and crises. A remarkable portrait of one man’s struggle to make sense of an encompassing personal, economic, and social decay, On the Edge_breathes life into an otherwise asphyxiating scene. Chirbes’s _On the Edge may lack in redemption (and propelling plot) what it makes up for in cautionary storytelling, but pillaged lives and economies both have never seemed so imaginatively conceived nor richly executed. Even the barrenest of wastelands may lay forlorn and neglected, but, if nothing else, Chirbes’s incomparable novel assures that great art may one day rise from even the most polluted locale.
Of course times have changed, Francisco. Life is constantly changing, it is change. It has no other purpose but to change and to keep changing, the Greeks knew this and I imagine even their ancestors knew it too, you never bathe twice in the same stream, you don’t even bathe the same body, today there’s a pimple that didn’t exist yesterday, nor did this varicose vein which, for long hours, has been making its way to the surface, or this ulcer in my groin or on the sole of my foot, and which my hyperglycemia won’t allow to heal; they are all lying, those utopians who say that this troubled life of avarice and lust will be succeeded by a peaceful world in which we will all be brothers, and where, as in the golden age Don Quijote described, we will, in a spirit of fraternal love, dine on a shared meal of acorns. There is no heavenly peace possible beneath the sheltering sky, only a permanent state of war in which everyone is pitched against everyone and everything against everything. The problem is that with so much change, everything somehow ends up pretty much the same.
Javier Marías’s reputation as a writer of high-quality literary fiction surely precedes him and if the Swedish Academy sees fit to recognize his impressive body of work (Your Face Tomorrow [translated by Jull Costa] alone ought to qualify him), a Nobel Prize would be a deserved coda to an already illustrious authorial career. Thus Bad Begins, his newest novel to be translated into English, is certainly not Marías finest outing (which is hardly a slight, perhaps like saying Blonde on Blonde isn’t this year’s Nobel laureate’s most accomplished album)—yet is still possessed of all the characteristic trademarks that have made him, or, more precisely, his fiction, consistently amongst the best in translation. Marías’s The Infatuations (Knopf, also translated by Jull Costa) was longlisted for the 2014 BTBA. Some thoughts on Thus Bad Begins:
Indeed, freedom is the first thing that fearful citizens are prepared to give up. So much so that they often ask to lose it, ask for it to be taken away, banished from their sight, which is why they not only applaud the very person intending to take it from them, they even vote for him.
With over a dozen of his books available in English translation, Javier Marías’s stateside renown seems to grow deservedly with each new release. His most recent novel, Thus Bad Begins (Así empieza lo malo)—named best book of the year by Spain’s El País in 2014—is a domestic drama set in 1980, immediately following Franco’s regime. A brutal, loveless, spiteful, and often cruel marriage is metaphor for a distrusting populace struggling to move beyond the authoritarianism and betrayals of decades past. While Marías’s characters reveal slowly the motivations for their actions, his story (incorporating the best elements of a convincing mystery) builds toward a gripping conclusion—leaving devastated individuals and a tormented legacy in its wake.
Offering stark insight into the erosive qualities of small deceptions and minor treacheries, Marías, as always, deftly navigates realms psychological, political, and philosophical. Thus Bad Begins isn’t Marías’s strongest outing, but, that said, it is still, nonetheless, an exceptional effort (especially given that he has penned such consistently tremendous works). If written by another author, this book may well be considered the peak of said progenitor’s output, but given the Spaniard’s seemingly limitless ability to compose first-rate fiction, Thus Bad Begins pales slightly when compared to some of his other works. All the same, Thus Bad Begins invariably impresses, adding yet another resplendent feather in the cap of a (hopefully) future nobel laureate.
_“In fact, anything you’re told, anything you didn’t personally witness, is pure rumour, however wrapped up in oaths it comes, all swearing the story to be true. And we can’t spend our lives listening to rumours, still less acting in accordance with their many fluctuations. When you give that up, when you give up trying to know what you cannot know, perhaps, to paraphrase Shakespeare, perhaps that is when bad begins, but, on the other hand, worse remains behind.”
The Hamlet line from which the title is taken is wonderfully ambiguous and well befitting a novel of such emotional subterfuge. Is “worse” left behind or still yet to come?
Like far too many (most?) authors in translations, Enrique Vila-Matas has yet to enjoy the English-speaking audience he deserves—despite being championed by the likes of his friend Paul Auster. The Spanish writer has published over three dozen books, with Vampire in Love being his eighth rendered into English. A collection of short stories spanning his career, Vampire in Love offers a glimpse of Vila-Matas that hadn’t been apparent in his mostly meta-fictional novels (Bartleby & Co. [translated by Jonathan Dunne], Never Any End to Paris, and Dublineqsue are some of his best). Twice shortlisted for the BTBA (in 2008 for Montano’s Malady [translated by Jonathan Dunne] and in 2012 for Never Any End to Paris [translated by Anne McLean]) and included on the longlist for another (in 2013 for Dublinesque [translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean]), Vila-Matas’s books make for an always fascinating, engaging outing (even if one doesn’t quite know what to expect beforehand, much like his prolific Argentine compatriot, César Aira). Vampire in Love is as good a place as any to start reading Vila-Matas. While short story collections do not sometimes garner the acclaim of their lengthier brethren, Vampire in Love can surely hold it’s own against other contenders for this year’s Best Translated Book Award:
The first collection of Enrique Vila-Matas’s short stories to appear in English translation, Vampire in Love features 19 stories from throughout the Spanish author’s estimable career. Most noteworthy (and quite surprising to this reader) is that save for a couple selections, nearly all of the stories forego the metafictional, self-referential, and literary milieu well familiar to readers of his previously translated works. The stories which compose Vampire in Love reveal an almost entirely different side to Vila-Matas’s fiction—many dealing with death, life’s hardships, and the mystery of the uncertain.
With oft-remarkable prose, wit, and more than a little playfulness, Vila-Matas’s short fiction reveals an artisan as comfortable (and as skillful) in brevity as he is in longer form. Vampire in Love ably demonstrates the wide variety of storytelling hues available on Vila-Matas’s literary palette. The standout stories in Vampire in Love include “Rosa Schwarzer Comes Back to Life,” “The Hour of the Tired and Weary,” “They Say I Should Say Who I Am,” “Greetings from Dante,” “The Boy on the Swing,” and the titular tale.
I remember—probably because it seemed to foreshadow something that would affect us later on—the long speech he made that day about how we human beings are all carriers of poisons and inner devils that can undermine our most marvelous achievements.