Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.
Click here for all past and future posts.
The Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito, translated by Robyn Creswell
Publisher: New Directions
Why This Book Should Win: Book that pleasantly surprised me the most from the longlist; Robyn Creswell won a PEN Translation Fund Award for this; New Directions; I think this is the first Moroccan book I’ve ever read.
I wrote today’s post.
I’m not a huge proponent of the “you should read translated literature to understand other cultures” argument. People don’t like medicine, and although this isn’t quite that, it still smells a bit funny, you know?
Besides, not all works of international literature give the reader great insight into other cultures. Sure, you can sometimes see how a character’s mind works, how the cultural context influences a particular character’s decisions, actions, and beliefs, but generally, people seem to read translations for the same reason they read any work of literature, which includes a lot of factors (style, complexity, plot, characterization, beauty) other than “to better understand another part of the world.”
Then again, occasionally there is a book that’s not just beautiful and intriguing, well-written and compelling, but does give you a special insight into a different culture. Enter The Clash of Images.
Kilito’s book is about the shift from the “old Arabic world of texts and oral traditions” to the new “modern era of the image, the comic book, photo IDs, and the cinema.” By taking this moment in time as its base, and crafting beautiful short pieces around this theme, Kilito provides a special perspective on what it was like growing up in this culture—a perspective that actually can provide foreign readers with subtle shades of meaning and understanding. Witness these bits from “The Image of the Prophet”:
I had never seen any images properly speaking, except my own in the mirror. On the walls of our house there were no photographs, no reproductions of any sort. The walls were white, cold, and smooth, with no more than on Quranic verse in calligraphy: “The All-Merciful is seated firmly upon the throne.” An ambiguous verse and one that—despite the ingenuity of exegetes bent on removing all traces of anthropomorphism—_presents an image_ (Arab theologians needed several centuries to quell the tendency to lend divinity a human form).
It was only once I learned to read that I was actually able to decipher images.
There were a number of these, images with a certain prestige, sold not far from the great mosque. Each told a story, or else the climactic moment of a story, with a religious subject. [. . .]
These were considered edifying images that exalted the faith and exemplary figures of the past, though at the cost of violating the ban on figural representation. One limit was respected, however: the prophet of Islam was never pictured. The prophet was a story, a word in the mouth, not a face. And yet many claimed to have seen him in their dreams (with what features?).
This is a short book, one that’s quick to read, but which sketches out a number of lasting images, lines, stories. In particular, I’d recommend the “Revolt in the Msid,” “A Glass of Milk,” “Don Quixote’s Niece,” and “Cinedays” sections—all of which are brilliant and prove why this book should win the BTBA.
Following up on last week’s post about the various summer/fall 2010 previews that came out from The Millions and elsewhere, I thought that over the next few days, we’d highlight some forthcoming titles that sound pretty interesting to me. Sure I’m missing things and whatnot, so feel free to overload the comments section with recommendations. And click here to see all translation preview posts.
Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Germany, New Directions)
I’m just finishing up a new Jenny Erpenbeck novel for New Directions, Visitation, a book whose main character is a house. It’s a fascinating story, a sort of concise chronicle or saga that takes us through all the various upheavals of twentieth-century German history—but rather than being different generations of a single family, the characters in the book come from various families that overlap with and replace one another—sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. It’s a compelling, mysterious book, and I’m stunned by how skillfully Erpenbeck weaves the strands of the various stories together. There’s one passage in which she writes about children playing in a garden, and after a certain point you realize that some of these children are literally in the garden of the house while others are many thousands of miles away, in exile after their families were forced to flee—in the storytelling she turns the narration of a historical moment into a sort of outward explosion in space.
Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec, translated from the French by Marc Lowenthal (France, Wakefield Press)
Wakefield Press doesn’t receive nearly as much play as it deserves. Marc Lowenthal (translator, publisher, etc.) is producing some fascinatingly strange books in absolutely gorgeous editions. (I highly recommend The Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners which is one of the raunchiest, funniest books I’ve ever read. And by raunchy I mean there’s some really sick shit in there.) And Perec! One of the all time bests. And this small book is perfectly Perec-ian: for three days he records everything he sees as part of a “quest of the ‘infraordinary’: the humdrum, the nonevent, the everyday—‘what happens,’ as he put it, ‘when nothing happens.’”
Sleepwalker by Margarita Karapanou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Greece, Clockroot)
No matter what, I’d include this book on the list simply because I think Karen Emmerich is amazing and Clockroot extremely daring and interesting. But check this quote:
“God was tired . . . He looked down at his earth and what it had become . . . His people had betrayed him . . . Thus it was that he decided to send a new god to earth, a god people would recognize and worship from the start—a god made in their image, a god they deserved . . . He clutched his stomach, leaned over the earth, and vomited.”
The Woman with the Bouquet by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (France, Europa Editions)
This is the second Schmitt book to come out from Europa — the other being The Most Beautiful Book in the World — and both story collections sound pretty intriguing. But the real reason I wanted to mention this book is because it is fourth translation of Alison Anderson’s coming out this year. She’s like the C.C. Sebathia of literary translation!
The Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito, translated from the French by Robyn Creswell (Morocco, New Directions)
This sounds very cool. It’s described as a “sweet, Borgesian mix of bildungsroman memoir, family history, short-story collection, fable, and literary criticism.” It also has a great cover, a brilliant quote from Elias Khoury (“We normally speak of writing as an adventure, but Kilito dares his reader to travel with him, on a quest to override the boundaries between reality and fiction, between literary criticism and storytelling”), and Creswell won a PEN Translation Award for this.
The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Portugal, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
With Saramago passing away just a few weeks ago, it’s a good time to look over his career. I haven’t read many of the recent titles, but back in the day, I really liked Blindness, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, The Stone Raft, Blindness, and Balthasar and Blimunda, which is the book The Elephant’s Journey most calls to mind.
In 1551, King Joao III of Portugal gave Archduke Maximilian an unusual wedding present: an elephant named Solomon. The elephant’s journey from Lisbon to Vienna was witnessed and remarked upon by scholars, historians, and ordinary people. Out of this material, José Saramago has spun a novel already heralded as “a triumph of language, imagination, and humor” (El País).
The Wrong Blood by Manuel de Lope, translated from the Spanish by John Cullen (Spain, Other Press)
A couple months back, I met with some of the editors at Other Press, and they all raved about this book. Manuel de Lope has a solid reputation in Spain, and this is his first book to be published in English. All I’ve been able to read so far is the opening sentence, but this (along with the jacket copy and Katie’s recommendation) has me pretty intrigued:
It was the month of May, or the month of June, in any case summer was near, and within only a few weeks the war would break out, although nobody knew this at the time, and those who had premonitions couldn’t go so far as to believe them, because fear rejects what the intuition accepts, and they wouldn’t have been able to convince anybody anyway.
The recipients of this year’s PEN Translation Fund Awards were announced last week, and once again, a number of really interesting projects are highlighted—including a number that are still looking for a publishers . . .
For those unfamiliar with the prize, this was established in 2003 thanks to an anonymous gift of some $730,000 and every year ten or so translators receive $2,000-$5,000 for a project they are working on. These projects don’t need to have a publisher already, and since translators apply directly, the Fund receives approx. 130 applications each year. (Almost half as many applications as the number of translations published in the U.S. . . .)
Anyway, here are this year’s winners:
Eric Abrahamsen for My Spiritual Homeland by Wang Xiaobo (1952-1997), a collection of penetrating, funny and breathtakingly frank essays written fifteen years after the Cultural Revolution by one of China’s most insightful and controversial writers. (No publisher)
Mee Chang for Garden of Youth (1981) by Oh Junghee, a series of powerful stories that center on the struggles of domestic life during the Korean War, by a writer widely recognized as the master of the Korean short story. (No publisher)
Robyn Creswell for The Clash of Images (1995) by Abdelfattah Kilito, a hybrid bildungsroman, written in French, set in the medina of an unnamed Moroccan city. Growing up in a traditional world where the image is taboo, the protagonist is seduced by new American technologies of the image. (No publisher)
Brett Foster for Elemental Rebel: The Rime of Cecco Angiolieri (1260-1310?), a selection of impudent sonnets by a Sienese rival of Dante with a penchant for parodic wordplay. (Forthcoming from Princeton University Press)
Geoffrey Michael Goshgarian for The Remnants by Hagop Oshagan (1883-1948), a historical novel widely considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Armenian literature, written in the early 1930s “to save what remained of our people.” (No publisher)
Tess Lewis for That Didn’t Reassure the Children (2006) by Alois Hotschnig, a collection of disquieting stories about the mystery, fluidity and perils of intimacy, by a prize-winning Austrian writer renowned for his stylistic virtuosity. (No publisher)
Fayre Makeig for Mourning (2006), a selection of free verse poems by H.E. Sayeh, an eminent contemporary Iranian poet whose life and work span many of Iran’s political, cultural and literary upheavals. “Tell us, heaven, why the rain / pours from your eyes…” (No publisher)
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra for Poems of Kabir, a selection of 60 Hindi padas (songs) by India’s legendary mystic poet saint (1398?-1448?) who opposed all religious and social orthodoxies and oppositions. “But I’m wasting my time, / Says Kabir, / Even death’s bludgeon / About to crush your head / Won’t wake you up.” (No publisher)
Frederika Randall for Deliver Us from Evil by Luigi Meneghello (1922-2007), a darkly original memoir, ordered by theme rather than chronology, set in rural Italy when the Church and Il Duce ruled. The savage immediacy of childhood perception combines with amused and astutely ironic insights in an unsentimental human comedy. (No publisher)
Daniel Shapiro for Missing Persons, Animals and Artists (1999) by Roberto Ransom, a short story collection by an acclaimed young Mexican writer which explores the enigmas of art and the creative process with gentle irony and whimsical, at times fantastical, premises. (No publisher)
Chantal Wright for A Handful of Water (2008), poems written in German by Tzveta Sofronieva, a young Bulgarian-born poet, trained as a physicist and science historian, who also writes in Bulgarian and English. Joseph Brodsky said of her, “Listen carefully… She has something to say.” (No publisher)
Congratulations to all the winners, and I’m especially pleased to see Tess Lewis, Eric Abrahamsen of Paper-Republic) and Daniel Shapiro of the Americas Society. The unsigned books on this list usually find a publisher within days, so it’s possible this is already out of date . . . Which is great for the translators and authors, and means that I really have to get moving on contacting the right people about the projects that sound most interesting to me . . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .