7 November 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This post is being written under extreme jet lag. Last Saturday I flew out to attend the Sharjah International Book Fair (the slogan for which is “A Book for Every Person,” which is not to be confused with Dubai’s Film Festival slogan, “A Movie for Every Person”) and then, yesterday, flew for approximately 200 hours to attend this season’s Consortium Sales Conference. I have no idea what day it is, much less what time. So, expect some insanity below. Like, even more than usual.

Which is kind of in keeping with the part of the United Arab Emirates where I just was. For anyone who doesn’t know, Sharjah is basically a twenty-minute drive from Dubai, which is an hour or so from Abu Dhabi. This is a part of the world that doesn’t understand the concept of “right-sized.” This is particularly true in Dubai, where the Burj Khalifa makes the rest of the skyscrapers in the world look like dollhouse toys.

This building, which I think looks like something a Fantastic Four cosmic villain would crash into our planet, is next to the largest “mall” ever. (I think. I am in Minneapolis right now though, where the Mall of America people have something to say about that.) Mall is in quotes because a shopping mall shouldn’t have a 10 million gallon aquarium and an olympic-sized hockey rink and an amusement park and a massive dancing fountain. According to Wikipedia (The Worlds Finest Source of Accurate Information ™), over 750,000 people visit the mall every week. That’s fucked.

Unlike my other trips to the UAE, this time I planned ahead and booked a trip to the top of the Burj Khalifa. That’s basically what big buildings are there for, right?—to go up to the top and repeat over and over, “Wow! Look how far I can see! I’m so high!! This is totally cray!”

The most interesting part of the “At the Top” experience are these cool digital cameras that allow you to look out over Dubai and, with the click of a button, see what it looks like at night, in the day, and “historically.” The historical setting is fascinating because, spoiler alert!, all it shows you is fucking sand. Miles and miles of sand. A flat, barren desert. The gigantic lagoon adjacent to the Burj Khalifa? Completely manmade. I searched and searched and finally found a historical group of tiny houses that has now been replaced by three ginormous buildings. That’s Dubai in a nutshell—a futuristic metropolis dropped onto a formerly sterile landscape. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the UAE didn’t exist until 1972. It’s barely older than I am.

There are dozens of great pieces that have been written about the bizarre nature of Dubai. (And about the horrible way immigrants are treated there. More on that below.) But what interests me is why this all came about. At risk of sounding completely ignorant, which I am, Dubai and Abu Dhabi seem almost non-Arab when compared to the other Arabic countries in the world. I know Sheik Zayed was the force behind the creation of the UAE and, I think, a lot of these mega-projects, but why? Why did everyone decide to scrap the existing ways of life, the traditional Arab nation, and choose to make something that’s almost a parody of itself. (When I was in the Dubai Mall with Janis Oga of the Latvian Literature Center, we couldn’t decide if this was the greatest thing ever or the end of the world. It’s both.)

Along those same lines, how do the other Arab nations react to the UAE sheiks? Granted, Sheik Abu Dhabi and Sheik Dubai have tons and tons of oil, thus power and money, and Sheik Sharjah has the biggest book fair!, but do these other leaders really consult them on larger Arab world issues? Or are they just dismissed for the constant catering to ex-pats, allowing them to get wasted, sing karaoke in hotel bars, and display styles of clothing that are “inappropriate” in most surrounding countries, like Kuwait and Qatar.

It just seems so weird to me that this city just popped up out of seemingly nowhere and doesn’t really fit. I tried to find a book about this (and about the construction of the Burj Khalifa) when I was in the World’s Largest Bookstore in the Dubai Mall, but I came up empty. Someone needs to write this book. I want those stories, that context. I’ll bet it would be fascinating.

Indigo by Clemens Setz, translated from the Germany by Ross Benjamin (W.W. Norton)

I’m almost done reading this, and will definitely write a full review in the upcoming weeks. It’s a strange book about “Indigo Children,” kids who make everyone within a 12-foot radius physically sick. Parents get headaches, rashes, nosebleeds, and this before the kids are teenagers! Structurally, it’s also really interesting, with two time lines and two narrators: Clemens Setz, a former teacher who lost his job working with I-Children and is now researching the phenomenon, and Robert Tätzel, a “burnt-out” Indigo who knew Setz and struggles to keep his shit together. There’re a lot of ideas at play here, which is probably why Pynchon is referenced in the jacket copy. (Although unlike Pynchon’s books, Indigo really isn’t that funny.) Definitely worth checking out. I think there will be a lot of reviews for this in the next few weeks.

End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)

A new Erpenbeck is always cause for celebration, and this one sounds like one of her best. It’s basically five books in one, each leading to the death of an unnamed female protagonist. Repetition and difference! Also, Susan Bernofsky. Another book that’s a must and which will be talked about a lot in the next month.

My least favorite panel at the Sharjah Book Fair was “Show Me the Money! New Business Models for Digital and Digital Book Business.” First off, that phrase. So stupid. And, as you can predict, none of the people on here—all brilliant, all great in their own way—said anything specific about any new business models. Instead, they collectively came in second for working in the most trite cliches into one presentation. “Print and e will always co-exist!” “You have to digitize and monetize your source material!” “The future is digital!” AAARRGGHHH!

(BTW, John Ingram—“I prefer win-win solutions to win-lose,” “I own failure and share success”—won the “Most Cliches per Minute” contest. His talk was some Guiness World Records style shit.)

The one “idea” that was proposed as a digital business model was based on an app that’s popular in Brussels. Apparently, when you get on the subway, you can click this app, tell it the length of your journey, like 30 minutes or an hour, and it will “provide the user with the appropriate amount of content.” First off, that really is how these people talk. “Content” and “users” and “digital environment.” Based on those phrases, I assume this “content” is literally just a string of nouns and random adjectives. Fuck art, we just need thirty minutes of text! Gross. But really, this idea is idiotic. Are people really too stupid to figure out what to read if they want to finish in thirty minutes? Is that even an important issue to anyone anywhere? That’s what fucking bookmarks are for. And magazines. “Users would love a content distribution system whereby they could get short pieces on a variety of topics that they could read while being transported.” “Holy shit! You’re a genius! Let’s build an app and call it ‘Magazine.’” Fuck everything.

The Cold Centre by Inka Parei, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (Seagull Books)

One other thing that struck me during that panel was the way in which agents talk about “authors” instead of “books.” The agent on this panel brought it up a number of times in a number of different ways. The idea that a new book will help a reader (or “book user”) discover an author. That the industry must find business models that will allow authors to feed their family. Which raised a fundamental question to me: How many people really deserve to have a full-time career as a writer? Does the world need a million “writers” who produce a book every couple of years from the time they are 20 until they die?

I’m not arguing against professional novelists, but to be honest, most talented writers will produce 3 to 5 great books over their lifetime. If those books are successful, and the novelist can live off of that success, great. But publishing/the marketplace doesn’t owe them a lifetime of royalties just because they wrote one decent book. I might be too jet lagged to make my point clearly, but I think it’s a strange way of looking at the world. Authors have periods of creativity and it’s not terrible for them to have to have a second job teaching or doing something else. (Especially once their piece has been said and they start repeating themselves. Or if their last name is Franzen.)

Also, if we really believe this, that there should be hundreds of thousands of professional novelists, then we should adopt a more European model in which writers are actually supported by the government. We should set aside significant amounts of money (think the NEA times ten or more) to support the creation of culture. With a few exceptions—James Patterson, J. K. Rowling, Danielle Steel—the market is much more book-centric than author-centric.

Just Call Me Superhero by Alina Bronsky, translated from the German by Tim Mohr (Europa Editions)

Last night I was going on and on about starting a publishing/bookselling war. That it’s ridiculous for Open Letter to be all, “well, it’s cool that Bookstore X can’t carry our books because they only have room for James Patterson and Penguin classics.” Or that Book Review Y doesn’t have space for our translations because they have to review the two that FSG came out with this year. That’s bullshit. You never hear a Hollywood producer say something like, “Well, at least people are seeing movies!” (Thanks to Caroline Casey for that joke.)

I think our books are better for the world than a lot of the books that are out there. I want to fight for our books and get them into the hands of as many readers as possible. And if this is somewhat of a zero-sum game (only so much shelf space, only so many reviews a year) then we should be fighting for our books to be included. Street of Thieves is a million times better than that Harry Quebert book. Yet that got all kinds of (mostly negative) reviews and has sold 20,000 copies via supermarkets. Fuck that shit. All that space should be given to the best books, not the ones with the largest marketing budget. Every time you sell or review John Grisham, a LOL Cat dies.

Traces by Gamal Al-Ghitani, translated from the Arabic by Nadar Uthman (Bloomsbury Qatar)

Finally, Bloomsbury Qatar books are coming out in the U.S.! Maybe. They’re not listed on Amazon, or B&N, or the Bloomsbury website, so this might not be out for a while. As soon as it is though, I’m going to get a copy. I LOVED The Zafarani Files and would love to publish a paperback version. (Supposedly University of Cairo Press has one in the works, but I haven’t seen an official listing yet.) Al-Ghitani is one of the most interesting modern Arabic authors I’ve read and I hope more of his books are translated. (And stocked, sold, reviewed, and read.)

Random Sharjah Jokes, Part I:

My favorite drink from last week was the “Sharjito.” It’s just like a mojito, but without alcohol. Refreshing and you can still wake up in the morning!

When I was in Dubai for the night, I found a hotel bar showing Arsenal’s Champions League game. (This is my superpower: finding sports bars in random cities.) Anyway, right next door was a bar where a live band was performing. As I went over there to check it out, I remembered the time I was in Abu Dhabi with Ed Nawotka and saw a live band perform “Zombie” by the Cranberries over and over again. It was like a one-hit wonder band of one-hit wonder songs. (Sorry sole Cranberry fan out there, but really.) Anyway, I walked into this Dubai bar, went to get a drink, and thought, “hmm, this baseline sounds really familiar,” just as the band started screaming “ZOMMMBIEE! ZAH-AHM-BEEEE!!!” What the fuck, UAE? This song wasn’t even that popular back in 1994. They followed this up with “Wiggle” (not even kidding) and then a reprise of “Zombie.” So inexplicable.

Beirut, Beirut by Sonallah Ibrahim, translated from the Arabic by Chip Rossetti (Bloomsbury Qatar)

One of the strangest parts of my Sharjah experience was the apples. Every time I left my hotel room, someone would come in and leave a plate of three apples in Saran Wrap along with a knife, fork, and plate. This happened over and over again for no apparent reason. And because this is how I am, I made it my mission to eat every last apple. There’s nothing like eating three apples in a row right before bed. The UAE is a crazy place.

Random Sharjah jokes, Part II:

This isn’t so much a joke as a disturbing experience. On the cab ride to Dubai, a sports car cut us off, pissing off my cabbie, “Fuck you rich man!” He then explained how all cabs are tagged in the UAE, and if you go a mile over the speed limit, or cut someone off, or do anything wrong at all, you are fined. In the four years he’d been there since moving from Pakistan, he’d accumulated 23,000 dirham in fines. (Like $7,000.) He works 14-hour days and can’t save any money. But the Petrol People race their Ferraris and cut us off and overall hold down the immigrant working class. This is some serious shit and is very much the dark side of this part of the world. He also told me about a fellow cabbie who, while swerving to avoid a car, injured the wrist of a passenger. He lost his passport for three months and was fined some huge amount of money. When he got the passport back, he tried to fly home and was denied at the airport because his fine hadn’t been settled. Literally indentured servitude, and such an insidious way of keeping the lower classes down.

I had to buy a notebook in Sharjah, and found this amazingly soft, really cool one that has all sorts of great facts on the back of it, like how to determine the volume of a cone and what a scalene triangle is. It also has useful symbols, including greater than (>), maps to (->), and symmetric difference (∆). I know that ∆ is “alt-j” thanks to the band, but I have no recollection of ever learning about “symmetric difference.” Apparently, it’s the non-overlapping part of a Venn Diagram. This is amazing and I want to figure out how to use it in a conversation.

By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila, translated from the Spanish by Laurel Jethro Soutar (And Other Stories)

On the flight to Sharjah, I read all of Carrere’s Limonov, and sat next to a really friendly Pakistani couple who were very curious about this book that I couldn’t put down. I explained what it was about, how crazy Limonov’s life was, all the various stages of his life, etc. The response? “No one’s going to read that. It’s too academic. I like to read too. Right now I’m reading Your Atomic Self. It’s about how we’re all made of atoms. Changes your perspective. But when I read, I read a paragraph and then like to sit back and think about it. I don’t know about this book of yours.”

This is why publishing can be a bit discouraging at times.

Street of Thieves by Mathias Enard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (Open Letter)

The follow-up to Zone is finally available! And, unlike Zone, it includes a plethora of periods!

This book is really spectacular as it traces the young adulthood of a Moroccan boy who is kicked out of his family for fooling around with his cousin. He eventually gets to Spain where things don’t go much better for him, culminating in a really intense ending. The best thing about this novel is the encroaching sense of dread that builds throughout the narrative. You know things are just going to get worse, that something big is going to happen, but you’re never sure what or how or exactly why. It’s a great feeling and it takes a master to create such a suggestive atmosphere.

Self-Portrait in Green by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (Two Lines Press)

This. “Asked to write a memoir, [NDiaye] turned in this paranoid fantasia of rising floodwaters, walking corpses, eerie depictions of her very own parents, and the incessant reappearance of women in green.”

Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano, translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti (Yale University Press)

Yale really got lucky with this book. Although Godine has a few Modiano books in print, I suspect that this trilogy, which contains some of Modiano’s most beloved novels, will sell amazingly well. If the Nobel Prize is good for one thing, it’s that it usually brings a lot of sales revenue to relatively small presses. Over the past few years, New Directions, University of Nebraska, Serpent’s Tail, Seagull Books, and Godine have all benefitted by having published that year’s Nobel Prize winner. And then all the pundits complain that they’ve never heard of these authors, probably because they’re too busy reading and writing about the trendy, of-the-moment books instead of the best ones. Great job, media! If there’s one moment every year that makes it clear that the U.S. book culture is out of joint with the rest of the world, it’s the announcement of the Nobel Prize.

1 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Adelaide Kuehn on Alina Bronsky’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, which is translated from the German by Tim Mohr and available from Europa Editions.

Adelaide is a former intern and translation student, who has written for Three Percent a couple times in the past.

We ran a review a very positive review of Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park back in the day, and I’m really glad we’re finally able to post something on her new book.

Also worth noting that The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is the 100th book published by Europa Editions—a pretty amazing accomplishment, especially since it seems like just yesterday that they were launching their operation . . . Ah, time . . . Europa’s month long celebration is technically over, but you can read about the festivities here.

On to the review:

“Sulfia wasn’t very gifted. In fact, to be honest, I’d say she was rather stupid. And yet somehow she was my daughter—worse still, my only daughter.”

As her seventeen-year-old daughter sobs on a kitchen stool after confessing she is pregnant with an unknown man’s child, all Rosa can think about is how stupid, pathetic and unfortunate looking her only offspring is at that moment. After overcoming this disgust for her own child, Rosa feels sorry for the girl and takes action. Scalding mustard seed baths, concoctions made of cranberry and stewed laurel leaves and a knitting needle inserted into the abdomen make Sulfia violently ill but fail to take care of her problem. Several months later, Sulfia gives birth to a baby girl named Aminat.

Alina Bronsky’s novel, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, is the story of a lifetime of manipulations by a mostly, but not always, well-wishing mother. Rosa, the narrator and protagonist of the novel, controls, manipulates and judges everyone around her to get what she wants. She is frustrated by the lazy ineptitude of her daughter and does her best to insure that her grand-daughter does not end up the same way. Rosa believes that her grand-daughter Aminat has escaped her daughter’s bad genes and is on a mission to turn her into the beautiful, intelligent, well-mannered daughter she never had. Rosa takes over full control of the child and goes to great lengths to keep her away from Sulfia’s bad influence.

Rosa believes herself to be a superior being and makes that clear to everyone around her. With psychological domination and a little bribery, Rosa can accomplish anything. Rosa has an unfailing belief in her own actions, appearance, and ability to get people to do what she wants. And to her credit, Rosa almost always gets what she wants regardless of the repercussions for her loved ones. Rosa arranges, and eventually sabotages Sulfia’s three marriages, kidnaps Aminat and sends away Lina, Sulfia’s second daughter and regularly berates Sulfia with criticism about everything from her sloppy appearance to her failings as a mother.

This novel would be supremely depressing if it was not told with Rosa’s hilarious narrative voice. Alina Bronsky brilliantly conveys Rosa’s arrogance and vanity by allowing the reader to experience her thoughts and observations as she moves through the world wreaking havoc.

Read the full review by clicking here.

1 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“Sulfia wasn’t very gifted. In fact, to be honest, I’d say she was rather stupid. And yet somehow she was my daughter—worse still, my only daughter.”

As her seventeen-year-old daughter sobs on a kitchen stool after confessing she is pregnant with an unknown man’s child, all Rosa can think about is how stupid, pathetic and unfortunate looking her only offspring is at that moment. After overcoming this disgust for her own child, Rosa feels sorry for the girl and takes action. Scalding mustard seed baths, concoctions made of cranberry and stewed laurel leaves and a knitting needle inserted into the abdomen make Sulfia violently ill but fail to take care of her problem. Several months later, Sulfia gives birth to a baby girl named Aminat.

Alina Bronsky’s novel, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, is the story of a lifetime of manipulations by a mostly, but not always, well-wishing mother. Rosa, the narrator and protagonist of the novel, controls, manipulates and judges everyone around her to get what she wants. She is frustrated by the lazy ineptitude of her daughter and does her best to insure that her grand-daughter does not end up the same way. Rosa believes that her grand-daughter Aminat has escaped her daughter’s bad genes and is on a mission to turn her into the beautiful, intelligent, well-mannered daughter she never had. Rosa takes over full control of the child and goes to great lengths to keep her away from Sulfia’s bad influence.

Rosa believes herself to be a superior being and makes that clear to everyone around her. With psychological domination and a little bribery, Rosa can accomplish anything. Rosa has an unfailing belief in her own actions, appearance, and ability to get people to do what she wants. And to her credit, Rosa almost always gets what she wants regardless of the repercussions for her loved ones. Rosa arranges, and eventually sabotages Sulfia’s three marriages, kidnaps Aminat and sends away Lina, Sulfia’s second daughter and regularly berates Sulfia with criticism about everything from her sloppy appearance to her failings as a mother.

This novel would be supremely depressing if it was not told with Rosa’s hilarious narrative voice. Alina Bronsky brilliantly conveys Rosa’s arrogance and vanity by allowing the reader to experience her thoughts and observations as she moves through the world wreaking havoc. For example, Rosa often congratulates herself for her good looks and impeccable fashion sense:

My son-in-law liked me. It was understandable. I was a handsome woman. In my late forties I still looked as if I were in my mid-thirties at most. My skin was firm and radiant, and I made myself up every morning before I went anywhere—even if it was just to the kitchen. I wore only red and black. I could pull it off.

Rosa’s interactions with her husband Kalganov are also highly amusing. She tolerates him because he has a respectable job working for the government but when he leaves for another woman, Rosa is quite pleased. He still sometimes hangs around the apartment and looks up at Rosa:

Kalganov was good at that: ruining my mood. His presence could cast a shadow over any otherwise splendid moment. The spring day was beginning to fade. The wind no longer felt caressing, but rather treacherous. I closed the window and drew the curtain.

Rosa is happy to be rid of Kalganov because she does not have to carry so many groceries up to the apartment and can feign sadness to get sympathy from Sulfia. Whatever happens, Rosa makes it work to her advantage.

The novel takes place over eighteen years, beginning in 1978 when Aminat is born. The first twelve years are set in Soviet Russia, but when food, water and other goods become scarce, Rosa must formulate a plan to get her family to Germany. The Soviet regime is portrayed in the novel through Rosa’s dealings with hospitals, schools and housing services, all of which rely heavily on bribery and subtle flirting. Rosa eventually cashes in on a German cookbook writer’s inappropriate attraction to a teenage Aminat but convinces the naïve Sulfia that he is really in love with her. With the sponsorship of the German writer, Rosa gets government approval, visas and plane tickets to Germany in hopes of saving her family. While Rosa happily takes advantage of new opportunities in Germany, her family crumbles around her. The tragic ending of the novel is a result of everyone being pushed to, and for some well past, the brink of insanity by the wheeling and dealings of Rosa.

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is Alina Bronsky’s second novel released by Europa Editions and translated by Tim Mohr. Bronksy’s first novel, Broken Glass Park, was nominated for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine received a nomination for the 2010 German Book Prize. The German translation skillfully conveys the humor in the tenuous mother-daughter relationship, as well as the unfortunate irony of Rosa’s attempts at family betterment.

6 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Catherine Bailey on Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park, which was published by Europa Editions in Tim Mohr’s translation.

Catherine Bailey is a new reviewer for us—she’s a writer, artist, and activist from Seattle, WA who is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in English and a Graduate Certificate in Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Rochester. (Hence the connection.) And based on this, I’m hoping she can find some time to write a few more reviews for us . . .

Bronsky is an interesting figure. She was at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, and her latest book was on the longlist for this year’s German Book Prize. (And I believe is forthcoming from Europa Editions.)

Here’s the opening of the review:

“Sometimes I think I’m the only one in our neighborhood with any worthwhile dreams. I have two, and there’s no reason to be ashamed of either one. I want to kill Vadim. And I want to write a book about my mother.”

So begins Broken Glass Park, the achingly beautiful debut novel by Russian-born Alina Bronsky (a pseudonym). This casual treatment of deeply harbored aggressive fantasies is characteristic of Bronsky’s central protagonist, seventeen-year-old Sascha Naimann, whose thinly veneered emotional turbulence reflects the collective restlessness of the inner city housing “projects” in which the story unfolds, and in which Bronsky herself lived for a time. Like Sascha, Bronsky emigrated from Russia to Germany during early adolescence and experienced the life ascribed to those residing in a small, peripheral community suffering from economic disadvantage, cultural displacement, and linguistic marginalization. But while Bronsky’s family found its way out of the projects, the Naimanns remain, resulting in tragic consequences that span generations.

The source of Sascha’s venomous hatred for Vadim is swiftly revealed: an abusive figure from the start, he murdered her mother one night in a fit of rage before the very eyes of Sascha and her two younger half-siblings. The novel opens approximately two years after the slaughter, and though Vadim is behind bars for his insidious crime, the horror of this loss is no less fresh—nor forgivable—in the mind of the protagonist, who also serves as the narrator. As Sascha’s inner monologue winds its way, somewhat disjointedly, through reminiscences of the days before her mother’s death, the profound intellectual rigor and thoughtful, psychological gravity to which the young woman was predisposed become apparent; yet, simultaneously, so does the fact that she has since devoted these energies toward the singular objective of her stepfather’s demise, for which she waits with an infinite and calculating patience. Sascha’s roiling detestation of Vadim and consequently, of all men, is kept in check only by the layer of pointed apathy with which she meets the rest of life. At one point Sascha muses, “A Russian children’s poem comes to mind: ‘My nerves are made of steel, no, actually, I don’t have any at all.’ It’s like it was written about me. I don’t have any.” She is as a walking corpse, disdainful of the petty tribulations saddling the people in her life, kept alive only by her ardent desire to bring death to her stepfather and a symbolic resurrection to her mother through the immortal act of writing.

Click here to read the full review.

6 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“Sometimes I think I’m the only one in our neighborhood with any worthwhile dreams. I have two, and there’s no reason to be ashamed of either one. I want to kill Vadim. And I want to write a book about my mother.”

So begins Broken Glass Park, the achingly beautiful debut novel by Russian-born Alina Bronsky (a pseudonym). This casual treatment of deeply harbored aggressive fantasies is characteristic of Bronsky’s central protagonist, seventeen-year-old Sascha Naimann, whose thinly veneered emotional turbulence reflects the collective restlessness of the inner city housing “projects” in which the story unfolds, and in which Bronsky herself lived for a time. Like Sascha, Bronsky emigrated from Russia to Germany during early adolescence and experienced the life ascribed to those residing in a small, peripheral community suffering from economic disadvantage, cultural displacement, and linguistic marginalization. But while Bronsky’s family found its way out of the projects, the Naimanns remain, resulting in tragic consequences that span generations.

The source of Sascha’s venomous hatred for Vadim is swiftly revealed: an abusive figure from the start, he murdered her mother one night in a fit of rage before the very eyes of Sascha and her two younger half-siblings. The novel opens approximately two years after the slaughter, and though Vadim is behind bars for his insidious crime, the horror of this loss is no less fresh—nor forgivable—in the mind of the protagonist, who also serves as the narrator. As Sascha’s inner monologue winds its way, somewhat disjointedly, through reminiscences of the days before her mother’s death, the profound intellectual rigor and thoughtful, psychological gravity to which the young woman was predisposed become apparent; yet, simultaneously, so does the fact that she has since devoted these energies toward the singular objective of her stepfather’s demise, for which she waits with an infinite and calculating patience. Sascha’s roiling detestation of Vadim and consequently, of all men, is kept in check only by the layer of pointed apathy with which she meets the rest of life. At one point Sascha muses, “A Russian children’s poem comes to mind: ‘My nerves are made of steel, no, actually, I don’t have any at all.’ It’s like it was written about me. I don’t have any.” She is as a walking corpse, disdainful of the petty tribulations saddling the people in her life, kept alive only by her ardent desire to bring death to her stepfather and a symbolic resurrection to her mother through the immortal act of writing.

And yet, as the text carries on, we see that this is not so. Unbeknownst to Sascha, she is, in fact, a caring sister, a dedicated (if outwardly exasperated) friend, and a wellspring of sensual emotion. Through a fortuitously placed newspaper article, Sascha encounters Volker Trebur, the mysteriously alluring city section editor, and his son Felix. A complicated web of relationships develops between the three, revealing nuances of Sascha’s tenderness even as it demonstrates the extent of the damage done to her ability to give and receive love by the trauma she has sustained. Ultimately a character study, Broken Glass Park offers a poignant and telling portrait of the human condition through Sascha: she is furious, she is helpless; at times she is downright ugly, yet her compassion delivers others from pain. She is broken, and in struggling to repair herself, she often does nothing but widen the cracks in the pane of her fragile existence. Bronsky’s gift for subtle characterization makes Sascha a sympathetic, frustrating, and compellingly imperfect heroine.

Interestingly, Broken Glass Park is not composed of individual chapters; rather, it flows continuously. This stylistic choice greatly enhances the content of the novel, given that Sascha’s thoughts and perceptions are expressed in the present tense. The uninterrupted flow of the text allows for a seamless blending of the protagonist’s immediate moods and sensations with her tangential, introspective narration of actual past and imagined future. Reading Broken Glass Park is, at times, much like listening to someone think aloud—the free association so structurally important to the character’s voice leads to revelations far more significant than any dialogue would provide (though on the occasions in which it arises, Bronsky’s dialogue is solid). Moreover, the unceasing progression of the plot as told through Sascha’s eyes lends thrust to the ubiquitous sense of agitated ennui that permeates her fractured urban community. Its inhabitants are desperate for their various reasons, but escape seems distant if plausible at all. The droning of the narrator’s voice invites readers to participate, if only vicariously, in the relentless aimlessness of a journey devoid of destination—a phenomenon felt on a societal level by the impoverished immigrants of the projects, and on a personal level by Sascha’s cavernous depression. The text does not blink, so to speak, and the device is potent. There is no relieving respite from the imposition of the next heavy thought, the next unpleasant memory. There is nothing to do, in light of Sascha’s tragedy, and in light of the many unsung episodes of the troubled population around her, but to continue.

Among the novel’s most engaging themes is Sascha’s relationship with the polarities of her own emotional development. Though she condemns her mother’s gentle nature as the source of her downfall and swears to despise all men, Sascha finds herself drawn into various avenues of romantic and sexual experimentation. In her approach to these predominantly bumbling attempts at connection, she is at once mature beyond her years and alarmingly naïve. Likewise, her efforts to harden her heart for the task of exacting revenge on Vadim are counteracted by her role as a nurturing maternal figure to her young siblings and even her legal guardian, who is in many ways a child. By sending Sascha swinging, pendulum-like, between the forces of self-desecration and self-preservation, Bronsky implies that there are no absolute paths to personal fulfillment. In illustrating this tension throughout the entirety of her work, the author has given us a noteworthy body of ideas to contemplate long after the final page is turned.

Broken Glass Park, released by Europa Editions and translated by Tim Mohr, is a captivating and unsettling read. It was recently nominated for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, a distinguished award in Europe, and with its delicate treatment of the existential complexities surrounding the perpetuation of violence and the salvation of acceptance, it is likely to garner much more critical acclaim.

16 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Running a bit behind with the news here, but the Fall 2010 issue of the Quarterly Conversation is now available online. As always, there’s a lot of great content here, including an essay on Nicholson Baker as the missing link between Updike and DFW, a piece on Helene Cixous’s So Close, and tons of interesting book reviews. Here are a few additional highlights:

Mexican writer Roberto Ransom is nicely featured in this issue. First up is the translation of ‘Lizard à la Heart,’ which is part of Desparecidos, animales y artistas, a collection that Daniel Shapiro received grants from the PEN Translation Fund and the National Endowment for the Arts to translate. It’s an odd, fantastical story about a woman talking talking to her pet—a lonely crocodile locked in the bathroom.

In addition, there’s an interview with Ransom conducted by John Pluecker, which includes some interesting bits about the origins of “Lizard à la Heart” (he cites V, and the experience of buying a house only to have the ex-owner show up at all hours of the night drunk and demanding his house back), and this story about Borges and Bioy Casares:

“Just last night I heard an unforgettable quip by Borges that goes more or less as follows. As an old man, master Borges turns to his lifelong friend, Bioy Casares, and says, ‘Do you remember that towards the end of that terrible year of ’45 we considered committing suicide?’ ‘Yes, in fact, I do,’ responds Bioy. ‘What I don’t remember,’ continues Borges, ‘is if we did so or not.’”

One of the big essays in this issue is a long piece by George Prochnik on Stefan Zweig’s World of Yesterday: An Autobiography. It’s a very interesting piece that mostly focuses on Zweig’s exile and eventual suicide. Some very interesting bits in here that make it definitely worth reading:

Zweig was obsessed with the impossibility of attaining any distance on catastrophe in an age of enveloping mass media. He saw the inability to escape word of fresh disaster wherever and whenever it was happening—a phenomenon he labeled the “organization of simultaneity”— degrading humanity’s capacity to respond to suffering. “People speak so lightly of bombardments,” he wrote in one of his final letters, “But when I read of houses collapsing I collapse with them.” Over time, his justifications for being in Petropolis come to sound like dutiful recitations of holistic prescriptions. “Montaigne speaks with infinite sorrow of people who live the sorrows of others in imagination, and advises them to withdraw and isolate themselves,” he told Friderike. The contrast between the sight of Rio’s Carnival revelries (“_Très érotique, très érotique!_” he exclaimed to friends) and the latest news of wartime abominations gave the final prod to suicide. Zweig’s defeat in exile was due, also, to an inability even briefly to sustain the psychic quarantine he sporadically craved. [. . .]

Rather than staking a claim on the “real” beauties of the past, Zweig poses the question that haunts the experience of many a nostalgic émigré to this day: what do present circumstances offer by way of compensation for loss of the invariably exaggerated fantasy of sweet home? Although “it was a delusion our fathers served, it was a wonderful and noble delusion,” Zweig wrote, “more humane and more fruitful than our watchwords of today; and in spite of my later knowledge and disillusionment, there is still something in me which inwardly prevents me from abandoning it entirely.” Zweig’s paean to the aesthetic intoxication that characterized the Vienna of yesterday recalls Nietzsche’s dictum, “We have art in order that we may not perish of truth.”

Unfortunately, the only Zweig I’ve read is The Post-Office Girl, which I really enjoyed, and which made me want to read more—a desire that’s been stoked by this piece.

*

Quarterly Conversation‘s review sections is one of the highlights of each issue, and the new one doesn’t disappoint. Especially pleased to see a piece by Matt Rowe on Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s A Life in Paper, which was translated by Edward Gauvin. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I completely agree with Matt on the Cortazar connection:

Although the stories in A Life on Paper have many precedents and parallels in American writing, from Irving to Poe to Twain, the fantastic mode has been in eclipse for a century. In recent years Ray Bradbury’s freaks and dreamers, unfairly relegated to the genre shelves, are perhaps a better match than the biting humor and socio-cultural satire of a Vonnegut, despite their surface similarities. The success of writers like Kelly Link and Aimee Mann may be sign of a renaissance, or merely the exception that proves the rule.

Other literatures don’t relegate the modern fantastic to a lesser tier. Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s closest Latin American kin is not any practitioner in the overstretched category of magical realism but the inimitable Julio Cortázar; Italian readers know not only Calvino’s post-modern play but the works of his contemporaries Dino Buzzati and Tommaso Landolfi and many others. And beyond the many works of Châteaureynaud not yet in English, translator Gauvin says there is a whole school of the fantastic in French and especially Belgian letters.

This kind of tale is foreign not in its language (thanks to Edward Gauvin) but in its mere unfamiliarity. A Life on Paper is itself a talisman for preserving an endangered world.

*

Linda Lê is someone I’ve been meaning to read for a while, especially The Three Fates, which is translated by Mark Polizetti and published by New Directions. Here’s a bit from Promita Chatterji’s review:

From its first lines depicting an old man, “tired, broken . . . sitting in his small blue house like King Lear in his hovel,” the novel aligns its main characters with the most canonical of literary figures. “King Lear’s” daughters turn out to be the “Three Fates” of the title: two sisters and their cousin; three women who have left their father behind while emigrating to France from Vietnam during the early 1970’s. Living a life of relative wealth and comfort, the novel’s main thread revolves around their discussions as they plan to bring him out for a visit.

But it’s Lê‘s style that sounds most intriguing to me:

While the majority of these stories are inherently fascinating and excruciatingly detailed, The Three Fates is by no means an easy read. Although it is relatively short, the novel’s overriding feature is its forceful, difficult narration. Written without chapter or paragraph breaks—and with only a few, intermittent “section” breaks—and without any dialogue or direct discourse, the novel creates a fractured, dream-like surface that glides from one perspective to another. [. . .]

The translation, by Mark Polizetti, is impressive in its ability to render the perspectival shifts and general pacing of the language. At times, the tone of sarcasm and cruelty feels a bit over the top and the nicknames can seem clunky, but overall works quite successfully to render the fragmentation and tension that characterize the novel.

*

Finally, there’s also a piece by Anne Posten on Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park:

In some ways, Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park is exactly what one might expect from a debut novel whose narrator and heroine is a seventeen-year-old girl. The book is fast-paced, engaging, and not exactly challenging in terms of form or style. What makes the book worth reading, however, is the fact that the story is a unique one, and one which is told with great simplicity, straightforwardness, and ease. Sascha Naimann is a flawed yet very lovable heroine, and it is very difficult not to be drawn in by her voice and story.

The story takes place in Frankfurt, where Sascha lives with her younger half-brother and half-sister in a housing project filled mostly with Russian immigrants like themselves. The fact that many of the characters are meant to be speaking Russian and the interactions between newly-learned German and the mother tongue provide an interesting challenge for a translator, and one that Tim Mohr dealt with smoothly. His pop-culture background is also very well suited to the diction of a teenager, and the switches between colloquialism and precocious articulateness are navigated with ease.

Yep—another book for the “to read” pile . . .

....
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