9 April 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.

Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, and published by New Directions.

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

Few contemporary writers are as conceptually imaginative or as willing to acknowledge their debts as Enrique Vila-Matas, which comes as a breath of fresh air, especially to those of us reading in the United States, where literary insularity is the norm. Each of his books to be translated thus far—Montano’s Malady, Bartleby & Co., Never Any End to Paris, and our subject here, Dublinesque—takes as its starting point a book or writer and from that point delves into clever, incisive examinations of what it means to be a modern reader.

Dublinesque (translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean) is concerned with a pivotal moment in the history of literature: what Vila-Matas refers to as the end of the Gutenberg Galaxy. It is, as one might expect, an elegy. The plot follows the downward trajectory of an exemplar of that unfortunate species, the literary publisher, whose battles with alcohol and entropy (personal and professional) constitute the lament at the heart of the book. Riba, whose career has long since dried up and whose days are spent in front of a computer, grows convinced that in order to exorcize his demons, he needs to hold a funeral for the age of the printed book. There is no better place for this than Dublin, he reasons, because Joyce’s masterpiece was the culmination of the printed book. And so he begins to plan this funeral, all while battling his own personal demons and obsolescence.

Like Vila-Matas’ other books, this is one is melancholy, focused like the others on exhaustion—it’s also a rain-soaked and haunted novel. Dublinesque nevertheless manages to maintain a degree of levity. This is due to Vila-Matas’ wistful humor and his vast knowledge of literature: the book is full of allusions, references, cameos, and digressions on such figures as Robert Walser, Juan Carlos Onetti, Emily Dickinson, Julien Gracq (!), and, more centrally, Joyce and Beckett. In typical fashion for Vila-Matas, there are also references to fictitious writers who leave the reader pining for more. Nothing impresses so much as the range of Vila-Matas’ reading and his ability to weave into his narrative strands from other works, a technique that helps to bolster his occasionally patchy plots.

To be honest, I found the thin spots in the book endearing in a way, as if Vila-Matas littered his book with trapdoors into which a reader might fall. Of all the books on the longlist, Dublinesque is the most reflexive and its concern with the state of serious literature, where it’s heading and how it got here, makes it worthy of winning this year’s Best Translated Book Award.

18 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jeremy Garber on Enrique Vila-Matas’s Dublinesque, which Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey translated from the Spanish and is available from New Directions.

Enrique Vila-Matas was born in Barcelona in 1948. His novels have been translated into eleven languages and honored by many prestigious literary awards including the Prix Médicis Etranger. He has received Europe’s most prestigious awards and been translated into twenty-seven languages.

Here is part of his review:

“The funeral march has begun, and it is futile for those of us who remain loyal to the printed page to protest and rage in the midst of our despair.” Samuel Riba, Dublinesque’s depressive and narcissistic protagonist, stumbles upon this and other similarly prophetic sentiments in an online article proclaiming the death of print and the ensuing “disappearance of literary authors.” In the early pages of Dublinesque (Dublinesca), Enrique Vila-Matas’s most recent novel to be translated into English, we learn of Riba’s fearful and forlorn attitude as regards the future of literary publishing:

He dreams of the day when the spell of the best-seller will be broken, making way for the reappearance of the talented reader, and for the terms of the moral contract between author and audience to be reconsidered. He dreams of the day when literary publishers can breathe again, those who live for an active reader, for a reader open enough to buy a book and allow a conscience radically different from his own to appear in his mind. He believes that if talent is demanded of a literary publisher or a writer, it must also be demanded of a reader. Because we mustn’t deceive ourselves: on the journey of reading we often travel through difficult terrains that demand a capacity for intelligent emotion, a desire to understand the other, and to approach a language distinct from the one of our daily tyrannies… Writers fail readers, but it also happens the other way around and readers fail writers when all they ask of them is confirmation that the world is how they see it…

Click here to read the entire review.

18 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

“The funeral march has begun, and it is futile for those of us who remain loyal to the printed page to protest and rage in the midst of our despair.” Samuel Riba, Dublinesque’s depressive and narcissistic protagonist, stumbles upon this and other similarly prophetic sentiments in an online article proclaiming the death of print and the ensuing “disappearance of literary authors.” In the early pages of Dublinesque (Dublinesca), Enrique Vila-Matas’s most recent novel to be translated into English, we learn of Riba’s fearful and forlorn attitude as regards the future of literary publishing:

He dreams of the day when the spell of the best-seller will be broken, making way for the reappearance of the talented reader, and for the terms of the moral contract between author and audience to be reconsidered. He dreams of the day when literary publishers can breathe again, those who live for an active reader, for a reader open enough to buy a book and allow a conscience radically different from his own to appear in his mind. He believes that if talent is demanded of a literary publisher or a writer, it must also be demanded of a reader. Because we mustn’t deceive ourselves: on the journey of reading we often travel through difficult terrains that demand a capacity for intelligent emotion, a desire to understand the other, and to approach a language distinct from the one of our daily tyrannies… Writers fail readers, but it also happens the other way around and readers fail writers when all they ask of them is confirmation that the world is how they see it…

Once a successful publisher of important works and great authors, Riba has since closed his Barcelona-based publishing house and finds he has little to look forward to in either his personal or professional affairs. Approaching his sixtieth birthday, he despairs his increasingly solitary milieu, marked as much by his failing marriage and tenuous abstention from alcohol as by his constant lamenting over his lost career. Intrigued by the concept of the hikikomori (a phenomenon prevalent in japan, characterized by individuals, usually male, whom have chosen for themselves a life of extraordinary isolation and social withdrawal), perhaps as an explanation for his own existential malaise, Riba’s own life begins to resemble that of an awkward outcast, marked by an internet addiction that consumes as many as fourteen hours in a single day.

After recalling a “strange, striking dream he’d had in the hospital when he fell seriously ill two years ago,” Riba decides to set about planning a trip to Dublin. The impetuses for this excursion are many, not the least of which is an opportunity to stage a funeral for the age of print and “The Golden Age of Gutenberg.” The date Riba sets for this requiem is none other than June 16, the very day on which James Joyce set his Ulysses, and commemorated annually as “Bloomsday.” With plan in place, Riba enlists the company of three writer friends to join him and his venture in the Irish capital.

Vila-Matas, as in his other works already translated from the Spanish, crafted Dublinesque in a meta-fictional, semi-autobiographical fashion. Forever fascinated by the nature of enigmatic authors, Vila-Matas works into the narrative references to authors both living and dead (including Julien Gracq, Fernando Pessoa, Robert Walser, Georges Perec, Paul Auster, John Banville, Brendan Behan, Italo Calvino, Rodrigo Fresán and his late friend Roberto Bolaño). Dublinesque is also, in part, an homage to both Joyce and his fellow countryman Samuel Beckett, both of whom loom large in the plot, structure, and thematic essence of the story itself.

Riba’s wife, Celia, a museum employee and recent convert to Buddhism, shares her name with the title character’s lover in Beckett’s Murphy. As well, the rocking chair in which Riba spends much of his time in Dublinesque’s final section is an allusion to the same piece of furniture in which Beckett’s Murphy whiles away many of his days. A character resembling a young Ceckett makes several mysterious appearances and leads Riba to seek out his identity, in hopes of, perhaps discovering that this fellow is the unknown, genius writer for whom Riba has been searching for his entire career. While in Dublin, Riba delves into a Beckett biography by James Knowlson (presumably damned to fame), shortly after remembering the surprise of reading a novel that featured “a character who’s a real person.”

Riba’s fascination with (and seemingly extensive knowledge of) Ulysses figures prominently into the story, as well. Riba makes repeated mention of the modernist novel’s sixth chapter (“Hades”), wherein Leopold Bloom and others attend a funeral for Paddy Dignam. It is during the funeral scene that Bloom encounters the mysterious Macintoshed character, much as Riba espies the young Beckettian man during his requiem for “The Golden Age of Gutenberg.” Vila-Matas was himself one of the founding members of “The Order of Finnegans (La Orden del Finnegans)” (a society comprised of a small number of other Spanish writers “with the sole purpose of venerating James Joyce’s Ulysses”).

Riba’s “remarkable tendency to read his life as a literary text” is worked playfully throughout the novel, especially given Vila-Matas’s decision to employ the Joycean and Beckettian allusions that shape the narrative in which Riba lives. “Dublinesque,” the Philip Larkin poem from which the novel draws its name (about a prostitute’s passing funeral), is but another example of the way Vila-Matas incorporates actual literature into his dirge of the forsaken art. Riba, perhaps resulting from his compulsive need to bring the imagery and incidents of that formative dream (or premonition?) into reality, begins to wonder whether his own life has come to resemble not merely a work of fiction, but the entirety of literature’s arcing curve itself, from great heights to pitiable ruination:

Only he—no one else—knows that on the one hand, it’s true, there are those serious slight discomforts, with their monotonous sound, similar to rain, occupying the bitterest side of his days. And on the other, the tiny great events: his private promenade, for example, along the lengths of the bridge linking the almost excessive world of Joyce with Beckett’s more laconic one, and which, in the end, is the main trajectory—as brilliant as it is depressing—of the great literature of recent decades: the one that goes from the richness of one Irishman to the deliberate poverty of the other; from Gutenberg to Google; from the existence of the sacred (Joyce) to the somber era of the disappearance of God (Beckett).

While Riba laments the passing of the print age, with its celebration of and devotion to the duality of the writer/reader relationship, he, like the era for which he mourns, must endure the perils and hardships that inevitably accompany so splendid a fall from grace (his career, his marriage, his health). That Vila-Matas so adeptly created a work of fiction that simultaneously considers the current state of both publishing and literature (as well as the respective roles of author and reader alike), while allowing the novel itself to serve as a comment on the very subject, is nothing short of a dazzling accomplishment. Vila-Matas, under the guise of fiction, seems to make the case for a future in which the importance of good writing and meaningful stories are afforded their due attention, while the relationship between author (or publisher) and reader is enlivened anew and bolstered for posterity.

Enrique Vila-Matas is undoubtedly one of the finest Spanish authors at work today and Dublinesque offers for display his profuse literary talents. With sharp, distinct prose and often unexpected humor, Vila-Matas is indeed a compelling writer. As a complement to the four books already available in English, one hopes that many more of his two dozen novels (as well as his collections of essays) will soon find their way into translation. Vila-Matas’s writing, in addition to providing fantastic stories and striking insights, is consistently amongst the most original work being produced today, and stands in stark and refreshing contrast to the banality and bankruptcy of what all too often now passes as popular literature: “the Gothic vampire tales and other nonsense now in fashion.”

3 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next week highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Anne McLean

Language: Spanish

Country: Spain
Publisher: New Directions

Why This Book Should Win: Vila-Matas is most definitely one of the best writers working today. His games with form and structure are unparalleled. And this ironic gem of a book includes Marguerite Duras as a character.

Today’s post is by Monica Carter, BTBA judge, writer, reader of French, and runner of Salonica World Lit. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

Never Any End to Paris is a novel for anyone who has wanted to live in Paris, wanted to be a writer, went to Paris and failed its promise and offerings, tried to be a writer and failed its promise and offerings, loved Paris, hated Paris, loved Hemingway, hated Hemingway, wanted to live the life of A Moveable Feast but decades later, loved Marguerite Duras, hated Marguerite Duras, loved the idea of living in a writer’s garret, wanted to runaway to Paris to become a writer, or more specifically, a reincarnation of Hemingway himself and finally, this is a novel for everyone who likes novels. I am emphatically telling you it is virtually impossible to dislike this novel. Told from the point of view of a novelist about to give a lecture, it is clear that the “novelist” is thin scrim for the author. When the novelist was young, he spent two years in Paris trying to write a novel, The Lettered Assassin, while living in Marguerite Duras’s garret. He has returned to the city of Paris many years later as a successful writer, wondering through his old haunts with his wife and reminiscing about the unhappy years he spent failing his dream while running around Paris with the likes of Duras, Barthes, and Perec.

But what is at the core of this novel is the myth of Hemingway. Whenever someone dreams of being a writer, it’s inevitable that they will discover Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and begin plotting a way to while their days away in some Parisian café penning the next great novel. Our narrator is no exception and even takes it a step further by convincing himself that he looks like Hemingway, despite the protestations of others and the humiliation of being kicked out of a Hemingway look-a-like contest in a Key West bar. The beauty and tragedy of Hemingway was that he created a mythic image of himself as author—a man who runs with bulls and hunts wild animals, lives a life of adventure and daring, with barely enough time to dash off brilliant novels and short stories reeking of courage and masculinity—that was destined to snuff out Hemingway the man. Since this mythic image of Hemingway has been immortalized, it has hurdled through time capturing the dreams and imaginations of any would-be writer. This ideological literary behemoth refuses to jump the shark despite the mocking undertow for its cartoonish he-man extremes perfectly reflected in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.

Writers don’t want to surrender this image go because it encapsulates a life lived as art, for art. This is why Never Any End to Paris is so brilliant. It’s a rebuttal to Mr. Hemingway in the form of a failed homage. Vila-Matas delivers in sophisticated prose, an ironic tale of trying to live the dream and being disappointed by it, with hilarious aplomb tempered by gloomy flourishes. In the end of his two-year journey, he concludes he is just a man who will find his own way through his life as a writer and it will never equal the life Hemingway created of himself as a writer. And thanks to Anne McLean’s integrity and dedication to Vita-Matas’s tone, there is no loss of his wit or self-deprecating style. This is a novel for all novelists and told as well as any tale Papa told. It is a love letter and a Dear John letter to Hemingway and should win for its creativity, honesty and courage to fail at living a dream.

10 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This may be thanks to Bolano and his massive appeal, but it seems (to me at least), like Spanish literature is going through a sort of a “Second Boom.” Not so much in terms of a shared aesthetic, but in terms of having captured the imaginations of American publishers. In addition to standards like Javier Marias and Fernando del Paso, over the past few years works from Evelio Rosero, Alejandro Zambra, Eloy Urroz, Jorge Volpi, Cesar Aira, Santiago Roncagliolo, Carlos Gamerro, Sergio Chejfec, and Enrique Vila-Matas have been published in English translation, and have received both great critical attention and a decent-sized readership.

And that’s just in the fiction world . . . Additionally, there have been a number of collections of poetry published, along with Granta’s “Best of the Young Spanish-Language Novelists” issue and the forthcoming The Future Is Not Ours anthology.

All of this is a brief (and rather vague) prelude to talking about Juan Gabriel Vasquez, the author of The Informers and the more recently publishing The Secret History of Costaguana. I’ve had Secret History on my shelf for months, but haven’t had a chance to get to it yet. Well, after exchanging a few emails with Jeremy Osner (who runs this blog) about this book, I think it’s about to move up my “to read” pile . . .



Jeremy was blown away by this novel, in addition to writing a short review (see below), he translated (with Anne McLean’s editorial guidance), a piece by Vasquez on How to Read Novels:

I keep wondering why we do it: why would an adult devote his time, his mental energies, his moral intelligence to reading about things that never happened to people who never existed; how could this activity be so important, so vital, that this person would voluntarily withdraw from real life to carry it out. I’ve come across a few answers over the years, some of them in conversations with other addicted readers, but mostly in books here and there along the way. And indeed, the most recent of these books is truly marvelous: The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist consists of six essays in which Orhan Pamuk seeks to answer one crucial question: What happens to us when we read (and write) novels? This book is the most illuminating, most stimulating, most abundant examination of this difficult topic that I’ve read in years. I can do no less than to offer this urgent call to readers.

“I have learned by experience that there are many ways to read a novel,” says Pamuk. “We read sometimes logically, sometimes with our eyes, sometimes with our imagination, sometimes with a small part of our mind, sometimes the way we want to, sometimes the way the book wants us to, and sometimes with every fiber of our being.” In other words: there are no two identical readers of the same novel; not even two identical readings. And this fact, which seems so obvious, is what can explain the effects, the intimate, unpredictable effects the novel can have on us. What are these effects? Pamuk says we read the way we drive a car, pressing the pedals and shifting gears while watching the signals and traffic and the landscape around us: our intellect moves in a thousand and one directions in every instant. With part of our mind we do the simplest thing: follow the story. But readers of “serious” novels are doing something more: are looking constantly for the secret center of the novel, for that revelation the novel seeks to bring to light, which cannot be summarized, which can only be expressed just as the novel expresses it. Sábato was once asked what he meant to say in On Heroes and Tombs. Sábato replied, “If I could have said it any other way, I would never have written the book.”

You can read the rest of the piece here and all of Vasquez’s weekly columns here.

(I think it’s fitting that I’m posting this today, since that bit above loosely ties into the Very Professional Podcast that we’re posting later today.)

Going back to the book itself, here’s Jeremy’s summary:

The Secret History of Costaguana (2011) is Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s second novel to be translated into English, following 2009’s The Informers. It is a captivating book, the very best kind of historical novel: Vásquez has researched meticulously a corner of history that may be unfamiliar to many readers (as it was to me); he draws connections between that corner and the broader currents of world history and the history of literature; and he does so playfully, inquisitively, accepting none of the strands of historical narrative as immutable fact.

Vásquez’ chosen topic is the first attempt to build a canal in the Panamanian province of Colombia, in the 1880’s. One of the people who was in that corner of the world during those years was Joseph Conrad, a key literary influence for Vásquez, who used his observations of Colombia as the basis for his novel Nostromo, set in the fictional country of Costaguana. Vásquez’ narrator Juan Altamirano crosses paths with Conrad in Colombia, and again many years later in London, and he sets his own South American voice up in opposition to the colonial voice of Conrad.

And so we get a beautifully-drawn picture of Colombia and Panama during a critical point in their history, and in the history of their relationship with the US; and interlaced into this picture we get the novelist’s statement of his influences and his literary education. (For more of the latter, be sure to read Vásquez excellent essay on literary influence, Misconceptions Surrounding Gabriel García Márquez.) Vásquez’ powerful, enchanting prose finds an able translator in Anne McLean.

He also directed my attention to a few things about Vasquez on The Guardian, including this podcast, and this write up by Maya Jaggi.

But of all this, one of the coolest bits from Vasquez in this quote that Jeremy found in his book chat at The Guardian: “I have a tendency to trust translators, mainly because nobody does it for the money.”

22 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is Good Offices by Evelio Rosero, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean and Anna Milsom, and coming out from New Directions next week.

Good Offices is the second novel by Evelio Rosero (after The Armies, 2009) to be published by New Directions. It’s also the first to be translated by Anne McLean in collaboration with Anna Milsom.

In Good Offices, we are released into the world of Tancredo, a hunchback who has a deep fear of becoming an animal. Tancredo, the sexton’s goddaughter (Sabina Cruz) and the three witchlike widows work for a corrupt priest providing charity meals for the local poor. Their endless labor has drained them of their humanity. Their daily routines are soon to be broken, however, with the arrival of a new priest: Father Matamoros, a drunkard with a beautiful voice whose sung mass is spellbinding to all. Under the magical and disillusioning presence of Father Matamoros, the women and Tancredo spill their confessions and turbulent stories.

Click here to read an extended preview, which has a pretty striking opening:

He has a terrible fear of being an animal, especially on Thursdays, at lunchtime. “I have this fear,” he says to himself, and glimpses his hump reflected in the window. His eyes wander over his eyes: he does not recognize himself. What an other! He thinks. What an other! And examines his face. “On Thursdays,” and then, “this Thursday, especially, when it’s the old people’s turn.” Tuesdays for the blind, Mondays for the whores, Fridays for families, Wednesdays for the street kids, Saturdays and Sundays for God, or so says the priest.

Additionally, we posted an interview between Dan Vitale and Anna Milsom, which is definitely worth reading in full:

DV: How did you discover the book?

AM: Well, I met Anne at the BCLT summer school too—it must be a decade or so ago. We had a lot of fun and have stayed in touch since. Two years ago I was running a literary translation evening class at London Metropolitan University where I now teach and I invited Anne to come in as a guest speaker. She had Los almuerzos in her bag and suggested we might see about doing the translation collaboratively—I leapt at the chance, as you may imagine. Anne had already translated Rosero’s The Armies and together they had won the UK’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, so it felt pretty amazing to be discussing the possibility of working with such a formidable team. I got hold of the book as quickly as I could and the first thing I did was fall for the swooping rush of the prose. The second thing was to wonder how on earth to render it in English. Or perhaps I did those two things simultaneously. Translators read in a very special and peculiar way, I think, taking in the words as both readers and writers at the same time. It becomes hard not to do this, even when you’re reading purely for pleasure.

Finally, here’s Dan’s review of the novel, which opens:

Evelio Rosero’s first novel to be translated into English since his award-winning The Armies takes place on a much smaller scale than that hallucinatory story about the damaging effects of civil war in Colombia. Good Offices, lighter in tone and slighter than The Armies, documents the events of a single day in a single location: a Catholic church in Bogotá. The tale is told through the eyes of Tancredo, a young man with a hunchback, who assists the priest of the church, Father Almida, as an occasional acolyte but mainly by running the daily free lunches the church offers to the city’s neediest residents: “Tuesdays for the blind, Mondays for the whores, Fridays for families, Wednesdays for the street kids, Saturdays and Sundays for God, or so says the priest.”

Click here to access all of these features and to find links where you can buy a copy of the book.

22 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Evelio Rosero’s first novel to be translated into English since his award-winning The Armies takes place on a much smaller scale than that hallucinatory story about the damaging effects of civil war in Colombia. Good Offices, lighter in tone and slighter than The Armies, documents the events of a single day in a single location: a Catholic church in Bogotá. The tale is told through the eyes of Tancredo, a young man with a hunchback, who assists the priest of the church, Father Almida, as an occasional acolyte but mainly by running the daily free lunches the church offers to the city’s neediest residents: “Tuesdays for the blind, Mondays for the whores, Fridays for families, Wednesdays for the street kids, Saturdays and Sundays for God, or so says the priest.”

Tancredo and Father Almida not only work at the church but live in its presbytery, along with Machado, the sacristan; Sabina, Machado’s goddaughter; and “the three Lilias,” a clutch of women who run the household and who have come to resemble one another so closely that they go by the same name. The novel opens on a Thursday afternoon, “when it’s the old people’s turn” to be served lunch, and Tancredo has just finished kicking out the last of the diners. The anger he feels at their insistence on remaining in the church hall long past the end of the meal stirs in him “a terrible fear of being an animal,” although he is for the most part a mild-mannered, studious, and obedient servant of the church.

Beyond its opening pages, however, this short novel barely concerns Tancredo’s primary job. We witness a meeting at which Father Almida informs Tancredo that, starting Monday, the sacristan of the church will begin assisting Tancredo with the lunches, but after this scene nothing more about the meals is mentioned, which is a disappointment—and an oddity, considering that the Spanish title of Good Offices is Los almuerzos (“the lunches”).

Sabina, who lusts after Tancredo and has been waiting for a chance to be alone with him, is excited when Father Almida and her godfather are called away Thursday evening on a mysterious errand to dissuade Don Justiniano, the church’s main financial benefactor, from withdrawing his largesse on the basis of unspecified “lies” purportedly being spread by other priests in the city about the church’s use of Don Justiniano’s funds. But ultimately it is the three Lilias, not Sabina, who take the most pleasure from what transpires in the two men’s absence.

The book’s plot turns out to be built on an archetype: the arrival of a charismatic stranger who forever changes the life of a small, well-ordered community. Father Matamoros appears during a rainstorm to fill in for Father Almida at seven o’clock Mass. In contrast to Almida’s plainspoken efficaciousness, Matamoros is dreamy and poetic (and fond of drink—he swigs aguardiente during the service). But what most endears him to the evening parishioners is that he sings the Mass rather than speaks it, in a voice of great beauty and devotion:

Beneath the cold vaulted reaches, his voice seemed to come from heaven. He repeated his invitation to repent, singing: Beloved brethren, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us call to mind our sins. It was as if the organ were sounding. Tancredo lifted his gaze to the marble dome as if escaping and saw the host of painted angels flying among the clouds; he saw them return his gaze and still did not know whether to feel terrified or moved. How long it had been, he thought, since Mass had been sung. The purity of the voice was the air they breathed.

After this miracle of a Mass, the Lilias immediately and passionately ingratiate themselves with Matamoros, making him comfortable, bringing him food and drink and fawning over his talents. But the Mass of Father Matamoros also unleashes something disturbingly otherworldly in them, inspiring them (among other unusual behaviors) to conduct a bizarre and violent ritual in the church garden. Through the night and into the early hours of Friday, their power and ferocity grow to such an extent that not even Father Almida and Machado, when they return from their errand the next morning, are safe from it.

As difficult as it is to describe exactly what has happened to the Lilias, it is even more difficult to speculate about the significance Rosero ascribes to it. New Directions’ fall catalog states that Good Offices is a “beautifully poetic and vivid satire of the hypocrisies of the Catholic Church,” but the stability that Matamoros and the Lilias upset seems composed of far murkier and much more poorly explained elements than mere religious hypocrisy. Or perhaps it is the fervor of the Lilias themselves that is being satirized, but again, if so, Rosero is being far vaguer about his targets than true satire demands.

Further, at the end of the novel Rosero seems to be taking pains to cast Tancredo and Sabina as some kind of modern Adam and Eve, but over what new paradise (or hell?) they are to supposed to reign Rosero does not specify. We finish the book feeling we have experienced something unsettling, but unsure what, and still wondering what is to become of those daily free lunches we read about at the start.

1 July 11 | Chad W. Post |

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece I wrote about Julio Cortazar’s From the Observatory, which is translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean and forthcoming from Archipelago Books. It also happens to be this week’s Read This Next title.

Here’s the opening of the review:

It’s not like any of Cortazar’s books are easy. Hopscotch is a tricky book, even putting aside the jarring juxtapositions that arise from the strange way of reading it (if you follow the prescribed path, you read a bunch of chapters out of order). 62: A Model Kit, which applied the theory explicated in chapter 62 of Hopscotch, opens with a preface warning that “not a few readers will notice various transgressions of literary convention here.” Some of the ideas in his short stories are mind-blowing in a consciousness-raising, you-must-be-high sort of way.

But in my opinion, From the Observatory is the most challenging of all his books that I’ve read. In part, this is due to my own blindspot when it comes to poetry and poetic writing; in part, this is due to the elusive mingling of images and ideas present in this short, dense text.

In the interview I conducted earlier this week with Anne McLean, we talked a bit about the “Julio Cortazar” that Archipelago has been constructing through the publication of From the Observatory, The Diary of Andres Fava, and Autonauts of the Cosmoroute. In contrast to the Big Ideas and novelistic pyrotechnics found in the “classic” novels, these three books are quieter, and more personal. And in a way, they seem more focused on producing beautiful individual lines, than wowing the world with grand philosophical ideas.

That’s not to say that From the Observatory isn’t philosophical or removed from Cortazar’s earlier interests. Science and scientific metaphors run throughout Cortazar’s work, and are foregrounded in this piece, which intertwines information about the life cycle of eels from an article by Claude Lamotte that appeared in Le Monde with photographs and information about Jai Singh’s observatories.

You can read the complete piece here.

1 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s not like any of Cortazar’s books are easy. Hopscotch is a tricky book, even putting aside the jarring juxtapositions that arise from the strange way of reading it (if you follow the prescribed path, you read a bunch of chapters out of order). 62: A Model Kit, which applied the theory explicated in chapter 62 of Hopscotch, opens with a preface warning that “not a few readers will notice various transgressions of literary convention here.” Some of the ideas in his short stories are mind-blowing in a consciousness-raising, you-must-be-high sort of way.

But in my opinion, From the Observatory is the most challenging of all his books that I’ve read. In part, this is due to my own blindspot when it comes to poetry and poetic writing; in part, this is due to the elusive mingling of images and ideas present in this short, dense text.

In the interview I conducted earlier this week with Anne McLean, we talked a bit about the “Julio Cortazar” that Archipelago has been constructing through the publication of From the Observatory, The Diary of Andres Fava, and Autonauts of the Cosmoroute. In contrast to the Big Ideas and novelistic pyrotechnics found in the “classic” novels, these three books are quieter, and more personal. And in a way, they seem more focused on producing beautiful individual lines, than wowing the world with grand philosophical ideas.

That’s not to say that From the Observatory isn’t philosophical or removed from Cortazar’s earlier interests. Science and scientific metaphors run throughout Cortazar’s work, and are foregrounded in this piece, which intertwines information about the life cycle of eels from an article by Claude Lamotte that appeared in Le Monde with photographs and information about Jai Singh’s observatories.

The photographs of Jai Singh’s observatories are one of the most strikingly beautiful things about this book, and by themselves are worth the price of admission. Jai Singh was the ruler of Amber (later Jaipur) in the early 1700s and amid all sorts of political and social issues, he built at least five observatories. Using Hindu astronomy, these observatories were used to predict eclipses, etc. That’s interesting in and of itself, but beyond practicality, these structures are stunningly intricate and a bit mesmerizing. (Some photos from the book are available here, but you can also see a slew of color photos via this Google search.)

Cortazar took the 36 photos included in the book back in 1968, and they very much reflect the elliptical, baroque play found in the prose itself:

Everything corresponds, Jai Singh and Baudelaire thought with a century’s interval, from the lookout of the tallest tower of the observatory the sultan must have sought the system, the network in code that would give him the keys of contact: how could he not have known that the animal Earth would suffocate in a slow stillness if it had not always been in the lungs of the astral steel, the sneaky traction of the moon and the sun drawing and repelling the green breast of the waters. [. . .] Every sign of measurement on the marble ramps of Jaipur received (still receives, for no one now, for monkeys and tourists) the Morse signs, the sidereal alphabet that in another dimension of the sensitive turns into plankton, trade winds, shipwreck of the California oil tanker Norman (May 8, 1957), blossoming of cherry trees in Naga or Sivergues, lava in Osorno, eels arriving in port, leptocephali having grown to eight centimeters in three years will not know that their entry into fresher waters sets off some mechanism of the thyroid, will not know they’re now starting to be called elvers, that new calming words accompany the serpent’s storming of the reefs, its advance up the estuaries, its irrepressible invasion of the rivers; all this that has no name is called by so many names, the way Jai Singh swapped twinkles for formulae, unfathomable orbits for conceivable times.

This is pretty representative of the prose in From the Observatory: winding, digressive, soaring, playful, and looping back on itself like a Mobius Strip. As Anne McLean said in the interview, “Hey, you know, it was the still practically the sixties.”

29 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As part of this week’s Read This Next feature on Julio Cortazar’s From the Observatory, we just posted an interview with translator Anne McLean about this book, Cortazar in general, and the other authors she’s worked on.

You can read the whole piece here, and here’s a short excerpt:

CWP: As a long time fan of Corátzar (especially the “big” books—Hopscotch, Blow Up, 62: A Model Kit), I’ve been pleasantly surprised and thrilled by the Corátzar books Archipelago has “unearthed.” In my opinion, these really add to the Corátzar mythos . . . From the Observatory isn’t Hopscotch, Part II. It’s still obviously Corátzar, but a more poetic, almost reflective Corátzar. What’s is it like for you to be responsible for bringing this “other Corátzar” into English?

AM: It’s thrilling for me, and also very daunting (as with any seriously good writing, really, when you’re translating it you spend half the time thinking: oh, I can’t wait for people to be able to read this in English, and the other half wondering how on earth you can ever possibly recreate the wonderfulness of the original). But there are many, many “other Cortázars”; there were lots and lots of different Julios inside that one giant of a writer. Many of them were at play and in action in Hopscotch, for example. But you’re right, of course, From the Observatory does come from Cortázar’s reflective, poetic, philosophical side.

CWP: The lyrical nature of this book mixed with the striking images of Jai Singh’s observatories creates a really stunning work, but one that’s hard (for me) to get a handle on. How would you describe From the Observatory to a casual reader?

AM: If forced to describe From the Observatory, I would probably describe it as indescribable, but I guess that wouldn’t help much.

It’s a prose poem about the life cycle of Atlantic eels and about an early eighteenth-century Indian astronomer-prince and his (imagined) observations of the night sky and about science and its fascinations and limitations and poetry and its possibilities and about opening up to life and love and about challenging ourselves and changing the world.

Hey, you know, it was the still practically the sixties.

Click here for the whole conversation.

27 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next book is From the Observatory by Julio Cortazar. Wonderfully translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, this will be available from Archipelago Books in early August.

In the words of Complete Review’s Michael Orthofer, this book is “striking, odd,” which is just about right. (You can read his full review here.) It’s a very poetic piece built around the life-cycle of eels and the Jaipur observatory.

Speaking of Jaipur, a cool feature of this gorgeous little book are all of the photographs of the observatories built by Jai Singh II. From Wikipedia:

In 1719, he was witness to a noisy discussion in the court of Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah Rangeela. The heated debate regarded how to make astronomical calculations to determine an auspicious date when the emperor could start a journey. This discussion led Jai Singh to think that the nation needed to be educated on the subject of astronomy. It is surprising that in the midst of local wars, foreign invasions, and consequent turmoil, Sawai Jai Singh found time and energy to build astronomical observatories.

No less than five massive structures were built at Delhi, Mathura (in his Agra province), Benares, Ujjain (capital of his Malwa province), and his own capital of Jaipur. In all of these only the one at Jaipur is working. Relying primarily on Hindu astronomy, these buildings were used to accurately predict eclipses and other astronomical events. The observational techniques and instruments used in his observatories were also superior to those used by the European Jesuit astronomers he invited to his observatories. Termed as the Jantar Mantar they consisted of the Ram Yantra (a cylindrical building with an open top and a pillar in its center), the Jai Prakash (a concave hemisphere), the Samrat Yantra (a huge equinoctial dial), the Digamsha Yantra (a pillar surrounded by two circular walls), and the Narivalaya Yantra (a cylindrical dial).

Jai Singh’s greatest achievement was the construction of Jaipur city (known originally as Jainagara (in Sanskrit, as the ‘city of victory’ and later as the ‘pink city’ by the British by the early 20th century), the planned city, later became the capital as the Indian state of Rajasthan. Construction of the new capital began as early as 1725 although it was in 1727 that the foundation stone was ceremonially laid, and by 1733 Jaipur officially replaced Amber as capital of the Kachawahas. Built on the ancient Hindu grid pattern, found in the archaeological ruins of 3000 BCE, it was designed by the Brahmin Vidyadhar who was educated in the ancient Sanskrit manuals (silpa-sutras) on city-planning and architecture. Merchants from all over India settled down in the relative safety of this rich city, protected by thick walls, and a garrison of 17,000 supported by adequate artillery.

For a full-color look at the Jaipur Observatory, you can click here, otherwise, I highly recommend checking out the preview, both for the pictures and Cortazar’s prose.

13 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following on yesterday’s podcast (after the posting of which, the Cardinals pounded the Cubs 9-1), the latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jeremy Garber on the forthcoming Enrique Vila-Matas novel, Never Any End to Paris, which New Directions is bringing out later this month in Anne McLean’s wonderful translation.

(BTW, as Anne—and Jeremy—have since pointed out, Vila-Matas did write a book called The Lettered Assassin. Which Anne said isn’t as bad as it sounds in Never Any End to Paris . . .)

Jeremy Garber is a used book buyer for a large independent bookstore. (And a GoodReads friend, which is where I first came across his reviews.) His work has appeared in The Oregonian, the Oregon Historical Quarterly and on Powells.com. And continuing our baseball theme, it’s worth noting that Jeremy is an avid Philadelphia Phillies fan. (BTW, next week’s podcast has a strong baseball element as well . . . mre to come.)

Here’ the opening of Jeremy’s review:

Never Any End to Paris (París no se acaba nunca) is a fictionalized autobiographical work by the great spanish novelist, Enrique Vila-Matas. Only the third of his nearly two dozen books to be translated into english, this one recounts the author’s youthful days in paris during the mid 1970s. It was during this time, while renting an attic room from French writer and director Marguerite Duras, that Vila-Matas set about working on his second novel, La asesina ilustrada (never translated into english, yet appearing in this work as The Lettered Assassin).

In Never Any End to Paris, the narrator (always striving to bear an ever closer resemblance to Ernest Hemingway) recalls his formative days in the French capital over the course of a three-day lecture. Taking as its title a derivation on the name of the last chapter of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Never Any End to Paris is set some half a century after Papa himself sauntered around the City of Light. Vila-Matas delves as much into the hardships he (or rather, his fictionalized narrator/lecturer) endured as an undisciplined and unsure writer seeking literary immortality as he does into the milieu of 1970s paris. With an overarching metafictional theme, an abundance of name-dropping, an obvious respect for the art of literature, and the blurring of the line between autobiography and fiction, Vila-Matas’s book brings to mind the works of his close friend and fellow (adopted) countryman, Roberto Bolaño.

Click here to read the full piece.

13 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Never Any End to Paris (París no se acaba nunca) is a fictionalized autobiographical work by the great spanish novelist, Enrique Vila-Matas. Only the third of his nearly two dozen books to be translated into english, this one recounts the author’s youthful days in paris during the mid 1970s. It was during this time, while renting an attic room from French writer and director Marguerite Duras, that Vila-Matas set about working on his second novel, La asesina ilustrada (never translated into english, yet appearing in this work as The Lettered Assassin).

In Never Any End to Paris, the narrator (always striving to bear an ever closer resemblance to Ernest Hemingway) recalls his formative days in the French capital over the course of a three-day lecture. Taking as its title a derivation on the name of the last chapter of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Never Any End to Paris is set some half a century after Papa himself sauntered around the City of Light. Vila-Matas delves as much into the hardships he (or rather, his fictionalized narrator/lecturer) endured as an undisciplined and unsure writer seeking literary immortality as he does into the milieu of 1970s paris. With an overarching metafictional theme, an abundance of name-dropping, an obvious respect for the art of literature, and the blurring of the line between autobiography and fiction, Vila-Matas’s book brings to mind the works of his close friend and fellow (adopted) countryman, Roberto Bolaño.

While broad in scope, much of the narrator’s lecture, in addition to recalling the hardships of crafting the novel, the ongoing poverty that accompanied his writing of it, and the wealth of his social engagements with Paris’ creative elite, sets about considering the nature of irony (both in general and as it relates to the telling of his tale).

You’ll see me improvise on occasion. Like right now when, before going on to read my ironic revision of the two years of my youth in paris, I feel compelled to tell you that I do know that irony plays with fire and, while mocking others, sometimes ends up mocking itself. You all know full well what i’m talking about. When you pretend to be in love you run the risk of feeling it, he who parodies without proper precautions ends up a victim just the same . . . That said, I must also warn you that when you hear me say, for example, that there was never any end to paris, I will most likely be saying it ironically. But, anyway, I hope not to overwhelm you with too much irony. The kind that I practice has nothing to do with that which arises from desperation—I was stupidly desperate enough when I was young. I like a kind of irony I call benevolent, compassionate, like what we find, for example, in the best of Cervantes. I don’t like ferocious irony but rather the kind that vacillates between disappointment and hope. okay?

As the lecturer remembers his deliberation about how best to craft a novel (The Lettered Assassin) that will cause its readers to die immediately following their reading of it, the irony of writing what could be a successful book only to be left with no one living to admire it is not lost on him.

Like Vila-Matas’s other works (or, at least those already translated into english), Never Any End to Paris is a smart, creative, and playful work; one that never deigns to take itself too seriously. It as much a quasi-autobiography as it is a celebration of literature, film, paris, irony, and the folly and determination of youth. If only La Asesina ilustrada were already available in translation, then perhaps this book would resound with an even greater clarity than it already does. On its own, however, Never Any End to Paris1 is a fantastic book, one that surely bolsters Enrique Vila-Matas’s reputation as one of the finer spanish-language novelists at work today.

“Among the many fictions possible, an autobiography can also be a fiction.”

1 Translated by Anne McLean, known for her english translations of Julio Cortázar, Evelio Rosero, Javier Cercas, and others.

30 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 16 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’s featured author is Oliverio Coehlo, one of the eight (!) Argentine authors included in this issue.



At the Frankfurt Book Fair a couple of years back, the Fundacion TyPA gave away special “30 Great Authors from Argentina” brochure/booklets as a way of promoting contemporary Argentine writing. We wrote abou this at the time, in part because the product was so damn slick, and also because it’s a great way to find out about new Argentine authors.

Oliverio Coelho was one of those 30 great authors, and Natural Promises, the title of his that’s featured is the third part of his dystopian trilogy and sounds pretty strange and interesting:

Oliverio Coelho’s literature explores a possible future world, a sort of nightmare where humanity is menaced by mutations that bring us fully back to the animal world. The government establishes the right to live and reproduce, thus setting strict limits to this humanity. Huge sections of the population are driven away; they join with the unstable masses of subhuman hordes — the ilots — that fight for survival. Bernina, the protagonist, moves in this parallel territory, carrying along a puppet in a suitcase and a mutant child in her belly. Natural Promises is written in a strange language, still recognizable, but where words seem slightly out of focus, aloof from what they are naming. In this way, the author joins an area of contemporary narrative which is highlighted by the creative power of books like Emma, la cautiva (Cesar Aira), Lost acuaticos (Marcelo Cohen) and Riddley Walker (Russel Hoben).

There’s a lot of literary post-apocalyptic books coming out these days (The Passage, Super Sad True Love Story, Oryx and Crake, etc.), and to be honest, I’ve been going on a bit of a bender reading these . . . So hopefully these books will eventually make their way into English—with comparisons to Aira, Cohen, and Hoben, this definitely sounds like something more experimental and weird (in a good way) that your run-of-the-mill science fiction.

And it does seem like Coelho’s work is striking a nerve—in Flavorwire’s piece on the 10 authors from this issue you should know, Coelho is the first one featured:

An active author, anthologist, and critic, Oliverio Coelho has received several literary awards and grants in his native Argentina and has participated in writing residencies as far as Mexico and South Korea. Three of his six novels comprise a futuristic trilogy — Los Invertebrables (2003), Borneo (2004), Promesas Naturales (2006) — in which humanity is plagued by subhuman animalistic mutations and reproductive regulations, but this imaginative approach to social engagement permeates all of his work. Coelho’s literary criticism also appears in publications like El País, La Nación, and Perfil, and he covers news within the publishing industry for the magazine Los Inrockuptibles.

(Digression: I’m not going to complain much about the 10 authors Flavorwire chose for this particular post—although leaving off Zambra personally irks me—but their lists have become so incredibly unimaginative that I only tend to read them when I want to get all fired up about something. This is a good case in point. It’s not that the lists are bad, it’s just that they’re predictable, and thus seem really uninspired. Flavorwire/Boldtype brands itself as being some sort of cutting-edge, in-the-know publication, but it reads as if they’re raiding the B&N front window for a sense of cool. OK, that’s going to far. But you get the point. Rant. Over.)

Anyway, the piece included in Granta is an excerpt from his forthcoming novel, Un hombre llamado Lobo, which doesn’t seem to have any obvious futuristic elements. Here’s the opening section:

A dilapidated bus, which thirty years earlier had probably been a luxurious long-distance vehicle with reclining seats, pulled up to the stand. A handwritten piece of paper taped to the inside of the windscreen said ‘Balcarce’. Iván hurried up the steps and stretched out on the back seat. He turned his head and observed a luminous burr, a sun enlarged or deformed by the dirty rear window. His heart beat loudly, his throat contracted, he felt as if he hadn’t slept for days and would never be able to fall asleep again. A sudden certainty calmed him: if he found his father, perhaps some woman would be able to love him in the future; perhaps he’d lose what his grandmother attributed to a curse but was simply an orphan’s foreboding shyness. He felt the kind of momentary relief some prisoners on death row must get by cherishing the hope that their sentence will be reprieved at the last moment.

And so, wooed by faith, he slept until the bus arrived at San Manuel. He woke up automatically and walked up the aisle to the driver. The main street of the town was full of speed bumps and he hit his head on the handrail a couple of times.

‘Is this San Manuel?’ he asked, looking out of the window at the old-fashioned buildings of a ghost town beside the railway tracks.

‘This is it.’

‘Where’s the centre?’

‘It’s nothing but centre . . . San Manuel ends at the end of the boulevard, where the tracks are. I turn round here. Where are you going?’ and he began turning the bus around.

‘I don’t know, I’m looking for someone . . .’ and he immediately thought how simple his adventure would be if he hadn’t lost his father’s address.

Over at Granta‘s website (where you can subscribe and receive a free copy of this special issue), there’s a post by Christopher Coake, Best Young American Novelist 2007, about this story. It’s a nice piece that calls attention to a pretty great phrase:

Oliverio Coelho’s novel excerpt ‘After Effects’ is as subversive and heartbreaking an examination of love as any reader could hope for. A young man, Iván, takes a bus to the dusty village of San Manuel, in order to surprise the father he has never known. A momentous journey, for certain, but for Iván the stakes are greater even than we might expect – while he waits for the bus to leave the station, ‘A sudden certainty calmed him: if he found his father, perhaps some woman would be able to love him in the future . . .’ Thus assuaged, he sleeps peacefully, ‘wooed by faith.’

‘Wooed by faith.’ It’s such a small phrase, almost a throwaway—and yet its mystery ripples across these pages. Coelho, here, is less concerned with the physical search for Iván’s father (though he is easily found) than in presenting the quest as a spiritual crisis.

Tomorrow: Alejandro Zambra.

And don’t forget, get this issue for free by subscribing to Granta.

8 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the past few years, New Directions has put together what is arguably the best collection of contemporary Latin American literature available from any single publisher. Sure, there’s the heaps of Bolano titles. But there’s also Cesar Aira. And Horacio Castellanos Moya. There’s Guillermo Rosales’s The Halfway House. Ernesto Cardenal’s poetry collection. The two Luis Fernando Verissimo books. Felisberto Hernández and Julio Cortazar’s Final Exam. The reissues of the Borges titles. One could do a lot worse than spend a few months with the Latin American section of the ND catalog . . .

And now comes Evelio Rosero’s The Armies, the translation of which—as Dan mentions in his review—won Anne McLean her second Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier this year.

Dan Vitale—reviewer, writer, and editor—has a lot of great things to say about The Armies and its translation in his review:

Anne McLean’s translation of Colombian novelist Evelio Rosero’s The Armies is the winner of this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, given by Great Britain’s Independent newspaper to honor excellence in translated works of fiction published in the UK. (It’s McLean’s second nod from the The Independent in five years: she also won the prize in 2004 for her translation of Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas.)

New Directions has now released The Armies in the U.S. The novel—to my knowledge, the first by Rosero to be translated into English—is a deceptively calm, at times even placid look at a staggeringly violent subject: the perpetual atrocities being committed against human life and dignity by the combatants in the seemingly endless civil war in Colombia. Rosero’s ability to write so plainly about such horrors gives the book an unearthly aspect, as if its setting, the town of San José, were as bleak and forbidding as the post-apocalyptic landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or the unnamed city in José Saramago’s Blindness whose inhabitants all lose their sight. The residents of San José, too, will become crippled, although by forces entirely human and familiar: the murderous bands of warring forces referred to throughout the novel only as “soldiers,” “guerrillas,” or “paramilitaries.”

Rosero’s narrator, Ismael Pasos, is a retired schoolteacher married to Otilia, also retired from teaching. Two years before the present action of the novel begins, the church in San José is dynamited, leaving fourteen dead and sixty-four wounded. As the novel opens, the town is again relatively quiet, but the small compass of Ismael and Otilia’s world soon starts to be affected by random violence: the mutilated corpse of a newborn has been discovered in a rubbish dump. Shortly afterward, Ismael and Otilia’s next-door neighbor Eusebio is kidnapped. The next day, while out for a walk, Ismael is detained by soldiers, and when he returns home, Otilia is gone. Ismael sets off to find her.

Click here for the full review.

8 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Anne McLean’s translation of Colombian novelist Evelio Rosero’s The Armies is the winner of this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, given by Great Britain’s Independent newspaper to honor excellence in translated works of fiction published in the UK. (It’s McLean’s second nod from the The Independent in five years: she also won the prize in 2004 for her translation of Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas.)

New Directions has now released The Armies in the U.S. The novel—to my knowledge, the first by Rosero to be translated into English—is a deceptively calm, at times even placid look at a staggeringly violent subject: the perpetual atrocities being committed against human life and dignity by the combatants in the seemingly endless civil war in Colombia. Rosero’s ability to write so plainly about such horrors gives the book an unearthly aspect, as if its setting, the town of San José, were as bleak and forbidding as the post-apocalyptic landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or the unnamed city in José Saramago’s Blindness whose inhabitants all lose their sight. The residents of San José, too, will become crippled, although by forces entirely human and familiar: the murderous bands of warring forces referred to throughout the novel only as “soldiers,” “guerrillas,” or “paramilitaries.”

Rosero’s narrator, Ismael Pasos, is a retired schoolteacher married to Otilia, also retired from teaching. Two years before the present action of the novel begins, the church in San José is dynamited, leaving fourteen dead and sixty-four wounded. As the novel opens, the town is again relatively quiet, but the small compass of Ismael and Otilia’s world soon starts to be affected by random violence: the mutilated corpse of a newborn has been discovered in a rubbish dump. Shortly afterward, Ismael and Otilia’s next-door neighbor Eusebio is kidnapped. The next day, while out for a walk, Ismael is detained by soldiers, and when he returns home, Otilia is gone. Ismael sets off to find her.

In the course of his wanderings in search of Otilia, Ismael faces one trauma after another. He learns that Eusebio’s twelve-year-old son Eusebito has also been taken away, as has the girl, also twelve, that Eusebio and his wife Geraldina took in after her parents were killed in the church explosion. He encounters wayward gunfire from a frustrated army captain and survives a grenade attack on his home. He discovers that several of his friends have been murdered, including two who were victims of a massacre at a hospital. He receives letters from his married daughter Maria in Popayán, who implores her parents to leave San José before things get worse—letters he is helpless to answer in part because he cannot bring himself to tell Maria that Otilia is missing. He commiserates with Chepe, the café owner whose pregnant wife is kidnapped, and stands his ground to await Otilia’s increasingly unlikely return, even as many of the other surviving townspeople begin an exodus out of San José.

The glimpses of the lives of the people of San José that Rosero weaves into Ismael’s narrative are as varied and engaging as those in Gabriel García Márquez’s In Evil Hour, another enduring work about political violence in a small Colombian town. For example, in a startling flash-forward, we are with Geraldina three months after the hospital massacre, when Eusebito is suddenly returned to her:

Now all her preoccupation is focused entirely on her son so reserved he almost seems dead; in vain she attempts to wake him from the nightmare he is in: she hovers around him every minute of the day, hanging on his every gesture, and falls back desperately on a kind of game of deluded songs, in which she uselessly tries to convince herself that he participates, he, a child who seems mummified, stuck in an urn.

The breathlessness of Ismael’s long sentences in this section add even more weight to the heaviness of Geraldina’s grief, as if on top of everything else she were being starved for air.

By the end of the novel, as Ismael loses track of the days and weeks, Geraldina becomes virtually his only connection to normal life. The book’s final sections are stunning: unnerving in their suspense, tragic in their clear-eyed depiction of the apparently infinite capacity of some human beings—legitimated only by the authority of brute force—to perform acts of supreme degradation upon others.

During it all, as he suffers one indignity after another, and despite the repeated pummeling his spirit takes with each new piece of ghastly news he hears, Ismael remains our diligent witness to unspeakable acts, his instinct for self-preservation not so much a heroic aspect of the human spirit as the stubborn persistence of a wounded animal. Near the end of the book Ismael rouses himself, with one last burst of strength, to continue on, in a passage so beautiful it deserves to be quoted in full:

From the trees a cluster of birds takes flight, after a series of bursts of gunfire, still distant. Far away, another group of stragglers, men and women, rush along the road: it looks as if they are fleeing on tiptoe, trying not to make any noise, with voluntary, disproportionate stealth. Some of the women point to me, terrified, as if commenting to each other on the presence of a ghost. I have sat down on a flat, white rock, under a fragrant magnolia tree; I do not remember this rock either, or this magnolia, when did they appear? With every reason I do not know this street, these corners, things, I have lost my memory, just as if I were sinking and I began to walk one by one down steps which lead to the most unknown, this town, I shall stay alone, I suppose, but in some way I shall make this town my home, and I shall stroll through you, town, until Otilia comes for me.

I shall eat what they have left in their kitchens, I shall sleep in all their beds, I shall recognize their stories by their vestiges, guessing at their lives from the clothes they left behind, my time shall be another time, I shall amuse myself, I am not blind, I shall cure my knee, I shall walk up to the high plateau as a stroll and then return, my cats will continue to feed me, if weeping is all that is left, let it be out of happiness; am I going to cry? No, just burst out laughing with all the unpredictable laughter I have been holding back all this time, and I am going to laugh because I have just seen my daughter, beside me, you have sat down on this rock, I tell her, I hope you understand all the horror that I am, inside, ‘or all the love’—this last I say out loud, laughing—I hope you are drawing near in sympathy with me, that you forgive the only one guilty of the disappearance of your mother, because I left her on her own.

As rendered by Anne McLean, these lines—and many others like them in this remarkable, haunting novel—surely warrant the accolade this translation received in Britain. Now that The Armies has been published here, U.S. readers can readily experience its immense power for themselves.

14 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Just got word that the winner of this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is Evelio Rosero for The Armies, which was translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean.

It’s available in the UK from Quercus (but not in the U.S. . . . or at least not yet) (Correction: It’s coming out from New Directions in September), and here’s all the info from their site about the book, author and translator:

In the village of San José in the remote mountains of Colombia, retired teacher Ismael spends his days gathering oranges in the sunshine and spying on his neighbour as she sunbathes naked in her orchard. It is a languid existence, pierced by his wife’s scolding, which induces in him the furtive guilt of an aging voyeur. Out walking one day, Ismael and his wife lose sight of each other. The old man is fearful, for San José has random kidnappings in its past, but reassured by others who have seen her in the village. Soon, though, more people begin to go missing, and gradually bursts of gunfire can be heard in the distance. As the attacks grow steadily more brutal, Ismael finds himself caught in the crossfire; an old man battered by a reality he no longer understands. This is a novel with no easy solutions, in which no-one is spared, no-one is protected.

Evelio Rosero studied Social Communication in the Externado University of Colombia. In 2006 he was awarded the Tusquets National Prize for Literature in Colombia for his novel The Armies.

Anne McLean has translated the novels of, among others, Javier Cercas, Julio Cortázar, Ignacio Padilla and Tomás Eloy Martínez. Her translation of Javier Cercas’ Soldiers of Salamis won the 2004 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Premio Valle Inclan.

Congrats to Evelio Rosero and Anne McLean!

....
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