14 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

And here’s the final post in the “Why This Book Should Win” series for the 2014 BTBA fiction longlist. I’ll post a handy guide to all of these posts later this afternoon, but for now just enjoy Bromance Will (aka Will Evans, the founder and director of Deep Vellum) wax enthusiastic for his favorite book from the past year.

Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter (Archipelago Books)

The past is everything, the future nothing, and time has no other meaning.

I won’t play games, there are no secret agendas here: Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter and published by the incomparably amazing independent publisher Archipelago Books, should win the 2014 Best Translated Book Award for two reasons, both of which fulfill whichever the criteria of what a “best translated book” should be: 1) it is the best book I read in the last year; and 2) it is the best work of translation, the work of a genius author translated by a genius translator, I read in the last year. Not only is it a damn good book, which I’ll get into below, but it’s the best damn translation by the best damn translator in the game: Dr. Sean Cotter.

What every person had intuited at some point in their lives somehow, suddenly, became clear: that reality is just a particular case of unreality, that we all are, however concrete we may feel, only the fiction of some other world, a world that creates and encompasses us . . .

I suppose I should write a disclaimer: Sean Cotter is a friend. He lives in the Dallas area, where I live. We frequently eat at Mediterranean buffets together. I’ve put together readings for him in town. I trumpet the cause of Sean Cotter. This may make you think I’m biased towards him, but that’s not entirely true. The reason I do all of these things and the reason why I am even writing this piece is not because I’m friends with Sean Cotter but rather that I’m Sean Cotter believer. I believe in this man’s talent as a translator that transcends your earthly opinions of human relationships and whatever notion of bias means in this instance. When I sit with him at lunch I basically just ask him how the hell he could actually manage to translate this beast of a novel, and even after he’s explained it to me over and over again I’m still in awe.

What every person had intuited at some point in their lives somehow, suddenly, became clear: that reality is just a particular case of unreality, that we all are, however concrete we may feel, only the fiction of some other world, a world that creates and encompasses us . . .

But back to the book itself—Blinding is a masterpiece. It was an instant bestseller when it appeared in Romania (God bless the Romanians). Blinding first book in a trilogy that takes the form of a butterfly tracing out the history of Cărtărescu’s family history: the full title of book one is Blinding: The Left Wing. The other two books, as yet untranslated, include book two, “The Body,” and book three, “The Right Wing.” The left wing of the butterfly-novel is the history, or rather, the legend, of Cărtărescu’s mother; the right wing tells the story of his father; the body is about the author himself. It’s an imaginative format, and is made apparent to the reader throughout the novel by the central figure/motif/metaphor/symbol/icon of the butterfly that links all of the stories taking place across time/space. Chapters alternate in narrative points of view and throughout the history of Cărtărescu’s mother and her ancestors, from the narrator philosophizing about the nature of our existence in this universe sitting in his room overlooking Bucharest’s skyline in the present day to magical stories of gypsies and resurrected zombies in rural 19th-century (or before?!) Romanian hinterlands, to WWII-era Bucharest and its bombed-out aftermath under the Soviet stooge government.

Space is Paradise and time is inferno. How strange it is that, like the emblem of bipolarity, in the center of a shadow is light, and that light creates shadows. After all, what else is memory, this poisoned fountain at the center of the mind, this center of paradise? Well-shaft walls of tooled marble shaking water green as bile, and its bat-winged dragon standing guard? And what is love? A limpid, cool water from the depths of sexual hell, an ashen pearl in an oyster of fire and rending screams? Memory, the time of the timeless kingdom. Love, the space of the spaceless domain. The seeds of our existence, opposed yet so alike, unite across the great symmetry, and annul it through a single great feeling: nostalgia.

The complex layout of the novel isn’t so complex when you read it, I swear, it is fun and breathtaking and will carry you away in the epic sweep of very sentence. I can’t tell you what happens in the novel, because there is no plot per se, unless you describe in the terms I attempted to above: the novel is Cărtărescu’s creation myth for his mother’s side of the family; the mythmaker, the storyteller, is the axis of the many stories that spoke out from his mind into a work of beautiful, complex genius.

I remember, that is, I invent. I transmute the ghosts of moments into weighty, oily gold.

In a year of stiff competition, including from Archipelago’s other leading candidate for the BTBA, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book TwoBlinding stands apart as a work that transcends the intimate thoughts of the central male narrator and expands a vision of reality to include all dimensions of time and space. Seriously, it’s a wild read. And it’s weird to see Knausgaard compared to Proust, when Knausgaard’s My Struggle reminds me far more of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, you live fully inside the minutiae of mundane daily existence wherein the narrator making his way through the world. Cărtărescu is far more akin to Proust in that he traces out the full extents of what the human mind and its capacity for memory can contain and create at once: the brain is a dangerous tool, and the weapon of memory can destroy us even as it liberates us out of the mundanity of our existence. Memory is everything, and you have the power to create memories out of nothing. Blinding is an experiment in memory-creation. Mythmaking is memory-creation. Memory is power. Memory is existence.

You do not describe the past by writing about old things, but by writing about the haze that exists between yourself and the past. I write about the way my present brain wraps around my brains of smaller and smaller crania, of bones and cartilage and membranes . . . the tension and discord between my present mind and my mind a moment ago, my mind ten years ago . . . their interactions as they mix with each other’s images and emotions. There’s so much necrophilia in memory! So much fascination for ruin and rot! It’s like being a forensic pathologist, peering at liquefied organs!

I read a lot of translations by a lot of translators but the fact of the matter is the Blinding is a perfect reminder of the importance of world literature being translated into English as the ability to expand not only our artistic consciousness and understanding of the world but blowing apart the very limits of our own reality. I volunteered to write this piece because I read Blinding and it blew my mind into a zillion pieces, it is wholly unlike any other novel I have ever read, so unique and refreshing that I now see the world in new ways, and that’s why I read books in the first place, and the fact is that it is so miraculously wrought a novel that I cannot help but write a piece extolling the translator’s talents in rendering the weirdest turns of phrases and run-on sentences that mark the genius Cărtărescu’s work into a breathtakingly original English that extends the limits of what we imagine our own native language—our own native minds—can fathom.

Under my skin, tensioned and fresh, run tendons that activate the levers of my fingers. And my fingers move, because we do not doubt ourselves. Because what flows within the borders of our skin is not only blood, lymph, hormones, and sugar: more importantly, our belief flows.

Sean’s translation is imaginative and creative, fearless and flawless. He has captured the manic, mad majesty of Cărtărescu’s mind as they trace the fantastical branches of Cărtărescu’s family tree and the labyrinthine shadows of Bucharest so lovingly described throughout centuries of history—which is the history of Cărtărescu himself, his ancestors, his family, his city, and his active, whirlwind imagination. There has never been anything written in the English language to prepare you for the originality of vision and language that you will find within the pages of Blinding.

What else would I be but a neuron, with a brain as my cellular body, spinal marrow as my axons, and nerves as my numberless dendrites? A spiderweb that feels only what touches it. Yes, each of us have a single neuron within us, and humanity is a dissipated brain that strives desperately to come together. And I wonder, quaking inside, whether the Last Judgment and the resurrection of the dead are nothing more than this: the extraction of this neuron from every person that ever lived, their evaluation, and the rejection of the unviable into the wailing and gnashing of teeth, and construction of an amazing brain—new, universal, blinding—from the perfect neurons, and with this brain we will climb, unconscious and happy, onto a higher level of the fractal of eternal Being.

Blinding should win the 2014 Best Translated Book Award because it is the best book of the year, and Sean should win the first ever back-to-back BTBA award for a translator because he is a master of the English language and brought Cărtărescu into my mind. Into our minds. Into our collective consciousness. Into our collective memory. And for that he should be awarded eternal life. Legend.

2 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Christopher Iacono on Wilma Stockenström’s The Expedition to the Baobab Tree, forthcoming in April from Archipelago Books.

Chris is a writer, copy editor, and proofreader from Methuen, MA; he also runs the Good Coffee Book Blog, and has a new coffee mug that aptly describes my state of mind earlier this morning (Rochester was greeted to 6’ of snow this morning—the light, fluffy kind that makes you want to sleep in, skip the office, and slink out to the closest bunny hill for some maximally not-death-defying boarding. And by “you” I mean “Kaija,” particularly re that last part).

Since many of you are also probably back in the office this week and looking for inconspicuous ways to waste some time until you’ve fully recovered from whatever it is you do during the holiday stretch, why not read Chris’s review on a book about an ex-slave who lives in a tree and talks to herself? WELCOME TO 2014, EVERYONE! First review of the year! FIRST. DIBS. Here’s the beginning of his review:

In the beginning of The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Afrikaans author Wilma Stockenström, the narrator, a former slave, walks on the path from the hollow trunk of the baobab tree in which she dwells to a water source that she shares with animals. As she collects her water using two “gifts” (a clay pot and an ostrich egg used for a scoop), she considers the journey that brought her to the African veld where she now resides:

If I cannot even know everything on the short walk from the entrance to the baobab to the heap of potsherds and other finds, so many steps there, so many back, what of my journey, which sometimes feels as if it took a lifetime and still lasts, still goes on, even if now I am traveling in circles around one place?

This journey began when she was forced into slavery as a girl. After being sold to different owners over the years, she became part of a failed expedition that brought her to the veld. However, as she observes in the quote above, the journey has not yet ended, in spite of the fact she has now made her home inside the tree. But instead of traveling to a different place, she exhibits the toll her experiences have had on her psyche as her lyrical descriptions of the landscape and the animals that wander through it are eventually overpowered by her imagination.

For the rest of the review, and to have a great 2014, click here.

2 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In the beginning of The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Afrikaans author Wilma Stockenström, the narrator, a former slave, walks on the path from the hollow trunk of the baobab tree in which she dwells to a water source that she shares with animals. As she collects her water using two “gifts” (a clay pot and an ostrich egg used for a scoop), she considers the journey that brought her to the African veld where she now resides:

If I cannot even know everything on the short walk from the entrance to the baobab to the heap of potsherds and other finds, so many steps there, so many back, what of my journey, which sometimes feels as if it took a lifetime and still lasts, still goes on, even if now I am traveling in circles around one place?

This journey began when she was forced into slavery as a girl. After being sold to different owners over the years, she became part of a failed expedition that brought her to the veld. However, as she observes in the quote above, the journey has not yet ended, in spite of the fact she has now made her home inside the tree. But instead of traveling to a different place, she exhibits the toll her experiences have had on her psyche as her lyrical descriptions of the landscape and the animals that wander through it are eventually overpowered by her imagination.

The narrator (none of the characters are named) starts out by describing her life in the veld. She tries to keep track of the days by using green and black beads that she finds, although she later uses them in a more haphazard manner. She also “competes with animals” for scarce food that only makes her sick. Finally, she admits that to get through her days in the veld, sleep is “the dense solution,” and only when she wakes does she feel a sense of empowerment. “Imperiously I stand now and gaze out over the veld, and every time I step outside the world belongs to me. Every time I step out from the protecting interior of the tree I am once again a human being and powerful . . .”

This sense is quite a sharp contrast from her time as a slave. Despite her claims at the beginning that she is “ignorant” and “stupid,” she actually shows some intelligence, but her status as a slave prevents her from ever thriving beyond the confines that others have forced upon her. For example, her first owner was only interested in deflowering her and sold her as soon as she gave birth to a child, which was later taken away. Her second owner, a spice merchant, made her “toil with a pick and hoe in the garden in the murderous heat” during the day while living under the threat of having her tongue cut out. Her third owner, whom she called her “benefactor,” showed her signs of tenderness that were undermined by a bad reputation.

After the benefactor’s death, she tried to run away but was captured along with other slaves who were eventually massacred. As she relives the moment she spoke to these slaves, she discusses the fear that has remained with her all this time.

I told them all I knew about my origins. Humbly I offered them the scanty history. My facts I patched together as they occurred to me, my memory of a journey with fear the starting point and fear the end point. I was well grounded in the knowledge of fear. I had felt him in my blood vessels, for he had come to live in me and I had begun to smell like him, and with his eyes I had seen forests and plains shift by poisonous and distorted; with his ears I had listened, and there was a growling, and even the stillness rumbled, and there was bitterness in my cheeks. Oh, fear is by no means whatsoever a connoisseur of events. He gobbles up everything. He crushes everything. He leaves no bloody trail behind because he stands still. Everything comes from him, feels drawn to him, and he knows it.

Later, she goes with the benefactor’s eldest son on an expedition to try to expand his late father’s business, an expedition she calls “fantastical” and “stupidly romantic.” On the journey, she keeps close to her final owner, a man known as “the stranger.” However, things start to go awry during the expedition: leaders fight among themselves, cattle disappear. Eventually, the narrator finds herself without the protection of the stranger.

Instead, the tree becomes her only protection; it not only provides her shelter from the elements, but also becomes her confidant. As she recounts the story of that fateful expedition, she wishes she could write, so she could “scratch [the tree’s] enormous belly from top to bottom.” “Thus I decorate you line after line with our hallucinations so that you can digest, outgrown, make smooth this ridiculousness, preserve the useless information in your thick skin till the day of your spontaneous combustion . . . You are full of my scars, baobab. I did not know I had so many.”

Thanks to Stockenström’s rich language (wonderfully translated by award-winning novelist J. M. Coetzee) and brilliant use of symbolism, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is a heartbreaking story about what we stand to lose as humans, and about how what we stand to lose can never be returned. While the novel is not exactly a fable, Stockenström does incorporate elements from that genre in her story, not only by using animals for important aspects of the story, but also by eschewing names to show that, in the end, we are all part of the same human race. Finally, like the fables of the past, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree provides a moral: Regardless of our social status, the impact we cause on other humans lingers for a long time.

28 August 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Julio Cortázar, one of the greatest writers ever,1 was born on August 26, 1914, and to celebrate the week of his birthday, Archipelago Books, one of the greatest presses ever, is offering a 25% discount on all three of the Cortázar books that they publish. Just insert “HOPSCOTCH13,” a code based on one of the greatest books ever written, at the checkout to get the discount.

Here’s a bit more info about the three Cortázar titles that Archipelago publishes:

Autonauts of the Cosmoroute

The concept behind Autonauts of the Cosmoroute is so perfectly Cortazarian in its gamelike setup: Julio Cortazar and his companion Carol Dunlop decide to spend an entire month in 1982 living on the freeway between Paris and Marseille (the “Southern Thruway,” which was the name and topic of an earlier Cortazar story), stopping at two rest stops each day and staying overnight at the second. With only 490 miles separating Paris and Marseilles, they don’t actually drive for very long on any given day. Using words and pictures, they create a scientific account of their journey, their thoughts, their experiences, of living life in a Volkswagen bus at a snail’s pace, discovering the secret pathway right next to this modern creation designed to be experienced at a blur.

It’s a mad idea, but not without it’s charm. [. . .]

Autonauts of the Cosmoroute is a strange book—not just in terms of Cortazar’s oeuvre, but in general. It’s a book to be cherished over a series of days, read leisurely, without trying to tease out any big themes, or gain any great insights. It’s a book shot through with nostalgia, conveying a longing for a simpler time, for a month in the “country” experimenting with a new way to live and truly creating a special experience for these two people. There is an undercurrent of sadness running throughout, and for good reason: in the prologue, Cortazar’s “illness” is mentioned (he reportedly died of leukemia in 1984), and at the very end, Dunlop has passed away and Cortazar is editing the book by himself. This is a special book, definitely worth reading, one that will alter your view of highways forever.

(From the review I wrote for Quarterly Conversation.)

From the Observatory

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 [no longer available online] 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.

(From this Three Percent review.)

The Diary of Andres Fava

The jacket copy:

Andrés Fava is a character from Cortázar’s Final Exam, and his diary originally formed part of that novel, written in 1950 but not published (for political reasons) until after the author’s death. At some point, Cortázar decided Fava’s diary should stand on its own as an independent work.

While Final Exam is mostly dialogue, Diary of Andrés Fava is all reflection: on his reading, dreams, conversations and writing. This unpredictable collection is peppered with quotes from French poets and American jazzmen. Bemused and melancholy, erudite and searching, this first-time English translation of Diario de Andrés Fava is full of autobiographical winks at the reader. Cortázar’s brilliance and irreverence are in full flower.

So head here now and buy them all . . .

1 After I get my hyphellipses tattoo—which I’ve been talking about for literally ever—I want a “62” somewhere in honor of Cortázar’s 62: A Model Kit.

6 May 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If you use the Facebook or the Twitter, you probably already know this, but the 2013 Best Translated Book Awards were handed out on Friday as part of the PEN World Voices/CLMP “Literary Mews” series of events.1 And you probably know that Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stanescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter and published by Archipelago Books and Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes and published by New Directions were the two winners for poetry and fiction, respectively.

Thanks to underwriting from Amazon.com, George Szirtes, Sean Cotter, László Krasznahorkai, and Nichita Stanescu will each receive a $5,000 cash prize.

I want to personally thank Jill McCoy of the European Society of Authors for kicking off the event by talking about Finnegan’s List and to Esther Allen for adding some thoughtful and interesting comments (as is to be expected, I mean, duh, it’s Esther Allen). Also, a large Internet round of applause should go out to Bill Martin and Michael Orthofer for making the actual announcements—thanks guys!

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the two titles, here’s a bit more info:

Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes and published by New Directions

And from Bromance Will’s2 write-up of why this book should win:

Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango takes a look at evil in its everyday forms. Satantango is a diabolical novel, a bleak, haunting, hypnotic, philosophical, black comedic deconstruction of apocalyptic messianism. Translated flawlessly by George Szirtes, Hungarian poet and translator of renown, the story of Satantango‘s appearance in English is so miraculous, and the end result so perfect, from the gorgeous first edition hardcover that New Directions released, to the quality of the translation inside, that it is clear: Satantango deserves to win the BTBA. [. . .]

Though the film version is nearly seven hours long, Satantango is by far the shortest and easiest Krasznahorkai novel to digest of the three published in English by New Directions thus far. Though the sentences are long and there are no paragraph breaks in each chapter, as per Krasznahorkai’s unique style, the narrative pace is brisk, with a black comedy underlying the character’s thoughts and actions, or rather, lack of actions. Set up in a cycle of twelve chapters that progress from I-VI, then backwards from VI-I, with the eponymous Satan’s tango in the middle, the story tells of a wretched collective farm fallen into a hapless state of disrepair that suddenly perks up with life when word gets to the inhabitants that the mysterious and enigmatic Irimiás was coming back.

Irimiás had left the collective farm some years before, promising great change upon his return, but when we meet him and his sidekick, Petrina, the pair are plotting to return to the farm to wreak havoc under the direction of an unnamed, evil government bureaucracy. The inhabitants had been waiting for the day when their messiah, Irimiás, would return to deliver them from their squalor to a brighter future, unaware that Irimiás is a false prophet, who despises them and will bring them only to their doom.

If you haven’t read this, buy it NOW. There is a paperback version coming out soon, but god damn is the hardback gorgeous. Buy it because quality printed books are somewhat of a rarity and should be preserved and glorified.

*

Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stanescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter, and published by Archipelago Books.

And from judge Russell Valentino’s write-up:

A friend of mine once did commentary for a literary death match in the language of wine labels: a fruity blend of blackberry and barnyard; hints of oaky tangerines and smoked chestnuts; and so on. This worked well because no one forgets irony in literary death matches: everyone knows the contest cannot ever really be a contest. Unfortunately not the cast with the things called contests, and O, do we need some irony here!

This is one—though just one—of the reasons that Nichita Stanescu’s Wheel with a Single Spoke, in Sean Cotter’s English translations, should win this contest. It knows for irony, as when, in the love lyric, “Beauty-sick,” the lover enjoins, “Do your best not to die, my love / try to not die if you can”; or, in a nod to trans-sense, (“What is the Supreme Power that Drives the Universe and Creates Life?”), it turns out to be “A and E / and I and O / and U.” And once this tone, then everything takes on a tinge, or you at least have to wonder, when he writes words like “consciousness” and “cognition” and “being” and “ah” and most definitely “O.”

It should also win because through the irony the post-War, Cold War, otherwise all-too-depressive seriousness grows deeper, more meaningful, easier to understand and appreciate, brighter, as when he writes, “Because my father and because my mother, / because my older sister and because my younger sister, / because my father’s various brothers and because my mother’s various sisters, / because my sister’s various lovers, / imagined or real,” after which you can’t help but want to know more, read another line and another. And because Cotter has selected, pulled together, found coherent, compelling English form. And because the book itself is beautiful.

Speaking of things that are beautiful, this is the third Archipelago title to win. Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston won in 2012, and Tranquility by Attila Bartis, translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein won in 2009. Seeing that only 11 titles have received this honor, that’s incredibly impressive. Congrats to Jill Schoolman—the publisher of one of the greatest publishers of international literature there is!

And stay tuned. We’ll be announcing info about the 2014 BTBAs in approximately one month.

1 Which, especially for a test-run, was remarkably successful. I sold more than 15 books in the first hour and a half, and only brought back a handful of units.

2 Will Evans was an apprentice here last year, and as a result is launching Deep Vellum, an indie press based in Dallas dedicated to doing awesome literature from around the world. He has a few titles in the works that I know about, but the only think I should really mention here is that he’ll be publishing Sergio Pitol as one of his first authors. For more information, you should follow his Twitter account: @DeepVellum. And if you’re at BEA this year, you should meet with him. Will has the rare ability to make the most jaded professional excited about books and publishing once again. We need people like him in this field.

19 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

Mama Leone by Miljenko Jergović, translated from the Croatian by David Williams and published by Archipelago Books

This piece is by Québec translator Peter McCambridge, who also runs a blog about translating literature from Québec.

When Mama Leone wins the Best Translated Book Award, it will be a triumph of storytelling and atmosphere-building, a victory for stories well told (and well translated) everywhere. The writing is on the face of it simple at times, but just enough off kilter that it still manages to suck us in and take our breath away.

Take the first few paragraphs of the first story, You’re the angel:

When I was born a dog started barking in the hall of the maternity ward. Dr. Srecko ripped the mask from his face, tore out of the delivery suite, and said to hell with the country where kids are born at the pound! I still didn’t understand at that point, so I filled my lungs with a deep breath and for the first time in my life confronted a paradox: though I didn’t have others to compare it to, the world where I’d appeared was terrifying, but something forced me to breathe, to bind myself to it in a way I never managed to bind myself to any woman.

And breathe. Wow. There we are, sucked right into the story, right into this terrifying new world, bound tightly to it from the get-go, and somehow forced to breathe and accept it, swept along by the narrative. It’s so simple, and yet somehow magnificent.

Mama Leone is a collection of stories in two parts. The first half is about childhood and told in a voice so original and so authentic that it’s hard to resist. Don’t stare, Miljenko is told. Quit eavesdropping. Life’s not a circus. And yet we explore his world with our eyes wide open, with our ears pricked. Everything is huge, larger than life. Sarajevo is “a gigantic city, the most gigantic in the world,” his loneliness is “the biggest in the world,” a character laughs “like a giant out of a fairy tale.” Bedtime, trips to the potty, plans to run away from home, eating sardines, all become dramas of epic proportions (“cities silently crumbled in my pounding heart”).

The effect is grandiose. Scenes from a childhood, more realistic than abstract, but high on poetry all the same, add up to a beautiful tableau that somehow seems all the more real for its helter-skelter, kaleidoscopic vision of the world.

The language is exhilarating. Sentences career along between commas, the vocabulary a tremendous mix of slang, poetry, and more than the odd memorable one-liner.

The result is stunning and beautiful and real, all with an undercurrent of death and war and increasing sadness.

And then suddenly our perspective shifts to the third person. It is a grown-up’s world, the world of Deda, Boris, Marina, Nana, and the others. A world of love, longing, and loss, of darkness and war and damage. There are still angels but now they are drunken. Words that in the first section “flowed in cascades, gushing over the edges of the world being born” now “disappear into dark spaces.” People “become destroyed cities to each other,” although there are still the occasional roses in the sky in place of stars.

The words that so enchanted us in the first part are now “sometimes uglier than what they mean.” But, as with all the best stories, there is beauty in the loss and the missed opportunities. And no end of beauty in the writing.

13 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

My Struggle: Book One by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and published by Archipelago Books

This post is written by Trevor Berrett who blogs at The Mookse and the Gripes, where readers from around the world are discussing all of the books from this year’s longlist in this forum. Definitely the best place to share your thoughts on this year’s longlist.

With My Struggle: Book One, Karl Ove Knausgaard began a six-volume (3,600 page) novel/autobiography in an attempt to exhaust everything at the age of forty. He knew it had to be long. He also knew he’d have to write it fast. So, at a rate of 5 to 20 pages per day, Knausgaard wrote these books over the course of about five years, moving at a headlong pace that purposefully outran any ideas of censorship or style. What makes such a long and seemingly self-indulgent experimental book worth reading and why should it win the Best Translated Book Award? Well, despite the fact that Knausgaard wrote at a breakneck pace, or perhaps because of this, the book is beautiful and direct as it weaves together thoughts and surroundings from various times in Knausgaard’s first four decades, all with immediacy. We get a strong sense of his urgency and are taken away. Knausgaard is working out his struggle, he’s opened it up for us to see, and by bringing us up close he allows us to feel the heat and energy or to stare in silence.

In the United Kingdom, the book was published as A Death in the Family, and indeed throughout the book we delve into death again and again. But it is about more than death. It’s about this life, about relationships, about the passage of time, about trying to find some kind of meaning in it all, about trying to be happy when everything seems to be going well but you still feel sad.

It does this by going through seemingly ordinary days in great detail. Often, the details and memories are banal. But even the banality of it all fits and is necessary for the book to have the effect it does. We do not see that which we see all the time, Knausgaard suggests. And most of the time it is in the banal that our lives are played out. That’s where we work out our feelings. This is shown well in the last 200 pages, around 70 of which are spent cleaning a home in preparation for the wake of Knausgaard’s despised father. How do we work through all of these conflicted feelings (he wanted his dad to die, “so why all these tears?”)? The answer: in the hours in which we clean, letting the thoughts come and go as they will.

In the end, this is a tremendously powerful and personal work of art. Yes, it is long and at times even tedious. Some of the detail is excessive and could be taken out. But I wouldn’t want it that way. To remove anything might disturb the balance, might make remove it even just a fraction of an inch. This is raw, and the struggle is beautiful. The tedium is meaningful—it may hold the most meaning of all: “Why should you live in a world without feeling its weight? Were we just images?”

26 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Josh Billings on Miljenko Jergović’s Mama Leone, translated from the Croatian by David Williams and published by Archipelago Books.

Josh Billings has reviewed for The Literary Review in the past, and is also a writer and a translator from Russian. His two book-length translations are Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin and Alexander Kuprin’s The Duel, both of which are available from Melville House.

Here’s the opening of his review:

Like Scotts or High Elvish, childhood is simultaneously both a real language and a totally made-up one. We all spoke it once, but in the time since we spoke it last we’ve forgotten enough that our own memories can seem, if not incomprehensible, then at least significantly garbled. Being adults—meaning, being creatures that pride ourselves on having ostensibly figured our shit out in the world—we don’t like to admit any of this. We tour our childhoods with regal condescension; but it only takes a single misstep to start us blustering like tourists in a marketplace, until finally all we can do is stutter here! here! and retreat to the embassy. Later, we blame our confusion on the fact that when we were children we thought like children, but now we have put away childish things—like eating entire jars of marshmallow Fluff. Except that even as we say this, we know it isn’t true and that nothing has changed: that the old hurts still hurt, and the Fluff is still sitting there in the cupboard, drawing us to itself like a rubbery star. All of a sudden we jump out of our chairs—Back! We want to go back! But if the past is really another country, then even the most childish of us must admit that we can no more go back “there” than we can go back to Middle Earth, or Ancient Greece, or any of the other kingdoms of the imagination. For we are not just tourists, but exiles; travelers whose visits to the old country, city, neighborhood, block, or bedroom must inevitably be suffused with the one feeling that we do not want to admit our childhood contained: loss.

Miljenko Jergovic’s Mama Leone is a book about loss, and about the hopeless and beautiful attempt to recover what has been lost. It begins in one child’s experience and ends so far away from it that it’s impossible not to see the shift as commentary not only on the fragility of childhood, but on the very act of loving recreation that makes the first half of the book so rich. If this sounds paradoxical, well, it is. It is also in keeping with the paradoxical criticism/embrace the narrator makes a few seconds after being born in a Sarajevo hospital:

“I still didn’t understand at that point, so I filled my lungs with a deep breath and for the first time in my life confronted a paradox: though I didn’t have others to compare it to, the world where I’d appeared was terrifying, but something forced me to breathe, to bind myself to it in a way I never managed to bind myself to any woman.”

Click here to read the full piece.

26 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Like Scotts or High Elvish, childhood is simultaneously both a real language and a totally made-up one. We all spoke it once, but in the time since we spoke it last we’ve forgotten enough that our own memories can seem, if not incomprehensible, then at least significantly garbled. Being adults—meaning, being creatures that pride ourselves on having ostensibly figured our shit out in the world—we don’t like to admit any of this. We tour our childhoods with regal condescension; but it only takes a single misstep to start us blustering like tourists in a marketplace, until finally all we can do is stutter here! here! and retreat to the embassy. Later, we blame our confusion on the fact that when we were children we thought like children, but now we have put away childish things—like eating entire jars of marshmallow Fluff. Except that even as we say this, we know it isn’t true and that nothing has changed: that the old hurts still hurt, and the Fluff is still sitting there in the cupboard, drawing us to itself like a rubbery star. All of a sudden we jump out of our chairs—Back! We want to go back! But if the past is really another country, then even the most childish of us must admit that we can no more go back “there” than we can go back to Middle Earth, or Ancient Greece, or any of the other kingdoms of the imagination. For we are not just tourists, but exiles; travelers whose visits to the old country, city, neighborhood, block, or bedroom must inevitably be suffused with the one feeling that we do not want to admit our childhood contained: loss.

Miljenko Jergovic’s Mama Leone is a book about loss, and about the hopeless and beautiful attempt to recover what has been lost. It begins in one child’s experience and ends so far away from it that it’s impossible not to see the shift as commentary not only on the fragility of childhood, but on the very act of loving recreation that makes the first half of the book so rich. If this sounds paradoxical, well, it is. It is also in keeping with the paradoxical criticism/embrace the narrator makes a few seconds after being born in a Sarajevo hospital:

I still didn’t understand at that point, so I filled my lungs with a deep breath and for the first time in my life confronted a paradox: though I didn’t have others to compare it to, the world where I’d appeared was terrifying, but something forced me to breathe, to bind myself to it in a way I never managed to bind myself to any woman.

The world called Yugoslavia (over which the memory and premonition of wars past and to-come hover continuously) is terrifying, but the narrator marries himself to it—an act of bone-headed generosity that marks him as one of those ugly ducklings that we have watched grow into a writerly swan over and over again, and yet never grow tired of. Why don’t we grow tired of him? For one, because we recognize his awkward emergence as something we ourselves have gone through. Human experience may be as varied as spots on a rug, but the patterns that our minds make out of these experiences have more in common with one another than you’d expect. Knowing this, Jergovic eschews the hammy over-exaggeration of exotic detail, instead building these stories around moments whose drama might happen just as easily in Detroit, the Urals, Mars. Despite—or maybe because of—their universality, the specific meanings of said moments seem both obvious and mysterious, so that all we can do when faced with them is wait and watch as the situation gets harrier and harrier, until suddenly an invisible line is crossed and it becomes not-hairy at all. The figures that only a moment ago seemed to be physically weighed down by their individual lonelinesses float free, hanging together in space like stars in a constellation. The effect of these breakthroughs is cathartic, sure, but also heartbreaking—for example, when the narrator’s young mother climbs fully-clothed to the top of a high dive as her son and ex-husband (who can’t swim) watch:

Nice diving board, said Mom, and then went and climbed right up to the top. Fully clothed, one step at a time, she walked slowly out along the board, which was trembling and wobbling under her weight. When she got to the end she looked down and spread her arms wide as if she was going to fly away, but then she slowly let them fall. Dad looked up at her, beads of sweat lining his forehead, he opened his mouth as if he wanted to say something, and he did want to say something, but he didn’t know how, or whether to say it to me or to her.

The soft ventriloquism of this scene, in which the narrator seems for a second to be not just himself, or his mother, or father, but all three of them at once, reflects a further paradox of feeling—one so ordinary that I’d bet every kid has experienced it at one time or another. The diving board represents something different to each of the three figures around, under, and on it. And yet, it somehow represents the same thing. The distance from one person to the next is both heartbreaking and reassuring, since it is a distance the three of them experience together. And then, only a few lines later, the miracle is over, Mom steps back from the edge, life goes on.

Coming to terms with this last part is one of the aspects in which language helps the young narrator of Mama Leone do. He is aware of it painfully, curiously—the way other kids become aware of their tongues. This maladjustment brings with it certain benefits. As anyone who has tried to make himself understood in a foreign country will tell you, one of the underrated benefits of language learning is the understanding it gives of one’s native tongues. In a similar way, the developmentally bilingual voice of Mama Leone dabbles in adulthood without really being fluent in it. The particular sound of this flailing can be lyrical, funny, bizarre, naïve, and even, occasionally, wise. It can begin a story by saying that “Only words cause no pain” and then three pages later describe that most mythical of beasts, a grandparent, with casual surrealism:

“When he sweats, I can imagine a whole crowd of people building houses on his face, sitting in the dark and sweating like him; on Grandpa’s face lives another little grandpa, who also sits in the dark, lights a cigarette, rivers run down his face too, and next to them live even smaller people and even smaller grandpas, and they too sit in the dark, in blue and brown light, next to their grandsons, who on their faces see crowds of even smaller people and even smaller grandpas.”

As adults, we can call such Chagallian acrobatics beautiful; but Jergovic is careful to reminds us how pragmatic its wordplay is to the narrator himself. Grandpas are scary; so, like Perseus facing Medusa, the child makes an image, a mirror, replacing the vertiginous Grandpaface with a sort of linguistic Lego village, whose busy cuteness effaces its original’s freakish physicality while still not banishing it completely. The not banishing is especially important—for while words may be powerful tools for domestication, they are also spells, and require familiars. The house demon—that onetime staple of family life—must stay chained to the stove, or else it will wander off to make mischief elsewhere. Better, then, to create a grandpa who is still scary, strange, ugly—and all the more grandpa for it.

Compared to magic like this, the second half of Mama Leone, in which the narrative “I” is abandoned for a shifting third person that takes up a series of “unrelated” characters, is a bit of a letdown—but if anything, this is a testament to Jergovic’s honesty as a chronicler. Not just of childhood, but of memory—specifically, of the bittersweet memory of people who have left (or been thrown out of, or fled) their homes behind them. Sometimes these homes are actual countries, but more often they are states of mind: times before guilt, before heartbreak, before love, times in which everything seemed simpler because we thought it was. Losing is something that can happen to anyone, Mama Leone reminds us, which is one of the things that differentiates it from a book like Speak, Memory. For all its beauty, Nabokov’s tutor-and-truttle idyll emits a hagiographic reek, as if its ultimate meaning as experience was the exclusivity of its author’s suffering, and our necessary “we” before it. Jergovic avoids such grandiosity by breaking his hero’s childhood into shards—each of which nonetheless carries a tiny reflection of its source. We were all children once. Maybe we always will be: after all, if disappointment is all it takes to be an adult, then every one of us is born into it with our first breath.

15 February 13 | Chad W. Post |

I hate to admit it, but a few years ago, when Archipelago first sent me a copy of Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin, I assumed that it was a book that I was probably never going to read. I mean, it’s a book about a farmer. A quiet book about a farmer. An introspective aging farmer taking care of his invalid father. From the jacket copy:

Ostensibly a novel about the countryside, The Twin ultimately poses difficult questions about solitude and the possibility of taking life into one’s own hands. It chronicles a way of life that has resisted modernity, a world culturally apart yet laden with familiar longing.

Nothing about this seems like the sort of jagged, crazy, confusing, challenging books that I generally find myself drawn to.

But man was I wrong about this one.

I did end up reading it, and recommended it for the Best Translated Book Award shortlist. And damn, is it a spectacular book. Everything’s so understated in here, but never boring. Here’s what “I wrote about it back in 2010:”:

[I] started reading one night and literally couldn’t put this down. There’s something mesmerizing in Bakker’s prose, in the way he slowly builds the sense of isolation and duty that rules Helmer’s life. Unveiling secrets small and large in very precise, stark language. Lyrical in an understated way.

Now, although Bakker didn’t win the BTBA that year, he did end up winning the IMPAC, which helped give this book a significant boost and practically ensured that his other books would eventually make their way into English.

Which brings us to Ten White Geese, which comes out from Penguin on the 26th. I received a copy of this just a few days ago, and haven’t had a chance to start it, but unlike my reaction back in 2009, this time I’m certain that I’ll read this.

Especially since John Siciliano hand wrote me a note stating that this was “perhaps my favorite of all the novels I’ve published.” That’s some high praise from a very trustworthy source.

Once again, the set-up sounds quiet and introspective. According to the copy, it’s a novel “haunted by the spirit of Emily Dickinson” and takes place in rural Wales. On a farm. With geese. And cows, dogs, badgers, etc. But in contrast to The Twin, this sounds a bit more mysterious and tinged with danger.

On the farm she finds ten geese. One by one they disappear. Who is this woman? Will her husband manage to find her? The young man who stays the night: Why won’t he leave? And the vanishing geese?

Expect a full review in the near future. Actually, rather than waiting for that, you should just get both The Twin and Ten White Geese now. They’re worth it.

15 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Tom and I will record our “official” 2013 preview podcast tomorrow, so you can look forward to that, but as a way of upping the number of books we can talk about on the blog, I’d like to start a weekly “preview” column. Something that may not always be that serious, yet will at least give some space to recently released or forthcoming titles. I’m sure that this will evolve over the next X number of weeks, so please cut me some slack on these first few . . .

Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan. Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. University of Oklahoma/Chinese Literature Today. $24.95

Jonathan Stalling of Chinese Literature Today — which really probably definitely shouldn’t be abbreviated as “CLT” . . and yes, I am 12 — spent a good 10-15 minutes of MLA explaining to me why this book was so awesome. I forget all the plot details, but I do remember the bit about an executioner taking someone apart over a series of pages . . . So, to go along with the almost nauseating amounts of meat mastication in Pow!, readers coming to Mo Yan post-Nobel Prize also have the option to read about the “gruesome ‘sandalwood punishment,’ whose purpose, as in crucifixions, is to keep the condemned individual alive in mind-numbing pain as long as possible.”

I have to say, the more I read about Mo Yan’s books, the more I dig him . . . And I’m really looking forward to reading this before teaching Pow! in my Translation & World Literature class this spring.

Generally, I’m not a huge fan of book trailers, but I have to admit, the one that CLT did for this is really pretty elegant and cool in an anime sort of way.

I have more to post about Chinese Literature Today, but I’ll save that for later. For anyone interested in checking this out, here’s a link to a sample of the novel.

The Eleven by Pierre Michon. Translated from the French by Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays. Archipelago Books. $18.

The only thing I know about Pierre Michon is that one of his earlier novels, Small Lives, which is also published by Archipelago, is loved by basically everyone.

For a while I was creating a playlist on Spotify of songs with numbers in them. Things like “Water” by Poster Children, or “Slow Show” by The National, or “Airplane Rider” by Air Miami (a personal favorite), or “Universal Speech” by The Go! Team, or whatever. I’m not sure why, but there’s something about people yelling out numbers (or referencing a particular age, as in The National song) that does it for me. It’s one of my “secret cues” that cause me to almost always love a song. (That and hand clapping. And sing-along choruses.)

I don’t think that same thing works for me with book titles. But Fifty Shades of Gray? Maybe this is some sort of subconscious tic . . . (Like A Thousand Morons! Or A Thousand Peaceful Cities.)

18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev. Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel. Open Letter Books. $15.95

A few months back, Zack called Nate and I to talk a bit about plans for his book and marketing and all that. In the course of the conversation, he told us about his elderly friend who was anxious to get a copy of his book.

“She called me the other day and said she’s seen it on the table at the bookstore and was really excited for me. I told her that it couldn’t possibly be my book. That my book hadn’t been printed. But she was convinced. ‘No, no, it was your book, Zack. And it’s pretty dirty!’ Only then I realized she was talking about Fifty Shades . . . “

All books containing a number and the color “gray” are the same! If only we could somehow use this to our advantage . . . Should’ve included that choker necktie on the cover.

That said, Zack’s book does have a spot of banging in it. It’s more of a nostalgic, romantic book than an erotic one, but there is something sexy about a good number of the scenes. Especially the conversations between the protagonist and his now-missing wife that take place while he’s photographing her . . .

So yes, if your sister/mother/grandmother/aunt is done with that other series, recommend 18% Gray to them. Besides, Zack is WAY hotter than E.L. James. (Although he might not be quite as loaded.)

15 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Vanderhyden on Severo Sarduy’s Firefly, which is translated from the Spanish by Mark Fried, and published by Archipelago Books.

Will Vanderhyden (aka “Willsconsin,” which separates him from “Bromance Will” and “Will Cleveland” and all the other Wills that roll through the ROC) is one of the current MA students in the translation program here at the university. (Speaking of, if you’re interested in the program—which is incredible, and has an extremely high rate of publication success—you should apply now. In addition to learning about the art and craft of translation and having a great group of people to learn with and from, you get to work with me here at Open Letter . . . In our new, super-cool offices!1) He specializes in Latin American literature, and is currently translating a few things that Open Letter will be bringing out . . . More on that in another post.

For now, here’s the opening to his review of Sarduy’s Firefly:

To read Severo Sarduy, in the words of Rolland Barthes, is to be “gorged with language,” immersed in “the teeming flux of every kind of linguistic pleasure.” Firefly, the first novel from the Cuban born Médicis Prize winner to be translated into English in over a decade, is a funny and sad coming-of-age story. In keeping with Barthes’ description, Sarduy’s prose—skillfully rendered in Mark Fried’s translation—is virtuosic delight. The syntax is playful, overflowing with expressive modifiers and colorful descriptions that masterfully evoke the swarming excess of the tropics, and the libidinal chaos of adolescence.

Firefly is set in a fictional city—Upsalón U—where the whole history of pre-Castro Cuba comes together in a asynchronous jumble of symbols and cultural markers: hurricanes, slave markets, seamy brothels, mystical cults, radios, jukeboxes and baseball caps (even a big screen TV) coexist in the fluid disorder of a dream or hallucination.

The novel’s protagonist, Firefly, is an aimless, adolescent boy, “a spidery map of bones” with an “oversized head” and a penchant for misadventure. In the opening chapter, as a hurricane rages outside, Firefly, frightened by the storm, is mocked and ridiculed by his family. Humiliated and angry at always being the butt of the joke, he takes his revenge by serving them cups of linden flower tea spiked with rat poison. “So that no one will know I’m afraid.”

In the hospital, surrounded by his comatose family, Firefly pretends to be dead to avoid being blamed for their state. His scam is quickly uncovered by “two retired luminaries of the island’s medical community”—Isidro (an “obese . . . pile of blubber”), and Gator (“olive-skinned, long and bony, all obtuse angles and kinks”). This contrasting pair of quack doctors reappears at random moments throughout the rest of the story, coming to represent the island’s corruption and to embody Firefly’s paranoia and exile from the world of his childhood.

Firefly manages to escape from hospital and he is taken in by Munificence, a “towering” woman who runs a charity school. She provides him with a place to sleep and a job as an errand boy. From that point on, Firefly passes through a sometimes-funny sometimes-surreal series of experiences: he falls in love with the redheaded nymphet, Ada; he discovers the pleasures of alcohol; witnesses acts of corruption and cruelty; catches a case of Lethargy cubensis—a hilarious made up illness, cleverly poking fun at lazy, alcoholic Cubans; runs away; and visits strange brothels and nightmarish sex shows. Sarduy’s pacing is masterful, building a spiraling, downward momentum that has the feel of a week of binge drinking or a bad acid trip. That results is a sort of beautiful mayhem, where nothing makes sense and everything is false, what Firefly describes as “a frayed tapestry with no apparent pattern, seen in a dream.”

Click here to read the full review.

1 Yes, we’re moving again. But this time the move is into a space that’s both appropriate (a suite where we all to work together! with space for grad students!) and permanent. Pics TK, but if I’m MIA on the blog for a couple days it’s because I’m trying to unpack all of my accumulated shit.

14 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To read Severo Sarduy, in the words of Rolland Barthes, is to be “gorged with language,” immersed in “the teeming flux of every kind of linguistic pleasure.” Firefly, the first novel from the Cuban born Médicis Prize winner to be translated into English in over a decade, is a funny and sad coming-of-age story. In keeping with Barthes’ description, Sarduy’s prose—skillfully rendered in Mark Fried’s translation—is virtuosic delight. The syntax is playful, overflowing with expressive modifiers and colorful descriptions that masterfully evoke the swarming excess of the tropics, and the libidinal chaos of adolescence.

Firefly is set in a fictional city—Upsalón U—where the whole history of pre-Castro Cuba comes together in a asynchronous jumble of symbols and cultural markers: hurricanes, slave markets, seamy brothels, mystical cults, radios, jukeboxes and baseball caps (even a big screen TV) coexist in the fluid disorder of a dream or hallucination.

The novel’s protagonist, Firefly, is an aimless, adolescent boy, “a spidery map of bones” with an “oversized head” and a penchant for misadventure. In the opening chapter, as a hurricane rages outside, Firefly, frightened by the storm, is mocked and ridiculed by his family. Humiliated and angry at always being the butt of the joke, he takes his revenge by serving them cups of linden flower tea spiked with rat poison. “So that no one will know I’m afraid.”

In the hospital, surrounded by his comatose family, Firefly pretends to be dead to avoid being blamed for their state. His scam is quickly uncovered by “two retired luminaries of the island’s medical community”—Isidro (an “obese . . . pile of blubber”), and Gator (“olive-skinned, long and bony, all obtuse angles and kinks”). This contrasting pair of quack doctors reappears at random moments throughout the rest of the story, coming to represent the island’s corruption and to embody Firefly’s paranoia and exile from the world of his childhood.

Firefly manages to escape from hospital and he is taken in by Munificence, a “towering” woman who runs a charity school. She provides him with a place to sleep and a job as an errand boy. From that point on, Firefly passes through a sometimes-funny sometimes-surreal series of experiences: he falls in love with the redheaded nymphet, Ada; he discovers the pleasures of alcohol; witnesses acts of corruption and cruelty; catches a case of Lethargy cubensis—a hilarious made up illness, cleverly poking fun at lazy, alcoholic Cubans; runs away; and visits strange brothels and nightmarish sex shows. Sarduy’s pacing is masterful, building a spiraling, downward momentum that has the feel of a week of binge drinking or a bad acid trip. That results is a sort of beautiful mayhem, where nothing makes sense and everything is false, what Firefly describes as “a frayed tapestry with no apparent pattern, seen in a dream.”

Sarduy sets Firefly’s confused search for identity against the backdrop of a decadent island world replete with crooked characters and rotting landscapes. “He felt blindfolded and alone at the center of a grotesque, cackling circle spinning around him.” It almost seems cruel the way Sarduy treats his young protagonist, he is allowed no relief, no way out, nothing stable to latch on to; he finds only loneliness, turmoil, ambiguous sexual impulses, and the shameful betrayals of his own young body.

He sensed in an opaque way, as if he had received an unspoken but fatal warning, that he would always be lost, disoriented, lacking an interior compass, as if the entire Earth were a laborious labyrinth or a perverse mirage of movable walls someone had contrived just to get him lost, to bring him down.

By the end of the novel, in a way, Sarduy has brought him back to where he started when he poisoned his family: resentful and alone. But he has also been transformed; experience has made him disillusioned, his resentment has expanded. “Man is the shit of the universe,” he tells himself near the end of the novel.

Now he knew people were capable of anything: of selling off father and mother, of turning over to the Inquisition and the stake the one they were pretending to protect. Capable of treachery, of usury with their loved ones. Of lies.

Everyone deceived. Everything nauseated. But deep down, he told himself, he was thankful: he had seen the true face of man, his essential duplicity, his need as unquenchable as hunger or thirst, for trickery, for wretchedness.

The lesson he has learned is one of despair and distrust: the world is a rotten place, full of deceitful, cruel people. And in the end: “He swore he would return to exterminate them all.”

Though Sarduy’s tone sustains comic, absurd notes throughout the novel, the story is essentially one of loneliness and alienation. Sarduy lived more than half of his life in exile. He left Cuba for Paris shortly after Castro came to power in 1960 and never went back. Firefly—first published in Spanish in 1990, just three years before Sarduy’s death—feels like a meditation on exile: Sarduy’s exile from his home country, the geographical and political exile of Cuba, the existential exile of adolescence, and the social and cultural exile of marginalized sexual orientations.

The intricate narrative structure and surrealist moments in Firefly resemble some of the stories of Julio Cortázar. The overflowing lyricism of Sarduy’s prose evokes the neo-baroque style of his fellow Cubans Alejo Carpentier, and José Lezema Lima. And it is this, the verbal richness, the luminous intensity of the language that marks Firefly as the product of a truly unique and talented writer. The novel is an absolute pleasure to read. The juxtaposition of a strange, somewhat bleak story with the vibrant mosaic of Sarduy’s writing is fascinating and powerfully engaging. Here again it is worth mentioning the work of the accomplished translator Mark Fried, whose English rendering captures beautifully the exquisite texture and lively rhythms of Sarduy’s prose.

For readers of Latin American literature in English, Sarduy is often eclipsed by fellow Boom writers such as Marquez, Fuentes and Vargas Llosa. He is difficult to classify, but clearly was a dynamic force in avant-garde literature in Latin America from the 1960s until the 1990s. Only a handful of his books have been translated into English, however, as Susan Jill Levine states in the preface to her translation of his earlier novel Cobra: “Sarduy characterizes the place of Latin America in Western civilization perhaps more authentically than the writing of some of his more accessible colleagues in the mainstream.” He deserves more attention. One can only hope that Firefly‘s English publication will spark renewed interest in the singular brilliance of this indelible master of Spanish language fiction.

7 August 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Quantum Sarah on Elias Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping, which is translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth and is available from Archipelago Books.

Here is part of her review:

Elias Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping (Archipelago, 2012) is a love story, a family tragedy, and a journey through Levantine cultural history. Considering the radical stance of Khoury’s other works – notably, Gate of the Sun, the first “magnum opus” of the Palestinian people – this novel is a more conservative project. The year is 1946. Milia, an apolitical Beiruti dreamer, leads a “double life”: by inhabiting her dreams as fully as her waking life, she can speak with the dead and prophesy the future. Mansour, her wayward Palestinian husband, flees the harsh reality of his country by burying himself in sensual pleasures: ancient poetry, Milia’s beauty, and Levantine cuisine. As political turmoil in the region escalates, Milia finds herself increasingly trapped by impending catastrophe and fears for her newly-conceived child. To cope, she turns to the dream world for insight, trekking backward and forward in time to converse with deceased family members and saints.

As Khoury explores Milia’s life and dreams, he points to the many paradoxes of living in the “holy land.” After all, this is the same soil where Cain murdered Abel. Its inhabitants inherit not just a rich cultural tradition, but also a dark and complicated legacy of madness. Mansour discovers that “. . . he had begun to loathe this land in which he lived. Can anyone truly live in a country saturated with legends and miracles and prophets? This is a country that drives anyone who lives here insane, he would think” (241). And Milia becomes increasingly obsessed with the fantastic tradition of fathers killing sons. Abraham planned to slaughter Isaac; God sacrificed Jesus; Milia’s grandfather Salim nearly murdered his only son with a thrown rock. Will Milia’s son be next?

Click here to read the entire review.

7 August 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Elias Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping (Archipelago, 2012) is a love story, a family tragedy, and a journey through Levantine cultural history. Considering the radical stance of Khoury’s other works – notably, Gate of the Sun, the first “magnum opus” of the Palestinian people – this novel is a more conservative project. The year is 1946. Milia, an apolitical Beiruti dreamer, leads a “double life”: by inhabiting her dreams as fully as her waking life, she can speak with the dead and prophesy the future. Mansour, her wayward Palestinian husband, flees the harsh reality of his country by burying himself in sensual pleasures: ancient poetry, Milia’s beauty, and Levantine cuisine. As political turmoil in the region escalates, Milia finds herself increasingly trapped by impending catastrophe and fears for her newly-conceived child. To cope, she turns to the dream world for insight, trekking backward and forward in time to converse with deceased family members and saints.

As Khoury explores Milia’s life and dreams, he points to the many paradoxes of living in the “holy land.” After all, this is the same soil where Cain murdered Abel. Its inhabitants inherit not just a rich cultural tradition, but also a dark and complicated legacy of madness. Mansour discovers that “. . . he had begun to loathe this land in which he lived. Can anyone truly live in a country saturated with legends and miracles and prophets? This is a country that drives anyone who lives here insane, he would think” (241). And Milia becomes increasingly obsessed with the fantastic tradition of fathers killing sons. Abraham planned to slaughter Isaac; God sacrificed Jesus; Milia’s grandfather Salim nearly murdered his only son with a thrown rock. Will Milia’s son be next?

Khoury definitely sounds notes of sincere frustration, bitterness, and disenchantment in this novel. However, that doesn’t stop him from luxuriating in the depictions of the region’s poetry, dress, and cookery. He describes kibbeh arnabiyyeh, a Levantine specialty, in rich detail: “One needed serious training to appreciate [the dish] fully. Tahini was cooked with seven different citrus fruits, onions were cut to resemble wings, the chick peas all but melted in the tahini mixture with its swirling colors from pale to brown. . . “ (118). This tonal ambiguity allows readers to experience at the linguistic level the same mental dilemma that Mansour, Milia, and many Levant-dwellers experience every day. Theirs is a land steeped in sanctity, but also in violence; a region consecrated by divine power, but defiled by human madness; in short, a land both loved and feared.

Before long, this same madness invades Mansour and Milia’s once-happy marriage. (Toward the beginning, it’s clear that Khoury is a true romantic: “But look at me – I love you without knowing you. I feel you, who you are, from inside, and that’s enough,” (24) Mansour waxes, wooing Milia.) But when his brother Amin is murdered in a border skirmish, Mansour insists on returning to Jaffa to take over the family business. Milia intuitively objects, sensing her child will be born into a maelstrom of bloodshed: “Milia’s nights now filled with oranges that looked like bombs,” Khoury tells us. “- the color red everywhere, covering faces and objects” (223).

Ostensibly apolitical, Milia doesn’t have the power of rational logic on her side. “Tayyib, tayyib,” Mansour chides, dismissing dreams as fickle excuses that give her “the freedom to interpret matters however she liked” (80). True, Milia lives her life “as though she were sleeping,” but isn’t it the prerogative of the dreamer to interpret the dream? And Milia undeniably discerns the truth through her visions, correctly predicting her Aunt Salma’s death and her ex-lover Najib’s infidelity.

Throughout the book Khoury treats narratives with extreme suspicion. By sympathizing with dreamers like Milia, he cautions against dominant, rational interpretations of reality. This becomes especially clear when Khoury re-narrates sections of the Bible, provocatively throwing its authoritative status into question. At one point Khoury even goes so far as to implicate a comparison between Milia and Christ:

“[Milia] wanted to say, None of this has anything to do with me. . . Lord, how different people become mixed inside me. I don’t know who I am anymore.

He was like that, too, said Tanyous the monk. As he went to the cross he did not feel that he was himself. He felt everyone becoming a part of him. He tried to keep his memories apart but he saw everything together. He became mother and father, the Sitt and the Sayyid, Lady and Lord and lamb. Because he was everything he could say nothing. If he could have talked, what would he have said? And if he did have things to say, who would have understood him? And if he found someone who did understand, who would believe?” (305).

Though far-fetched, the comparison is moving: what if prophets really did live this way, in a perpetual state of self-doubt that Biblical authors conveniently edited out? Milia certainly has much in common with the version of Jesus that Khoury imagines: like him, she frequently feels that she “can say nothing,” struggling to translate her dreams into language. To her, words are like “wraps that hid things. . . As if the bodies of the words veiled the meanings” (111). Through Milia’s struggle, Khoury implicates an ironic, frustrating linguistic paradox. Though words possess great potential to express beauty and meaning, they can also be used equally well to lie, inhibiting the truth instead of freeing it. In Milia’s experience, language is cloying, artificial, and useless. She knows calamity is coming, but what can she do? Putting her dreams into words seems to trap them and obscure their true meaning. And if she could tell about them, who would believe her?

In a nightmare come true, the book closes with a cathartic extended dream-sequence. Milia graphically envisions a dark future ahead: “. . . the smell of blood. Blood in the streets. Mansour stands before his workshop, which lies in ruins, the machinery soaked in blood and wet with severed limbs” (366). This is just one example of the hundreds of eerie dream-spectacles crowding the novel’s pages. Clearly, something is haunting this book – whether it’s the imminent 1948 Nakba, the general tragedy of the Levant, or the death of smaller stories in the face of predominating interpretations.

Fascinating, chimerical, and complex, Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping is a hymn to the Levant and its war-ravaged people. By re-envisioning Biblical events and testifying to the truth of dreams, Khoury questions the power of authoritative, ‘rational’ versions of events. His is an ode not just to Mansour and Milia, but to all people whose lives have been forgotten, and to all the small stories obliterated from history by larger, ruling narratives.

22 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The people at Very Short List were kind enough to ask me to put together a special list featuring items related to World in Translation Month.

For anyone who doesn’t know, VSL started a few years ago with a very simple idea: every day subscribers would receive an email highlighting one cool and interesting thing. Could be a book, a website, a short video, whatever—just something interesting to check out. Over time, the site has evolved a bit, and the new format is based on having three links: one featured idea and two related things.

To see the email/feature in its colorful glory, simply click here.

The three things I chose to feature were the BTBA 2012 finalists, The Canvas, and this amazing Bill Johnston t-shirt.

Just to dwell on the Bill Johnston t-shirt for a minute, this is something that Kaija Straumanis designed as a way of honoring Bill—this year’s winner of the BTBA for his translation of Wieslaw Mysliwski’s Stone Upon Stone. The plan is to sell these through Archipelago’s site, and at the ALTA conference this fall. (And to make up t-shirts for other BTBA winners . . . )

Proceeds from sales of these shirts are being split among all worthy parties, so by buying this, not only will you be pimping one of the greatest translators working today, but you will be helping out Archipelago Books and Open Letter. And beyond that, it’s just totally rad.

Here’s the front graphic:

And here’s where you can buy it.

28 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next two weeks 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.

In Red by Magdalena Tulli, translated by Bill Johnston

Language: Polish

Country: Poland
Publisher: Archipelago Books

Why This Book Should Win: Bill Johnston really deserves to win this award. Especially as the only translator with two longlisted titles.

Today’s post is by Sean Bye, an amateur translator of Polish and Russian, and artistic co-director of the Invisible Theatre Company. He is a graduate of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, where he studied Polish language and literature. He is based in London.

Magdalena Tulli’s In Red tells the story of the tiny, fictional town of Stitchings, in an imaginary region of Poland under Swedish occupation, where it is winter all year round and the sun only rises for an hour or so around lunchtime. The book takes us from the start of the twentieth century through to about the 1930s, as Stitchings is first occupied by the Germans in World War I and then finally in an independent Poland.

In Red toys with the idea of a small town as a world unto itself where nothing ever changes, like the local textile factory, run by generations of identical fathers and sons, all named Sebastian Loom. The story of the book, to the extent that it has one, is of this equilibrium being interrupted. As the book winds its way through the history of Stitchings the town becomes literally unrecognizable, out of nowhere developing a balmy climate and a bustling port. Main characters are born and die practically without comment as the story moves from one character to the next, each of them with their own rich, almost standalone story and most of them coming to a grisly end. One story flows into another following a logic that seems at once natural and inscrutable. The sense of poetic drift is emphasized by the book’s magic realist style. Bullets circle the earth before killing, soldiers are marked for death by small strands of red string that drift from a young woman’s embroidery, and the weathercock on the town hall is tied with a tiny, silver string to a lucky star in the sky.

In Red is an intensely visual book, overflowing with rich images and picturesque tableaux that round out the portrait. The reader in the end is left with the feeling of having completed a grand epic in 158 pages, of knowing the town of Stitchings and its people inside and out, a town where the topography of people’s lives is as dark and labrythine as that of its streets. Nothing is ever entirely as it seems in Stitchings, and as the book draws to a close, the reader is left with the feeling that this book may not have been what we first thought it to be, either—a neat little turn that made me eager to come back to it. I read the book with the Polish original in one hand and Bill Johnston’s translation in the other—Johnston works wonders with Tulli’s knotty, complex prose. He is to be commended for bringing this little masterpiece to us in English in such consummate, effortless style.

11 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next five weeks highlighting all 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.

Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski, translated by Bill Johnston

Language: Polish
Country: Poland
Publisher: Archipelago

Why This Book Should Win: I taught this in my class last year, and all of the students loved it. Do you even understand how rare that is? That’s some serious power.

This piece is written by Amy Henry, who runs the website The Black Sheep Dances.

Words bring everything out onto the surface. Words take everything that hurts and whines and they drag it all out from the deepest depths. Words let blood, and you feel better right away . . . Because words are a great grace. When it comes down to it, what are you given other than words?

Szymek Pietruszka talks endlessly, conducting an inner monologue that never takes a break. An all-around badass who is beloved by all, he’s played many roles: resistance fighter, fireman, policeman, civil servant, and farmer, all while remaining an insatiable ladies man with a penchant for vodka, dancing, and fighting (usually in that order). He has stories to tell—some deadly serious and some not—but all told in a restrained voice that doesn’t ask for pity.

As Stone Upon Stone begins, he’s working on a tomb, obsessing about the details of construction but not explaining who it is for. The tomb and its obvious ties to earth and death form a theme that is lighter than one would imagine. As he studies the other memorials in the cemetery, he makes note of their flaws, as some are too showy, too cheap, or in once case, too tall:

When you stand underneath it it’s like standing at a gallows, and you have to tip your head way back like you were looking at a hung man. What does it have to be so high for? You can’t look at death high up like that for long. Your neck goes stiff. Looking up is something you can only do to check the weather . . . Death draws you downward. With your head craned up it’s hard to cry even.

Myśliwski writes in a style reminiscent of Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil, wherein earth and family and history are intermingled; yet as a protagonist, Szymek is witty and naughty and far chattier than Hamsun’s Isak. One scene shows Szymek as a policeman, searching the countryside after the war for contraband weapons:

“We’ve had enough gunfire to last us a lifetime . . . Our Lady up there in that picture, they can be our witness—we don’t have any guns.”

But you only needed to reach behind the Our Lady or the Lord Jesus and pull out a pistol. You’d look in the stove, and inside there’d be a rifle. Have them open the chest, and there under a pile of headscarves, rounds and grenades.

[. . .] Not many people got fined, because what were you going to fine them for. It was the war that brought folks all those guns, the war was the one that should have been punished.

As he relates the story, he tells what the guns (pulled from dead soldiers) end up doing in the villages, as from that point, it appears no dispute is too small not to be handled with gunfire. Szymek’s wickedly wry, and the humor takes an edge off what is deeply painful. Similarly, he describes the pride of his hard-won officer’s boots that the villagers admire. Yet without self-pity, he describes loaning those to his younger brother to wear to school, because his search among the dead bodies around the countryside failed to turn up another pair. He notes that no matter how isolated the corpse, the paths to it were wide from the human scavengers. Horrific, but told matter-of-fact.

Foreshadowing is never used; instead, a sort of reverse takes place. When he suffers a deeply personal loss, he looks backward, making a connection with his family’s traditional sacrifice of bread to the land to ensure future crops. As a child, he mocked it, thinking that the bread should be eaten instead. Of course, he did sneak some of it to eat. Now, given his adult experience, that bread becomes all the more symbolic.

Aside from what he’s thinking, he relays conversations from everyone from his father (who compulsively overreacts to everything) to the village’s Sure Thing, a batty woman who undresses and seduces while complaining about inventory shortfalls (she’s kind of adorable). One memorable conversation is with his hated childhood priest, one who named him in sermons “when he needed a bad example that wasn’t from the Bible.” Now nearing death, the priest wants to talk about forgiveness:

“Of course, it’s said that whoever you absolve, their sins will be absolved, whoever you deny, they’ll be denied. But can I really be certain who deserves forgiveness and who doesn’t? What I’d most like to do is to absolve everyone, because I feel sorry for everyone. But do I have the right to use God’s mercy as my own mercy, even when I feel great pity towards someone? Does God feel that pity? It’s true his mercy is without limit. But I have no idea how what I’m allowed to do relates to that boundlessness?”

Without affectation, Mysliwski ties in the religious faith of the people, the irrationality of war, the endless needs of the land, and the stubborn, often foolish, nature of the villagers that keep charging ahead when the past might suggest they delay a bit. Many of the most important details are not laid out in a narrative form, but hinted at in a sidelong view, with some points being mentioned only in a passing conversation, leaving the reader to put together exactly what has happened with his parents and three brothers and their farm.

They say that when a person’s born, the earth is their cradle. And all death does is lay you back down in it. And it rocks you and rocks you till you’re unborn, unconceived, once again.

25 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by contributing reviewer Larissa Kyzer on Jacques Poulin’s Mister Blue, which just came out from Archipelago Books in Sheila Fischman’s translation.

Larissa Kyzer is a regular reviewer for us who has a great interest in all things Scandinavian and Icelandic. Mister Blue doesn’t quite fit that, but it does sound like a really fun book:

The fictional world of Québécois novelist Jacques Poulin can, poetically speaking, be likened to a snow globe: a minutely-detailed landscape peppered with characters who appear to be frozen in one lovely, continuous moment. Mister Blue, recently published in a new English translation, captures this timelessness in a fluid and deceptively simple story about the complex bonds that can develop between completely unlike people, if only they are allowed to.

Brooklyn’s Archipelago Books has previously released two Poulin novels—Spring Tides and Translation is a Love Affair—both of which share some basic fundamentals with Mister Blue. Each of these slender novels feature reclusive literary types (authors and translators), their beloved cats (all with names worthy of T.S. Eliot’s Practical Cats: Matousalem, Mr. Blue, Charade, Vitamin), and enigmatic strangers who quickly insinuate themselves into the lives and imaginations of the aforementioned writers. But although Poulin frequently returns to the same themes, the same hyper-specific scenarios and characters in his work, each of his novels retain a freshness and idiosyncratic sweetness that reward readers with small revelations and happy coincidences.

Click here to read the entire piece.

25 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The fictional world of Québécois novelist Jacques Poulin can, poetically speaking, be likened to a snow globe: a minutely-detailed landscape peppered with characters who appear to be frozen in one lovely, continuous moment. Mister Blue, recently published in a new English translation, captures this timelessness in a fluid and deceptively simple story about the complex bonds that can develop between completely unlike people, if only they are allowed to.

Brooklyn’s Archipelago Books has previously released two Poulin novels—Spring Tides and Translation is a Love Affair—both of which share some basic fundamentals with Mister Blue. Each of these slender novels feature reclusive literary types (authors and translators), their beloved cats (all with names worthy of T.S. Eliot’s Practical Cats: Matousalem, Mr. Blue, Charade, Vitamin), and enigmatic strangers who quickly insinuate themselves into the lives and imaginations of the aforementioned writers. But although Poulin frequently returns to the same themes, the same hyper-specific scenarios and characters in his work, each of his novels retain a freshness and idiosyncratic sweetness that reward readers with small revelations and happy coincidences.

Mister Blue opens on Jim, “the slowest writer in Quebec,” a former Hemingway scholar turned full-time novelist who now summers in his dilapidated childhood home, a ramshackle cottage in a quiet, uninhabited bay on the Ile d’Orleans. Jim’s daily writing follows a quiet routine with little to punctuate it other than semi-regular tennis matches with his brother, feeding and tending to his cats and the scrappy strays that invite themselves into his home, and solitary walks on the beach in front of his home. It is on just such a walk that Jim discovers footprints in the sand leading to a cave where someone has been camping. Finding a copy of The Arabian Nights in the cave with the name “Marie K.” written on the flyleaf, Jim becomes instantly besotted with this mysterious unseen stranger, whom he nicknames Marika.

Here, as in Translation is a Love Affair, real life quickly begins to intermingle with fiction and vice-versa. For Poulin’s characters, life itself is a process of composition, improvised and redrafted as unforeseen events take place. As Jim struggles to write a love story, he becomes convinced that his authorial problems can all be chalked up to the fact that he has ignored Hemingway’s rule: “a writer must stick to the subject he knows best.” He surmises that his story has stalled because “I was trying to write a love story without being in love myself.” Ergo, he whimsically decides, he must “take a closer interest in that person named Marika.”

But matters of the heart, much like matters of fiction, are not so easily constructed. Instead of meeting Marika, he meets a woman named Bungalow, a former housewife who left her “gilded cage” to run a shelter for young women in Old Quebec, and La Petite, who lives at the shelter but increasingly becomes a regular visitor at Jim’s cottage. The arrival of these two women takes both Jim’s fictional and real life love stories off course: the mysterious Marika continues to elude him, and obstinately, his fictional characters become friends instead of lovers, despite his frequent attempts to revise their relationship. The romantic story that he set out to write (and to live) gives way, ever so slowly, to a gentler, more protective, tender kind of love—that between himself and the curious, lovable, but often volatile La Petite—the love between a parent and child.

In simple, clean prose (musically rendered in Sheila Fischman’s translation) Poulin delivers his bittersweet tale with a restraint that belies true joy, the dogged optimism that complete strangers from totally different backgrounds and circumstances can find in each other real empathy and kindness. That such connections are right there in front of us, if only we trouble to look for them.
“What matters are the emotional ties that connect people and form a vast, invisible web without which the world would crumble,” Jim realizes. “Everything else to which people devote the greater part of their time, looking very serious as they do so, is of only minor importance.”

25 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Brady Evan Walker on Joseph Roth’s Job, which was recently retranslated by Ross Benjamin and published by Archipelago Books.

Brady Evan Walker is a writer who splits his time unequally between New Orleans and Brooklyn, constantly on the run from the horrors of NY winters and LA (Louisiana, not L.A.) summers. He blogs infrequently at The Hole in Thin Air.

Joseph Roth is one of the greats of European Literature. A number of his books—including the epic Radetzsky’s March—are available from Overlook. Job was first published (and translated into English) in 1930, and was long overdue for a new translation. For more information on Ross’s translation and the history of this book, I’d highly recommend listening to this interview that Bill Marx of PRI’s The World Books did with Ross last fall.

Here’s the opening of Brady’s review:

Job, recently published by the consistently incredible Archipelago Press in a new translation by Ross Benjamin, is the first, and still only, book by Joseph Roth—a household-canon-grade writer in Europe—I have read. (I did have to get this review out in a timely fashion, and his other, more infamous masterpiece, Radetzsky’s March, is over 500 pages and sounds like an Austro-Hungarian version of One Hundred Years of Solitude, of which reading would have undoubtedly delayed this review.)

Job is one of those lyrically imbued novels packed with poetic turns of phrase and unwieldy sentences, slipping, slaloming, galloping and tumbling by with such rhythmic intent that it’s hard, as a writer, not to underline, annotate and copy down at least one thing on any given page. Joseph Roth, a widely-traveled journalist, undoubtedly found in the novel a place to let his verbosely winding hair down.

When we meet Mendel Singer, the “pious, God-fearing and ordinary . . . everyday Jew,” he is a mediocre children’s bible teacher with a dull home and emotionally distant family. When his fourth child is born sickly and skeletally contorted at the opening of the novel, Singer’s average life tips toward the downhill slope. It’s interesting that Roth, himself a Galician-born, shtetl-raised Jew, used village life as the basis for his retelling, where the original Job’s great wealth and influence had no place. Benjamin’s afterword sketches a brief biography, wherein he says of Roth: “[I]t is no wonder that the centuries-old figure of the migrant Jew who is nowhere at home would strike the writer as an embodiment of the peripatetic nature of postwar modern life . . . prompting him to evoke the trope of Jewish exile in Job.”

You can read the full review by clicking here.

Job
25 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Job, recently published by the consistently incredible Archipelago Press in a new translation by Ross Benjamin, is the first, and still only, book by Joseph Roth—a household-canon-grade writer in Europe—I have read. (I did have to get this review out in a timely fashion, and his other, more infamous masterpiece, Radetzsky’s March, is over 500 pages and sounds like an Austro-Hungarian version of One Hundred Years of Solitude, of which reading would have undoubtedly delayed this review.)

Job is one of those lyrically imbued novels packed with poetic turns of phrase and unwieldy sentences, slipping, slaloming, galloping and tumbling by with such rhythmic intent that it’s hard, as a writer, not to underline, annotate and copy down at least one thing on any given page. Joseph Roth, a widely-traveled journalist, undoubtedly found in the novel a place to let his verbosely winding hair down.

When we meet Mendel Singer, the “pious, God-fearing and ordinary . . . everyday Jew,” he is a mediocre children’s bible teacher with a dull home and emotionally distant family. When his fourth child is born sickly and skeletally contorted at the opening of the novel, Singer’s average life tips toward the downhill slope. It’s interesting that Roth, himself a Galician-born, shtetl-raised Jew, used village life as the basis for his retelling, where the original Job’s great wealth and influence had no place. Benjamin’s afterword sketches a brief biography, wherein he says of Roth: “[I]t is no wonder that the centuries-old figure of the migrant Jew who is nowhere at home would strike the writer as an embodiment of the peripatetic nature of postwar modern life . . . prompting him to evoke the trope of Jewish exile in Job.”

The novel is divided between two sections, the first in Zuchnow (the Singers’ native home) and the second, America, where the Singers quickly immigrate in an effort to protect their promiscuous daughter from herself and her trio of horny Cossacks.

While the novel sees Mendel Singer through a series of misfortunes (a son gone missing in the Russian Revolution, a son dead at war, a wife dead of grief, &c., &c.), the center of the novel is Mendel and his wife’s relationship to their crippled son, Menuchim, whom they leave with friends in Zuchnow when they immigrate, thinking him too sick to endure the trip. Three quarters through the novel, Mendel finally gives up on God and humanity, then mopes through his days, more or less sapped of the will to live but for the hope of seeing his Menuchim.

The virtue of the novel lies in the synchronism between its lyrical rhythm and its portrayal of quotidian misery. In simple lines like “Today the dead seemed deader than usual,” or “Nothing happened. Yet infinite things seemed to want to happen,” serve as punctuating stops between epic flights like:

She neglected her duty at the stove, the soup boiled over, the clay pots cracked, the pans rusted, the greenish shimmering glasses shattered with a harsh crash, the chimney of the petroleum lamp was darkened with soot, the wick was charred to a miserable stub, the dirt of many soles and many weeks coated the floorboards, the lard melted away in the pot, the withered buttons fell from the children’s shirts like leaves before the winter.

What a sentence! What a dully unpleasant (yet so beautiful-sounding!) existence.

Though Roth has no compunction about cruelty to his characters, there are certainly moments in which he allowed bits of saccharine fairy tale-telling to creep. (In the afterword, Benjamin reveals that Roth once confessed that he couldn’t have written the ending had he not been drunk.) (NB: Roth died of alcoholism.) But because the novel works on such an entrenched psychological level, digging deeply into its characters, the sudden turn of fortune doesn’t elicit that deus ex romantic comedy sigh of frustration that might come of any sudden, punctuating upswing, rather I, at the very least, found myself turning the pages, curious how this bedraggled and tortured man would react to something good, not so much interested in the odd event itself. And it was all still as compelling and sweetly limned as all of that bad.

8 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Lily Ye on Magdalena Tulli’s In Red, this week’s Read This Next book, which is translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston and coming out in September from Archipelago Books.

Lily comes to us from the University of Chicago by way of Jeff Waxman’s glowing recommendation. Expect to see her name on Three Percent a lot over the next few months, since she’s managing the Read This Next project.

Here’s the opening of her review:

Stitchings, the town in which Magdalena Tulli’s In Red exclusively takes place, is one of those fictional locales which always has me wondering if there is some place in reality perhaps so-named that has been reimagined, or if it truly exists only as a fantastic realm in the author’s imagination. With a poor working knowledge of anything geographic in general, it would not have surprised me to find out that Tulli’s Stitchings did in fact exist—but it is largely due to the power this imaginary town wields in dictating the course of the novel’s many intertwining threads that contributes to a nagging feeling that there must be something corporeal to this place, for it to grip its chronicler so tightly.

The narration never shifts its focus from the town: every narrative move seems to be led by flow of time through this singular place. Characters and plots appear and disappear as their significance waxes and wanes in relation to the life of the town itself. You cannot choose a favorite protagonist, for as soon as you do, Stitchings may have already lost interest, or better yet, said protagonist may well die (as most quickly do), but having died, might yet also return (not uncommon as well). The love story, the war story, these are not narrative frameworks Tulli has time to dwell on, for Stitchings presses on without regard for a classic conflict-resolution arc. A single bullet can be fired which will continue to orbit the earth, completely ignored, until it reappears in the town thirty pages later, firmly lodging itself in a man’s chest.

Throughout the book however, like the most insidious of villains, Stitchings remains largely concealed in the background. As its own entity, the town is only brought into the foreground a few times where the audience is directly addressed in the manner of a travel or tourist agency.

Click here to read the full review.

8 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Stitchings, the town in which Magdalena Tulli’s In Red exclusively takes place, is one of those fictional locales which always has me wondering if there is some place in reality perhaps so-named that has been reimagined, or if it truly exists only as a fantastic realm in the author’s imagination. With a poor working knowledge of anything geographic in general, it would not have surprised me to find out that Tulli’s Stitchings did in fact exist—but it is largely due to the power this imaginary town wields in dictating the course of the novel’s many intertwining threads that contributes to a nagging feeling that there must be something corporeal to this place, for it to grip its chronicler so tightly.

The narration never shifts its focus from the town: every narrative move seems to be led by flow of time through this singular place. Characters and plots appear and disappear as their significance waxes and wanes in relation to the life of the town itself. You cannot choose a favorite protagonist, for as soon as you do, Stitchings may have already lost interest, or better yet, said protagonist may well die (as most quickly do), but having died, might yet also return (not uncommon as well). The love story, the war story, these are not narrative frameworks Tulli has time to dwell on, for Stitchings presses on without regard for a classic conflict-resolution arc. A single bullet can be fired which will continue to orbit the earth, completely ignored, until it reappears in the town thirty pages later, firmly lodging itself in a man’s chest.

Throughout the book however, like the most insidious of villains, Stitchings remains largely concealed in the background. As its own entity, the town is only brought into the foreground a few times where the audience is directly addressed in the manner of a travel or tourist agency.

The book begins:

Whoever has been everywhere and seen everything, last of all should pay a visit to Stitchings. Simply take a seat in a sleigh and, before being overcome by sleep, speed across a plain that’s as empty as a blank sheet of paper, boundless as life itself.

As the book continues, there is indeed a feeling of drifting off into sleep, and emerging in a dream of Tulli’s writing, filling the landscape before you. Her seemingly easy mastery of language assists in transitioning you from scene to scene without you ever having noticed. There is a poetry in her language that shifts from the figurative to the literal so seamlessly that it is easy to forget what is description and what is action:

For Guards Street took its shape from the sinuous melody of the taps played every evening on the bugle. The instrument’s golden sounds soared into the air and wafted over the roofs of the apartment houses. But on the far side of the market square they dropped at once with the labored flight of a stunned bird.

From one sentence or paragraph to the next, I often realized new surroundings with no recollection of how I got there—such is the fluidity of her writing. Of course, this sometimes made for a bit of confusion, but as I had the text in front of me, I could go back and re-trace my steps, but this very act is part of the trap of the town that Tulli has put together.

In this town, rings that seemed lost forever are found once again, a dead husband refuses to die so that his wife cannot remarry—nothing leaves Stitchings, it is its own microcosm. And so it is shocking when Natalie Zugoff, a singer brought for the town theatre, appears near the end of the book, when you are sure things must be wrapping up. Understanding the nature of the book, however, as forcefully compelled by the long life of an entire town, that we have such a late introduction to a merely human character becomes unsurprising. In a way, Tulli has made something of a difficult trap for herself as author by writing a town that refuses to be wrapped up.

As the book comes to a close, Tulli must return the narration to a direct address to the reader, for there is simply no other way to end the book. It is an authorial address to both the reader and the narrative voice of the novel:

If you wish to leave Stitchings, do not hesitate for a moment: you have to do it between the capital letter and the period, without clinging to any broken-off thought, without waiting for the final word.

5 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next book is In Red by Magdalena Tulli, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston, and coming out from Archipelago Books in September.

In Red is the fourth Tulli book to come out from Archipelago, following on Dreams and Stones, Flaw, and Moving Parts. The jacket copy from their site isn’t overly informative, but does provide a bit of an outline:

In this latest groundbreaking novel, Magdalena Tulli creates a world that is unreal, yet strangely familiar and utterly convincing. Set in a mythical fourth partition of Poland, In Red is full of dreamlike descriptions of the town and its inhabitants; its power lies in Tulli’s evocative, almost hallucinatory use of language.

Here’s a bit from the introduction Lily Ye wrote for the RTN site:

Miniature in size, and coming in at less than 160 half-sized pages, In Red should not be overlooked. We chose this book precisely for the compact strength Tulli employs in activating language and her enthralling power to quickly induce a vision of a truly fantastic world. This translation by Bill Johnston showcases Tulli’s mastery of metaphor and the measured control of her prose.

This book marks the beginning of Tulli’s transition into a more narrative style of writing. Her first book Dreams and Stones, which won Poland’s Koscielski award for promising writers under 40, has been described by Johnston, her primary translator, as more of a prose poem than a novel. Her latest work, Flaw, already shows her developing a more linear narrative. In Red strikes somewhere in between the two, making for a delightfully surprising read throughout.

Click here to read an extended preview of In Red. And we’ll be posting an interview with Bill Johnston tomorrow, and an full review of the book on Friday.

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.”

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 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Kaija Straumanis on Wiesław Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston, and available from Archipelago Books.

Kaija Straumanis is a grad student in the MA translation program (MALTS for short) here at the University of Rochester. She’s currently in Latvia, “partying like an Eastern European” (?!) and trying to find the perfect work of Latvian Literature for Open Letter.

I assigned Stone Upon Stone for the “World Literature & Translation” class I taught last spring. It’s 534 pages long. I initially thought there was going to be a silent coup, with everyone griping about all the stuff they have to do for other classes . . . But no! Everyone loved the novel. (Or almost everyone—I’m remembering this with an optimist’s viewpoint.) And with good reason. This is my early favorite for the 2012 Best Translated Book Award due to Szymek’s incredible voice, and Bill Johnson’s amazing translation. This is a stunning book—one that is very easy to get sucked into . . . Those 534 pages fly by as if it were a novella! (Well, OK maybe not fly, but still.)

Here’s the opening of Kaija’s review:

It doesn’t take that many pages to figure out that the narrator of Stone Upon Stone is a womanizing, egotistical douche bag. Through a hyperbolic and highly digressive retelling of his life (ironically centered on the construction of a tomb), main man Szymek Pietruszka makes it clear that he is known by all around him as the best drinker, fighter, singer, dancer, ladies’ man—all the men want to be him and all the women want to be with him, etc. etc. But what’s amazing is that as much as Szymek is the type of guy you’d want to elbow hard in the back of the neck “on accident,” you can’t help but feel for and even like him. In just under 600 pages of palpable rural Polish imagery and culture, author Wiesław Myśliwski shows how easy it is to take a man who has seemingly spent his life at the top of his game and break him down piece-by-piece until he has nothing left but himself and the land.

Wiesław Myśliwski (1932- ) is an award winning Polish novelist and playwright whose novels have largely not yet been translated into English (with the exception of Palace [1991, Peter Owen Ltd] and the forthcoming A Treatise on Shelling Beans [2013, Archipelago]). Stone Upon Stone (Polish original published in 1984) has been called Myśliwski’s “grand epic,” and not without reason. In addition to specializing in all things Polish countryside, Myśliwski is a master not only of invoking location, but also of creating characters. The voice of Szymek Pietruszka is so distinct and so unique that it’s almost unreal to think the English translation is, in fact, a translation. That’s not to say it’s been streamlined to fit what could be considered a more “American” ideal or standard for fiction—this book is undeniably European. It’s more like the book was originally written in English.

Click here to read the entire review.

13 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It doesn’t take that many pages to figure out that the narrator of Stone Upon Stone is a womanizing, egotistical douche bag. Through a hyperbolic and highly digressive retelling of his life (ironically centered on the construction of a tomb), main man Szymek Pietruszka makes it clear that he is known by all around him as the best drinker, fighter, singer, dancer, ladies’ man—all the men want to be him and all the women want to be with him, etc. etc. But what’s amazing is that as much as Szymek is the type of guy you’d want to elbow hard in the back of the neck “on accident,” you can’t help but feel for and even like him. In just under 600 pages of palpable rural Polish imagery and culture, author Wiesław Myśliwski shows how easy it is to take a man who has seemingly spent his life at the top of his game and break him down piece-by-piece until he has nothing left but himself and the land.

Wiesław Myśliwski (1932- ) is an award winning Polish novelist and playwright whose novels have largely not yet been translated into English (with the exception of Palace [1991, Peter Owen Ltd] and the forthcoming A Treatise on Shelling Beans [2013, Archipelago]). Stone Upon Stone (Polish original published in 1984) has been called Myśliwski’s “grand epic,” and not without reason. In addition to specializing in all things Polish countryside, Myśliwski is a master not only of invoking location, but also of creating characters. The voice of Szymek Pietruszka is so distinct and so unique that it’s almost unreal to think the English translation is, in fact, a translation. That’s not to say it’s been streamlined to fit what could be considered a more “American” ideal or standard for fiction—this book is undeniably European. It’s more like the book was originally written in English.

This is something that can be credited to translator Bill Johnston, who through interviews and discussions on the translation of Stone Upon Stone communicates the utmost care and consideration that went into his translation of the novel. This is not a text you could chuck into something like Google Translate and get back even a modicum of the introspection and linguistic qualities necessary to make Szymek Pietruszka “happen.” Stone Upon Stone is a work that would demand the complete understanding of its narrator—possibly even demanding becoming one with the narrator—and judging by the final product, Johnston has done this mammoth read due justice.

And although the book appears massive, it reads surprisingly quickly. The borderline stream-of-consciousness narrative style runs a full circle course through Szymek’s life, and the narrative voice is simple, conversational, and easy to follow. It’s like pulling up a stool at the bar in your hometown next to that oddly endearing (and rather inebriated) story-teller who everyone knows and who oozes faux modesty and a lingering scent of cabbage pierogis.

It was the same when I was older and I’d go caroling with the other boys, no one would agree to be King Herod, because death cut Herod’s head off and no one liked to be killed. So I was always Herod, because I preferred being king to being afraid of death. We had a real scythe, one that was used for mowing, not a fake one with a wooden blade. When death cut your head off with a real scythe you felt death was real, too, and not Antek Mączka dressed up as death in a white sheet. Especially because each time I was killed the blade of the scythe had to touch my neck, not just knock my crown off . . . There was just that one time Antek Mączka brought the scythe down and nicked my till I bled, so I took his scythe away from him and kicked his ass and he didn’t play death anymore.

Even though the entire novel may at first seem like nothing more than one tangent after another, there is a method to the rambling madness. Each chapter heading is closely connected to everything that falls under it. For example, the chapter “Brothers” looks not only at Szymek’s relationship with his own brothers, but also looks at his dealings with a pack of vengeful brothers from next door, and even at the greater “brotherhood of man.”

It is precisely the things that determine Szymek’s douchery—and the similar or complete opposite actions and reactions of those around him—that make Szymek more realistic, easier to relate to, and ultimately more human and even likeable. Instead of seeing him for the demigod he makes himself out to be, we get to know Szymek as a man who has lived through the struggles of pre- and post-ward Poland, dealt with the hardships of rural Polish life, family struggles, personal gains and losses. The more Szymek talks himself up, the more he undoes his facade. And the more the mask is undone the more it becomes clear that this is less the story of one man and more the reflection of human kind. Of course it helps that any hint of overbearing life lessons or preaching is ushered out by Szymek’s outlook on the world, which is an odd combination of life-loving cynicism and matter-of-fact morbidity. Pair this with flawless delivery and you get a novel that, although at times contains less palpable content and themes of death and suffering, warrants many outbursts of laughter at Szymek’s anecdotes. Sure, he may be a self-absorbed, quasi-alcoholic jag who represents human suffering, triumph and mankind as a whole, but he’s your self-absorbed alchy jag, dammit, and you just can’t help but love him for it.

8 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Kaija Straumanis on Yuri Rytkheu’s The Chukchi Bible, translated from the Russian by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse and soon to be available from Archipelago Books.

Rytkheu is one of the only (if not the only) Chukchi writers to be translated into English. His A Dream in Polar Fog came out a few years back to a decent amount of critical attention, and I suspect that The Chukchi Bible will also do pretty well. You can read an excerpt from this new book at Archipelago’s website.

Kaija Straumanis is one of the MA Translation students here at the University of Rochester and is currently working on a translation of a Latvian novel. She also has a large interest on translating humor and is well known among the translation students for the very entertaining, polyphonic way she reads aloud . . .

Here’s the (very Three Percent) opening of her review:

A bird flies around, takes a few shits, the shit turns into land and, voilà, the world is created.

That may sound like a summary of a terrible animated short or a 1970s acid trip, but it’s simply my poorly hyper-abridged version of one of many truly beautiful Chukchi folk tales that mark the beginning of time and man in Yuri Rytkheu’s The Chukchi Bible. Here’s the real version:

“A raven was flying over an expanse. From time to time he slowed his flight and scattered his droppings. Wherever solid matter fell, a land mass appeared; wherever liquid fell became rivers and lakes, puddles and rivulets. Sometimes First Bird’s excrements mingled together, and this created the tundra marshes. The hardest of the Raven’s droppings served as the building blocks for scree slopes, mountains, and craggy cliffs.” [. . .]

Author Yuri Rytkheu (1930-2008) is considered the “father of Chukchi literature“—though the title should probably be more along the lines of “only Chukchi literary figure“—and during his lifetime, published several novels and collections of short stories and poetry. Only a few of his works have been translated into English, the most recent preceding The Chukchi Bible being A Dream in Polar Fog (Archipelago Books, 2006). Rytkheu was born and grew up in the coastal village of Uelen, which is located in the Chukotka region of Russia and is the country’s eastern most settlement. While his previous works have been fictional, The Chukchi Bible is a hybrid of legend and hard fact. In a short introduction Rytkheu explains, “The book is not just the story of my lineage, and not just the story of our clan, but also the genealogy and the root of all my books.”

Click here to read the full review.

8 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A bird flies around, takes a few shits, the shit turns into land and, voilà, the world is created.

That may sound like a summary of a terrible animated short or a 1970s acid trip, but it’s simply my poorly hyper-abridged version of one of many truly beautiful Chukchi folk tales that mark the beginning of time and man in Yuri Rytkheu’s The Chukchi Bible. Here’s the real version:

A raven was flying over an expanse. From time to time he slowed his flight and scattered his droppings. Wherever solid matter fell, a land mass appeared; wherever liquid fell became rivers and lakes, puddles and rivulets. Sometimes First Bird’s excrements mingled together, and this created the tundra marshes. The hardest of the Raven’s droppings served as the building blocks for scree slopes, mountains, and craggy cliffs.

There’s just something amazing about folk tales. I grew up with them as bedtime stories and have had a soft spot for them ever since, even preferring them to all things Disney. See, I find fairy tales lack that realistic nitty-gritty and hometown hero charm only a culture-specific folk tale can evoke. “Folk tales” focus on specific aspects of a culture, its values and history, whereas “fairy tales” are mostly about dwarves, princes hooking up with princesses, and evil queens getting tossed into canyons. While both forms of story telling are meant to entertain, folk tales are better in regard to educating and reminding us where we come from. And The Chukchi Bible has no shortage of heroes, culture, reality and that delicious nitty-gritty that makes stories like this all the more tangible.

Author Yuri Rytkheu (1930-2008) is considered the “father of Chukchi literature“—though the title should probably be more along the lines of “only Chukchi literary figure“—and during his lifetime, published several novels and collections of short stories and poetry. Only a few of his works have been translated into English, the most recent preceding The Chukchi Bible being A Dream in Polar Fog (Archipelago Books, 2006). Rytkheu was born and grew up in the coastal village of Uelen, which is located in the Chukotka region of Russia and is the country’s eastern most settlement. While his previous works have been fictional, The Chukchi Bible is a hybrid of legend and hard fact. In a short introduction Rytkheu explains, “The book is not just the story of my lineage, and not just the story of our clan, but also the genealogy and the root of all my books.”

The first part of The Chukchi Bible is a crash-course in the Chukchi way of life—something that is so far removed from anything I’ve personally known or understood that it took some getting used to. Harpooning whales and spearing seals for food and clothing, washing their faces with urine to improve complexion, accommodating a guest by letting him sleep with your wife or daughter . . . Rytkheu’s writing and vivid imagery brings out the best and worst, the most common and most abnormal of the life on the Arctic coast. What I mean by this is that, while the customs, actions and lifestyles described are initially shocking, I was eventually able to understand that it was simply the way things were done; out of a necessity for survival and a respect for one’s culture.

The second part of the book starts with the birth of Rytkheu’s grandfather, Mletkin. Once the book moves into Mletkin’s life, the imagery and tone of the narrative take on a more personal feeling:

Mletkin always had a particular, not to say unnatural, curiosity about death. Whenever it fell to him to assist Kalyantagrau in helping someone to die, he would peer intently into the dying one’s face, and each time he was just as astonished at how little the dead person resembled the living one. Oh, on the outside, the two were similar enough. But only on the outside. It was strikingly apparent that something internal and imperceptible was disappearing, something invisible but so essential that the body of the deceased suddenly seemed so more than a covering, the outer clothing of the person who had now passed into the unfathomable beyond.

The story follows Mletkin throughout his life—from a boy just going through the motions of village life in Uelen, into a young adult who starts to see how the outside world is not only different from his own, but can also be detrimental to it, and finally into a man who has traveled the world and is so self-aware it is at times frightening.

However, it’s hard to label the entirety of Rytkheu’s work purely as fiction. The Chukchi Bible is a record of how and what the Chukchi hunted, what they ate, what they wore, how they named their children, claimed their spouses, and how their culture was slowly but surely upended by both Russian and American influences. And yet it focuses on Rytkheu’s own family and is a kind of homage to his grandfather, Mletkin, the last shaman of the coastal Siberian village of Uelen. This historical account of the Chukchi people and the author’s roots is lush with mystic elements of Chukchi folk culture. Biography, history, fantasy—it’s a three-in-one deal. Rytkheu moves smoothly from one genre to another in a conversational, educational, but never boring manner.

What’s great about The Chukchi Bible is that it conveys the hauntingly beautiful connection between man and nature alongside the scientific aspects of the harsh reality in which Rytkheu’s resilient ancestors lived and interacted—all the while weaving it seamlessly with that folk tale thread. The emotional and factual experience while reading this is analogous to taking a book of the Brothers Grimm and a National Geographic documentary, mixing it into a half liter of Coke, then dropping in a Mentos and enjoying the ensuing explosion as it all rains down.

That’s right—it’s freaking awesome.

22 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

Eline Vere by Louis Couperus, translated by Ina Rikle

Language: Dutch
Country: Netherlands
Publisher: Archipelago
Pages: 523

Why This Book Should Win: Couperus is the Dutch Zola/Flaubert/Tolstoy, but pretty much no one in America reads him; this is a truly classic novel, one that was first published in 1889; probably the only “Novel of the Hague” published last year.

The best introduction you can get to Couperus and Eline Vere is the bit from the Leonard Lopate show attached below and featuring Ina Rilke and Paul Binding:

(Kind of funny that right off the bat, Rilke talks about how Eline Vere isn’t really Couperus’s best work.)

Another great entryway to Couperus—one of the Netherlands great authors—is Paul Binding’s very informative and interesting afterword. Here’s a bit:

Louis Couperus was only twenty-six when Eline Vere came out, and had previously published only unsatisfactory and derivative poems (in 1883 and 1884). Though it is a literary artefact of precocious sophistication and accomplishment, the novel is also palpably the creation of a young man whose years were a great advantage to him in its composition. For Couperus is still very much of the milieu he is re-creating, aware though he is of its limitations and faults, and he clearly was intimately familiar, as a member himself of youthful Hague society, of the very pleasures, expectations and hopes he ascribes to his large cast of characters, almost all of them his contemporaries. Their gossip and banter, their flirtations, their little tiffs and misunderstandings and reconciliations, their plans for and doubts about the nature of their future adult lives convince us (and never more so than in Ina Rilke’s spirited and linguistically sensitive English) because they are done essentially from the inside. A young man like Etienne van Erlevoort, lazy and industrious, facetious and affectionate by turns, springs to life off the pages—on which he performs no absolutely essential dramatic act—as though a relation of the author’s own, slyly observed over many years, were being presented to us. [. . .]

And a bit about the book itself:

Almost halfway through Eline Vere we find its eponymous heroine in a state of conscious happiness. Eline, whose life has hitherto centered round the entertainments of high society in The Hague, is staying at De Horze in Gelderland, the country property of the family into which she has agreed to marry. The more she sees of her betrothed, Otto van Erlevoort, the more she appreciates his kindly, virtuous character. Herself highly strung and only too frequently dissatisfied, she has found deep contentment in surrendering to the slow rhythms of the rural summer. These have enabled her to get on with members of the large Van Erlevoort family so well that they are now obviously fond of her—even Otto’s sister Frederique, who has never much cared for her. Eline is quite aware that she has significantly changed:

“During moments of solitary reflection on her new selfhood, tears welled up in her eyes in gratitude for all the goodness that she had received, and her only wish was that time would not fly, but stand still instead, so that the present would last for ever. Beyond that she desired nothing, and a sense of infinite rest and blissful, blue tranquility emanated from her being.”

Yet the God to whom she prays for this stasis does not answer her prayer, for time by its very nature cannot stand still. And moving and even sympathetic though we may find Eline’s thoughts here, we can also detect in them signs of the pernicious weakness that will destroy her. Her hopes are unrealistic, and fear plays too great a part in them; indeed, they amount to a desperate desire to have subtracted from existence anything demanding or painful. They are also self-centered; in this respect Eline’s “new selfhood” differs little, if at all, from her former one. Does her fiance have his rightful part in these wishes of hers for the future to be cancelled?

Another great rediscovery from Archipelago . . .

OK, two books left to cover, and then on Thursday we’ll be announcing the finalists for both fiction and poetry.

15 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles._

Click here for all past and future posts.

Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, translated by Joel Rotenberg

Language: German
Country: Moravia
Publisher: Archipelago
Pages: 560

Why This Book Should Win: Again with the Mad Scientist!; Archipelago titles are always contenders; the novel is long, engrossing, gothic, and classic.

Today’s entry is from Bill Marx, who is a BTB judge, editor of Arts Fuse, and runs PRI’s The World: World Books. He also teaches at BU.

You wouldn’t know it from the myopic reviews, at least the ones that I have read, but Georg Letham is one of the greatest horror novels of the 20th century. (Probably the greatest—name the contenders.) Not horror in the adolescent Stephen King/H.P. Lovecraft mode of rampaging monsters, but in the scientific romance genre, a modernist version of the Gothic mythopoetic imagination found in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and H. G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau. It sits proudly with those wonderful books, daring to go to hallucinogenic extremes when linking the sadistic depths of the scientific mentality with the amorality of modern life.

Because it was published in 1931 by a Czech-Jewish writer and deals with a “mad” homicidal doctor (a bacteriologist), who wants to benefit a mankind he feels nothing for, the critical tendency has been to see the story as a expose of the fascist mentality, which it is, and as a Freudian nightmare, which it isn’t. Or that is the least interesting reading of this jaw-dropper of a book, as exemplified by the dreary Nation piece that reduces Weiss’s fascinating narrative into a mirror of the process of psychoanalysis.

Weiss’s vision in Georg Letham is not rote Freudian; it is firmly in the social critique/ apocalyptic Darwinian mode. “Can man triumph over nature?” asks Georg. “Never. He, man, is only an experiment on the part of nature, the terrible.” Thus evolution (or God) may be experimenting with pitiless objectivity on us, generating humans out of animals. And the terrible is woven into everything we think and do: the predominate metaphor in the novel—repeated to the point of saturation—is the degrading/violent transformation of humans into animals (rats and frogs dominate) and animals into humans (a “feminist” retelling of Adam and Eve stars two rats in a pit and ends with the female gobbling up the male). Tossed into prison for killing his wife (because she nauseates him), Georg ends up looking for a cure for Yellow fever in the tropics (fire), with a memorable flashback to his brutal father fighting an army of rats during a hellish expedition to the North Pole (ice).

Some warnings before tackling Georg Letham—its structure is lumpy, little more than a series of set pieces that are of novella length. And if you have an abnormal fear of rats and love dogs you will have a very hard time, though the victims dish out some payback to their not-so-fittest tormentors. Adventurous readers with stout temperaments will find this gruesome diagnosis of modernity worthy of Nietzsche (“herd mentality”) and sociologist Max Weber. The latter summed up Georg’s dissociated type perfectly: “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart,” though as an unreliable narrator Georg is self-consciously (and poignantly) aware of his lack of humanity. Weber also refers to civilized men as souls trapped in “the polar night of icy darkness.” Georg Letham is a demanding but magnificent deep freeze of a novel, classic horror served zero to the bone.

20 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the past few years, Amazon.com has been awarding grants to a number of interesting projects, including a lot of ones related to literature in translation. Their list of grantees includes Open Letter (for The Wall in My Head,), PEN America (for the Translation Fund), Words Without Borders, Copper Canyon, Milkweed, Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Poets & Writers, Small Press Distribution, etc., etc.

The latest addition to the list is the extremely worthy Archipelago Books:

Archipelago Books is delighted to announce today that it is among a diverse group of nonprofit organizations to receive a $25,000 grant from Amazon.com. Archipelago Books is a Brooklyn, NY-based not-for-profit press dedicated to publishing world literature in translation. The generous grant from Amazon.com will be used to support the forthcoming publication of the novel Stone Upon Stone, written by Nike Prize-winning author Wiesaw Myliwski and translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston. The novel will be released in December of 2010.

Myliwski’s novels and plays, among them Widnokrag [Horizon] (1996) and Traktat o uskaniu fasoli [A Treatise on Shelling Beans] (2006) focus on life in the Polish countryside. Although he has twice received the Nike Award (the Polish equivalent of the Booker Prize), Stone Upon Stone will be Myliwski’s first work published in English translation. Stone Upon Stone has already received much praise in the Polish press. Anna Tatarkiewicz called the novel “the first masterpiece in Slavic literature, perhaps even in European literature, in which the fate of the peasant attains the standing of human fate in all its tragic vastness.” Meanwhile, Krystyna Dabrowska hailed the novel as “A hymn in praise of life. . . . A paean to speech and the art of storytelling.”

So great to see Amazon.com continue this program and their support of very interesting projects and presses.

And since everything’s connected, here’s a link to the most recent episode of the Reading the World podcast which features Bill Johnston talking about the process of translating Stone Upon Stone.

22 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Monica Carter on the Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist, which was translated from the German by Peter Wortsman and published by Archipelago Books.

Monica Carter is a very steady reviewer for us, who also serves on the fiction panel for the Best Translated Book award, runs the fabulous site Salonica and works at Skylight Books in L.A.

Always strange to say things like this about mega-famous authors who influenced writers like Kafka and Mann, but it seems like Kleist is undergoing a sort of moment—at least as regards American publishers and readers. In addition to this wonderful collection, Melville House reissued the Martin Greenberg translation of Michael Kohlhaas a few years back as part of their stunning Art of the Novella series.

Here’s the opening of Monica’s extremely positive review:

For as little known as he is, for as long ago as he lived and for a short a time as he was alive, it’s amazing the amount of impacting work German short story writer, poet, dramatist, and essayist Heinrich von Kleist produced during his life time. Born in 1777 and dead of suicide in 1811, Kleist suffered the bane of many famous writers—ridiculed and dismissed during his lifetime but respected and revered once time passed and history decided he was a worthy entry in the annals of literature. Today his plays are considered classic stalwarts of the German theatrical canon and his prose is known to have heavily influenced Kafka and Mann. And once again, the English speaking contingent of world literature can thank Archipelago Books for bring his varied and masterful work to our attention.

The Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist is a collection of superbly crafted stories and essays that span cultures and centuries but deftly exposes the universality of human tragedy. Although at first glance the language may feel dated and melodramatic, it is deceptive to label him as a writer with an antiquated style that was only relevant to his era. His style is distinct and was also considered so at the time, and what becomes more evident to the reader as she moves through this collection of prose is that the complexity of his language serves as a respite for the reader from the tension created by the intricate plotting. Once the reader settles into his prose, the language laden sentences that seemingly turn themselves inside out mesmerize us into a leisurely pace that is comforting in its cadence.

Click here to read the full review.

22 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For as little known as he is, for as long ago as he lived and for a short a time as he was alive, it’s amazing the amount of impacting work German short story writer, poet, dramatist, and essayist Heinrich von Kleist produced during his life time. Born in 1777 and dead of suicide in 1811, Kleist suffered the bane of many famous writers—ridiculed and dismissed during his lifetime but respected and revered once time passed and history decided he was a worthy entry in the annals of literature. Today his plays are considered classic stalwarts of the German theatrical canon and his prose is known to have heavily influenced Kafka and Mann. And once again, the English speaking contingent of world literature can thank Archipelago Books for bring his varied and masterful work to our attention.

The Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist is a collection of superbly crafted stories and essays that span cultures and centuries but deftly exposes the universality of human tragedy. Although at first glance the language may feel dated and melodramatic, it is deceptive to label him as a writer with an antiquated style that was only relevant to his era. His style is distinct and was also considered so at the time, and what becomes more evident to the reader as she moves through this collection of prose is that the complexity of his language serves as a respite for the reader from the tension created by the intricate plotting. Once the reader settles into his prose, the language laden sentences that seemingly turn themselves inside out mesmerize us into a leisurely pace that is comforting in its cadence.

But what drives the narrative are the perfect marriage of character and plot. From the beginning of each story, we know what will happen to these characters, yet still we read on because Kleist gives the illusion that hope is just after the turn of the page. A slight altering of a worn maxim can cover Kleist’s characters and their travails—destiny hath no fury like a fate scorned. And scorned they are.

There are the cursed lovers in “The Earthquake in Chile” and “The Betrothal of Santo Domingo,” the mysterious and plagued fortunes in “Saint Cecilia and The Power of Music (A Legend)” and “The Marquise of O . . .” and the ugly side of revenge in “Michael Kohlhaas.” “Michael Kohlhaas” is more of a novella and is the mainstay of the collection. It chronicles the path of a horse trader, Michael Kohlhaas, who is wronged by a local junker and spends the rest of his life seeking vengeance. Of course he loses everything in the process, but Kleist draws this out in a believable manner.

What’s also dazzling about this collection are the topics: unexplained pregnancy, biracial love affairs, and mental disorder. Sign me up. Perhaps the contentious nature of these stories caused hostility toward Kleist during his lifetime, but his unwavering commitment to truth makes his work seem more contemporary and more courageous considering the social mores of the time. His characters are the antecedents to what later became the classic character types in German literature. This innovativeness paired with his fast-paced plotting make him a necessary read for the consummate short story reader or writer.

Finally, the collection closes with two ruminative essays on meditation and art: “On the Gradual Formulation of Thoughts While Speaking” and “On the Theater of Marionettes” are light and astute pieces that display his process of self-reflection. After the intensity of the short stories that precede these essays, their presence and tone gives a welcome insight into the artist himself.

The Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist is a work that surprises, unsettles and engages. His language drowns you and the unfortunate fate of his characters enduring the relentless blows of an unforgiving plot keep you tense. These are classic tales from a talented writer whose work refuses to let literature or history to look away.

21 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Congrats to Gerbrand Bakker, David Colmer, Archipelago Books, and everyone else involved in the creation, production, and promotion of The Twin, which won this year’s International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2010. (Whew. Exhale.)1

This book has received heaps of deserved praise—it was a NPR pick for Best Foreign Fiction of the Year, A Powell’s Indiespensable Pick, A School Library Journal Best Adult Book for High School Students, and was shortlisted for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award.

Here’s what the judging panel said about this novel:

Though rich in detail, it’s a sparely written story, with the narrator’s odd small cruelties, laconic humour and surprising tendernesses emerging through a steady, well-paced, unaffected style.

The book convinces from first page to last. With quiet mastery the story draws in the reader. The writing is wonderful: restrained and clear, and studded with detail of farm rhythms in the cold, damp Dutch countryside. The author excels at dialogue, and Helmer’s inner story-telling voice also comes over perfectly as he begins to change everything around him. There are intriguing ambiguities, but no false notes. Nothing and no one is predictable, and yet we believe in them all: the regular tanker driver, the next door neighbour with her two bouncing children, and Jaap, the old farm labourer from the twins’ childhood who comes back to the farm in time for the last great upheaval, as Helmer finally takes charge of what is left of his own life.

This is a really incredible book—surprisingly engrossing, very well written, beautifully produced. And available in paperback on July 1st.

Again, congrats to all involved, and it’s fantastic that the IMPAC award continues to bring great attention to really interesting works of international literature.

1 OK, can’t we just shorten this FOREVER to the IMPAC award? Is the rest even necessary? Well, I guess maybe, since the official website is a fucking mess and near mockery of itself. Look, I’m not telling you how to run your award (just how to create a website that doesn’t make me vomit a little bit in my mouth), but as one of the richest literary prizes in the world, don’t you think you could spare a little change to bring your web presence into the 20th century? C’mon, c’mon. BTW, you do fantastic work—keep it up!

18 February 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [2]

Last fall at Frankfurt I visited with quite a few Norwegian publishers, and every one of them was talking about Karl Ove Knausgård’s Min Kamp (My Struggle, or Mein Kampf to make the provocation plain), which our good friends at Oktober Forlaget were publishing in six volumes, three in one season and three the next, for a total of over 3,000 pages.

They all struggled to describe the novel, beyond saying that it was an obsessive biography about a man’s relationship to his father. That everyone brought it up, even Oktober’s competitors, was really intriguing, but even we aren’t crazy enough (maybe I shouldn’t speak so soon) to publish a six-volume novel about a man’s relationship to his father, and intrigued as I was I had resigned myself to the fact that the object of my curiosity was likely to remain forever beyond my reach, barring some sort of publishing miracle.

However, thanks to the technological internet-wonders of the Google Alert, I found a little more info about the book on a Swedish blog called Notes from the North, which I have dutifully bookmarked. Here’s a bit from the piece:

The Knausgård hysteria hasn’t spread yet to the East of the Scandinavian mountains but it will in the fall when the books are published in Swedish. I wonder if the book will be as prized for its honesty, but also so despised for certain things it is too honest about. As it’s said, the author reveals a lot, the reviewers, like myself reveal a lot of themselves, and the public reveals a lot when they show such pithy resentment towards literature. It’s nice that books still create a debate though, isn’t it?

I suggest the following. We take Min kamp and its possible interpretations to their logical consequence. Maybe the genius of this work is that the author has gone from being a puncture in the tale to the tale in itself. Isn’t it so that we should read Min kamp as a development of the narrator as the one whose judgment is in question to the narrator who is the one whose questioned judgment pushes the tale on and becomes the tale itself?

So, you can see why I’m so curious, even if it sounds like maybe I ultimately wouldn’t like the novel. If you want to read something by Karl Ove Knausgård, Archipelago published one of his earlier novels, A Time for Everything, last fall.

14 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next five weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Wonder by Hugo Claus. Translated from the Dutch by Michael Henry Heim. (Belgium, Archipelago)

I might be wrong about this, but it seems like Hugo Claus is one of those authors well-read Americans have heard of, but maybe never read. Or maybe they’ve read The Sorrows of Belgium, which is by far his most well-known work. (And the reason why he was always rumored for the Nobel Prize.) Wonder, in all its strangeness, may well bring a whole new group of readers to his work though.

Before getting to the book itself, it’s worth touching on Claus’s life for a moment. As Archipelago writes in its author bio: “Impossible to pin down, Claus was eclectic and in constant motion; his work is kaleidoscopic.” He was 18 when his first book of poems was published, and then he went on to write six novels and a number of plays.

He was also a painter and was affiliated with the CoBrA group (I love manifesto-driven groups with abbreviations resulting in quirky capitalization a la the OuLiPo . . .) a collection of artists that—at least according Wikipedia, the World’s Greatest Short Form Information Source—shared “a unifying doctrine of complete freedom of colour and form, as well as antipathy towards surrealism, the artists also shared an interest in Marxism as well as modernism.” Claus died of voluntary euthanasia in 2008.

I can’t do half the job Michael Orthofer did in describing Wonder so I’m think I’m just going to crib his review . . . The focal point of the novel is Victor Denijs de Rijckel, a schoolteacher who is a bit mental before the story even starts. And the novel progresses along two major tracks: a series of entries de Rijckel makes in a notebook he’s keeping at the institution where he currently resides, and a chronological description of earlier events.

The plot is set in motion when de Rijckel attends a masquerade ball, falls for a woman (isn’t it always the case?), and then meets a young student the next morning who knows the woman and where she lives. Michael can take it away:

The woman lives at Almout castle, in Hekegem, and they go there. Taking a room at a local inn the teacher passes the boy off as his nephew, but eventually they suspect him of being a paedophile; rather than turn him in, however, they want their silence to be bought — typical, it turns out, for this morally compromised nest. Reaching Almout de Rijckel is mistaken for someone else, the Dutch delegate to a meeting taking place there.

Wonder was first published in 1962, and the shadow of World War II is still a very strong presence. The meeting at Almout is of those sympathetic to the Nazi cause, the figure that looms over the meeting and town that of Jan-Willem Crabbe who distinguished himself during the war and about whose fate many theories swirl. De Rijckel is shown a picture of Crabbe: “being decorated with the Ritterkreuz by Hitler himself and you can see the admiration on Hitler’s face.”

Obviously, de Rijckel is in way over his head — led around by a boy barely in his teens (“my messenger and guide, who has led me from disgrace to scandal”), considered a paedophile by the townsfolk and a Nazi sympathiser by those at Almout. Things spiral somewhat out of control, but in a book where the central character has never been in much control it seems the obvious course.

And to get a sense of the prose, here’s a bit from de Rijckel’s notebook, which is more jumpy and linguistically playful that the descriptive sections of the book, but demonstrate Claus’s talents (and Michael Henry Heim’s):

Just now I nearly fell asleep as I wrote. And of course I was writing that the teacher fell asleep. There’s not a soul in this dump. Nobody can whisper the answers the way they did at teacher’s-college exams. The fastest years of our lives. Classes. Cheating, masturbation, pimples. Film. Over. So fast: a father, a mother, Elizabeth, the Principal.

She didn’t want a child. Mostly finger fumble. A wife who still belonged in school. Criss-cross spider webs. Crossword puzzles. One day she crossed out the word “marriage” in nearly all my books. In red ink. Every morning she combed and combed her hair. Then she left me. No big deal. The first thing I thought was, I’m going to wallpaper the apartment to my taste. But she kept the apartment: her mother saw to that. The pattern on the wallpaper came from a junk shop: crinolines and fiacres from French woodcuts—that sort of thing.

I felt more at home in my hotel room. Anonymous as a classroom. I wish I could get today’s paper. Or—I’ve asked that bastard twenty times by now—a dictionary. I want to dazzle Korneel (who will never read this notebook, may he die of cancer) with adjectives. I was good at composition. I once wrote a composition about spring.

Echoing another of Michael’s observations, the narrative is a bit disjointed, non-linear, and hazy. But it also has a very classic, very capital-l Literary feel. This is a book that’s going to be read for years, which is a testament to the great work Archipelago is doing.

I’m going to leave off here with an awesome quote from Claus himself that’s on the back of the book: “We cannot accept the world as it is. Each day we should wake up foaming at the mouth from the injustice of things.”

12 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next five weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker. Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer. (Netherlands, Archipelago)

Archipelago has done an amazing job of creating a brand for itself. The books are very high quality—inside and out—easily recognizable from across the store, and are well reviewed and received. It’s hard to imagine that Archipelago is less than ten years old . . .

As a result of this “branding,” I’m much more willing to take a chance on a book from Archipelago than I am from a number of other presses. The Twin is a perfect example of this. At first glance, this didn’t seem like my sort of book. Set on a farm. Quiet. Timeless, direct, realistic writing. Slow. Descriptive. Lots of talk about the milking of cows.

Here’s the opening of the review that Larissa Kyzer wrote for us some months back:

Penetrating, beautifully sparse, and eerie in its stillness, Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin tells the story of Helmer van Wonderen, an aging farmer whose life has been characterized by passivity, inaction, and a profound sense of isolation. Having begrudgingly taken over the family dairy farm after the accidental death of his twin brother Henk, Helmer finds himself, after 55 years, suddenly and unexpectedly the master of his own life—if only he knew what to do with it.

For years, Helmer has been “doing things by halves,” living the life that was intended for his brother, a monotonous existence at the beck and call of his tyrannical father. As the story opens, however, Helmer has moved his father, close to death, to a bedroom upstairs, an act of self-assertion that pushes him to reassess his past and the decisions—or lack thereof—that have left him stagnated and alone. “Why did I let it all happen like this?,” he wonders. “I could have said ‘no’ to Father and ‘do it yourself’ or just ‘sell up.’”

None of which immediately appeals to me, but being an Archipelago book, I gave it the benefit of the doubt, started reading one night and literally couldn’t put this down. There’s something mesmerizing in Bakker’s prose, in the way he slowly builds the sense of isolation and duty that rules Helmer’s life. Unveiling secrets small and large in very precise, stark language. Lyrical in an understated way.

I learned to skate without Henk and without Father. Father is scared of frozen water, although he’d never admit it. We did everything together, Henk and I, except skating. The farmhand taught me how to skate, Mother encouraged me. She skated on figure skates, turning elegant pirouettes, doing figure of eights and regularly shouting, “That’s right!” The farmhand didn’t pull me along, which I think is the usual way of teaching someone how to skate; he pushed me. His big hands enclosed my bottom like the seat of a chair, he bent his knees so much he was almost squatting. When I shouted stop, he braked and held me back by wrapping his hands around my hips. As I remember it, he skated around with me like that for hours. Long after Mother had finished her figure of eights. But it can’t have been like that. Father must have strode out into the field to remind him sharply that he had more important things to do than entertain himself on the ice. He would have glared at me—a six- or seven-year-old kid—because Henk was doing the yearlings. Or collecting eggs, perhaps tail docking. Mother would have been downcast in the kitchen, back at work, because even she would have had an earful. Skating with the farmhand, what was she thinking?

That might have been the day that Father—simply because I was having fun doing something else—decided for himself that Henk would be the farmer, even though I was the oldest, if just by a couple of minutes. Henk helped Father, I went skating and treated the farmhand as an equal. Maybe it was just one incident in a series of events that made Father conclude I wasn’t suited to succeed him. After Henk died Father had to make do with me, but in his eyes I always remained second choice.

We’re not the only ones to praise The Twin—Jessa Crispin included it on the list of “Top Foreign Fiction” books that she put together for NPR. In her summary she gets at another interesting aspect of this novel—it’s lost sense of time. It feels very turn-of-the-century, and is, but in a 20th becoming 21st sort of way . . . Or as Jessa puts it:

In its candor about the bitterness that can arise from family obligations and the responsibility of caretaking, The Twin is both touching and surprising. Bakker’s beautiful and uncluttered prose style is almost old-fashioned. A character’s remark about the farm — “It’s here on this road now, but it might just as well be 1967 or 1930” — could refer to the novel itself. Family drama, after all, is timeless.

This novel won the Golden Dog-Ear, a prize for the best-selling literary debut in the Netherlands when it came out in 2006, and I’m personally excited to see what Bakker does next.

4 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Unai Elorriaga’s Plants Don’t Drink Coffee, which was translated from the Basque by Amaia Gabantxo and published by Archipelago earlier this year.

Elorriaga is one of only a handful (or maybe only two?) contemporary Basque authors to have his work translated and published in English. (To put this is a weird, unhelpful context, over the past three years, more contemporary Basque works have been published in the U.S. than works of contemporary Hindi writers.) He’s a relatively young author—his first novel, Sprako Tranbia (A Tram to SP), was published in 2002 and won the prestigious Spanish Premio National de Narrativa—so hopefully he’ll have a long career in translation.

Larissa’s reviewed a number of books for us in the past. She also reviews for L Magazine, is working towards her Master’s in Library Science, and is studying Danish.

Here’s the opening to her piece:

Plants Don’t Drink Coffee, Basque author Unai Elorriaga’s first novel to be translated into English, spins four intersecting tales about the magic of everyday life. Narrated by Tomas, an earnest young boy and several other members of his sweetly eccentric family—including a rugby-obsessed uncle and a talkative teenage cousin with a flair for entomology—Elorriaga’s fanciful narrative captures the slight, quotidian dramas of small town life and imbues them with the clear-eyed wonder of a fairytale.

With his father seriously ill in the hospital, Tomas finds himself spending most of his summer days at his aunt’s home, helping his cousin Iñes collect insects for a class project. But one particular specimen eludes the pair, no matter how many ladybugs and beetles and grasshoppers they catch. The Orthetrum coerulescens: the blue dragonfly. Explaining to Tomas that “. . . there are very few blue dragonflies in the world, nine or seven, or fewer still . . .” Iñes hopes to impress her teacher by catching the rare insect. “But not only for that reason,” Tomas explains. “There is another reason too.”

Click here for the full review.

4 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Plants Don’t Drink Coffee, Basque author Unai Elorriaga’s first novel to be translated into English, spins four intersecting tales about the magic of everyday life. Narrated by Tomas, an earnest young boy and several other members of his sweetly eccentric family—including a rugby-obsessed uncle and a talkative teenage cousin with a flair for entomology—Elorriaga’s fanciful narrative captures the slight, quotidian dramas of small town life and imbues them with the clear-eyed wonder of a fairytale.

With his father seriously ill in the hospital, Tomas finds himself spending most of his summer days at his aunt’s home, helping his cousin Iñes collect insects for a class project. But one particular specimen eludes the pair, no matter how many ladybugs and beetles and grasshoppers they catch. The Orthetrum coerulescens: the blue dragonfly. Explaining to Tomas that “. . . there are very few blue dragonflies in the world, nine or seven, or fewer still . . .” Iñes hopes to impress her teacher by catching the rare insect. “But not only for that reason,” Tomas explains. “There is another reason too.”

This is what Iñes told me and her eyes were full of mystery when she said it: “The person who catches the blue dragonfly . . .” she said and then she went quiet. And then she did this thing with her lips, and turned them upwards and downwards, and that always means she is about to reveal a mystery, a big one, and then she added: “. . . becomes the most intelligent person in the world.” . . . This is why I want to be the one to catch the blue dragonfly. Iñes doesn’t need it. Iñes is already intelligent. Not me. This is why I want to be the one to catch Orthetrum coerulescens. To be like a doctor. Because doctors are the most intelligent people in the world.

While Iñes and Tomas search for their dragonfly, several other quixotic occupations consume their family and friends. Uncle Simon is secretly creating a rugby field on a local golf course. Cousin Mateo is investigating stories about his prankish grandfather, Aitite Julian, who just may have been the greatest carpenter in all Europe. Then there is Piedad, an elderly woman who visits Aunt Martina’s dress shop each day to talk about her lost love, the famous English architect Samuel Mud.

Through these small, earnest dramas, the reader becomes immersed in the complexity of each character’s life—the moments and people which have indelibly defined them. Theirs are stories of reconciliation and loss, affirmation and understanding. But while each of their experiences may be familiar—the death of a parent, the loss of a lover, the realization of an unlikely ambition—Elorriaga renders each with a quirky individuality and a refreshing lack of irony. The sense of innocent discovery that accompanies Tomas’ daily pronouncements—”[S]ome people wear glasses. Fish don’t wear glasses, but people who wear glasses and fish are similar because they both can’t see well.”—is equally present in Uncle Simon’s persistent calls to Ireland, volunteering his services as a rugby linesman. In the mischievous carvings on an armoire built by Aitite Julian. In Piedad’s strawberry-patterned dresses and imaginary cat named Samuel Mud.

Replete with small joys and charming revelations, Plants Don’t Drink Coffee will delight readers with its simple wisdom, delightful prose, and capricious cast of steadfast dreamers.

24 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [4]

One of the best unexpected results of putting together the translation databases is being able to put together an awesome reading list of forthcoming translations. (Or, to put it in a slightly more negative light: to know about way more interesting books than I’ll ever have time to read.)

The spring is a perfect example. As the reading for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award is winding down, I’m getting jacked about 2011 . . . Just look at this list of titles coming out in January – March 2010. (Don’t even get me started on April – June . . . my “to read” bookshelf is already overflowing.) Links below go to the Idlewild Books catalog, since Idlewild is our Indie Store of the Month. (And by “month” I mean the rest of December and all of January.)

January

Georg Letham, Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss (excerpt)
translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg
published by Archipelago Books

Archipelago books tend to deliver, and this sounds really intriguing. Thomas Mann gave this a killer blurb: “easily one of the most interesting books I have come across in years.” It’s the story of a scientist-hero who has killed his wife and is deported to a remote island where he “seeks redemption in science.” It was written around the same time as The Man without Qualities and The Sleepwalkers and has that same sort of middle-European, ambitious vibe.

My Little War by Louis Paul Boon
translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent
published by Dalkey Archive Press

I’m a huge Boon fan, especially of Chapel Road and Summer in Termuren, and it’s great to see more of his work making it into English. This was a first novel, an account of World War II told through “overheard conversations, newspaper articles, manifestos, and other sights and noises of daily life.” Boon had an amazing gift for language, for capturing the dirty reality and comic charms of daily life and creating something bigger and more meaningful. It’ll be very interesting to see what he created out of these materials.

Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolano
translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
published by New Directions

This next year promises to be yet another big year for Roberto Bolano with three books of his coming out from New Directions: Monseiur Pain, Antwerp and The Return. This novel—which we’ll be reviewing in the very near future—is about Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, a mesmerist, two mysterious gentlemen, a bribe, and guilt. With Bolano you can rest assured that it’s at least worth the price of admission.

February

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic
translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Celia Hawkesworth, and Mark Thompson
published by Grove

Dubravka’s one of my all-time favorite writers (which is one of the reasons why her collection of essays, Nobody’s Home, was the first book published by Open Letter) and this looks like an awesome follow-up to her last work of fiction, The Ministry of Pain. This novel is part of the “Myths” series, retelling the story of Baba Yaga who, according to Russian myth, “is a witch who lives in a house built on chicken legs and kidnaps small children.” We posted about this book a while back and included a bit of the opening chapter. This may well be the book that I’m most excited about for 2010 . . .

Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marias
translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen
published by New Directions

I know next to nothing about this book aside from the fact that a) it’s published by New Directions (definite plus), b) it’s by Javier Marias (another plus), and c) it’s translated by Esther Allen (three pluses and I’m sold?). That and this description, which is the very definition of “selling copy”: “In this classic Marias story, Elvis and his entourage abandon their translator in a seedy cantina full of enraged criminals.”

The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel) by Macedonio Fernandez (excerpt)
translated from the Spanish by Margaret Schwartz
published by Open Letter

Yeah, OK, I’m including one of our own books on this list—but seriously, I waiting almost five years to be able to read this and truly believe it’s one of the great books of the twentieth century. It opens with over fifty prologues! It’s in the meta-vein of At Swim-Two-Birds! It’s written by Borges’s mentor! It’s subtitled “The First Good Novel”! (And was a companion to Macedonio’s Adriana Buenos Aires (The Last Bad Novel)!) What more do you need to know?

March

Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga
translated from the Basque by Margaret Jull Costa
published by Graywolf Press

Atxaga’s The Accordionist’s Son came out from Graywolf earlier this year and got some good attention. Obabakoak is a collection of stories centered around the village of Obaba, and sounds really intriguing: “A tinge of darkness mingles with moments of wry humor in this dazzling collage of fables, town gossip, diary excerpts, and literary theory, all held together by Bernardo Atxaga’s distinctive and tenderly ironic voice.” Here’s a link to an audio file from PEN America of Atxaga reading Three Pieces about the Basque Language.

Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe
translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm
published by Grove

Kudos to Grove for having such a great winter/spring line-up—and for publishing two of the books I’m most looking forward to in 2010. We already have a review of this novel on hand, but with the pub date so far in the future, we’re going to hold onto it for at least a few weeks before posting. The review is very positive, and this story of a man traveling from Japan to Berlin to try to understand what drove his brother-in-law to commit suicide sounds incredibly intriguing.

Wolf among Wolves by Hans Fallada
translated from the German by Philip Owens
published by Melville House

This comes on the heels of Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which did very well for Melville House. Another massive book (736 pages!), it sounds great: “a sprawling saga of the collapse of a culture—its economy and government—and the common man’s struggle to survive it all. Set in Weimar Germany soon after Germany’s catastrophic loss of World War I, the story follows a young gambler who loses all in Berlin, then flees the chaotic city, where worthless money and shortages are causing pandemonium. Once in the countryside, however, he finds a defeated German army that has deamped there to foment insurrection. Somehow, amidst it all, he finds romance—it’s The Year of Living Dangerously in a European setting.”

That’s it for now . . . More recommendations to come in a few months.

19 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Penetrating, beautifully sparse, and eerie in its stillness, Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin tells the story of Helmer van Wonderen, an aging farmer whose life has been characterized by passivity, inaction, and a profound sense of isolation. Having begrudgingly taken over the family dairy farm after the accidental death of his twin brother Henk, Helmer finds himself, after 55 years, suddenly and unexpectedly the master of his own life—if only he knew what to do with it.

For years, Helmer has been “doing things by halves,” living the life that was intended for his brother, a monotonous existence at the beck and call of his tyrannical father. As the story opens, however, Helmer has moved his father, close to death, to a bedroom upstairs, an act of self-assertion that pushes him to reassess his past and the decisions—or lack thereof—that have left him stagnated and alone. “Why did I let it all happen like this?,” he wonders. “I could have said ‘no’ to Father and ‘do it yourself’ or just ‘sell up.’”

But while Helmer may not be satisfied with the life that he has accepted for himself, it is a routine that if not fulfilling, is at least familiar. “I’ve milked the cows, day after day,” he reflects.

In a way, I curse them, the cows, but they’re also warm and serene when you lean your forehead on their flanks to attach the teat cups. There is nothing as calming, as protected, as a shed full of cows on a winter’s evening. Day in, day out, summer, autumn, winter, spring.

In the absence of any truly meaningful, reciprocative human relationships, Helmer has forged quiet connections with his animals. He finds solace in the ritual of milking his cows, keeps two identical donkeys as pets, and almost drowns himself trying to save a sheep mired in an irrigation ditch. And it is through natural imagery such as this—swallows sleeping on telephone lines, a hooded crow alighting outside the kitchen window, ducks swimming in a pond—that Bakker (a former linguist who has since become a gardener) is able to not only reveal more of his taciturn protagonist’s interiority, but also bring the narrative to a kind of gentle compromise between what should have been and what simply is.

On an unexpected trip to Denmark—his first holiday “in thirty-seven years of milking day and night“—Helmer walks down to a beach at sunset. “The beach is deserted,” he says.

There are no hooded crows in the sky and even the busy grey sandpipers are missing. . . I am the only one for miles around making any noise . . . I know I have to get up. I know the maze of paths and unpaved roads in the shade of the pines, birches and maples will already be dark. But I stay sitting calmly, I am alone.

By the novel’s close, Helmer has found some measure of peace and acceptance in his quiet life—even in his solitude.

13 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Paper Cuts wrote about this last week, but I think it’s cool enough to repeat . . . Last week, during a visit to Turkey, Pres. Obama was presented with a copy of A Mind at Peace by Ahmet Hamd Tanpinar, which was recently translated into English by Erdag Göknar and published by Archipelago Books.

From Paper Cuts:

According to a spokesman for Archipelago Books, which recently published the first English translation of Tanpinar’s novel, the leader of the Republican People’s Party, Deniz Baykal, told the president: “So you just don’t just understand Turkey through your ties with the governing and opposition parties in parliament, I’m presenting you with these two works of literature. In these books you will find the nuances of our culture and identity.”

“I’ll be sure to read them,” Obama replied.

We’re planning on posting a review of A Mind at Peace later this month, and it’s a title that will likely pop up in the longlist discussions for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award . . .

7 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This event is not to be missed . . . On Thursday, April 9th at 7pm, Attila Bartis—author of Tranquility, which won this year’s Best Translated Book Award—will be appearing at Idlewild Books (12 West 19th St., NY) with author and translator Brian Evenson.

You can find our overview of Tranquility by clicking here, and here’s a blurb Evenson gave for the book: “Reading like the bastard child of Thomas Bernhard and Elfriede Jelinek, Tranquility is political and personal suffering distilled perfectly and transformed into dark, viscid beauty. It is among the most haunted, most honest, and most human novels I have ever read.”

According to Jill Schoolman, they’re going to try and videotape this conversation so that all of us living outside of NY will have a chance to see this incredible event . . . I’ll post an update as soon as this becomes available online.

31 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For whatever reason, April is a huge month for literature in translation. According to the translation database there are 39 works of fiction and poetry coming out in translation this month. We will be running full-length reviews of a number of these titles, but over the course of the month, I thought I’d highlight the April titles that catch my eye.

Also, more on this later, but since Shaman Drum is our featured indie bookstore for April, all of the “buy” links below go to their online catalog.

Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (Grove, $24.00, buy)

This is one of the best 2009 books I’ve read so far this year. A very Nabokovian book, the novel is made up of a series of “commentaries” by a young Cuban tutor about his pupil’s mysterious family (possibly on the run from the Russian mafia) and about In Search of Lost Time, which J. refers to as The Book, claiming that it contains everything you need to know. (Proust hovers over this novel, especially in relation to the story of the fake diamonds . . .)


News from the Empire by Fernando del Paso, translated from the Spanish by Alfonso Gonzalez and Stella T. Clark (Dalkey Archive, $18.95, buy)

Del Paso’s Palinuro of Mexico is one of my favorite Dalkey books, so I was very excited to find out that they were bringing out another of his books. Epically long (704 dense pages), News from the Empire centers on Maximilian and his wife Carlota, the Emperor and Empress of Mexico from 1863 to 1867. This book was nicely reviewed in Publishers Weekly, where it was referred to as “a Mexican War and Peace.


The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer (Archipelago, $25, buy)

Last year Archipelago had more titles on the Best Translated Book Fiction Longlist than any other press—a testament to Jill Schoolman’s taste. I wouldn’t be surprised if this year’s list was much the same. The Twin is one of the first big titles Archipelago is bringing out this year, the story of Helmer, a young man who has to return home to take over the family farm after his twin brother dies in a car accident. The story sounds fine, but it’s the laconic writing style that the critics have been praising. Susan Salter Reynolds called Bakker’s writing “fabulously clear, so clear that each sentence leaves a rippling wake,” and Michael Orthofer ended his review with this: “Yet in Bakker’s telling — those simple descriptions and the terse dialogue, with all its lack of true communication — it is an absolutely fascinating read. Well worthwhile.”


A Thousand Deaths Plus One by Sergio Ramirez, translated from the Spanish by Leland Chambers (McPherson & Co., $25.00, not avail. via Shaman Drum)

I haven’t received a review copy yet, but this novel (which also received an “A-” from the Complete Review) sounds pretty intriguing. It’s a novel about Juan Castellon, a Nicaraguan photographer the author discovers during a visit to Warsaw. The novel is told alternating chapters of Ramierz’s quest to reveal the artist’s identity and Castellon’s own side of the story, and according to Michael Orthofer, “It all has the feel of an elaborate literary game of the sort that Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Marías are fond of playing.”

7 January 09 | 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 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre, translated from the French by Jordan Stump. (France, Archipelago)

The Waitress Was New, Dominique Fabre’s first novel to be translated into English, is a quiet, beautiful book that packs a lot of emotional power into its 117 pages. It fits in with a number of other “minimalist” books coming out of France these days and focuses on a few specific days in the life of Pierre, a 56-year-old bartender at a bar that suddenly closes due to the owner’s midlife crisis.

This doesn’t seem like much of a plot, but Fabre creates an incredibly rich world through the mind of his aging bartender, whose life is filled with routines, and who is just a few years away from a full pension when the bar closes down.

One of our favorite reviewers, Ben Lytal, does a great job describing Pierre:

Pierre has been working at Le Cercle, a cafe in the busy Parisian suburb of Asnieres, for eight years. He has been a bartender for all of his working life, and Mr. Fabre’s book is chiefly a meditation on what that life has made of him. In some ways, it has made him humble and slightly invisible. But like Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, Pierre is more than a Jeeves: His years of service have been a genuine moral education. He seems to know more of the finer points of human conduct than his bosses, Henri and Isabelle, whose seemingly fuller lives have actually distracted them. They have been married, raised a daughter, dealt with taxes and a life of small business proprietorship, and are now dealing with Henri’s oddly severe midlife crisis—but they are still children, compared to Pierre, who after an early divorce has merely had girlfriends and kept bar.

And E.J. nicely summed up the impact of this novel in his review:

As I said, there aren’t a lot of fireworks, but as a portrait of a Pierre and his “everyman” life, the novel is a success. The reserved, melancholy, and resigned tone that Fabre strikes is maintained beautifully throughout the book, and he has given Pierre just enough wit to lighten things up from time to time. And, in keeping with the “slice of life” feel of the book, the slight twist at the end doesn’t bring any closure, rather it opens further possibilities which remain unexplored. This is a quiet book, but one that promises to stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it.

I know this sounds hokey, but it’s a perfect book for a rainy afternoon . . .

A lengthy excerpt from the beginning of the book is available online as well, and worth checking out if you want to “sample” the novel. Pierre’s “voice” comes through right from the start, in part because of the fantastic job Jordan Stump’s did translating this novel. (Which comes as no surprise—Jordan is one of the best translators working today.)

And for those of you who speak French, below is an interview with Fabre about a more recent book of his. (I don’t understand French, but I really enjoyed watching this. Fabre’s expressions and mannerisms make him seem like a really cool guy. It would’ve been great to meet him during his U.S. tour . . .)

10 December 08 | Chad W. Post |

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

The Great Weaver from Kashmir by Halldor Laxness, translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton. (Iceland, Archipelago)

The Great Weaver from Kashmir is the first of four books from Archiipelago that made the Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, and the only Icelandic book to make the list. (Considering the fact that only four books from Iceland were published in English translation this year, that’s not a bad ratio.)

In addition to being the only Icelander to make our list, Laxness is also the only Icelandic author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was given this distinction in 1955, not too many years after the publication of Independent People and Iceland’s Bell, two of his most well-regarded novels.

Great Weaver is one of Laxness’s first novels, written in 1927, but never before translated into English. It reads like a first novel—somewhat autobiographical (Steinn, the main character in the novel, converts to Catholicism, as did Laxness) and put together in a raw, somewhat innovative way that illustrates Laxness’s burgeoning talent. For me, it calls to mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, which breaks into play format at one point and feels like it was written by a novelist still trying to figure out what you can do with a novel.

The plot of Great Weaver centers around the aforementioned Steinn, who, at the opening of the book is a young, romantic poet about to leave Iceland for an extended stay abroad, where he hopes to become “the most perfect man on earth.” In a traditional romantic young man way, he thinks this can be accomplished through poetry and rebellion (especially against religion) and pursues a destructive bohemian lifestyle before attempting to commit suicide and undergoing a sea change leading him to join a monastery. Back in Iceland, he’s got a young woman named Dilja waiting for him, and their remote, sordid love affair is the main tension of the book.

What I think is most interesting about this book is the way that it mixes other forms and not terribly necessary information along with this primary storyline. Right after developing the anxious relationship between Steinn and Dilja, and Steinn’s eminent departure, Laxness leaves all that behind to give us a series of letters from Steinn’s mother about an affair that she had. And the way that Dilja’s story and Steinn’s develop in parallel is very well done. The characterization is strong (although Steinn remains a sort of enigmatic, troubled figure throughout—another element that makes the book compelling), the translation very fluid, and the descriptions of Iceland and Icelandic life very informative.

Larissa Kyzer wrote a full review of this title for us a while back, which is much more comprehensive than my description above and is also worth reading for the quotes from the book.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit Iceland on an editorial trip. It was a wonderful experience, and in addition to finding out about a number of authors, publishers, etc., I also had the opportunity to see a few interesting sites, including Þingvellir (or “Thingvellir”), which is a geologically and historically famous site, and the setting for part of this novel, and the Halldor Laxness museum, which is remarkable in part for the outdoor swimming pool he had and the lectern that he stood at to write. Since international literature is a great way to encounter other cultures, I thought it might be interesting to include both of these relevant links.

4 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

I usually don’t post things like this, but there are two great events happening tonight that I wish I could be at.

First off, Archipelago Books is having their “third biennial fundraising auction” tonight at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy at 972 Fifth Ave. from 6:30 to 8:30. Lots of great stuff up for auction (you can see it all by clicking here) and the proceeds will go to a very worth cause.

Also happening tonight is the next event in the Words Without Borders reading and conversation series at Idlewild Books this time featuring Natasha Wimmer and Francisco Goldman talking about Bolano’s 2666. I can’t imagine a better event . . . especially since I’ve heard that FSG will be selling special 2666 t-shirts. (I hope this rumor isn’t unfounded, and if anyone will buy me one, I swear I’ll pay you back.) Bud Parr has a column at WWB previewing this event.

11 November 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This year’s Miriam Bass Award for Creativity in Independent Publishing was given to Jill Schoolman of Archipelago Books, a good friend, fantastic publisher, and energetic advocate for international literature. She truly deserves this award and all the accolades that Marianne Bohr included in her introduction:

This year’s winner, Jill Schoolman, publisher of Archipelago Books, a not-for-profit press operating out of Brooklyn, has devoted herself to publishing first-edition English translations of innovative works of classic and contemporary world literature, vital voices that deserve to be heard and that she believes English speakers should not have to live without. Her list includes a diverse group of international writers whose titles she hopes will help promote America’s awareness of other cultures.

As most of us are sadly aware, as more and more publishers focus on the almighty blockbuster, there are very few avenues for getting works in translation to see the light of day in the U.S. It was against the backdrop of this stark reality that Jill started Archipelago—it was because she saw an urgent need and believed that American readers are hungry to know what people are writing about and thinking about beyond our borders. And I am very happy to report that the press has acknowledged Jill’s efforts and Archipelago Books with some excellent coverage and stellar reviews.

In the words of National Book Network’s president, Jed Lyons, “Miriam Bass appreciated creativity in people, especially when it was in service to the book business. Miriam would have heartily approved of the selection of Jill Schoolman, one of the most dedicated and creative people in publishing today, to win this award.”

I’m sure everyone reading this blog is familiar with Archipelago Books, they do so many interesting translations, and in such beautiful editions. Personally, I’m really looking forward to reading Attila Bartis’s Tranquility, in part because of Jeff Waxman’s stellar review, but also because I’ve been hearing great things about this book from booksellers and other reviewers across the country.

Once again, congrats to Jill Schoolman, and I hope she keeps up the good work.

24 October 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Pierre Michon’s Small Lives, which was recently published by Archipelago Books.

Frequent reviewer Monica Carter wrote this piece, which opens:

One of the signs of a great book is that the reader feels like she is reading a great book. From the very first sentence, she knows a question has been answered, a new world has been discovered, an intellectual delicacy has been offered up to savor and more than likely, her life of reading will never be the same. It has been changed by the indelible mark of book that our memory will not let escape. She senses that she is reading literature as it is intended to be. In Small Lives by French author Pierre Michon, not only are we aware that we are reading great literature, but we have the privilege to accompany him on this journey in which he discovers the voice and style that make this an outstanding work of depth, substance and originality.

Click here for the rest.

24 October 08 | Chad W. Post |

One of the signs of a great book is that the reader feels like she is reading a great book. From the very first sentence, she knows a question has been answered, a new world has been discovered, an intellectual delicacy has been offered up to savor and more than likely, her life of reading will never be the same. It has been changed by the indelible mark of book that our memory will not let escape. She senses that she is reading literature as it is intended to be. In Small Lives by French author Pierre Michon, not only are we aware that we are reading great literature, but we have the privilege to accompany him on this journey in which he discovers the voice and style that make this an outstanding work of depth, substance and originality.

France has long recognized the talents of Mr. Michon and his lyrical style—he has been awarded many of France’s top literature prizes for his works including the Prix Décembre, Grand Prix SGDL de literature, the Prix Louis Guilloux, and the Prix de la Ville de Paris. Similar to the recent Nobel Prize winning Le Clézio, Michon is regarded as one of France’s best contemporary authors. Yet, no matter how many prizes he has garnered in his literary career, nothing takes away from the poetic, dense prose that expose the nuances of French rural life in this framework of eight short stories in which Michon illuminates the hazy shadows of humanity.

These stories are imbued with a sense of loss, the bittersweet schism between what is and what could have been, a constant search for the roots of identity in a family history, and the reassurance of place. Like in the first story, “The Life of Andre Dufourneau,” in which the young boy as writer looks at a worn picture of Andre Dufourneau, the adventurous son from long ago who never returned:

Come now, admit it, he really resembles a writer. There is a portrait of a young Faulkner, a small man like him, in which I recognize the same haughty yet drowsy air, the eyes heavy but with an ominous, but flashing gravity, and under the ink-black moustache formerly used to hide the coarseness of the lip, alive like the din silenced by the spoken word, the same bitter mouth that prefers to smile. He moves away from the deck, stretches out on his berth, and there he writes the thousand novels out of which the future is made and which the future unmakes; he is living the fullest days of his life. The clock of rolling waves disguises the hours, time passes and place changes, Dufourneau is as alive as the stuff of his dreams; he has been dead a long time; I am not yet abandoning his shadow.

And although Michon follows the lives of people from the small village of Creuse, they don’t live simple lives nor are they simple people. Michon gives us the simultaneous struggle of emotions deftly and with the clarity of an epiphany. In “The Lives of Eugène and Clara,” we feel the guilt and shame of a grandson who attempts to rise above instinct when he meets with his grandfather whom he does not truly love:

Though, at the time, when I saw him, that was not what I thought; his illuminated sorry face—more broken than King Lear’s than clown’s, drunken old soldier, all shame drowned—his big red nose, his hands just as big and red, the incredible folds in his doggy eyelids, his croaking voice, all made me want to laugh—the laugh of the nervous child, which is a way of reversing the tragedy, of denying the unease. I reproached myself for that secret desire. To look dubiously, even ironically, upon “someone I should have loved,” to harbor that improper thought: “my grandfather is very ugly,” seemed to me a fault of the most serious nature; without a doubt, the faculty for such impious speculations belonged to “monsters,” and to them alone; was I, therefore, a monster? Immediately, I promised myself to love him better; and with that promise—the internal drama in which one plays all the roles is the emotional leaven of the so-called tender years—waves of affection for the poor old fellow washed over me again. My eyes misted with the sweet tears of atonement, and I would have liked to follow through the manifest acts of kindness; I do not know if I dared to do so at the time.

The mistrust of parents, grandparents and elders is a theme that presents itself in each story, sometimes prominently, sometimes faintly. Michon’s father disappeared when he was young and it is no wonder that, as a reader, we feel the parental figures are distant and austere, people to leave behind. Later, the act of “writing” becomes the ultimate father figure that is manipulative and unforgiving, leaving the narrator lonely and wandering, hoping to be assuaged by the figurative fatherly savior known as “Writing” in “The Life of Georges Bandy”:

This naïveté had its reverse side of twisted greed; I wanted the martyr’s wounds and his salvation, the saint’s vision, but I also wanted the crook and miter that impose silence, the Episcopal word that drowns even the word of kings. If Writing was given to me, I thought, it would give me everything. Dulled by this belief, absent in the absence of my God, I sank deeper each day into impotence and anger, those two jaws of the vise that holds in its grip the howling demand.
bq. And, turn the screw redoubling the grip, necessary sidekick and voyeur of the infernal tortures, doubt arrives in its turn, wresting me from the torment of my vain belief to inflict an even darker agony, saying to me, “If Writing is given to you, it will give you nothing.”

It is no wonder that one of the two translators is a poet—his prose reads like verse and the translation is honors his style. It is difficult to point out specific passages that typify Michon’s rich imagery or the way he paints the poetry of human nature because there are just too many. The writing is layered and poignant and it is where we find the complex in simplicity and the beauty in loss. Michon has allowed us to see this in lives that are no smaller than our own.

10 October 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

If the international community recognizes Iceland for something other than Björk, vikings, and glaciers, it is undeniably the country’s historic and richly diverse literary tradition. Deemed by the Swedish Academy to be the “cradle of narrative art here in the North,” Iceland not only has the legacy of the sagas to its credit, but also a remarkably active community of poets and storytellers. As Icelandic author and journalist Birna Anna Bjornsdottir has noted, bibliophilia is part of the national character, and writing is an activity frequently practiced by “non-professionals”:

We sometimes claim that everyone in Iceland is a writer. Sure, it’s hyperbole, and as such slightly out of character for a literary tradition long characterized by understatement and restraint. Still, approximately 1,000 books are published here each year for a population of about 290,000, one book per 290 persons . . . The mailman moonlights as a veggie chef, and the DJ teaches kindergarten during the day. Both have a couple of books of poetry out . . .

But if Iceland is a nation of authors, it is still a relatively isolated one, with only a fraction of its works translated into other languages each year. Even Halldór Laxness, the so-called “bard of the Icelandic people” and recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1955 (Iceland’s only Nobel Laureate, keep in mind), has faced a relatively sparse translation rate. Of the 51 novels he produced in his lifetime (not to mention the plays and poetry), only a handful have been translated into English. Which makes Philip Roughton’s forthcoming translation of Laxness’s “first important novel Verfarinn mikli fra Kasmir (_The Great Weaver from Kashmir_) very exciting.

But The Great Weaver from Kashmir should not be mistaken for a “posterity” translation. A novel which captures the conflicting passions and pitfalls of youth into one tragicomic character, Kashmir can be read as a revisionist approach to Siddhartha—a rendering of one man’s search for spiritual enlightenment becoming confused and complicated by the zealotry and naivete of youth. Its protagonist, Steinn Elliði, is a self-aggrandizing, willfully divisive, and talented young poet who leaves Iceland on an impassioned, though obscure, quest. “In search of perfection” and planning to author “fifty perfect poems for God,” Steinn is the embodiment of adolescent enthusiasm—a man-child who believes himself to be uniquely capable and uniquely misunderstood. In a particularly delightful scene, Steinn rhapsodically enumerates his great potential for his foster-cousin, Diljá, who has been in love with him since childhood:

“. . . I’ve made a pact with the Lord about becoming the most perfect man on earth.”

“Why do you want to become so perfect?”

But he would not grant an answer to such an ignorant question. “I have vowed to leave no further room in my soul for anything other than the celebration of the spiritual beauty of creation . . . I am betrothed to the beauty on the visage of things. I intend to travel back and forth through existence like a jubilant monk of the world who beholds the smile of the Holy Mother in everything that exists. My bread and wine will be the glory of God on the face of creation, the image of the Lord on the Lord’s coins. I am a son of the Way in China, the perfect Yogi of India, the Great Weaver from Kashmir, the snake charmer in the Himalayan valleys, the saint of Christ in Rome.”

“I think that you might have lost your marbles!” said the girl, and stopped to look in his face, because she understood nothing.

Rather than resulting in any real sense of enlightenment, Steinn’s journey becomes progressively dispirited and confused. He cuts off already strained relationships with relatives and acquaintances, and travels alone, flirting with debauchery and misadventure throughout England and Italy. Eventually turning to the advice of a Benedictine monk, Steinn is baptized into the Catholic church and plans to join the monastic order himself. This decision reads as a horrible misstep, a tragic act of evasion, where the traditions and rituals of religious faith buffer Steinn from the emotional trials that face him in his life.

When awarding Laxness the Nobel Prize, E. Wessén stated that “All his important books have Icelandic themes.” The Great Weaver of Kashmir, however, should not be read as an “Icelandic” novel, particular to the trials and experiences of an Icelandic man. As a contemplation of the irrevocable mistakes one can make before he understands the consequences, and an empathetic portrait of youth gone astray, The Great Weaver from Kashmir is a novel that should resonate with audiences the world over.

4 February 08 | E.J. Van Lanen |

The Waitress Was New is the first of French author Dominique Fabre’s novels to be translated into English. The novel is narrated by Pierre, a 56-year-old bartender who has been tending bar his entire adult life, more or less, and has spent the last eight years working at Le Cercle, a typical French café situated in the Parisian suburb of Asnières.

I’ve been fifty-six for three months now. My last birthday didn’t really get to me, but my fifty-fourth almost threw me into the Seine, if you’ll pardon the expression. I took a half-day off to see a prostate specialist and get my free checkup from Social Security, they couldn’t find anything wrong. That filled me with joy for two days, just long enough to pick up a nasty hangover. I thought about my dream again, then pushed it away with a shrug as I served a beer-and-Pincon to a guy from the MMA insurance office on Maurice-Bokanovksi, he has a pointy beard and a black suit. Sabrina calls him Landru. And after that I just kept right on going. Fortunately the new girl knew her job, because without the boss around it was hard work manning the bar. Amédée was in his unusual good mood, and Madeleine had to get after him a couple of times, nothing terribly serious, but the pass-through’s too small, the dining room was noisy that day. The boss’s wife wasn’t letting it get to her, she stayed behind the cash register the whole time, looking like she was thinking of something else, probably wondering where he could have got to, and keeping an eye on things like she always did, between chats with the regulars. Once or twice I caught her giving the ceiling a blank stare, the boss had it repainted two summers before, during the August closing. Since I hadn’t gone away on vacation that year—or the year before or the year after, for that matter—he’d asked me to keep tabs on the work, and I did. She had the dreamy look of a boss and wife whose marriage was heading steadily downhill if you asked me.

The novel follows Pierre’s life over the course of a few days, and opens with the opening of Le Cercle. The normal waitress, Sabrina, is out with the flu, and shortly after introducing the new waitress, the boss, Henri, sneaks off. Pierre and Henri’s wife Isabelle, who works the register, assume Henri has gone to spend time with his mistress, the ‘sick’ waitress Sabrina.

Fabre seems more interested in investigating the inner life of Pierre—albeit in the limited way that Pierre, who spends his life listening rather than talking, is able to describe his thoughts—and painting a small portrait of a group of working class people than in creating a complex plot, so there isn’t a lot of action in this slim volume. Pierre makes the briefest of enquiries when Henri doesn’t show up for a few days, and then comforts Isabelle. He has couscous with his long-time friend and fellow bartender, Roger, and keeps the café open in Henri’s absence for a few days. He has a fleeting interest in a couple of different women, but seems resigned to being alone at his age. He contemplates retiring, but discovers that he’s a few years away from qualifying for a full pension.

As I said, there aren’t a lot of fireworks, but as a portrait of a Pierre and his ‘everyman’ life, the novel is a success. The reserved, melancholy, and resigned tone that Fabre strikes is maintained beautifully throughout the book, and he has given Pierre just enough wit to lighten things up from time to time. And, in keeping with the ‘slice of life’ feel of the book, the slight twist at the end doesn’t bring any closure, rather it opens further possibilities which remain unexplored. This is a quiet book, but one that promises to stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it.

Overall, The Waitress Was New is well worth the long afternoon it takes to read. Hopefully, Archipelago plans to publish more of his novels in the future.

The Waitress Was New
by Dominique Fabre
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump
117 pages, $15.00
978-0-9778576-9-2
Archipelago Books

30 July 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Interesting article in The Guardian (one of the best papers for arts and books coverage, in my opinion) on Elias Khoury and his fears about chaos in Lebanon.

Khoury is most well-known here for Gate of the Sun, which Archipelago Books published to great acclaim. (The paperback edition —a RTW 2007 book—is now available from Picador.)

Here’s a brief description of the book:

Khoury says his aim in Gate of the Sun was to write a great love story. As Dr Khaleel, a paramedic in the makeshift Galilee hospital in Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp, keeps vigil by the bedside of Yunis, a comatose Palestinian resistance fighter of his father’s generation, he tells stories from the fighter’s life, and his own, like a Sheherazade trying to stave off death. Soon after 1948, when the Lebanon-Israel border was still porous, Yunis would meet his wife Naheeleh in the cave in Galilee that gives the novel its title. Along with everyday tales of flight and dispossession, the book traces the enmeshed histories of Lebanon and Palestine, from the 1930s to the 1990s, centring on the 1982 massacres in the Sabra and Shatila camps.

Yalo, a new novel by Khoury is forthcoming from Archipelago Books. And hopefully an excerpt will be available online soon . . .

26 July 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Signandsight.com has an interesting article on Balkan identity by Mijenko Jergovic, the author of Sarajevo Marlboro, along with a number of other books.

This essay is totally different in tone and style, but it brings to mind a number of things Dubravka Urgresic writes about in her essays. Especially the pieces in Nobody’s Home.

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