“tasks” by Víctor Rodríguez Núñez [Why This Book Should Win]

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, who is one of the founding editors of EuropeNow, a journal of political research, literature, and art at Columbia University. She previously served as editor in chief of the Columbia Journal and blog editor at Asymptote and Words Without Borders.


tasks by Víctor Rodríguez Núñez, translated from the Spanish by Katherine M. Hedeen (Cuba, co-im-press)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 38%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 2%

How does an immigrant return to their native country if they’ve never actually left? Cuban poet Víctor Rodríguez-Núñez asks this timeless (and timely) question through twenty-one sections that make up the long poem tasks, translated masterfully into English by Katherine M. Hedeen and published by the exciting co-im-press.

In terms of describing tasks, I honestly don’t know where to begin—and this seems to be exactly the point: experiences, like Rodríguez-Núñez’ lines, are without beginning or end, borderless and beyond differentiation:

beards half a century old
scissors dread me
I’m hardheaded
I’m from another dream of roosters crowing
raccoon bandit
hygiene of bathrooms both exotic
not so much as a volcano

a sooting of flurries
I’m a blue mark in the silence
freshly cut grass flamboyant trees
wonders of doubt

in the mirror there’s someone gazing back
ransacked by the light
an old acquaintance

—attempted excerpt from the section “origins.”

Through the elimination of commas, periods, and uppercase letters (save for proper nouns and the “I” in translation), Rodríguez-Núñez moves toward a form which he in the book’s introduction calls “edgeless poetry.” Indeed, it is difficult—sometimes impossible—for the reader of tasks to find a point where an idea begins or ends, and it’s exactly within these limitless impossibilities that new meanings and magical images emerge from the text. Rodríguez-Núñez and Hedeen leave the reader hanging in a compelling cloud of disorientation—guided by question marks as the only sentence-splitting punctuation—throughout the book:

what does the peasant
right in the middle of a furrow
weeds no longer relevant
facing the freeway
where cars hum
for a moment head-raised want to tell you?
that it’s rained and the corn is coming up strong this year?

that the sun’s yolk
has just burst the horizon
starry with palms and agave flowers?
that the task is hard
and you won’t write about all this?
tulips glimmer
only proof the sun survives

leaves aren’t tame
they turned to glass in the night
when the workers cut the grass

—attempted excerpt from the section “indisciplines”.

Although memory perpetually haunts the quotidian, a comforting regeneration of nature always surrounds the narrator’s experiences. tasks deserves to win the Best Translated Book Award 2017 because it reads like a stunning, hopeful requiem—or a cut-up poem crafted from the transcript of a roundtable discussion between Federico García Lorca, Inger Christensen, and The Kinks—presenting an imaginative remix of otherness and eco-poetics in a carefully crafted form where words, like migratory birds, roam freely across borders.

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