7 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following on the post about Amanda Michalopoulou’s upcoming events, here’s a list of all three Reading the World Conversation Series events taking place this month.

Women in Translation
Thursday, April 10th, 6pm

Welles-Brown Room
Rush Rhees Library
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627

A conversation and reading with Bulgarian authors Albena Stambolova (Everything Happens as It Does) and Virginia Zaharieva (Nine Rabbits), and Danish author Iben Mondrup (Justine, forthcoming from Open Letter in 2016) and translator Kerri Pierce to discuss their writing and careers—both in their home countries and abroad.

Radical Politics and BFFs
Tuesday, April 15th, 6pm

Gowen Room
Wilson Commons
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627

A conversation and reading with Greek author Amanda Michalopoulou and translator Karen Emmerich as they read and discuss Amanda’s Why I Killed My Best Friend.

“Flawlessly translated, Amanda Michalopoulou’s WIKMBF uses the backdrop of Greek politics, radical protests, and the art world to explore the dangers and joys that come with BFFs. Or, as the narrator puts it, ‘odiosamato,’ which translates roughly as ‘frienemies.’” –Gary Shteyngart

Latin American Literature Today
Tuesday, April 22nd, 6pm

Gowen Room
Wilson Commons
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627

A conversation with two of the authors included in Granta Magazine’s “Best Young Spanish-language Novelists” issue—Andrés Neuman (Traveler of the Century, Talking to Ourselves) and Carlos Labbé (Navidad & Matanza, Loquela), and translator and University of Rochester alum Will Vanderhyden, on their latest words and current trends in Latin American Literature.

7 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Every semester I tell my publishing students about the time I was walking around BEA with Jerome Kramer and he pointed out how the whole fair was “filled with failure.” Mostly I want to shock and break them—every good professor needs to upend his/her student’s expectations and their latent belief that they “know a lot of things”—but it’s also a statement that I stand by.

Pretend you’re a writer. Or rather, someone who wants to be a writer. You spend years working on your novel (or worse—collection of poems) and then spend three times that amount of time trying to find an agent willing to send this around to a bunch of editors who read approximately five pages (this is actually what happens, sorry) before deciding that your years of labor aren’t “good enough” (a.k.a. “potentially profit-making”) to be published. Even if you do find a publisher, unless you wrote the next Fifty Shades, you’ll end up selling less than 2,000 copies. Most likely, you’ll end up self-publishing your work through Amazon and 1/10 of your 400 Facebook friends will buy the $.99 ebook version. Congrats!

Or pretend you’re a publisher. You wade through hundreds of awful manuscripts every year and find 10-12 that you actually like. Along the way, you respond to approximately 1,000 emails from authors and agents harassing you for answers, questioning your judgement, making you wish that worked in a job that actually made money. Finally, the book you love, that you edited with all the best intentions, that you promoted to all your favorite Brooklyn tastemakers comes out . . . and no one talks about it. It sells 2,000 copies. Such a great book! And fuck, man . . .

Let’s say you’re a translator. You do samples on spec. You get someone to finally publish the book that you have always wanted to work on. You and your editor exchange five emails. The book comes out without your name on the cover. Reviewers praise the author’s style without mentioning you. The book sells 2,000. Because you only earn 1% of the list price on ever sale, you never earn back your $2,500 advance. (Which was what you received for a year of work.)

Booksellers don’t have it any better. You have to cater. You might have your own opinions on what books are great, and which ones you would rather not ever have to sell. But the customer is always right. Amazon killed your mojo. Ebooks are bitching up your profit margins. And instead of buying the extremely well-written, well-translated Dutch book you love, everyone is chuffing off with Freedom. The book you staff-picked and put in every customer’s hands sold 6 copies at your store. And you still earn just a smidgen above minimum wage.

I wouldn’t want to be a reviewer at a major publication. All the courting must make you want to puke. “No really, this is her breakout book. It’s got relatable characters, unexpected twists, and a midget! Can I buy you a drink?” And then you have to review the “big” books: Franzen, Eggers, etc., etc. Books that are fine, but which don’t make the world a better place. Life-changing, challenging books “aren’t of interest” to your demographics . . . So you pretend to give a shit about the latest debut author from Bushwick who “realistically” portrays her generation, knowing all the while that this whole thing is a fucking scam: that the only reason this book is being printed is because Ms. Bushwick used to write for the most-popular of popular blogs . . . And everyone hates you for not reviewing the much better book that only sold 2,000 copies . . .

There really is no logical reason to be in the book business. Kids would rather play with their iPhones than read a book, you’ll never earn as much as you’re worth, and even when you feel like you’re doing something good for the world, a minimum of 25 people are right there ready to complain and tell you how much you suck at life.

Case Study Number One. I have no idea why no one reviewed Dubravka Ugresic’s Europe in Sepia. Her last book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. I sent the new one to everyone. All the reviewers and booksellers were excited. It’s as good as Karaoke Culture and more timely. And yet? . . . Not enough. Every time I see that book on the shelf I feel like I let her down. I failed.

Case Study Number Two. We just finished editing one of our biggest books for the fall. As always, Kaija went through it, sent her edits to the translator (something that only a few presses do!), appreciated the translator’s kind response, inputted the changes, and proofed the book. Then, said translator emailed me to explain that, because Kaija switched three “as if I were” constructions to “like I was,” she was “concerned” and wondered if English was Kaija’s native language. (This translator also claimed Kaija wasn’t a “professional translator,” which is just untrue.) If I didn’t love the author, I would sabotage this book. Or just not publish it at all. Attacking my employees is crossing the line. Nevertheless, I feel like a failure because I can’t actually tell this person how pissed off I am—or how absolutely wrong they are—without seeming petty. Or anti-translator. And no matter how much I’ve done for translators over the past 15 years (just because I love international literature, I’m not a translator myself), I still get shit like this because I hired an editor who actually edits. FAILURE!

Case Study Number Three. The Best Translated Book Awards are up for the International Book Industry Excellence Awards presented by the London Book Fair and the UK Publishers Association. The other two finalists in the International Literary Translation Initiative category are Penguin India and Shanghai 99, two of the largest companies in the world. Two of the largest companies in India and China up against an idea originating from some guy who works in an office in the slowly imploding Rochester, NY . . . Guess who’s not going to be at the awards ceremony? The University of Rochester “doesn’t have $2,000” to send me to an awards ceremony with the publishing industry’s best and brightest. (Tuition plus room and board for the 2014-15 school year is $60,000.) Apparently, “they” don’t want to take advantage of the public relations opportunity or reward one of their employees for CREATING AN AWARD THAT’S A FINALIST FOR AN INTERNATIONAL AWARD. No money for failures?

It’s almost impossible to work in this industry and not feel like you’re being gamed on some cosmic level. The pay is moderate in comparison to other professions, and the hate mail way outnumbers the messages of appreciation. Great books never sell as well as they should. No one cares if you spent your weekend answering emails and reading hundreds of pages from a book that you don’t love, but want to promote in some way. (This is why all publishers are in New York. Not only because it’s the center of all media, but because if you work in books you can get invited to a bunch of scenester parties each weekend. And free booze and the company of other simpatico book people makes it all that much easier to swallow.)

I guess my point is as cheesy as it could be: Why don’t we all just calm the fuck down? It’s not like anyone’s intentionally trying to fuck anyone over—the game is just rigged. If the NPR reviewer doesn’t talk about how mindblowing your translation is, it’s not because he hates you; if an editor makes some suggestions to your book, it’s because they respect you and want your translation to be the best translation possible; if a bookstore can’t sell your book, it’s not because it’s bad, it’s because most people all want to read the same thing and that thing is banal; if Flavorwire won’t review your books, it’s because they receive . . . or, well, actually, that one’s because you, Chad W. Post, made fun of Jason Diamond on Twitter, and TWITTER NEVER FORGETS.

I didn’t have time to read shit this past month, so the April Previews are mostly of books I want to read, and I’ve highlighted them with stupid jokes. Enjoy my failures.

Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (FSG)

This is, hands down, the best book I’ve read this year. It’s depressing as fuck, but so well written with its three voices and three timelines. I can’t wait to talk to my students about this novel, and am even more excited that Andrés will be in Rochester on April 22nd for an event with Carlos Labbé (see below). That will likely be one of the best Reading the World Conversation Series events ever, and will be followed by an epic afterparty.

Navidad & Matanza by Carlos Labbé, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden (Open Letter)

If there’s one thing that the Internet has utterly ruined, it’s April Fools Day. Instead of spending months coming up with interesting, convoluted pranks to pull on family members and enemies, this “holiday” now consists of posting random lies online and seeing who’s willing to retweet it. Granted, NPR’s prank was pretty ingenious, but for every joke of this kind there’s a Flavorwire 10 Must-Read Books for April, which I didn’t even realize was an April Fools joke until I noticed that neither Talking to Ourselves nor Navidad & Matanza are on there. YOU GOT ME, FLAVORWIRE!

Nine Rabbits by Virginia Zaharieva, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Black Balloon)

This Tuesday is the second annual Bulgarian Fiction Event at 192 Books in Manhattan. Kaija Straumanis will be representing Open Letter and talking with Virginia Zaharieva and Albena Stambolova about Nine Rabbits and Everything Happens As it Does. These are the only two novels by Bulgarian women available in English translation. Everyone participating in #ReadWomen2014 should be there.

And anyone participating in #ReadWomen2014 might also be interested in knowing that on Thursday, April 10th, Viriginia and Albena will be up in Rochester and will join Danish author Iben Mondrup and translator Kerri Pierce for a panel on “Women in Translation.”

Viviane by Julia Deck, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (New Press)

Last night, trying to find some crappy TV to entertain me after Kentucky’s last-second win, I came across Amish Mafia. This is an absolutely terrible show—you must watch it!

Now, I’m sure this is common knowledge, but this “Pennsylvania German” language that the Amish speak is totally insane. It’s just a bunch of German words—pronounced as if you’re absolutely wasted—put into an English syntax. This is the least threatening language a “mafioso” could use.

And speaking of these “Amish mafiosos,” they sure do have a hankering for sledgehammers. In the episode I watched, anytime shit went wrong, one of the “toughs” would attack with a sledgehammer. I kept wanting this to devolve into the “Gun Fever” episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia featuring Mac trying to prove to Charlie that he could defeat a gunman with a samurai sword. “What if I zig-zagged like this?” BANG BANG BANG. Sledgehammers are stupid.

Finally, from what I could figure out, the “Amish Godfather” is a schlubby dude named Levi whose main criminal activity was SELLING BEER. Beer? That’s like the lemonade of mafia activities, buddy. Get yourself some hookers and a point-shaving scandal and we’ll talk.

Radio by Tõnu Õnnepalu, translated from the Estonian by Adam Cullen (Dalkey Archive)

Is that a concealed nipple on the cover of this book?

This summer, I’m going to be skipping BookExpo America this year to attend HeadRead, Estonia’s annual literary festival. I haven’t been to Talliinn in almost a decade, and this is a perfect opportunity to return, with Sjón, Ben Okri, John Banville, A.S. Byatt, Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, and many more authors on the docket. So if you’re looking for a reason to visit the Baltic States . . .

A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson, translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund (Other Press)

Recently, my ex-wife signed my kids up for a weekend “Kids CrossFit” class at someplace called “BoomTown.” I’m not a big fan of the crossfit cult (more on cults below!), but whatever, the kids love it because they get to run around and throw balls at walls and swing on hanging rings and pretend that they’re bad ass. So when I had them last weekend, I took them myself, and may well have stumbled upon some underground revolutionary party of Rochester.

The crossfit “gym” was just a small room tucked behind a half-abandoned strip mall. (I know, I know, what in Rochester isn’t half-abandoned?) If the tires waiting to be flipped weren’t enough to prove you were in the right place, there was a sales counter selling all sorts of gear with “CROSSFIT” written all over it. Because if you crossfit but don’t tell the world in every way possible that you’re a crossfitter, you’re just not doing it right.

All of the walls were scratched over with people’s names, as if this were one huge bathroom featuring the worst graffiti ever: “MUSCLE CLUB 2014! JENNI! ALEX! SHAUN!” I have the feeling that if you graduated from high school you’re not allowed to join.

The weirdest part had to be all of the kegs and beer for sale. Who crossfits and then does a keg stand?

Wait, no, check that, the weirdest part had to be this sign:

Yes, that is an axe and a AK-47. Thanks, but I’ll take my exercise without the advertisement for deadly weapons.

Pybrac by Pierre Louÿs, translated from the French by Geoffrey Longnecker (Wakefield Press)

A new translation from the author of The Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners! If by chance you haven’t see the Handbook, it’s the filthiest book I’ve ever read in my life. It’s not something you should give your niece. Ever.

And Pybrac, a collection of Louÿs’s poems, is equally as “erotic.” I just spent way too long trying to find a verse that I can quote on here that won’t get me in too much trouble, and this was the safest thing I came across:

I do not like to see the immortal mother
Jerk her son off in bed, get him stiff as a tree
Then encunt him and say: “Now fuck me, you duffer!
You don’t have to ask twice, just stick it to me.”

Wakefield Press is the most daring publisher of the present moment. And their books are amazing—not just for the sheer vulgarity, but for the quality, range, and uniqueness or all that they bring out. Kudos.

With My Dog-Eyes by Hilda Hilst, translated from the Portuguese by Adam Morris (Melville House)

I love Hilda Hilst, and feel like she’s the frontrunner for the 2015 BTBA. Multiple books, loved by everyone literary . . . this may be her year. Also, she was from Brazil and Brazil is hosting the World Cup this year. That’s a clear advantage.

Sankya by Zakhar Prilepin, translated from the Russian by Jeff Parker (DISQUIET)

We have a review of this book posting in the next few days. And any book that comes recommended from both Bromance Will and Jeff Parker HAS to be good.

So, this “Happy” song? It can fuck itself. Total propaganda. Most people, unfortunately, aren’t happy. Why? Incredible wealth disparity, the fact that douches like Sean Hannity hate anyone who can think, winter is never going away ever, it seems like earthquakes are about to rip apart half the hemisphere—a million reasons.

But this song is all about feeling good. Take a old timey musical arrangement—one our brains all recognize and feel is “safe”—add nonsensical lyrics and create a trend. That way you have a swarm of people ready to berate the handful of people who fail to get the message and aren’t quite sure if they should be clapping their hands because they “feel happy.” Also, what the fuck?

Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy

“If you feel like a room without a roof”? My seven-year-old son thinks this is a bullshit lyric. What does that even mean? A house has a roof, a room has a ceiling. “A room without a ceiling” makes more sense. And “If you feel like happiness is the truth”? These lyrics make no sense at all, and every time you sing along, a G.W. Bush supporter gets his wings.

Selected Stories by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil (Dalkey Archive)

I love Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, and Brazil, and football. Also, I met Rhett McNeil at Penn State before it became “Sandusky State” and for those reasons you should buy this book.

Last week I finished reading/listening to Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief, and I really hope this sold more than 2,000 copies. It’s an amazing book—I bought the audiobook of Wright’s Looming Tower because of how good this is—and something everyone should read. Not because Scientology is awful—it is, and man am I never watching a Tom Cruise movie again, because, asshole—but because this book lays out the way power structures work in a way that’s incredibly useful. Scientology is even weirder than the Amish. I mean, I get the Amish—just not their mafia—but Scientology? What’s the point? It’s clear that the “church” has a handful of hippie ideals, but the claim that this is bettering the planet is totally batshit given the preponderance of evidence in this book. Yet, Tommy Davis, the Church’s spokesperson, had this to say:

The real question is who would produce the kind of material we produce and do the kind of things we do, set up the organizational structure that we set up? [. . .] Or what kind of man, like L. Ron Hubbard, would spend an entire lifetime researching, putting together the kind of material, suffer all the trials and tribulations and go through all the things he went through in his life . . . or even with the things that we, as individuals, have to go through, as part of the new religion? Work seven days a week, three hundred sixty-five days a year, fourteen-, fifteen-, eighteen-hour days sometimes, out of sheer total complete dedication to our faith. And do it all, for what? As some sort of sham? Just to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes? [. . .] It’s ridiculous. Nobody works that hard to cheat people. Nobody gets that little sleep to screw over their fellow man.”

That comes after 348 carefully documented pages of abuses and should-be-illegal-if-they-aren’t-already behaviors. I mean, shit, the FBI was going to raid Scientology because of human trafficking violations involving slavery. That’s not good.

Also, the only published book I’ve ever burnt was Dianetics. It took forever. That book is way too thick to catch on fire. Should’ve used more lighter fluid. I suppose I failed.

14 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’ve been meaning to read Andrés Neuman’s Traveler of the Century ever since we ran Jeremy Garber’s review back in April 2012. And then it made the Best Translated Book Award longlist, which further peaked my interest. But man, it’s a 500+ page book—something that’s never easy to fit into a reading schedule packed with editing projects, other reviews, etc., etc. When the paperback edition arrived on my desk though, I was sold—I had to make time to read this. So, on the long train rides to and from BookExpo America, I did.

Since this book has been in the Three Percent ether for a while, my review isn’t exactly standard . . . It’s an attempt to go one step beyond a typical plot-related book review and open it up a bit. I’m not sure this 100% works (I wrote it on GoodReads while watching a soccer match), but hopefully it’s interesting if for no other reason than that I alluded to it on last week’s podcast.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it. Here’s the opening:

When I was about two-thirds of the way through Neuman’s very ambitious, very engrossing novel, Bromance Will Evans asked me what I thought the purpose the rapist had in this book. Not who the rapist was—something that’s held in suspense until almost the end of the book—but why he was even in there.

For the last 150 pages I thought about this and interpreted everything that happened in the book through this lens—what purpose does the rapist serve? And in the end, I think I came up with a reason . . . at least my personal reason. One that opens up the book in a few interesting ways.

Before I get to that, let me back up a bit. First off, this book—for anyone not already familiar with it—is 564 pages of philo-political discussions, talks about translation, and little action aside from one physical confrontation and some damn fine sex scenes. At its core, this novel, set in nineteenth century Germany and featuring members of all social strata—from the organ grinder living in the cave, to the town’s aristocratic benefactor, to the protagonist, the Romantic, beret-wearing, translator Hans—is really just a simple story of illicit love. Hans wanders into Wandernburg, meets Sophie, and falls in love. (And if you read this book, you will too. Which is something I want to talk more about in a second.)

Click here to read the full piece.

14 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

When I was about two-thirds of the way through Neuman’s very ambitious, very engrossing novel, Bromance Will Evans asked me what I thought the purpose the rapist had in this book. Not who the rapist was—something that’s held in suspense until almost the end of the book—but why he was even in there.

For the last 150 pages I thought about this and interpreted everything that happened in the book through this lens—what purpose does the rapist serve? And in the end, I think I came up with a reason . . . at least my personal reason. One that opens up the book in a few interesting ways.

Before I get to that, let me back up a bit. First off, this book—for anyone not already familiar with it—is 564 pages of philo-political discussions, talks about translation, and little action aside from one physical confrontation and some damn fine sex scenes. At its core, this novel, set in nineteenth century Germany and featuring members of all social strata—from the organ grinder living in the cave, to the town’s aristocratic benefactor, to the protagonist, the Romantic, beret-wearing, translator Hans—is really just a simple story of illicit love. Hans wanders into Wandernburg, meets Sophie, and falls in love. (And if you read this book, you will too. Which is something I want to talk more about in a second.)

Although nothing really seems to happen in this book (like a 90s indie movie, it’s mostly talk and ideas), there are a number of settings and set pieces that flesh out Neuman’s view of the major trends in thought and society at the time. For example, the bit about the strike at the factory and the way in which the management crushes it is quite illuminating and lays out one of the main conflicts of the time.

That said, the primary setting is the weekly salon, which takes place thanks to Sophie, and features all of our main characters: Hans, Sophie, her fiancé, the Levins, the conservative old professor . . . The salon discussion unfolds for pages and pages, exploring major concepts like nationalism, the possibility of translation, the role of women in society, and Romanticism, not to mention a dozen authors/thinkers/poets/dramatists whom most people reading this (I suspect), will be unfamiliar with (which is a shame).

Anyway, it’s during these salons that Sophie comes to life. As a rebellious, independent, smart, sexy woman, she’s a sort of book-boy ideal—the woman who can namecheck all the poets while pushing all of the boundaries imposed by conservative German society and rocking an elegant dress that accentuates her womanly charms. Seriously—as a character, Sophie is fully fleshed out, and so fucking cool.

What struck me about her though—especially after talking to Bromance Will about the rapist and the fap-worthy scenes—is that she’s constantly deconstructing (in spot-on fashion) the way in which male writers and thinkers impose their ideas of Woman on women via their prose. There are several points in which Sophie calls out a poet in a way that’s much more modern than what (probably?) really existed in Germany at that time.

Which brings me to the rapist. Almost. So, one of the major planks of this book is the illicit relationship between Hans and Sophie. It takes place on the sly, on the fringes, unacceptable by all standards (especially then).

One of the reasons Neuman’s world building works so well is that he sets up a lot of parallels and opposites. In terms of the salon, Hans’s opposite is Professor Mietter, who is much more conservative and stodgy (although in many ways, the two actually agree), and in terms of the banging, the businessman Alvaro’s relationship with Sophie’s servant, Elsa, serves as a sort of parallel to Sophie’s relationship with Hans. And in terms of the opposite, we have the rapist.

A bit about the rapist: One of the darker, more traditionally suspenseful storylines in the book revolves around a man who attacks women in dark alleyways and eludes the police for quite some time. In terms of page count, this is a minor bit of the book, although the rapist’s actions impact several of our key characters. The resolution of this plot line is somewhat anti-climactic though, and it never rises above the level of sub-plot, which is why I think Will was curious about it.

One obvious reason to include the rapist is that it appeals to the traditional reader for whom 500+ pages of ideas is a bit scary. But there’s also something more at work here . . .

First off, both Hans and the rapist get their sex on outside of what’s accepted in society. Obviously one of these is much more violent and awful than the other, but within nineteenth century Germany, Hans’s plowing of a soon-to-be-married woman—who will soon be married to the richest, most important person in town no less—is really fucking unacceptable. And his attempts to get her to break off her engagement, to abandon her father and run away with him to translate contain echoes of the male poets and their ideas about women.

Stepping back a level, this is a novel written by a man in which he basically constructs a vision of an ideal woman . . . which is exactly what Sophie criticizes in all of those male poets. So, is Sophie just a male wish-fulfillment fantasy? It’s almost as if Neuman is—consciously or not—aware of this and uneasy about it. And as a result, this book contains heaps of clashing viewpoints and a sort of unceasing desire to include all of them—including the darkest sorts (rape) that offset the more romantic ideal (Hans’s pure love for Sophie).

In short, this is a really incredible book that is overflowing with ideas, told in a cool style—I love the use of parentheses to convey interjections and responses—by one of the greatest young Spanish writers of our times. So don’t be intimidated—just read it.

25 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch._

Traveler of the Century by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia and published by FSG

This piece is by bookseller and BTBA judge, Stephen Sparks.

Let me entice you by stating flat out that Andres Neuman’s Alfaguara Prize-winning Traveler of the Century (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia) is a 600-page novel in which not much happens. In some ways, it stands, a hulking mass (Andres the Giant?), in the corner opposite Houellebecq’s Map and the Territory. (Wrestling allusion thrown in for Chad’s sake.)

There is a plot, yes—the young traveler of the title stumbles into the neither here-nor-there city of Wandernburg (think of a magic mountain nestled among invisible cities), falls in love with a betrothed woman (you will too), demonstrates the affinities between translation and love (it’s sexy), fends off the stuffy morality of small town life (no surprises here), all while a mysterious rapist is on the loose (actually, stated like this, a lot does seem to happen)—but this is above all a novel of ideas, of heady conversation, of intellect. Which, fortunately, does not make it any less riveting.

Most of the action, for lack of a better word, in Traveler of the Century takes place in a salon, among a set of conversationalists who range from the brash and revolutionary to the staid, the ill-informed, and the amusingly ill-equipped. Ideas are bandied about, poetry is recited, and sexual tension swells until it can no longer be contained. Neumann’s ability to pace a novel in which conversation is the primary mover is admirable and although some of his efforts early in the novel are a little clumsy, he picks up steam and refinement as he proceeds. This is an interesting phenomenon to watch unfold: Neumann’s work is by no means perfect. Instead, it’s one of those novels in which the seams sometimes show, reminiscent of Bolano’s Savage Detectives, in which the reader gets to watch a writer figure it out as he goes along. The rewards have to be more than sufficient for a book like this to work, and they are, they are.

Fittingly, some of most remarkable moments in Traveler of the Century concern translation. In one memorable scene, the professor, a staid conservative who rests on his laurels, argues against the possibility of translation. As the bore goes on and on, Hans, the traveler of the title, reflects that

everything he said was applicable to the field of emotions—in short, someone who disbelieved in the possibilities of translation was skeptical of love. This man . . . was linguistically born to solitude.

And, a few moments later, Hans is forced to concede a point as the professor argues

that it is far easier to think in a foreign language than to feel in it . . . and from this one can deduce that any feeling expressed in another language cannot be the same feeling, not even a variant of it. At best it can be inspired by another feeling. Call this an exchange, an influence or what you will. But, I beg you, do not call it translation.

This fruitful dialectic is a prime example of Neumann’s strategy for moving his novel along. It also brings to mind several questions about the nature of translation, which is of course relevant to anyone reading this blog.

I stated earlier that this is not a perfect book, but I nevertheless believe it deserves to win the BTBA because its merits far outweigh its imperfections: Traveler of the Century is, like the wandering city in which the traveler finds he cannot escape, a place to get lost in.

18 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at The Argentina Independent, Joey Rubin has an article about five “exciting new Argentine novels” that have recently been translated into English.

As a huge fan of Southern Cone literature, the fact that there’s quality contemporary works coming out of that area isn’t that surprising, but it is almost shocking to realize just how many great Argentine books are being published in the States . . . Here are the five titles that Joey focused on, with short clips from his descriptions:

Friends of Mine by Ángela Pradelli: Called ‘Friends of Mine’, and also translated by [Andrea] Labinger, the novel tells the story of a group of women living in the Buenos Aires province, who meet once a year on 30th December to eat dinner, celebrate the New Year, and reflect on the strange, difficult and wonderful passage of time. Structured in short, lucid fragments, the novel reads like a coming-of-age tale for a group of friends, a neighborhood, and an era of life in middle-class Argentina that has as much resonance today (and outside of Spanish) as it did when it was first published in 2002 and was awarded the Premio Emecé. [. . .]

The Islands by Carlos Gamerro: Like the spiralling narrator of ‘Bad Burgers,’ the protagonist of ‘The Islands’ chases his own trauma down a rabbit hole when he discovers that, despite the passage of ten years, the Falklands/Malvinas War is still raging — a reality he’s not quite ready to confront. [. . .]

Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman: Neuman, who has written poetry (‘No sé por qué’), short story (‘Alumbramiento’) and travelogue (‘Cómo viajar sin ver’), created in ‘Traveller of the Century’ a novel that is at once contemporary and historical: set in Restoration-era Germany, it discusses sexual mores and intellectual disputes in a distinctly modern way. Praise from writers like Roberto Bolaño long ago boosted his reputation in the Spanish-speaking world, but more than acclaim or ambition, it’s the clarity and grace of Neuman’s prose that has earned him high standing among fans. [. . .]

The Planets by Sergio Chejfec: First published in Spanish in 1999, ‘The Planets’ was written during the fifteen-year period when Chejfec lived in Venezuela, a temporal and cultural dislocation important to the text. As ‘My Two Worlds’ used ambulatory reflection, ‘The Planets’ uses the act of remembering to elevate a simple story into an elegant register. It’s a mode of literature difficult to master, but worthy of celebration when done right. [. . .]

Varamo by César Aira: A novel kind of about a Peruvian man who takes up the homemade art of fish embalming, and also kind of about a very slow city-wide car race, and also kind of about the makings of a classic Central American poem, and yet somehow also not about these things at all. ‘Varamo’ is as strange, and as compelling, as Aira’s best work. In fact, it may be Aira’s best work. Or his worst. You’ll have to read all his books to know for certain.

26 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As we mentioned last Friday, we’re going to spend the next 18 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.

Today: Argentine novelist Andres Neuman, whose new short story “After Helena,” translated by Richard Gwyn, is included in this issue.



One of the running themes that’s developed over the past few days of this series is just how young these authors are. I’ve complained to friends and interns about how, for me, this issue literally marks the transition between “young with promise” and “not-so-young and no more excuses.” Based on Granta‘s criteria, this would be the last year that I could personally qualify for one of their “Young X of Y” issue. (If I were a writer, if I were talented, etc., etc., I know, I know.) And it has been pretty mind-blowing going through these writers one-by-one, realizing just how much they’ve accomplished at such a young age.

What this really underscores is how out of touch I am (we are?) with what’s really going on in contemporary writing around the world. I can only imagine how many articles would be written about an American author who’s done as much, and received as many awards at such a young age as Neuman has.

At the age of 22, Neuman published his first novel, Bariloche, following which he published three more novels, including El viajero del siglo (more on that below), which won the Alfaguara Prize and the Critics’ Prize in Spain. He’s also published three short story collections, and a collection of aphorisms. Not to mention, he also published Como viajar sin ver, a travel book, and his collected poems, which received the Hiperion Prize for Poetry. Ten books and two major awards in 11 years. And he was named to the Bogata 39. Not bad. Not bad at all. (Oh to have all those wasted hours back . . . although I’m sure I’d just waste them all again.)

“After Helena” is a pretty touching story of a man who, in the wake of the death of his love makes two decisions:

One stagnant evening as I was going over my list of contacts in search of some name that it might please me to utter, I took two simultaneous decisions: to take up smoking and to announce to my enemies that I forgave them. Burning cigarettes was an attempt to prove to myself that, although Helena was no longer there, I was
still alive. To show to myself that I could survive each and every cigarette. As for my enemies, there was no plan. It was not done out of goodness. I perceived it as something inevitable, preordained. I simply saw the names Melchor, Ariel, Rubén and Nuria in my diary. At first I tried to drop the idea. But, with each match that I lit (I have always preferred the slowness of matches to the immediacy of lighters), I was thinking: Melchor, Ariel, Rubén, Nuria.

It’s a touching, sweet story, that’s at its best when Neuman is describing his four various enemies and why they are enemies. That’s all great, but to be honest, the book I’m most curious about is El viajero del siglo, the Alfaguara Prize winning novel that’s being translated into English and will be published by Pushkin Press. Here’s the description from Neuman’s website:

An unpleasant night. A mysterious traveller. A small maze-like city where getting one’s bearings seems impossible. Just when the traveller is about to flee, a strange character stops him, changing his destiny forever. The rest is love and literature: an unexpected, unforgettable romance and a narrative world that, as it unfolds, condenses to a smaller scale the history of the modern West.

Traveller of the century is an ambitious experiment: it invites us to look at the 19th Century with 21th-Century eyes. A novel that recovers the inspiration of classic narrative, written from a contemporary approach. A post-modern reading of Romanticism, set in post-Napoleonic times, in an imaginary city of Germany. A dialogue between the Europe of the Restoration and the political plans of the European Union. A narrative bridge spanning the past and the global problems of our present: inmigration, multiculturalism, nationalisms, emancipation of women.

The book represents a large cultural mosaic in the service of an intense plot, one concerned primarily with the transformative power of love. An exceptional, funny, mature novel from a writer wise beyond his years. Five hundred pages that the reader will not be able to put down for even a moment.

And as a special treat for all Spanish readers out there, here’s an excerpt from the opening (also from Andres’s website, since the fricking PDF version of this I have is tagged with some sort of voodoo security that prevents me from even copying a paragraph . . . ):

¿Tie-ne frí-o-o?, gritó el cochero con la voz entrecortada por los saltos del carruaje. ¡Voy bie-e-en, gra-cias!, contestó Hans tiritando.

Los faroles se desenfocaban al ritmo del galope. Las ruedas escupían barro. A punto de partirse, los ejes se torcían en cada bache. Los caballos inflaban las mandíbulas y soltaban nubes por la boca. Sobre la línea del horizonte rodaba una luna opaca.

Hacía rato que Wandernburgo se dibujaba a lo lejos, al sur del camino. Pero, pensó Hans, como suele pasar al final de una jornada agotadora, aquella pequeña ciudad parecía desplazarse con ellos. Encima de la cabina el cielo pesaba. Con cada latigazo del cochero el frío se envalentonaba y oprimía el contorno de las cosas. ¿Fal-ta-a mu-cho?, preguntó Hans asomando la cabeza por la ventanilla. Tuvo que repetir dos veces la pregunta para que el cochero saliera de su ruidosa atención y, señalando con la fusta, exclamase: ¡Ya-a lo ve us-te-e-ed! Hans no supo si eso significaba que faltaban pocos minutos o que nunca se sabía. Como era el último pasajero y no tenía con quién hablar, cerró los ojos.

Cuando volvió a abrirlos, vio una muralla de piedra y una puerta abovedada. A medida que se acercaban Hans percibió algo anómalo en la robustez de la muralla, una especie de advertencia sobre la dificultad de salir, más que de entrar. A la luz ahogada de las farolas divisó las siluetas de los primeros edificios, las escamas de unos tejados, torres afiladas, ornamentos como vértebras. Tuvo la sensación de ingresar en un lugar recién desalojado, de que los golpes de los cascos y las sacudidas de las ruedas sobre los adoquines producían demasiado eco. Todo estaba tan quieto que parecía que alguien los espiaba conteniendo la respiración. El carruaje giró en una esquina, el sonido del galope se ensordeció: ahora el suelo era de tierra. Atravesaron la calle del Caldero Viejo. Hans divisó un letrero de hierro balanceándose. Le indicó al cochero que parase.

El cochero descendió del pescante y al pisar tierra pareció desconcertado. Dio dos o tres pasos, se miró los pies, sonrió con extravío. Acarició el lomo del primer caballo, le susurró unas palabras de gratitud a las que el animal replicó resoplando. Hans lo ayudó a desatar las cuerdas de la baca, a retirar la lona mojada, a bajar su maleta y un gran arcón con manijas. ¿Qué lleva aquí, un muerto?, se quejó el cochero dejando caer el arcón y frotándose las manos. Un muerto no, sonrió Hans, unos cuantos. (…)

Fue al quedarse solo con su equipaje frente a la posada cuando notó aguijones en la espalda, un vaivén en los músculos, un zumbido en las sienes. Conservaba la sensación del traqueteo, las luces seguían pareciendo parpadeantes, las piedras movedizas. Hans se frotó los ojos. Las ventanas empañadas no dejaban ver el interior de la posada. Llamó a la puerta, de la que aún colgaba una corona navideña. Nadie acudió. Probó el picaporte helado. La puerta cedió a empujones. Divisó un pasillo alumbrado con candiles de aceite que pendían de un garfio. Sintió el beneficio cálido del interior. Al fondo del pasillo se oía un alborotar de chispas. Hans arrastró con esfuerzo la maleta y el arcón dentro de la posada. Permaneció debajo de un candil, intentando recobrar la temperatura. Se sobresaltó al reparar en el señor Zeit, que lo miraba tras el mostrador de la recepción. Iba a ir a abrirle, dijo. El posadero se movió con extrema lentitud, como si se hubiera quedado atrapado entre el mostrador y la pared. Tenía una barriga en forma de tambor. Olía a tela viciada. ¿De dónde viene usted?, preguntó. Ahora vengo de Berlín, dijo Hans, aunque eso en realidad no importa. A mí sí me importa, caballero, lo interrumpió el señor Zeit sin sospechar que Hans se refería a otra cosa, ¿y cuántas noches piensa quedarse? Supongo que una, dijo Hans, no estoy seguro. Cuando lo sepa, contestó el posadero, por favor comuníquemelo, necesitamos saber qué habitaciones van a estar disponibles.

El señor Zeit buscó un candelabro. Condujo a Hans a través del pasillo, después por unas escaleras. Hans miraba su figura oronda escalando cada peldaño. Temió que se le viniera encima. Toda la posada olía a aceite quemándose, al azufre de las mechas, a jabón y sudor mezclados. Pasaron la primera planta y siguieron subiendo. A Hans le extrañó observar que las habitaciones parecían desocupadas. Al llegar a la segunda planta, el posadero se detuvo frente a una puerta con un número siete escrito en tiza. Recuperando el aliento, aclaró con orgullo: La siete es la mejor. Sacó de un bolsillo un aro, un aro sufrido, cargado de llaves, y tras varios intentos y maldiciones en voz baja, entraron en la habitación.

Candelabro en mano, el posadero fue haciendo un surco en la oscuridad hasta llegar a la ventana. Al abrir los postigos, la ventana emitió un acorde de maderas y polvo. La luz de la calle era tan débil que, más que alumbrar la habitación, se sumó a la penumbra como un gas. (…)

Boca arriba en el catre, Hans tanteó la aspereza de las sábanas con la punta de los pies. Al entornar los párpados, le pareció escuchar rasguños bajo las tablas del suelo. Mientras el sopor lo envolvía y todo dejaba de importarle, se dijo: Mañana junto mis cosas y me voy a otro sitio. Si se hubiera acercado al techo con una vela, habría descubierto las grandes telarañas de las vigas. Entre las telarañas un insecto asistió al sueño de Hans, hilo por hilo.

See you next week!

25 March 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [2]

Argentina’s Andres Neuman on Monday was awarded Spain’s Alfaguara Novel Prize – considered among the most prestigious of its kind in the Spanish language – for “El viajero del siglo” (The Traveler of the Century).

Neuman, a novelist, poet and short story writer who was born in 1977 in Buenos Aires but has lived in the southern Spanish city of Granada since his youth, received a cash award of $175,000.

Neuman was also named to the Bogotá 39 a few years ago. I missed it the first time around, but the list (39 Latin American authors under 39) is looking pretty incredible a few years down the road: Andres Neuman, Alejandro Zambra, Junot Díaz, Antonio Úngar, Jorge Volpi… Wow.

(via: the saloon and indent)

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