23 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Peter Adolphsen’s The Brummstein, which is translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund and available from AmazonCrossing.

Apparently, this is the week of Larissa and AmazonCrossing books . . . As with her review of The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning, this sounds like a really interesting book:

By examining the minute connections, unlikely coincidences, and painstaking natural processes that give shape to the daily world, the work of Danish author Peter Adolphsen encapsulates—both in form and content—Blake’s image of “a world in a grain of sand.” This has never been more literally true than in his most recently translated work, The Brummstein. Beginning in 1907, and ending over eighty years later, the novella follows a mysteriously humming stone found deep within a Swiss cave through its series of unlikely owners: a hapless German anarchist and his young Jewish sweetheart, a retired ticket clerk at a railway station lost & found, an orphan boy living alone in the woods, an avant-garde artist, and a museum curator. In following the ownership of the stone, The Brummstein also traces a crash course through European (German) history—in less than 80 pages, the reader experiences both World Wars, Spanish Flu, the rise of the Soviet GDR, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But, rather than focus on a larger, more sweeping narrative, The Brummstein is told on a much more personal, human scale. [. . .]

But the book’s concern is not really the Brummstein—the mysterious humming stone that an amateur explorer looking for the entrance to another world finds at the beginning of the story is basically a MacGuffin. This has been true for many other “lives of objects” narratives as well—Jenny Erpenbach’s Visitation and Nicole Krauss’s Great House come to mind—and is not in itself that unique a premise. What makes The Brummstein special, then, is Adolphsen’s incredible specificity and gift for compressing deeply incisive observations into just a few short passages.

Click here to read the full piece.

23 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

By examining the minute connections, unlikely coincidences, and painstaking natural processes that give shape to the daily world, the work of Danish author Peter Adolphsen encapsulates—both in form and content—Blake’s image of “a world in a grain of sand.” This has never been more literally true than in his most recently translated work, The Brummstein. Beginning in 1907, and ending over eighty years later, the novella follows a mysteriously humming stone found deep within a Swiss cave through its series of unlikely owners: a hapless German anarchist and his young Jewish sweetheart, a retired ticket clerk at a railway station lost & found, an orphan boy living alone in the woods, an avant-garde artist, and a museum curator. In following the ownership of the stone, The Brummstein also traces a crash course through European (German) history—in less than 80 pages, the reader experiences both World Wars, Spanish Flu, the rise of the Soviet GDR, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But, rather than focus on a larger, more sweeping narrative, The Brummstein is told on a much more personal, human scale.

Adolphsen has not yet been fully translated into English, but a good start has been made with the 2009 translation of his excellent novella Machine, and excerpts from his collections Small Stories I and Small Stories II, which were included in 2011’s Best European Fiction Anthology. Readers familiar with these other works will recognize many of the author’s prevailing thematic interests, as well as his favorite formal constraints in The Brummstein.

The book starts with a playful explanation of “the constant orogeny of the Alps,” and how the formation of the earth might be conceptualized on a time-line. “. . . if we apply the famous metaphor which depicts the Earth’s age as a calendar year,” the narrator begins,

when dinosaurs became extinct on Boxing Day, hominids emerge on New Year’s Eve, and when, at the time of writing, ten seconds have passed since the Roman Empire’s five seconds expired, then these events took place on December 19 and 23 respectively. In the West, the process of comprehending this vast expanse of time commenced just one and a half geological seconds ago . . .

There’s a PBS-narrator quality to Adolphsen’s explanations of the natural world, which manage to be clinical and dignified while simultaneously geeking out about how awesome geology is. (Machine, with its first page explanations of the petrification of a prehistoric horse, which eons later becomes a drop of gasoline, maintains the same delightful tone.)

But the book’s concern is not really the Brummstein—the mysterious humming stone that an amateur explorer looking for the entrance to another world finds at the beginning of the story is basically a MacGuffin. This has been true for many other “lives of objects” narratives as well—Jenny Erpenbach’s Visitation and Nicole Krauss’s Great House come to mind—and is not in itself that unique a premise. What makes The Brummstein special, then, is Adolphsen’s incredible specificity and gift for compressing deeply incisive observations into just a few short passages.

It’s rare that the full emotional weight of a relationship or a life can be concisely summarized—just think of how bland many obituaries are. But this is precisely what Adolphsen excels at. Consider a passage in which we’re introduced to Georg Wiede, an elderly retiree in Germany during WWII. After his apartment was destroyed by Allied air raids, Georg moves to a railway station lost and found hut:

It wasn’t until December 1943 that Georg finally overcame the inhibitions which had so far deterred him from helping himself to the lost items. He was driven by a noble motive: hunger. One of the suitcases might contain a tin of goulash or a bag of boiled sweets. He organized clothing such as coats and hats in neat piles at one end of the hut, making sure that each item retained its original ticket. Then he turned his attention to the suitcases, briefcases, et cetera. One by one he placed them on the table, and feeling like a surgeon with a patient on the operating table, he opened them up and laid out the contents in regimented lines. Then he returned the items in reverse order less anything he needed, which included two fountain pens, a small pile of books, a little money, some clothes, and an antique pocket watch. Whenever he took something, he would replace it with a small note with a brief description of the object and the following sentence: “I, Georg Weide, took this item of lost property in a time of great need.”

When it doesn’t work, The Brummstein tends to undercut its emotional resonance with an unsettling sense of absurdity that borders on nihilism. More than one character is dispatched in a freak accident—for instance, a married couple survives Spanish Flu only to be crushed by a chaise lounge falling from an apartment window. The narrative also drops off abruptly and unresolved, which may be alluding to the continuation of the story outside of the novella, but instead feels slightly apathetic.

If, in the end, The Brummstein has some shortcomings, these are mostly recognizable only in comparison to Adolphsen’s more polished Machine which, it should be noted, was written a few years later. Overall, it is a remarkably creative, unique, and resonant work, which can—and should—be read in one satisfying sitting.

21 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning, which AmazonCrossing brought out this past January.

It may be due to my Icelandic Crush, but of all the books AmazonCrossing has brought out so far, this is the one that most excites me. Here are a few really choice passages from Larissa’s review that back up my interest:

While The Hitman’s Guide has much to recommend it in terms of plotting, pacing, and characterization, it is particularly interesting on a more “meta” level as well. For one, since Toxic arrives in Iceland with little to no previous knowledge of the country and culture, the book acts as something of a crash course in Icelandic society and idiosyncrasies. Sometimes, his observations about Iceland are more factual: he learns that it was originally christened by Irish monks, that Iceland has no prostitutes, and that “the beer costs a bear.” In other cases, the observations are a little more (self-)mocking (“According to Icelandic house rules, you’re allowed to enter in your shoes if they cost more than two hundred dollars”), and a bit opaque for someone unfamiliar with say, Iceland’s satirical contestant in the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest. But however these cultural snippets are conveyed, upon finishing the novel, the reader comes away with a fairly strong, if somewhat slanted, sense of Reykjavík and Icelandic culture.

Another interesting feature is the author’s use of language. Hallgrímur originally wrote The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning in English rather than Icelandic, and has an almost playful approach to rhyme and description throughout the novel. Toxic refers to a contender for his girlfriend’s affections, an Italian mafioso, as “the Talian Mobthrob.” In another passage, he describes the late-setting sun: “At 10:33 the sun is still burning on the horizon like an orange lantern at an outdoor Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn.” The descriptions don’t always hit their mark—there are a few too many laboriously detailed passages about female anatomy, and sometimes the imagery borders on overwrought (“The Balkan animal, which is my soul, is always hungry for prey”), but overall, the prose and dialogue is fresh and expansive. There are also a host of phonetic jokes about Icelandic words and names that Toxic mishears and then renders into stilted English, making countless puns on street names around the capitol; Icelandic phrases are renamed into things like “Guard the Beer,” and Reykjavík’s famous Kaffibarinn becomes “Café Bahrain.”

You can read the entire review by clicking here.

21 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Former soldier and current hitman for the Croatian mafia in New York, Tomislav Bokšić, nicknamed Toxic, has dispatched roughly 125 people. It’s a fully ingrained way of life for Toxic—he feels “restless if three months go by without firing a gun”—and takes pride in his professionalism. As a “triple six-packer,” he even holds something of a record in the business: his last 18 consecutive hits have not only been completed successfully, but each was accomplished with a single bullet apiece. But as Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning opens, Toxic is in trouble: “Hit #66 was a miss,” he says.

Don’t get me wrong. I got the bullet into the guy’s head safe and sound, but there was some serious aftermath. The mustached Polish guy turned out to be a mustached FBI guy. What was supposed to be a bright and sunny murder in broad daylight became a nightmare.

Which is how Toxic ends up going into hiding, fleeing his cushy life in New York City and heading back to Croatia to maintain his “LPP, or Lowest Possible Profile.” But even that plan goes awry and instead of heading back to his homeland, the beleaguered hitman ends up on a plane to Iceland under the assumed identity of a Southern televangelist named Father Friendly.

The second of ten Icelandic novels to be published in English by Amazon’s internationally-oriented publishing imprint, AmazonCrossing, The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning is a darkly comic novel which commingles irreverent indifference with sincere introspection and the possibility of redemption. As Toxic settles into his exile on “Lilliput Island”—a country he discovers has no handguns, no army, and hardly any murders (but plenty of good crime writers—there’s actually a list of Icelandic crime authors worked into a conversation)—he reflects back on his life as a killer, both as a soldier during the Yugoslavian civil war, as well as a contract killer. And while it wouldn’t really be true to say that Toxic feels a deep remorse for his actions, in the course of the novel, he is able to both reconcile with his past and plan ahead for a very different future.

While The Hitman’s Guide has much to recommend it in terms of plotting, pacing, and characterization, it is particularly interesting on a more “meta” level as well. For one, since Toxic arrives in Iceland with little to no previous knowledge of the country and culture, the book acts as something of a crash course in Icelandic society and idiosyncrasies. Sometimes, his observations about Iceland are more factual: he learns that it was originally christened by Irish monks, that Iceland has no prostitutes, and that “the beer costs a bear.” In other cases, the observations are a little more (self-)mocking (“According to Icelandic house rules, you’re allowed to enter in your shoes if they cost more than two hundred dollars”), and a bit opaque for someone unfamiliar with say, Iceland’s satirical contestant in the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest. But however these cultural snippets are conveyed, upon finishing the novel, the reader comes away with a fairly strong, if somewhat slanted, sense of Reykjavík and Icelandic culture.

Another interesting feature is the author’s use of language. Hallgrímur originally wrote The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning in English rather than Icelandic, and has an almost playful approach to rhyme and description throughout the novel. Toxic refers to a contender for his girlfriend’s affections, an Italian mafioso, as “the Talian Mobthrob.” In another passage, he describes the late-setting sun: “At 10:33 the sun is still burning on the horizon like an orange lantern at an outdoor Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn.” The descriptions don’t always hit their mark—there are a few too many laboriously detailed passages about female anatomy, and sometimes the imagery borders on overwrought (“The Balkan animal, which is my soul, is always hungry for prey”), but overall, the prose and dialogue is fresh and expansive. There are also a host of phonetic jokes about Icelandic words and names that Toxic mishears and then renders into stilted English, making countless puns on street names around the capitol; Icelandic phrases are renamed into things like “Guard the Beer,” and Reykjavík’s famous Kaffibarinn becomes “Café Bahrain.”

Both The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning and Hallgrímur Helgason seem assured to find a dedicated audience in the United States. As of this writing, the novel is among Amazon’s Top 20 Mysteries and Thrillers (although neither genre seems to really fit the book). Perhaps its success will allow for more of Hallgrímur’s Icelandic language novels to make it into English translation in the future.

9 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by regular reviewer Vincent Francone on Oksana Zabuzhko’s Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, which is translated from the Ukrainian by Halyna Hryn and available from Amazon Crossings.

Here’s the opening of Vince’s not-entirely-positive review:

Reading Oksana Zabuzhko’s Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex is like having bad sex. You’re not enjoying yourself but you don’t necessarily feel like stopping. Your mind wanders, you wonder how long until it’s over, and you may even fake a response just so it’ll stop. After all, it’s late and you need to get some sleep.

If this seems an unfair analogy, I apologize, but so much of the book is about sex, both in terms of sexuality and gender, that it seems apt to think of the book in this way. If I may (pun alert) extend my analogy: the book, like bad sex, is hard to forget because of the tease and lack of climax. It presents stimulating ideas but fails to focus on them with any sustained energy, leaving the reader frustrated.

Clearly I am in the minority; the book was a bestseller in the Ukraine and the author’s reputation was cemented by its publication. It seems an important book, worthy of translation and publication here in these United States, though one might argue that the subject matter (feminine sexuality and gender norms) dictates the book’s importance more than the actual book. Perhaps too many other writers have mined this territory before, thus the “controversy” mentioned on the book’s back cover is relative. In the Ukraine, a frank exploration of feminine sexuality might be bold, but nothing in the book seemed shocking to these jaded eyes.

Click here to read the whole piece.

9 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Reading Oksana Zabuzhko’s Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex is like having bad sex. You’re not enjoying yourself but you don’t necessarily feel like stopping. Your mind wanders, you wonder how long until it’s over, and you may even fake a response just so it’ll stop. After all, it’s late and you need to get some sleep.

If this seems an unfair analogy, I apologize, but so much of the book is about sex, both in terms of sexuality and gender, that it seems apt to think of the book in this way. If I may (pun alert) extend my analogy: the book, like bad sex, is hard to forget because of the tease and lack of climax. It presents stimulating ideas but fails to focus on them with any sustained energy, leaving the reader frustrated.

Clearly I am in the minority; the book was a bestseller in the Ukraine and the author’s reputation was cemented by its publication. It seems an important book, worthy of translation and publication here in these United States, though one might argue that the subject matter (feminine sexuality and gender norms) dictates the book’s importance more than the actual book. Perhaps too many other writers have mined this territory before, thus the “controversy” mentioned on the book’s back cover is relative. In the Ukraine, a frank exploration of feminine sexuality might be bold, but nothing in the book seemed shocking to these jaded eyes.
Perhaps this is an issue with translation, as another feminist text, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, was famously butchered upon initial translation. Still, I want to have faith in Amazon Crossing and their ability to select good translations of quality works. And this is not a bad book, per se, though it is not always enjoyable. The stream-of-consciousness narration and lack of paragraph breaks may alienate some readers, but even those who have cut their teeth on Virginia Woolf or Thomas Bernhard may drift while reading Zabuzhko’s book. There are engaging moments, but they are scattered throughout a series of otherwise tedious meditations on sex, gender, poetry, and estrangement, all themes worth exploring, sure, but not always well explored here. Zabuzhko has some compelling moments in her book, but, again, they lack connectivity and only flit in and out (pun intended), leaving the reader confused and, well, unsatisfied.

There are good moments in Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, but finding them requires effort, patience, and a tolerance for digressions that miss as often, if not more, than they hit. The attentive reader may be rewarded, assuming they have not seen books like this before, and assuming these attentive readers are like a polite lover: willing to overlook flaws and put up with a lackluster performance because the act itself is so important.

20 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Giannini Braschi’s Empire of Dreams, which is available from AmazonCrossing in Tess O’Dwyer’s translation.

Vincent Francone is one of our regular reviewers, and a writer, and a reader for TriQuarterly Online.

AmazonCrossing recently published three books by Giannini Braschi, including Yo-Yo Boing! and United States of Banana. Vince wasn’t totally sold on this book (which is probably the most obviously “experimental” of the three), as you can see in his review:

Recently, one of my coworkers asked me what I like to read. I mentioned that I am primarily interested in literature in translation. He promptly showed me his Kindle full of translated Italian mystery novels.

While I do not mean to dismiss the merits of these books, they are not exactly what I was thinking of when I said literature in translation. Indeed, just because a book is translated does not make it good. Clearly there’s no accounting for taste, and yes the three percent problem is, indeed, a problem, but I’d sooner see the three percent of translated books that make it into the American market devoted to books that take risks, tell compelling stories, and reach for something beyond the average pot boiler.

Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for plot and narrative. Giannina Braschi’s Empire of Dreams is light on both. Really, it is a collection of short prose poems that reach for heights and, sadly more times than not, fall flat.

Click here to read the full review.

20 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Recently, one of my coworkers asked me what I like to read. I mentioned that I am primarily interested in literature in translation. He promptly showed me his Kindle full of translated Italian mystery novels.

While I do not mean to dismiss the merits of these books, they are not exactly what I was thinking of when I said literature in translation. Indeed, just because a book is translated does not make it good. Clearly there’s no accounting for taste, and yes the three percent problem is, indeed, a problem, but I’d sooner see the three percent of translated books that make it into the American market devoted to books that take risks, tell compelling stories, and reach for something beyond the average pot boiler.

Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for plot and narrative. Giannina Braschi’s Empire of Dreams is light on both. Really, it is a collection of short prose poems that reach for heights and, sadly more times than not, fall flat. To be sure, Braschi hits the mark often enough to keep the reader engaged or at least curious to see what will follow. Landmark moments in the collection come late, as in the third section “The Intimate Diary of Solitude,” which gets more than a little meta, but wading through the earlier, duller bits is tiring. Oddly, Braschi’s lists and anaphora would be less grating were they broken into poetic lines and not crammed into a single paragraph:

This is not a book. I did not read it. I lived it. I lived it from road to road. I came across the fortune-teller on the way. And the magician too. And I found a door closed. And gates. And guards. And cowards and killers. And street spectacles. And New York City. And the moon. And the sun. And thunder. And love. And death. And trains. And visionaries. And war. And the atomic bomb. And I found my ears. And I found my soul. My self. My poet. My stars. My comet. And I wrote. And I got drunk. And I loved.

And I got bored. Not that drinking and loving and New York City are dull per se (though we’ve seen them before in better books), but the manner in which Braschi introduces them (and revisits them again and again in similar list fashion) renders these themes and images into jackhammers splitting the reader’s patience.

That said, there are more successful moments in Empire of Dreams. The before mentioned final third of the book plays with perspective by shifting persona; the author inserts herself into the story and becomes all of the characters. I admire such literary tinkering, though the conceit becomes clear before long. By the end of Empire of Dreams I felt neither anger for having slogged through a tiresome read nor reward for having taken the time to digest an experimental book.

Kudos should be reserved for AmazonCrossing, the translation leg of Amazon.com’s new publishing beast. I applaud them for taking a chance on a foreign book that surely will not net a large return (aside from not being a pot boiler, this has the curse of poetry, never a big seller on these shores). That said, I hope that AmazonCrossing’s next venture yields more satisfying results.

15 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is Fr. Grant Barber’s piece on Thirst by Andrei Gelasimov, which is translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz and published by AmazonCrossing.

Grant Barber is a regular reviewer for us, as well as being a keen bibliophile, and an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston.

Thirst is a really interesting book, due in part to the fact that Marian Schwartz is such a brilliant translator. Her list of accolades is intense: recipient of two translation fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, past president of the American Literary Translators Association, translator of Nina Berberova, 12 Who Don’t Agree, Oblomov, The White Guard, and A Hero of Our Time among many, many others. Her translation of Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair will be coming out from Open Letter next summer.

Here’s the opening of Grant’s review:

Gelasimov embraces the “show, don’t tell” dictum effectively throughout this short novel from the unique start. The first person narrator, later identified as Constantine or Kostya, has just returned to his home and is trying to fit a lot of bottles of vodka into his refrigerator, and on the window sill, on the floor, in the bathroom and clothes hamper. He’s planning a bender after having done some sort of work, work he’d completed to buy vodka. There’s a knock at the door from his neighbor, a single mother:

I would share more, but you have to read the whole thing to get the full impact of the extended quote that follows this paragraph.

15 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Gelasimov embraces the “show, don’t tell” dictum effectively throughout this short novel from the unique start. The first person narrator, later identified as Constantine or Kostya, has just returned to his home and is trying to fit a lot of bottles of vodka into his refrigerator, and on the window sill, on the floor, in the bathroom and clothes hamper. He’s planning a bender after having done some sort of work, work he’d completed to buy vodka. There’s a knock at the door from his neighbor, a single mother:

“I’m sorry to bother you again,” she said. “My Nikita’s acting up. Please help me out this once. I can’t cope with him myself.”

“No problem,” I said.

I threw on my jacket and went out. I even left my door open.

“Well then, who here doesn’t want to go to bed?”

The little guy shuddered and stared at me as if I were a ghost. He actually dropped his blocks.

“Who here isn’t listening to his mama?”

He was looking at me, speechless. Only his eyes got big as saucers.

“Come on, get your things,” I said. “Since you don’t want to listen to your mama you’re going to be living with me. You get to take one toy.”

He was absolutely speechless, and his mouth was very wide open.

[. . .]

He shifted his eyes to Olga and whispered:

“I’ll go to bed. Mama, I’ll go to bed all by myself right away.”

[. . .]

Then she said, “You’ll have to forgive me for bothering you all the time. It’s just that he . . . you’re the only person he’s afraid of. He stopped listening to me completely.”

I grunted.

“Makes sense. I would’ve been even more afraid if I were him.”

[. . .]

At home I walked over to the mirror and stood in front of it a long time. I looked at what had become of me.

If only Seryoga hadn’t been wrong back then and hadn’t left me to burn up last in the APC. But he thought I was done for. That’s why he pulled the others out first. The ones who still were showing signs of life.

Which means I’m only good for frightening little boys right now.

This whole opening series of events sets up all that is to come: difficult childhoods, especially of Kostya, focused on his philandering and volatile father and an uncaring world; the set piece of boy Koysta hoisting himself up onto the operating table while suffering from acute appendicitis, and within the hectoring presence of the surgeon illustrates well what sort of world he grew up in. We hear about his service in the Soviet Army fighting the Chechens, and the loyalty the surviving soldiers share with one another, as well as the conflicts between them, past and present. We keep returning to this past, especially the attack that left Kostya’s face so disfigured by burns, in an unfolding series of flashbacks.

Three further dynamics play out. First, the young student Kostya was bored in school which lead to his “doodling,” and discovery by the failed-artist head master of Kostya as a naturally gifted artist. This alcoholic headmaster brings Kostya to his home to skip school and draw, although Kostya has only ability, no sense of refinement or sense of beauty. This is another failed father figure in his life. Second, two of his army comrades interrupt the start of his three month bender to enlist his help in finding a third, missing friend. This quest ultimately is inconsequential as a quest, but does set up Kostya’s break from isolation and pattern of work to drink. Third, Kostya reconnects with his father, his new wife, and younger children. Dad hasn’t changed, but the rapport Kostya develops with the wife, and more importantly the two half-siblings, returns Kostya to his drawing.

By the end of the novel his somewhat estranged-from-one-another friends have reached a truce. Kostya has stood up to his father. Kostya has begun drawing—creating—people from his past as restored in an alternative reality: a dead soldier now with wife and children, another who lost his leg now with two working legs. Kostya ends the novel with a drawing of a face—his own, undamaged true self—showing it to Olga and Nikita, and Nikita’s spoken insight that Kostya only looks like a monster.

In some ways, explained this way, Thirst might come off as almost formulaic. Maybe archetypal is the better label of the arc that shows the rebirth of an injured man into real adulthood as well as moving toward reintegration through art, with all of this inner reality mirrored by the recognitions of people surrounding him.

Gelasimov does this with pared down language, effective weaving of past and present, grounding in the particulars of unique place and time, with consistency of voice and narrative pacing. He has taken what might be clunky and predictable in other’s hands and made a work of art. He doesn’t waste a word, an image, a story, but weaves them into a related whole. This is a novel to reread, to see how well everything fits together, to marvel at how images and incidents reflect and inform each other. Gelasimov doesn’t use lyrical, “poetic” language, but he has written a work with the concision of poetry.

12 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Audur Ava Olfasdottir’s The Greenhouse, translated by Brian FitzGibbon, is one of only three Icelandic translations coming out in 2011, so it deserves a special bit of attention. This also happens to be the first Icelandic title to be published by AmazonCrossing, the relatively new imprint that’s dedicated to doing all books in translation.

First up, here’s a bit about Audur herself:

Auður A. Ólafsdóttir was born in Reykjavík in 1958. She is a lecturer in history of art at the University of Iceland. She has worked as an art historian, and taught history of art, e.g. at the Icelandic Drama School, and has been director of the University of Iceland Art Collection. She has curated art exhibitions, and written about art and art history in various media. [. . .]

Auður has been universally praised for her uniquely hypnotic style and artistic approach. She grips the reader by presenting believable characters who have to cope with unexpected and often comic situations, and she constantly takes the reader by surprise. [Bio from Fabulous Iceland.]

The Greenhouse (referred to elsewhere as The Cutting) is Auður’s third novel, and came out in Iceland in 2007, and really is about a greenhouse (in part):

For Lobbi, the tragic passing of his mother proves to be a profound catalyst. Their shared love of tending rare roses in her greenhouse inspires him to leave his studies behind and travel to a remote village monastery to restore its once fabulous gardens. While transforming the garden under the watchful eye of a cinephile monk, he is surprised by a visit from Anna, a friend of a friend with whom he shared a fateful moment in his mother’s greenhouse, and the daughter they together conceived that night. In caring for both the garden and the little girl, Lobbi slowly begins to assume the varied and complex roles of a man: fatherhood with a deep relationship with his child, cooking, nurturing, and remaining also a son, brother, lover, and…a gardener. A story about the heartfelt search for beauty in life, The Greenhouse is a touching reminder of our ability to turn the small things in everyday life into the extraordinary.

On the Amazon page for this book there’s also an interview with Auður:

Q: What inspired you to get inside the head of a twenty-something man?

AAO: The novel tells the story of a very young father who is “practically brought up in a greenhouse” and has three main interests in life: sex, death, and cultivating roses. The story focuses on his many complex roles as a son, a twin brother, a lover, and a father. I was particularly interested in fatherhood, which is in many ways an abstract experience—especially when you have a child with a stranger, like Lobbi does—compared to the woman’s experience of giving birth. I like to play with traditional gender roles by talking about male sensitivity. [. . .]

Q: Through Lobbi’s grief-stricken eyes after the death of his mother, you paint Iceland as barren and desolate place. But how would you describe the country yourself?

AAO: The natural landscape is breathtaking. It is like being lost in space or in infinity, and it gives you the feeling of total freedom. Being an Icelander also means being part of a small community of 317,000 people and being constantly confronted with the unpredictable: weather, volcanic eruptions, bankruptcy. Being an Icelandic writer means expressing myself in a marginal language that no one understands.

And here’s a brief excerpt:

Because I’m leaving the country and it’s difficult to know when I’ll be back, my seventy-seven-year-old father is preparing a memorable last supper for me and is going to cook something from one of Mom’s handwritten recipes, the kind of thing Mom might have cooked on such an occasion.

—I was thinking of having fried haddock in breadcrumbs, he says, followed by cocoa soup with whipped cream.

I pick Josef up from the care centre in the seventeen-year-old Saab while Dad tries to sort out the cocoa soup. Josef is standing eagerly on the sidewalk and clearly happy to see me. He’s in his Sunday best because I’m leaving, wearing the last shirt Mom bought him, violet with a pattern of butterflies.

While Dad is frying the onions and the fish lies waiting on a bed of breadcrumbs, I stroll out to the greenhouse to fetch the rose cuttings I’m taking with me. Dad follows me at a distance with the scissors to get some chives to put on the haddock. Josef follows silently in his footsteps but has stopped entering the greenhouse since he saw the broken glass after the February storms, when several windows were smashed. Instead he stands outside by the mounds of snow, observing us. He and Dad are wearing the same waistcoats, hazel brown with golden diamonds.

—Your mother used to put chives on her haddock, says Dad, and I take the scissors from him, bend over an evergreen bush in a corner of the greenhouse, trim the tips off the chives, and hand them to him. I’m the sole heir to Mom’s greenhouse, as Dad frequently reminds me. Though it’s hardly a vast plantation; we’re not talking about three hundred and fifty tomato plants and fifty cucumber trees that have been passed down from mother to son here, just the rosebushes that pretty much take care of themselves and about ten remaining tomato plants, maybe. Dad is going to do the watering while I’m away.

—I was never really into greens, lad, that was more your mother’s thing. One tomato a week is about all I can stomach. How many tomatoes do you think these plants will yield?

—Try to give them away then.

—I can’t be constantly knocking on neighbors’ doors with tomatoes.

—What about Bogga?

I say this knowing full well that Mom’s age-old friend probably shares Dad’s limited palate for food.

—You don’t honestly expect me to go visiting Bogga with three kilos of tomatoes every week? She’d insist on me staying for dinner.

I know what’s coming next.

—I would’ve liked to have invited the girl and the child, he continues, but I knew you’d be against it.

—Yeah, I’m against it; me and the girl, as you call her, are not a couple and never have been, even though we have a child together. It was an accident.

I’ve already explained myself perfectly clearly and Dad must surely realize that the child is the result of a moment’s carelessness, and that my relationship with its mother lasted one quarter of a night, not even, a fifth, more like it.

....
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