3 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Since every day is a good day to talk about how great Antonio Lobo Antunes’s works are, I was really excited to get a copy of the new double-sized issue of Portuguese Literary & Cultural Studies in the mail today and find that it’s dedicated to Antunes.

There are a lot of articles in here that sound really interesting, including “The Geographers’ Manual: The Place of Place in Antonio Lobo Antunes” by translator Richard Zenith and “‘You Don’t Invent Anything’: Memory and the Patterns of Fiction in Lobo Antunes’s Works” by Felipe Cammaert, but the two that really jump out are “Still Facts and Living Fictions: The Literary Work of Antonio Lobo Antunes, An Introduction” by Maria Alzira Seixo, and “Prescription to Read Me” by Antonio Lobo Antunes himself.

The opening to Seixo’s introduction sums things up pretty nicely:

Antonio Lobo Antunes is undoubtedly one of the best writers in contemporary Western literature. One may be skeptical to accept this assertion at face value, but the only way to check its validity is by reading the novels and volumes of chronicles published by the author since 1979. As we read on we recognize: a) a particular sensitivity to important events in contemporary Portuguese history [. . .] b) the writer’s individual experience, as a participant in Portugal’s war agains the pro-independence movements in Africa in the 1960s and 70s [. . .] as a consequence of which he associates colonialism and the practice of medicine with everyday life: childhood, family, marriage, love, eroticism, friendship, loneliness, social handicaps, old age, the proximity of death, and, above all, both the zeal and the pain in the task of writing; c) a very original conception of narrative and a beautifully organized verbal rhythm, which transforms the themes and social concerns of his novels into perfect fictional poetry.

But Antunes’s brief piece (translated by Valeria M. Souza) is really the gem of this volume. I wish I could include the whole thing here (it’s only two pages), but I don’t have time to type it all out (and maybe probably shouldn’t) . . . Here’s a taste, anyway:

Whenever anyone declares having read a book of mine I am disappointed by the error. That’s because my books are not ot be read in the sense usually called reading: the only way it seems to me to approach the novels that I writer is to catch them in the same manner that one catches an illness. [. . .] Each of you must renounce your own key, the one we all have with which to open life, our own and that of others, and use the key that the text gives you. [. . .] You must abandon yourselves to its apparent carelessness, to its suspensions, to the long ellipses, to the shadowy comings and goings of the waves that, little by little, will carry you to an encounter with fatal darkness, indispensable to the rebirth and renovation of the spirit. It is necessary that our trust in common values dissolve page by page, that our deceptive interior cohesion gradually lose the meaning that it does not possess and yet that we gave it, in order that another order be born from that shock, perhaps bitter but inevitable. I would like the novels in bookstores, rather than being placed beside one another, to be kept apart and in a hermetic box, so as not to infect other narratives or unprepared readers: it costs dearly to seek a lie and find a truth.

And there we are.

For another introduction to Antunes’s work, you can check out this piece I wrote for the most recent issue of Quarterly Conversation.

6 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

That’s the title of the extremely long article I wrote about Antonio Lobo Antunes for the new issue of Quarterly Conversation. (More on that issue later.)

If you’ve read this blog at all, you’ve probably come across one or more posts in which I wax poetic about the awesomeness of Antunes’s writing. (Here are a few samples: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 . . . ) In fact, the current Read This Next title is Antunes’s Splendor of Portugal, and if you visit that link, you can read an extended preview of the book, and an interview with translator Rhett McNeil.

Anyway, back to the Quarterly Conversation article . . . This primarily focuses on three novels by Antunes — The Land at the End of the World, Fado Alexandrino, and The Splendor of Portugal — and a range of reasons why you should read him. Here’s part of the opening:

I first discovered Antunes over a decade ago, when I was asked to review The Natural Order of Things, the fourth of six novels of his published by Grove Press. Reading it was like discovering that once-in-a-lifetime band whose music just sounds right straight away. As if the patterns were constructed precisely for you to hear them. It was at once familiar and new and exciting. A whole new way of constructing art—one that was smart and jarring, both on the surface and at the level of deeper emotions.

Immediately hooked, I went back and read Act of the Damned and An Explanation of the Birds and begged to be able to review each new title of his as it was released—to date, eleven have made their way into English, a remarkable number for a “difficult” Portuguese author whose books probably don’t sell all that well. (To put this in perspective, Nobel Prize winner and fellow countryman Jose Saramago has thirteen novels available in English translation.)

Publishing is a profession of people and individual taste, and Antunes has been in great hands in the U.S., having been backed by Morgan Entrekin (Grove), Bob Weil (W.W. Norton), and John O’Brien (Dalkey Archive). He’s also received a wealth of critical praise, from a New Yorker profile—“One of the most skillful psychological portraitist writing anywhere”—to numerous New York Times reviews. He’s been compared to Faulkner, Dos Passos, García Márquez, Céline, Cormac McCarthy, Malcolm Lowry, Proust, Woolf, Canetti, Gogol, Camus, Cortazar, and Nabokov. The real challenge for reviewers is coming up with a new Master of World Literature Antunes hasn’t been compared to.

But what does all this praise mean? That’s one hell of a mad amalgam of influences, and it gives a basis for the sense of familiarity and newness that I experienced when I first encountered his work. It also makes you appreciate that, with such a thorough connection to the literary history of the twentieth century, Antunes is greatly underappreciated. Which, to be completely honest, sort of makes sense. His books truly do embody everything Americans are supposedly afraid of: most of his novels focus around a war and a coup unfamiliar to many readers; the books aren’t very uplifting; they can be difficult to piece together. In thinking about this article, I’ve set myself the task of trying to convince an imaginary reader why he/she should invest his/her mental energy and time into this particular quasi-obscure, complicated novelist . . .

Click here to read the entire piece.

2 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Starting next week, we’ll be posting all of the content for our Read This Next title on Thursday. You’ll get the extended preview, the translator interview, and the review all at once, giving you plenty of material to read over the weekend . . .

We were planning on implementing this change this week, but, well, since I was responsible for most of it, we’re a day behind. (So typical, I know.)

Anyway, this week’s book is The Splendor of Portugal by Antonio Lobo Antunes, one of my personal favorite authors. Rhett McNeil translated this from the Portuguese, and Dalkey Archive Press is publishing it on September 20th.

This novel is one of Antunes’s best, and features four narrators: Carlos, Rui, and Clarisse, and their mom, Isilda. A once wealthy, prestigious family, everything fell apart for them in Angola during the War of Independence, and the three kids ended up returning to Portugal and leaving their mother behind. Most of the book takes place on Christmas Eve in 1995, as Carlos waits for his brother and sister to join him for dinner.

Click here to read an extended preview, which is from the middle of the book, and focuses on Rui, the challenged youngest son of this once well-to-do family. It’s a great section, and one that does a great job in illustrating Antunes’s unique style.

Also available is an interview with Rhett McNeil:

RM: I expected that the process of translating this book would be frustrating at times, given the complexity of the language, the constant repetitions with variation, the abrupt changes in narrative voice and story line, etc., but it was surprising to me how emotionally exhausting it was. As you say, this is an extremely dark book, in which hatred and regret and resentment permeate nearly every aspect of the characters’ lives, from the macro-level of the post-colonial political situation in war-torn Angola to the micro-level of the family and the individual psyche. For some reason, the act of bringing this stuff over into English, of saying these often hauntingly sad things for the first time in English, really took it out of me emotionally, even more than it had when I read the book. Perhaps grappling with the meaning and rhythm of each phrase (there aren’t really sentences in any proper sense in this book) and giving it some sort of tangible existence in English made me something of a co-conspirator with Antunes, giving linguistic reality to things that normally have only a vaguely defined, purposefully hidden existence in the dark recesses of consciousness. Certain phrases or images would stick with me for a few days as linguistic puzzles or experiments in literary form, as I tried to find the best way to express them in English; by the time I decided on a final form, the full import of the phrase, the aesthetic or emotional impact of a given image or line would hit home. The image of a child shot dead, collapsing into a “crumpled heap” on the ground, “like an overcoat slipping off the hook of a coat-stand,” for instance.

And finally, here is a link to a full review of the novel.

As I mention in the review, I actually just wrote a really long piece about Antunes for Quarterly Conversation—one that does a better job of discussion what’s most interesting about Antunes’s work. I’ll definitely post about that as soon as it’s published.

2 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Splendor of Portugal is the tenth book by Antonio Lobo Antunes to appear in English translation, and the seventh that I’ve reviewed. Which, in some ways, makes this difficult to write. Not to mention, I just wrote an epically long piece on Antunes for a forthcoming issue of Quarterly Conversation. It was one of those articles that I poured all my thoughts and ideas into.

But flipping through my marked up copy of Splendor of Portugal, which first came out in Portugal in 1997 and is coming out in Rhett McNeil’s caustic, accomplished English translation later this month, it’s pretty easy to get all excited and want to share the brilliance that is Antunes’s writing.

Of his more recent novels (and yes, I know that 1997 isn’t all that recent), Splendor of Portugal is one of the most accomplished and well-constructed. It’s got all components of a traditional Antunes book: vitriol against Portugal stemming from the Portuguese Colonial War, a solitary man too damaged to connect with his family and wife, a family that’s totally broken, all told in a polyvocal fashion that jumps around all over in time and place.

There are two primary plot lines grounding this novel. The first takes place on December 24, 1995 in Portugal, where Carlos—the oldest son of a once well-off family—waits for his brother and sister to join him for dinner. Of course, he hasn’t spoken to either them in fifteen years after having sent Rui, his emotionally challenged younger brother off to live in a home, and having chastising his sister for her taking of wealthy lover after wealthy lover. But, with his relationship with his wife all but dead, and a stash of unopened letters from his mom (the kids left her behind in Angola when they came back to Portugal), he decides to reach out to them.

Here’s a bit setting that up that also highlights the sort of “all at once” style Antunes uses throughout the book. Carlos is “talking” to his wife:

until the smoke dissipated, Lena reappeared little by little with her fingers outstretched toward the breadbasket

“You haven’t seen your siblings in fifteen years”

so that all of a sudden I was aware of the time that had passed since we arrived here from Africa, of the letters from my mother, first from the plantation and later from Marimba, four little huts on a hillside of mango trees

(I remember the regional administrator’s house, the store, the ruins of the barracks shipwrecked and sinking in the tall grass)

the envelopes that I kept in a drawer without showing anyone, without opening them, without reading them, dozens and dozens of dirty envelopes, covered with stamps and seals, telling me about things I didn’t want to hear, the plantation, Angola, her life [. . .]

His mother’s letters reflect the other main narrative thread, which recounts Isilda’s story in Angola after the kids leave, covering the period from July 24, 1978 through December 1995, when things go from bad to worse to even worse.

If this novel is about one thing, it’s about the complete falling apart of society, a family, one’s life. It is entropy written novel sized. It is bleak, occasionally funny in a sick way, and very poetic. As you can see in the quote above (or in the long excerpt at Read This Next) the punctuation is pretty damn unique, and the book just simply flows, pulling you into the heads of its various characters and throwing events from various points in time at you, along with phrases from other characters, minor forays into the consciousness of yet other characters, etc.

This sounds daunting, but as Rhett says in this week’s interview, it is a book that teaches you how to read it as you go along. Part of the fun of reading Antunes is being swept into his world, and puzzling things out as you go (like, who is Carlos’s real mom?).

The one drawback to this book—the same drawback to most of Antunes’s books—is that once he establishes his technique, it remains pretty much unchanged throughout the novel. Part of the brilliant of The Sound and the Fury is the range in tone and style between Benjy’s part and Jason’s. It’s like four completely different consciousnesses expressed on the page. In Antunes’s works, he frequently uses that general technique of having each character speak their piece, but they all do so in very similar ways. The content, the individual tragedies, are all unique, but the style of presentation doesn’t change from Carlos to Rui to Isilda to Clarisse. It’s an effective strategy, one that poetically paints the portrait of these four people, but it can come off as a limitation in a 500+ page book.

That all said, you should read this. And Fado Alexandrino, The Land at the End of the World, Act of the Damned, and The Inquisitors’ Manual. Antunes is one of the greatest living writers and it’s a fantastic situation that so many of his works are available in English.

27 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Grant Barber on António Lobo Antunes’s The Land at the End of the World, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and available from W.W. Norton.

Antunes is a long-time favorite of mine. I really love his novel Act of the Damned. And Fado Alexandrino. And The Natural Order of Things. And this book. Also very much looking forward to reading The Splendor of Portugal, which Dalkey Archive is bringing out this fall, and which arrived in the mail earlier this week.

Grant Barber is a regular reviewer for Three Percent. He’s an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston and, in his own words, “a keen bibliophile.” He’s also very interested in Spanish and Latin American literature, and mentioned in the past that he’d like to someday improve his Spanish and try his hand at translation.

Here’s the opening of his review:

Judas’s Asshole. Now that title would have stood out at Barnes and Noble. Think of the cover art possibilities.

Margaret Jull Costa explains that this original title of this novel, Os Cus de Judas, comes from a Portuguese colloquialism. When I moved to a town in the Northeast earlier in my life people called it “the armpit of America,” so I get the expression. While in the novel the narrator does call his base in wartime Angola “the land at the end of the world,” I suspect Antunes is aiming for a harsher connotation than is captured here (or in New Haven’s nickname).

This is Antunes’ second novel, one we’re told has been critically regarded as one of his best works. Because Antunes has covered some of the territory—psychiatrist narrator, Africa, in extremis—in later novels already translated and in English readers’ hands and minds, maybe the power of this work seems somehow less. Then too Antunes himself served his citizenship-mandated two years in the Portuguese Army as a physician/psychiatrist while his country was defending its last gasp hold on their colony in Angola. I at least can have the assumption that a second novel, the most autobiographical one, is a working-through of raw material, so that later works can take the energy, themes, metaphors and so forth into a more nuanced, digested, recollected-in-tranquility (although not much “tranquility” indicated here) achievement. I think these assumptions would all be mistakes. This novel is a powerful work of a unique wordsmith with important things to say.

Click here to read the entire review.

27 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Judas’s Asshole. Now that title would have stood out at Barnes and Noble. Think of the cover art possibilities.

Margaret Jull Costa explains that this original title of this novel, Os Cus de Judas, comes from a Portuguese colloquialism. When I moved to a town in the Northeast earlier in my life people called it “the armpit of America,” so I get the expression. While in the novel the narrator does call his base in wartime Angola “the land at the end of the world,” I suspect Antunes is aiming for a harsher connotation than is captured here (or in New Haven’s nickname).

This is Antunes’ second novel, one we’re told has been critically regarded as one of his best works. Because Antunes has covered some of the territory—psychiatrist narrator, Africa, in extremis—in later novels already translated and in English readers’ hands and minds, maybe the power of this work seems somehow less. Then too Antunes himself served his citizenship-mandated two years in the Portuguese Army as a physician/psychiatrist while his country was defending its last gasp hold on their colony in Angola. I at least can have the assumption that a second novel, the most autobiographical one, is a working-through of raw material, so that later works can take the energy, themes, metaphors and so forth into a more nuanced, digested, recollected-in-tranquility (although not much “tranquility” indicated here) achievement. I think these assumptions would all be mistakes. This novel is a powerful work of a unique wordsmith with important things to say.

The novel is grounded in the present, as the narrator sits in a Lisbon bar late at night, talking to a woman he plans later to take back to his seedy apartment for early morning sex. His means of seduction: a graphic, unvarnished recollection of his service in a back-lands army base in Angola ten years or so earlier. Three-quarters of the actual novel consists of these recollections, although by the conclusion the action has moved more into the present. Each short chapter contains paragraphs of long associational sentences. At its heart the effect is of past and present, inner and outer not collapsing together as much as mutually relating, informing.

I woke in the morning to the thunderous sky over the River Cuando and the thought It’s Christmas Day today, and saw in those same weary gestures the usual eternal Monday morning, the heat was running down my back in large, sticky, sweaty drops, and I said to myself, This can’t be right, there’s something wrong about all this, my oversize pajamas appeared to contain neither bones nor flesh and I felt that I no longer existed, my trunk, my limbs, my feet didn’t exist apart from a pair of blinking eyes staring, in surprise, at the plain and then, beyond the plain, at the accumulation of trees to the north, the direction from which the airplane always came, bringing fresh food and mail, I was just those two astonished, staring eyes, which I rediscover today in the bathroom mirror, looking older and duller after the initial shudder of my first pee, and shouting a silent plea at their own reflection, a plea that goes unanswered.

The past—childhood waits for Christmas morning in oversized pajamas (we know that the narrator sleeps naked in the African heat)—tied to the future by the same disembodied eyes. The narrator ties the political to the personal, segueing by naming the idealists of the world—the Che Guevaras and Allendes—in the same sentence and train of thought to the sex that he will soon have with his listener, one without illusions: to commit oneself to even the shadow of love will be to give into the futility of the idealist who scares the world to the point of martyrdom. He draws repeated analogies to the waste of the doomed war to the masturbatory routine that he shares with the other officers each night in their compound huts. His one connection to a native woman ends when the secret security force takes her away to a prison after gang-raping her.

The African woman becomes the country devastated by the colonialists. The newly-arrived narrator reacts to his first fatality by taking the body into his own hut, his own couch, and claiming to the curious orderly that the man is not dead, just napping; soon that corpse metaphorically expands as it putrefies to overtake the whole country. The woman in the bar—sweet talked into bed by graphic memories of fatal wounds, blood, viscera—becomes the face of a society which had condoned this war, and now lives in an enervated state. The narrator fails in his first attempt at coitus, only to have a “successful” second outcome after begging to try again, with his partner faking it. She will now put on make-up and the same clothes and go to work, exhausted by no sleep, the constant flow of alcohol, and the words: an the ordeal she has kept through the night. The woman reflects the country, the society, and the night her history.

But I make it all sound so cookie-cutter, when it is not. Antunes the psychoanalyst understands how metaphors grounded in the inner psyche (mostly id here, certainly no super-ego), and in the particulars of life—a man, a woman, personal histories and the specifics of reality—also weave in the culture, history, and traumas of society.

I’m not sure I can hear the news of an African—or Latin American or Middle Eastern—country dealing with the paroxysms of colonialist histories without flashing on this novel. Antunes in engaging the personal also does so with the political, in effective language which must have been both a challenge and satisfaction for Costa to have translated.

*

Addendum: I’d like to hear from translators—Costa, Wimmer, Grossman, all women—how they cope with engaging so intensely with texts that have such graphic and violent images of violence against women. It seems to me one thing to pick up a novel I’m interested in, which I can set back down or not continue; it is another to engage so deeply with a work, to get not just the word’s meaning, but also tone, nuance. I suspect it causes nightmares.

14 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I somehow missed it when this first appeared online, but here’s a link to my review of Antonio Lobo Antunes’s The Land at the End of the World, which has been newly translated by Margaret Jull Costa and brought out by W.W. Norton.

Antunes is one of my favorite authors, so expect Grant Barber’s full length review of this book to appear on this site in the next week, and I’ll be writing a much longer Antunes piece for the fall issue of Quarterly Conversation.

Back to the subject at hand, I just want to say that The Land at the End of the World is one of Antunes’s absolute best books. I also love Fado Alexandrino and Act of the Damned, but if you’re looking for a place to start with him, this one is probably the best.

You can read the whole review over at Bookforum’s website, but here’s a bit from it:

Antunes’s later novels—Act of the Damned and Fado Alexandrino in particular—are equal parts Céline and William Faulkner. The plots are more labyrinthine, the novels more polyphonic. It’s as if the kernel of Antunes’s rage has crystallized into a complex design, more nuanced in its depiction of Portuguese society, one that requires more engagement on the part of the reader to fully comprehend the tapestry of voices, plots, and viewpoints.

Which is why The Land at the End of the World is like reading Antunes’s novelistic template. It’s very straightforward: Over the course of an entire night, a psychiatrist/writer, back from the war, gets wasted in a bar while seducing a (silent) woman with his tales of anguish and hatred. It advances through a series of rants, grotesque metaphors, and repetitions that lay bare his shortcomings, while making him sympathetically bleak:

I think I lost her in the same way I lose everything, drove her away with my mood swings, my unexpected rages, my absurd demands, the anxious thirst for tenderness that repels affection and lingers, throbbing painfully, in the form of a mute appeal full of a prickly, irrational hostility.

9 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A couple weeks ago, J. Peder Zane asked me to contribute to his Top Ten Books project featuring top ten lists from a bunch of famous writers. I was going to do an all translations list, but ended up just listing ten of my favorite books since 1950. (And I’ll admit right now that this list is unstable. Within five minutes of sending it, I thought of 2-3 books I wished I would’ve included.)

I’m very honored to have been included in this, but what’s really cool are the brief summaries that Peder’s been posting about some of the books I mentioned.

First off, here’s one on Antonio Lobo Antunes’s Act of the Damned that includes a nice summary of the book:

Winner of the Portuguese Writers’ Association Grand Prize for Fiction, Act of the Damned is set during the tumultuous year of 1975. As the socialist revolution closes in, a once-wealthy Portuguese family is accused of “economic sabotage.” They must escape across the border to Spain, then on to Brazil – but the family is bankrupt, financially and spiritually. The patriarch, Diogo, lies dying, while his rapacious offspring rifle through his belongings, searching for his will. He remembers with bitterness and resignation his foolish marriage to his brother’s beautiful mistress, who left him with a mongoloid daughter and a simpleminded son, who at sixty is running toy trains past his father’s deathbed with the solemn self-importance of a five-year-old.

And then there’s this one on Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual which includes a brilliant appreciation by Arthur Phillips:

The first miracle: A novel built from a strictly limited construction – the description of one single moment in a Paris apartment building – blossoms into an encyclopedia of stories and life spanning centuries, the globe, the history of literature. The second miracle: A moving, humane novel composed of implausible, even impossible parts. Perec’s brainy puzzle-book somehow produces the exhilarating, alternating certainties that life is beautiful, cruel, sweet, meaningful.

“Life’s” hundred and some tales about the residents of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier sometimes slow to Proustian crawls, and a reader’s joy is in lounging, savoring every turn of phrase. A page later, though, Perec (almost audibly laughing) gallops us into insane plots of revenge, kleptomaniacal magistrates, intricate con games, a billionaire’s entire life spent on a single project, and the heiress’s egg collection, the destruction of which prompted the inaccurate painting, which later hung in . . .

Pictures within pictures, memories within memories, letters within letters, reflections of reflections, the novel represents the unachievable ambitions of the painter Valène, burning to accomplish on canvas what Perec actually did in text: a portrait of life in all its possibility, speed, variety, shimmer, impermanence, blindingly rich and achingly temporary.

Published in 1978, “Life” is infinitely entertaining, but it also can change how you see your surroundings; the wall between novel and world leaks.

(So definitely going to reread this sometime this summer.)

What’s also cool is this contest to win a free copy of Life:

The good people at David R. Godine will send two lucky Top Ten readers copies of “Life: A User’s Manual.” Here how it works. Construct a Top Ten List suggested by Perec’s novel – e.g. Top Ten Books About Paris, Top Ten Books About Painting, Top Ten Books About Apartment Living, Top Ten Books By Modern French Authors, etc. Email your list to jpederzane [at] jpederzane [dot] com by July 22. We will choose two winners (from people we don’t know) – and publish the best lists on the blog.

(Somehow today became a day of list making. But wait! I have something really fun coming in a minute . . . )

27 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [3]

Hard to say that the New York Times doesn’t review translations after this week . . . In addition to Kakutani’s possibly insane review of The Kindly Ones, this weekend’s Book Review includes articles on four works of literature in translation.

First off, Liesl Schillinger reviews the Melville House publication of Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which we’ll be covering in much more detail in the near future.

A signal literary event of 2009 has occurred, but if publishers had been more vigilant, it could have been a signal literary event in any of the last 60 years. This event is the belated appearance in English of the novel Every Man Dies Alone, the story of a working-class Berlin couple who took on the Third Reich with a postcard campaign intended to foment rebellion against Hitler’s Germany. Published in 1947, the book was written in 24 days by a prolific but psychologically disturbed German writer named Rudolf Ditzen, who spent a significant portion of his life in asylums (for killing a friend in a duel, for threatening his wife with a gun), in prison (for embezzling to finance his morphine habit) and in rehab. In spite of his precarious emotional state, he wrote more than two dozen books under the pen name Hans Fallada, which he took from Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Then there’s Dennis Overbye’s positive review of Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor, which was translated by Stephen Snyder, another Salzburg Seminar participant. Ogawa’s earlier book — The Diving Pool — was included on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist, and despite my rather tepid review, is worth checking out. I’m sure we’ll review this one sometime in the near future as well. And according to Stephen, the next book of Ogawa’s that Picador is publishing is the best of the bunch . . .

There’s also Clare Clark’s piece on Morten Ramsland’s Doghead, which has been compared in Europe to the work of John Irving:

Yet Doghead is a very different book from The World According to Garp, say, or A Prayer for Owen Meany. For all their eccentric habits and physical peculiarities, Irving’s characters are essentially realistic, capable of making a profound emotional connection with the reader. Ramsland’s are larger-than-life creations who go by a roll call of nicknames, among them Jug Ears, the Bath Plug and the Little Bitch. In the world of the Erikssons, life is shocking and childhood brutal. No one is to be trusted, family least of all. Rambunctious, often imaginative, invariably cruel, the stories rattle through a catalog of adultery, duplicity and casual violence. A father sells his son’s precious coin collection to buy booze. A mother hides the letters sent to her son by his distant love. A brother tapes his sister making out with her boyfriend in the room next door and shares the cassettes with his friends. None of these characters learn from their mistakes. Instead they run away from them. And those who stay make more.

Despite its earthy comedy, then, Doghead is ultimately a bleak book.

And last but not least is Floyd Skloot’s review of Antonio Lobo Antunes’s The Fat Man and Infinity and Other Writings. I wrote a very positive review of this for Quarterly Conversation (coming soon) and really hope that this book gets even more attention than What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire? did. It’s more accessible, and a great intro to Antunes’s world. Skloot’s review isn’t entirely positive, but he does sum up the sundry nature of the book pretty well:

Now, in The Fat Man and Infinity, he turns his attention inward, onto his own life and mind, his own experience of place and community. Neither traditional memoir nor in-depth analysis, it collects 107 brief chronicles from the weekly or biweekly columns Lobo Antunes has written for various publications, particularly the Portuguese newspaper O Público. The Fat Man and Infinity is a genuine miscellany, roughly half reminiscence or reflection and half very short fiction, that struggles to cohere. Detailed and often lyrical, it is best at offering moments of nostalgic charm.

I’m sure people will still jump on Tanenhaus for something, but this is a pretty solid issue . . . now, hopefully one of these weeks an Open Letter title will slip in there . . .

9 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.

What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire? by Antonio Lobo Antunes, translated from the Portuguese by Gregory Rabassa. (Portugal; W. W. Norton)

For years, Antonio Lobo Antunes has been one of my personal favorite authors, and Act of the Damned one of my all-time favorite books. So I was really excited when his most recent title — What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire? — made our Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist.

It’s also fantastic that Antunes won the 2008 Juan Rulfo Prize and honored at a ceremony that took place a couple weeks ago at the Guadalajara Book Fair.

Rather than describe this really inventive, hallucinatory, mesmerizing book myself (everyone should read this—it’s one of those books that teaches you how to grasp it as you read. And the way the incomplete sentences/thoughts/memories weave together is very musical and complicated in a gorgeously artistic way, despite the fact that a great amount of pain and suffering is at the heart of this novel), I thought it would be more interesting to published the introduction that Robert Weil of W. W. Norton—Antunes’s current English-language editor—gave at the recent Juan Rulfo ceremony:

It is tremendous honor to give this introduction on behalf of Antonio Lobo Antunes, whom I publish in the United States. Hailed as one of our greatest living writers, regarded by a burgeoning number of exuberant critics as the most brilliant novelist of his generation in Europe today, Antonio Lobo Antunes, has given us an astonishing body of work, well over 20 novels and memoirs. Prizes and literary accolades surely are impressive enough, but Lobo Antunes has more: that rarest of gifts – a genius to make us understand what it feels like to be human, to render both love and sorrow on the printed page. He is a man whose stories somehow enable us to transcend our own everyday existence, a man whose own search for compassion awakens the compassion that sleeps within all of us.

How do I describe Antonio Lobo Antunes’s writing? For those of you who have already had the thrill of reading him, you’ll know that his language will mesmerize, if not overwhelm your sensory system with an almost hallucinatory power. If literature were music, Antonio would be a composer of swirling symphonies, or intensely deep operas, with themes plucked from Verdi’s tragedies and soaring cadences resembling Wagner’s Gotterdammerung. For those of you who have not yet had the privilege of reading him, his books, suffused with the raw truth of everyday life, and often tinged with an inescapable feeling of sadness or loss, ring with a voice, a music that is his alone. His pages, you’ll discover, boil with seductive rhythms. His dazzling literary tropes and leit motifs define the very essence of this Portuguese master. Trust me, when you take the plunge, his language, will forever emblazon itself into your memory.

It is then not surprising that Lobo Antunes, born in Lisbon under Salazar’s dictatorship in September of 1942, yearned as a boy to be a poet. His novels, as much as they are stories, are also strings of poetic words, indescribably beautiful, that transcend the conventional forms of modern fiction. Each is, in fact, a rare necklace worth beholding. In reading his novels, be it early ones like Memoria de elefante or Os Cus de Judas, or a more recent one like Que farei quando tudo arde?, we discover breathtaking phrases and somersaulting paragraphs that prove Lobo Antunes has a sorcerer’s ability to bend and twist the rules of time: he can retrieve the universal memories of a childhood lost; compress time or make it stand still; exhume the murky past and graft it seamlessly onto the present as if it had never gone away. He replicates the wild and unpredictable patterns of human consciousness right there on the page, not the way, say, a Victorian novelist like Henry James might want to harness the unruliness of life in a lady’s corset. No, Lobo Antunes presents life just as the brain really perceives things: memory and imagination, cognition and literature, suddenly collide and merge into one.

Read More...

3 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Tomorrow morning we will unveil the 25 works of fiction that made the “Best Translated Book of the Year” longlist, but as a prelude, I thought I’d highlight a few titles that didn’t make it and a couple of magazines that deserve some special recognition.

A twenty-five title longlist might seem like a lot, but it was actually pretty difficult to choose the 25 best fiction titles from all of the great works of international fiction that came out this year. And inevitably a few worthy titles had to be left off. Arguments could be made for any number of titles that didn’t make it, but the ones I think deserve honorable mention are:

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions). Ferrante’s first book, Days of Abandonment really put Europa Editions on the map, and this book is really good as well.

Knowledge of Hell by Antonio Lobo Antunes, translated from the Portuguese by Cliff Landers (Dalkey Archive). Martin Riker of Dalkey Archive said that this was one of the best translations Dalkey published this year, and that it is a “really intricate, sophisticated piece of translating. The book is very complicated, and I completely agree that Cliff did a remarkable job with this.

The Tsar’s Dwarf by Peter Fogtdal, translated from the Danish by Tiina Nunnally (Hawthorne Books). Joanna Scott blurbed this book, saying “There’s a potent mix of heartbreak and hilarity in this vividly imagined novel . . . The dwarf Sorine is completely spellbinding.” Larissa Kyzer agreed in the review she did for us.

To Siberia by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born (Graywolf). Out Stealing Horses, last year’s breakout novel for Petterson—and in some sense for Graywolf as well—was a finalist for the Best Translated Book award. There’s more Petterson to come — Graywolf is doing I Curse the River of Time, which is a finalist for this year’s Nordic Prize — so he’ll have more chances.

The most beautifully designed book that didn’t make the longlist has to be Bohumil Hrabal’s Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp, translated from the Czech by David Short (Karolinum Press). The book itself sounds fantastic—“On its surface a verbatim record of an oral interview conducted by Hungarian journalist László Szigeti, the book confuses and confounds with false starts, digressions, and philosophical asides.”—and although you can’t tell from the online image, the book itself is very sharp and the pages are very creamy (as fellow panelist Jeff Waxman called them).

If the year actually started in October 2007, sexoPUROsexoVELOZ and Septiembre by Dolores Dorante would’ve definitely made the poetry list. It was translated by Jen Hofer and published by Counterpath, one of the most interesting new presses out there. Steve Dolph is a huge fan of this book—if only its publication had been delayed a few months . . .

In terms of magazines, Absinthe, Calque, and Two Lines are three of the most impressive translation-oriented publications out there. (Along with Words Without Borders, of course.) All three are well edited, filled with exciting content, and beautifully produced. I especially like the unique size and shape of Two Lines. Not to mention a subscription to any one of these would make a fantastic holiday present . . . Just saying.

That’s it for now. Tomorrow we’ll release the complete longlist . . .

10 September 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Complete Review pointed this out as well, but the Independent has an article by Elizabeth Nash about the latest Saramago book, The Elephant’s Journey:

Portugal’s Nobel Literature laureate Jose Saramago has announced the completion of his latest work “The Elephant’s Journey”, based on the real-life epic journey of an Indian elephant named Solomon who travelled from Lisbon to Vienna in the 16th century.

Saramago’s achievement marks a rebirth for the veteran writer, 86, whose flagging health, for which he received hospital treatment late last year, sounded alarm bells in the literary world.

The author describes the book as “a story rather than a novel”. It will be published shortly in Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan, and opens with the line: “However incongruous it may seem . . .”

This sounds pretty promising, and will hopefully be translated into English in the next year or so.

In other Portuguese literary news, the latest Antonio Lobo Antunes book What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire? is now available in bookstores everywhere. I started reading this the other day and am pretty amazed. It’s a bleak book, but the style is incredible and innovative. At first glance, it looks like a prose poem, with lines abruptly breaking off, voices from various characters and times intruding on the protagonist’s consciousness, sudden italics. But as you start to read it, things become clear (or at least comprehensible) very quickly, and this strange style creates a nicely textured novel.

6 June 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the eighth Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website.

Feverish and hallucinatory, this early novel of Antunes centers around a psychiatrist who participated in the war between Portugal and Angola and hates the practice of psychiatry. Very intense, vitriolic, and occasionally funny (well, at least in one section), this novel is very representative of Antunes, especially early in his career before he became more comfortable with varying his tone, working in more black humor, etc.

I wrote a full review of this back when it came out, and stand by my statement that it’s not his best book. (This recent review in Quarterly Conversation echoes those sentiments. It really is like Faulkner without the funny.)

Ben Lytal’s review in the New York Sun is more forgiving:

But finally, in the long haul of Mr. Antunes’s demanding and effectively overwritten screed, we realize that his narrator is hallucinating, flopping from one memory to the other with such radical accompanying sensory disorientation for the sheer bitter irony of it. To go a little crazy: It’s his ultimate rebellion against psychiatry — or at least it’s his weekend release. Typically Portuguese, perhaps, the literary art of Mr. Antunes turns his point-blank negativity into a refined, self-consuming protest: the psychological novel that can’t believe in itself.

Nevertheless, Antunes is an amazing writer—one of the most important Portuguese writers of all-time, and one of the most talented working today.

There is another book of Antunes’s coming out this fall— What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire? which is coming out from W.W. Norton in September. And as a special bonus, Antunes is going to be coming to America for the first time in years. He’s going to be in New York—at NYU and the NY Public Library, I believe—around September 22nd, and will be in Washington D.C. on the 26th. I’ll post more about this—including the flap copy—in the near future, after I start reading the book. . . .

22 May 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In addition to Bolano’s 2666, the other big (in every sense of the word) galley I’ve been waiting for is Antonio Lobo Antunes’s What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire?, which is due out in September from W.W. Norton.

Well, it arrived yesterday:

It’s only 585 pages long and is prefaced with a “Dramatis Personae” and maps of the Lisbon region and the city itself in order to help orient readers.

I’m one of those people (and there really are quite a few), who feel that Antunes should’ve won the Nobel over Saramago. His books are more dense, complicated, and “challenging” than Saramago’s, but also have a wider range of style and tone. He’s a very rewarding writer, who writes in the Joyce/Faulkner vein. (In fact there’s a quote on the back of this galley from George Steiner claiming that Antunes is the “heir to Conrad and Faulkner.” His books are also frequently compared to those of Dos Passos and Celine.)

Here’s the jacket description:

The razor-thin line between reality and madness is transgressed in this Faulknerian masterpiece, Antonio Lobo Antunes’s first novel to appear in English in five years. [sic — see Knowledge of Hell ] What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire?, set in the steamy world of Lisbon’s demimonde—a nightclub milieu of scorching intensity and kaleidoscopic beauty, a baleful planet populated by drag queens, clowns, and drug addicts—is narrated by Paolo, the son of Lisbon’s most legendary transvestite, who searches for his own identity as he recalls the harrowing death of his father, Carlos; the life of Carlos’s lover, Rui, a heroin addict and suicide; as well as the other denizens of this hallucinatory world. Psychologically penetrating, pregnant with literary symbolism, and deeply sympathetic in its depiction of society’s dregs, Lobo Antunes’s novel ventriloquizes the voices of the damned in a poetic masterwork that recalls Joyce’s Ulysses with a dizzying farrago of urban images few readers will forget.

I promise to review this without a single mention of Joyce or Faulkner . . . And now I’m seriously booked in terms of my reading through the end of the year . . .

3 April 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is the first of two Antonio Lobo Antunes reviews we’ll be posting over the next couple months. (The other being What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire? forthcoming from W.W. Norton.)

I’ve been a fan of Antunes’s for years, and since this review is a bit mixed (it really is a great achievement, it’s just that some of his later books are stronger) I thought it would be useful to write out my personal ranking of the books of his that have been translated into English.

At the top of the list is Act of the Damned followed by The Inquisitors’ Manual, then The Natural Order of Things, The Return of the Caravels, and finally An Explanation of the Birds. Fado Alexandrino is also available, and I’m hoping to read this over the next few months. (It’s a big book that, unfortunately, is designed in such a way—oversized, text crammed on every page—that isn’t all that inviting . . . And speaking of unappealing things, I really wish this author page on Grove’s website had been redesigned sometime in the past decade. Yikes. Really doing an “obscure” foreign author no favors.)

3 April 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Antonio Lobo Antunes’s books contain many of the things that are fantastic about contemporary literature; at the same time, these books exemplify a lot of the traits that scare people off from literature in translation.

This may sound stupid, but even his name is a problem. Where to shelve it in the bookstore—under “Lobo”? under “Antunes”? (Antunes is correct, although I’ve found his titles in both places in a countless number of stores.) But it’s the text itself that poses the most problems to American readers:

The sea of the Algarve is made of cardboard like theater scenery, and the English don’t realize it: they conscientiously spread their towels on the sawdust sand, protect themselves with dark glasses from the paper sun, stroll enthralled on the stage of Albufeira where public employees disguised as carnival barkers, squatting on the ground, inflict on them Moroccan necklaces secretly manufactured by the tourism board, and end the afternoon by anchoring in artificial esplanades, where they’re served make-believe drinks in nonexistent glasses that leave in the mouth the flavorless taste of the whiskey furnished the actors on television dramas. After the Alentejo [. . .]

The opening sentence is almost baiting . . . not only is it a pointed critique of English tourist constructed out of a seemingly endless series of clauses, on a more basic level the references to Algarve, Albufeira and Alentejo are immediately disorienting to most American (at least) readers. But place names are just the first layer of obstacles an average reader is faced with—next up are the references to the Angolan war. This war plays a huge role in many of Antunes’s books, due in part to the fact that Antunes himself was a veteran of this war, which really was a mess. After one gets their historical bearings (the Angola War of Independence lasted from 1961-74 ending after a leftist military coup took place in Lisbon) a reader still has to figure out what’s going on, since Antunes’s narrator (named Antonio Lobo Antunes) mashes together events from the Angolan war with his work as a psychiatrist at a Lisbon mental institution with the present moment of his drive back from the southern coast to Portugal’s capital city with very few linguistic indicators (at least at the beginning) as to where you are.

In other words, this isn’t the easiest of books to approach. Yet, a bit of patience and outside research opens up Antunes’s labyrinthine, carefully wrought sentences, which draw the reader into the shattered world of a man recovering from a broken marriage who has journeyed through “hell” (aka the mental institution) and is trying to get his shit together. For me, in the second chapter when all of this clicked into place, I immediately fell in love with the book, with its complicated structure and feverish rhythms.

Aside from Fado Alexandrino, I’ve read all the Antunes books translated into English, gotten readers reports on the rest, and helped acquire this while I was at Dalkey. (Although Clifford Landers’s exquisite translation didn’t arrive until after I’d left, so this is the first time I’ve read the book.) So to be honest, I’m predisposed to appreciate this novel.

This was Antunes’s third novel, part of an ill-defined psychiatric trilogy that also includes Memória de Elefante and Os Cus de Judas. It was originally written in 1980 (though most reviews are citing 1983—not sure where that came from) and is very raw. There’s a moment around page 100 where we get a glimpse of the books Antunes will come to write.

It’s during a flashback to the mental hospital times, when a young groom arrives begging to be admitted as insane. See, he’s run away from his wedding because he’s already married with children and terrified of the consequences from all various parties. Of course, the family of the bride figures this all out—his former marriage, his escape to the asylum—and the bride’s mother goes into a six-page monologue describing the situation in a wildly energetic, often hilarious fashion that’s almost impossible to excerpt seeing how tied into itself every line is.

“This is a disgrace, doctor. We’ve been waiting at the Sao Jorge castle since eleven o’clock, the bride’s family came all the way from Torres Novas for it, you know, even a major, even a judge are there, people of position, people of influence, and him calling every half hour from one place and another, Don’t worry, I’m on my way, I’ve been looking for the best man, the best man forgot his ID at home, the man at the Registry has diarrhea, he stopped for a beer and I’m here waiting, it’ll just be a minute, and us believing it in good faith, don’t you worry I’m on my way, and us in our innocence swallowing it all, some photographs were taken with the peacocks, you could see the river, people chatted [. . .] the bride’s brothers went looking for him, one of them was even going to be a priest and owns an appliance store and he went too in spite of his ulcer, he’s very sensitive and can’t get upset, any little thing and he starts spewing blood, they searched his room, found out he was married and living with a trollop and three children behind the slaughterhouse, an old building with kitchen access, the poor bride fainted, if she doesn’t go off her rocker from grief it’ll be a miracle ’cause I’ve seen it happen over less [. . .]

There are a group of writers Antunes is frequently compared to: Celine, Dos Passos, and most obvious (to me), Faulkner. But he’s all of these writers and then something else. He’s Faulkner secure in his humor. A jangly, frenetic Faulkner. A Celine who cares even more about people. And it is care that’s at the center of this novel. It is Antunes’s questioning of psychiatric practices that drives the “plot” and hallucinatory descriptions.

This burning, questioning hatred of psychiatry fuels this book, but is also one of the reasons that, unfortunately, this novel is second-tier Antunes. The fire is too consuming, too all-encompassing, and it’s as if the section quote above is the only time that Antunes took a breath. (That and the bits addressed to the narrator’s daughter Joanna.) This is a worthwhile book—it’s intense, it’s captivating, and very cinematic—but if you’ve never read Antunes, I’d recommend starting with Act of the Damned and circling around to this later.

Knowledge of Hell
by Antonio Lobo Antunes
298 pages, $13.95
978-1-56478-436-0
Dalkey Archive Press

....
My Brilliant Friend
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Reviewed by Acacia O'Connor

It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .

Read More >

Stealth
Stealth by Sonallah Ibrahim
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .

Read More >

Miruna, a Tale
Miruna, a Tale by Bogdan Suceavă
Reviewed by Alta Ifland

Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .

Read More >

Kamal Jann
Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .

Read More >

I Called Him Necktie
I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.

Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see. . .

Read More >

Return to Killybegs
Return to Killybegs by Sorj Chalandon
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .

Read More >

The Last Days
The Last Days by Laurent Seksik
Reviewed by Peter Biellp

Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.

It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then. . .

Read More >