29 August 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Brandy Harrison on Oleg Pavlov’s The Matiushin Case, translated by Andrew Bromfield, and published by And Other Stories.

A lover of foreign literature (particularly from Eastern Europe and Russia) Brandy—a new addition to our reviewer pool—recently finished a BA in English Language and Literature at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, and will be starting her MA this fall at Queen’s University, Kingston.

Here’s the beginning of her review:

The publisher’s blurb for Oleg Pavlov’s The Matiushin Case promises the prospective reader “a Crime and Punishment for today,” the sort of comparison that is almost always guaranteed to do a disservice to both the legendary dead and the ambitious living. Predictably enough, The Matiushin Case is nothing like Crime and Punishment, although anyone familiar with Russian literature can see how Pavlov gamely attempts to tick off certain boxes that are often associated with Serious Russian Themes: the unflinching examination of even the darkest corners of human existence, the exploration of wider social themes and problems through the careful depiction of individual experience, all heralded by a Biblical epigraph—“Am I my brother’s keeper?”—to signal the novel’s soul-searching, philosophical designs. For anyone who loves Russian literature, as I do, all of these elements are entirely welcome, but in Pavlov’s hands, the results are often mixed.

The Matiushin Case follows the relentlessly miserable life of the titular protagonist, from his troubled childhood in the shadow of his domineering father, Grigorii, and his rebellious elder brother, Yakov, to his experiences as a young man in the Soviet army. Much of the novel’s plot, such as it is, simply follows Matiushin as he sinks further and further into the deadening routine and violence of army life, first through his initiation and training, then his stint in an army hospital, and on through his life as a prison guard. This led me to consider that a more accurate comparison to Dostoevsky—if there really has to be one—would be to The House of the Dead, that wonderfully strange hybrid of memoir and fiction based on Dostoevsky’s life in a Siberian prison. This reflects the greatest strength of Pavlov’s novel, for the impression created by his detailed depictions of Matiushin’s daily struggles lend a rather haunting and bleak atmosphere to the work as a whole, offering the reader a truly vivid snapshot of army life in the declining years of the USSR.

For the rest of the review, go here

29 August 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The publisher’s blurb for Oleg Pavlov’s The Matiushin Case promises the prospective reader “a Crime and Punishment for today,” the sort of comparison that is almost always guaranteed to do a disservice to both the legendary dead and the ambitious living. Predictably enough, The Matiushin Case is nothing like Crime and Punishment, although anyone familiar with Russian literature can see how Pavlov gamely attempts to tick off certain boxes that are often associated with Serious Russian Themes: the unflinching examination of even the darkest corners of human existence, the exploration of wider social themes and problems through the careful depiction of individual experience, all heralded by a Biblical epigraph—“Am I my brother’s keeper?”—to signal the novel’s soul-searching, philosophical designs. For anyone who loves Russian literature, as I do, all of these elements are entirely welcome, but in Pavlov’s hands, the results are often mixed.

The Matiushin Case follows the relentlessly miserable life of the titular protagonist, from his troubled childhood in the shadow of his domineering father, Grigorii, and his rebellious elder brother, Yakov, to his experiences as a young man in the Soviet army. Much of the novel’s plot, such as it is, simply follows Matiushin as he sinks further and further into the deadening routine and violence of army life, first through his initiation and training, then his stint in an army hospital, and on through his life as a prison guard. This led me to consider that a more accurate comparison to Dostoevsky—if there really has to be one—would be to The House of the Dead, that wonderfully strange hybrid of memoir and fiction based on Dostoevsky’s life in a Siberian prison. This reflects the greatest strength of Pavlov’s novel, for the impression created by his detailed depictions of Matiushin’s daily struggles lend a rather haunting and bleak atmosphere to the work as a whole, offering the reader a truly vivid snapshot of army life in the declining years of the USSR. Matiushin is not particularly interesting or memorable as a character in and of himself, but the passages in which Pavlov offers insights into Matiushin’s psychological struggles and emotions within a brutal and decaying system can be powerful, as when a sudden disturbance in the prison zone throws Matiushin and his fellow soldiers into action in the middle of the night:

The strongest feeling of all . . . was that nobody could be killed: that Lady Death, if she existed, would be afraid of so many men, would overshoot and miss her target. [Matiushin] couldn’t keep up with his thoughts about death, unable to work out if he was dashing towards or running away from it, or what kind of night this was; like an animal, he was swept away by a single, headlong, mighty feeling, a clash of all human impulses—love, hate, despair, fear—that existed separately in his soul but had suddenly united into one vital, living force, as if another heart had started beating beside his first heart, and Matiushin, who couldn’t even cope with one life, suddenly had two lives in his chest.

Passages such as this have the power to occasionally redeem the novel’s sometimes monotonous and repetitive feel, turning the situation of this otherwise colorless and unremarkable young man into something suddenly—albeit momentarily—moving.

The reader is never really offered the same level of insight into the inner workings of any of the other characters, which is one of the shakier aspects of the novel. As its title suggests, the novel is about the case study of Matiushin, whose experiences are, presumably, meant to encapsulate the experiences of countless Soviet army recruits and offer a portrait in miniature of the misery, disintegration, and despair of Soviet life as a whole. With this in mind, it seems fair to entertain the idea that the secondary characters do not have to be compelling or complex in their own right. Yet the problem is that the secondary characters rarely rise above the level of caricature, which can make them—and by extension, Matiushin’s plight—seem faintly ridiculous instead of tragic. Matiushin’s father is a walking bundle of all literary Bad Russian Father characteristics rolled into one—a drunk, a miser, a domestic tyrant—whose personality seems to fluctuate rather unsteadily between these stereotypes throughout the first fifty pages or so of the novel. A cook at one of the camps behaves like someone straight out of Reefer Madness, whose penchant for marijuana has turned him into a crazed, potentially murderous threat to everyone who crosses his path, including Matiushin: “He lay in ambush for Matiushin when they were alone together in the catering block, waiting for moments when he bent down or sat on a stool, and then skipping up to Matiushin from behind and setting the large blade to his throat.” Matiushin’s fellow soldiers and military superiors tend to blur together into one large mass of coarseness, corruption, and hopelessness. Such cartoonish or vague characterization tends to undermine the self-conscious seriousness of the novel, making this relatively slim text—just under 250 pages in my copy—feel much, much longer and less compelling than it ought to be.

As for the novel’s Biblical epigraph, I was left with the feeling that Pavlov does not quite manage to develop the novel’s philosophical pretensions to any successful end, which is one of the reasons why And Other Stories’ attempt to equate him with Dostoevsky feels so ill-judged. Dostoevsky could tackle spiritual and philosophical questions with aplomb, effortlessly interweaving them with the individual crises of his characters and illuminating them. Pavlov cannot. The theme of brotherhood and the question of individual and collective guilt and suffering does recur, rather ham-fistedly, throughout the novel, but it ultimately falls flat. The fraternal relationship between Matiushin and Yakov that opens the novel is echoed elsewhere throughout the remainder of the text, as in the relationship between Matiushin and fellow recruit Rebrov, and in the first exchange between Matiushin and Karpovich, but there is something underdeveloped about all of it, and something not quite confident enough in Pavlov’s handling of it to give the novel a strong thematic foundation.

Nevertheless, The Matiushin Case can and does stand on its own merits, as Pavlov’s description of Matiushin’s hellish experiences will prove interesting to anyone with a marked interest in literature from or about the Soviet era. Although the novel’s execution is flawed, its strengths do suggest that Pavlov, already basking in the glow of significant critical success in his homeland, may have the chance in his future work to find a way of making his fiction match up more seamlessly with his ambitious literary designs.

2 April 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Andrea Reece on Iosi Havilio’s Paradises, translated by Beth Fowler, and out from And Other Stories.

Here’s the beginning of Andrea’s review:

Paradises by cult Argentinian author Iosi Havilio is the continuation of his earlier novel, Open Door, and tells the story of our narrator, a young, unnamed Argentinian woman.

The very first sentence in Paradises echoes the opening of Camus’s The Outsider and prepares us for the struggles and alienation that are to follow: “Jamie died at the start of spring”. With this flat, factual statement, we enter the world and life of the narrator, both of which we very early begin to suspect carry on around her entirely without her agency.

Jaime, the narrator’s partner and the father of her small son, has been killed by a hit-and-run driver in a freak accident while changing a tire at the side of the road. At his wake, she knows no one besides Jaime’s brother, Hector, and his family. She is acutely conscious of being an object of curiosity for many of the mourners and is unsure how to behave in the midst of all the strangers. Her memory of Jaime as she pays her last respects is oddly disconnected and remote . . .

For the rest of the review, go here.

2 April 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Paradises by cult Argentinian author Iosi Havilio is the continuation of his earlier novel, Open Door, and tells the story of our narrator, a young, unnamed Argentinian woman.

The very first sentence in Paradises echoes the opening of Camus’s The Outsider and prepares us for the struggles and alienation that are to follow: “Jamie died at the start of spring”. With this flat, factual statement, we enter the world and life of the narrator, both of which we very early begin to suspect carry on around her entirely without her agency.

Jaime, the narrator’s partner and the father of her small son, has been killed by a hit-and-run driver in a freak accident while changing a tire at the side of the road. At his wake, she knows no one besides Jaime’s brother, Hector, and his family. She is acutely conscious of being an object of curiosity for many of the mourners and is unsure how to behave in the midst of all the strangers. Her memory of Jaime as she pays her last respects is oddly disconnected and remote:

“. . . that rough man I fell in love with unintentionally and with whom I fell out of love without realising it. I can still feel him jerking about on top of me, like an animal, impotent at times, insatiable at others.”

Life as a widow in their previously shared home in the rural village of Open Door—itself home to a lunatic asylum and standing smack bang in the middle of a large plot of land earmarked for a country club and golf course development—rapidly degenerates, an unrepaired leaky roof deteriorates and renders the house virtually uninhabitable, the water pump breaks, the telephone is cut off . . . until one day an eviction notice is served and the narrator and her son, Simón, find themselves in a taxi clutching a few possessions and heading for a new life in the city of Buenos Aires.

Survival is the name of the game, but the two arrive in the city to find it flooding so bad that its inhabitants can only cross the street with the help of a rope to guide them through the rising floodwaters, scenes described by the narrator as a “rehearsal of apocalypse.” With difficulty, they find a cramped room in a seedy hotel and try to adjust to the sudden and bewildering acceleration of the pace of their lives in this utterly foreign city environment. The narrator reacts to the strangeness, as throughout the novel, by taking refuge in the visual and in her acute powers of observation of her surroundings that take in the tiniest detail—here she carefully lists all the items of food in the hotel fridge labeled with their owners’ name, and tries to imagine what the owner is like. She also has a sharp eye for interpreting the physiognomic and gestural signs that people tend to use to appraise others. Her first encounter is with Iris, a Romanian woman, native of Transylvania, who becomes her friend. Iris is described as a woman with

“. . . very blue, alarmed-looking eyes, a broad back, from rowing or swimming, a violently uneven fringe . . . She looks at me suspiciously, side-on, almost with contempt, wrinkling her nostrils as if I smell bad or she’s about to attack me.”

Iris kick-starts the narrator’s new life by pushing her into a job in the reptile house of the zoo where Iris herself works. None of the jobs that the narrator subsequently finds is the result of her own efforts. She is buffeted through a kaleidoscope of sights, smells, and sounds in this unfamiliar environment without seemingly controlling her life’s direction, as if caught in the eye of a tornado. A retinue of weird, marginal, or diseased characters parade across her field of vision and her only refuge from insanity seems to lie in her keen powers of description and her ability to encapsulate a character with a sometimes lacerating, sometimes wryly humorous, but always carefully aimed, simile. Here are a handful of her observations to whet the appetite:

  • “The man is dark, thirty-something, with leathery, porous skin, his hair spiked up with gel like a porcupine. . . . As the minutes pass, I come to realise that his hairstyle is a perfect reduction of the other parts of his body, his small, nervous mouth, fidgety hands, which cross and uncross at least a hundred times during our meeting, strong shoulders, as if he lifts weights between sentences.”
  • The security man at the zoo with the “fat, soft wart that lengthens his lip like a sleepy, sprawling beetle.”
  • Tosca, a character with “a head that seems the size of two” who is “more than just fat, she’s pure, inflated volume.”
  • “The boy with a cyclops head, index finger in his nostril.”
  • “He’s one of those skinheads who shave to disguise premature balding, to seem harder or more virile.”

The carnival of bizarre characters descends into the grotesque and the absurd when the narrator gets a job administering morphine to Tosca, a grossly overweight woman who is dying of cancer. The narrator’s environment takes on the nightmarish, ghoulish tinges of a 19th century travelling circus complete with outlandish characters or a hall of mirrors with its endlessly repeated series of misshapen reflections. Meanwhile, and not entirely surprising under the circumstances, the narrator’s sleeping world and waking fears are dominated by snakes, which she tries to obliviate by drawing endless sketches of the reptiles to deaden their symbolism and turn them into mere lines on paper. The reader is drawn into this powerful, and all too real, living nightmare. The narrator herself is conscious of her alienation and the absurdity of her surroundings, and finds the solution in passivity. Not the kind of passivity where one has lost control, but the kind of passivity that never had any control in the first place. Fatality is her answer to the big questions:

“Like everything, once the novelty has passed, things stop hurting or making you happy.”

And also to the small ones:

“Sounds good,” I say quite sincerely; the truth is, I can’t think of a better option.

It is no accident that, of all the characters, it is the narrator who has no name; she doesn’t have any use for one—she takes no active role in her destiny, she resigns herself to her fate, and submits to the bossiness of others; life for her is “just a question of luck” in which she chooses to “improvise and see what happens.”

Halfway through the book, the narrator meets up with Eloísa, a former friend who first appeared in Open Door. A domineering, partying drug addict, Eloísa is someone the narrator would rather have kept in her past. The dominant/domineered relationship between the two women occupies a large part of the second half of the book and leads the narrator, again without her agency, toward another new, unplanned life, announced in the very last sentence.

This sparkling novel is full of contradictions. The narrator lives on the outer limits of existence, at survival level. Yet strangely, this does not seem to concern her. However, her inner musings, through their biting, well-placed and often humorous observations of others (including animals, which she barely differentiates from humans) seem to put her on a higher intellectual plane than her social circumstances would appear to suggest. Havilio thus uses his narrator as a vehicle for a wider commentary on the human condition, which questions whether we are really as free as we think we are—what do we control and what controls us?

The title of the novel is, of course, the ultimate paradox—the narrator’s surroundings are very far from being any kind of paradise, unless paradise can be limited to the snake in the Garden of Eden (and even then . . .). We only discover three-quarters of the way through the book that the title refers to paradise trees that are prevalent in Argentina, have toxic berries and whose bark is believed to supply the antidote to poisoning from the berries. Yet another paradox!

And because I am a translator and believe that no translated work remains entirely that of the original author, but becomes a filter through which we see the original work, and indeed a piece of literature that must stand (or fall) in its own right, a word of praise for the brilliant Beth Fowler. She has produced a sparkling piece, with a grasp of tone, voice and register that captures the paradoxes between the narrator’s thoughtful and evaluative inner world and the rough-edged characters and dire circumstances that surround her. Slang is often particularly hard to translate in a believable way without either overusing the f-and c-words, or, conversely, without toning the whole lot down too much, but here it works wonderfully and there are even some inspired lexical choices. My favorite word in the entire book has got to be “carked,” as produced by Tosca, the cancer sufferer who receives the morphine injections:

“You thought I’d carked it, didn’t you? It’ll come, girl, it’ll come, you need to have a bit of patience.”

19 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Emily Davis on Zbinden’s Progress by Christoph Simon, translated by Donal McLaughlin (and with an introduction by Barbara Trapido), recently out from And Other Stories.

Due to some schedule hiccups (prep for AWP, AWP, post-AWP) and other interference (Scranton, PA, tinkering with the Web World in a manner that made the site inaccessible from outside University networks for the past two days), we finally kick back into our regular schedule of reviews and review posts. Not much more to say on that subject, so just take a look at And Other Stories’s covers—they’re fun! And we like the And Other people (People?, capital P?) in general, so that, too.

“Walking” novels seem to be something authors go back to again and again, reaching as far back (and probably farther) as Jane Austen (yes I did just go there), using it as a tactic to drive dialogue, narrative, etc. Open Letter’s own Sergio Chejfec uses walking frequently in his prose as a wonderful narrative device. What strikes me as fascinating is the many ways in which walking is put down on paper—no two authors seem to approach or apply the action quite the same way, rendering very different and delightful results. Here’s a part of Emily’s review (which I know for a fact she wrote, inspired, after taking a walk. FULL CIRCLE.):

The narrative style of Zbinden’s Progress is a sort of monodialogue: it’s not quite a monologue, though Zbinden’s is the only voice we hear. Nor is it a dialogue exactly, though Zbinden occasionally asks Kâzim a question and we can infer, from Zbinden’s side, that Kâzim both answers Zbinden’s questions and asks him some of his own. Zbinden is constantly interrupting himself to greet and have short conversations with all the other residents and caretakers he meets on his way down the stairs, but again, even though there are pauses to indicate the other people’s responses and we can more or less infer what they’ve said based on Zbinden’s replies, the only words on the page are the ones Zbinden speaks.

In a way, the narrative form mimics a walk: walking can be a social activity, and you might interact with any number of people (or animals, or trees, or buildings, if that’s more your style) along the way, but at its heart, walking is a highly individual experience, in that the impressions left by the walk, although they may be influenced by others, are ultimately the walker’s own.

Walking—and to be more specific, going for a walk—strikes me as a very human activity. We might go for a stroll around the neighborhood or a hike through the woods; our ancestors may have trekked across a continent as pioneers on the Oregon Trail or in much earlier migrations as hunter-gatherers. Walking is one of the simplest, most ancient ways of interacting with and exploring the world we live in, and as humans in an increasingly indoor and insular world, we might do well to take Zbinden’s advice and take the time to get to know the world outside.

For the full review, mosey on over here.

2 July 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I just got back from a 24-hour (or so) happy time on the hotel roof complete with champagne and fish sticks, and, seeing that we need to check out of the hotel at 8:30am tomorrow to leave for FLIP, I think I’m going to beg off my planned photojournal post (we viste a favela today) and just recommend a Brazilian book: All Dogs Are Blue by Rodrigo de Souza Leão, translated from the Brazilian Portuguese by Zoë Perry & Stefan Tobler, and forthcoming from And Other Stories.

Rimbaud used to do a dance called the Dance of the Blue Pelican. It was one hell of a wiggly dance, using all parts of his body. He learnt it in Africa, he says. But were there any pelicans in Africa? He was free to say whatever he wanted. Actually we all are, but whether it’s true or not is another matter. The truth can be such a sloppy invention and still convince everyone. You just have to be forceful. Or take advantage of people’s natural gullibility.

According to the jacket copy:

All Dogs are Blue is a fiery and scurrilously funny tale of life in a Rio de Janeiro insane asylum. Our narrator is upset by his ever-widening girth and kept awake by the Rio funk blaring from a nearby favela – fair enough, but what about the undercover agents infiltrating the asylum? He misses the toy dog of his childhood, keeps high literary company with two hallucinations, Rimbaud (a mischief-maker) and Baudelaire (a bit too serious for him), and finds himself the leader of a popular cult.

All Dogs are Blue burst onto the Brazilian literary scene in 2008. Its raw style and comic inventiveness took readers by storm. But it was to be Rodrigo de Souza Leão’s last masterpiece. He died that year, aged 43, in a psychiatric clinic.

And one more quote:

I stopped getting bayoneted. I started oral medication. Oral medication is easy to trick your way out of. I know which drugs I take. I always spit the ones I don’t want down the sink. The ideal way to deter that would be effervescent drugs. Of course the feebleminded are totally out of it and take their drugs properly.

Time to watch television. Time for the Addams family to get together. All the nutters would ge together to watch the soap opera. A sergeant, a street cleaner, other dimwits and one guy who beats his head against the wall every two minutes.

I’ve already told that little doctor that he’s going to do his head in. He’s going to have a serious stroke. I blsjdsomdkm0ooooeeirrrriruuuuruuiirrriiirii.

23 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I just found out that And Other Stories, arguable the hottest and most successful new publisher of the past few years, is looking to hire a NY-based part-time publicity director.

You can read the whole ad at that link (and it’s nothing like that other job listing from last month), but here’s the basics:

And Other Stories is an award-winning two-year-old publisher of literary writing based in the UK. We are now establishing a North American presence, largely in response to increasing interest in our titles in North America. We published Deborah Levy’s 2012 Man Booker Prize shortlisted Swimming Home (since bought by Bloomsbury USA) among other titles. We have a particularly strong list of Latin American titles, as our publisher Stefan Tobler is a translator from Portuguese (and German) while our editor Sophie Lewis works from Rio de Janeiro.

From September 2013 our new titles will be represented and distributed in North America by Consortium. We are recruiting a North American Director of Publicity to set up a home office for us in New York. The publicist will become a key part of the team. We want someone who reads widely and can speak with passion and pleasure about our books, and who is looking to stay with And Other Stories as we develop. And Other Stories has good experience of co-ordinating remote work, as our staff live in various locations. We offer an induction of two to three weeks in our main UK office at the start of the job (probably in April), so that the new person can work with the other team members and feel grounded in the role and connected to the team when back in New York. The publisher will also be in New York on occasion for face-to-face meetings.

Responsibilities

- developing a PR strategy

- galleys mail-outs and related pitching and follow-up on titles

- maintaining contacts databases for publicity

- writing and sending out press releases

- working with editor to find best use in the media for advance extracts, shorter pieces, introductions etc

- reporting on media coverage

- contributing to Facebook and other social media activity, incl our new blog Ampersand

- seeking friends and blurbs for specific authors or books where appropriate, and building relationships for And Other Stories in general

Send your CV and salary requirements to Stefan Tobler at info[at]andotherstories.org with ‘North American Publicity’ in the subject line by Friday 15th February 2013.

....
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