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 . . .

9 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

OK, so I don’t really heart Scott Esposito—as well all know, he’s shit at riding a mechanical bull and that is a NECESSARY in my book—but he has been doing a lot of great work lately, and has prompted me to write an appreciation of his recent reviews and round-up of some year end lists that I’ve been digging.

First up though is Scott. The new Quarterly Conversation is out and contains a review of Can Xue’s Vertical Motion, (translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping) which helps elevate this already brilliant web publication. (More on the new issue next week.)

Just before Thanksgiving, Scott’s review of Pelevin’s The Hall of the Singing Caryatids (translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield) was published by The National. As I mentioned yesterday (and in the forthcoming podcast), I just read this and really loved it for its weird and unsettling nature. Here’s Scott’s summary:

A very worthy new addition to this collection is Pelevin’s recently translated novella The Hall of Singing Caryatids, which comes to us by way of New Directions’ Pearls series of short works. It is a brilliant fable of a Russia oversaturated with “semiotic signs”, a skewing of a country where rhetoric – and not actual substance – is most often the locus of communication. The unlucky recipients of this verbiage are call girls employed by a palace of gratification built to capture some of the trickle-down wealth from Russia’s affluent classes. The book gets off to a fitting start as the women are sanctimoniously informed by their employers that their task is one of national importance, the pleasuring of the rich and powerful being vital to beating the West at its own game and keeping the precious oligarchs safe from imperialist influence.

The plot follows Lena, whose job is to join 11 other women in two-day shifts standing perfectly still as living statues that wait to take their next customer into a side room. Such a performance would be taxing to say the least, but Pelevin gives the women a secret weapon: before each shift they’re injected with a chemical modelled on that which allows praying mantises to stand perfectly still while waiting for unwary prey. The chemical offers a bonus: as a side effect, it sends Lena and her counterparts into a Zen-like nirvana where they commune with a vaguely Deepak Chopra-like spiritual mantis. As Lena explores this mantis-world more deeply, Pelevin puts her on a collision course with Mikhail Botvinik, a jet-setting oligarch who wields a force known as “Crypto-Speak” – powerful word-weapons that are cleverly disguised as “everyday speech”.

This is a book that must be read to understood.

But this isn’t the only great book of 2011 that Scott’s recently reviewed—not at all. Next up was his incredibly measured and comprehensive piece at The Critical Flame on Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds (translated from the Spanish by Margaret B. Carson):

My Two Worlds is a dance, a seduction that draws us right up to the palpable center and then fades away to the margin, drawing one back toward that center before fading into another marginal space – back and forth, round and round. It is that same haze of thought one feels when hovering around an idea that remains unelucidatable. Yet the book is merely Chejfec’s thoughts over the course of a walk. It is two hours of serpentine meditation, that same maddening dart and weave between significance and insignificance, transcendence and babble.

The best description for the book – one that might also be suitable for Sebald – is to call My Two Worlds a fragmentation of gazes. As with Sebald, mundane objects play a central role in provoking the narrator’s curiosity: the action of the book gets underway when, looking at his map and preparing to make his trip to the park, the narrator becomes fixated by “the great green blotch, as I called it.” On the map he sees “a small black 9 printed at the heart of the park . . . it strengthened my resolve to visit the park.” These are just the type of everyday, slightly obscure details that might become the object of anyone’s irrational fixation, giving the book an odd realism.

We will be posting our video from the recent Chejfec & Carson RTWCS in the near future . . . But going back to Scott’s run of reviewing great books, his piece on Juan Jose Saer’s Scars (translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph) just ran in Bookforum:

What Saer presents marvelously is the experience of reality, and the characters’ attempts to write their own narratives within its excess. Scars is stuffed with unnecessarily minute details, and Saer smothers his readers—and narrators—beneath more information than can reasonably be interpreted. In doing this, he presents reality as an abundance so great that we must necessarily ignore much of it in order to find meaning.

Fortunately, Saer never loses sight of the book’s larger rhythms amid these details, making Scars a brisk, engrossing novel. Scars is best read quickly, so that what remains after reading is not any single moment but the flow of the narrative. Saer, who doesn’t hesitate to drop in a passage that instructs readers how to read his books, indicates as much when he has Ernesto consider Wilde’s advice that “one should absorb the colour of life, but one should never remember its details.” In Scars we see the colors of blurred motion, not the individual scenes that make up the action.

I’ve said it before (and am known to repeat myself), but Scars reestablished my faith in fiction. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. READ IT.

*

Not to shift gears to dramatically, but a lot of year-end lists are coming out (it being December and all), and a few of our titles have been getting some love.

Although it’s not an official “year end” list, I’m probably most psyched that Scars was included on the December list of Movers & Shakers at GoodReads. It is one of only six books featured. TRUST ME, IT IS THAT GOOD.

Over at Emmett Stinson’s blog, he has a list of the “Best Lit in Translation from 2011.” It’s a solid list featuring In Red, Perec’s Raise book, the new translation of Lispector’s The Hour of the Star (no, I won’t shut up about how great this is), Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons, and Chejfec’s My Two Worlds. All of these books are worth reading, and I like the way Emmett describes all of these.

Finally, to bring this all back to Scott Esposito, he has an entry at the always fantastic The Millions Year in Reading feature. And one of the books he includes? Chejfec’s My Two Worlds.

There are more lists worth discussing (the cool one at Love German Books) and ones better ignored (the so-predictable-that-it’s-almost-not-predictable NY Times list of 100 Notable Books), but for now, this is a decent start . . .

8 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Victor Pelevin’s The Hall of the Singing Caryatids, which is just out from New Directions in Andrew Bromfield’s translation.

Coincidentally, I just finished reading this last night. And I completely agree with Vince’s review: this is a strange, surprising, unsettling, great book. I’ve not read a lot of Pelevin, but after finishing this, I decided to go back and start Homo Zapiens . . .

I’ll be posting more about Hall of the Singing Caryatids in the near future (in a “Why I heart Scott Esposito” post), but for now, I just wanted to mention a few disparate things:

1) Thanks to Vince for reviewing for us. All of our reviewers are spectacular, but I think Vince deserves a special shout-out for so consistently writing interesting, solid reviews. (You can read the all here.)

2) If you have a review in with us and are anxiously awaiting to see it appear, don’t fret! For once (thanks to Six, our current intern), we actually have a backlog of pieces to run. That is not the usual situation, so forgive me for cherishing it. We’re actually set through the holidays, which means that we’ll have good shit to post while everyone is dreading enjoying their family time!

3) This deserves it’s own post, but props to ND for fixing their website. I haven’t explored this as much as I should, but it only took 30 seconds to find The Hall of the Singing Caryatids and download the cover image. This is compared to spending 30 minutes screaming at their old site and its annoying incompleteness. Thank you, ND people. If only all publishers could take your lead.

And now, the opening of Vince’s review:

The first I’d heard of Victor Pelevin was while interning at Words Without Borders. We published his story “Akiko” which struck me as the funniest, strangest thing I’d seen in ages. I decided to seek out his other work, and while his book A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia offered some good tales, I was left with a feeling of uncertainty about this Russian literary superstar.

My uncertainty has gone the way of the dinosaur since reading The Hall of Singing Caryatids, the latest work of his to be translated into English. This slim novel manages to amuse, ridicule, horrify, and awe in a very compact space. While reading it, I was consistently surprised and often more than a little uncomfortable. This is a book that is difficult to summarize without misleading. The back cover description implies a bawdy farce with elements of science fiction, but that is not exactly accurate. The strangest moments of The Hall of Singing Caryatids arrive in deceptively benign packages, in slogans on T-Shirts (DKNY: Divine Koran Nourishes You) and dubious quotes posted in club’s cafeteria (“BEAUTY SUCKS D . . K”), and in the moments when the protagonist, Lena, communicates telepathically with a praying mantis.

Let me back up and discuss the plot.

Click here to read the full piece.

8 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The first I’d heard of Victor Pelevin was while interning at Words Without Borders. We published his story “Akiko” which struck me as the funniest, strangest thing I’d seen in ages. I decided to seek out his other work, and while his book A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia offered some good tales, I was left with a feeling of uncertainty about this Russian literary superstar.

My uncertainty has gone the way of the dinosaur since reading The Hall of Singing Caryatids, the latest work of his to be translated into English. This slim novel manages to amuse, ridicule, horrify, and awe in a very compact space. While reading it, I was consistently surprised and often more than a little uncomfortable. This is a book that is difficult to summarize without misleading. The back cover description implies a bawdy farce with elements of science fiction, but that is not exactly accurate. The strangest moments of The Hall of Singing Caryatids arrive in deceptively benign packages, in slogans on T-Shirts (DKNY: Divine Koran Nourishes You) and dubious quotes posted in club’s cafeteria (“BEAUTY SUCKS D . . K”), and in the moments when the protagonist, Lena, communicates telepathically with a praying mantis.

Let me back up and discuss the plot. Lena auditions for a job in an underground club that caters to the whims of elite clientele. At this point, one can imagine any number of perversions to come, though the book is more in line with Bulgakov’s The Fatal Eggs and Heart of a Dog than Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Lena gets the job partially because she can sing but also because she looks good naked standing on one leg. The job involves posing as a statue—literally. The girls in the hall are frozen thanks to a shot synthesized from praying mantises. Yeah, it sounds pretty weird, but in the context of the book this all makes sense. It gets stranger, as the girls, in their statue state, are able to communicate with a praying mantis, all while humming and singing for the amusement of largely absent customers. Any hope the reader has for outrageous sex or overly grotesque metaphors of state power and female subjugation are dismissed when the book turns away from such easy shocks and moves toward more impacting territory. This book subverts expectations and writes its own rules, asking for the reader’s trust as it settles on disturbing and oddly beautiful conclusion.

The usual descriptions of post-modern, post-post-modern, magic realist, sci-fi, or absurdist are too heavy with cultural baggage to convey what Pelevin achieves in this tale. While these elements are present, they are not employed in common fashion. Pelevin seems giddy with his literary tinkering, moving the story away from the obvious outrages in the work of his countryman Vladimir Sorokin. There is plenty of opportunity for Pelevin to turn the underground sex club into a Caligula-like romp, but when the one and only sex act finally arrives it is encapsulated with: “And they danced the dance that engenders new life.” Pelevin is not going to waste time and space dwelling on these details, especially when what follows is so much bigger. The end result is a brief, powerful book that is equal parts humorous and unsettling.

7 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece by Margarita Shalina (bookseller at St. Mark’s, translator, reviewer, all around multi-talented person) on Victor Pelevin’s The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, which actually came out last year (hey, no one said we had to be timely). Here’s the opening of her review:

“What a crazy idea that was—to change the name of the KGB. One of the greatest brand names ever was simply destroyed!”

Pelevin has a great knack for relaying the oddities of the Russian condition in terms that almost anyone can understand. Product placement in Generation “P” revealed to the rest of the world that, yes, young people of the post-communist era did indeed choose Pepsi, or perestroika, but with the same freedom as when their parents chose Brezhnev, that is none at all. This time Pelevin’s leitmotif is the Russian folktale. In Sacred Book of the Werewolf, Pelevin has dusted off the characters of fox and wolf—stars of the traditional Russian folktales collected by Alexandr Afanas’ev in the mid nineteenth century. In Sacred Book, Pelevin has personified fox as a sex worker and wolf as an FSB agent.

In Russian folktales, fox is the perpetual trickster. In keeping with this Pelevin’s fox is a prostitute named A Hu-Li. The name itself is a profanity in Russian to match her occupation which translates to “[s]omething like living in America and being called Whatze Phuck.” A Hu-Li is a two thousand year old were-creature who adores Nabokov and resembles a Lolita—“nowadays everybody’s read Lolita, even the Lolitas.” She engages clients at high end Moscow hotel bars, takes their money but does not have sex with them. A session with A Hu-Li, the trickster fox, is a chimera. A hypnotic suggestion channeled through the power of her glorious red tail—“the organ that we use to spin our web of illusion.” While the client is immersed in splendid fantasies copulating with the hotel bed sheets, A Hu-Li feeds off of the sexual energy produced by the lone client and sits flipping through a glossy magazine. When she momentarily nods off her client, a Sikh businessman, “slips off the tail” and in a state of shock proceeds to throw himself from the hotel room window, “One of my sisters used to say that when a client slips off the tail during an unsuccessful session, for a few seconds he sees the truth. And for a man this truth is so unbearable that the first thing he wants to do is kill the fox responsible for revealing it to him, and then he wants to kill himself . . .” A Hu-Li finds herself surrounded by wolves, that is, the FSB (nee KGB, nee NKVD, nee CHEKA.)

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7 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“What a crazy idea that was—to change the name of the KGB. One of the greatest brand names ever was simply destroyed!”

Pelevin has a great knack for relaying the oddities of the Russian condition in terms that almost anyone can understand. Product placement in Generation “P” revealed to the rest of the world that, yes, young people of the post-communist era did indeed choose Pepsi, or perestroika, but with the same freedom as when their parents chose Brezhnev, that is none at all. This time Pelevin’s leitmotif is the Russian folktale. In Sacred Book of the Werewolf, Pelevin has dusted off the characters of fox and wolf—stars of the traditional Russian folktales collected by Alexandr Afanas’ev in the mid nineteenth century. In Sacred Book, Pelevin has personified fox as a sex worker and wolf as an FSB agent.

In Russian folktales, fox is the perpetual trickster. In keeping with this Pelevin’s fox is a prostitute named A Hu-Li. The name itself is a profanity in Russian to match her occupation which translates to “[s]omething like living in America and being called Whatze Phuck.” A Hu-Li is a two thousand year old were-creature who adores Nabokov and resembles a Lolita—“nowadays everybody’s read Lolita, even the Lolitas.” She engages clients at high end Moscow hotel bars, takes their money but does not have sex with them. A session with A Hu-Li, the trickster fox, is a chimera. A hypnotic suggestion channeled through the power of her glorious red tail—“the organ that we use to spin our web of illusion.” While the client is immersed in splendid fantasies copulating with the hotel bed sheets, A Hu-Li feeds off of the sexual energy produced by the lone client and sits flipping through a glossy magazine. When she momentarily nods off her client, a Sikh businessman, “slips off the tail” and in a state of shock proceeds to throw himself from the hotel room window, “One of my sisters used to say that when a client slips off the tail during an unsuccessful session, for a few seconds he sees the truth. And for a man this truth is so unbearable that the first thing he wants to do is kill the fox responsible for revealing it to him, and then he wants to kill himself . . .” A Hu-Li finds herself surrounded by wolves, that is, the FSB (nee KGB, nee NKVD, nee CHEKA.)

In Morphology of the Folktale, Vladimir Propp meticulously reduced the Russian folktale to a series of functions. Unfortunately, he ignored class. Russian folktales seem to be split into two categories—the mundane folkloric tales pertaining to commoners and the grandiose fairytales dealing with royalty. In the former fox and wolf cohabitate, are occasionally spouses and live modestly among both the human and the animal denizens of the forest. These tales do not always contain a “hero” and tend to be anecdotal. All creatures are at the mercy of the cunning little fox as she lies, cheats and steals from them. However, there is no place for fox in the latter category, the grandiose fairytales that deal with themes of usurpation, murder, intrigue and betrayal in the once upon a time kingdoms of Russia. Unlike fox, bear or cow, it is the grey wolf alone who can cross over and fluidly operate both among the forest dwellers and the royals. The power struggle for control of the kingdom is especially the domain of the wolf as the power struggle for control of Russia is the domain of the FSB. The wolf is a facilitator usually servicing a wronged prince, the “hero” proper. He is capable of reanimating the dead and has the ability to transform into a horse or even a human being. The wolf’s interference consistently changes the outcome of what appear to be deadlocked situations. In the grandiose fairytales the wolf is his own man, so to speak, as all around him man is wolf to man.

Alexander is the FSB werewolf who steals A Hu-Li’s heart. He and the other werewolves maintain files on citizens and work at extracting oil from the ground of northern Russia by howling at the moon. Their howls are lamentations meant to draw tears from an ancient folkloric brindled cow skull patched together by steel bands. If the wolves’ lament filled cries draw tears from the skull the earth will produce oil. “_I know what you think of us—no matter how much you give them, Little Khavroshka won’t get a single drop, it will all be gobbled up by these kukis-yukises, yupsi-poopses and the other locusts who obscure the very light of day. You are right, brindled cow, that is how it will be._” “Kukis-yukises, yupsi-poopses” refers to YUKOS, the short lived non-state owned Russian oil and gas company, a product of post-perestroika privatization it was dismantled by the Russian government amongst charges of fraud, tax evasion and embezzlement with its head Khodorovsky tried and sentenced to a Siberian prison in 2005. In Pelevin’s folktale, Alexander the FSB wolf is awarded The Medal for Services to the Motherland for his heroic oil extracting howls.

Everything goes well for fox and wolf until fox affectionately kisses wolf for the first time transforming him into a dog. As in the folktales a wolf, regardless of how noble or heroic he is, will be doomed to play the hapless fool at the mercy of the little trickster fox as long as they occupy the same story and since A Hu-Li is the narrator of Sacred Book it is very much her tale. Alexander the wolf becomes a black dog of misfortune that “happens” to people and to things. Initially emasculated and ousted from the FSB werewolf pack for having turned from a gray werewolf into a black dog he is depressed and filled with resentment until Alexander realizes that he carries misfortune with him everywhere he goes and that this willful misfortune can be utilized by the FSB.

‘I was just thinking, maybe I should go to work. To find out how things are going.’

I was staggered.

‘Are you serious? Aren’t three bullets enough for you? You want more?’

‘You get these misunderstandings in our profession.’

Pelevin has always played with symbolic narrative by marrying the fantastic to the doldrums of contemporary life. In Life of Insects, Pelevin’s characters are savvy little bugs with identities and agendas all their own, unnoticed in the grander scheme of things they are completely engrossed in the dramas of modern life nonetheless, tiny negligible representations of bustling individuals at large in society. In the case of Sacred Book, the outcome is satire or a veiled Russian state of the union address where sex workers and FSB agents seek to evolve into a higher being, a sort of messiah that all were-creatures await called the super-werewolf and “the super-werewolf can’t be caught by the tail.” Perhaps Pelevin is attempting to relay that Russians have been living their lives in a perpetual state of moral ambiguity going back as far as the ancient folktales. In such a state, why shouldn’t a fox or a wolf or a sex worker or an FSB agent aspire to evolve into a higher being?

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