Artist-activist Maria is on the playing field of her current job when the sudden appearance of the daughter of her ex-best friend, Anna, sends her on a fragmented journey through her life and their friendship, never without political context:
The day PASOK wins the election, I lose my virginity. Now that’s what I call a “rendezvous with history.”
The trite humor is a bit disconcerting. Is this maybe just an intellectual romance novel after all? But the bad pass is forgotten with the description of the act that follows.
Fifteen-year-olds who want to have sex and at least try to enjoy it. Who smoke and discuss Barthes and go to demonstrations in passages that unabashedly use words like “freedom” and “revolution.” Amanda Michalopoulou scores a goal for completely believable 1970s teenagers.
Still, the political contextualization often slows down the game. No station in post-dictatorship, pre-crisis Greece is missing. Not to mention World Economic Forum protests in Geneva, oil company protests in Nigeria and, of course, Seattle, where “Kayo and I vomited side by side at the barricades.” Kayo, the good best friend taken off the bench to replace bad best friend, Anna. This is Maria and Kayo’s first meeting:
“Kayo you smell like Africa” He shoves me away. “No you don’t understand! I was born in Nigeria.” I hug him, sink my nose into his neck and breathe in the smell of Gwendolyn, grilled suya, soil after a tropical rain. Kayo’s eyes tear up—he must be pretty drunk too. Then he bends down and kisses my hand.
Now I’m perfectly willing to believe Maria thinks she’s not racist because she loves Gwendolyn, her childhood nanny. After all, she’s a weak-willed, naive, romantic idealist, although I’m not sure this is what I was supposed to take away from that paragraph. But that this reassures a twenty-something left black gay man? Suspension of belief only goes so far—this is realism after all. Penalty kick for the Ivory Coast.
But when we finally get the replay of the incident that turned Anna into an ex-friend, Michalopoulou scores again. Not so much for the event itself, and certainly not for the cave–subconsciousness metaphor that runs throughout the novel, but for the way in which it triggers Maria’s memory of the childhood trauma that led to her exile from Africa. For at least trying to acknowledge the specter of colonialism that haunts the global left. In a novel, you can kill your annoying best friend. What we will do with all the annoyance in the world no one knows.
But two goals don‘t make up for the fact that for most of Why I Killed My Best Friend, Michalopoulou is to-ing and fro-ing in midfield (‘to and fro’, according to Merriam Webster, is an adjective, noun, or adverb, but I am not obliged to use American English, so suck my dick).
That last convention is lifted from Allah Is Not Obliged. The ten-year-old narrator of Ahmadou Kourouma’s novel, Birahima, “the fearless, blameless street kid, the child soldier,” also uses a lot of dictionaries to tell the story of his time as a child-soldier in Liberia.
I need to be able to explain stuff because I want all sorts of different people to read my bullshit: colonial toubabs, Black Nigger African Natives and anyone that can understand French.
So you never get further than a couple of paragraphs without the intrusion of a definition. These interruptions are often infuriating, there’s no possibility of escaping into characters or narrative, but suddenly the Ivory Coast is scoring goals left and right. After all, child soldiers are always on drugs, maybe this is just the running commentary of a hash high. Or the dissociation necessary to retain sanity, a paean to the resilience of so many former child soldiers. Either way, it’s an absolutely brilliant idea that allows for one the most clear-headed explorations of atrocity I’ve ever read. And certainly one of the funniest.
A country is a fucked-up mess when you get warlords dividing it up between them like in Liberia, but when you’ve got political parties and democrats on top of the warlords it’s a big-time fucked-up mess.
Ivory Coast 4–Greece 2
Laura Radosh feels like she’s violated a FIFA rule for not letting an Open Letter book win. She’s also a translator living in Berlin who would have called a tie if she’d been judging the brilliant translations.
Welcome back to my monthly ramble about forthcoming works of literature in translations, which, as always, is punctuated by jokes, rants, and whatever else comes to mind.
Even more so than usual, I’m really excited about this month’s offerings—and I actually have some things to say about the books themselves!—so my usual intro will be a bit shorter (and less angry) than usual.
That said, I do have something serious that I’d like to talk about: retranslations. Specifically, what books from the last decade will be retranslated 50-60 years from now.
Way back when, I was on a panel at the London Book Fair with John Sturrock shortly after his retranslation of the “Sodom and Gomorrah” section of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time had come out. At some point during the conversation, he mentioned the accepted adage that every great work of international literature has to be retranslated every 50 years or so.
I’ve never heard a great explanation of why a translation “ages” faster than the original, but this belief—that a translation is somehow less “lasting” than the book itself—has been repeated by dozens of great writers and translators and, for whatever mysterious reason, seems to be true.
The cynical side of me would argue that the need for retranslations is tied to the financial windfall that comes from the “DEFINITIVE TRANSLATION!” marketing copy that accompanies these books. Especially since the books that tend to be retranslated are the ones with the largest classroom sales . . . Well, except maybe War & Peace, which would make most undergrads cry, but Random House still made bank off of that.
On a less cynical note, there is something to the idea that a translation can be “refreshed” every so often. That, for whatever strange mental reason, the changes to the way language is used in the target language make certain translations feel very dated. Which makes no sense when you think about it—outdated slang in the original is given a pass, but in the translation it seems glaring—but it happens.
From a translator’s perspective, a retranslation must be a fun challenge: How do you distinguish your Thoman Mann, Cervantes, Lispector, Tolstoy from the versions that came before? I feel like most translators who retranslate classics tend to have a specific reason for working on a given book. Something about the earlier versions doesn’t gibe with their interpretation or idea of how the book should be rendered. (This makes for great afterwords, such as Breon Mitchell’s fantastic one for his translation of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum.)
Point being, retranslations happen. Classic texts are “made new” for new generations of readers all the time, and each generation of readers has “their” Dostoyevsky/Cervantes/etc. And there’s no reason to believe that this will stop anytime soon. (Back to Cynical Chad: If a publisher can make money on a retranslation of a popular book, they will.)
Which raises the question: Fifty years from now, which works of contemporary international literature will be retranslated?
I have a hard time thinking about this for some reason . . . My assumptions are that books that continue to sell in decent quantities (or could, given a “definitive” new translation), that have reached a certain level of “critical acclaim,” and that have some sort of theoretical justification for why they’d need a retranslation (for example, a book that was incomplete at the time of publication or whatever) will be ones that publishers will consider retranslating.
So projecting oneself 50 years into the future, which books might fit these criteria?
I’m interested to hear what everyone else has to say, but the first authors that come to mind are Bolaño, Knausgaard, and . . . I’m at a loss. Even with those two, I can’t imagine retranslating either. Especially not a Natasha Wimmer translation! But I have the same reaction to every author I think of (David Grossman? Mo Yan? Mikhail Shishkin?), but yet, I know this is going to happen to some book that I revere. It’s an interesting mind experiment though . . . if our goal is to bring out books that people will be reading in 2114, then essentially we’re trying to publish books that will inspire future generations of translators to work on them . . .
I think all of Knausgaard’s death stuff from the first volume of My Struggle is starting to get to me . . . on to the May books!
My Struggle: Book Three by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Archipelago Books)
Speaking of Karl Ove . . . On Friday, at the PEN World Voice “Literary Mews with CLMP” event, I had a chance to talk briefly with Eliot Weinberger about Knausgaard. Can’t remember how this came up, but he pointed out that My Struggle may well be the worst thing to ever happen to MFA program, because students will be tempted to imitate Knausgaard somewhat self-indulgent autobiographical style: “Hey, my life is as boring as his is!” As Eliot pointed out, there is a 100-page section about getting beer for a New Year’s Eve party . . .
Which is all absolutely true—I do not envy creative writing instructors—but, I think perceptive readers really could learn a lot about structure and form from Knausgaard. The reason his books work (and granted, I’m only at page 300-and-something in the first volume, so take this with a grain of ignorance) is partially due to his sentence writing, and mostly due to the way his digressions are organized and the grand shifts of the narrative. That 100-page bit on getting beer for the party is a perfect counterpoint to his father’s filthy drunken death. And within each of the parts, the way in which the narrative shifts from present moment (the writing of My Struggle, more or less) to the past (e.g., death of his father), to a pertinent moment in the more distant past (e.g., his adoration for his brother, which he unspools while considering whether he should propose having the funeral in their grandmother’s totally wrecked house) works like a musical score, almost like a fugue.
Young writers should pay attention less to the content—“I can chronicle every second of my life as well!”—and more to Knausgaard’s real art.
Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Stacey Knecht (Archipelago Books)
This year is the 100th anniversary of Hrabal’s birth, which is why Archipelago has a number of great events lined up for this book. (Unfortunately, I’ll be in town for exactly none of them.) If you have a chance to check out any of the events in Brooklyn or Boston, I’m sure they’ll be quite entertaining . . . just like Hrabal’s prose.
Harlequin’s Millions is actually the next book that I’m going to start reading, once all my grades are in. I went on a Hrabal bender probably ten years ago, and haven’t read anything since . . . So I’m really looking forward to getting into this and into Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab.
Papers in the Wind by Eduardo Sacheri, translated from the Spanish by Mara Faye Lethem (Other Press)
So how about that all-Madrid Champions League final? Although Real Madrid looks like the best side in all of Europe right now, I’m really hoping that Atlético Madrid pull this out. After decades of Barça and Real Madrid dominance, it’s exciting to see a new team breakthrough—one that spent less than half of what those superpowered clubs did on wages.
Actually, I’m willing to bet that Ronaldo spent more on beauty products in the past year than Atlético did on its entire team.
(I’m sure Will Evans and George Carroll could see that joke coming a mile away.)
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House)
Luiselli actually has two books coming out this month—this novel and Sidewalks, a collection of personal essays. Both of these books sound really interesting (I love the idea of Faces in the Crowd being told in four different times by two different narrators), as does Luiselli’s life in general: born in Mexico City, raised in South Africa, author of a novella in installments for workers in a juice factory . . . But here, just watch this:
Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Open Letter)
I’ll explain this in more detail in a later post, but my World Literature & Translation class selected this book as the “Best Translated Book of Our Class.” I had them read eight contemporary translations and then argue about which one is the best and why. Some classes focus on the translation challenges, other on the general enjoyability of the book itself, others on trying to raise the profile of a certain literary scene that might otherwise be overlooked . . . It’s kind of a perfect way for being able to bring up a ton of different issues related to literature.
WIKMBF has been getting a lot of attention recently. It was on Flavorwire’s Must-Read Books for May, and featured on _Music & Literature. Since I’m clearly biased in favor of this novel, I’m going to let Jennifer Kurdyla explain why you should read it:
Much like the exquisitely rendered friendship of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy, set during a similar time period in Italy, here is a portrait of what it means to use and be used by the people you love most, to see the best and worst of yourself in a face not your own. And it’s a sign of incredible maturity and wisdom for this fine, prolific, and audacious young writer to fearlessly embrace the challenge of brining that uncomfortable internal conflict to the page. She reminds us how it feels to be, as Maria is, knocked down by “a wild animal [that] charges into the room . . . before I know what’s hit me,” and to meet the gaze of “an eye glaring fiercely” at us when that eye is, perhaps, our own.
How’s the Pain? by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Emily Boyce (Gallic Books)
This past weekend, I took my kids to a cabin in the Adirondacks where we all experienced the Adirondack Extreme Adventure Ropes Course. Actually, to be honest, I didn’t make it to the “Extreme” course . . . although I was somehow able to balance, climb, zip line, and swing through the five main ropes courses. This was my first ropes course experience, and it was fucking incredible. Zip lines are kind of the best thing ever. I want to travel to work by zip line. And to swing over a river 100-feet off the ground is the closest I’ll ever come to feeling like a superhero . . . That said, this experience also reinforced just how out of shape I am these days. There was one section that involved crawling through three hoops while on a tightrope wire . . . I could barely lift my leg over the ring . . . It’s like that Louis C.K. bit about how the hardest part of his day is putting on his socks. Getting old and chubby is not fun. On the bright side, two days later I can actually lift my arms again!
A Man: Klaus Klump by Gonçalo Tavares, translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil (Dalkey Archive Press)
That cover reminds me a bit of Tao Lin’s Taipei, although a lot less shiny. Given this post on Caustic Cover Critic the finished cover may be entirely different. And seriously, what’s going on with the four books listed on that blog? The original listed covers—the ones with the large images and the bibliographic info on the left—are totally fine. Nothing mind blowing, but respectable. Elegant. The new ones? OUCH. I just don’t get it at all. Also, you can now order all your books through Dalkey’s website using your Amazon account?!? I can’t imagine independent bookstores—or Barnes & Noble—are pleased about that.
Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones, translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford (And Other Stories)
On the flipside, I really love And Other Stories’s covers. I also like the way in which the first batch all had one particular look—a lot of angles, “X’s” like on the cover above—and the second batch fits together—lots of circles, like with this book. These are books that, even if I don’t have time to read them, I must own. As a complete set. That’s powerful in terms of marketing and branding, and is one—of many—things that And Other Stories has done right in launching their press.
Ludwig’s Room by Alois Hotschnig, translated from the German by Tess Lewis (Seagull Books)
Seagull is also at the far end of the design spectrum—their catalogs are legendary in their opulence, and their books are well-crafted and always quite attractive. Tess Lewis was a judge for the BTBA a couple years back, and it’s great to see that she has a book eligible for next year’s award. And of (quite loose) category of “World War II” books, this one—about a man who comes to realize the disturbing lengths his great-uncle’s village went to in order to protect the people who worked in a nearby prison camp—seems pretty unsettling.
Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier, translated from the French by Malcolm Imrie (NYRB)
I’m personally not big on war books, but this bit of Chevallier’s bio caught my eye:
He began writing Fear in 1925 but did not publish it until 1930, a year after his first novel, Durand: voyageur de commerce, was released. Fear was suppressed during World War II and not made available again until 1951.
Books that are suppressed are the most intriguing books . . .
OK that’s it for May. Hope you find a couple of things on here worth checking out.
Following on the post about Amanda Michalopoulou’s upcoming events, here’s a list of all three Reading the World Conversation Series events taking place this month.
Women in Translation
Thursday, April 10th, 6pm
Rush Rhees Library
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627
A conversation and reading with Bulgarian authors Albena Stambolova (Everything Happens as It Does) and Virginia Zaharieva (Nine Rabbits), and Danish author Iben Mondrup (Justine, forthcoming from Open Letter in 2016) and translator Kerri Pierce to discuss their writing and careers—both in their home countries and abroad.
Radical Politics and BFFs
Tuesday, April 15th, 6pm
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627
A conversation and reading with Greek author Amanda Michalopoulou and translator Karen Emmerich as they read and discuss Amanda’s Why I Killed My Best Friend.
“Flawlessly translated, Amanda Michalopoulou’s WIKMBF uses the backdrop of Greek politics, radical protests, and the art world to explore the dangers and joys that come with BFFs. Or, as the narrator puts it, ‘odiosamato,’ which translates roughly as ‘frienemies.’” –Gary Shteyngart
Latin American Literature Today
Tuesday, April 22nd, 6pm
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627
A conversation with two of the authors included in Granta Magazine’s “Best Young Spanish-language Novelists” issue—Andrés Neuman (Traveler of the Century, Talking to Ourselves) and Carlos Labbé (Navidad & Matanza, Loquela), and translator and University of Rochester alum Will Vanderhyden, on their latest words and current trends in Latin American Literature.
Amanda Michalopoulou’s second novel to appear in English, the brilliantly titled Why I Killed My Best Friend, doesn’t officially come out until May 20th, but we released it a couple months early for her cross-country tour.
The book details the lifelong ups-and-downs of two best friends who meet in grade school when they both move back to Greece from other countries. (The narrator longs for her beloved Africa, Anna has been growing up in the refined atmosphere of Paris.) Like any best friends, they are also intimate rivals, a rivalry that is reignited years later when Anna reenter’s Maria’s life and basically takes over Maria’s radical political group. This mixture of Greek politics and the emotional turmoil that comes along with best friendship make this an incredible book that really does end with with a death . . .
If you’re not sold yet, here’s Gary Shteyngart’s blurb: “Flawlessly translated, Amanda Michalopolou’s WIKMBF uses the backdrop of Greek politics, radical protests, and the art world to explore the dangers and joys that come with BFFs. Or, as the narrator puts it, ‘odiodsamato,’ which translates roughly as ‘frienemies.’”
Now the tour:
Exhibit X Reading Series
Thursday, April 10th, 7pm
341 Delaware Ave.
Buffalo, NY 14202
Reading the World Conversation Series: Radical Politics and BFFs
Tuesday, April 15th, 6pm
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627
Amanda Michalopoulou with Translator Karen Emmerich
Wednesday, April 16th, 7:30pm
Powell’s Books on Hawthorne
3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd.
Portland, OR 97214
Center for the Art of Translation: An Evening with Amanda Michalopoulou
Friday, April 18th, 6pm
The Book Club of California
312 Sutter St
San Francisco, CA 94108
Reading at City Lit Books
Sunday, April 20th, 3pm
City Lit Books
2523 North Kedzie Blvd.
Chicago, IL 60647
There are also events in the works at Brown University and Princeton. As soon as we have the details confirmed, I’ll post about them here and will put them in our recently resuscitated Translation Events Calendar. (If you have an event you want to add to this, simply email kaija.straumanis [at] rochester.edu.)
Our latest GoodReads Giveaway is for Amanda Michalopoulou’s Why I Killed My Best Friend, which may well win the prize for the best Open Letter title ever. And, along with Navidad & Matanza, it’s in the running for one of the best blurbs:
“Flawlessly translated, Amanda Michalopolou’s WIKMBF uses the backdrop of Greek politics, radical protests, and the art world to explore the dangers and joys that come with BFFs. Or, as the narrator puts it, ‘odiodsamato,’ which translates roughly as ‘frienemies.’”—Gary Shteyngart
This novel, which is coming out in May, is the second book of Michalopoulou’s to come out in the U.S., the first being I’d Like, which Dalkey brought out a few years back. (And both of which are translated by Karen Emmerich.) It’s a book about two women—Maria who relocates to Greece from Africa, and Anna who moved to Greece from Paris—and their lifelong “friendship” that is filled with both unquestioned support and bitter competition.
The structure of the novel, and the way it fills in the details of their present day relationship (which is reignited when Anna’s daughter ends up in Maria’s art class) with flashbacks to the tumultuous events of growing up in Greece in 70s works incredibly well, and provides and interesting look into the impact politics can have on friendships and life in general.
We’re giving away 20 copies, so if you’re a GoodReads user, be sure and sign up below.
Also, we’re in the final stages of planning a reading tour for Amanda that will take place in April. More information about that in the near future.
Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading has a wonderfully detailed write up of the Center for the Art of Translation Event that took place last week where Karen Emmerich read from the work of four of her favorite Greek authors.
You should really read Scott’s complete write-up, but here’s are the brief highlights of the four authors:
Emmerich started the event by reading from the text I’d Like, [by Amanda Michalopoulou] which was awarded the NEA’s International Literature Prize. I have seen I’d Like variously described as a novel in stories, a collection of linked stories, a fictional biography, or the shards of a novel yet to form itself.
I’d Like was one of my favorite books from the 2009 Best Translated Book longlist and hopefully someone (possibly Open Letter) will bring out more of Michalopoulou’s work.
The second writer Emmerich presented was the poet Eleni Vakalo. [. . .] Emmerich read from a book of Vakalo’s that is one of a collection of nine books called The Other Side of Things, written between 1954 and 1994. Emmerich described this work as as one continuous poem with titles interspersed and called these 9 books, which she is currently translating, a 15-year project.
The third of the four authors presented Tuesday afternoon was Ersi Sotiropoulos, an avant-garde Greek writer born in 1953. Emmerich first discussed the odd case of her book Zigzag Through the Bitter-Orange Trees, which was censored as pornographic and removed from school libraries in Greece. Emmerich considered this to be a sexist gesture, as she noted that one of the most celebrated works in the Greek postwar period, Megas Anatolikos (Great Eastern by Andreas Embirikos), is a completely filthy work that consists of the transatlantic journey of what Embirikos calls a “hedonistic vessel.”
The final author that Emmerich read from was the Greek poet Miltos Sachtouris, whose collection Poems (published by Archipelago Books) was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2007.
Might be because it’s Monday, but this event strikes me as a sort of perfect storm of international literature . . . You have a incredibly talented translator giving English readers recommendations of four modern Greek writers that have been published in translation at an event organized by one of the premiere translation organizations in the country and reported on by one of the best international literature blogs . . .
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.
I’d Like by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich. (Greece, Dalkey Archive)
For me, this collection of linked stories (or collection of unwritten novels? or metafictional labyrinth?) has been the most pleasant surprise on the Best Translated Book fiction longlist so far.
Back a few years ago, when I was working at Dalkey Archive, I wrote the grant application that got this book a decent amount of funding from the NEA and Greek Government as part of the “International Literary Exchange” program that Dana Gioia of the NEA had put together. Anyway, at that time, Ana Lucic had found out about Amanda Michalopoulou and was able to give me a reader’s report and a short sample of the book to help with writing the grant. (In case you’re wondering, it’s great fun writing grants about books you haven’t read in their entirety. On one hand, providing details about why a book is grant-worthy becomes a bit more tricky, but it’s easier to believe that a book is “one of the most important works of the time” without any contradictory literal evidence.)
The sample that I remember reading is the story “What Will You Do Next?” in which a character and his author have a conversation on the phone. It’s a very playful, and very well done story, that got me excited about the book as a whole. (And btw, Karen Emmerich’s translation was incredibly well done. The Emmerich family is a wee bit talented.) But I left Dalkey before the finished translation arrived and over the winter break, finally had a chance to read this book and see just how imaginative, captivating, and complex it is.
When I read “linked stories” in jacket copy, I assume that some of the same characters appear from one story to the next. A baker in story one becomes the protagonist of story four, etc. But I’d Like is a bit more complicated than that. In her own words, Michalopoulou tried “to write stories that would read like versions of an unwritten novel. Or, better, to write the biography of those stories as well as their fictional writer.”
The result is somewhat reminiscent of Nicholas Mosley’s Impossible Object in which a character in one story seems to the be author of a few others, but each time the reader feels she’s figured it all out, the line between fiction and reality jumps once again, and you’re left wondering just how these gem-like stories really fit together.
I’m probably making this sound more confusing than it is . . . Part of Michalopoulou’s triumph is the way in which each story can be read and thoroughly enjoyed independent of the others, but the motifs littered throughout the book help create a sort of grand mosaic when taken as a whole. And it’s through these recurring lines and scenes—the older sister who dies in a car accident, the mom who is tragically injured, the idea that rain only exists inside us and we see it externally when it’s “raining for enough people,” the red beret, etc.—that the reader starts to see a knotted metafictional pattern emerge.
Monica Carter (curator of Salonica World Lit) reviewed this for us a few months back and called for publishers to bring out more of Michalopoulou’s work . . . More recently, Monica interviewed Michalopoulou for Context that touches on the “recurring motif” aspect of the book (and other things):
MC: It’s interesting that you felt you need to strengthen the presence of the red beret. I loved its appearance throughout I’d Like. I also felt that there was a definite drive to communicate certain ideas and themes, as though these stories were a form of release. Were you conscious of that, or was it more of an exploration of each character?
AM: It was both. Characters are the vehicles of ideas, but they have to work as characters. If not, you’re writing theory, not literature. The idea behind the characters in this book is that family can be a mechanism of oppression. I guess all my characters feel very clearly that they are obeying other people’s wishes. Writing can be a true act of disobedience, so the desire the younger sister has to write these stories down is a step towards salvation. I believe that writing can and should do that: save characters who are suffering, and, possibly, their author as well.
A master of metafictional writing reminiscent of the French nouveau roman writers of the ’50s and in particular Marguerite Duras, Greece’s Amanda Michalopoulou invites us to view the world of one story presented through a prismatic lens of all its characters in I’d Like, a collection of thirteen gritty and poignant short stories.
I’d like . . . to know why there isn’t more of Amanda Michalopoulou’s work translated into English. Having just finished this collection, I am left with an unsated craving. The kind of craving that has a hope of being satisfied in the near future, but until then, I must content with “A Slight, Controlled Unease.” This is the title of the second short story in Michalopoulou’s collection, which focuses on a writer struggling with herself to write a short story:
The sun disappearing behind the clouds, the outdoor space heaters, the first drops of rain falling on the awning—they all heighten the impression that everything is happening both inside and out. In my heart and in the street. Why else would it start to rain just when I can no longer hold everything in? These parallels make me feel a slight, controlled unease.
And that’s what Michalopoulou accomplishes—showing us things, people and situations inside and out. In this story we see a writer lamenting her own ability as she reacts to passages she has just written. The next story, “Pointe,” begins with a passage the main character wrote in the second story and delivers to us the finished short story. This may seem confusing at first, rendering a sense of literary vertigo, but the nuance and precision of voice and character make the reader feel acclimated immediately. One story metamorphosizes into the next and it’s up to the reader to figure out how. Frankly, I like this kind of challenge. Micahlopoulou doesn’t underestimate the reader. Instead, she expects us to participate as a reader and make us aware of the relationship between writer and reader. As a reader, I always felt Michalopoulou was in control and totally aware of my presence, even winking at me in “Dad and Childhood” where the main character remembers going to a child psychologist who encourages her to read:
I like short stories best. They’re written on a more human scale. Novels seem like desperate attempts at control, and poems like attempts at grandeur. Essays I can write myself, if necessary.
Part of the allure of I’d Like is Michalopoulou’s ability to shift a character from a self-reflective nostalgia to the grittiness of the present. These characters have nowhere to hide whether in one story they are a lover and the next they are a sister and the next they are a mother. In the title story, “I’d Like,” the wife of a writer yearns to have the inspiration as a painter she once had:
Do you remember how insatiably I used to paint? I devoured the paper, chewed on my brushes. My feet never hurt in museums—I forgot they even existed. I could live for days on a single croissant; I believed that time and despair would never touch me. Can you tell me why art drives a person crazy when it promises so much? We should have known that things would end up here. In a room in the same hotel, twenty years later. The same rococo table, the blue checked bedspreads and the basket of apples from the management, with peels so many different shades of red they look painted? Why do people assume that art corrects the failings of life?
There is also the hypnotic repetition of objects, characters, places and phrases woven beautifully and poetically throughout the collection. The repetition of phrases in particular reminded me of a crown of sonnets where the last line of the sonnet becomes the first line of the next. Michalopoulou doesn’t adhere as strictly as that to any form, but the repetition gives this collection of short stories an interconnected yet amorphous feel as if all the characters are floating in the same pool skimming each other as they drift. The wife in the title story becomes the subject of discussion between two sisters, Stella and Christina, in “I’d Like (Orchestral Version).” Stella becomes the writer of “I’d Like” and the two women are the daughters of the wife in that story:
“You think I am an idiot? The wife who’s an awful painter is Mom. And the husband who walks like an elephant is Dad. Instead of him being in advertising, you made him a failed writer”
“What do you mean?”
“A childless middle-aged couple. If they hadn’t had us, they’d be dragging themselves along together just like that. Isn’t that what you were implying, Stella?”
There are many implications throughout I’d Like, but the reader should be forewarned to not take them seriously. Just when I thought I knew how the stories connected, I was proven wrong by the next one. Karen Emmerich’s translation superbly resonates with Michalopoulou’s intentions. Emmerich has won several awards for her translations and this should add to her list. I can only hope that she will be able to translate the innovative and lofty works of Amanda Michalopoulou in the future. Not only is the work itself deserving, but also we are deserving of reading such quality postmodern literature.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
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