28 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a book that I talk about on our yet-unpublished “2013 Preview Podcast.” Which hopefully will be up in a few days, once our podcasting computer is fixed. So when you hear me talk about Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, and published by FSG, you can temper my vocal enthusiasm with this review.

I’ve been a big Zambra fan since I read the first paragraph of Bonsai. His first two novels—one of which we published—are spectacular gems, best read in one sitting and reflected upon for days.

Which is why it’s a bit heartbreaking that Ways of Going Home is a bit of a disappointment. (To me at least.) I’ve been looking forward to this book since I read a sample way back when, and I’m really glad that FSG is behind it and will help get Zambra an even larger international audience than he currently has. But it would be intellectually dishonest to simply praise this book because Zambra’s one of our authors and a great guy, and Megan’s a friend and a great translator. Which is why I wrote this as seriously as I could.

Ways of Going Home, Alejandro Zambra’s third book to be published in English (and second translated by Megan McDowell), packs a lot of themes—historical memory, difficulties of love, honesty in art—into a brief 139 page novel set between the two great Chilean earthquakes in 1985 and 2010. It’s an ambitious project from one of Granta’s “Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists,” and one that is a bit of a mess.

Before getting into the reasons why I think this book doesn’t work, here’s a brief synopsis of the two intertwined storylines: In what I’ll call the “Claudia novel” storyline, the narrator is growing up in Chile in the mid-1980s, at the time when Pinochet was finally forced out. On the night of the 1985 earthquake, he meets Claudia, a pretty, slightly older girl who is somehow connected to the boy’s neighbor, Raúl, the only single man in the neighborhood. Two years after the earthquake, he sees Claudia again, and she asks him to spy on Raúl. That’s part one. Part two—of the Claudia novel narrative—takes place twenty years later, with the narrator decides to try and find out what’s going on with Claudia. Oh so coincidentally, she’s about to return home to deal with her father’s death, during which time, she hooks up with the narrator, explains her life story (bit more on that later), and then breaks things off with the narrator.

Interspersed between these two sections are two sections written by the “author” about writing his Claudia novel. The author and his wife have separated, he’s a bit lonely and nostalgic, and having a really hard time writing this novel. He wants Eme—his estranged wife—to read it and approve of it, and he surrounds his explication of this basic desire with a ton of quasi-intellectual observations about life and forgetting, parents and love, and everything else. He reunites with Eme briefly, but that doesn’t really work out. Then the 2010 earthquake takes place.

Two earthquakes, two failed love stories, two tellings of the same story involving his mother, Eme claiming Claudia’s story is just a retelling of hers, the end of Pinochet’s realm kicks off the book and Sebastian Pinera’s election ends it—there’s a lot of doubling in this book. Also the two narrators—one pretty obviously the novelized reflection of the other.

Overall, this set-up—which calls to mind tons of so-called metafictional works, such as Lost in the Funhouse and the vastly superior Mulligan Stew—is Zambra’s attempt to break out of the writing style that defined his first two novels. This is a very difficult situation for a young author. Those two books have a very specific style, one that’s emotionally affective, incredibly compelling to read, and instantly recognizable. The writing in those novels is very precise, almost poetic, and the stories are related from a restricted third-person point of view, allowing for certain “cheesy” moments to play more seriously than they might in a first-person voice.

Anyway. Ways of Going Home feels like a novelist trying to change his aesthetic, maturing from something simple and direct into something more complex and respectably “Literary.” Reading the representation of the author in this novel as Zambra himself, and the author’s relationship to the Claudia novel he’s writing as Zambra’s relationship to this book, it’s clear that there’s a lot of anxiety, an awareness that this book might not live up to heightened expectations. And one of the best tricks for evading that is to foreground it (it’s a book about an author who can’t write his next novel!) and then bury it in a false postmodern trick (the novel isn’t just a novel, but a novel about the difficulty of writing novels!). Everything about this rings false, and makes me feel sympathetic for Zambra—he doesn’t have to hide his talents. But then again, I have no idea what it’s like trying to create art after being anointed by just about everyone important in the world of letters.

You can read the entire review by clicking here.

28 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Ways of Going Home, Alejandro Zambra’s third book to be published in English (and second translated by Megan McDowell), packs a lot of themes—historical memory, difficulties of love, honesty in art—into a brief 139 page novel set between the two great Chilean earthquakes in 1985 and 2010. It’s an ambitious project from one of Granta’s “Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists,” and one that is a bit of a mess.

Before getting into the reasons why I think this book doesn’t work, here’s a brief synopsis of the two intertwined storylines: In what I’ll call the “Claudia novel” storyline, the narrator is growing up in Chile in the mid-1980s, at the time when Pinochet was finally forced out. On the night of the 1985 earthquake, he meets Claudia, a pretty, slightly older girl who is somehow connected to the boy’s neighbor, Raúl, the only single man in the neighborhood. Two years after the earthquake, he sees Claudia again, and she asks him to spy on Raúl. That’s part one. Part two—of the Claudia novel narrative—takes place twenty years later, when the narrator decides to try and find out what’s going on with Claudia. Oh so coincidentally, she’s about to return home to deal with her father’s death, during which time, she hooks up with the narrator, explains her life story (bit more on that later), and then breaks things off with the narrator.

Interspersed between these two sections are two sections written by the “author” about writing his Claudia novel. The author and his wife have separated, he’s a bit lonely and nostalgic, and having a really hard time writing this novel. He wants Eme—his estranged wife—to read it and approve of it, and he surrounds his explication of this basic desire with a ton of quasi-intellectual observations about life and forgetting, parents and love, and everything else. He reunites with Eme briefly, but that doesn’t really work out. Then the 2010 earthquake takes place.

Two earthquakes, two failed love stories, two tellings of the same story involving his mother, Eme claiming Claudia’s story is just a retelling of hers, the end of Pinochet’s realm kicks off the book and Sebastian Pinera’s election ends it—there’s a lot of doubling in this book. Also the two narrators—one pretty obviously the novelized reflection of the other.

Overall, this set-up—which calls to mind tons of so-called metafictional works, such as Lost in the Funhouse and the vastly superior Mulligan Stew—is Zambra’s attempt to break out of the writing style that defined his first two novels. This is a very difficult situation for a young author. Those two books have a very specific style, one that’s emotionally affective, incredibly compelling to read, and instantly recognizable. The writing in those novels is very precise, almost poetic, and the stories are related from a restricted third-person point of view, allowing for certain “cheesy” moments to play more seriously than they might in a first-person voice.

Anyway. Ways of Going Home feels like a novelist trying to change his aesthetic, maturing from something simple and direct into something more complex and respectably “Literary.” Reading the representation of the author in this novel as Zambra himself, and the author’s relationship to the Claudia novel he’s writing as Zambra’s relationship to this book, it’s clear that there’s a lot of anxiety, an awareness that this book might not live up to heightened expectations. And one of the best tricks for evading that is to foreground it (it’s a book about an author who can’t write his next novel!) and then bury it in a false postmodern trick (the novel isn’t just a novel, but a novel about the difficulty of writing novels!). Everything about this rings false, and makes me feel sympathetic for Zambra—he doesn’t have to hide his talents. But then again, I have no idea what it’s like trying to create art after being anointed by just about everyone important in the world of letters.

Put in that context—striving to evolve as a writer in a situation in which everyone expects huge things from you—makes the bad writing in this book nearly forgivable. But only nearly.

Claudia’s first memory of the stadium is also happy. In 1977 it was announced that Chespirito, the Mexican comedian, would bring the entire cast of his show to perform at the National Stadium. Claudia was four years old then; she watched Chespirito’s show and she liked it a lot.

Her parents refused to take her at first, but finally they gave in. The four of them went, and Claudia and Ximena had a great time. Many years later Claudia found out that for her parents that day had been torture. They had spent every moment thinking how absurd it was to see the stadium filled with laughing people. Throughout the entire show they had thought only, obsessively, about the dead.

This is a pretty trite set-piece, and one that comes off as über-manipulative and totally unbelievable. (I distrust all writing that hinges on memories of a child, since most of these memories are way more specific than any person would actually have.) It’s the sort of manipulative sequence you’d find in story from a mediocre creative writer. (See how it contrasts the naive happiness of the child with the sullen awareness of the parents? And how parents sacrifice for their children? Do you see what I did there?)

But it gets worse:

I’ll always remember the pain, one night, years ago: in the middle of an argument we started caressing each other and she got on top of me, but in the middle of penetration she couldn’t control her rage and she shut her vagina completely.

SHUT IT! SHUT THAT VAGINA!

A few days ago Eme left a box for me with the neighbors. Only today did I dare open it. There were two shirts, a scarf, my Kaurismäki and Wes Anderson movies, my Tom Waits and Wu-Tang Clan CDs, as well as some book I lent her these past months.

God, that is SO PRECIOUS. At this point in time, can you really do something like this in an unironic fashion? Your Wes Anderson movie? Oh, you, Mr. Narrator, are SO SMART AND SENSITIVE. (And have very questionable taste in directors.)

This isn’t the Zambra book I wanted to read. In part because one of the challenges Zambra’s trying to face—how to write about Pinochet and the violent history of Chile when that wasn’t something you experienced first hand—could have resulted in an absolutely fascinating book.

In the Claudia section of Ways of Going Home, the one that opens in 1985, just a few years before Pinochet is deposed, the narrator is 9 years old, fairly confused about the politics of the country, in part because his parents have remained on the sidelines during the Allende-Pinochet periods. He is a character forcibly disconnected from the past, living in a sort of constructed world:

We arrived, finally, at a neighborhood with only two streets: Neftalí Reyes Basoalto and Lucila Godoy Alcayaga. It sounds like a joke, but it’s true. A lot of the streets in Maipú had, and still have, those absurd names: my cousins, for example, lived on First Symphony Way, near Second and Third Symphony, perpendicular to Concert Street, and close to the passages Opus One, Opus Two, Opus Three, et cetera. Or the very street where I lived, Aladdin, between Odin and Ramayana and parallel to Lemuria; obviously, toward the end of the seventies some people had a lot of fun choosing names for the streets where the new families would later live—the families without history, who were willing or perhaps resigned to live in that fantasy world.

“I live in the neighborhood of real names,” said Claudia on the afternoon of our reencounter, looking seriously into my eyes.

In case you don’t catch the subtext—and it’s these sort of so-obvious-as-it’s-beaten-over-your-head allusions and metaphors that marks another flaw in this book—Claudia’s family is political, was part of Allende’s government, is reactionary.

I vote with a sense of sorrow, with very little faith. I know that Sebastián Piñera will win the first round I’m sure he will also win the second. It seems horrible. It’s obvious we’ve lost our memories. We will calmly, candidly, hand the country over to Piñera and to Opus Dei and the Legionaries of Christ.

It’s an interesting artistic conundrum: How to write about a childhood taking place during a very important time in history, but one that you, and a lot of your characters, weren’t directly impacted by. Tricky.

Which brings me to David Shields. If you read enough David Shields, your relationship to literature is irrevocably altered. The part of Shields that always sticks with me is the idea that the best works of art are those in which the creator’s consciousness as he/she creates is revealed in the course of the work of art. Frequently, these are hybrid works that aren’t exactly autobiographical or fictional—what Shields refers to as “lyric essays.”

There are hints in Ways of Going Home that this sort of “coming clean” is something that Zambra was aiming for:

It’s strange, it’s silly to attempt a genuine story about something, about someone, about anyone, about oneself. But it’s necessary as well.

Or, more explicitly (this book excels at stating things explicitly):

Today my friend Pablo called me so he could read me this phrase he found in a book by Tim O’Brien: “What sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning and no end.” I kept thinking about that and stayed awake all night. It’s true. We remember the sounds of the images. And sometimes, when we write, we wash everything clean, as if by doing so we could advance towards something. We ought to simply describe those sounds, those stains on memory. That arbitrary selection, nothing more. That’s why we lie so much, in the end. That’s why a book is always the opposite of another immense and strange book. An illegible and genuine book that we translate treacherously, that we betray with our habit of passable prose.

I think about the beautiful beginning of Family Sayings, Natalia Ginzburg’s novel: “The places, events, and people in this book are all real. I have invented nothing. Every time that I have found myself inventing something in accordance with my old habits as a novelist, I have felt impelled at once to destroy everything thus invented.”

The sort of honesty and directness that Zambra is talking about and aiming for is much more evident in his earlier works. See the opening of Bonsai:

In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was along some years before her death, Emilia’s death. Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called, and continues to be called Julio. Julio and Emilia. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature:

The unveiling of the creative process in Ways of Going Home is way more dishonest. Instead of seeing the real Zambra struggle with the above themes and his attempt to create a more “mature” style, we get two manipulative narrators, each as “novelistic” as the other. Going back to the doubling mentioned way back in the beginning of this review, instead of having two narratives—one fictional, one an autobiographical reflection on that—we get two fictional bits, which play off each other in a way that, unfortunately, isn’t very satisfying.

All that said, I eagerly await Zambra’s next book. He is one of the best young Latin American writers, and even this book, as disappointing as it might be to me, is better than a lot of books that will come out this year. He is still an author to watch.

7 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The longlist for the 2012 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award was announced earlier today, and is made up of 147 titles, the full list of which you can find here.

It’s a pretty decent, if wide-ranging, group of books, which includes everything from Paul Auster’s latest to Sofi Oksanen’s Purge to our own Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra to fricking Freedom. In glancing through this, it’s difficult to figure out which recent books aren’t on the list.

But I think that’s sort of the point at this stage: to provide library patrons and general readers with a list of titles that covers most every interest and aesthetic. You want sci-fi? Try China Mieville’s Kraken. Scandinavian thriller? How about Nesbo’s The Snowman. From a librarian perspective, this sort of makes sense, and provides a solid list for putting together a decent “new titles” shelf.

Personally, I’m too distracted by the continued ugliness of their website to give this as much attention as it might deserve. There are a good number of books on this list that I haven’t heard of, but I’ll be damned if I click through to see what they’re about. I know I’ve been relatively quiet about shitty website design as of late, mainly since some people can’t take a joke, but how hard is it to use the same color scheme and template across a handful of pages? The home page, News page, and list of titles all employ different looks and menus and colors. And this page looks like a seven-year-old’s first attempt at learning HTML. (Note the changing font-sizes. Classic.)

Websites don’t have to be overly flashy to be effective, but seeing that this is one of the richest literary prizes in the world, you’d think they’d drop $10K into putting together a site that doesn’t suck. End rant.

I am looking forward to seeing the shortlist (which will be announced in April 2012), especially since Dubravka Ugresic is one of judges . . . I have a feeling that list will be a pretty cool collection of titles. And a lot easier to process than this overwhelming list of books written by people about things.

1 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 15 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.

Today’s featured author is Alejandro Zambra—a personal favorite and the first author from this list to be part of the Open Letter catalog.



Seeing that I’ve written about Zambra before (namely here and here) and that we publish The Private Lives of Trees, this seemed like an easy post to write. But it never is, is it?

So at the risk of repeating myself, I want to try and explain what it is about Zambra’s work that I really like.

I first heard about Zambra at the ALTA conference before Bonsai came out from Melville House. Megan McDowell read a bit of his work (if memory serves, she read from The Private Lives of Trees, which may have even been The Secret Lives of Trees at that time) as part of her ALTA fellowship. I’m usually pretty terrible at paying attention during readings (much prefer discussions, modulated voices, and off-the-cuff responses), but I remember being struck by the freshness and honesty of his prose.

When Bonsai came out, I read it from the perspective of a judge for the Best Translated Book Awards, and fell in love with this first paragraph:

In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was along some years before her death, Emilia’s death. Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called, and continues to be called Julio. Julio and Emilia. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature:

Yes! Yes, the rest is literature!

In some ways, this is a bit of a wink, a pulling back of the curtain, a metafictional moment that was popular years ago and has been written and rewritten every since. But at the same time, Zambra’s novella adopts this tone, this style, with an attitude more akin to truthfulness than game-playing. He may be young, but this youthfulness comes through less in the look-at-me-I’m-winking-back cuteness of some of his peers, and more in the I’m-young-and-believe-in-things sense. Stealing a bit of an argument Adam Thirlwell develops in The Delighted States, Zambra tries to get to a sense of reality through a style that feels alien. It’s so unadorned, it’s so non-American-realist that it feels much closer to “how things really are.” We die. The rest is literature.

I also like the way Zambra just tells things in a way that almost feels artless . . . or at least not as manipulative as some other novels (cough, Freedom, cough) can feel at times:

The first night they shared a bed was an accident. They had an exam in Spanish Syntax II, a subject neither of them had mastered, but since they were young and in theory willing to do anything, they were willing, also, to study Spanish Syntax II at the home of the Vergara twins. The study group turned out to be quite a bit larger than imagined: someone put on music, saying he was accustomed to studying to music, another brought vodka, insisting that it was difficult for her to concentrate without vodka, and a third went to buy oranges, because vodka without orange juice seemed unbearable. At three in the morning they were perfectly drunk, so they decided to go to sleep. Although Julio would have preferred to spend the night with one of the Vergara sisters, he quickly resigned himself to sharing the servants’ quarters with Emilia.

Julio didn’t like that Emilia asked so many questions in class, and Emilia disliked the fact that Julio passed his classes while hardly setting foot on campus, but that night they both discovered the emotional affinities that any couple is capable of discovering with only a little effort. Needless to say, they did terribly on the exam. A week later, for their second chance at the exam, they studied again with the Vergaras and slept together again, even though this second time it was not necessary for them to share a room, since the twins’ parents were on a trip to Buenos Aires.

(By the way, I’m pulling these passages from this issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, which included this entire novella. Not entirely sure what would happen if you tried to subscribe to VQR and access this issue, but it might be worth a try. Otherwise, you can buy the Melville House edition, which was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award.)

After Bonsai came out—to much praise and bookseller adoration—we had the opportunity to publish Zambra’s second novel, the aforementioned The Private Lives of Trees. Stylistically, this is a lateral step. It’s got the same sort of voice, the same unadorned prose:

Julián lulls the little girl to sleep with “The Private Lives of Trees,” an ongoing story he’s made up to tell her at bedtime. The protagonists are a poplar tree and a baobab tree, who, at night, when no one can see them, talk about photosynthesis, squirrels, or the many advantages of being trees and not people or animals or, as they say to each other, stupid hunks of cement.

Daniela is not his daughter, but it is hard for him not to think of her that way. Three years ago Julián joined the family. He came to them; Verónica and the little girl were already there. He married Verónica and in some ways, also, Daniela, who was hesitant at first but little by little began to accept her new life: “Julián is uglier than my dad, but he’s still nice,” she would say to her friends, who nodded with surprising seriousness, even solemnity, as if they somehow understood that Julián’s arrival was not an accident. As the months passed this stepfather even earned a place in the drawings Daniela made at school. There’s one in particular that Julián always keeps nearby: the three of them, at the beach, the little girl and Verónica are making cakes out of sand, and he is dressed in jeans and a shirt, reading and smoking under a perfectly round and yellow sun.

It’s a shorter, tighter book, depicting Julián’s long night waiting for Verónica to come home from art class. (She’s late. Really late.) This is really the only event of the novel’s plot. As the omniscient narrator puts it,

When she returns, the novel will end. But as long as she is not back, the book will continue. The book continues until she returns, or until Julián is sure that she won’t return.

The rest of the novella is a trip through Julián’s imagination.

Getting back to this issue of Granta though . . . The piece they chose to include is “Ways of Going Home,” an excerpt from his forthcoming novel. A novel that’s much longer (or so I’ve heard), and has a very different style from the others. The presence of a first-person narrator changes Zambra’s game entirely, although he’s still trying to tell us about life (or, life as literature) in as direct a way as possible. Here’s the opening:

Once, I got lost. I was six or seven. I got distracted, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see my parents any more. I was scared, but I immediately found the way home and got there before they did. They kept looking for me, desperate, but that afternoon I thought they were lost. I believed I knew how to get home and they didn’t.

‘You went a different way,’ my mother said later, angry, her eyes still swollen.

You were the one who went a different way, I thought, but I didn’t say it.

Papa watched placidly from the armchair. Sometimes I think he spent all his time just sitting there, thinking. But maybe he didn’t really think about anything. Maybe he just closed his eyes and received the present with calm and resignation. That night he spoke, though: ‘This is a good thing,’ he told me. ‘You overcame adversity.’ Mama looked at him suspiciously, but he kept on stringing together a confused speech about adversity. Back then, I had no idea what adversity could possibly mean.

I lay back on the chair across from him and pretended to be asleep. I heard them argue, always the same pattern. Mama would say five sentences and Papa would answer with a single word. Sometimes he would answer sharply: ‘No.’ Sometimes he would say, practically shouting: ‘Liar,’ or ‘False.’ Sometimes he would even say, like the police: ‘Negative.’

That night Mama carried me to bed and, perhaps knowing I was only pretending to sleep and was listening attentively, curiously, she told me: ‘Your father is right. Now we know you won’t get lost. That you know how to walk alone in the street. But you should concentrate more on the way. You should walk faster.’

I listened to her. From then on, I walked faster. In fact, a couple of years later, the first time I talked to Claudia, she asked me why I walked so fast. She had been following me for days, spying on me. We had met a short time before, on 3 March 1985 – the night of the earthquake – but we didn’t talk then.

And I’m pretty much 100% sure that this book will come out in English sometime soon . . . .

Don’t forget! Sign up now for a subscription to Granta and get this entire issue—featuring 22 Spanish-language novelists—absolutely free!

13 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

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.

July 2010

The Return by Roberto Bolano, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (Chile, New Directions)

Let’s start in the Southern Cone with the latest book from international superstar Roberto Bolano. Fans of his can’t get enough, and this collection of stories—his second to appear in English—should be fantastic. The earlier story collection, Last Evenings on Earth, is one of my favorite of all his ND books. And this collections sounds just as stunningly strange and wonderful: “Consider the title piece: a young party animal collapses in a Parisian disco and dies on the dance floor; just as his soul is departing his body, it realizes strange doings are afoot — and what follows defies the imagination (except Bolaño’s own).”

The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Chile, Open Letter)

Personal favorite from our list. I love Zambra’s style, his directness. This book is about a man who tells his step-daughter a nightly bedtime story about “The Private Lives of Trees.” On this particular night his wife is late . . . and then later . . . and later. And the book ends when either she arrives or he decides she never will. If you want a chance at winning a free copy of this, visit our Facebook page and “like” or comment on the Private Lives of Trees post.

Tumasik: Contemporary Writing from Singapore edited by Alvin Pang, translated from Chinese, Malay, Tamil and English by a variety of translators (Singapore, Autumn Hill)

Not surprisingly, not many works of literature from Singapore make their way into this country, which is one reason why this book is so intriguing. This anthology is a collaboration between Autumn Hill Books and the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program and features work from thirty-nine contemporary writers. To illustrate the range of pieces in this book, here’s a brief description of a few pieces (from Autumn Hill’s website): “Tan Chee Lay’s meditative ‘Post-Terrorist Phenomena,’ a candid re-examination of the War on Terror, carries the subtle assurance of centuries of literary tradition in ‘san wen,’ a popular Chinese form of creative non-fiction; Malay-Muslim Johar Buang’s verse is recognizably modern, yet draws from the same mystical tradition as Rumi and other Sufi masters; Yeng Puay Ngon’s Ginsbergesque long urban poem, Wena Poon’s magic realist short story and Xi Ni’er’s barbed fictive quips would all find favor in global literary circles today, while remaining grounded in a sense of place.”

Winter Journey by Jaume Cabre, translated from the Catalan by Patricia Lunn (Spain, Swan Isle Press)

A few years back, when I visited Barcelona on an editorial trip—and fell in love with the works of Merce Rodoreda and Quim Monzo, along with Spanish wine, tapas, and the entire Catalan culture—Jaume Cabre’s massive book Les veus del Pamano had recently come out. It sounded pretty interesting, but for a variety of reasons, we couldn’t get it on our list. So I’m really glad that someone else is making some of his work available. Winter Journey is supposedly a collection of short stories, but according to Swan Isle it is “a singularly brilliant and enigmatic narrative, novelistic in its approach, with mysterious connections linking characters, objects, and ideas across time and place. The text takes the form of a Schubertian musical progression in prose, a philosophical mystery moving freely through a labyrinth of centuries and cities, historical and contemporary.”

Tomorrow we’ll look at August . . .

Three Fates Linda Le Mark Polizzotti New Directions

12 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To celebrate Spain winning the World Cup, we’re giving away 10 copies of Chilean author Alejandro Zambra’s The Private Lives of Tress to all of our fans friends “likers” (?) on Facebook. Just visit this page and either “like” or comment on the post about the giveaway. We’ll get in touch if you’re one of the winners . . .

18 June 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Planet Magazine just posted an interview with Alejandro Zambra:

Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier wrote in an essay that a Baroque style was the natural mode for Latin American fiction. He claimed that an excess of language was needed to account for an unknown reality. It was not possible to write “a ceiba”, he said, as one wrote “a pine tree”. It was necessary to describe and define the ceiba. Is it necessary to create a Latin American minimalism?

No, it isn’t. I don’t promote minimalism nor maximalism. I think people should write what they want and need to write. I think Carpentier’s observation is beautiful, but it implies a risky idea regarding audiences. Whom do we have to explain ourselves to? I believe to no one. We should not write to let the ceiba be known. We should write because of a personal need, because it’s what we do best.

27 May 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If you’re in New York—for BEA, or simply because you live there—you should definitely come out to tonight’s party in honor of Alejandro Zambra, author of Bonsai (Melville House, finalist for 2009 Best Translated Book Award) and The Private Lives of Trees (Open Letter).

The event is at Melville House’s office in DUMBO (145 Plymouth St, at Pearl St) and starts at 7pm.

26 May 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

Alejandro Zambra is in New York this week, supporting the sort-of-forthcoming-sort-of-just-published The Private Lives of Trees. On Monday, he was at the lovely Greenlight Books in Fort Greene, Brooklyn on a panel that Dennis Johnson put together to celebrate Melville House’s The Art of the Novella Series. Here he his with his American agent, Andrea Montejo, Lore Segal, and Dennis, just before the panel started.

Greenlight has a display of the entire Novella series (I snuck Private Lives in there too!).

Then last night he had a reading with his translator Megan McDowell at the beautiful 192 Books.

I had a front row seat.

If you’d like to meet Alejandro while he’s here in NYC, and hear him read from The Private Lives of Trees, your last chance is tomorrow night at the Melville House Bookstore, where we’re throwing a book launch party for him. And when you meet him, be sure to ask what he thinks of Pablo Neruda.

18 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I feel like it’s been ages since I last posted anything new here . . . In my defense, it’s kind of tricky finding the time to come up with good material during a ten-day trip to Abu Dhabi, two panels (including the 2010 BTBA announcement), and an extended trip to New York. Two-and-a-half weeks of traveling is mentally exhausting.

I’m back in Rochester though, feeling more and more energized every sunny day that I can ride my bike to work, and ready to get back into all of this. Well, sort of. With the NCAA tournament starting in two hours, and a million-and-one things to catch up on, I think I need another day or so to get sorted. So instead of a number of thoughtful, well-put-together posts (as if that ever happens anyway), here’s a smattering of things:

  • The Australian Association for Literary Translation just launched the AALITRA Review, to publish translations with commentary and essays on the art&craft of translation. You can download the entire first issue (in pdf format) by clicking the link above. Number of interesting pieces in here, including a translation by Peter Hodges of “Don’t Trust the Band” by Boris Vian.
  • PEN America’s 2010 In Translation feature is now available online, and, as expected, is fricking loaded with material. Just look at the list of conversations: Anthea Bell & Doris Orgel (e-mail exchange), Nahid Mozaffari and Sara Khalili (audio), Gregory Rabassa, Edith Grossman, and Michael F. Moore (!!!!!!!). There’s also a number of good excerpts, including a piece from Robert Walser’s Microscripts, a few prologues from Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (everyone should read this), and a bit from Alejandro Zambra’s The Private Lives of Trees. And that’s just scratching the surface . . .
  • Next week we’re going to giveaway copies of Macedonio’s book to our Facebook fans, so if you’re not already one, you need to be. Clicking here to become a fan and have a chance to win.
  • Recently I had heard from a bunch of translators about a crazy new program that Dalkey/U of I had launched through which translators can pay $5,000 to get their first full-length book translation published. Which everyone I heard from thought this was a total scam. In Dalkey’s defense, there is a lot a translator could learn from working closely with an editor on a particular manuscript . . . but to be honest, the publication aspect changes this—in my mind, and all the translators who forwarded this announcement to me complete with their witty remarks (thanks!)—from a low-residency MFA sort of set-up, to something more vanity and seedy. (But seriously, wtf is going on here? It’s like being punched in the brain! Or a way induce seizures in kids? Although there are a billion things to make fun of here—like the fact that it may well be the most unreadable website ever—I’m not going to do it. Or at least I’m going to stop right now. Right. Now.)

In addition to a series of posts about the always interesting Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, we also have a few reviews coming up, including pieces on the new Peter Handke and Dubravka Ugresic titles.

23 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Only seems appropriate that just before Christmas we should announce our summer list of titles . . . You can click here to download a pdf version of the new catalog (which contains excerpts from all the books), or, for those of you who are anti-pdf, the list below has the basic information for the next five Open Letter titles.

All of these titles will be available through better bookstores everywhere and through the Open Letter website. Additionally, you can subscribe and receive a year’s worth of books (10 in total) for $100 (free shipping!). Or get a six-month subscription (5 books) for only $60 (again, with free shipping).

Here are the titles from one of our best lists yet:

Gasoline by Quim Monzó (excerpt)
translated from the Catalan by Mary Ann Newman

For the first time in his life, Heribert Juliá is unable to paint. On the eve of an important gallery exhibition, for which he’s created nothing, he’s bored with life: he falls asleep while making love with his mistress, wanders from bar to bar, drinking whatever comes to his attention first, and meets the evidence of his wife Helena’s infidelity with complete indifference. Humbert Herrera, an up-and-coming artist who can’t stop creating, picks up the threads of Heribert’s life, taking his wife, replacing him at the gallery, and pursuing his former mistress. Heribert is finally undone by a massive sculpture, while Humbert is planning the sculpture to end sculpture, the poem to end poetry, and the film to end film, all while mounting three simultaneous shows.

A fun-house mirror through which he examines the creative process, the life and loves of artists, and the New York art scene, Gasoline confirms Quim Monzó as the foremost Catalan writer of his generation.

A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch (excerpt)
translated from the Polish by David Frick

A comic gem, Jerzy Pilch’s A Thousand Peaceful Cities takes place in 1963, in the latter days of the Polish post-Stalinist “thaw.” The narrator, Jerzyk (“little Jerzy”), is a teenager who is keenly interested in his father, a retired postal administrator, and his father’s closest friend, Mr. Traba, a failed Lutheran clergyman, alcoholic, would-be Polish insurrectionist, and one of the wildest literary characters since Laurence Sterne’s Uncle Toby. One drunken afternoon, Mr. Traba and the narrator’s nameless father decide to take charge of their lives and do one final good turn for humanity: travel to distant Warsaw and assassinate the de facto Polish head of state, First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, Władysław Gomułka—assassinating Mao Tse-tung, after all, would be impractical. And they decide to involve Jerzyk in their scheme . . .

The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra (excerpt)
translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

The Private Lives of Trees tells the story of a single night: a young professor of literature named Julián is reading to his step-daughter Daniela and nervously waiting for his wife Verónica to return from her art class. Each night, Julián has been improvising a story about trees to tell Daniela before she goes to sleep—and each Sunday he works on a novel about a man tending to his bonsai—but something about this night is different. As Julián becomes increasing concerned that Verónica won’t return, he reflects on their life together in minute detail, and imagines what Daniela—at twenty, at twenty-five, at thirty years old, without a mother—will think of his novel.

Perhaps even more daring and dizzying than Zambra’s magical Bonsai, The Private Lives of Trees demands to be read in a single sitting, and it casts a spell that will bring you back to it again and again.

Klausen by Andreas Maier (excerpt)
translated from the German by Kenneth Northcott

Nobody knows exactly what happened in the small town of Klausen, or rather, everyone knows: a bomb went off on the autobahn, or at a shack near the autobahn, or someone was shooting at the town from a bridge; it all stems from a fight over measuring noise pollution on the town square, or it was the work of eco-terrorists, or Italians. And while nobody knows who or what to blame—although they’re certainly uneasy about the Moroccan and Albanian immigrants who are squatting in an abandoned castle—they all suspect that Josef Gasser, who spent several years away from Klausen, in Berlin, is behind it all. Only one thing is clear: Klausen was now a crime scene.

In Klausen, Andreas Maier has taken Thomas Bernhard’s method—the nested indirect speech, the repetition, the endless paragraph—and pointed it at an entire town. A town where one confusion leads to the next, where everyone is living in a fog of rumor, but where everyone claims to know exactly what’s going on, even if they’ve changed their story several times.

To Hell with Cronjé by Ingrid Winterbach (excerpt)
translated from the Afrikaans by Elsa Silke

Two scientists, Reitz Steyn and Ben Maritz, find themselves in a “transit camp for those temporarily and permanently unfit for battle” during the Boer War. Captured on suspicion of desertion and treason—during a trek across an unchanging desert of bushes, rocks, and ant hills to help transport a fellow-soldier, who has suffered debilitating shell-shock, to his mother—they are forced to await the judgment of a General Bergh, unsure whether they are to be conscripted into Bergh’s commando, allowed to continue their mission, or executed for treason. As the weeks pass, and the men’s despair at ever returning to their families reaches its peak, they are sent on a bizarre mission . . .

A South African Heart of Darkness, Ingrid Winterbach’s To Hell with Cronjé is a poetic exploration of friendship and camaraderie, an eerie reflection on the futility of war, and a thought-provoking re-examination of the founding moments of the South African nation.

As a special preview, coming up in the fall 2010 are: Mathias Énard’s Zone, Juan José Saer’s Glosa, Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassadors, and a couple more titles we’re still working on. More information as soon as we have it . . .

3 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After briefly lamenting the fact that there’s not a lot of places to turn to to learn about/gain exposure to international poetry, I opened my mail and found the new issue of Rattapallax, which, along with CALQUE and Circumference, is one of the best sources for poetry in translation. This particular issue kicks off by featuring eleven Bengali poets . . .

Also arriving within the past few days is issue #11 of PEN America, which also has some great international content, including: an interview between Adam Gopnik and Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, fiction by Alejandro Zambra (from Megan McDowell’s translation of The Private Lives of Trees, which cough cough, Open Letter is publishing in the spring, but isn’t credited for in the journal . . .), memoir from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and poetry by Liu Xiaobo (trans by Jeffrey Yang). (And a piece by Ed Park!)

30 June 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

We wanted to post this article about Alejandro Zambra in The Nation when it came out a few weeks ago, but we were in the middle of trying to sign Zambra up, so we wanted to wait until it was official.

Readers who consider Roberto Bolano the pole star of contemporary Chilean fiction will be jolted by Zambra’s little book. For though Zambra has been stamped as the Next Great Chilean Writer in many circles, he’s in no way Bolano’s heir. (But then, who is?) Where the heroes of Bolano’s novels are resolutely proletarian, Zambra’s characters are mostly downwardly mobile bourgeoisie. (At one point, Bonsai even refers to working-class beachgoers as lumpen, or riffraff.) Where Bolano wrought romantic detective stories showcasing the virtues of courage and integrity, Zambra’s protagonists lead mundane lives rife with small deceptions. It’s no surprise that Zambra says he reads Bolano very little. He doesn’t care much for Bolano’s literary hero Julio Cortazar, either.

(Chad just shuddered a little when he read those last two sentences)

Well, it’s now official. In 2010, Open Letter will be publishing Zambra’s second novel, The Private Lives of Trees, in a lovely translation by Megan McDowell. Bonsai was one of our favorite books last year, and we couldn’t be more excited to be publishing this new book.

A ways back, we published a short review of the book than Megan wrote:

Zambra’s second book, La vida privada de los arboles (The Private Lives of Trees) has not been published in English. This book is slightly longer and more intimate in its feel—we are brought deeper into the everyday tragedy of the main character, Julián. Julián is waiting for his wife, Verónica, to come home from her drawing class. This is the premise of the book, Julián’s ever more desperate waiting, the thoughts and memories that accompany his vigil: “the story goes on and Verónica hasn’t arrived, best to keep that in view, repeat it one and a thousand times: when she comes home the novel ends, the book continues until she comes home or until Julián is sure that she will never come home again.”

25 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments



E.J. mentioned this earlier, but now that we actually have a physical issue in hand, I thought I’d add a bit of information.

As noted in the earlier post, this issue of Zoetrope: All-Story is dedicated to contemporary Latin American writers. All of the writers included in this issue are under 40 (born post-One Hundred Years of Solitude) and the vast majority have never been published in English translation.

From the introduction by Daniel Alarcon and Diego Trelles Paz:

The view of Latin American letters, at least in the United States, has sorely needed an update for quite some time. Magical realism has been one of Latin America’s most profitable exports for many years, operating as the prevailing commercial literary mode long after outliving its usefulness. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solidtude (1967) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), two books we would describe—without exaggeration—as perfect, served as precursors to an unfortunate string of imitatons, novels that combined a little magic, a little folklore, and a few miraculous recipes in entirely predictable formulas, creating an exotic, unrealistic, and ultimately damaging vision of Latin America. Perhaps the most dispiriting consequence of this stylistic hegemony is that so many other worthy writers have received less attention than they deserve. Giants like Jorge Luis Borges and Mario Vargas Llosa are widely celebrated, though not widely read in English—to say nothing of Juan Carlos Onetti, Juan Rulfo, Clarice Lispector, Julio Cortazar, or Manuel Puig. In this context, the recent canonization of Roberto Bolano in the United States and around the world is a truly welcome development, which we hope will lead to greater interest in not-yet-famous and emerging Latin American writers.

To that end, they included a diverse list of authors from a range of countries, including: Carolina Sanin (Colombia), Ronaldo Menendez (Cuba), Ines Bortagaray (Uruguay), Rodrigo Hasbun (Bolivia), Alejandro Zambra (Chile), the late Aura Estrada (Mexico), Slavko Zupcic (Venezuela), and several others.

A quick word about the design: Zoetrope is always beautiful, but this time they outdid themselves. The paper so supple, and I really like the inclusion of the original Spanish version of the stories in the back on blue-tinted paper. Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro was the guest designer and interspersed throughout the issue are wonderful full-color sketches from his notebook.

You can order a copy (and find out more about this issue) by visiting the Zoetrope: All-Story website.

And as pointed out in the comments section by Daniel Olivas there’s a great interview with Daniel Alarcon over at La Bloga.

18 March 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

The latest Zoetrope: All Story is out now, and it’s dedicated to Latin American Fiction and was edited by Daniel Alarcón and Diego Trelles Paz.

The Spring 2009 edition is a special release dedicated to the best emerging writers in Latin America—all under the age of forty and most previously untranslated. We’re pleased to present the stories both in English and in their original languages, Spanish or Portuguese.

Best of all, there’s a story by Alejandro Zambra, whose Bonsai was one of my favorite novels last year.

Buy yourself a copy today.

(via: btf)

18 December 08 | Chad W. Post |

For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Carolina De Robertis. (Chile, Melville House)

For the third straight day we’re featuring a Chilean author from the Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, although the author’s country of birth might be the only similarity between Bolano’s novels and Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai. Just in terms of length, 2666 is by far the longest novel of the bunch, whereas Bonsai clocks in at 83 very white-space heavy pages.

Which isn’t to say that this novel is “slight,” or that it lacks the depth of longer novels. The thing that first struck me about this novel is how sweeping Zambra’s short, perfectly crafted chapters can be. Actually, I take that back. The thing that first caught my attention was this fantastic opening paragraph:

In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was along some years before her death, Emilia’s death. Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called, and continues to be called Julio. Julio and Emilia. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature:

So there. That takes care of the plot and suspense about how the novella ends . . . Although obviously it doesn’t. The “middle” of books is what’s often the most fascinating, and that’s absolutely true of Bonsai.

In a way, the book is constructed like a bonsai, with little tufts of story that connect in a deeper, trunk-like way. For instance, the way we (and Julio) learn of Emilia’s death through a third person who is connected to Emilia and only tangentially to Julio leads to a very moving scene that is also quite intricate.

And Zambra’s playful tone is very compelling, and the quasi-metafictional moment in the middle of the novel. Julio, who has already broken up with Emilia and is with a new girlfriend, interviews for a job transcribing a famous author’s novel. He tells his girlfriend that he got it, only to find out the next morning that the project went to someone else. Rather than admit this, he starts going to a park every day and frantically writes a novel called “Bonsai,” which he passes off as the work of the famous novelist.

To Maria: It’s the greatest test for a writer. In Bonsai almost nothing happens, the plot could be told in two paragraphs, a story that perhaps is not that good.

And what are they called?

The characters? Gazmuri didn’t name them. He says it’s better, and I agree: they are He and She, Huacho and Pochocha, John and Jane Doe, they don’t have names and maybe they don’t have faces either. The protagonist is a king or beggar, it’s all the same. A king or beggar that lets go of the only woman he ever truly loved.

And he learned to speak Japanese?

They met in a Japanese class. The truth is that I don’t know yet, I think that’s in the second notebook.

Bonsai is a perfect example of what Melville House is doing with their Contemporary Art of the Novella Series. Zambra started his writing career as a poet, and after publishing two collections, started a book that “little by little, capriciously, the text took on the form of a novella or long story or bonsai-book.” Not many publishers are willing to publishing books of this length, preferring longer novels, or a novella plus stories (which they’ll then claim doesn’t sell), which is sort of sad, since this book is the exact length it needs to be and stands well on its own.

But thanks to Melville House and what they did with their “classic” novella series—publishing “known” authors and creating an attractive “set” of books—they’re now able to sucessfully introduce American readers to authors like Zambra (or Kevin Vennemann, or Benoit Duteurtre).

10 January 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is an overview of two books by Alejandro Zambra—Bonzai (forthcoming from Melville House), and La vida privada de los arboles (untranslated)—by Megan McDowell, a young translator at the University of Texas, Dallas and former Dalkey Archive employee.

10 January 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

There is a series of popular literature in Chile that you can still buy in used book fairs, which color-coded books according to World literature (beige), Spanish Literature (red), and Chilean Literature (brown). There was no Latin American literature. This conception of things made an impression on Alejandro Zambra, who says he is part of the last generation to grow up reading these books, for whom Chilean literature was brown, and Borges part of that nebulous “World literature.” This library makes an appearance in Zambra’s novel La vida privada de los arboles, when the main character reminisces about the small wealth the acquisition of these books meant for his middle class family in the 80’s, when books were hard to come by.

While I was in Chile last year looking for a translation project, I went to bookstores, met with editors and authors, and quizzed them all about important contemporary writers in Chile—Alejandro Zambra was the only author who showed up on everyone’s list. Zambra has published two novels with Anagrama, Bonzaí and La vida privada de los arboles, which he calls “sibling-books”, united by the central image of a man jealously, almost obsessively tending a bonsai tree. The image is a metaphor for the creation of literature, and is a good figure to accompany Zambra’s own carefully crafted, often surprising style. Zambra writes following Borges’ advice to “write as if summarizing a book that has already been written;” the result is a voice that is both detached and personal, cool and intense.

Bonzai has just been published in its entirety as part of the Latin American issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, translated by Carolina de Robertis, and the same translation is set to be published by Melville House Press. The book is short, but its compass is broad, both in terms of the time spanned in the book and the emotional layers it accomplishes. The book follows Julio, who falls in love with Amelia. They share a consuming relationship and literary aspirations; they are disillusioned by both relationship and literature, and separate. Julio’s dreams of writing eventually turn into the goal of growing, shaping and tending a bonsai tree, because ‘“Caring for a bonsai is like writing,’ thinks Julio. ‘Writing is like caring for a bonsai.”’

Zambra’s second book, La vida privada de los arboles (The Private Lives of Trees) has not been published in English. This book is slightly longer and more intimate in its feel—we are brought deeper into the everyday tragedy of the main character, Julián. Julián is waiting for his wife, Verónica, to come home from her drawing class. This is the premise of the book, Julián’s ever more desperate waiting, the thoughts and memories that accompany his vigil: “the story goes on and Verónica hasn’t arrived, best to keep that in view, repeat it one and a thousand times: when she comes home the novel ends, the book continues until she comes home or until Julián is sure that she will never come home again.”

Of both books, Zambra says “I obeyed the simple desire to put forth images that seemed valid to me. Now I think that in writing those books I wanted to name the mediocre, non-novelistic lives of those of us who grew up reading red, beige, brown-colored books. Now I think that I wanted, perhaps, to speak of characters that don’t want or cannot be characters, maybe because they are Chilean. Maybe I wanted to speak of our poor vegetable past, of deception, of fragile new families; ultimately, of the life which is, as John Ashbery says, ‘a book that has been put down,’ and of death, the deaths of others and our own death.”

In my opinion, Zambra is the best of a generation of Chilean writers that has little or no unifying characteristic, a generation that is starting to experiment more than any other generation has in Chile. Zambra writes of Chilean novelists that “they, we, write from outside in, as if the novel were, really, the long echo of a suppressed poem. ” He makes no claims or attempts to be representative of his country or era, and in that lies the brightness of his writing: the simple endeavor to say something true along with the awareness of the relativity of that truth. Zambra’s “valid images” are delicate portraits are the everyday, and his books some of the most exciting of that recent category, Latin American literature.

Books by Alejandro Zambra:

Bonzai
96 pages, 9.50 €
978-84-339-7129-6
Anagrama

Translation from the Spanish by Carolina de Robertis forthcoming from Melville House

La vida privada de los arboles
128 pages, 12 €
978-84-339-7154-8
Anagrama

Not Yet Translated into English

....
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