15 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Now that the World Cup of Literature is officially over, with Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile taking home the prize, it’s time to get back to writing normal blog posts, starting with this much overdue “preview” of forthcoming July translations.

My initial plan with this post was to write it “live blog” style from Las Vegas where I was last month for the American Library Association conference. Unfortunately, many things got in the way of that, starting with the $14.95/day wifi costs in my hotel (Open Letter saves its money to spend on translators, not to allow me to make dumb jokes!), not to mention the 9am kickoff for the World Cup games, and the alcohol that I drank (see insane Eiffel Tower drink below).

So, instead, I’m going to try and work some of my observations into the write-ups below. But, unlike the music industry, which hasn’t brought out much of anything good this month, publishers are dropping some awesome stuff this summer. Bitov, Robbe-Grillet, Volodine, Haas, Can Xue . . . There are some legit overviews below to go with the usual assortment of random crap.

But to set the scene a bit: Way back when, before BEA locked itself into being in Jacob Javits’s glass house for a decade (or whatever), the show was supposed to take place in Las Vegas. Given the nonsensical nature of BEA and its parties, I couldn’t wait for this show. Booksellers AND strippers??! Lowly publicity assistants blowing their per diem at the craps table?? More drunken beardos than the streets of Brooklyn after a Pavement concert! SIGN ME UP.

Unfortunately, that BEA got moved to the Western West Side and was like every other BEA: A bit unfocused, a bit depressing, and a bit self-congratulatory.

Fast-forward a bunch of years, and now, when I’m too old to fully rock out anymore of course, I finally get to attend a convention in Vegas. One with fellow nerdy book people! Heading into it, I figured this was going to be great, and that I was going to lead at least a dozen librarians into nights of bad decision making.

Just to pause for a moment though, these are the people who attend ALA:

And those are the librarians from Austin. So, yeah. Vegas. Librarians. Books, booze, and gambling. Free flowing liquor. Temps above 110. My never-ending depression. What could possibly go wrong?

The Last Lover by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen (Yale University Press)

Can Xue has to be the female Chinese author with the most books translated into English. She’s been published by Henry Holt, Northwestern, Open Letter, Yale, and has appeared in a number of issues of Conjunctions. Part of this is because she’s a fucking brilliant and strange writer, part of this is due to her natural charm. I finally had a chance to meet her in person last fall at the Reykjavik International Literary Festival (see our interview) and immediately signed on another of her novels, Frontier. This isn’t much of a secret, really, but publishers like to work with people they like. I’ll happily sign on a book that’s an 8 out of 10 instead of a book that’s a 10 out of 10 if the author/translator is someone that I really respect and like working with.

Which is why certain people won’t ever translate anything for Open Letter. Ever.

And I’ll bet you were expecting the “last lover” to lead to some sort of joke about escorts and Vegas and librarians . . .

Rachel by Andrei Gelasimov, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz (Amazon Crossing)

This is the fourth of Gelasimov’s books that Amazon Crossing has published, three of which (including this one) are on sale for $1.99 right now. Say what you will about pricing, Hachette, and the decline of modern civilization, this is worth taking advantage of if for no other reason than the fact that Marian translated the books. She’s one of the most amazing translators we’ve got, and if she loves an author—like she does with Gelasimov—everyone should pay attention.

A Sentimental Novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet, translated from the French by D.E. Brooke (Dalkey Archive Press)

In Vegas, I stayed in Bally’s hotel, which is attached to the Paris hotel. Or rather, Le Paris hotel. For those of you who haven’t been to Vegas, consider yourselves lucky. The Paris hotel includes a huge replica of the Eiffel Tower, which you can go up in on the “Le Eiffel Tower Adventure,” the tickets for which can be purchased next to “Le Bar,” which is across the way from “Le Toilettes” by “Le Sports Book.” I’m not even fucking with you—all the signs in this hotel have “Le” appended to them. Ninety percent of the time, these make no sense—shouldn’t it be “Les Toilettes”?—and the other one-hundred and ten percent of the time this is stupid as shit. It’s like the worst simulacrum ever.

On the upside, they do sell the “Le Eiffel Daiquiri,” a two-foot tall Eiffel Tower “glass” filled with 10-12 shots of rum. All for $16.95! Well, $16.95 and most of your better judgement.

Come, Sweet Death! by Wolf Haas, translated from the German by Annie Janusch (Melville House)

The U.S. vs. Germany World Cup match took place the first morning that I was in Vegas. I had talked a lot of shit to Nick from NYRB about getting up super early, finding a crazy bar to watch it in, etc., etc., but at 8am when my alarm went off, I thought I’d rather just stay in bed and avoid all the American Outlaws. One problem: no matter where I looked, I couldn’t find the remote for my TV. Not on the TV stand, not in any of the drawers, not on top of the armoire, not under the bed, nowhere. So I rushed out, basically ran across to the one sports bar I already had scoped out, and ordered a coffee. Surprisingly, they did have coffee, but no coffee mugs . . . Instead, they served me a pint of coffee with a little sleeve so that I wouldn’t burn the shit out of my hand. A pint of coffee.

This was one of my favorite Vegas experiences though, since I was seated between two dudes who chain smoked the entire game while playing video poker and downing screwdrivers. They had clearly been there all night, and were holding on to shreds of dignity and hope. Neither of them won jack, and one guy’s friends never came to collect him from wherever they had been partying all night.

I did end up partaking in the $2 beer specials, which was probably the reason I fell asleep at the hotel pool a few hours later and woke up as red as I’ve ever been in my life . . . I’m still peeling . . . Once you turn 40, a 9am beer is the equivalent of twelve evening drinks. This is a life lesson for all you youngsters: Enjoy your wake’n‘drink days before your body starts to hate you.

Symmetry Teacher by Andrei Bitov, translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon (FSG)

Of all the books on this list, this is the one that I’m most excited to read. I loved Bitov’s Pushkin House (which Dalkey reissued a number of years back), and Michael Orthofer gave this one an A-. Based on the description—that this is an “echo book” of a book that Bitov once read and foggily remembers, but that leads him to create a series of self-reflexive, nested stories—it sounds like a fun, complicated game of a novel. And Orthofer really sells it with this:

The different stories that make up the novel are not so much unfinished or incomplete, but rather part of an overlapping continuity that probably can best be compared to an Escher loop (or loops of Escher loops . . .): not neatly nested, à la Calvino, or adhering to some similar determined Oulipian schemes, but rather capriciously folding back on themselves across time and space, the author’s guiding hand in the frame but handing off responsibility in his layers of authorial invention, attributing a great deal to A. Tired-Boffin, who in turn credits Urbino Vanoski. etc. [. . .]

The Symmetry Teacher is about books and reading and writing that transcend the actual set text — literary echoes that arise and exist separately from what is in a fixed, written state. This is a novel where, typically, a character enthuses about his vivid memory of a particular scene — but admits he no longer can find it.

Poetics of Wonder: Passage to Mogador by Alberto Ruy Sanchez, translated from the Spanish by Rhonda Buchanan (White Pine)

Alberto Ruy Sanchez is included in our new anthology, A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, which may well be the most beautiful book we’ve ever published. Edelweiss does the design no favors, but you should click that link to see how amazing this is, and to request a digital reading copy. (Although you really should just buy the real thing.)

I’m sure most people already knew this, but Vegas has a monorail, which, every single time I saw it referenced, reminded me of this Simpson’s epidode:

Why this song isn’t playing continuously on every monorail platform is a failure on Vegas’s part.

Writers by Antoine Volodine, translated from the French by Katina Rogers (Dalkey Archive)

To prepare for our upcoming pre-sales call, I just started reading all the Open Letter titles scheduled to come out in 2015 between April-August. Antoine Volodine’s Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven (which, according to at least a few reviewers, is far superior to Writers), Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow, Naja Marie Aidt’s Rock, Paper, Scissors, Juan José Saer’s The One Before . . . Obviously, I love the books we publish, but this is that period of time when the dyssynchrony of being in the book world are the most apparent. We got the rights to Physics of Sorrow back in September of 2012, and no one else will be able to read this before the end of the year. But I read (or rather, reread) the first 50 pages last night, and I want everyone I know to have access to this right fricking now. It’s one of the best things I’ve read all year. But by the time I can mail it out to people, I’ll be reading the book coming out in January 2016 and my desire to talk Physics with other book people will be somewhat dulled. And by the time ordinary readers (compared to booksellers and reviewers who will receive advanced reading copies) get their hands on this, we’ll be reading excerpts and signing on books for 2017.

I’m not sure I have a real point here, just that books and music are most of my life, and it’s a weird experience when you remember that huge portions of your “life” are spent reading in a social void of sorts. That and: you all must read Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven and The Physics of Sorrow. As soon as they come out. And then email/tweet/text me.

Crow Blue by Adriana Lisboa, translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin (Bloomsbury)

I just want to point out that this book is listed on the Bloomsbury website as part of Bloomsbury Circus. What the fuck is that, you ask?

Bloomsbury Circus is a place of fine writing from all over the world. There are exciting debuts and brilliant new work from such established writers as Patrick McGrath, Lucy Ellmann, Alice McDermott and Tobias Hill. Like any good circus, it is a list that is not frightened to take risks, while always being entertaining.

So, by “all over the world,” they mean Britain, Scotland, and America? Maybe those are the “three rings” of this “circus”? Bloomsbury, your metaphor sucks. “Bloomsbury Circus” sounds like the publisher of kids books about acrobats and fucking clowns.

Matiushin Case by Oleg Pavlov, translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield (And Other Stories)

I think it’s pretty ironic that & Other Stories which has the URL “stories.com” is a bag/accessories/shoes/lingerie shop. Why “stories”?

Speaking of random shops though, there’s a Britney Spears Boutique in Vegas. I assume that it’s wall-to-wall signed copies of Crossroads.

Mr. Gwyn by Alessandro Baricco, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (McSweeney’s Books)

I haven’t made fun of Flavorwire’s list in a while, but this one on the 35 Writers Who Run the Literary Internet deserves to be laughed at. When I clicked on this, I was hoping for some conspiracy theory shit linking an unknown writer to media leaks about how Amazon burns 13 Hachette books a day as part of some corporate ritual, or something interesting like that. Instead, it’s a list of writers with the most Twitter followers. Because Twitter equals the Internet and having the most followers is equivalent to “running it.”

(Except for Zadie Smith! “She’s one of the few big-name writers who has managed to develop a huge Internet presence without even seeming to spend much time online.” In other words, she’s a writer that people really like. How does she even fit in under the “Runs the Literary Internet” rubric? According to the description, what she “runs” is her own writing. Whatever.)

I know—and respect—some of the people on this list, others make me want to scratch my eyes out when I hear them speak on panels, most I don’t “follow” and, to be honest, don’t feel like I’m missing anything . . . Also, I know Flavorwire exists to create log-rolling lists as clickbait and to get the “listed” people to retweet the lists, generating more clicks and ensuring that these people (the listed) can end up on be on more lists and everyone can all end up at the same over-priced Brooklyn speakeasy drinking PBRs and old fashioneds. So this isn’t anything personal against anyone involved—everyone is awesome.

That said, I love this comment: “Dear Flavorwire, America is not the world, for Chrissakes.” Having fallen for way too many Flavorwire headline teases, I can assure you that, in the eyes of Flavorwire, America and Karl Ove Knausgaard ARE the world.

Secondly, the pictures of the women screaming with their mouths open? Is this a new meme? It’s very unsettling.

Also, the only good thing about the World Cup being over is that Teju Cole will no longer be tweeting about it. I know he’s got a million and one fans who will “rise as one” to annihilate me, but to be honest, I think his World Cup tweets were the worst. So self-absorbed and pedantic and boring. Kaija’s #WorldCupTaunting bits were edgier, funnier, and much more entertaining than things like “Guillermo ‘CTRL S’ Ochoa.”

Nothing was as bad as the #thetimeofthegame “idea.” Just check this out:

What’s funniest to me is that he took a screen cap of his own Twitter feed as his #thetimeofthegame entry. Twitter is like a Bloomsbury Circus of crap.

(Also, I know that these rants are why Open Letter books never make Flavorwire’s lists, for which I apologize to all our authors and translators. My jokes about things that suck shouldn’t represent Open Letter, but I’m afraid that some people take it that way.)

Guantanamo by Frank Smith, translated from the French by Vanessa Place (Les Figues)

I feel like explaining what I specifically didn’t like about Las Vegas will come off as a string of clichés . . . but that might be due to the fact that there’s no real separation from the depiction of Vegas in movies and TV shows—its excesses and bright lights and frenetic nature—and what it’s really like. The whole strip area is set up as one huge experiment in behavioral economics designed to get people to spend too much money and make terrible decisions. Every hotel is connected to every other hotel by way of thirteen areas stuffed with gamble machines. It’s all flashing and no straight path is actually straight. In between, the Paris and Bally hotels, you walk down a “hallway” that veers this way and that, coming out into a room of slots and tables and no idea which way to turn. This disorientation—a key behind shopping malls—facilitates the spending of money. The fact that there is no sense of time—it could be noon or five am—adds to this, and quickly turns a few drinks into an all-night bender involving $17 drinks with 12 shots of rum. That’s why hotel staff keeps asking “are you OK?” in that tone that implies that you might well need medical attention but just don’t realize it yet.

Vegas wants you to walk that fine line between “drunk enough to spend ten times what I was planning on” and “alcohol poisoning.” We were in a bar where you could order a kilo of cavier for $7,200. A kilo. Who the fuck says, “could I get a kilo of cavier please?” Someone who just won big at the blackjack table. Who believes this is “free money” and that the best way to get value out of this free money is to blow it in one big huge, story-creating sort of way: “Dude, I won ten grand at a poker tournament and bought Cristal and a kilo of cavier and hit up the strip joint and puked in the Bellagio fountain. It was fucking epic!”

Thing is, maybe Vegas is right. Maybe a life of books and music is totally overrated. (And that’s one more thing: culture really doesn’t seem to exist in Vegas. I’m sure it does, out in the city, in pockets, outside of the Stratosphere and the High Roller and everything else that sucks, but when you think Vegas, you think Celine and Britney and Carrot Top — Carrot Top! — none of which are interesting or novel or worth dropping $100 to see.) Vegas represents a cultural black hole where anything goes, where you can escape your normal shitty life and believe for a time that you’re a VIP, that you could win millions by betting on black, that the next drink will make you attractive. It’s supposed to be a place of ultimate freedom, but those freedoms seem, to me, as a cynical depressed bastard, to only involve cheap sex, all the drinking, and the highly unlikely dream of easy money.

Invisible Love by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, translated from the French by Howard Curtis (Europa Editions)

I went to two “parties” during ALA: one about “gaming and cosplay,” the other sponsored by Central Recovery Press.

No one was cosplayed up for the gaming one, and apparently, in the library world, “gaming” means “board games.” As in, twenty librarians were sitting around a well-lit room playing board games. And no, there were no drinks. I lasted less than 30 seconds. Even BEA does better than that.

Central Recovery is a very admirable press dedicated to helping people overcome their addictions. Their party was out at Vegas City Hall, which is so much more interesting than the strip. It also seems like it’s in the middle of nowhere, past the “Gambling Supplies Warehouse” and just out of sight from Circus, Circus. A special shuttle bus had to bring us there, since walking that far—even from the last monorail stop—would basically leave you dehydrated and dead. Good thing the Central Recovery party had all the Coke you could desire! (I was expecting coffee and donuts, but alas.) Anyway, aside from the fact that I’m not in AA and prefer parties with beers, this set up would’ve been totally fine if I hadn’t have overheard someone say “the speeches will start in about 15 minutes” just as the bus, the only link to civilization, pulled away. I can live without wine, but living through multiple speeches—or a poetry reading lasting more than 10 minutes—is tough . . .

Nevertheless I survived, regained my non-sobriety at the Peppermill, and made it back from Vegas with my mind only slightly broken . . .

7 September 13 | Chad W. Post |

I’ve been wanting to do monthly highlights of books coming out for a while, but thought to myself that, well, Flavorwire already does stuff like this, so why bother. Then I remembered that Flavorwire is the worst, so here we are.

High Tide by Inga Ābele. Translated from the Latvian by Kaija Straumanis. ($15.95, Open Letter Books)

Yep, I’m leading it off with one of our books. A book by a former student of the University of Rochester’s Literary Translation Program and our current editor. (Flavorwire would never do something like this.) Anyway, aside from the selfish plug for Open Letter and Kaija, I want to say three things:

1) This is a beautifully written book that relates a woman’s life more-or-less in reverse chronological order, demonstrating, in consistently surprising ways, the choices that led to her current state and feeling that “life is a prison” and that everything for her keeps restarting and restarting. We talked about this at our Book Clüb yesterday and people admitted that it made them cry. So that;

2) This is the first Latvian novel to be published in the U.S. in English translation; (NOT TRUE! This book existed at some point.)

3) This comes out on September 26th, and to promote it ahead of time, we’re selling the ebook version for $3.99 this week, $5.99 next week, $7.99 the week after, and $9.99 when the book launches. So get yours now! (Amazon, iTunes, Nook, Kobo.)

Open Door by Iosi Havilio. Translated from the Spanish by Beth Fowler. ($15.95, And Other Stories)

All Dogs Are Blue by Rodrigo de Souza Leão. Translated from the Portuguese by Zoë Perry and Stefan Tobler. ($15.95, And Other Stories)

After winning just about every award possible in the UK, And Other Stories—the indie press with the most interesting editorial selection process I know of—is finally branching out into the United States. Consortium will be distributing their books, and within six months, every major book news outlet will have reviewed their titles and be singing their praises. This is some high quality shit.

Open Door includes two of my favorite subjects in literature: Argentina and insane asylums. I read this a while back, but plan to reread it in advance of Havilio’s Paradises, which comes out next month. (I actually mentioned this book back in 2008 during my editorial trip to Buenos Aires.)

I read All Dogs Are Blue while I was in Brazil, not too far away from the asylum (THIS IS AN AND OTHER STORIES THEME) where Rodrigo de Souza Leão spent much of his life. It’s an amazing book, samples from which you can see here.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. ($18.00, Europa Editions)

One of the most recommended non-crime writers that Europa publishes and whom I haven’t read. Her books have been on my shelves forever, and one of these days . . .

All of the fans of The Days of Abandonment, or, more apropos, My Brilliant Friend, will rush out to get this, but for anyone not familiar with her, here’s a bit from the Shelf Awareness review that ran today:

With The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante picks up where she left off in My Brilliant Friend, following her two protagonists, Lila and Elena, from adolescence into their 20s. The novel, the second volume in a trilogy, is a treatise on life in Naples, a part of Italy that has nothing in common with Rome, Florence or Milan.

The two girls have a complex, intense relationship, with Lila leading the way and Elena trying to accommodate—at least at first. Lila has pulled herself out of poverty with an early marriage to a grocer’s son, whom she hates. Elena has continued studying, graduating from high school and going to university in Pisa.

The Mystery of Rio by Alberto Mussa. Translated from the Portuguese by Alex Ladd. ($16.00, Europa Editions)

There are only five works of fiction from Brazil coming out in the U.S. this year. (Three are on this list.) After visiting Rio and Paraty this summer, I MUST READ THEM ALL.

The Eternal Son by Cristovao Tezza. Translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin. ($19.95, Tagus Press)

Sticking with the Brazilian theme, here’s the latest from Tagus Press, a new outfit publishing only Lusophone writers. This book—about a father whose son is born with Down syndrome—sounds a bit like Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter.

Between Friends by Amos Oz. Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston. ($14.95, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Since the day we launched Three Percent, I’ve been making fun of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s website. Not that any of the Big Five websites were spectacular, but for years it seemed like Houghton Mifflin was playing some kind of demented game with readers trying to find out information about their books. You had to click through 6 or 20 links to find a list of new releases, which then, just to make things interesting, were never quite in alphabetical order. The search engine ran on AltaVista or Ask Jeeves!, and for a while Jose Saramago was a digital persona non gratis.

Well. Things are now better. This website doesn’t look like vomit. It makes a certain amount of intuitive sense. I typed in Amos Oz, and actually received results about Amos Oz. The fact that these are grand improvements is depressing at best, but still, way to go HMH!

Except maybe for the fact that this is all the info on the HMH site about Between Friends:

A provocative new story collection from the internationally celebrated author of A Tale of Love and Darkness.

Really? Christ. At least I can still rely on HMH for providing good comedic fodder. Keep up the bumbling!

Gods of the Steppe by Andrei Gelasimov. Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz. ($14.95, AmazonCrossing)

This is the third Gelasimov book that AmazonCrossing has published, the other two being Thirst and The Lying Year. The fact that Marian Schwartz translated this is enough to make me want to read it. She is the best.

Sudden Disappearance of the Worker Bees by Serge Quadruppani.& Translated from the Italian by Delia Casa. ($23.95, Arcade)

Over the past month I’ve read Generation A by Douglas Coupland, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, and And Still the Earth by Ignacio de Loyola Brandão, fairly different books, but all of which are set in the future and involve a world in which no one reads, and there are no more bees. Sure, I’d heard mention of colony collapse disorder before, but, like America, I didn’t really care all that much. But reading these books, I realized that with no bees, we have no apples. And no apple crisp. According to Wikipedia, one-third of the crop species in the United States involve bee pollination, including: almonds, peaches, soybeans, apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers, and strawberries. This is not good. Of course, as soon as I read these books and starting thinking about how fucked it is that one-third of the U.S. honeybee colonies died or disappeared last winter, my neighbor’s Time Magazine arrived with this beepocalyptic cover:

What the shit, Universe? I did not need this.

Faction by Juan Filloy. Translated from the Spanish by Rhett McNeil. ($16.95, Dalkey Archive Press)

Click on that link above to see just how “in process” Dalkey’s website is right now. Nevertheless, this book was announced with a September pub date, and man do I hope it comes out soon. I actually signed this on—along with Op Oloop way back in the early 2000s. (Writing “early 2000s” and realizing that is an accurate statement makes me feel old.) I forget how we first came across Filloy—who is mentioned in passing in Cortázar’s Hopscotch, lived in three centuries, and used seven-letter titles for all of his books—but all of his books sounded really interesting. Especially this one, which is about “seven erudite, homeless, and semi-incompetent radicals traveling from city to city in an attempt to foment a revolution.” SOLD.

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.

....
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