12 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Stephen Sparks, former BTBA judge and bookseller at Green Apple Books on the Park. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Mexico, And Other Stories)

Signs Preceding the End of the World tells the story of a young switchboard operator’s harrowing attempt to cross a border between worlds—Mexico and the United States, but also between reality and myth, between the living and the dead, between any here and distant there—in search of her brother, who like uncountable others before him has gone north to seek out a better life. Makina, Herrera’s plucky, hard-boiled narrator, undertakes an arduous journey from one hell to another: she leaves her remote mining town where a giant sinkhole has just swallowed a man, a car, and a dog, to enter into a realm strewn with the remains of those who have tried (and often failed) the crossing. During her journey she is assaulted, badgered, shot at; she passes through a stark otherworldly landscape; she survives physically unscathed, though perhaps bewildered.

A story like this already has a certain weight borrowed from the contemporary situation on the Mexico-US border, but Herrera ballasts his novel with myth, a decision that imbues the work with an almost vertiginous depth that resounds with echoes of the ancient past. Makina’s journey is, in fact, based on pre-Hispanic myths of the underworld. In these stories, the departed are forced to traverse several levels on their way to a final destination, much like Herrera’s narrator moves from supreme confidence (as the switchboard operator, she controls all information while serving as a go-between) to uncertainty (though she sets out with disdain for the north, planning on returning quickly, Makina finds herself less certain when she finds herself there). The “end of the world” referred to in the title refers both to the novel’s mythic roots and in the finality of the border crossing: until cheap technology made cell phones and calling cards available, many of those who went north were effectively cut off from contact with the old world.

Such layering is common in the book, and is accomplished both structurally and linguistically. During a conversation with Daniel Alarcon at Green Apple Books on the Park last spring, Herrera mentioned his use of obsolete words that, stumping his Spanish readers, must surely have provided difficulties for his English translator Lisa Dillman. As an example, he explained the use of the verb “to verse,” a seemingly odd choice until one considers that its Spanish counterpart is based on an Arabic-influenced poetic term (jarchar) from the 13th century that referred to women in transition. Dillman’s solution to this and other problems is ingenious and bold.

Signs Preceding the End of the World stands on its own as an estimable work of fiction. It doesn’t need the backdrop of the current political firestorm raging over the US-Mexico border or the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe to prove its value—as long as there are borders, there will be injustice—but the fact that it so clearly and powerfully speaks to the state of migrants today renders it all the more powerful. I can think of no better reason for a book to win the Best Translated Book Award than this.

18 December 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’ve been waiting all week to write this post of three things that I’m loving, can’t wait to read, and hate. It’s rare that I know which books I want to include so far in advance, but immediately after posting last week’s edition, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

Since the lists I’ve been posting the past few days—and plan on continuing for as long as I can—have been taking up so much time, I’m just going to jump into this week’s stuff.

Book I’m Reading and Loving: The Boys by Toni Sala, translated from the Catalan by Mara Fay Lethem (Two Lines)

A lot of times, the books I choose for my spring “World Literature & Translation” are ones that I’ve wanted to get to for a while, but haven’t found the time or motivation to actually get to. By assigning them to my students, I feel OK about setting aside some of my other work to dive into these.

I have a bunch of books like this I have to read over the next couple months, but I decided to start with Toni Sala’s The Boys, and holy shit this is so good. Initially, I was a bit worried about reading it. All year I’ve been having severe death anxiety panic attacks, and anything related tends to make my mind go crazy, and the basis of this novel is that there’s a car accident that takes the lives of two young men.

That aspect’s not very unnerving to me, but bits like this one—from the first part, which is narrated by an aging banker—really hit home:

Being an adult is accepting death, harboring it inside you like a cancer, dying. How can he accept that his own daughter were already adults, that they were already infected? Accept death, how could he? How can you accept something you don’t understand? How can you continue to be a person, if you accept the incomprehensible? Accepting death is accepting loneliness, and the commotion over the death of the two brothers was in fact his resistance to facing up to his age, to his death; his resistance to separating from his daughters, to the death of his daughters—dying, the brothers had freed their parents from killing them, as he would have to kill his daughters the day he died.

For whatever reason, all the talk about death in here doesn’t wig me out. Instead, it’s pretty compelling, and interesting to see how this accident, this forced exposure to death, works its way through the various characters and their life stories.

It helps that there are so many great lines in this book, little reflections that I was particularly drawn to. Also from Ernest, the same narrator as above:

When you have children you spend your life risking your dignity. Your existence lies in the hands of someone else. That’s what children are. They destroyed you. There should be some way to retire after having them. Retire from being a parent.

The book moves through a series of voices, from Ernest to the crazy truck driver he meets at the scene of the accident (and whose section is all about creating online personas, whores, and Catalan independence), to Iona, the girlfriend of one of the dead brothers, which is the section I’m in now.

There’s a lot more to say about this book and its mediations on being on the outside, marginalized in some way, and how, for such a relatively simplistic plot, keeps sucking me in. But I’ll save my further reflections for class. (And for once I’ve finished this.)

Overall though, it’s absolutely worth picking up a copy. The Catalan literature being translated into English these days is really fantastic.

Book I Can’t Wait to Read: Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs by Lina Wolff, translated from the Swedish by Frank Perry (And Other Stories)

I’m really excited to read this because Lina Wolff will be in Rochester on March 2nd as part of our Reading the World Conversation Series. Even if she weren’t coming, I’d be into this book though. And Other Stories (along with Two Lines, who published The Boys) are one of those great young presses bringing out really interesting books that are beautifully produced. This isn’t my favorite of the And Other Stories covers, but then again, I hold them to a really high standard, given how great their books look.

Anyway, in terms of this novel, it’s set in Caudal, Spain and features prostitutes who collect stray dogs and name them after famous male authors, like, Bret Easton Ellis. I haven’t started it at all, yet, so I don’t know how the whole novel functions, but Stefan Tobler (founder, publisher of And Other Stories) said this, which got me really intrigued:

It’s like a Bolaño novel with more of a feminist bent. A pretty unflinching and dark look at love and violence—while also being very, very funny often, and having an incredibly spiralling structure around a central character’s friends and acquaintances.

I like funny and I like spirals. I’m in!

And if you want more Lina Wolff, be sure and check out this story from Granta, where she also wrote this recommendation urging someone to translate the short fiction of the Swedish author Oline Stig.

Podcast I’m Definitely Not Listening To: Season Two of Serial (This American Life)

I wasted weeks of my life listening to the first season of this show, which contains all the things I hate about NPR: that smug, annoying NPR voice; the wishy-washy nature of the reporting; the manipulative way the story is constructed, with more of a focus on playing with the listener’s emotions than the facts of the reporting itself; the way Carol, or whatever her name is, seems genuinely surprised to find out that people in this country are jailed because of flimsy, or incorrect evidence. All of it drove me insane, yet I felt compelled to keep listening, to be part of the conversation.

Obviously, I wasn’t the only one with these opinions:

What do I know after listening to every episode of Serial? Nothing. I know absolutely nothing, except that it wasted my damn time, and I really hate it when that happens. Did you know sometimes we send people to prison on flimsy evidence? Did you know investigators can manipulate a witness narrative to fit the evidence they think they have? Did you know sometimes the wrong people go to jail? Did you know the American criminal justice system sucks?

Yes. You did. Either you did, or you should have before listening to Serial. If you didn’t, please don’t be proud of just now realizing this. That’s like admitting you just learned where to vote; it implies all those times you weren’t voting. And you gotta ignore a lot of things to think anything Serial showed us was new. Unless, of course, you get most of your news from public radio, which mostly ignores local murders, making you that person who has no idea about the local string of smash-and-grabs at the 7-Eleven, but knows all about the government in the Balkans. Great: That person learned something. Maybe that counts for a bonus point.

When I read that season two was finally coming out, and was about Bowe Bergdahl, I was momentarily interested. I would’ve preferred something less exposed, less already covered by major media outlets, but whatever. Then I saw this picture:

No. Absolutely not.

But what’s worse is that Kaija listened to the first episode of this new season and told me the teaser at the end for episode two:

“Hello, this is Sarah.” That’s me, calling the Taliban.

Hell no. I can’t take this. Even though I unsubscribed months ago, I feel like my iTunes just won’t let me. Every time I open up the podcast app, there’s information about Serial and a dozen other podcasts that are breaking down every episode of Serial. It’s like she invented the very idea of podcasts AND journalism!

On the upside, it sounds like the backlash is in full swing and not as many people are losing their minds over this season of the show. Maybe there is some hope for humanity after all.

16 December 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following on my last post, here’s the first entry in my manic series of year-end lists.

To kick this off, I thought I’d start with the list of the six books in translation that were the most talked about this year. I did some really heady numerical analysis to determine this—searching Facebook mentions, retweets, aggregating all the other year-end lists out there, tallying GoodReads reviews and images of bookstore displays—and came up with the works of fiction from 2015 that you should read if you want to be part of the general literary conversation. These are the “water cooler” books, the titles that, if you mention them randomly at a bar, someone might vaguely have heard of them. Conversely, mentioning them around anyone involved in the world of international literature will feel almost redundant.

I wouldn’t be surprised if all six of these made the shortlist for the next BTBA. And if you haven’t read them, you might want to. They’re not all on my personal list of 2015 favorites, but no one will scoff at you for spending a week with any of these.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions)

I read volume one of Ferrante’s quartet last year, and am currently listening to volume three, Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave. To me, personally, all of the books are fine. There’s nothing wrong with them, but they don’t get me all that excited either. I guess in my opinion, the prose isn’t doing anything new, and this is a time in my life where I’m waiting for something new and different to blow me away. That said, soap operas have an addictive quality to them, and reading/listening to the life-long interactions of a group of people from the neighborhood plays to that directly.

If you want a slightly different opinion, check out David Kurnick’s piece in Public Books. I literally got an email from a publicist about this as I was putting together this post. Quick scan of the piece: He likes Ferrante!

In Ferrante, by contrast [to Franzen and DeLillo], we see what grand novelistic ambition looks like devoid of writerly vanity. When her novels point to the largest political and ethical scales, as they do, the gesture is fascinatingly equivocal, as if to thread a question about our access to those scales into the emotional texture of the writing.

Sphinx by Anne Garreta, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan (Deep Vellum)

There are two very notable things about this novel (at least on the surface): 1) it’s the first work by a female member of the Oulipo to make it into English, and 2) there are no pronouns in this love story about A**.

Tom Roberge liked this book more than I did (in part, maybe, because I was distracted by the pronoun thing, which is interesting, but I’ve seen that before, and pulling that off is more mind-blowingly difficult in French than English), and spent a lot more time getting into the real meat of this book.

Garréta’s unnamed narrator, a seminary student turned DJ, also becomes infatuated with someone, a dancer known as A***, early on in the course of the story. And yet to compare what then unfolds (and how, in terms of story-telling) in Sphinx to that in Queer is indeed an odious comparison. Like all of Burroughs’s writing, Queer is gritty and disheveled, the beauty found in the mess itself, in the enjambment of disparate and unflinching insights into the human condition. Sphinx, on the other hand, is more poetically beautiful, a breathtaking portrait of obsession and pursuit described with such pervasive lucidity, such self-awareness, such lyrical resonance, that the story often feels like a spectral presence. [. . .]

Both are novels of pure, unadulterated, all-consuming obsession. A form of psychological addiction that infects the mind like a drug. A desire—a need—so unbounded and palpable that life before the object of desire is rendered meaningless, or at least preliminary, a trial run for the real thing. Inhabiting these narrators’ mind space is intoxicating, pure and simple. And I can’t think of a better reason to read, which is perhaps why, now, when recommending Sphinx to customers, I say, merely: “Trust me; it’s amazing.”

None of this praise is as valuable as the fact that one of the people from Pentatonix has been pushing it to all of their fans. One of the many reasons that Deep Vellum’s first year has been so wildly successful.

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (And Other Stories)

I’m pretty sure this was the only literary translation to be a finalist for this year’s GoodReads Reading Good People’s Choice Golden Book Awards. (Or whatever they’re called.) That’s pretty impressive, given that almost all of the other books were either insanely popular and trendy, or just bad. (Note: To Kill a Watchman won for fiction, so, yeah . . . )

I read this book immediately after I finished grading all the exams for my spring course, and while on the way to BEA in NY. Whenever I get done with my “required” reading, I tend to devour a bunch of stuff immediately, only some of which sticks in my mind. Which is why I probably need to reread this. I remember liking it, liking the way it plays with language, liking the general conceit and the issues it brings up, but also feeling like it was a bit slight. (I did apparently give it four-stars on GoodReads though.)

As time has gone on and more and more people have told me about how this is one of the greatest books of the year, I feel like maybe I read it too quickly and passively, that maybe I should go back and revisit it, so that it can “get under my skin” the way it did for BTBA judge Heather Cleary:

It’s not just that it’s impossible to put down—in both Herrera’s Spanish and Lisa Dillman’s English, its language is a fever dream of mixed registers and literary allusions pulled perfectly taut across the story. This would probably be reason enough to add my voice to the chorus of praise for the novel, but it seems even more timely to talk about Signs now, less than a week after Donald Trump, the poster child for backward thinking about borders and the people who cross them, had another moment in the spotlight on Saturday Night Live. Less so because the novel tells the story of an fierce, unflappable young woman who makes the journey from what is recognizably (though not explicitly) Mexico into what is recognizably (though not explicitly) the USA in search of her missing brother—though it is indeed a compelling story—than because the novel offers a powerful, nuanced take on the negotiation of those contact zones in which not only nations, but also languages, traditions, and identities meet, complicate, and enrich one another.

It’s worth noting that And Other Stories is bringing out a new Herrera book—The Transmigration of Bodies—in May 2016.

My Struggle: Volume Four by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Archipelago Books)

Similar to the Ferrante, I’m trying to catch up with the cool kids and am only on volume three of this seemingly endless series. I’ve talked on the podcast about what I like about Knausgaard—the glacial structural movements of each volume, the fugue-like time-shifts of the narrator’s memories, the mundanity of it as an antidote to the overblown nature of a lot of contemporary books—and I’m not sure I have much more to add about that here.

I do want to complain about the weird nature of the media love fest for Knausgaard—it’s like most of these reviewers just discovered that there’s literature being written in other languages, and probably can’t name five other living Scandinavian authors, much less speak intelligently about any of their books—but why bother. We all know that there’s very little appreciation of divergent opinions in mainstream review coverage, and once an author has been “chosen” every magazine and paper and blog and listicle generator imaginable will have to voice their opinion, oftentimes to the detriment of covering better books from the same country. This is how Murakami Haruki becomes the one Japanese author everyone has to write about, despite the fact that there are several others equally worthy of this sort of media fawning. (Although most aren’t published by Knopf, which does, for better or worse, make a difference.)

There’s nothing to be done about this—people in the media act like sheep and all want to have their voice heard about the big books everyone is talking about—and it’s not like Knausgaard is completely undeserving, it’s just frustrating to people who actually read a significant amount of international literature and actually know a lot about works from a particular country or region. Instead, there’s basically no point in publishing anything from Norway for the next few years, because it will be such an uphill battle getting attention for it, and any reviews you do get will just compare it to Knausgaard.

But whatever—that’s the sad lament of an every-struggling publisher. You should read these books since most everyone else has. (Or has taken an unwavering stance against him.) Or, better yet, read his review of Houellebecq’s Submission.

The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson (New Directions)

Talk about getting all the love! This book is on every single year-end list I’ve seen, and a few others highlighting the best covers of the year.

The rebirth of Lispector—whose books have been available in one translation or another for decades—really started with Ben Moser’s new translation of The Hour of the Star back in 2011. That was followed by the release of four of her novels (three in new translations, one translated for the first time ever) in 2012, which generated a lot of attention for Lispector (in part because of Ben Moser’s unflagging enthusiasm). It all reached a crescendo with this massive volume though, which brings together all of her stories into one chunky, attractive volume.

I’ve yet to dive into this, although I have read a couple of the included volumes in their past translations. What I hope will happen a result of #LispectorFever is that New Directions retranslated The Apple in the Dark. I generally like Gregory Rabassa’s translations, but I feel like a new translation is well-deserved and would help find a much larger audience for one of her most ambitious novels.

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House Press)

Luiselli’s rise has been meteoric! In 2014 when I entered her novel Faces in the Crowd into the first ever World Cup of Literature (a contest she damn near won), it seemed like only a handful of people had read her. Now, with the publication of her third book and second novel, she’s being featured in the New York Times, New Yorker, Lit Hub, NPR, Slate, Huffington Post, Dissent Magazine, you name a media outlet and I’m sure they’ve run something about this book.

Which is all really wonderful. I’m actually using this book in my spring class, in part because I really like Valeria and her writing, in part because the story of how this came to be—and how it was edited in translation—opens up so many great topics for my students to think about and debate.

In short: Luiselli wrote this for the Jumex Foundation as a sort of serial novel for the workers at the Jumex juice factory. In the vein of the professional readers at the Cuban cigar rolling factories, she sent the workers one chapter at a time, which was distributed as a sort of chapbook to everyone at the factory. Some of these workers formed a reading group, and all of their comments about that particular section were sent back to Valeria, who listened to them, then wrote her next installment.

For the editing process, Chris Fishbach of Coffee House treated this like a book originally written in English, editing it more like an original text than a work in translation. (By contrast, most editors of translation focus on syntax, grammar, word choice, register, tone, etc. It’s still complicated and intensive, but slightly different.) The whole project became more collaborative with Christina MacSweeney adding a “Chronology” to the book that doesn’t exist in the original Spanish edition, and with Coffee House publishing a “Fact Check” booklet created by their proofreader. This is more than a simple novel—it is an artistic enterprise that is very layered and fascinating. And it features one of the most distinctive, enjoyable fictional voices in recent memory.

It’s worth noting that all six of these books—which truly are among the most talked about translations of 2015, all statistical jokes aside—are from independent and nonprofit presses, and that four of the six are by women writers.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back with a list that’s a bit more loopy.

13 November 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Heather Cleary, translator of Sergio Chejfec, Oliverio Girondo, professor at Sarah Lawrence, and co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

I’ve been planning for weeks to write about Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, which got under my skin in a way few books do. It’s not just that it’s impossible to put down—in both Herrera’s Spanish and Lisa Dillman’s English, its language is a fever dream of mixed registers and literary allusions pulled perfectly taut across the story. This would probably be reason enough to add my voice to the chorus of praise for the novel, but it seems even more timely to talk about Signs now, less than a week after Donald Trump, the poster child for backward thinking about borders and the people who cross them, had another moment in the spotlight on Saturday Night Live. Less so because the novel tells the story of an fierce, unflappable young woman who makes the journey from what is recognizably (though not explicitly) Mexico into what is recognizably (though not explicitly) the USA in search of her missing brother—though it is indeed a compelling story—than because the novel offers a powerful, nuanced take on the negotiation of those contact zones in which not only nations, but also languages, traditions, and identities meet, complicate, and enrich one another.
We meet Makina—the protagonist of Signs Preceding the End of the World and, in the words of Francisco Goldman, the “heroine who redeems us all“—as she stands on a different, but even more intractable border: the one separating life from death. In fact, the very first words of the novel are the beautifully impossible “I’m dead,” exclaimed as the ground at her feet, weakened by centuries of rapacious silver extraction, caves in—swallowing a man as he crosses the street “and with him a car and a dog, all the oxygen around, and even the screams of passers-by.”

Makina, however, refuses to be among those “sent packing to the underworld” that day—she has a mission to carry out. Her mother has asked her to deliver a note to her brother, who went missing after getting conned into crossing the border in search of land supposedly left to their family. To accomplish this, she first needs to visit another underworld: the lairs of three local gangsters who will help her make it to the other side. From there she travels to the border, crosses the stygian river that separates the two lands with the aid of a taciturn gentleman named Chucho (hired by said gangsters to act as her guide), is shot by vigilantes but somehow manages to escape, and is nearly arrested as she homes in on her brother’s whereabouts.

If all this sounds fairly epic, that’s because it is: one of the things that make this work so much bigger than the breadth of its spine is the way Herrera weaves allusions to pre-Columbian and Western narrative traditions throughout. Given the nine chapters that lead to our heroine’s descent into “The Obsidian Place with no Windows or Holes for Smoke,” we can pick Dante out as one of Makina’s travel companions, and the ordeals she faces as she crosses the border—not to mention her almost inhuman physical and psychological resilience—clearly bear the mark of myth.

In addition to this contact and flow between cultures past and present, zones of linguistic contact are central to the novel. As the switchboard operator and de facto interpreter of the small town where she lives, Makina, is herself a model of these modes of exchange. Though she is able to speak “native tongue,” “latin tongue,” and the “new tongue” of those who have gone up North, she knows “how to keep quiet in all three, too.”

Among the few possessions she takes on her journey is a “latin-anglo dictionary,” despite the fact that “those things were by old men and for old men.” The world, however, is not revealed to her through the neat equivalences of the dictionary, but rather through moments of non-transference between languages, when one shines through the other like a beacon. Standing firmly astride another border, a frontier almost as carefully policed as the one separating Makina from the land that swallowed her brother, Herrera deftly takes on the social politics of a language that is recognizably (though not explicitly) Spanglish:

More than a midpoint between homegrown and anglo their tongue is a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born . . . Makina senses in their tongue not a sudden absence but a shrewd metamorphosis, a self-defensive shift. They might be talking in perfect latin tongue and without warning begin to talk in perfect anglo tongue and keep it up like that, alternating between a thing that believes itself to be perfect and a thing that believes itself to be perfect, morphing back and forth between two beasts until out of carelessness or clear intent they suddenly stop switching tongues and start speaking that other one.

It is not just that this third tongue stands alongside the other two, its fluid definitions perpetually subject to change. What is so striking about Herrera’s description is that it is precisely from this unstable position at the border between two languages that this third one creates meaning more rich than either side alone could produce:

Using in one tongue the word for a thing in the other makes the attributes of both resound: if you say Give me fire when they say Give me a light, what is not to be learned about fire, light, and the act of giving? It is not another way of saying things: these are new things.

Makina’s gaze makes things new in just this way, especially for the North American reader of Dillman’s vibrant, limber translation. Supermarkets are “cornucopias where you could have more than everyone else or something different or a newer brand,” in which the “anglogaggle at the self-checkouts” purchases their goods and then seeks to “make amends for their momentary one-up by becoming wooden again so as not to offend anyone.” (“Anglogaggle“—a felicitous play on Herrera’s “gabacherío“—may well be one of the best words I’ve ever seen in print.) Baseball is a game the anglos play every week “to celebrate who they are” on “an immense green diamond rippling in its own reflection” set among “tens of thousands of folded black chairs, an obsidian mound barbed with flint, sharp and glimmering.”

Seeing the elements of a familiar world through the lens of an unfamiliar one makes the attributes of both resound, and what is not to be learned from this?

Though the exceedingly timely and nonetheless timeless Signs Preceding the End of the World does not hold back in evoking the violence and exploitation that haunts the passage across the US-Mexico border, Herrera was both sage and skilled enough to write a book that occupies this space in a way that, in its dizzying array of registers and allusions, refuses to be confined by the socio-political reality it depicts. In this virtuosic feat, he seems to have accomplished the impossible: he has offered a new and vital way of looking at a subject too often passed through the pulverizing mill of political rhetoric.

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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