10 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In Aira’s Shantytown, while we’re inside the characters’ heads for a good portion of the story, the voice we read on the page is really that of Aira himself, as he works out the plot of the book he’s writing. (Of course we are reading the words of Chris Andrews. This is his fifth Aira translation; he has perfected a beautifully baroque, rambling English to represent Aira’s Spanish.) An Aira novel is characterized by an intellectual obsession, usually with some abstract concept, like “twins” (in The Hare) or “originality” (in Váramo). Around this abstraction—which is never named outright—Aira spins a plot that lets him explore it in many aspects; the novels work best when the plot goes wildly far afield but continues to resonate with the concept in deep and unexpected ways. In Shantytown, the concept is something like “sensitivity,” in the broad and multiple senses of emotional intelligence, pattern recognition, awareness of surroundings. A noir plot, where nothing is clear and everything is suspect, fits this theme well: the reader is forever on the run, fleeing forward with Aira, trying to get a fix on what’s happening.

The central axis of the book is a road: Calle Bonorino, with a rich neighborhood of apartments and shops at one end and a shantytown at the other. Maxi, a high schooler from the rich end, helps the trashpickers and cardboard collectors from the shantytown cart their booty home. His foil is Cabezas, a police inspector gone rogue after his daughter is killed:

The gulf between the two men was evident in the forms of their respective enterprises, which although superposed were incompatible. Maxi’s was linear, an adventure open to improvisation, like a path disappearing into the distance. The inspector’s enterprise, by contrast, resembled the deciphering of a structure.

Add in drug dealers (“proxidine” gives its user the sense that all distance has been abolished), rich families employing shantytown maids, and a suspicious priest, and all the elements are in place for a glorious and confusing mess. At the climax, in an epochal rainstorm, details are literally flooded out.

So much for the plot. But geography is not just a metaphor in Shantytown; the characters themselves can’t see details clearly. Maxi seems to be emotionally dulled or turned inward, perhaps on the autistic spectrum; he tells his love interest (although even that is weirdly deflected, in a mirror): “Either you think about other people, or you pay attention to your surroundings. You can’t do both at the same time.” Aira the narrator can, though—and he frequently puts the narrative on hold for thematic mini-essays:

Outsiders never went there [the shantytown], for a number of reasons, which all came down to one thing: fear. It’s true that there was no real reason why outsiders would want to go there in the first place. But that was a part of the fear. And fear is the key to all places: social, geographical, even imaginary. It is the matrix of places, bringing them into existence and making it possible to move from one to another. Being or not being in a place depends on a complex system of actions, and it is well known that action engenders and nourishes fear.

It’s this narrative perspective, self-aware but never cheaply ironic, that makes Aira such a blast to read. Aira has written scores of short novels in Spanish; New Directions has published nine translations so far, with a tenth due later this year. Aira fans thus get to witness the larger adventure of Aira’s narrative invention itself—and this book in particular has a lot to say on that theme. Late in the novel, Cabezas feels trapped: “He had to keep fleeing forward, but to where?” Aira’s compositional technique—never changing anything once it is set down, only adding later deflections and specifications—is referred to as “flight forward”; I’ll bet this is the source of that phrase.

Joan Didion famously wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Aira’s claim is similar:

People always assume that to improvise is to act without thinking. But if you do something on an impulse, or because you feel like it, or just like that, without knowing why, it’s still you doing it, and you have a history that has led to that particular point in your life, so it’s not really a thoughtless act, far from it; you couldn’t have given it any more thought: you’ve been thinking it out since you were born.

Aira’s worlds always have something of the noir to them. We’re always trying to decipher the structures, get things down in black and white; we’re often frustrated, yet still compelled to follow the thinnest, most unpromising narrative thread towards a distant possible exit. At least there aren’t always bodies piling up.

The world is full of moral ambiguity, with no clear good or bad. Stiffs (and occasionally corpses) continue to pile up left and right. That’s just the daily news—hell, it’s the whole world, whether it’s a geopolitical or a neighborhood clusterfuck. So the narrative voice is what makes The Mongolian Conspiracy and Shantytown noir? But the pull of the voice applies to César Aira’s other novels, to half the books I read—it doesn’t even have to be a tale of crime, just something human and murky, with a faint light of hope.

Maybe noir doesn’t really mean anything after all. Maybe nothing does. Maybe that’s the whole point.

10 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is the continuation of a larger piece by Owen Rowe, today on César Aira’s Shantytown, translated by Chris Andrews, out from New Directions.

Owen (Matt) Rowe is a writer, editor, and translator (from Portuguese and Italian) based in Port Townsend, Washington. Stay tuned for his upcoming transformations into bookseller and audiobook entrepreneur. As already mentioned, this is the second part of a combined review (the first part was on Bernal’s The Mongolian Conspiracy). All I can say is that the cover for Shantytown is super, super cool.

Here’s the beginning of this part of the review:

In Aira’s Shantytown, while we’re inside the characters’ heads for a good portion of the story, the voice we read on the page is really that of Aira himself, as he works out the plot of the book he’s writing. (Of course we are reading the words of Chris Andrews. This is his fifth Aira translation; he has perfected a beautifully baroque, rambling English to represent Aira’s Spanish.) An Aira novel is characterized by an intellectual obsession, usually with some abstract concept, like “twins” (in The Hare) or “originality” (in Váramo). Around this abstraction—which is never named outright—Aira spins a plot that lets him explore it in many aspects; the novels work best when the plot goes wildly far afield but continues to resonate with the concept in deep and unexpected ways. In Shantytown, the concept is something like “sensitivity,” in the broad and multiple senses of emotional intelligence, pattern recognition, awareness of surroundings. A noir plot, where nothing is clear and everything is suspect, fits this theme well: the reader is forever on the run, fleeing forward with Aira, trying to get a fix on what’s happening.

For the rest of the piece, go here.

27 November 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Yesterday, P. T. Smith’s insightful review of Chejfec’s new novel The Dark was published on BOMB’s website:

Much of the response to Sergio Chejfec’s English-language debut, My Two Worlds, published in 2011 by Open Letter, placed him squarely in a Sebaldian camp. The narrator is on a walk, reminiscing both on his past and the historical past of the landscape around him, and it is a novel of a consciousness, of the interior of a single “I.” Although a grounding comparison for that novel, it does a reader little kindness for his most recent book, The Dark. As I read, I did think of Sebald and other authors, other types of novels, and tried to find that grounding—a language, a basic reading to build off. Each comparison got me lost. Any attempt to use them puts us on a stray path. The text demands we abandon those comparisons and learn how to read this specific novel. That alone is a rarity and, for me, a reading experience worth the effort.

This is a novel entirely of the interior—a solipsistic narrator, isolated and writing alone in a room, recounting his relationship with a past love. We have access only to his thoughts and, more particularly, his perception, which we are trapped in. This in itself is nothing new; the recognition of constant subjectivity is old hat, but the absolute consistency of it is the challenge here. “The dark” of the title is everything he does not care to concern himself with, and nearly the only way it expands is through an object of love, Delia. No other character in the novel receives a name, and of the other ones we meet, their stories are always connected with Delia, allowing the nameless narrator to expound further on her existence, the meaning of it.

In his opening lines, Chejfec’s narrator tells us that “It has always unsettled me that geography does not change with time, with the changes that take place within it, within us.” With one stroke, we have the strange tone that will permeate the book. He is an unsettled man, only at ease in the carefully crafted idyllic memories of his past with Delia, and even those are darkly shadowed by the events—the full truth of which is hidden for most of the novel—that lead to his abandonment of her. Even as she is his only way outside of himself, that way is narrow. And we have his confusion: immediately after denying that geography does not change with time, he perceives changes within it as indiscernible from the interior of himself.

This narrator is one of those infamous unreliable ones, but not as a game where you strive to perceive the truth of events—here it can be hauntingly obvious—nor is he not a cleverly withholding narrator confident in his ability to outsmart the reader.

Be sure and click here to read the full piece, and then read the book. It’s one of Chejfec’s best. (Which is saying a lot.)

27 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The second book from Frisch & Co. has just been released— Under this Terrible Sun by Carlos Busqued and translated by Megan McDowell.

Cetarti spends his days in a cloud of pot smoke, watching nature documentaries on television. A call from a stranger, informing him that his mother and brother have been murdered, finally tears him from his lethargy: he must identify the bodies. After making sure he has enough pot for the trip, he sets out to the remote Argentinian village of Lapachito, an ominous place, where the houses are sinking deeper and deeper into the mud and a lurid, horrific sun is driving everyone crazy. When Duarte, a former military man turned dedicated criminal, ropes Cetarti into a scheme to cash in on his mother’s life insurance, events quickly spiral out of control. . .

A riveting, thrilling, and shocking read, Under This Terrible Sun paints the portrait of a civilizational in terminal decline, where the border between reality and nightmare has become increasingly blurred.

This is only available as an ebook, which you can purchase via the Frisch & Co. website or from your favorite ebook retailer.

And as with La Vida Doble, we should have a review of this up in the not too distant future.

14 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the full piece.

14 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Emily Davis on The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, the most recent Aira book to come out from New Directions, and which is translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver.

Emily is a graduate of the University of Rochester’s Master of Arts in Literary Translation, and for her thesis she translated Damián Tabarovsky’s Medical Autobiography, which we hopefully will be publishing in the not-too-distant future.

I can’t imagine anyone reading this blog isn’t already familiar with César Aira. New Directions has published seven of his books, including Ghosts, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, The Literary Conference, and How I Became a Nun. And this is just a fraction of Aira’s incredible output—he’s published more than 50 works, including 2-4 every year since 1993. (According to Wikipedia, the World’s Finest Information Source.)

Here’s the opening of Emily’s review:

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who lately, and I’m therefore liable to see everything through science-fiction-colored glasses. But when the pages of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira refer to “the totality of the present and of eternity” and the narrator drops phrases like “all possible worlds,” can you blame me for reading this book as a sort of exercise in shaping a reality that’s beyond what we would normally consider reality?

Let me back up, and let me be fair. A book that claims to be about miracles is not going to be fully grounded in reality. Or rather, it might be grounded in reality, but sooner or later it’s going to move beyond, above, outside of, maybe even to someplace that’s simply adjacent to reality. At the same time, those who are already familiar with César Aira’s books know that even the most normal, most mundane circumstances are likely to be interrupted by fantastical creatures or seemingly impossible events.

The Miracle Cures is a bit different, though. It’s subtler than the blue worms of The Literary Conference, or the armadillo-car of The Seamstress and the Wind. It’s more a meditation on what’s possible and, perhaps more importantly, what makes certain things possible. The Miracle Cures focuses more on the abstract.

Aira is no stranger to abstraction in his writing: his narratives often wander into abstract musings that can be frustrating or enlightening (or both), depending on how much mental energy you’re willing to devote to them (or how coherent he’s made them in the first place). Here, however, far more than I’ve seen before, Aira calls himself out on it. Dr. Aira, the protagonist of The Miracle Cures, is, as it turns out, an aspiring author. He plans to write and publish a series of books about the Miracle Cures. In writing these books, the narrator tells us Dr. Aira refuses to write in the standard, expected way: that is, using specific examples to illustrate his points. He prefers to remain in the abstract realm. Not only that, but even Dr. Aira’s drawings, which can be found in his many notebooks alongside his written notes about the Cures, always turn out abstract. Very rarely and only by accident do they ever represent something recognizable.

Click here to read the review in its entirety.

15 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who lately, and I’m therefore liable to see everything through science-fiction-colored glasses. But when the pages of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira refer to “the totality of the present and of eternity” and the narrator drops phrases like “all possible worlds,” can you blame me for reading this book as a sort of exercise in shaping a reality that’s beyond what we would normally consider reality?

Let me back up, and let me be fair. A book that claims to be about miracles is not going to be fully grounded in reality. Or rather, it might be grounded in reality, but sooner or later it’s going to move beyond, above, outside of, maybe even to someplace that’s simply adjacent to reality. At the same time, those who are already familiar with César Aira’s books know that even the most normal, most mundane circumstances are likely to be interrupted by fantastical creatures or seemingly impossible events.

The Miracle Cures is a bit different, though. It’s subtler than the blue worms of The Literary Conference, or the armadillo-car of The Seamstress and the Wind. It’s more a meditation on what’s possible and, perhaps more importantly, what makes certain things possible. The Miracle Cures focuses more on the abstract.

Aira is no stranger to abstraction in his writing: his narratives often wander into abstract musings that can be frustrating or enlightening (or both), depending on how much mental energy you’re willing to devote to them (or how coherent he’s made them in the first place). Here, however, far more than I’ve seen before, Aira calls himself out on it. Dr. Aira, the protagonist of The Miracle Cures, is, as it turns out, an aspiring author. He plans to write and publish a series of books about the Miracle Cures. In writing these books, the narrator tells us Dr. Aira refuses to write in the standard, expected way: that is, using specific examples to illustrate his points. He prefers to remain in the abstract realm. Not only that, but even Dr. Aira’s drawings, which can be found in his many notebooks alongside his written notes about the Cures, always turn out abstract. Very rarely and only by accident do they ever represent something recognizable.

The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira is hard to summarize. The most I can do is set it up: Dr. Aira has the power to perform miracle cures, and everyone knows it. His power is legendary. The hospital chief is constantly developing elaborate traps designed to trick Dr. Aira into performing a miracle cure on command, and Dr. Aira tries his best to avoid these tricks. Dr. Aira is also a sleepwalker, or rather, to use the words of the novel itself:

He suffered from a type of somnambulism, and it wasn’t all that unusual for him to wake up on unknown streets, which he actually knew quite well because all of them were the same.

On one such morning, Dr. Aira finds himself talking to a Lebanon cedar, delivering a rather deep philosophical monologue about humanity and its position on the planet and its relationship to Nature, when suddenly he pauses and adds:

Of course I am personalizing this quite perversely, reifying and externalizing forces that exist within us, but it doesn’t matter because I understand myself.

This is not only a comment that might make a frequent Aira reader laugh (“you might not have a clue what I’m trying to say here, but rest assured that at least I get it”), it’s also an indicator of one aspect of Aira’s writing style. Here, and in his books in general, Aira is a master of using high-register vocabulary in a matter-of-fact way. Why mention sleepwalking when he can easily fold in somnambulism instead? That his character is talking to a tree, like a madman? Why not seamlessly incorporate a word like reifying?

Of course, we ought to remember that Aira writes in Spanish, and this sort of styling—in particular, a stylistic trait that depends on certain vocabularies—does not simply transfer from one language to another on its own. That’s the work of a skilled translator, and here as ever, Katherine Silver does not disappoint. I can only imagine the feat it must be to translate Aira; nonetheless, The Miracle Cures is remarkably smooth while remaining anything but flat.

The final scene of The Miracle Cures is the most lively, most visually interesting, most mentally engaging of the entire book. Unfortunately, the ending itself is disappointing. Without giving it away—here I am going into abstractions myself—the ending does make the opening scene make a little more sense, but it doesn’t quite connect enough of the dots. I don’t expect all the dots to be connected—Aira usually leaves a few disconnects—but I just get the feeling he could have done more with this one. It just falls, and not enough in the “oh, this makes a lot of Aira-sense” direction. There seems to be a little too much truth to the narrator’s comment as Dr. Aira is wrapping up his actions in the final scene:

As often happens with difficult jobs, a point came when the only thing that mattered was to finish. He almost lost interest in the results, because the result that included all the others was to finish what he had started.

14 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.

The Planets by Sergio Chejfec, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary and published by Open Letter Books

This piece is by Korean translator Deborah Smith. You can follow her on Twitter at @londonkoreanist.

Among the spate of excellent writing coming out of Argentina in recent years, Sergio Chejfec stands out. My Two Worlds, the first of his full-length works to be published in English translation (Open Letter), gave us a masterful match-up of digressive style with peripatetic narrator/flâneur which seemed a fitting heir to the Sebaldian tradition. The Planets, also published by Open Letter, and translated by Heather Cleary, whose sensitivity to the specific effects which Chejfec is hoping to achieve through his singular style is happily matched by her skill at rendering this in English, is in many ways a continuation of this aesthetic. In other words, it’s another slim yet weighty work straddling the border between the novel and memoir, all with a healthy dose of philosophical mediation.

Yet there is nothing dry or sterile about The Planets, shot through as it is with both the narrator’s understated grief over the “disappearance” of his childhood friend M in early 1970s Buenos Aires, and the dark undercurrents of tension and uncertainty which define that period of Argentine history. Written from the point of view of the narrator looking back on his childhood with M after he believes that the latter has been killed in an explosion, his attempts to bring the past (and thus his friend) back to life are held in check by the distancing effects of time on the intimacy of friendship.

The narrator’s many meditative digressions are in fact such an integral component to the movement of the narrative that to call them digressions seems a disservice, though this movement is more akin to the orbits of the titular planets than to the traditional forward march of a more plot-driven book. And the centre of gravity is M, an emotional centre from which the narrator’s mind jumps off into the philosophical, but to which these passages always swing back before becoming esoteric:

The real illusion that is space, or, more accurately, the confined, familiar city in which our reciprocal identity manifested itself, disappeared in M’s absence. There was no sense trying to recapture it through intermittent, inevitably anonymous, and more or less melancholy visits to his neighbourhood or the places we used to go because, unlike objects—which, like photos, can at any moment become talismans or relics—space has its own ephemeral hierarchy.

For me, it is precisely this abstract quality which somewhat paradoxically serves to strengthen the emotional force of the narrator’s childhold memories, whilst at the same time ensuring that these never descend into sentimental nostalgia. Reading the final few pages, I actually got pretty emotional. Without a doubt, The Planets would be a worthy winner—and I can’t wait to see what Chejfec will do next.

27 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour |

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Pierce Alquist on Manuela Fingueret’s Daughter of Silence, which is translated from the Spanish by Darrell B. Lockhart and is available from Texas Tech University Press.

This is Pierce’s first review for threepercent. Pierce is a student at the University of Rochester majoring in English Literature, minoring in Journalism and Anthropology. She has interned at various publishing companies, with publications ranging from magazines to academic works, and now translated literature. After studying abroad this past semester at Oxford she is happy to return to her native Rochester.

Here is part of her review:

Acclaimed Argentinean poet and novelist Manuela Fingueret details the 1980’s neofascist military dictatorship in Argentina and its dark, painful parallels to the Holocaust through the tales and memories of a mother and daughter in her second novel Daughter of Silence. Translated by Darrell B. Lockhart, Daughter of Silence is a crucial addition to “The Americas” series of contemporary Latin American literature published by Texas Tech University Press, for its exploration of violence, national identity, and survival. Fingueret depicts the tradition of a silent female figure, mute and helpless throughout history, and drastically refutes it with the voice of her narrator Rita, a young Jewish Argentinean and incarcerated Peronist revolutionary. Abused, starved, and rapidly losing her mind, Rita weaves together both her memories and the experiences of her mother, Tinkeleh, a Holocaust survivor.

A poignant portrayal of women, Daughter of Silence illustrates these parallels between the Holocaust and Argentina’s political past, while also exploring the unique dichotomy between being Jewish and living in Latin America, a primarily Catholic nation. According to Lockhart in his introduction to the text, “Argentina is home to the largest Jewish population in Latin America and one of the largest in the world” and the text explores the complexities of a divided national and religious identity. Rita also meditates on the controversial links between the Holocaust and her Jewish identity, and her imprisonment as a Peronist rebel, warning that history is in a constant state of repetition. In a moment of vulnerability Rita details her path to incarceration and its correlation to her mother’s path to the Holocaust, one of marginalization and silence. She counts the strikes against her, her religion, her culture, her politics, and ultimately her sex:

Click here to read the entire review.

27 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Acclaimed Argentinean poet and novelist Manuela Fingueret details the 1980’s neofascist military dictatorship in Argentina and its dark, painful parallels to the Holocaust through the tales and memories of a mother and daughter in her second novel Daughter of Silence. Translated by Darrell B. Lockhart, Daughter of Silence is a crucial addition to “The Americas” series of contemporary Latin American literature published by Texas Tech University Press, for its exploration of violence, national identity, and survival. Fingueret depicts the tradition of a silent female figure, mute and helpless throughout history, and drastically refutes it with the voice of her narrator Rita, a young Jewish Argentinean and incarcerated Peronist revolutionary. Abused, starved, and rapidly losing her mind, Rita weaves together both her memories and the experiences of her mother, Tinkeleh, a Holocaust survivor.

A poignant portrayal of women, Daughter of Silence illustrates these parallels between the Holocaust and Argentina’s political past, while also exploring the unique dichotomy between being Jewish and living in Latin America, a primarily Catholic nation. According to Lockhart in his introduction to the text, “Argentina is home to the largest Jewish population in Latin America and one of the largest in the world” and the text explores the complexities of a divided national and religious identity. Rita also meditates on the controversial links between the Holocaust and her Jewish identity, and her imprisonment as a Peronist rebel, warning that history is in a constant state of repetition. In a moment of vulnerability Rita details her path to incarceration and its correlation to her mother’s path to the Holocaust, one of marginalization and silence. She counts the strikes against her, her religion, her culture, her politics, and ultimately her sex:

A space for the abused and desperate. Peronism was the ideal place in which to orient those feelings. The Peronism of passion, of mysticism, of marginalization, of prominence. Jew and Peronist. Peronist and Jew. Woman, Jew, and Peronist. A triple provocation. The stories of concentration camps that I tried to decipher between books and whispers among family members became an undeniable obsession. All the barriers that Tinkeleh put in place with her silence made my journey inevitable. (78)

Fingueret’s prose captures Rita’s desperate, winding thoughts as she navigates her imprisonment and clings to her memories to maintain her sanity. In her rapidly declining state, however, she finds solace in piecing together her mother’s unspoken memories of the Holocaust. Whether this imagined world is healthy or another tax on her already damaged mental state is left undiscussed, but Rita uses these imagined memories to connect to her mother and other resilient women, etching their names on her cell walls for inspiration.

Rita’s story is told through fragments, becoming increasingly disorienting as her abuse escalates. In any lesser author’s hands, this disorientation would merely result in a reader’s confusion but Fingueret instead artfully references Rita’s fragile mental state, with the spaces between the text, the silence, telling more of Rita’s struggle than her words alone. Rita herself is insightfully portrayed, surrounded by the impassioned idealism of the Peronists around her, and struggling to connect with a distant, silent mother, she discovers in prison the deeper similarities between herself, Tinkeleh, and generations of other women, forced into the bind of silence and obedience but driven to survive.

The novel ends uncertainly, as Rita is transferred from her prison, defiantly looking at the blank expanse of her future:

I stretch my body across the void. I see a lot, I hear too much, I file and file, thousands of voices, ages, hair colors, professions, addresses: Auschwitz in Buenos Aires. These women console me. They know as well as I do where this train is headed. Did I get off at the wrong station? I have no regrets. (147)

Despite its difficult subject matter, the book concludes with some remnants of hope, as Rita’s resilience stands as a testament to the strength and will to survive of generations of women. The deep unsettling connections allow Fingueret to create a wholly new Argentinean novel, exploring the relationship between Judaism and Latin America, women and their tradition of silence, and ultimately calling for a clearer understanding of the nature of history.

29 June 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sarah Winstein-Hibbs on Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story, which is translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger and is available from Biblioasis.

As Sarah states in her introduction, this is her first book review for threepercent!

Here is part of her review:

Sparking major controversy in its home country upon publication in 1996, Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story chronicles the atrocity of the Argentinean “Dirty War” not on the grand scale of historical generalization, but on the infinitely more stunning and painful level of personal tragedy. The story is told through the overlapping narratives of three women: revolutionary-turned-mutineer, Leonora; her frustrated biographer and childhood confidante, Diana Glass; and Hertha Bechofen, a cynical writer and Austrian refugee. It’s often unclear who is narrating the story, and by the end it becomes evident that the piece is metafiction taken to a whole new level: The End of the Story is not just Diana’s story about Leonora, it’s Bechofen’s story of Diana writing about Leonora. But the predicament of perspective doesn’t end there. Parents and children, torturers and victims, believers and cynics all have a voice in this novel as Heker peppers the already-potent mixture with a host of polemical, conflicting viewpoints. And as Heker describes Leonora’s torture and defection, Diana’s hope and disenchantment, and Bechofen’s sage understanding, she leaves us guessing, refusing to fully identify herself with any one point of view. However, if we try to conflate Heker with a character or voice, we’ve missed the point entirely: the book constitutes a reaction against ideology itself, by very nature of its multifaceted storytelling.

Click here to read the entire review.

29 June 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Sparking major controversy in its home country upon publication in 1996, Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story chronicles the atrocity of the Argentinean “Dirty War” not on the grand scale of historical generalization, but on the infinitely more stunning and painful level of personal tragedy. The story is told through the overlapping narratives of three women: revolutionary-turned-mutineer, Leonora; her frustrated biographer and childhood confidante, Diana Glass; and Hertha Bechofen, a cynical writer and Austrian refugee. It’s often unclear who is narrating the story, and by the end it becomes evident that the piece is metafiction taken to a whole new level: The End of the Story is not just Diana’s story about Leonora, it’s Bechofen’s story of Diana writing about Leonora. But the predicament of perspective doesn’t end there. Parents and children, torturers and victims, believers and cynics all have a voice in this novel as Heker peppers the already-potent mixture with a host of polemical, conflicting viewpoints. And as Heker describes Leonora’s torture and defection, Diana’s hope and disenchantment, and Bechofen’s sage understanding, she leaves us guessing, refusing to fully identify herself with any one point of view. However, if we try to conflate Heker with a character or voice, we’ve missed the point entirely: the book constitutes a reaction against ideology itself, by very nature of its multifaceted storytelling.

Leonora was the childhood friend and teenage compatriot that writer Diana Glass always looked to for inspiration, zeal, and leadership. The book contains many passages in which Diana waxes nostalgic, attempting to immortalize the heyday of their Communist cause, with Leonora at the vanguard:

“She spoke, and Argentina became a burning rose, crying out for justice. How could we not follow her? Behind her magnetic words, the holier-than-thou declaimers of Astolfi and the blasphemers, the virginal and the deflowered, agreed to join the strike. Even the holdouts showed their mettle: ignited with reactionary passion, they brandished their faith in the Church and their disgust with the popular cause like a banner. No one remained indifferent when Leonora spoke. In the classrooms where small, private dreams had nestled for years, a political conscience began to grow like a flower.” (14)

After witnessing Leonora’s sudden and horrific abduction at the hands of the government, Diana resolves to document her life in a grand, impassioned subversive tragedy. However, the facts that eventually surface interfere with her pre-planned storyline of glorious heroism and martyrdom: Leonora has been brutally tortured and given information to the government; Leonora has defected and joined the other side; Leonora is in love with her torturer, who is also her husband’s murderer. Upon learning the truth about Leonora’s fate, Diana experiences a type of literary paralysis, willfully self-editing her text because the truth is so abominable to her.

Heker’s book is largely about disillusionment and betrayal, and this applies not just to Diana, but also to readers. Only when we’re three pages from the end do we know for sure who the narrator has been all along: it’s the wily Hertha Bechofen, who voyeuristically watches Diana writing in cafes, eavesdrops on her conversations, and writes about life through the eyes of torturers, victims, mothers, fathers, children, and survivors. Indeed, the book wouldn’t be possible without her impartiality, since Bechofen’s past experiences in WWII Vienna allow her to perceive the Dirty War with emotional distance and calm level-headedness. Where Diana is indignant and myopic, Bechofen is skeptical and detached, making her the better narrator for the story:

“…this isn’t a story about heroes, my dear,” Bechofen chides, “it’s a story about murder and murderers. And it’s also a story about survivors…So, forget your heroine and tell what you have to tell.” “It isn’t what I wanted,” Diana protests. “History is never what one wants, my dear. But it doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t feel right for you to write the story, I’ll write it myself. For a while now I’ve been looking for an interesting character; now I have two.” “Go on and try, Hertha, but you won‘t be able to. Now I know the story well. I know it will end for you in the first chapter. The character already shows her true colors there…she tore my own story to shreds, you see, my own sacred springtime. She ruined it forever.” (175)

What Diana wants to write conflicts with what actually happened: her intense emotional investment in history prevents her from documenting the truth. Throughout the novel, Diana grieves the breakdown of her ideology and the loss of her heroine. Because Diana can’t work through her own disappointment and obstinacy, Bechofen is the writer that ultimately takes over the story.

Unlike Diana’s lyrical reminisces, there’s a strangely flattened, matter-of-fact quality to the narration in the descriptions of violence and imprisonment in this book, as though Heker were trying to dissect a tragedy:

“Interrogations aren’t the only activities that take place in the basement, but the woman lying on a cot, chained, has no way of knowing this. She can only distinguish what can be heard in the distance—music on the radio, cries, fragments of interrogations—or at times, whatever happens to cross her field of vision, since her blindfolded condition—if the recumbent woman is lucky—might not be permanent. In the strictest sense, almost nothing is permanent in this section since, according to what the recumbent woman can distinguish, subjects are taken away once the session is over or in the event of death. The electrical equipment can be observed on a small table near the cot. Anyone lying there, chained, would be perfectly able to deduce, if observant enough, that all the compartments must have similar equipment and that other instruments—clubs, pliers, scalpels for pulling off skin—must be brought in especially for certain sessions. The lighting—logically, since it’s a basement—is always artificial.” (82-83)

This cold-blooded tone of voice actually makes the torture even more disturbing; the text is stripped of detail and emotion, which makes readers suspect—chillingly—this unbelievable series of events hasn’t been romanticized or fictionally embellished at all.

As in many effective war novels, Heker spares us from nothing—with unflinching candor she takes us right into the torture room, with all of its animal sights, sounds and smells.

But what stuns about Heker’s book is the way that she fearlessly mines the psychic states of torturers, and—arguably—even creates sympathy with them simply by giving them a voice in the novel. Because of the monstrosity of state-sponsored violence unleashed during the Dirty War, many would consider the articulation of such viewpoints to be pure evil, or at least propagandistic—“She’s playing right into the military’s hands,” in the words of one incensed writer. But in my opinion, these are the moments that make the book so strong: Heker is not afraid to voice any perspective of the war in her novel, as dangerous as it may be. Though she herself is a former Argentinean left-wing journalist and self-proclaimed socialist, through many of her characters Heker voices a deeply bitter disenchantment that other former revolutionaries might be too timid—or too proud—to articulate. And by telling about the love affair that occurs between Leonora and her torturer, she shows how even in times of war, the human instinct is stronger than abstract systems of honor and dogma that supposedly govern human life.

Many readers have criticized Heker’s book for its lack of closure and resolution, but this is precisely what gives the novel its realism. In life and war, no absolute truth or simple answer exists; Heker’s story achieves this reality by exploring the motives and perspectives on both sides of the conflict. This spectrum of emotion and thought furnishes the book with a literary richness and depth that would be impossible if Heker were openly rooting for one team. Which side is right; who’s culpable for the war; whose philosophy is more sound? – Heker refuses to answer these questions for us. What she does offer us instead is the infinitely more valuable opportunity to think critically about the evidence presented, instead of blindly accepting the ideology of one authority (philosophy, government, author, party, faction). Heker’s book shows that there is never simply one way to tell about a war, or one way to end the story—there are many.

31 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at Numéro Cinq (“A Warm Place on a Cruel Web”) there’s a great feature on Scars by Juan José Saer, a book that I recently claimed in an interview was my “favorite Open Letter book ever.” (And which I qualified by saying that my mind will change by the time the interview is over . . . My book love is 100% fickle.)

In terms of the features Richard Farrell put together, first off, there’s an excerpt from the novel itself:

Mostly I played baccarat, because there my past was predetermined. Once in a while it could change, but it felt more solid than the crazy mayhem of the dice in the shaker, better than the blind senselessness of their flight before they came to rest on the green felt. My heart would tumble more than the dice when I shook the cup and turned it over the table. You can’t bet on chaos. And not because you can’t win, but because it’s not you who wins, but the chaos that allows it.

In baccarat I saw a different order, analogous to the phenomena of this world, because that other world, the one in which the opposite face of every present moment is utter chaos, and in which the chaos, reinitiated, could erase all the present moments behind it, just like that, seemed horrible to me. That’s what I felt whenever I shook the dice. In baccarat, my eyes could follow every movement the dealers made as they shuffled the cards and reinserted them into the shoe. First they would spread them out over the table, and then stack them in piles organized in three or four rows. They’d combine all the piles into a single column, two hundred and sixty cards, five decks in all, and drop them into the shoe. Then the game would start. First you had to think about the cards in the shoe. In baccarat, when the player is dealt a five—made up of a face card and a five, a three and a two, a nine and a six, or any other combination—he can choose whether or not to hit in order to improve his score. If the player hits, the entire makeup of the shoe changes. Before, I said that in baccarat I had a predetermined past. But it’s probably better to say I had a predetermined future. Objectively speaking, the cards in the shoe are actually a past. For me, ignorant of their arrangement, they become the present and then the past as they are dealt, two at a time. At that point they become the future. And the player’s decision when he lands a five—hitting or standing—changes the cards. But the present is necessary for that change to take place.

Then there’s a review:

A good novel does much more than communicate the events of a story. A good novel also reflects on itself. It dabbles a bit in theory, considers genre and rediscovers form. The well-written book, what John Gardner once called the ‘serious novel,’ borrows from the traditions of the past and gestures toward the future, often in destabilizing ways. A good novel refuses simplistic labeling because it relentlessly stalks the nature of things and, in so doing, it helps resuscitate the very reason we read (and write) in the first place: to render some insight into the ineffable, to close the gap between perception and thought, to diminish the emptiness between the world we experience and the world we feel. [. . .]

Juan José Saer’s novel Scars might well qualify as such as work. Set in the city of Santa Fe, Argentina, the novel is divided into four long sections, each narrated by a different character. Holding these disparate parts together are the events of May 1, Workers Day, a day when Luis Fiore, his wife and young daughter go duck hunting. It’s almost wintertime in the southern hemisphere, and a steady cool rain makes the hunting trip more dread than delight. Fiore and his wife argue all day, but Fiore bags two ducks anyway. He drives back into town, drops his daughter off at home and then stops in at a local pub with his wife. Inside the dingy bar, the ongoing argument between Fiore and his wife — an unnamed character with the mildly derogatory moniker Gringa—escalates. Fiore steps outside, points his shotgun in his wife’s face and pulls the trigger.

Part bildungsroman, part murder mystery, part Robbe-Grillet existentialist romp through a South American landscape, Scars refuses to be any one thing. The easiest comparison of its structure is with the game of Chinese Whispers (also known as Telephone). In the game, as in the novel, a single event is recounted by various witnesses, each with his own version. As the game and the novel unfold, the various perceptions skew the seemingly objective facts. What has been witnessed changes. As Joyce does with his theory of parallax, Saer shakes the reader’s sense of certainty. What is true? What really happened? It all depends on the position and inclination of the observer.

Finally, Richard also has an interview with translator Steve Dolph:

RF: How does translation affect your appreciation of language and literature?

SD: The effect has really been profound. I tend to see all writing in terms of translation, either linguistic or cultural, and have less trust in concepts like national literatures or genealogies among writers. Even the idea of a unified language in itself seems deeply suspect and ideologically motivated to me. I’ve also become much more conscious of translation’s connection to linguistic colonialism, and the political role that translation plays between national groups and between individuals. I see novels, and narration in general, as less closed or finished, and rather more open than I used to, more a confluence of many, many voices than the product of a single voice. Along with that, the idea of authorship, and the distinction between fist-order and second-order artistic products seems more and more like a fiction to me. At the most basic level, though, I’m compelled to see translation—and, by extension, all reading, of text or of the world—as essentially hermeneutic rather than empirical. Which is to say: meaning is not inherent to writing or to language as such; meaning is a product of interpretation, which is never disinterested or absolute, but always, always informed and circumscribed by the cultural position that the reader occupies.

RF: Could you expand a bit on this idea of ‘first order’ and ‘second order’ production with respect to translating literary works?

SD: The idea of a clear transfer from a first order to a second order production is really recent, and has more to do with the 19th-century development of copyright than with what actually happens between texts, and involved the codification of the limits of artistic work and influence. It’s certainly useful from a legal standpoint, but from a reader’s perspective, I don’t see it as very useful. A book is a confluence of many different voices and ideas. For the translator, it’s a whole other set of voices and ideas. The process just feels more open to me. Our ideas about originality and authority, these codes, are informed by an ideology of the role of arts and the artist that translation has always worked to destabilize.

Definitely worth checking out all of these posts, Scars itself, Numéro Cinq, Douglas Glover’s fiction and The Attack of the Copula Spiders.

18 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Aleksandra Fazlipour on Carlos Gamerro’s An Open Secret, which is translated from the Spanish by Ian Barnett and available from Pushkin Press.

Aleksandra Fazlipour is the student I introduced last week who just completed a semester long independent study on writing reviews. After this, I think we only have 4 more reviews of hers to run . . .

I actually met Carlos Gamerro when I was in Buenos Aires on an (AWESOME) editorial trip a few years back. He’s an incredibly interesting guy and writer, and actually contributed to Three Percent. His novel The Islands is coming out from And Other Stories this month.

Here’s the opening of Aleksandra’s review:

In An Open Secret, author Carlos Gamerro, a native to Argentina, weaves together a complex murder mystery that explores how the death of a single man both affects and implicates an entire community. Twenty years after left-wing journalist Dario Ezcurra vanished from the small town Malihuel during Argentina’s Dirty War (a time during which thousands of political dissidents were murdered, their bodies disposed of and never found again), Fefe shows up under the pretense of writing a fictional account of Ezcurra’s disappearance. Fefe is no stranger to Malihuel—the grandson of the town’s former major, he spent his childhood summers there.

Through a series of interviews with the townspeople, Fefe reveals the complicity of the entire town in Ezcurra’s murder and subsequent disappearance. Ezcurra had a reputation as an arrogant philanderer, which led to a strange bet between the Colonel and the Superintendent. In possession of an unwavering and idealistic faith in humanity, the Superintendent asserted that the townspeople would refuse to be complicit in Ezcurra’s murder, despite any personal grudges. However, when the Superintendent talked to families around town, the people did not voice any dissent. Although the police chief was directly responsible for Ezcurra’s murder, anyone could have saved him by speaking out. Their resentment against the philandering journalist and their fear of facing a similar fate decided the outcome of the bet.

Click here to read the full review.

18 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In An Open Secret, author Carlos Gamerro, a native to Argentina, weaves together a complex murder mystery that explores how the death of a single man both affects and implicates an entire community. Twenty years after left-wing journalist Dario Ezcurra vanished from the small town Malihuel during Argentina’s Dirty War (a time during which thousands of political dissidents were murdered, their bodies disposed of and never found again), Fefe shows up under the pretense of writing a fictional account of Ezcurra’s disappearance. Fefe is no stranger to Malihuel—the grandson of the town’s former major, he spent his childhood summers there.

Through a series of interviews with the townspeople, Fefe reveals the complicity of the entire town in Ezcurra’s murder and subsequent disappearance. Ezcurra had a reputation as an arrogant philanderer, which led to a strange bet between the Colonel and the Superintendent. In possession of an unwavering and idealistic faith in humanity, the Superintendent asserted that the townspeople would refuse to be complicit in Ezcurra’s murder, despite any personal grudges. However, when the Superintendent talked to families around town, the people did not voice any dissent. Although the police chief was directly responsible for Ezcurra’s murder, anyone could have saved him by speaking out. Their resentment against the philandering journalist and their fear of facing a similar fate decided the outcome of the bet.

[The Superintendent] thought people’s natural reaction to an imminent crime would be to stop it, or report it. His need to lie paradoxically reveals his faith in people. It never entered his head that the perfect crime is precisely the one committed in the sight over everyone—because then there are no witnesses, only accomplices. His premise was correct—in a two-bit town like this you can’t waste a prominent inhabitant without everyone knowing: because it only takes one person to find out for everybody to know. He mistakenly concluded that, in the face of such vigilance, impunity wasn’t an option. Of course it wasn’t, as certain distorters of public opinion repeat ad nauseam, because the policemen of his generation had notions of morality, honesty or honour that were later lost; no, it was simply narrow-mindedness, intellectual laziness—a eureka moment, a Copernican revolution, the Superintendent was simply too old for it. All he needed to arrive at the right solution was a leap, a flip of the imagination that stood logic on its head and set the clockwork going—the realization that you can hold your tongue while talking out loud, that town gossip can work the other way round. That silence also travels by word of mouth.

The prose itself is difficult to wade through: a majority of the text is written as extended quotations from Fefe’s interviews, with punctuation stylistically omitted. Overall, this makes the panic and tension palpable for the reader, almost as if characters are speaking directly at them. It is easy for the audience to become immersed in the story line and submerged in a sense of confusion while attempting to piece together the loosely intertwined narratives. As the story moves forward, it becomes more and more apparent that the stories presented in the interviews are secondary to the tone itself—the novel itself is primarily composed of many unique voices interweaving into a sociological record of the town during a desperate time. Each person’s character is created largely out of their dialogue, and the bulk of the story itself is presented as a series of soliloquies. Truth is interspersed with contradiction and lies, and everyone is motivated by their own self-interest throughout Fefe’s interviews, either trying to hide their own involvement in Ezcurra’s murder or simply trying to lay blame on individuals they personally hold grudges against. This is undoubtedly a reflection of the self-serving attitudes individuals would have displayed twenty years prior, when faced with the possibility of saving Dario Ezcurra from his impending death.

The discovery that Dario Ezcurra’s mother Delia falls victim to a similar fate, quite likely because there were complaints that she was bothering the townspeople with her inquiries, makes the sense of horror evident in the panicked dialogues of the novel come to a head, and fuels the revelation that Fefe is Ezcurra’s illegitimate son. This explains Fefe’s investment in a story that beforehand simply appeared to be significant for the sake of childhood nostalgia, because he did not seem deeply concerned with writing the book itself.

And yet, for the sake of the book’s plot, this fact about Fefe being Ezcurra’s son in and of itself is not the most striking part. It is the change in human behavior as evident by a difference in tones of the dialogues of the characters that is observable after the revelation that is significant: people who were complicit in the murders of Fefe’s father and grandmother now offer their condolences, altering their behaviors to fit their audience. The murders themselves, in light of Argentina’s Dirty War, are not unique. What is new and significant is the idea that the responsibility for the murders, in this case and perhaps in many others, does not rest simply with the authorities and the government. Ordinary people are to blame, both by their silence and their choice of words when they spoke out. Perhaps history might have unfolded differently if people had listened to a left-wing journalist pointing out the injustices befalling the community. This book is more than just the story of a man documenting the life and death of the father he never truly knew—it is a sociological record commenting on the behaviors of people under the pressure of not only other people but under their own personal bias against one another.

11 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Aleksandra Fazlipour on Tomás Eloy Martínez’s Purgatory, which is translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne and available from Bloomsbury USA.

Aleksandra did an independent study with me last semester to learn about writing book reviewing. She read a bunch of books, wrote and rewrote and rewrote her pieces, read all of the essays in the Words Without Borders “How to Review Translations” series, and became a much better writer and reviewer over the course of the semester. I meant to run her pieces throughout the semester, but classes (and ALTA and life and work and everything) kept me way too busy. So instead, I’ll run them every Friday for the next few weeks.

This is from the first review she ever wrote:

Emilia Dupuy is haunted by the memory of her missing husband, Simon Cardoso. During what seemed like a routine mapping expedition in Argentina for the couple (both of whom were cartographers), Simon vanished without a trace. A thread of hope is preserved in Emilia thirty years after his disappearance in spite of testimonies stating that he was detained, tortured, and murdered. Simon became one of the many “disappeared” that characterized Argentina in the wake of the Dirty War, and Emilia became one of the individuals left behind in her own personal purgatory, marked by uncertainty with regards not only to the whereabouts of her husband, but the direction of her own life and her place within her family. Tomas Eloy Martinez carefully constructs this tale of one woman’s struggle in Purgatory by mingling poignant emotion with gut-wrenching fact and allows the reader to effortlessly move between present-time New Jersey into the corrupt Argentina of yester-year characterized by propaganda-induced authority.

The true power of Martinez’s storytelling lies in is his ability to make his protagonist’s personal struggle secondary to the oppression of the Dirty War—he uses his artistic skill to enfold the reader not only into Emilia’s story but into the time itself, whisking the audience through 30 years in the blink of an eye. In hopes of finding her husband, Emilia fruitlessly following a series of ultimately inaccurate clues pointing to Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, and finally the United States. The true angst in the story floods not from the pursuit itself but from the slow realization that these clues seem loosely linked to Emilia’s own father: Dr. Dupuy, a propagandist for the oppressive government regime itself. The irony almost makes the narrative humorous—Dupuy’s ideals enforce the statement “God, family, country,” but it seems increasingly clear to the audience and to Emilia that her father instigated Simon’s disappearance, and possibly his torture and murder, in order to further his own agenda and to keep Emilia among others from discovering the truth behind the government’s atrocities.

Click here to read the full review.

11 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Emilia Dupuy is haunted by the memory of her missing husband, Simon Cardoso. During what seemed like a routine mapping expedition in Argentina for the couple (both of whom were cartographers), Simon vanished without a trace. A thread of hope is preserved in Emilia thirty years after his disappearance in spite of testimonies stating that he was detained, tortured, and murdered. Simon became one of the many “disappeared” that characterized Argentina in the wake of the Dirty War, and Emilia became one of the individuals left behind in her own personal purgatory, marked by uncertainty with regards not only to the whereabouts of her husband, but the direction of her own life and her place within her family. Tomas Eloy Martinez carefully constructs this tale of one woman’s struggle in Purgatory by mingling poignant emotion with gut-wrenching fact and allows the reader to effortlessly move between present-time New Jersey into the corrupt Argentina of yester-year characterized by propaganda-induced authority.

The true power of Martinez’s storytelling lies in is his ability to make his protagonist’s personal struggle secondary to the oppression of the Dirty War—he uses his artistic skill to enfold the reader not only into Emilia’s story but into the time itself, whisking the audience through 30 years in the blink of an eye. In hopes of finding her husband, Emilia fruitlessly following a series of ultimately inaccurate clues pointing to Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, and finally the United States. The true angst in the story floods not from the pursuit itself but from the slow realization that these clues seem loosely linked to Emilia’s own father: Dr. Dupuy, a propagandist for the oppressive government regime itself. The irony almost makes the narrative humorous—Dupuy’s ideals enforce the statement “God, family, country,” but it seems increasingly clear to the audience and to Emilia that her father instigated Simon’s disappearance, and possibly his torture and murder, in order to further his own agenda and to keep Emilia among others from discovering the truth behind the government’s atrocities.

As the novel progresses, the reader begins to question what is real and what is invented—both within the story and looking at the novel from a historical standpoint. There are some interesting parallels between Martinez himself and the author depicted in Purgatory who is relaying Emilia’s story—both are exiled writers from Argentina, and the character’s books share titles and topics with those published with Martinez himself. The events surrounding Dr. Dupuy’s villainous character are outlandish in a way that adds comic relief to the tense storyline in spite of being very serious and mirroring real-life events, which further blurs the line between truth and fiction. One moment he has Emilia move home to care for his ailing wife and the next he is sending his daughter reeling, which only perpetuates public rumors that she is insane, in search of her lost husband to get rid of her lest she learn too much about what is really happening in the government. Prior to his wife’s death he traipses around publicly with a successful woman, and the moment his mistress’ reputation wanes, she is mysteriously found dead (supposedly by suicide). For some reason Dupuy is compelled to secretively obtain treatment for his wife’s cancer. He forces a man to marry his favored daughter Chela and boosts his new son-in-law into riches for the sake of his daughter’s wellbeing, but the moment his reputation is questioned, he arranges it so his daughter becomes one of the disappeared alongside her husband and forsakes his relationship with his daughter entirely. Although Dupuy’s role seems very small at first, it gradually snowballs until the reader is struck by his importance not only in Emilia’s love story, but in post-Dirty War Argentina.

One significant scene captures Dupuy bartering with Orson Welles, who receives a cameo in the book. Dr. Dupuy begs Welles to create a film in which Argentina is shown as a “peace-loving country” where everyone is happy. This comes on the tails of a campaign in which two actors were sent across the country dressed as Mary and Joseph in something of a religious parody, trying to prove that the people would help and support them, but showing the exact opposite when most people not only rejected them but mocked and insulted them. Dupuy (who Welles refers to as Charlie) wants Welles to create an uproar, a national panic, that attributes the disappearances of many individuals to UFOs. Welles’s response is not only a refusal—it is a disclosure to the audience:

“Art is illusion, Charlie, reality is illusion. Things only exist when we see them; in fact, you might say they are created by your senses. But what happens when this thing that doesn’t exist looks up and stares back at you? It ceases to be a something, it reveals its existence, rebels, it is a something with density, with intensity. You cannot make that someone disappear because you might disappear too. Human beings are not illusions, Charlie. They are stories, memories, we are God’s imaginings just as God is our imagining. Erase a single point on that infinite line and you erase the whole line and we might all tumble into that black hole. Be careful, Charlie.”

With these words, Welles unveils the true nature of the disappearances and warns Dupuy that the government’s tenuous grasp on power is further weakening, and that a propagandist campaign can only go so far to reinforce power. Argentina is on the verge of tumbling into that black hole of purgatory, just as Emilia and many others whose loved ones’ disappeared already have, existing on a false sense of hope and security when certainty is absent. By the time the reader has to fully consider the idea that Emilia has unexpectedly been reunited with her husband, who has not aged after 30 years, the unrealistic magical air of the novel (largely established by Dupuy’s fantastical character) allows the reader again to question what is real and even permits events that are too fantastical to believe to waver on the edge of possibility—the reader is bound to ask, “is it likely that Emilia has, in fact, found the ghost of her husband?” While Emilia was characterized as the one who was crazy all along for not believing that her husband was dead when testimonies existed that proved otherwise, it seems feasible that those testimonies were also a creation intended to keep questioning at bay.

Overall, there is a beautifully created sense of horror that surfaces because, the more the reader knows about the corruption in the government, the less inclined he or she is to believe that Emilia, our protagonist, is insane in light of the insanity the government is attempting to hide. Overall, Tomas Eloy Martinez creates a historical thriller in which the characters and the audience alike must struggle to separate fact from fiction lest they get lost without a map in their own personal Purgatory.

25 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jeremy Garber on Andres Neuman’s Traveler of the Century, which is just coming out from FSG in Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia’s translation.

Jeremy Garber is a used book buyer for a large independent bookstore. (And one of my GoodReads friends, where I read a lot of his reviews.) His work has appeared in The Oregonian, the Oregon Historical Quarterly and on Powells.com. He is an avid Philadelphia Phillies fan.

I’ve been hearing about Andres Neuman for some time now, and am very excited to check out this novel. We actually featured him back in 2010 as part of our “22 Days of Awesome” series . . .

Here’s a bit from Jeremy’s review of Traveler of the Century:

Neuman’s lengthy novel could be best described as a postmodern work cast in nineteenth century attire, owing more to the refinement of classical fiction than to the cleverness and affectation of more modern works. Neuman himself describes it thus: a “futuristic novel that happens in the past, as a science fiction rewound.” Traveler of the Century is not set some two hundred years ago merely to capture that era’s milieu, but is done so in a way so as to compare and contrast twenty-first century ideals, beliefs, and moralities against their historical counterparts.

Hans, Traveler of the Century’s itinerant protagonist, is an enigmatic adventurer and translator, intent on a brief stopover in Wandernburg on his way to Dessau, but soon finds himself increasingly unable to make his way onward. As Hans’ stay prolongs itself, he encounters and befriends a number of local residents, including a sagacious, aging, and nameless organ grinder who lives in a nearby cave with his affectionate dog Franz. Hans, per an invitation, begins to attend weekly conversations at the home of Herr Gottlieb, one of Wandernburg’s more esteemed households. At these salon talks, populated by a small group of about six or seven, topics as varied as European history, politics, literature, poetry, religion, art, and architecture are routinely discussed and debated into the late hours of the evening. While there, Hans is introduced to Herr Gottlieb’s daughter, Sophie, a betrothed and independent young woman with whom hans later falls in love and embarks upon an ambitious translation project.

Click here to read the entire review.

25 April 12 | Chad W. Post |

Traveler of the Century is an exquisite, dazzling work of fiction. Its author, Andrés Neuman, is a young argentinian writer, born in 1977, whose relative youth is belied by a remarkably prodigious literary output. Neuman has written nearly twenty distinct works, including four novels, nine books of poetry (a tenth compiles them), four short story collections, a book of essays, and a book of aphorisms (in addition to his translations of german poet Wilhelm Müller). His writing has been celebrated throughout the Spanish-speaking world, having attracted a number of prestigious awards, and his international renown is clearly on the ascendancy as his works find their way into ever more translations.

With the publication of granta’s winter 2010 issue (“Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists”), many English-speaking readers had their first introduction to Andrés Neuman via his short story “After Helena.” The late Roberto Bolaño offered his own high praise for Neuman (well before Traveler of the Century had even been written), including a short piece about him (“Neuman, Touched by Grace”) in his nonfiction collection Between Parentheses (published in English translation in 2011). Bolaño, ever the discerning critic, wrote about neuman after reading his first novel (Bariloche):

Good readers will find something that can be found only in great literature, the kind written by real poets, a literature that dares to venture into the dark with open eyes and that keeps its eyes open no matter what. In principle, this is the most difficult test (also the most difficult exercise and stretch), and on no few occasions neuman pulls it off with frightening ease . . . When i come across these young writers it makes me want to cry. I don’t know whether a drunk driver will run them down some night or whether all of a sudden they’ll stop writing. If nothing like this happens, the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a few of his blood brothers.

With Traveler of the Century, Neuman’s first book to be translated into English, it is evident that the myriad hype surrounding this young writer is indeed well-deserved.

Written in Granada between the spring of 2003 and the fall of 2008, Traveler of the Century (El Viajero del Siglo) was published in Spanish in 2009 and was summarily awarded two of Spain’s most distinguished literary honors (the Alfaguara Prize and the National Critics Prize). The awards themselves place Neuman in the company of a veritable who’s who of Latin American letters, counting as their recipients Cela, Vargas Llosa, Donoso, Onetti, Marias, and Vila-Matas, amongst others. His fourth novel, Traveler of the Century has already been translated into ten languages.

The novel is set in the small, fictional German town of Wandernburg sometime in the early nineteenth century (presumably in the mid- or late-1820s). A town where the streets are constantly rearranging themselves, “it is impossible to pinpoint the exact location of Wandernburg on any map, because it has changed places all the time.” Wandernburg, from the german verb “wandern” (to hike, ramble, roam, or wander), is nestled between Dessau and Berlin in the northeastern part of the country. Despite the metaphysical qualities inherent in the town’s geographical layout, it would be a grave error to classify Traveler of the Century as containing any elements from the Latin American subgenre of magical realism.

Instead, Neuman’s lengthy novel could be best described as a postmodern work cast in nineteenth century attire, owing more to the refinement of classical fiction than to the cleverness and affectation of more modern works. Neuman himself describes it thus: a “futuristic novel that happens in the past, as a science fiction rewound.” Traveler of the Century is not set some two hundred years ago merely to capture that era’s milieu, but is done so in a way so as to compare and contrast twenty-first century ideals, beliefs, and moralities against their historical counterparts.

Hans, Traveler of the Century’s itinerant protagonist, is an enigmatic adventurer and translator, intent on a brief stopover in Wandernburg on his way to Dessau, but soon finds himself increasingly unable to make his way onward. As Hans’s stay prolongs itself, he encounters and befriends a number of local residents, including a sagacious, aging, and nameless organ grinder who lives in a nearby cave with his affectionate dog Franz. Hans, per an invitation, begins to attend weekly conversations at the home of Herr Gottlieb, one of Wandernburg’s more esteemed households. At these salon talks, populated by a small group of about six or seven, topics as varied as European history, politics, literature, poetry, religion, art, and architecture are routinely discussed and debated into the late hours of the evening. While there, Hans is introduced to Herr Gottlieb’s daughter, Sophie, a betrothed and independent young woman with whom hans later falls in love and embarks upon an ambitious translation project.

Neuman’s novel is colored by a number of rich subplots that are woven effortlessly into an already well-textured narrative. A series of nefarious and sinister crimes work their way into the tale, for example, and are portrayed in stunning complement to other rising action. Minor characters, such as Hans’s new best friend (and weekly salon attendee), Álvaro, figure prominently into the story and are as well-conceived and believable as both Hans and Sophie. Nearly every aspect of Traveler of the Century seems carefully crafted and assiduously arranged. Neuman’s prose is both beautiful and engaging, lending the novel yet another characteristic that makes up its captivating essence.

Traveler of the Century, at heart, is both a novel of ideas and a love story. Neuman explores many exigent issues throughout the book (relevant to both post-napoleonic Europe and the modern world), including continental politics, national sovereignty, war, peace, economic development, immigration, poverty, nation building, empire, women’s rights, labor, and revolution, as well as more literary subjects such as poetic norms, style, philosophy, fiction, and the role of the translator. that neuman was able to so expertly include these elements into the novel without straying into the didactic, rendering them essential components to the story, demonstrates the mastery with which he composed this fantastic book.

Neuman’s work, in all its many aspects, represents a summation of the narrative form. Traveler of the Century is a complete novel that allows us an opportunity to reassess the present (and the future) by looking behind us. It is truly a timeless tale, one that demonstrates a past, once contemplated through the often clarifying lens of fiction, not all that dissimilar from the contemporary. Andrés Neuman seems to possess a formidable talent, and Traveler of the Century may well presage a lengthy and accomplished literary career the likes of which only come along a few times in a generation. Traveler of the Century, while penned by a young, spanish author born in Argentina, is, nonetheless, an European novel of considerable consequence. As more of his works undoubtedly make their way into translation, Andrés Neuman is surely a name that will come to be uttered in the same breath of his masterful forebears.

When I was young, because I was young once like you, I heard many organ grinders play, and I can assure you no two tunes ever sounded the same, even on the same instrument. That’s how it is, isn’t it? The less love you put into things the more they resemble one another. The same goes for stories, everyone knows them by heart, but when someone tells them with love, I don’t know, they seem new.

18 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at The Mookse and the Gripes, Trevor Berrett posted a really interesting interview with Margaret Carson, the translator of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds (among other books):

A “walking” book, when I finished My Two Worlds I wrote, “It’s meandering (obviously), sometimes feels pointless (deliberately), and takes longer than one would expect to go a such a short distance (which works perfectly with the book’s plot).” It’s a slow-burner, but in the time since I finished it has only grown in my esteem. My Two Worlds is only just over 100 pages, but it took me some time to read because of the many layers and switch-backs not just in the global structure of the book but alaso in each sentence. The translation is a marvel. [. . .]

Q: What were some of the particular challenges of translating Chejfec’s work?

A: What sets Chejfec’s work apart from other fiction I’ve translated is the density and complexity of his sentences. There’s no coasting along; every sentence demands an intense scrutiny and a parsing through of meanings and possible translations. When I was working on My Two Worlds, I had to ask Sergio a million questions, to the point where a gloss on the book could be made from the Q&As in the emails that went back and forth

At the same, I noticed how crucial the “little” words were in qualifying the narrator’s ruminations, such as “I can’t be sure” or “anyhow” or “whatever,” the whole panoply of verbal stutters in English that express doubt or hesitation. Even these formulaic expressions needed to be sorted through and weighed in the English translation.

Q: Some of the pleasures?

A: The biggest one? That was when I reached a certain moment in the revision and could read long stretches of the novel as a novel, I mean, I could step back and enjoy the scenes as if it were any book I’d just picked up. You then flash back to an earlier stage when your draft was a mess, full of brackets around those phrases or sentences that resisted translation . . . So it was utterly gratifying in the end to feel myself being gripped by the story as would any other reader.

And throughout the project, it was a real joy to work with Sergio Chejfec. As I said, Sergio spent an enormous amount of time answering my questions, either in emails or in person. I don’t think he ever imagined his novel would be subject to the kind of microscopic scrutiny it underwent. I asked him once about what it was like to be translated and he said it was like a parable by Kafka; he had to offer his explanation to the Guardian of the Other Language so that the door would open. If that was the case, I loved my Kafkaesque role in this endeavor!

The response to My Two Worlds has been amazing. It’s the first translation I’ve done that’s made a perceptible ripple. Chad Post and the staff at Open Letter Books have done an exceptional job at getting the novel out there to the right readers, and it’s a thrill for me to read reviews or commentaries that quote from the translation itself.

Be sure and read the whole thing. And My Two Worlds. It really is a spectacular book . . .

14 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez, translated by Frank Wynne

Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina
Publisher: Bloomsbury

Why This Book Should Win: In part because Martínez died just a couple years ago, and has never gotten the recognition here that he deserves.

Today’s post is by Tom Flynn, bookseller and events coordinator at Seminary Co-Op in Chicago.

There’s a fair bit I can say about Tomás Eloy Martínez’s Purgatory. It is a political novel, a study of madness, a ghost story, a meditation on a rich culture that has spawned disastrously violent regimes: it is in many ways a culmination of Martinez’s life’s work. But I spend most of my time these days selling people books in twenty second blurbs that have to hook them on the spot, so a long explication of Purgatory_’s strengths isn’t really up my alley. So let’s start over and try this: _Purgatory is a startlingly addictive character study focusing on a woman’s search for her husband against the backdrop of a country gone mad.

OK, that probably needs a bit more explanation.

Briefly, Purgatory is the story of Emilia Dupuy and her search for her husband, Simon, who disappeared not long after their marriage. More accurately, Simon is disappeared by the Argentine junta during the military’s rule in the late 1970s and early ’80s. After spending decades chasing phantoms of him—despite eyewitness testimony and the reality of life under the junta, Emilia refuses to accept that Simon is dead—she settles in New Jersey to await Simon’s return. The novel begins thirty years after Simon’s disappearance in a chain restaurant where, looking up from her booth, Emilia sees Simon sitting just a few feet away and he hasn’t aged a day since she saw him last.

The events of the junta’s reign are well documented; the history is laid out. But Martínez takes those events and the ways in which an insane political system attempted to remake an entire nation and creates a beautifully personal history in Emilia’s life following her husband’s disappearance. The novel skips about in time, addressing the events of the day and Emilia’s place in them almost thematically, building her personality and the circumstances that bring her to the novel’s opening lines.

What Martínez achieves is a triumph of memory over historical events. By presenting Emilia’s history as a chaotic overlapping of occurrences he allows the personal perspective to take precedence over the factual occurrence. The carefully demarcated line of causation that explains the grand historical movement of peoples and countries from one moment to the next is cast aside in favor of the fragments, the coral that each individual generates. In unmooring this period of history Martinez brings its profound effects into starker relief. And by creating Emilia he makes the pain and misery forced upon his native country a more personal reality for the reader.

I might need to pare that down a bit to get it under twenty seconds.

12 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

Scars by Juan José Saer, translated by Steve Dolph

Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina (though Saer had recently moved to Paris when it was published)
Publisher: Open Letter Books

Why This Book Should Win: The title sounds like an action movie and it would be cool to announce in a scary voice from the stage if it wins. And because it is fucking unforgettable.

This piece is written by the infamous Dustin Kurtz who works at the equally infamous McNally Jackson.

As I wrote to Chad earlier and may have proclaimed, unasked, a few times on the floor of my bookstore, Juan Jose Saer’s Scars is some kind of masterpiece. What I mean here is that this novel plays a single nuanced tune. It plays it with impressive range and variety. It plays it with enough subtlety to overcome the bluntness and stridency of the chosen instrument (male narrative voice in provincial Argentina in the midcentury). But more than that, it does it in such a way that variety itself, that range, that repetition above all, become not just structural methods for Saer but themselves the topics of the book. It is a book about small men, and whatever Saer’s intentions for the work it never grows grandiose enough to indicate a Great Book in ways we are used to recognizing. It is not, as I say, a masterpiece. I don’t generally care for masterpieces. Give me instead books that are lesser, are grounded, books filthy with humanity.

This book languished on my to-be-read pile for too long. I spilled something—what is this, coffee?—on it at some point. And then, this past December, I found myself trying to pull together a list of a few great books translated that season. Open Letter has pretty good credit in my house, and Chad, when first selling it to me, had been pretty exuberant, so I began to read.

There’s this filthy, evil June light coming through the window. I’m leaning over the table. sliding the cue, ready to shoot. The red and white balls are across the table, near the corner. I have the spot ball. I have to hit it softly so it hits the red ball first, then the white, then the back rail between the red ball and the white ball. The red ball should hit the side rail before mine hits the back rail, which it should make for at an angle, after it’s hit the white ball.

That is the opening passage of the book. Incredibly, bravely, it keeps going that way. How do you refuse a book like this? How do you even put it down?

Scars revolves more or less around the story of a single murder, told from the point of view of four men. As we pass through the book each narrator is closer to the murder and each narration is given a shorter span of time. The result is a sort of slow pacing along the path of a meditative labyrinth toward its not-so-nice center. The thing is, I don’t give a shit about that structure. It doesn’t hurt the book but it doesn’t add appreciably to it either. What matters are Saer’s characters and his way of nesting a few indelible details in a wealth of repetition.

While I’m mentioning things to make you avoid the book (“Great recommendation Dustin!” “Thanks, Chad!”) let me say that Scars could be read as misogynistic. It is more complex than that, though many of the characters themselves are unambiguously misogynistic for reasons of youth or spite or because this book is, again, set in Argentina in the mid twentieth century. Saer’s women are seen exclusively through male eyes. And Saer’s men are invariably angry or repressed or confused. The women are not always cast in a flattering light, and are always a source of self-loathing for the men. In fact the true heart of the book is hidden in these men’s frustrated relationships to women and the thick-barked form that frustration takes.

Oh, and the book is boring. (“Why yes, I will buy a copy. That sounds right up my alley, good bookseller. I was just thinking I needed a good soporific.”) Or, it isn’t boring but as I said it plays with boredom. Do you remember the whaling chapters in Moby-Dick? Right in the middle of your sexy harpoon allegory? Well some of Scars is like that. That billiards bit above is nothing. There is a passage about twenty pages long explaining and then over-explaining the rules of baccarat. I now know more than any person I have ever met in the entire course of my life about baccarat, excepting maybe Chad W. Post and Steve Dolph and the lucky folks (I am not being facetious here; they are lucky, this book is incredible) I convinced to buy a copy of this thing because they trust my taste or maybe just liked the pixel-flame cover art.

Another portion of the book, among my favorites, follows an aging judge as he drives up and down the streets of a small town in the rain. “I cross the Avenida del Sur, and at the next corner I turn right, then drive one block and turn left onto San Martin to the north” is a typical sentence. That is oddly specific, yes? After the first page of nothing but driving it becomes oddly hypnotic. After five more pages, you begin to relearn what a novel is.

This is Steve Dolph’s second translation of Saer, also having done the remarkable The Sixty-Five Years of Washington put out by Open Letter in 2010 and presumably their forthcoming edition of La Grande. With it he’s stepping into the shoes of the formidable Margaret Jull Costa, but it’s hard to imagine Saer in anyone else’s hands (or wait, shoes, I guess? Is that the lazy metaphor I was using?) at this point. Dolph is thankfully true to the understatement in this book. There are moments of flame-bright language—during dream sequences, bilious drunken dialogue, an excerpt from a novel in progress—but they are rare, and must leak up through extra-textual cracks in a shell of simple declarative vocabulary. Dolph does an impressive job here, using just the right measure of repetition in the language itself, opting for no more specific phrasing than is necessary. There are staircases, squares, doorways and trees, arcades, gin and long marsh grass. He has a good ear for the break of the sentences, for when a character’s narration should push or drag you, cozy you in or hold you distant. Even more, Dolph manages to coax a different timbre from the voice of each of these five sometimes very similar male narrators. He builds them of slang and its lack, of reflection and its lack, until he’s managed what I hope Saer himself did in the original: a mumbling too-easily-joined chorus of banalities and lust.

Ah that’s right, beer. I spilled a beer on it.

6 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Lian Law on Marcelo Figueras’s Kamchatka that came out from Black Cat/Grove Press back last year.

Lian Law was an intern and in my “Intro to Literary Publishing” class last semester, which is when she wrote this review. (And yes, we are that far behind in running all of these.)

Marcelo was actually in Rochester for an event last spring in connection with PEN World Voices. You can watch the full event below, or skip forward to see the reading and interview with Marcelo:

And here’s the opening of Lian’s review:

Kamchatka: a remote peninsula in the Russian Far East. However, to the ten-year-old narrator in Marcelo Figueras’s novel Kamchatka, it represents much more. It is a territory to be conquered in his favorite game of Risk, it is “a paradox, a kingdom of extremes, a contradiction in terms,” and it is the last thing his father ever says to him.

Kamchatka is Marcelo Figueras’s English novel debut, translated by Frank Wynne. A novelist and screenwriter, Figueras has published several other books including El espía del tiempo, La batalla del calentamiento, and Aquarium. He was born in Argentina in 1962 and similar to the narrator of Kamchatka, he was a young child at the start of the Argentina’s Dirty War in 1976.

Kamchatka chronicles the life of a young boy during this time of political instability and its suffocating climate of fear and violence. When he, his brother, and his parents, are suddenly forced to flee to a safe house, they must assume new identities. The boy renames himself “Harry,” after his hero and famous escape artist Harry Houdini while his five-year-old brother rechristens himself “Simón,” after Simon Templar in the TV show The Saint (although Harry continues to refer to him by his nickname, the “Midget.” Despite all the disruptions, fear and sudden disappearances of friends and family members, Figueras’s main goal is not to write another somber novel about the Dirty War.

Click here to read the entire review.

6 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Kamchatka: a remote peninsula in the Russian Far East. However, to the ten-year-old narrator in Marcelo Figueras’s novel Kamchatka, it represents much more. It is a territory to be conquered in his favorite game of Risk, it is “a paradox, a kingdom of extremes, a contradiction in terms,” and it is the last thing his father ever says to him.

Kamchatka is Marcelo Figueras’s English novel debut, translated by Frank Wynne. A novelist and screenwriter, Figueras has published several other books including El espía del tiempo, La batalla del calentamiento, and Aquarium. He was born in Argentina in 1962 and similar to the narrator of Kamchatka, he was a young child at the start of the Argentina’s Dirty War in 1976.

Kamchatka chronicles the life of a young boy during this time of political instability and its suffocating climate of fear and violence. When he, his brother, and his parents, are suddenly forced to flee to a safe house, they must assume new identities. The boy renames himself “Harry,” after his hero and famous escape artist Harry Houdini while his five-year-old brother rechristens himself “Simón,” after Simon Templar in the TV show The Saint (although Harry continues to refer to him by his nickname, the “Midget.” Despite all the disruptions, fear and sudden disappearances of friends and family members, Figueras’s main goal is not to write another somber novel about the Dirty War. By retelling the events through a child’s perspective, Figueras explores the impact this situation had on personal and family dynamics. In the face of this situation, Harry remains a typical young boy, reluctantly attending school, obsessed with TV shows, comic books, and superheroes. He spends his time playing Risk with his father and aspiring to learn the secrets of Houdini.

In addition to Harry’s ten-year-old perspective, the adult Harry is often a companion voice, reflecting upon and filling in information that his younger self was incapable of comprehending at that time. Harry reflects on the information he gathers about the political situation.

For a long time I thought that my parents told me these little things because they believed I wouldn’t understand the bigger picture—whatever it was they were not saying, whatever they were hiding from me. Now I think that they did it deliberately, knowing that by the time I put the pieces together and could finally see the picture in the jigsaw puzzle, I would be safe, far from the danger that, right now, threatened us all.

The novel is uniquely bookended by the same moment in time as Harry and his father see each other for the last time. The interior brings the reader back to the beginning and up until this specific moment. While the end scene contains much of the same wording as the opening, the father and son’s encounter and the parting words of “Kamchatka” are full of new meaning and significance. While the opening was distinctly told in a ten-year-old voice, the final retelling is much more reflective, informed by the adult Harry’s brief interjections throughout.

Harry’s voice is most impressive, creatively and perfectly interweaving the ten-year-old and his older self. The novel is structured in five main parts, all around school subjects. In doing so, Figueras brings attention to how children, Harry and his little brother included, learn and decode meaning from their own experiences. Figueras favors short chapters, each paint their own small portrait of Harry’s life. The 81 chapters reflect how a ten-year-old breaks down his life into small episodes, much like the way his favorite television show The Invaders does. These short chapters provide vivid and beautifully colored portraits of his family and the children’s humorous exploits and adventures. The novel is filled with small touches of childhood reminiscence; Harry practicing holding his breath in the bath tub, Harry learning to slip out of knots, Harry and his brother’s attempt to save toads from drowning in the safe house swimming pool by creating a “reverse diving board” and arguments over who is better: Superman or Batman.

In telling the story from Harry’s point of view, Figueras is able to highlight the importance of family, courage and sacrifice within the context of fear, separation and ultimately loss. In the end, Harry realizes that in order to survive you need to “love each other madly.” In retelling his story, he has brought the characters to life once more. Through this act of storytelling, he realizes that “I don’t need Kamchatka any more, I no longer need the security I once felt being far from everything, unreachable, amid the eternal snows. The time has come for me to be where I am again, to be truly here, all of me, to stop surviving and start living.”

6 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.

My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec, translated by Margaret C. Carson

Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina
Publisher: Open Letter Books

Why This Book Should Win: Because of all the great stories surrounding how it was discovered and published. Also because fellow BTBA-er Enrique Vila-Matas said that it “paves the way for the novel of the future.” That’s some solid praise.

I was just at the AWP conference where I ran into a lot of people who were big fans of this book. (They were especially excited to get their hands on The Planets, his next book, which comes out from Open Letter this summer.) And at least a few of these Chejfec fans asked how we discovered him. Sure, he’s the author of 13 books, and teaches at NYU, but neither his prolific career, nor his proximity to Rochester had anything to do with how this book came to be published.

Back a couple years ago, Scott Esposito linked to a year-end roundup post from the always interesting (and martial arts inflected) blog Hermano Cerdo in which Enrique Vila-Matas gushed about My Two Worlds and compared Chejfec to both Sebald AND Walser. That’s serious, eye-grabbing company.

Anyway, I posted about this on Three Percent and almost immediately thereafter I received an email from Margaret Carson about how she had just translated a piece of this for an upcoming issue of BOMB Magazine. She sent it along, we all fell in love, and quickly decided to sign on three books of his . . .

Everyone on the Open Letter editorial committee immediately recognized the importance and beauty of Sergio’s writing. This is one of those novels with a very simple plot—a writer at a literary conference in Brazil wanders around looking for a park and thinking about his upcoming birthday and the not-so-wonderful reviews his new book has been receiving—that is utterly dependent upon the quality of the writing and the atmosphere created.

Or, as Vila-Matas says in his introduction:

I begin as I’ll end: adrift. And I begin by wondering if novels have no choice but to narrate a story. The answer couldn’t be simpler: whether they intend to or not, they always tell a story. Because there’s not a single intelligent reader who, given something unique to read, even the most hermetic of novels, would fail to read a story into that impenetrable text. [. . .] If I really think about it, Chejfec is someone intelligent for whom the word novelist is a poor fit, because he creates artifacts, narrations, books, narrated thoughts, rather than novels. My Two Worlds, for instance, is above all a book that reminds us that there are novels with stories, but there are also not-so-orthodox novels—Chejfec’s are in this camp—though these may also contain stories. The story in My Two Worlds isn’t easy to summarize because—as it true for all his novels—what’s important seems merely an excuse to highlight the dramatic role of the incidental.

That goal—“to highlight the dramatic role of the incidental”—can be found right off the bat in the opening paragraph of the novel:

Only a few days are left before another birthday, and if I’ve decided to begin this way it’s because two friends, through their books, made me see that these days can be a cause to reflect, to make excuses, or to justify the years lived. The idea occurred to me in Brazil, while I was visiting a city in the south for two days. I couldn’t really understand why I’d agreed to go there, not knowing anyone and having almost no idea about the place. It was afternoon, it was hot, and I’d been walking around looking for a park about which I had almost no information, except its somewhat musical name, which by my criterion made it promising, and the fact it was the biggest green space on the map of the city. I thought it impossible for a park that large not to be good. For me parks are good when first of all, they’re not impeccable, and when solitude has appropriated them in such a way that solitude itself becomes an emblem, a defining trait for walkers, sporadic at best, who in my opinion should be irrevocably lost or absorbed in thought, and a bit confused, too, as when one walks through a space that’s at once alien and familiar. I don’t know if I should call them abandoned places; what I mean is relegated areas, wehre the surroundings are suspended for the moment and one can imagine being in any park, anywhere, even at the antipodes. A place that’s cast off, indistinct, or better yet, a place where a person, moved by who knows what kind of distractions, withdraws, turns into a nobody, and ends up being vague.

One last little story that seems so very Chejfec-ian: Last spring, Sergio was on a PEN World Voices panel with me about “The Publishing Revolution.” We talked about any number of subjects, but a lot of time was spent talking about book discovery, about how to get your book into the hands of the right reader at the right time, especially in this increasingly digitally driven world. We used My Two Worlds as an example, about how we were planning on promoting it on GoodReads, through websites and interviews and all that.

After the panel ended, Sergio wandered over to Housing Works to browse around. Inside, he overheard this young man going on and on to a friend about this book he had just read and that had completely blown him away. Naturally, the book he was raving about was My Two Worlds, and he ended up spending a nice bit of time chatting with Sergio about it . . .

UPDATE: I can’t believe I forgot to include this initially, but watch the video below to hear Margaret Carson and Sergio Chejfec discuss the book, the translation, and the book in general.

7 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at Guernica there’s a fantastic interview with Argentine author Sergio Chejfec, whose My Two Worlds (translated by Margaret Carson) is getting a lot of great publicity, and whose The Planets and The Dark (both translated by Heather Cleary Wolfgang) will be coming out from Open Letter in the next couple years.

Guernica: I only read My Two Worlds in English, and so I don’t have much to compare it to. What did you think of the translation?

Sergio Chejfec: I thought it was excellent. Margaret [B. Carson], the translator, lives in New York, and over many months we would meet up and talk about it. My questions for her were very open because translation is necessarily a flummoxed process, and, really, what’s at stake is so much more than simple, didactic or denotative meaning. The question is how to make the translation not only faithful, you know, because the meaning of the text depends on so many other things. There are other texts that need a denotative, literal, “faithful” translation, sure, if only in order to revive a certain type of tone, or vibe, that permeates the text. There are others that require more originality in order to revive this sort of range, tone. Margaret’s translation really illustrates this—she revives a tone that at times requires some instances of literal deviation from the original. It doesn’t happen very often. But she needed to access certain very difficult, very Spanish ways of saying things, she felt, because there are certain paragraphs that are argumentative, or pointed, and secretive. And she needed to find a way to access this. [. . .]

Guernica: In your reading at McNally-Jackson, you spoke about this idea—the idea that the text “walks.” It meanders a bit, it strolls, it creates the tone in this way.

Sergio Chejfec: Yes, definitely—and I know Margaret at first was a little apprehensive about this. She was wary of standard English, of “literary” English. She wasn’t sure how to use it—with all its stops and starts, and its specific phrasings, to “walk” in the same way the Spanish did. So she worked in anticipation of this idea, realizing that it would be crucial to capture this effect in the translation. She felt that the language had to be at once literary and conversational. But the English narration was so successful thanks to her work, her skill. Because it happens in the original as well—I’m not sure if you can speak of a native, or innate link between walking and narrating. But there’s definitely an idea of flux, right? An idea that the narration functions more than a mere description of a particular action, but as a reflection of it, too. The narration itself can be seen as an instance of a reflection, or a reflection of an instance. The elements of language that work together develop, or provide an illusion, that is partial, sort of like features on a face: at one point it’s superficial, a surface reality, but at the same time they work to convey something of greater depth. Anyway, the idea was to do away with the idea of a fixed “thesis” or “argument” and instead let the argument unfold, meander. There is, again, this idea of flux, of flow.

This is a long, fantastic interview, and it’s definitely worth reading it in its entirety. And if you’re in the Rochester area, Margaret Carson and Sergio Chejfec will be here on campus on December 1st for the next event in our Reading the World Conversation Series.

7 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Book Review section is a piece by Emily Davis on Ana Maria Shua’s Death as a Side Effect, which is translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger and available from the University of Nebraska Press.

Emily Davis a MALTS student here, and translates from Spanish. As you might be able to tell from the final line of her review, she wrote this months ago, at which time she emailed it to me and I promptly misfiled it. So.

Emily’s review is really positive, and makes this sound extremely interesting, and like a possible BTBA longlist title . . .

bq.If we were to ignore for just a moment the fact that Death as a Side Effect was originally published (in Spanish) in 1997 in Argentina, we might be tempted to read it in the context of recent healthcare reforms and debates in the United States, with the world painted by Ana María Shua nestling easily among the nightmares of death-panel-phobes. Luckily, this book is much more than that.

As Ernesto struggles to come to terms with his dying father, he discovers that the world he lives in is ruled not only by violent gangs of vandals and professional thieves who make even simple activities like walking outside so dangerous as to be unthinkable, but also by the medical professionals at state-run hospitals and Convalescent Homes that strip their patients—or maybe more like prisoners—of any say in their own healthcare. In the meantime, his mother is going crazy, his sister is of little help, and his girlfriend has left him. Add to this the fact that the entire narrative is told by Ernesto and is explicitly directed toward his absent (read: already lost) lover—think one-sided epistolary tale, or a novel-length version of Elena Poniatowska’s “El Recado” (in a somewhat less neurotic voice and with much more really going on)—and you have a main character buried in layers of complications that make his world difficult, if not nigh impossible, to navigate. (No wonder he occasionally flips to the Suicide Channel on the television.) It is, in part, precisely these multiple layers and their expert unfolding in narrative time that make this novel so compelling. Having read the book with only the jacket copy as preparation, I found it to be far more intriguing—and on many more levels—than I had expected.

Click here to read the entire review.

7 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If we were to ignore for just a moment the fact that Death as a Side Effect was originally published (in Spanish) in 1997 in Argentina, we might be tempted to read it in the context of recent healthcare reforms and debates in the United States, with the world painted by Ana María Shua nestling easily among the nightmares of death-panel-phobes. Luckily, this book is much more than that.

As Ernesto struggles to come to terms with his dying father, he discovers that the world he lives in is ruled not only by violent gangs of vandals and professional thieves who make even simple activities like walking outside so dangerous as to be unthinkable, but also by the medical professionals at state-run hospitals and Convalescent Homes that strip their patients—or maybe more like prisoners—of any say in their own healthcare. In the meantime, his mother is going crazy, his sister is of little help, and his girlfriend has left him. Add to this the fact that the entire narrative is told by Ernesto and is explicitly directed toward his absent (read: already lost) lover—think one-sided epistolary tale, or a novel-length version of Elena Poniatowska’s “El Recado” (in a somewhat less neurotic voice and with much more really going on)—and you have a main character buried in layers of complications that make his world difficult, if not nigh impossible, to navigate. (No wonder he occasionally flips to the Suicide Channel on the television.) It is, in part, precisely these multiple layers and their expert unfolding in narrative time that make this novel so compelling. Having read the book with only the jacket copy as preparation, I found it to be far more intriguing—and on many more levels—than I had expected.

Death as a Side Effect is a book about aging, death, absence, coldness, fear, and entrapment—which, taken as a group, makes it sound like a horribly depressing read. It isn’t, though, because even amid the darkness there are bright sparks of humor. Take, for instance, a bit of Ernesto’s evidence of his mother’s going crazy: “Yesterday Mama threw a pot of stew down the stairs,” or his comically erudite description of a part of his reaction to having witnessed an act of violence: “As the car had new upholstery, I was circumspect enough to vomit on the street before I climbed in.” It is especially in such careful word choice and construction of tone that Andrea G. Labinger’s translation shines, as the prose seamlessly shifts among the range of emotions in this novel, as in Ernesto’s darkly humorous reflection on his dying father’s belongings:

Sadly, I realized there was nothing, absolutely nothing there that I might want to keep, except maybe that naked, reclining woman, whose oversized breasts were salt and pepper shakers and which struck me as the most touching symbol of my father’s bad taste and his enthusiastic vitality.

In addition to the temporary—and incomplete—lightening of mood afforded by these periodic dollops of humor, there are also moments of hope—hope for some kind of freedom—such as this dream of Ernesto’s:

I fell asleep. I dreamed I was flying. With a single leap, I gained altitude and soared through the air, very high above the city. It was pleasant, and it filled me with immeasurable pride. In my dream, I realized that flying was very unusual. Only I, among all men, could fly, only I in the entire history of the human race. I advanced effortlessly, feeling the breeze against my face, floating with an ease I never had in water. Then, without any transition, we were in the country, and I had gathered together a group of acquaintances to watch me fly. I ran and leaped, trying to rise, but my leaps were just that: enormous leaps, twenty or thirty yards long, that lifted me quite a bit above the ground. No matter how hard I attempted to run full speed, to try every which way, it did me no good. In real life, these boundless leaps would have been extraordinary. In the dream, they were simply proof that I couldn’t fly. The observers began to play poker.

His freedom is imperfect, its exercise incomplete, the outcome laughable and a touch unsettling; but still, the dream hints that there may be something beneath the surface that threatens the fearsome authority of the dystopia, something that flirts with a sort of balance in Ernesto’s world that could, perhaps, make it tolerable after all.

In the screwed-up world of Shua’s novel, perhaps the only sanity rises from Goransky, the film director with delusions of grandeur for whom Ernesto works as a scriptwriter and later as a makeup artist. Goransky has made only one successful film: a short documentary set in Antarctica. Still, he has dreams even bigger than he—“an enormous, heavy man with the brightest eyes you could ever imagine, in constant motion, a hippo on amphetamines, a bear hypnotized into thinking he was a squirrel”—dreams of making the great feature film of his era, a film also set in Antarctica. He throws a party to support his film project—a Coldness-themed party, which is at once over-the-top decadent and ridiculous, as well as strangely comforting in its absurd play at an alternative world:

There was a tea for Arctic foxes. And a cluster of Lapp huts, where exquisite dishes were served, not always in keeping with the central theme of the party as far as ingredients were concerned, but authentic in their presentation. The roofs of the huts sloped to the floor, and in the terribly hot interior, attractive, sweaty men, bare-chested and dressed in reindeer hide pants rolled up to their knees, served oysters shaped like snowflakes with white sauce and meringue, and extra-tender unborn veal steaks rotating over a fire, as if they were a single slab of flesh stuck to the enormous femur that served as a central skewer: a bear leg.

By turns horrifying, touching, thoughtful, comical, and even absurd, Death as a Side Effect is not likely to disappoint. And at just over 160 pages, you can probably still squeeze it into your summer reading mix.

27 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A few years back, I was lucky enough to participate in TyPA’s annual Editor’s Week in Buenos Aires. It was an absolutely amazing experience (which I wrote about here) that involved meeting lots of interesting publishers and writers, learning even more about Argentine literature than I thought possible, and becoming friends with very interesting editors from around the world. This also (to varying degrees) led to our publishing Macedonio Fernandez, Juan Jose Saer, Sergio Chejfec, etc.

Anyway, TyPA is accepting applications from editors to attend their next Editor’s Week, and anyone reading this who works in publishing should definitely apply.

Here’s the info from the press release:

DESCRIPTION:
Ten editors are invited to spend a week in Buenos Aires, where they will listen to talks about contemporary Argentine literature, meet authors, critics and journalists, visit publishing houses, bookstores, cultural centers and the Buenos Aires Book Fair. There will also be special meetings as requested by the participants.
The general grant covers all local costs: lodging, food, urban transportation, etc. There are also a few complete grants, which include air tickets.

WHO SHOULD APPLY:
Publishers and editors working with translated fiction. We may also consider a limited number of applications by translators and critics. Candidates have to be able to read and understand Spanish in order to profit from the visit, since all events will be held in that language.

HOW TO APPLY:
Send a curriculum vitae and a letter explaining why you would like to apply to: letras@typa.org.ar

DEADLINE FOR APPLICATIONS:Friday, November 10, 2011.

ANNOUNCEMENT OF PARTICIPANTS:Monday, December 19, 2011

FOR MORE INFORMATION PLEASE CLICK HERE.

29 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Argentina Independent has a great feature on Carlos Gamerro, a very interesting Argentine writer who once contributed to Three Percent and has a couple books coming out in translation. Here’s Joey Rubin’s intro:

The time has come for Carlos Gamerro to speak English. Born into a bilingual family in Buenos Aires in 1962, he’s been using the language since childhood. Since the 1990s, he’s been translating from it (books by Auden, Shakespeare and Graham Green) and lecturing in it (at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the US; at Cambridge University in the UK). But now, readers can welcome the author into a different kind of English conversation: over the next year, two of his novels will be released in first-ever English editions. Those books—‘El secreto y las voces’ and ‘Las islas’—will be released in the UK as ‘An Open Secret’ (Pushkin Press, 2011) and ‘The Islands’ (& Other Stories, 2012).

They are part of a diverse and cultivated body of writing that includes other novels (‘El sueño del señor juez’ and ‘La aventura de los bustos de Eva’), literary essays (‘Harold Bloom y el canon literario’ and ‘El nacimiento de la literatura argentina y otros ensayos’), and short fiction (‘El libro de afectos raros’), works that have helped make Gamerro, according to fellow writer Federico Falco, “one of the inescapable narrators of his generation.” In the last year alone, he’s released two new books: the novel, ‘Un yuppie en la columna del Che Guevara’, and the literary study, ‘Ficciones Barrocas’—both to significant acclaim.

Bad Burgers, available here in an original English translation, has been published thrice before in Spanish—in the magazine ‘Pisar el césped’, the newspaper Página 12, and in the story collection ‘El libro de afectos raros’. It distills much of what makes Gamerro’s writing distinctive; what Federico Falco, writing in the newspaper Perfíl, has called “the three fundamental pillars” on which Gamerro’s writing stands: “brilliantly hatched plots, characters who, without surrendering the profound, rub up against pop culture, and a view of the national reality somewhere between critical and humorous.” Reason enough for English-speakers to listen to what he has to say; now, at long last, in our native tongue. tion (‘El libro de afectos raros’), works that have helped make Gamerro, according to fellow writer Federico Falco, “one of the inescapable narrators of his generation.” In the last year alone, he’s released two new books: the novel, ‘Un yuppie en la columna del Che Guevara’, and the literary study, ‘Ficciones Barrocas’—both to significant acclaim.

And here’s the opening of the interview:

Joey Rubin: You have two books coming out soon in English translations — ‘An Open Secret’ and ‘The Islands’. Can you tell us a bit about the process of bringing them into English? Are they your first full-length works to be published in English?

Carlos Gamerro: Yes, these are my first full-length works to be brought into English. After a few near misses — all of them in the UK, I suppose it’s a side effect of my upbringing. Or maybe it’s one of the mysterious effects of a general trend of Argentine culture where practically all the ‘English’ schools are precisely that, English (even though mine advertised itself as Scottish).

So, after years of waiting, I suddenly found myself with two publishers vying for my work! Pushkin is a prestigious publisher of classics and choice new fiction, and & Other Stories is an exciting new venture you should do a piece about! I was lucky in that both accepted my choice of translator, Buenos Aires-based, England-born Ian Barnett, who’s been living in Argentina for ages now, is an avid reader of Argentine fiction and has been wanting to do my stuff since he first read ‘Las islas’ back in 1998. His translations of me are ‘in collaboration with the author’ although my role is actually less to collaborate than to drive him crazy. With ‘An Open Secret’ we were using the ‘comments’ option and towards the end I thought of looking at the numbers and we had reached comment 1,500! But it’s a dream situation: to have the same translator for all my books, one who is open (or resigned) to all suggestions, who is obsessive, devoted and, to top it all, a good friend.

The whole interview is worth checking out, as is Joey Rubin’s translation of Bad Burgers.

I’m personally very excited to get my hands on both of Carlos’s forthcoming books, which we’ll definitely review here. (And maybe include in Read This Next?)

22 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a short review by Julianna Romanazzi of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Carson and coming out this month from Open Letter.

My Two Worlds was a Read This Next selection a couple months back, so please click here to read an extended excerpt.

This is one of three Chejfec books we’ve signed on, with The Dark and The Planets forthcoming. It’s also worth noting that Sergio and Margaret will be doing a few events this fall, including one at McNally Jackson on September 15th and one at the Brooklyn Book Festival.

Julianna was a summer intern who, on the final day, told me I’ve been pronouncing her name wrong the past few months. Of course, now I can’t remember if it’s Julie-annnna or Julie-ahna. But it’s one of the two. Seriously, Julianna was a great intern, fantastic occasional poster, and quick learner, seeing that she only had to sit through two of my “why don’t you kids understand how to make logical Excel spreadsheets?!?!?!” rants. (And seriously. The future is in the hands of people who can’t organize data in spreadsheet form. Shudder.)

Here’s the opening of her review:

“In general, I know that when speaking of private and opposing worlds, one tends to refer to divided, sometimes even irreconcilable facets of personality or of the spirit, each with it corresponding secret value and in psychological, metaphysical, political or simply practical—even pathological—content. But in my case there was neither a moral nor existential disjunctive, what was more, I saw that my two worlds weren’t separated in an equal or reciprocal way; neither did one linger in the shadows or in private as the flip side of the other, the visible one, who knows which . . .”

Sergio Chefjec’s novel My Two Worlds is a tale that is part stream of consciousness and part self-reflection, a surfacing and resurfacing of a narrative vacillating between the outer world and the inner one. After leaving a literary conference the narrator, of whose inner and outer worlds the reader rides the waves, takes up his habit of walking while searching for a kind of contentment that has eluded him so many times before.

Reflecting on all things from street vendors and old men to the nature of emotional and philosophical inheritance (in the form of a wristwatch that ticks backward) the narrator phases out between different kinds of consciousness. Chefjec’s prose, lush with characteristic imagery, maintains its flickering style as it flows from the present circumstances to recollections of the past.

Click here to read the entire piece.

22 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“In general, I know that when speaking of private and opposing worlds, one tends to refer to divided, sometimes even irreconcilable facets of personality or of the spirit, each with it corresponding secret value and in psychological, metaphysical, political or simply practical—even pathological—content. But in my case there was neither a moral nor existential disjunctive, what was more, I saw that my two worlds weren’t separated in an equal or reciprocal way; neither did one linger in the shadows or in private as the flip side of the other, the visible one, who knows which . . .”

Sergio Chefjec’s novel My Two Worlds is a tale that is part stream of consciousness and part self-reflection, a surfacing and resurfacing of a narrative vacillating between the outer world and the inner one. After leaving a literary conference the narrator, of whose inner and outer worlds the reader rides the waves, takes up his habit of walking while searching for a kind of contentment that has eluded him so many times before.

Reflecting on all things from street vendors and old men to the nature of emotional and philosophical inheritance (in the form of a wristwatch that ticks backward) the narrator phases out between different kinds of consciousness. Chefjec’s prose, lush with characteristic imagery, maintains its flickering style as it flows from the present circumstances to recollections of the past.

At first frustrated by his difficulty transposing a map’s two-dimensional representations to the three-dimensional world, the narrator eventually arrives at the city park he has been searching for. Coming up on another birthday and in between novels—the last of which an anonymous email tells him is doing poorly—the narrator sets out to find a sanctuary and further than that, a sense of self.

Trying to blend in and acting almost suspiciously casual, he seeks to become one of the denizens of the park, to be one of its natural and habitual citizens though it is his first time in the Brazilian city. As the narrator further weaves himself into the park’s framework—mimicking his bench partner, speculating on the nature of swans, faking familiarity in an interaction with an elderly woman—the two halves of his experience begin to come together. The reconciliation is not within the narrator’s adjustment to the park around him, but as it becomes clear in the landscape’s mirroring of his memories and impressions the narrator reconciles the gaps between his inner and outer perceptions, one no longer separate from the other.

Chefjec’s setting of the park situates his tale in a world within a world, with the quiet nature scenes and somnolent people sheltered from the city outside. In a subtle balancing act My Two Worlds conjures the art of mimicking itself and is an impressive foray into a new contemporary literary style.

8 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sara Cohen on Lucia Puenzo’s The Fish Child, which is translated from the Spanish by David William Foster and available from Texas Tech as part of The Americas series.

We’ve written about The Americas series before, but if you’re not already familiar with this, it’s a special literature series edited by Irene Vilar that was once housed at the University of Wisconsin Press and is now published by Texas Tech University Press. The focus is on Spanish and Portuguese literature from south of our border, and includes works from Moacyr Scliar (who will be featured in the Read This Next program in the near future), Ernesto Cardenal, and David Toscana. It’s a really great—and attractively produced—series.

Lucia Puenzo was selected by Granta as one of the “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelist” for their special issue that came out last fall. As a result, we did a special piece on Puenzo as part of our 22 Days of Awesome series.

Anyway, as mentioned in that post—and in Sara’s review—Puenzo is not just a novelist, but also a filmmaker. In the Granta-related post, we included the trailer for XXY, so this time, here’s the trailer for The Fish Child, a “gripping tale of forbidden lesbian romance and a crime heist gone awry that boasts beautiful cinematography and electrifying performances from its two female leads.”


http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=2995

Sara Cohen is interning here this summer, and along with mailing her other internish duties, she’s been writing reviews of some of these Texas Tech books.

Here are four things you should know about The Fish Child:

1.) The novel is sensual, crude, vibrant and unyielding.
2.) The protagonists, Lala and Guayi, are the sort of characters who make dangerous, fascinating mistakes.
3.) Puenzo, born in Buenos Aires, directed a film adaptation of The Fish Child that premiered in Berlin. So this story has traveled all around the world before it’s finally been brought to print in the U.S.
4.) The Fish Child is narrated by the family’s pet dog.

If that last item threw you off, that’s okay. The canine mindset is a bit alienating in both theory and practice. Just look at the novel’s opening paragraph:

“It could have been worse, believe me. It took them a day to make up their minds. Prodan. Saumerio. Violeta. I imagined myself going out into the world like Violeta and I peed my pants hiding in corners. Let’s see if you get me: I’m black, macho and bad. No matter how I look right now, with tubes coming out of me, on the verge of being dead meat. It was an accident, something that could happen to anyone. And what they’re saying is not true: I’m not stupid, just curious. If I see something moving beneath the leaves…I bite. Sorry, I digress, I know…it isn’t easy when Lala caresses me this way. And it doesn’t look good, a dying dog with an erection.”

Puenzo’s narrating mutt (ultimately christened Serafín) allows the reader a unique view of the world. Characters, setting and plot are presented free of the standard censorship of “polite” society. The result is a gritty, sensual narrative voice that, along with a tight sense of storytelling, makes this novel impossible to put down.

Click here to read the entire review.

8 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Here are four things you should know about The Fish Child:

1.) The novel is sensual, crude, vibrant and unyielding.
2.) The protagonists, Lala and Guayi, are the sort of characters who make dangerous, fascinating mistakes.
3.) Puenzo, born in Buenos Aires, directed a film adaptation of The Fish Child that premiered in Berlin. So this story has traveled all around the world before it’s finally been brought to print in the U.S.
4.) The Fish Child is narrated by the family’s pet dog.

If that last item threw you off, that’s okay. The canine mindset is a bit alienating in both theory and practice. Just look at the novel’s opening paragraph:

It could have been worse, believe me. It took them a day to make up their minds. Prodan. Saumerio. Violeta. I imagined myself going out into the world like Violeta and I peed my pants hiding in corners. Let’s see if you get me: I’m black, macho and bad. No matter how I look right now, with tubes coming out of me, on the verge of being dead meat. It was an accident, something that could happen to anyone. And what they’re saying is not true: I’m not stupid, just curious. If I see something moving beneath the leaves…I bite. Sorry, I digress, I know…it isn’t easy when Lala caresses me this way. And it doesn’t look good, a dying dog with an erection.

Puenzo’s narrating mutt (ultimately christened Serafín) allows the reader a unique view of the world. Characters, setting and plot are presented free of the standard censorship of “polite” society. The result is a gritty, sensual narrative voice that, along with a tight sense of storytelling, makes this novel impossible to put down.

Just in case, after all this hype, you’re wondering what this novel is actually about, here is the premise: Lala, the daughter of a popular Argentinian author, falls in love with Guayi, her Paraguayan maid. The two teenagers plan to escape to Guayi’s family in Paraguay. But when Lala, driven by passion, commits one of those dangerous, fascinating mistakes, she is forced to leave for Paraguay earlier than expected—and without Guayi. The consequences of Lala’s actions, and her struggle to physically and emotionally reunite with her lover, fill the 161 pages of The Fish Child.

Despite the compelling plot, the best thing about this book is Puenzo’s characters. Serafín follows Guayi and Lala with the fiercest of canine loyalties. His presence helps transform a harsh book about reckless teenagers into a narrative about the strong devotion that binds the three leads together. Puenzo isn’t afraid to create truly messed up characters, but her compassionate exploration of the characters’ histories and motives forces readers to love and even respect them despite their mistakes.

The Fish Child has a few sore points. In spite of what seems like a stellar translation from David William Foster, Puenzo’s narrative occasionally darts from past to present without clear indication of the transition. This is visible in the aforementioned opening paragraph, where the narrative begins in the distant past, moves to a slightly unclear moment in the novel’s future, then darts back to the distant past again for the following paragraphs. I also had trouble remembering the characters are teenagers—Lala’s tendency to idolize Guayi led me to assume the latter character was in her mid-twenties, at least.

Still, these are minor flaws in what is generally a refreshingly honest, thoroughly captivating and ultimately compassionate novel. Add in the lightest touch of magical realism and an ending mysterious enough to demand a reread, and you have The Fish Child. I consider myself lucky to have found it.

1 July 11 | Chad W. Post |

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

Here’s the opening of the review:

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

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

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

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

You can read the complete piece here.

1 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

29 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for the whole conversation.

27 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on yesterday’s post about the conversation between Sergio Chejfec and Margaret Carson about My Two Worlds, this week’s Read This Next book, today we just posted an interview originally published by the Fric-Frac Club, and translated from the French by Christie Craig. You can read the complete English version here and to give you a taste, below is an interesting excerpt:

Fric-Frac Club: What will you do when people stop reading books?

Sergio Chejfec: Hard to say, especially because I think I live in that time. People are always on the brink of stopping reading, but what withal, they do go on reading. So to say, there are books that get read. Many titles or a few, each so in its own measure or not : but they do get read. And still, I have the impression that there are a great many more books without readers. Titles forgotten, authors forgotten or else unknown, and so on. It’s as if reading sustains itself precisely by ‘non-reading’, as if it needed ‘non-reading’ to cast its own silhouette and to go on choosing books to rescue or discard. This is why I don’t suppose I’d go about things very differently than I do already, if the whole world stopped reading. I think I’d only react by a change of emphasis: when everyone has stopped reading and when that day comes as premised by the question, just as well, the time to begin to read will have come.

FFC: First literary memory (or emotion)?

SC: My first literary emotion is of a private and defeated sort. I was a very and consistently bored child (I think this was a common thing for my generation, at least it’s what I’ve got to think). One day, it occurred to me to send a fictitious postcard to my mother : it would be written by a sister she had never heard of, who would announce therein that she had numerous revelations to disclose : a dark and scandalous family past, a very sad past, and so on, a real melodrama. In order that the story seem truer, I had to send the card from another country: Paraguay. During my childhood, Paraguay had been for me an exotic country (it was by way of Paraguay that my parents had come secretly into Argentina, after the Second World War). The text was written and I was ready to go buy the postcard at the corner bookstore, on which to to copy it out. But once there, I realized that they didn’t sell postcards for Paraguay, and more problematically even, that I could not send a card from Paraguay! These obstacles proved insurmountable, I had to resign myself finally to the plan’s failure.

I don’t know if there’s some lesson to be taken from this story, or whether to consider it a major defeat. I think that today I would not assign so much importance to details, which seemed so essential then to the making of a credible story. But it was the first time I wrote a fiction and I still remember my anxiety on the walk to the bookstore, in search of a postcard for Asunción del Paraguay.

FFC: What are you reading at the moment?

SC: At the moment, I’m reading a good many of Adalbert Stifter’s novels. Just one after another. They’re very strange novels, simple plotting, with perfectly archetypal characters, practically fairytales even. But the landscape within which the stories develop (almost always a natural landscape, whose depiction occupies nearly the entire narrative) is described in such meticulous detail that it becomes completely anti-bucolic, counter to the author’s apparent interest in the bucolic. It’s just this stupendous attempt at converting natural landscape into a kind of artificial copy of the natural.

Read the entire conversation here.

21 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As part of this week’s Read This Next focus on Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds (translated from the Spanish by Margaret Carson), we’re going to be running two interviews with Chejfec. Up first is a conversation he had with Margaret Carson about My Two Worlds. This is a great intro to the book, it’s origins, and what makes this novel so interesting.

Margaret Carson: I’ve heard the novel described as the story of a man visiting an unnamed city in Brazil who walks to a park and wanders around its interior. It’s that, but it’s also so much more. If someone asked you what My Two Worlds was about, what would you say?

Sergio Chejfec: I don’t think there’s much more to add. I would say that the walk itself allows this character to have thoughts related to his past and his milieu (social, historical, cultural, etc.), and that as he keeps walking, he recovers experiences related to themes such as one’s heritage, city landscapes, urban conditions in the Third World, the Holocaust, representations of nature, etc. But the truth is, I’m uneasy with these kinds of lists because I don’t believe they describe what in my mind is essential: the story wants to depict the development of a thought, and the main character finds excuses or reasons in what he sees to become reflective. But he’s also aware that he lacks strong opinions, and that it’s hard for him to arrive at any definitive conclusions. I’d say the novel is an attempt to navigate through interconnected episodes, stories in miniature, small in scale. It’s as if these scenes were simplified to the extreme, like cells of possible scenes that weren’t developed.

MC: Could you talk about how you began work on the novel? Did you start with a certain idea or plan? How did the novel evolve?

SC: I don’t have much faith in linear stories. My novels don’t move ahead because a crisis or enigma has been resolved, or because of a more or less conventional development of a drama or action. Since I don’t tell “stories,” my novels are planned differently. They start with simple situations (in this case, for example, a walk through an unknown park) and they narrate a sequence of events that occur within that frame. The idea behind My Two Worlds was to write an essay about turning fifty. As I say at the beginning, two books by writer friends had come out, both dealing with this theme, but with different results. And I wanted to “fight” a bit with them. I wanted to offer my version of turning fifty, and then devote myself to discussing their books and how they talked about their fifty years. But in the end that plan came to nothing, because I began to think it was enough to offer my version, or maybe because after I’d done that, I no longer wanted to mark my differences with them, since they were obvious. And something else is essential: from the outset I conceived of this novel as reflexive, or essayistic. It’s a fairly habitual characteristic in my books.

You can read the complete interview at the Read This Next site.

16 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.

On Elegance While Sleeping by Viscount Lascano Tegui, translated by Idra Novey

Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina
Publisher: Dalkey Archive
Pages: 172

Why This Book Should Win: Because it hasn’t won any other awards, and it deserves at least one. On Elegance While Sleeping is our first opportunity to read a complete work by Tegui in English. Also, where else can we find heterosexuality, homosexuality, pedophilia, prostitution, and bestiality all wrapped into the experiences of one character.

Today’s entry is from Gwen Dawson, who runs the always excellent Literary License blog. And who will be joining the BTBA judging panel for 2012.

Emilio Lascano Tegui (1887-1966) was, at various times during his eventful life, an Argentinean, a Parisian, a self-labeled viscount, a translator, a journalist, a curator, a painter, a decorator, a diplomat, a mechanic, an orator, a dentist, and, fortunately for us, a writer. Tegui’s 1925 novel On Elegance While Sleeping, a cult classic in Argentina, Tegui’s home country, is now available for the first time to an English-speaking audience (thanks to Dalkey Archive Press and translator Idra Novey). This genre-defying novel is framed as a four-year series of chronologically-ordered diary entries composed by an unnamed French infantryman in the late 1800s. Like its author, this novel’s narrator concerns himself with a bit of everything, including the proverbial kitchen sink (or, should I say, the cultivation of carrots). The entries touch on the themes of life, illness (specifically, syphilis), death, sex, gender, memory, crime, and literature, to name just a few. Seamlessly shifting among present reflections, past recollections, and stories within stories, the entries examine the mundane (one begins “Cotton mittens bother me when they’re dyed black.”) as well as the sublime (“Nothing spreads sadness like popularity.”) and range in length from just two sentences to almost seven pages. The result is a work of art that’s impossible to categorize. Is it autobiography? Allegory? A crime novel? An experiment in form? In a word, yes.

Just before we lose our bearings wandering among this heady collection of seemingly aimless thoughts—that is, at the perfect moment—On Elegance While Sleeping changes registers. The novel adopts a foreboding tone as the diary entries slowly coalesce into the thoughts of a man intent on committing murder. Driven by a Raskolnikov-like need “[t]o unburden humanity of an imperfect being: a weakness,” the diarist lays out his motivations in chilling and poetic prose:

I’ve sketched out my plans and am ready. I have a new strength in me, taken from the secret core of my life, driving me on, controlling me. It’s health, youth, and optimism combined. Until yesterday, my tentative novel (“The Syphilis of Don Juan”) served as a haven for my imagination. Today, it doesn’t satisfy my thirst—or, better said, can no longer stem the anguish that gnaws at me on the eve of an act that is now quite inevitable. I’m halfway between a comedy and a strange sort of drama, and feel an overbearing need to lower the curtain. No simple curtain: the front curtain of the stage, the grand drape, the great iron and asbestos curtain that drops like a zinc plate from the sixth floor and creaks as it falls. Something like that, flamboyant, coarse, unexpected—something that will impose its tyranny over my life without question. I’m going to kill someone.

Tegui’s prose is a seductive mix of hard edges and soft contours, flowing musings and sharp declarations. Translator Idra Novey maintains this delicate balance, juxtaposing “a haven for my imagination” with “the anguish that gnaws” and following a complex and elegant three-sentence metaphor with the startling declaration, “I’m going to kill someone.” Tegui’s compelling style relies as much on rhythm and sound as it does on content, and Novey masterfully recreates this effect in English.

At its core, On Elegance While Sleeping gives us access to the soul of a man who is desperately seeking. Whether it’s love, sex, happiness, connection with his fellow man, an imaginative outlet, or simply a good story, the problem is the same: to find what he lacks. He asks, “Could it be that the thing I’m missing is courage?” Does our diarist have the fortitude to follow through with his murderous plan? To discover the answer, you’ll have to read the book.

3 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

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.

All posts in this series can be found here. Today we look at the lastest from Cesar Aira—an annual BTBA author—in a piece written by an extrapolation of my 15-year-old self.

The Literary Conference by Cesar Aira, translated by Katherine Silver

Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 90

Why It Should Win: Cesar Aira is due (last year’s Ghosts was a finalist); Katherine Silver is due (two years ago, her translation of Senselessness was a finalist); Spanish language is due (in the past three years, nine Spanish titles have been finalists, but none have won); mad scientists are “in”

When I was a kid, I loved comic books. X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman, whatever. I still have two huge boxes of comics that represent every dime (and then some) that I earned during my summer jobs, working on golf courses and being pelted by balls from uppity country club members who were better at investments and hostile takeovers than actually golfing. And every time, while digging a sandtrap, a ball narrowly missed me, I wished I had superhero powers so that I could eradicate whatever polo-wearing d-bag just “forgot” to yell “FORE!” I wanted to go all Psylocke on them. Or web them to a tree. Something juvenile, and something more akin to the motivations of the supervillains found in comics than the upstanding, moral superheroes. Cause the bad guys are always more fun.

In addition to the cult of collecting (also loved baseball cards, but that’s a different post), one of the things I loved about comics was the nature of the storytelling. Obviously, none of the comics I read (save maybe The Invisibles) was anywhere near literary, but there was something intriguing and compelling about how the serial storytelling had to work . . . Every reader already knew the comic formula, especially in the 1980s—bad guy tries to take over world, good guy nearly loses, good guy prevails—and it was the goal of the comic writer to vary this in a way that made you want to pick up the next month’s issue. (It was almost Oulipian in its constraints.) There had to be cliffhangers, the planting of seeds of future storylines, etc., etc.

But to be honest—in a maybe dark sort of self-punishing way—what I kept reading for was the idea that one time the bad guy would win. The mad scientist maybe wouldn’t take over the world, but would off at least one minor superhero. If nothing was at stake, if nothing terrible could happen to a character in this imaginary world, than everything I had wasted money and hours on meant exactly nothing.

Which is why The Literary Conference is so cool: it’s about a literary translator turned mad scientist

So, once upon a time . . . an Argentinean scientist conducted experiments in the cloning of cells, organs, and limbs, and achieved the ability to reproduce, at will, whole individuals in indefinite quantities. First, he worked with insects, then higher animals, and finally human beings. His success did not vary, though as he approached human beings the nature of the clones subtly changes; they became non-similar clones. He overcame his disappointment with this variation by telling himself that in the final analysis the perception of similarity is quite subjective and always questionable. He had no doubt, however, that his clones were genuine, legions of the Ones whose numbers he could multiply as often as he wished.

At this point he reached an impasse and found himself unable to proceed toward his final goal, which was nothing less than world domination. In this respect he was the typical Mad Scientist of the comic books. He was incapable of setting a more modest goal for himself; at his level, it simply wouldn’t have been worth his while.

And how is the narrator/translator/mad scientist going to take over the world? By cloning Carlos Fuentes.

So yeah, on one level The Literary Conference is an absurd book, one that ends with huge blue worms descending from the mountains, and our mad scientist turned hero being put in a position to possibly save the day and get the girl.

But to draw out this out a bit more . . . The way Aira builds to this point is so mesmerizing that it’s as if he does have superpowers. His narrator’s tone and way of explaining his goals and ideas (the bit about a person’s uniqueness being constructed from the specific books one has read is brilliant, as is the section on “cerebral hyperactivity”) is spectacular, and Katie did a marvelous job rendering these rhythms and peculiar word choices in English.

In constructing this strange world of clones and world domination, there are hints of something larger, of this all being a crafty metaphor. The main character is named Cesar, who is also a writer of strange, metaphorical works. The idea of clones, of cloning Fuentes, of Aira’s insane literary production (he’s written more than 50 books), of writing unique books, of taking over the world . . . Reading this, I felt there was something more going beneath the comic book surface. That there was a sort of secret plot at the center of this book on secret plots. Or maybe that’s my comic book loving 15-year-old self getting the better of me.

7 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

The latest addition to our “Reviews Section”: is a piece by Emily Davis on Juan Jose Saer’s The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, which is translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph and was published by Open Letter earlier this year.

As noted in the past, we don’t run a lot of reviews of our own books on this site, but Emily wrote this for her translation class, and since Saer is one of my personal favorites, I think we can make an exception . . .

Emily Davis is one of the MA students in Literary Translation (aka, the MALTS program) here at the University of Rochester. She was an intern with Open Letter last semester, and did a marvelous sample translation of Damián Tabarovsky’s Medical Autobiography. You may also know her from the 22 Days of Awesome series that ran all last month.

We’re going to be publishing at least three Juan Jose Saer titles, including Cicatrices (Scars), and La Grande (La Grande?). All three of these are translated by Steve Dolph. Sixty-Five Years was also reviewed in the New York Times a couple weeks back . . .

Here’s the opening of Emily’s review:

It is a sunny spring day in the city you have recently moved to, and on your way to work in the morning, you decide on a whim to get off the bus and walk instead. You are on a major boulevard, but at the point where you begin walking, removed from the city center, it is fairly empty. Your thoughts begin to wander, as they tend to do on a walk alone in the city, and soon you run into an acquaintance, the Mathematician. He has just returned from a trip to Europe, and the two of you fall into step and into conversation about the recent birthday party for Jorge Washington Noriega, which neither of you was able to attend, but which the Mathematician heard all about from Botón—“Button,” a nickname whose origin you do not know, and a person you have never met, but whose word you are more or less forced to trust as the Mathematician begins to narrate the story of the celebration of the sixty-five years of Washington.

Such is the premise of Juan José Saer’s novel, only that “you” are in fact Ángel Leto, a young man who has just moved to the small city named Sante Fe and is working a number of bookkeeping jobs. The effect is the same, however, as Leto essentially becomes a reader of the Mathematician’s story (according to Botón): as he listens, he goes forming a picture in his mind of the scene and the people involved, much as you might do when reading a book—some objects incomplete or indefinite, facial features hazy or purely imagined, where those details are left out of the narrative:

“Leto, who is listening now to the Mathematician, has had to add an unforeseen pavilion and a grill he can barely picture, since most of the story takes place under the thatched roof of a generic pavilion, more or less the idea of a pavilion, without an overly defined shape, staked in a patio he can’t picture with absolute clarity, where familiar and unfamiliar people possessing, as the Mathematician mentions them, distinct gradations of reality, drink a kind of beer that Leto has never seen, smelled, touched, or tasted [. . .]”

Click here to read the full piece.

7 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It is a sunny spring day in the city you have recently moved to, and on your way to work in the morning, you decide on a whim to get off the bus and walk instead. You are on a major boulevard, but at the point where you begin walking, removed from the city center, it is fairly empty. Your thoughts begin to wander, as they tend to do on a walk alone in the city, and soon you run into an acquaintance, the Mathematician. He has just returned from a trip to Europe, and the two of you fall into step and into conversation about the recent birthday party for Jorge Washington Noriega, which neither of you was able to attend, but which the Mathematician heard all about from Botón—“Button,” a nickname whose origin you do not know, and a person you have never met, but whose word you are more or less forced to trust as the Mathematician begins to narrate the story of the celebration of the sixty-five years of Washington.

Such is the premise of Juan José Saer’s novel, only that “you” are in fact Ángel Leto, a young man who has just moved to the small city named Sante Fe and is working a number of bookkeeping jobs. The effect is the same, however, as Leto essentially becomes a reader of the Mathematician’s story (according to Botón): as he listens, he goes forming a picture in his mind of the scene and the people involved, much as you might do when reading a book—some objects incomplete or indefinite, facial features hazy or purely imagined, where those details are left out of the narrative:

Leto, who is listening now to the Mathematician, has had to add an unforeseen pavilion and a grill he can barely picture, since most of the story takes place under the thatched roof of a generic pavilion, more or less the idea of a pavilion, without an overly defined shape, staked in a patio he can’t picture with absolute clarity, where familiar and unfamiliar people possessing, as the Mathematician mentions them, distinct gradations of reality, drink a kind of beer that Leto has never seen, smelled, touched, or tasted [. . .]

This is a book about storytelling and reading, and we quickly begin to get a sense of the multiple layers making up Saer’s masterfully crafted narrative. Its structure is Cervantine in its multiple nested narrative frames, where a typical scene in the book may be a joke told by Washington, relayed by Botón to the Mathematician, who then tells it simultaneously to Leto and to us readers, all of which is ultimately framed by the narrator of the text we hold in our hands. To make things just a touch more complex, we can add one more frame to that structure by taking into account the fact that this is a translation.

As translator, Steve Dolph makes a wise move in choosing to preserve the long sentence structure (it is not infrequent to read more than a dozen or even a couple dozen lines of text before reaching a period) and complex syntax of Saer’s text. The style is an essential complement to the layered narrative structure of the book, and it is extremely well executed, in that it draws attention to itself as being extraordinary without being off-putting or feeling too “foreign.” Mechanically flawless, the sentences are not messy or nonsensical, and where they might demand extra attention from the reader to follow the narrative thread, the narrator himself restores balance with his habit of casually checking himself, as in “he—the Mathematician, no?—” or “—Botón I was saying, no?,” or repeating pieces of information, to clarifying and often comedic effect:

Leto follows the Mathematician’s story [. . .] with some difficulty [. . .] transparent passages that allow his imagination, turning on and off intermittently, to construct expressive and fleeting images: there was a feast at the house of someone named Basso, in Colastiné, at the end of August, to celebrate Washington’s birthday, and they had started discussing a horse that had stumbled; the Mathematician—it was Tomatis who gave him the nickname—heard about it from Botón the Saturday before on the Paraná ferry, Botón, a guy he has heard about several times but whom he has not had the pleasure of meeting, and then Washington had said that the horse was not an acceptable example for the problem they were discussing—Leto asks himself darkly, without daring to make the case to the Mathematician out of fear that the Mathematician will look down on him a little, what the hell the so-called problem could be—that the mosquito, if Leto understood correctly, would be a more appropriate creature [. . .]

Besides having multiple narrative frames and sentences with extraordinary numbers of commas, the text is impressive in its several concurrent narratives. There is of course the narrative of Washington’s birthday party, as well as perhaps the most obvious narrative of the characters walking down the street. Besides those two lines, there are shorter strands consisting of, for instance, the Mathematician’s commentary on his trip to Europe, or his telling of his running into Botón on the ferry to Paraná to watch a rugby game. In addition, as readers we are given access to the unvoiced thoughts and memories of Leto and the Mathematician. In Leto’s case, his thoughts are preoccupied by reflections on the recent loss of his father and childhood memories relevant to his relationship with his father and mother. The Mathematician, on the other hand, is haunted by the memory of what he calls “The Incident,” wherein he temporarily went mad in response to being stood up by a Buenos Aires poet who had promised to discuss with him the Mathematician’s laboriously crafted thoughts entitled The Fourteen Points Toward All Future Meter. The Mathematician does not reveal any portion of this story to Leto; it is only as readers of Saer’s text that we are privileged to play witness to this episode that is so telling of the Mathematician’s character. Later, we will see the Mathematician on a plane to Sweden, fleeing the military dictatorship in Argentina and recalling his meeting in Paris with Pichón Garay who, years after the event, attempts to recall once more the details of Washington’s sixty-fifth birthday party. This episode naturally does not figure into the Mathematician’s conversation with Leto on their walk down San Martín Boulevard, since it will be years before the dictatorship comes to power. Again, as readers of the multiply framed text, we are privileged to enjoy additional depth of context, in this case, the revelation of a darker sociopolitical setting for a mostly lighthearted comedy.

All this narrative richness is made possible through an omniscient narrator who is, atypically, also a first-person narrator. While the narrator is not himself a character who plays a role in the novel, he does take on some personality by virtue of narrating in the first person. This unusual combination creates a sense of listening to a narrated film or an audiobook: the narrator can report and comment on the observable story as well as on the characters’ unspoken thoughts, in the way no typical player could, and yet we are continually reminded that there is a human voice behind the narration. The reader, just as Leto—who joins the Mathematician on the street for a stroll and a story—walks alongside the narrator while he unravels his tale.

In his debut translated book, Dolph brings us a delightful read, with language that tickles the brain and a style that highlights Saer’s inventiveness and expertly conveys his sense of humor—muted, pseudo-academic, at times a little bit sad, much like Washington’s own “subtle irony, which should probably leave you thoughtful and could, at the most, make you smile, inwardly more than anything“—the kind that elicits more a half snicker than an LOL, less likely to attract strange looks from, say, fellow commuters as you read The Sixty-Five Years of Washington on your way downtown.

20 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As we mentioned a few Fridays ago, we’ve been highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. Today is the penultimate post in this series. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.



Today we’re featuring Argentine author Samanta Schweblin, whose “Olingiris” was translated for this issue by Daniel Alarcon. And for the record, Emily Davis wrote this and conducted the interview.

Samanta Schweblin, born in Argentina in 1978, has published two books of short stories: El núcleo del disturbio (2002, winner of the National Fund for the Arts prize and the Haroldo Conti National Competion) and Pájaros en la boca (2008, winner of the Casa de las Américas Prize). In 2008 she was awarded a CONACULTA artist-in-residence scholarship to begin working on her first novel in Oaxaca, Mexico. Her stories have been translated into English, German, French, Portuguese, Italian, Serbian and Swedish, and she has a degree in film from the University of Buenos Aires.

Her new story, “Olingiris,” is one of the most tightly-crafted as well as one of the most oddly chilling (or is it chillingly odd?) in the Granta issue. It has definitely stuck with me since I first read it, and it led me to her own website to get a taste of some of her other stories. There you’ll find a handful of samples in Spanish (I recommend “En la estepa” in particular, though I may be biased by a long-standing, somewhat inexplicable, attraction to the steppe as a setting in general) as well as a link to the super-weird-in-a-good-way “Preserves,”:http://wordswithoutborders.org/article/preserves/ an English translation by Joel Streicker courtesy of Words Without Borders.

We were able to ask her a few questions about learning to write, being featured in Granta, and seeing her work translated. Her answers are below, followed by a short excerpt from “Olingiris,” translated by Daniel Alarcón.

Emily Davis: You studied film at the University of Buenos Aires. What effect might that background have on your writing style?

Samanta Schweblin: I am convinced that I learned much more about how to tell a story by writing screenplays and working in the editing room than I ever could have learned majoring in literature at the University of Buenos Aires. In general, the “literary” majors do not have much to do with the craft of writing, which is a much more practical and personal journey. As a writer I feel much closer to an artisan than to a professional, so I can’t see how academic degrees could help one to write.

ED: Where did the desire to be a writer come from?

SS: First, from reading. Then, from the enthusiasm that came of discovering that writing stories could excuse me from schoolwork that I didn’t want to do, make my mother cry, or make me stand out from the rest of my friends. I found that it was a good escape mechanism, but also a weapon that allowed me to do things my way, and by the time I came to realize it there was no other way to do it.

ED: What writers have influenced you?

SS: In my early writings, Kafka, Beckett, Buzzati, Dostoyevsky, with them I completely fell in love with literature. Later, the North American line in the tradition of Hemingway, O’Connor, Faulkner, Ballard and the more contemporary Salinger, Donleavy, Cheever, Vonnegut, Yates . . .

ED: Do you have a favorite writer among the others on the Granta list?

SS: I haven’t yet been able to read all of them. But for example, besides the Argentines—all of whom I already knew and had read—I was nicely surprised by Rodrigo Hasbún and Carlos Yushimito.

ED: What does it mean to you to be named by Granta one of the best young writers in Spanish?

SS: I bought my first issue of Granta when I was fifteen or sixteen years old, when the idea of “being a writer” was for me not even a sensible possibility in my mind, and I remember having read in those pages authors like Martin Amis, or Alice Munro, great authors that I continue to admire as masters. Therefore to now be a part of one of their issues is a great satisfaction, and a great responsibility as well. Maybe it’s for that reason that it’s something I prefer not to think about too much.

ED: Your stories have been translated into several languages. Do you sometimes collaborate with your translators? What opinion do you have in general toward translation—what does the act of translation do for—or against—the original work?

SS: So far it has been a good experience. But in my case, since I don’t speak other languages besides a very rudimentary English, it is a question of subjective perception, more associated with feedback that comes to me on the published translations, than with the process of translation itself. There are translators who question everything, they question and requestion so much, that I have found myself with problems or errors that would not have happened otherwise. There are others who, suspiciously, do not ask a single question. I believe that a translation will always be a rewriting as well. This is something somewhat complicated for a writer to accept. But half of what I read is in translation, and still through them—though in some more than others, of course—I can see clearly the hand of one author or another. So I close my eyes, pray for a good translator, and hope that the reader can sense something of that.

ED: What are you working on now?

SS: I am moving forward with a new book of stories, I believe it will be ready by next year.

“Olingiris”

I

There was space for six. One was left outside, in the waiting room. She walked in circles about the space. It took her a moment to realize she’d have to stifle her eagerness until the next day, or the next, or until they called her again. It wasn’t the first time this had happened to her. The ones who entered climbed the white stairs to the first floor. None of them knew the others particularly well. They stepped into the changing room in silence. They hung up their purses, they took off their coats. They took turns washing their hands, and took turns as well fixing their hair before the mirror, tying it back in a ponytail, or with a headband. All friendliness and silence; grateful smiles and gestures. They’ve thought of this all week. While they worked, while they looked after their children, while they ate, and now they are there. Almost inside, almost about to begin.

One of the Institute’s assistants opens the door and invites them in. Inside, everything is white. The walls, the shelves, the towels rolled into tubes lying one on top of the other. The gurney, in the centre. The six chairs surrounding it. There’s also a fan above, whirling smoothly, six silver tweezers lined up on a towel atop a wooden stool, and a woman lying on the gurney, face down. The six women settle into the chairs, three on each side, arranging themselves around the woman’s legs. They wait, observing the body, impatient, not quite knowing what to do with their hands, as if before a table, with dinner set, but unable to begin. The assistant hovers about, helping them push their seats even closer. Then she gives out the hand towels and, one by one, the six tweezers from the stool. The woman on the gurney remains still, with her face down. She is nude. A white towel covers her from the waist to the middle of the legs. She has her head buried in her crossed arms, because it is appropriate that no one should see her face. She has blonde hair, a thin body. The assistant turns on the fluorescent light, a few metres above the bed, which brightens the room and the woman even more. When the light flickers a bit, the woman on the gurney shifts her arms almost imperceptibly, readjusting herself, and two of the women observe this slight movement with reproach. When the assistant gives the signal to begin, the women fold their hand towels in four and place the small cloth square before them, on the gurney. Then some of them push their chairs even further forward, or rest their elbows, or fix their hair one last time. And they get to work. They raise the tweezers above the woman’s body, quickly choosing a strand of hair, and then bring them down open, with purpose. They tweeze, they close, they toss. Each dark follicle emerges perfect and clean. They study it for a second before leaving it on the towel, and they go for the next one. Six seagull beaks pulling fish from the sea. The hair on the tweezers fills them with pleasure. Some do the work to perfection. The full hair hangs from the tweezers, orphaned and useless. Others struggle a bit with the task, making more than one attempt before they manage it. But nothing deprives them of the pleasure. The assistant circles the table. She takes care that they’re all comfortable, that all have what they need. Every now and then, a pull, a pinch, provokes a slight trembling of the legs. And so the assistant halts and turns her gaze to the woman on the gurney. She curses the fact that the rules of the Institute require that they be face down; with their faces hidden, it’s impossible to scold them with a glare. But she has her notebook, which she removes from her apron pocket, jotting down all excesses. The woman on the gurney hears the screech of the rubber sandals when they stop abruptly. She knows what that means. A point deducted, a demerit. Sooner or later they’ll add up and be docked from her pay. Her legs are filling with little pink dots. By now they barely tremble, because the tweezers have numbed her irritated skin, now only vaguely aware of a light burning.

II

When the woman on the gurney was ten years old, she lived with her mother near the river. It was an area which sometimes flooded, forcing them to move to her aunt’s, who lived a few metres higher, in a house on stilts. Once, when the woman on the gurney was doing her homework in her aunt’s dining room, she saw through the window a fisherman skulking around her house, her mother’s house. He had come on a boat, which he tied to some trees. A pair of high boots protected him from the water, which rose almost to his knees. She saw him disappear along one side of the house and reappear on the other. He peeked through the windows. But at no point did he knock on the door or the glass. When the mother saw him, she gestured for him to come in. The woman on the gurney could see them as long as they stayed near the window. Her mother offered him hot tea and they sat at the table. Then they moved away. When the woman on the gurney returned from her aunt’s house, they spoke of the trips he took, of his work as a fisherman, of the river. He offered to take her out fishing the next day. Because it was the season of floods and there was no school, her mother said it was all right. He took the woman on the gurney to where the river opened into the lake. At that point the boat hardly moved, advancing smoothly along the mirrored water, and she was less and less afraid. It was then she realized she was a little cold, and a little hungry. Day was just beginning to dawn. The fisherman prepared his rod, hooked his bait and began to work. She asked if her mother had prepared them something for breakfast, but the fisherman hushed her and gestured for quiet. Then she asked if he had an extra jacket in the boat. The fisherman hushed her again.

‘Are you my father?’ she asked finally.

The fisherman stared at her for a moment and it occurred to her to smile. But he said: ‘No.’

And they did not speak again.

The mother of the woman on the gurney always wanted her daughter to study and move to the city. She demanded her daughter get good grades and was sure to warn her that if she didn’t work hard now, then she’d pay for it when she was older – and dearly. The woman on the gurney studied. She did everything her mother told her. The school was two kilometres from the house, and she went by bicycle. When it flooded, they read her the homework by telephone. In high school she learned typing, English, a little computing. One afternoon as she was returning home, her bicycle chain broke. The woman on the gurney fell to the mud, ruining the notebooks she carried in her basket. A young man driving a pickup truck along the road saw her fall, drew level with her and got out to help. He was very kind. He gathered her notebooks, which he cleaned with the sleeves of his coat, and offered to take her home. They carried the bicycle in the back of the pickup. They talked a little along the way. She told him what she was studying, that she was preparing to move to the city. He seemed interested in everything she said. He wore a very thin gold chain with a small cross hanging from his neck. She thought it was lovely. She did not believe in God, nor did her mother, but something about the young man made her think her mother would like him. When they arrived, she asked him to come round later, to eat with them. He seemed delighted by the idea, but said: ‘I leave for work soon. I’m a fisherman.’ He smiled. ‘Can I come tomorrow?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t think tomorrow is a good idea. I’m sorry.’

The woman on the gurney was twenty years old when she came to the city. She was pleased to see that the houses were not built on stilts, which ruled out floods and fishermen. The city seemed warm, and it made her woozy during those first days. On Sundays she called her mother and told her a few things about her week. Sometimes she lied. She didn’t do it maliciously; she did it to pass the time. She told her mother that she’d gone out with new friends. Or that she’d gone to the movies. Or that she’d had something very tasty in a neighbourhood restaurant. Her mother loved to hear these stories, and sometimes she could hardly wait to hang up and call her sister, so that she might hear the stories too.

The woman on the gurney had some savings and had signed up for a technical degree. But the cost of food, rent and tuition was very high, and soon she had to interrupt her studies and look for a job. One afternoon when she was buying bread, a woman at the store, with whom she sometimes shared her problems, said she had a job for her. She said she’d earn more money, and have time to study. The woman on the gurney wasn’t dumb. She knew the work might be something unpleasant that no one else wanted to do, or something dangerous. But she said that, as long as there was no obligation, she’d be interested to see what it was all about.

The woman from the store took her by car to a nearby avenue, and stopped in front of a two-storey building with a sign on it that read ‘Institute’. Inside there was a confused gathering of women. One of them, wearing a peach-coloured uniform which also read ‘Institute’, asked the women to reorganize themselves into a line and threatened that anyone out of line would lose her turn. The women quickly queued up. Another woman in a suit recognized the woman from the store and immediately came up to them. She ushered them into an adjoining room and asked the woman on the gurney to fold up the cuffs of her trousers so she could see the downy hair on her legs. The woman on the gurney thought for a moment she’d misunderstood the request. But the woman repeated it. And then she thought it was ridiculous, and that this surely was not a job for her. However, she did not see any danger in showing her hair, so she rolled up her trouser legs and showed them. The woman in the suit put on her glasses and studied the tiny hairs, illuminating them with a small flashlight she kept in her pocket. She scrutinized the ankle where the hairs were not yet strong, and also the calf. Only when she appeared to be convinced it would work did she explain what the job consisted of, the general terms and the pay. The woman on the gurney didn’t know what to say. Because the work was very simple, the schedule acceptable and the pay excellent. Her mother had toldher so much about the scams in the city that she forced herself to concentrate on where the danger or the lie might be hidden. But everything still seemed perfect to her. And she accepted.

Subscribe now and receive this issue for free.

13 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 6 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.



Today’s featured Granta author is Argentine author Luisa Puenzo, whose story “Cohiba” was translated by Valerie Miles for this special issue.

Luisa Puenzo is yet another author featured in Granta‘s “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” issue who is multitalented and working in more than one medium. In addition to writing several novels—including El Nino pez, 9 minutos, La maldicion de Jacinta Pichimahuida, La furia de la langosta, and Wakolda—she’s directed two movies—_XXY_, which won the Critics’ Week Grand Prize, a Goya for the Best Foreign Film, and more than 20 international prizes, and El nino pez, which opened the Panorama section at the Berlin Film Festival and was part of the film festivals in Tribeca and Havana, among elsewhere.

In terms of her films, XXY sounds/looks pretty intense and interesting. Here a short, mysterious synopsis:

XXY is about Alex is a 15-year-old teenager with a secret. Soon after her birth her parents decide to leave Buenos Aires to make a home out of an isolated wooden cabin tucked away in the dunes of the Uruguayan shoreline.

XXY begins with Alex´s parents receiving a couple of friends and their 16-year-old son Álvaro from Buenos Aires. Álvaro´s father is a plastic surgeon who accepted the invitation because of his medical concern for their friend´s daughter. The inevitable attraction between both teenagers forces them all to face their worst fears . . . Rumours are spreading around town. Alex gets stared at as if she were a freak. People´s fascination with her can become dangerous.

And here’s a trailer (with subtitles!):

This interesting interview with Puenzo provides a bit more insight into the literary origins of the movie, what it’s about, etc.

Cinema Without Borders: XXY is a daring and unusual film, what inspired you to make this film?

Lucia Puenzo: XXY is based on a short story called “Cinismo”, from the Argentine writer Sergio Bizzio. From the moment I read that story—the sexual awakening of a young girl who has what doctors call genital ambiguity—I couldn’t take it out of my head. I began to write with that image in my head: the body of a young person with both sexes in the same body. I was especially interested in the dilemma of inevitable choice: not only having to choose between being a man or a woman, but also having to choose between a binary decision and intersex as an identity and not as a place of mere passage.

CWB: How much research was done on the subject before writing the script?

LP: Months of research . . . I worked with doctors, geneticists, teachers, parents of children who were born with different diagnoses of intersexuality, and young adults who had or had not been operated when they were born. The time I lived in Paris, in the Cinéfondation, I contacted Alex Jurgen, a German intersex person who made a documentary of her life (Octopusalarm) in which, after of years of operations and taking hormones to become a man, Alex realizes he will never be merely a man or a woman.

Based on this, it’s not entirely surprising that Puenzo’s short story—“Cohiba”—revolves around a filmmaking workshop run by Garcia Marquez:

At five minutes to ten in the morning, a black car with smoked windows appears like a mirage at the end of the palm-lined road. The ten of us attending the workshop wait in front of the rest of the students, the cameras, the journalists at the bottom of the stairs. There is a rumour going around that this will be the last workshop the maestro teaches. Birri – the school’s director – helps him out of the car. García Márquez emerges sheathed in a blue jumpsuit, cleaning a pair of spectacles that get lost for a moment in Birri’s white beard when they separate from their embrace. Smile for the hyenas, he whispers, giving us hugs in front of the journalists’ cameras. We follow him up a floor, to the classroom. He doesn’t let anyone else in except us. Inside, the microphones are already turned on. Every word is recorded and belongs to the Film School of San Antonio de los Baños. So . . . who has the big idea? García Márquez asks. He’s having fun with us. Or, rather: he’s making fun of us. Your mission is to deliver one good idea, only one, he says, fishing around in his jumpsuit pockets until he finds what he’s looking for: an inhaler. He takes a hit from it and his eyes come back to life. If you don’t have one, then go out and find it. We are intimidated to the point of going mute; when he leaves ten minutes later not one of us has been able to decide yet whether his voraciousness is of the vampire variety or is merely contempt. One thing has become clear: screenwriters, for the maestro, are no more than a breed of lackeys.

So, from the very first day, García Márquez has turned his students into a pack of hunters. The big one is our prey and it can be found anywhere (past, future, fiction, reality). On the second night, standing in the doorway of the theatre, roach hanging from her lips, the Brasileira looks into the darkness and sighs . . . I won’t leave until I find it.

[. . .]

García Márquez is already seated at his desk. The Argentine woman who arrived late, he says. I want today’s big idea. I tell him the story of a student who – for lack of ideas – decides to murder her maestro. He interrupts me immediately (asking for another). There is an exchange of glances. The Brasileira breathes in deeply and explains that she has only a beginning. The maestro smiles: all you need for a story is the beginning. He asks her to speak up, and he zips up his jumpsuit. He’s dressed the same way for four days now, always in a jumpsuit. A blue one the first day, orange the second, brown the third. The fourth one is English racing green. The Brasileira brings the microphone to her mouth and tells the story of a woman who falls in love on her third evening in Havana. She knows the man is hiding something, but it doesn’t matter to her. She would leave everything behind not to lose him. She continues on until the maestro’s snoring interrupts her halfway through a sentence. The worker in charge of taping the workshop presses the pause button. Suddenly, García Márquez opens his eyes, as if the weight of the glances focusing on him were enough to wake him up, and he tells the Brasileira that she has a good beginning. Now she needs an ending.

So no big idea that day. He lets us leave at quarter to one. I spend the next half-hour not being able to leave the bathroom: kneeling at the toilet, vomiting until I’m empty. When I come out, the minibus is taking off for the city, more than a hundred metres down the road. I don’t try to run, my legs are too wobbly. The walk back to the apartment seems to be getting longer and longer. The concrete is burning and disfiguring the landscape. By day, the frogs cede their kingdom to the flies. A car advances behind me at walking pace, keeping a few metres back. The Brasileira is waiting in the doorway in front of me, wearing a sky-blue dress and black sunglasses. Her hair is in a long braid and she’s holding her shoes in her hands. Her smile isn’t directed at me, it’s for the Chevy that is coming up behind me. Cohiba smiles back at us from the other side of the windscreen. The Brasileira doesn’t notice that I am queasy and trembling. She hugs me and moves me towards the car: she wants me to meet him. She opens the back door for me to get in. Cohiba looks at me through the rear-view mirror. He is about to say something when the Brasileira climbs into the front seat and greets him with a kiss on the lips. My friend is coming with us. Cohiba doesn’t say a word. He does a U-turn to go back in the direction of the school. All the windows are open. There is no glass in the rear windscreen. When the car pulls out on to the road, the wind zigzags between one window and the other. The Brasileira shouts so that Cohiba can hear her over the wind and the car’s engine. She tells him her story, that García Márquez says it lacks an ending. Cohiba smiles as if the problem were already resolved. He switches on the radio, puts in a cassette and turns up the volume. He has it up so high it’s impossible to talk.

Aaaannnndddd . . . If you’re not already a subscriber to Granta, you should become one now and receive this special issue for free! (That’s five issues for the price of four. Or, to be more specific, that’s $85 worth of Granta for $46 . . . )

6 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 11 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.

This post marks the half-way point in our “22 Days of Awesome” series . . . It’s an interview of Argentine writer Patricio Pron conducted by Emily Davis. Enjoy!



If you flip through Granta’s new “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” issue, you’ll see a photo of Argentine writer Patricio Pron above a paragraph that begins “At the age of twenty-eight, Pron learned how to ride a bicycle through the snow in Germany, the country where the majority of his favourite childhood authors were born.” Even his biography reads as literature. And when his new story published in this issue is called “A Few Words on the Life Cycle of Frogs,” how can you not turn the page and keep reading?

Here is a taste of the story, translated by Janet Hendrickson.

My situation was relatively different from that of the other writers from the provinces who regularly arrived in the capital, like insects that assault a cadaver and eat it and lay their larvae inside and so obtain some life from death. I hadn’t left any cadaver behind; I had some money and a few assignments — I was a journalist, a relatively bad one but for some reason in demand — and besides, I had a place to sleep. An apartment, I supposed, where I would write my first truly cosmopolitan works, insufflated with an air that I believed only blew in the capital, which for its part bragged about the quality of that air. Naturally, I was an imbecile or a saint.

At that time I wrote stories that were more like farces, stories that were dumb and sadly ridiculous. In one, a boat caught fire along the coast of a city, and its residents gathered to contemplate the spectacle and did nothing to help the crew because the spectacle was so beautiful, and so the boat sank and the crew members died, and when the only survivor of this disaster made it to the coast and asked for help, the city’s inhabitants beat him for ruining the spectacle. In another story, a horse appeared which had been dressed like a man so that he’d be allowed to travel on a train; part of its education took place on this long train trip, and when the train finally reached its destination, the horse — which had somehow learned to talk — demanded to be called ‘Gombrowicz’ from this point forward, and he wouldn’t let himself be saddled; I still don’t understand what I wanted to say by that. I’d also written a story about this guy who invited a girl he liked on an outing to the countryside, but then the girl constantly changed the radio station in the car and ate with her mouth open and did things that made this guy think he could never declare his love to her and maybe it was better that way, and I think everyone died at the end in an accident or something like that. In that story I’d tested my talents for comparison and simile; I’d written things like, ‘He and she had never seen each other before. They were like two little doves that had never seen each other, either’; and ‘The boat peacefully steered itself towards the still pool, just like a car driven by a madman heading towards a group of children.’ Those were the things I was writing: occasionally, certain people have inferred an unambiguous relationship between a person’s imaginative capacity and the quality of his or her fiction, but they leave out the fact that imaginative excess can have catastrophic results for the quality of what one writes, and still, that imaginative capacity is indispensable to every writer’s beginnings; it gives him breath and sustains him and makes him believe that his errors are correct and that he is or can be a writer. Well, I had too much imagination during that time.

The dry and self-deprecating humor here is perfectly tuned (and the backhand pun on Buenos Aires? golden), and the whole story is worth reading for Pron’s narrative voice that feels very genuine, in this piece falling somewhere between storyteller and essayist.

Today we also have a special interview with the author, so allow me to introduce him with a few biographical essentials. Born in Rosario, Argentina in 1975, Patricio Pron is a writer, translator, and critic currently living in Madrid. He earned his doctorate in Romance Philology from the Georg-Autust University in Göttingen, Germany. His three volumes of short stories and four novels include El vuelo magnífico de la noche (2001), Una puta mierda (2007), El comienzo de la primavera (2008) and El mundo sin las personas que lo afean y lo arruinan (2010). He was kind enough to answer our questions about his latest work, the Granta honor, and what it’s like to be a critic and a translator well as a creative writer.

Emily Davis: What does it mean to you to be named one of the best young Spanish-language novelists by Granta?

Patricio Pron: Naturally it is a pleasure, besides being a bit of good news in a year that, at least for me, has been especially generous with good news.

ED: Where did the desire to become a writer come from?

PP: Perhaps from the same place it always does, from the perception that there was something that existed that had not yet been said and that I could say, and from the conviction that I knew how to say it.

ED: Do you have a favorite writer from among the others on the new Granta list?

PP: Yes, I am especially interested in the work of Alejandro Zambra.

ED: What writers have influenced you?

PP: A good hundred living writers and a similar or greater number of dead writers.

ED: You’ve said before that you were influenced by German writers. And the experience itself of having lived and studied in Germany, does that figure in your work in some way?

PP: Yes. My last two books (El comienzo de la primavera and El mundo sin las personas que lo afean y lo arruinan) feature that German experience as a theme, but perhaps the more visible influence of that experience is in the separation that formed there between literary language and everyday language. There was an acceptance of literature as a labor of exploration in language aimed at creating for me and for my books a personal idiom, halfway between Spanish and the other languages that I speak.

ED: Many people are either critics who do not write, or writers who do not practice criticism. What is it like to practice both professions? Does one influence the other, do they complement one another, or do they oppose each other?

PP: Both experiences complement one another well, contrary to what people usually say, since a great number of writers are also readers and we have opinions about what we read. Not all writers read, however (and we may blame that for the worst calamities of recent literature, including literature written in Spanish by writers under thirty-five years old), but those who do, do not see any obstacle to talking about what we read, in particular if we are talking about books that contribute beauty and sense to a world that tends to be lacking in both.

ED: How did you come into a translation career as well? Do you work with a certain metaphor that describes your own way of approaching the act of translation?

PP: My wish when I began working as a writer was basically to act as a bridge between literature in German and literature in Spanish, as a way to enrich as much as possible both literary traditions. I don’t have any specific metaphor to describe what I do when I translate, except maybe that I act as a ventriloquist, making others speak with a voice that is mine.

ED: Your new story, “A Few Words on the Life Cycle of Frogs,” is it autobiographical at all?

PP: Yes. Not exactly in its plot, which is imaginary, but yes with regard to the narrator’s opinions about literature, and to the question that permeates the entire story of why and from where the young writers in Spanish come from, and about what it’s like to become a writer based on interpretation, and the undesirable but at the same time also inevitable misinterpretations of the works of writers that we love.

ED: What are you working on now?

PP: Right now I am taking notes for an extended essay, to be published probably in 2012. In May 2011 my new novel El espíritu de mis padres sigue subiendo en la lluvia will be published in Spain. Faber & Faber will publish it in the UK, and Knopf in the US. Around that same time, a personal anthology of short stories called Trayéndolo todo de regreso a casa. Relatos 1990-2010 will appear in South America.

Don’t forget that if you subscribe now, the good folks at Granta will throw in a copy of this special issue for free . . .

3 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 12 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.



Today we’re featuring Argentine author Pola Oloixara, whose “Conditions for the Revolution” was translated by Mara Faye Lethem. Mara has translated a number of really interesting books, including Javier Calvo’s Wonderful World Albert Sanchez Pinol’s Pandora in the Congo and David Trueba’s Learning to Lose. She wrote the piece below about her experience working on this story for Granta.

Translating Pola

There is plenty about Pola to intimidate anyone. Her Facebook fan page proclaims her “The Wonder Woman of the 21st Century”. She is an expert on orchids. Her dimpled smile could launch a thousand ships. Her writing is terrifically brainy and peppered with references. So when I tried to step into her shoes, to channel her spirit to lead my fingers across the keys like a Ouija board, it involved more than the usual leap of faith. Screwing up my courage, I opted for some serious deconstruction and research, then worked to put back together the pieces while maintaining Pola’s ever-present humor.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends are Argentines. (Or was it Argentinians? Or Argentineans, as my spell check insists?) I’d translated authors from Argentina before. But never an Argentine as Argentine as Pola. The fact that her work is intensely local one of her assets, but for a translator who has never set foot on Argentine soil, it presents some challenges. I enlisted a porteño informant who wouldn’t laugh in my face when I asked such questions as “What do they sell at kiosks in Buenos Aires?” (Thanks, Nacho!) But the real challenge was not in the slightly different conjugations, the unfamiliar foods, the different school system, the slang.

The biggest challenge for me when translating this story had to do with that ineffable sense of place or, perhaps better put, the culture and politics embedded deep in language. There are so many things I take for granted when translating work from Spain or Catalonia, where I have lived for many years, that have to do with the context. Here we have a Secretariat of Linguistic Politics, officially acknowledging something many countries don’t: our choice of words is often a political act, albeit very subtly, or unconsciously.

“Conditions for the Revolution” has as its backdrop the Argentine economic crisis of 2001, and swap clubs and unrest that sprang up around it. Along with certain terms, like caceroleantes, which have no perfect translation, the atmosphere of the story was, for me, swimming in unfamiliar waters. But isn’t that one of the great things about being a translator, that we are transported to other worlds and have to find our way back to our own, leading the English-speaking reader by the hand?

- Mara Faye Lethem

And to give you a taste of Oloixarac’s work in Lethem’s translation, here’s the opening of “Conditions for the Revolution”:

That morning, Mara went by her mother’s house to get some clean clothes. She slid between the armchairs in the living room and the coffee tables overflowing with magazines; she didn’t want to run into her. On the modular shelving in the library, flanked by books by Eduardo Galeano and Gabriel García Márquez, the computer screen showed an unfinished game of solitaire. Mother Cris wasn’t there. She’d been a little depressed because Quique, her current lover, had way too much time on his hands. At first he wandered around Cris’s house, leaving his toothbrush there, and then kindly (suspiciously) offering to cook, until one day she gave him a hard stare and said, look, I think that, these days, the most important thing in a relationship is respecting each other’s space, but if you need to, please let me finish, if you really need to, you can stay here. Quique was of medium height and had brown eyes and a disorientated air about him, but he seemed stripped of everything that makes disorientation an attractive or romantic trait.

‘You don’t recognize me because I let my grey come in and now I have a ponytail.’ He had brought his snout closer.

Cris would have preferred that he didn’t make such direct mention of the ponytail; she was enough of an adult – and alone, not getting any younger – to know she could stand the sight of the ponytail, but not talking about it. Quique wasn’t intimidated by Cris’s sideways glances, the deliberate nature of some of her absent and distracted moments. He read it as a display of parameters, a female logic lubricating its own version of the conquest seconds before launching, insatiable, into mating. The sweetness of desperation was an inalienable asset in middle-aged ladies for whom casual sex would soon be a piece of Grandma’s jewellery that nobody would want to touch. Quique was an optimistic guy. He narrowed his eyes, fulfilling his civic role of mensch playing at seducer:

‘In those days I already had you in my sights, but you were with somebody else.’

Cris pursed her lips, trying mentally to distance herself from the scene: for the moment, being the recipient of Quique’s attentions was far from flattering. But ‘somebody else’ awoke Cris’s interest (vanity disguised as interest) from its lethargy and, overcome with complicity, she used the opportunity to laugh hysterically. And yes, she was always with somebody or other. Quique felt as if the fat men of the Metal Workers’ Union were urging him on, gesturing at him with full arms as if he were in a car and wanted to park; you go ahead, he thought, as he slipped his thumb cautiously through the loop of Cris’s jeans. With a quick glance, Cris detected his hand hanging close to her proud ass, her personal PR agent; unable to renounce her chance at playing the coquette, Cris commented: Hmm . . . dangerous. I’m the type that falls in love, so if I were you, I’d think twice. If Quique had been twenty years younger, he would have made a bet with himself as to how long it would take him to penetrate her anally; now, mature and serene, he stuck out his tongue slightly before touching her lips.

1 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Heath Mayhew on Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel), which came out from Open Letter earlier this year in Margaret Schwartz’s translation.

As you may or may not know, we generally don’t run reviews of our own books, which may or may be a sound policy, but regardless, we’re making an exception for this piece because of how it came to us. Heath Mayhew is one of our subscribers, and with Macedonio’s Museum, he received a letter from me explaining how we came to publish this, how much the book means to me, why I love it so much, etc. It also included a request for readers to let me know what they thought of this, since it’s such a strange, unique book.

Last month, Heath sent me this review, which he wrote as part of a Translation Seminar he’s taking with Stefania Heim at Columbia University. It’s a great introduction to the book, which is why we decided to violate our “rule” and post it here:

Prologue to the Review

Macedonio Fernandez is little known outside Argentina. Unfortunately I foresee this remaining the case for some time. Even with the recent translation and publication of his posthumous novel, The Museum of Eterna’s Novel: The First Good Novel (Museo de la Novela de la Eterna), by Open Letter Books (translated by Margaret Schwartz), the “skip-around readers” Fernandez is looking for (to convert into “orderly readers”) are few. One of the reasons is because Fernandez is taking a risk. He knows exactly what his novel is and what it isn’t: he knows that it is the “First Good Novel,” which follows the writing of another novel, Adriana Buenos Aires: The Last Bad Novel (Adriana Buenos Aires: ultima novella mala). So what makes Fernandez’s novel so good? This is where (and why) he remains obscure: the tenacity with which he hopes to redefine the novel. It is a task that can get sloppy very quickly. And so, Fernandez makes sure that the reader is well equipped before “beginning” his novel (he argues, “. . . the reader comes late if he comes after the cover.”). Thus, he prolongs the start of his novel with fifty-seven prologues: in part to provoke the novel to be “thrown violently to the floor most often, and avidly taken up again just as often” by his readers. He boasts, “What other author can boast of that?”

Introduction to Macedonio Fernandez

You can tell by my first prologue, Macedonio Fernandez was not the typical novelist. From the Preface by Adam Thirlwell and Translator’s Introduction by Margaret Schwartz, and from my selected readings, there is a cacophony of mythology surrounding Fernandez. Most often mentioned, yet somewhat unknown, is Fernandez’s mentorship of Jorge Luis Borges. Oft-quoted Borges explains: “I imitated him, to the point of transcription, to the point of devoted and impassioned plagiarism.”

Click here to read the full review.

1 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Prologue to the Review

Macedonio Fernandez is little known outside Argentina. Unfortunately I foresee this remaining the case for some time. Even with the recent translation and publication of his posthumous novel, The Museum of Eterna’s Novel: The First Good Novel (Museo de la Novela de la Eterna), by Open Letter Books (translated by Margaret Schwartz), the “skip-around readers” Fernandez is looking for (to convert into “orderly readers”) are few. One of the reasons is because Fernandez is taking a risk. He knows exactly what his novel is and what it isn’t: he knows that it is the “First Good Novel,” which follows the writing of another novel, Adriana Buenos Aires: The Last Bad Novel (Adriana Buenos Aires: ultima novella mala). So what makes Fernandez’s novel so good? This is where (and why) he remains obscure: the tenacity with which he hopes to redefine the novel. It is a task that can get sloppy very quickly. And so, Fernandez makes sure that the reader is well equipped before “beginning” his novel (he argues, “. . . the reader comes late if he comes after the cover.”). Thus, he prolongs the start of his novel with fifty-seven prologues: in part to provoke the novel to be “thrown violently to the floor most often, and avidly taken up again just as often” by his readers. He boasts, “What other author can boast of that?”

Introduction to Macedonio Fernandez

You can tell by my first prologue, Macedonio Fernandez was not the typical novelist. From the Preface by Adam Thirlwell and Translator’s Introduction by Margaret Schwartz, and from my selected readings, there is a cacophony of mythology surrounding Fernandez. Most often mentioned, yet somewhat unknown, is Fernandez’s mentorship of Jorge Luis Borges. Oft-quoted Borges explains: “I imitated him, to the point of transcription, to the point of devoted and impassioned plagiarism.” But he continues:

I felt: Macedonio is metaphysics, is literature. Whoever preceded him might shine in history, but they were all rough drafts of Macedonio, imperfect previous versions. To not imitate this canon would have represented incredible negligence.

Other myths include eccentric qualities: running for president by leaving scraps of paper with his name inscribed on cafe tables; starting a utopian society, in Uruguay (with Borges’ father, Jorge Guillermo Borges), but stopping after a day because of mosquitoes; leaving pages of manuscripts behind after moving from one shanty to another. Numerous other myths survive, partly due to Borges, partly to others.

What seems to be true of his adult life is that Fernandez befriended Borges’ father as a university student and they remained close friends throughout their lives. He was a lawyer until his wife passed away in 1920. He left his children in the care of grandparents and, as Marcelo Ballvé describes, “spent the final three decades of his life drifting through Buenos Aires boardinghouses and country hermitages, absorbed in writing and thinking.” It was in these years, reunited with Borges senior, befriending younger Borges and the “_generación martinfierrista_,” that he dedicated himself to philosophy, literature, and meditation.

What the Novel is About

So what is the novel about? Alison McCulloch, in her Fiction Chronicle, tries to answer this, “So what is the novel about? A group of “characters” gather at a house called La Novela, which belongs to “the President.” But what is the novel about? Clearly, that’s for “the Reader” to decide.” Although the review is only nine sentences long (four of which appear in the quote), I couldn’t accept her final decree: aren’t all novels open for “Reader” interpretation?

The novel is about love. Or what Fernandez calls Todoamor; that is, as Schwartz translates “Totalove.” I refer to Ballve, once again, for assistance,

Museo de la Novela de la Eterna, first published in 1967 and impossible to summarize, is best described as an extended experiment in writing an open novel analogous to a piece of music. The prose evokes a dizzying world of aesthetic associations and possibilities in the reader’s mind. At every moment it tests the limits between art and life, reality and fiction, as well as form and content.

“Impossible to summarize.” That sounds like a challenge! The prologues address metaphysics, literary theory, time and space, non-identity, death, life, Love (Totalove), Authorial Persona, critics, characters that appear in the novel, characters that do not appear in the novel, the Reader, prologues, “postprologuery note” and “prenovelistic observations,” and then some.

The novel is the execution of the prologues. It is as if Fernandez has set up the novel’s history, the ur-thoughts, in the prologues. And without them, the novel would seem more absurd. Are the prologues a part of the novel? Fernandez is ahead of the Reader (as he often is): on a page between the end of the prologues, and the beginning of the novel, he writes, “Éstos ¿fueron prólogos? y ésta ¿será novela? Esta página es para que en ella se ande el lector antes de leer en su muy digna indecisión y gravedad.” Margaret Schwartz translates this post-prologue/pre-novel page as, “Were those prologues? And is this the novel? _This page is for the reader to linger, in his well-deserved and serious indecision, before reading on._”

Where the Reader realizes that Macedonio Fernandez wrote the novel in Spanish and that Margaret Schwartz translated it into English (which also finally answers what this review really meant to do from the beginning: tell what the novel is about)

Margaret Schwartz has imprinted a dual signature into this translation. One is Macedonio Fernandez’s. The other is her own. It is apparent in Schwartz’s translation, that the Spanish is playful and inventive; words (and worlds) collide and connect at the hip: Totalove, goodbad, firstlast, limit-end, autoexistence, auto-prologuery, etc. We do not even need to look at the Spanish to know just how well Schwartz has performed: towards originality in the English and creation of transparence for the Spanish. We cannot forget the debt we owe to Margaret Schwartz for working through the novel’s dense content and Fernandez’s eccentric style; this work shimmers in fluidity and strangeness.

“The playfulness of the novel is identical to its sadness,” writes Adam Thirlwell in his Preface. Schwartz does not confuse the two. Eventually she projects into English a novel about an estancia called ‘La Novela’ (an instance where the works shimmers in fluidity and strangeness), owned by The President. There, he asks certain characters to stay in hope that they can prepare for the novel, and perhaps find happiness. But they must first rid themselves of their past, in order to make themselves more real, which means they become dreams, because dreams have no past . . .

And now, to begin . . .

This novel is about beginning and ending, or the rejection of beginning and ending. To never start is to never end. Totalove, never having a witness to its start, never ends. But our everyday reader will say, “Certainly love has a beginning!” Macedonio Fernandez, bravely and brilliantly, rallies against this notion. He blows his trumpet on the beginning and ending to love, the novel, and life. There is no death. This novel is an expression of non-death. He is sure of it. And Margaret Schwartz turns the frequency dial and furthers this claim. If you are a reader, one well equipped, this eccentric, yet heartfelt novel is worth throwing to the ground. Because, you will pick it up again just as avidly.

30 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 16 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.

Today’s featured author is Oliverio Coehlo, one of the eight (!) Argentine authors included in this issue.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘This is it.’

‘Where’s the centre?’

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow: Alejandro Zambra.

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

29 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 17 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.

Today’s post is written by Emily Davis, who is also conducting (and translating) all the interviews we’re running of these authors. Enjoy! And look for a special announcement related to the series later today . . .



Today we feature another talented young Argentine writer, Matías Néspolo. Born in Buenos Aires in 1975, he currently lives in Barcelona with his wife, three daughters, and their dog, Jonás. His first collection of poems, Antología seca de Green Hills, was published in 2005, and his short stories have been published in various anthologies. His first novel, Siete maneras de matar a un gato (2009) will appear in English as Seven Ways to Kill a Cat (2011). He is currently working on another novel of which the following (fantastic) passage is an excerpt, translated by Frank Wynne:

El Tano climbed the ladder to the shack cautiously, as though at any moment he might be run off by a shotgun. He reached up and ran his hand along the lintel, a rough-hewn beam that jutted out an inch or two above the door. The key was there. Just like Brizuela had said. But something was wrong. There was no chain, no padlock. The door was open. He nudged it gently with his foot and slipped the key back where he had found it.

The sound of footsteps made his skin prickle. The place was in darkness.

‘Roberto! Hey! What are you doing here?’

El Tano hesitated. The rasp of a match broke the silence, its flame outlining the slim figure of a girl lighting a kerosene lamp. She turned the wick down so it wouldn’t smoke, slipped the tulip-glass shade into place and hung it on a nail.

‘Don’t just stand there, come in…’ she said, pushing a lock of hair behind her ear.

‘I’m not Roberto. You’ve got me mixed up with someone else.’

The girl stared at him, puzzled. She opened her mouth but no words came out. El Tano stepped inside and set down his backpack. He would be spending the night here anyway. He had no choice.

‘What are you being like that for? It’s Vero. Don’t you recognize me?’

She curled her lip in an expression of reproach. She had full, well-defined lips and a long, thin, freckled face. El Tano looked her up and down, racking his brain — nothing. He’d never seen this girl before; if he had he would remember. She obviously had him confused with someone else. He considered playing along but something in her eyes stopped him. Her pupils were like shards of graphite sunken in the honey of a pair of magnificent eyes which, despite their colour, had not a hint of sweetness about them.

‘We know each other?’ El Tano gently tested the water.

‘You’re freaking me out, Roberto,’ she said softly. ‘What’s the matter with you?’

If this was all an act, the girl had talent. El Tano tried to twist his mouth into something he hoped was a smile but it froze halfway in an expression of irritation. Or disgust. Half-heartedly, he started checking out the shack.

‘Nothing’s the matter,’ he said. ‘Just tired, is all.’

The reply had been instinctive, unthinking, but as he heard himself say the words, he felt goosebumps, as though he were taking on this other man’s identity without resisting. He hadn’t planned to play along but he was doing it anyway. It didn’t matter. Right now it suited him to be someone else. Anyway, if this girl wanted to think he was Roberto, or Juan de los Palotes, he couldn’t stop her.

This being my first encounter with Néspolo’s writing, I am delighted that he has been selected by Granta and hope that this will mean greater exposure for his work in the coming years. If this sample is any indication, he has an especially deft way of evoking place, along with skill in developing tension along an irresistible plot line. I look forward to reading the rest of the novel when it comes out. In the meantime, here are some words from the author on the cannibalistic nature of Argentine literature, and the question of national literatures in general:

I wonder whether, in an era of global travel and digital communication, it makes sense to talk about ‘national literatures’. Especially when it comes to Argentinia, whose national literature has a very brief history and was created from nothing in the desert, rather as the National State was invented by the generation who, in the 1880s, believed in progress and reason. Argentinia’s literature has always plundered and borrowed from elsewhere, co-opting as its own authors such as the Polish Gombrowicz, as well as works written entirely in French (Copi).

As usual it was Borges who first noted and advocated the cannibal nature of Argentina’s literature. In his famous essay El escritor argentino y la tradición he championed making “irreverent” use of the entire Western tradition – a process of ingesting and metabolizing other cultures and literatures that has come to define Argentina’s identity. It is easy to understand why tango, as the quintessence of what is Argentine,is a music that is played with a small Central European accordion and a Spanish guitar.

Nevertheless, beyond the cross-breeding, Argentine literature has always had particular qualities of its own. First of all, an enquiring spirit. Secondly, a constant search for formal innovation. And, last of all, but not in order of importance, a permanent state of hostility. Bellicose by nature, Argentine literature is always prepared for war, including war with itself. The Argentine literary scene is a perpetual battlefield in which various factions constantly try to redefine the canon.

You can read the whole thing here, from an interview with Vintage Books.

And finally, in case you’re feeling snubbed by that short excerpt from “The Bonfire and the Chessboard” above, you can read one of Matías Néspolo’s short stories, start to finish, over at Granta’s website. Below is the opening of “The Axe Falls,” (“El Hachazo”), translated by Beth Fowler, winner of Harvill Secker’s first Young Translators’ Prize, awarded last month.

Old Moretti has a lot of firewood still to chop, but his fingers are already stiff. Not to mention his toes. He can’t even feel them. His nose, on the other hand, burns as though it were submerged in boiling water. A long goat-hair scarf coils around his neck, a felt cloth swathes his head. On top of his improvised headgear, his wide-brimmed chambergo fits tightly.

He’s been swinging the axe for an hour now without stopping and he’s starting to tire. The years are taking their toll. The old man curses furiously at a small log that resists his efforts, until, finally, he loses patience. Moretti’s in no mood to waste time. He takes a deep breath and unleashes a tremendous blow. Spot on. Right on the grain. The air groans out of his chest in time with the strike. The log splits into three. But the axe breaks loose from his grip and buries itself blade down in the snow. Just next to his boot.

Moretti takes a few seconds to gather himself. His breath swirls in the blizzard. He bends to pick up the axe and finds that it is stuck fast. The handle is as cold as a block of ice. Which is odd, because his hands have been moving up and down it all the time he’s been working.

The old man gauges whether to leave it at that and go indoors. There’s no sense freezing just for a bit more wood. When the weather clears he’ll pick up where he left off. For the moment, he’s got enough to see him through the night. And tomorrow’s Sunday: Sergio – his son – will be coming. He’s been carving out a career in the city, with the Wool Dealers’ Syndicate, since he was a young man. By now, the old man figures, he must be general secretary. Moretti’s proud of him. In any case, he can ask him to lend a hand filling the woodshed. Then he can forget about it until the summer. Didn’t the boy say he would stay for a couple of weeks, that he had to take some time off? Two or three weeks will be more than enough, if the trees are already felled. All they’ll have to do is cut them into smaller pieces to fit into the stove.

Click here if you want to read the full story (and trust me, you want to).

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

26 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next week!

24 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As we mentioned last Friday, we’re going to spend the next 20 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here..

Today we have a special interview with Federico Falco, whose new story “In Utah There Are Mountains Too” appears in this issue.



Emily Davis: What does it mean to you to have been named by Granta one of the Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists?

Federico Falco: First of all, a recognition of this caliber is a great joy, it means opportunity for my work and my career, something that I value very highly. At the same time, it is a sign that I am heading in the right direction, that I ought to continue on that path and also, of course, it is a great responsibility. One has to try not to disappoint the expectations that come of a recognition like this one.

ED: Where did the desire to be a writer come from?

FF: When I was small I lived in a village where there were no bookstores and the only libraries were not very well stocked. Fortunately, in my home and in the home of one my aunts, there were a lot of books. I grew up watching my parents read—something that not all the adults I knew did—and they always gave me a lot of freedom to rummage through the bookcases and pick out the books that interested me. As a form of entertainment but also of escape, my infancy and adolescence were marked by reading. Maybe because of that, the desire to start writing my own stories developed naturally. When I was ten or eleven I had already started and abandoned several novels and I couldn’t wait to get to high school because I figured that there they would teach me to write better.

ED: What writers have influenced you?

FF: Tons. Chekhov, Tolstoy, Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Francis Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Carver, Cesare Pavese, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Eugenio Montale, Natalia Ginzburg. Among Argentines, Juan José Saer, Antonio Di Benedetto, Manuel Puig, Daniel Moyano, Andrés Rivera, and many more.

ED: Do you have a favorite writer among the others on the new Granta list?

FF: I haven’t read all of the authors. There are several that I didn’t know before they appeared on the Granta list and, up until now, I’ve hardly read what they published in this issue of the magazine. Also, some of their books are hard to come by outside the country where they were initially published, so it would be difficult for me to respond to this question without being partial and unfair. Of course, among those I know and have read, there are many that I like a lot.

ED: You were born in a small city in the interior of Argentina. Does that experience figure into your stories? I am thinking for example of Villa Carlos Paz in “In Utah There Are Mountains Too,” your new story published in this issue of Granta. Is there perhaps some resonance there?

FF: Villa Carlos Paz is a fairly large city or, at least, medium-sized. Besides, it is a touristic city, and that makes it very peculiar, the social ties among neighbors are different, there are people arriving and departing all the time. General Cabrera, the village where I was born and lived until I was 18, doesn’t have any of that and so, I don’t know how much my village experience resonates with this text in particular. But certainly in many of my earlier stories the village appears as a geographic space, the pampas plain as the landscape, General Cabrera itself, a little mythologized, but barely transformed.

ED: Where did the idea for “In Utah There Are Mountains Too” come from?

FF: This text was part of a novel that I am writing, but it took on a life of its own, gained autonomy and, for structural reasons, ended up outside the original plan and became an independent story. The novel takes the form of a biography, I am writing a semifictional and novelized biography of a poet from my city and she, in her adolescence, fell in love with a Mormon missionary who couldn’t reciprocate. That was the initial anecdote that gave rise to the story.

ED: What are you working on now?

FF: On two projects at the same time, both novels. One is a false biography of Cuqui, a poet and performer from Córdoba who is my age. The other text is still in a more embryonic state, the premise is that it takes place in the sierras of Córdoba, a place that I conceive of as mythical: it’s where people flee to from the big cities, in search of peace, tranquility and contact with nature. It is also a place of hope and second chances, the characters will attempt to create a new life there, among the mountains and skies of Córdoba.

And don’t forget, Granta has a special offer for all readers of Three Percent: if you subscribe now you’ll receive this special issue featuring the “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” for free

Up next: Carlos Labbe.

9 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Earlier this week, the NEA announced the recipients of this year’s Literature Translation Fellowships. To provide more info about the stellar group of people and projects the NEA is supporting, they’re going to be interviewing at least some of the authors for Art Works, their relatively new, and quite impressive blog.

First up is the stellar Esther Allen whose project sounds interesting and long-overdue:

NEA: Please briefly describe the project this grant will support. How do you choose the works you translate?

EA: I’m translating Zama, a 1956 novel by Argentine writer Antonio Di Benedetto, considered a great masterpiece in the Spanish-speaking world but never before translated into English. The project grew out of a trip to Argentina I made in 2005 at the invitation of the Fundación TyPA, which brings editors and translators from across the world to Buenos Aires for a whirlwind week-long literary boot camp each year. There I discovered that the Argentine writers who are known internationally are quite a different set of names from the ones everyone in Argentina is talking about. Antonio di Benedetto came up frequently in meetings with critics, writers, and editors, but I’d never heard of him before. I came home with a couple of his books and found them simultaneously intriguing and off-putting—I couldn’t quite enter into what he was doing. Edwin Frank, editor of New York Review Books Classics, went on the same trip a couple of years later, and he’s the one who brought Zama back. He asked me to have a look at it and see if it was worth doing—and I decided it was.

Quickly want to point out that the TyPA Editors’ Week is effing fantastic. I participated a few years ago—before we published Saer, before we published Macedonio—and absolutely loved it. (You can read all about it in excruciating personal detail by clicking here.) Came back with more knowledge of the Argentine literary scene—and tango, oh, yes, the beautiful tango—than I ever would’ve imagined. And yes, trips like these are one of the ways that publishers find titles to translate. And yes, I am now even more obsessed with Argentine literature . . . and the tango. In fact, I may well write a Publishing Perspectives piece about learning the tango at the Frankfurt Book Fair, but more on that project later . . .

Back to Esther and how much she totally rocks:

NEA: You’ve spoken of your work as “a kind of activism in defense of translation”—what do you mean by that?

EA: When I first started out as a translator in the early 1990s, it often felt as if it was the last thing in the world anyone should be idiotic enough to devote time to. There was a prevailing sense that translation, any translation, was some sort of shameful, lowbrow thing. Most publishers resisted doing translations—many were so out of practice they wouldn’t have been sure how to publish a translation even if they’d wanted to. Some academics were bringing out their translations under pseudonyms, to avoid the stigma of being a translator. It’s a wonder people kept doing it at all. There were a number of us at that point who started thinking about how to surmount those barriers and keep the conversation between literature written in English and the literature of the rest of the world going. I’ve been a reader of Borges from a very young age, and for Borges translation is the central literary activity; it was painful to see how belittled it had become in the English-speaking world. Now, twenty years later, our culture has certainly become far more receptive to translation. But it seems to be a cycle; American culture had previously been very receptive in the 60s and early 70s, and then moved back toward monolingual insularity. Eliot Weinberger has suggested that Americans become more interested in reading works from other languages when they are disenchanted with their own country—so perhaps these moments of increased attention to translation weren’t due to the work of “translation activists” but to misguided wars like those in Vietnam and Iraq. In any case, it’s clear that translation in the English-speaking world will continue to need defenders.

Esther is an amazing translation activist who accomplishes more in a year than most of us do in a lifetime. Anyway, read the complete interview for more insights into the process of translation, the balancing of the author’s voice and that of the translator’s, and the importance of what the NEA does. And I’ll re-post more of these interviews as they become available . . .

16 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

With Argentina as Guest of Honor at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, there’s bound to be a ton of articles coming out about its publishing scene. And based on my obsession with Argentine literature, we’re bound to feature as many as possible. (We’ll also try to do something special to highlight a number of classic and contemporary Argentine writers. But more on that later.)

This weekend, the Buenos Aires Herald ran a piece about an interesting program highlighting Argentina’s vibrant indie publishing scene:

In Buenos Aires, until next Sunday, indie publisher association Alianza de Editores Independientes de la Argentina (EDINAR) presents a Hot List with what’s hot in the indie literature world. EDINAR, which comprises 30 publishing houses, was created in 2005 in order to defend diversity in the publishing environment. This time, 20 publishers chose one book each from their catalogues to be part of a Hot List, available and prominently displayed at different bookstores – these are not their best sellers, but the books that they feel deserve more of the spotlight than they’re currently getting. The Hot List comprises a great variety of genres such as novels, short stories books, poetry, and essays.

Info on all 20 books can be found in the article itself, but here are a few of the more interesting titles included in the program:

Ediciones Corregidor preferred Poemas (Poems) by Macedonio Fernández because “this author’s writing show that he was an intellectual with a vivid code of ethics, and who was also able to think of the most original literary strategies.” The book comprises unpublished poems, since Fernández never published a book of poems while he was alive. Born in Argentina in 1852, Macedonio Fernández was a writer, humourist, and philosopher. His writings include novels, stories, poetry and journalistic features.

Macedonio was Jorge Luis Borges’s most important Argentine mentor and influence, and remains a cult author to this day. [. . .]

Marea selected the book Cuba libre: Vivir y escribir en La Habana by Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez. The book deals with a generation of authors who were born in Cuba during the 70s and 80s and have to stick to an ideology they don’t sympathize with. Yoani Sánchez was chosen by Time magazine as an author among the top 100 more influential people of the world, and has famously run afoul of the island’s government for the criticism of the Cuban regime in her blog Generación Y.

Mate publisher went for Ricardo Piglia this time. They chose the essay book Teoría del Complot, with theories about Argentine society. Born in 1941 in Adrogué and raised in Mar del Plata, Piglia is one of the foremost contemporary Argentine writers, known equally for his fiction and his literary criticism. [. . .]

Eterna Cadencia picked La Virgen Cabeza by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara. Set in a shanty in Buenos Aires, the novel tells the story of Sister Cleopatra, a transvestite who allegedly communicates with the Virgin Mary. Gabriela Cabezón was born in Buenos Aires province in 1968. Her novel deals with marginality and violence as well as with love and humour, and participated in this year’s crime fiction festival Semana Negra de Gijón, in Spain.

(Via the Literary Salon)

25 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango, translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine and reissued by Dalkey Archive Press earlier this year with a new introduction by Francisco Goldman.

Puig’s an all-time favorite of mine, and in my opinion, this is his best book. (Even better than Kiss of the Spider Woman.) (I’m actually flipping through the new Dalkey edition as I type and thinking about rereading this over the weekend . . .) Puig was an amazing writer, and although I wish Open Letter could’ve been the press to reprint his early works, it’s great that Dalkey is making all of these available again.

Larissa Kyzer is a frequent reviewer for us, her most recent review (like two weeks ago recent) was of Sofi Oksanen’s Purge. (Larissa knows a lot about Scandinavian lit, which is why she reviews a lot of Nordic books for us.)

Here’s the opening of her review:

Built on recollections of his small hometown in the heart of the Argentine pampas, Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango is a dizzy and heartfelt pastiche of seduction, jealousy, daydreams, and spoiled hopes in the lives of a self-indulgent and consumptive Casanova named Juan Carlos, his workingman best friend, and the women who suffer their affections. Blending documentary-style narration with the melodrama of radio plays and the clear-eyed aspirations of Golden Age Hollywood musicals, Puig intermixes high and low art—“the avant-garde with popular appeal,” he once wrote—so as to delight and entertain while mercilessly laying bear the hypocrisies and regressiveness of village life.

In her biography Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman, imminent Latin American translator Suzanne Jill Levine (who was also close friends with the author) notes that “Manuel saw Villegas [his hometown] as an ongoing melodrama or, translated to radio, a soap opera like the ones people used to listen to every afternoon . . .” Speaking of his friends and neighbors, Levine explains that, “. . . their feelings were the feelings of characters in a melodrama, and they spoke the language of those old songs, radio plays, and movies to which they were addicted.”

Heartbreak Tango likewise stages itself as a serial drama, and is divided into sixteen “episodes,” comprised of letters, newspaper clippings, police reports, diary entries, and scenes of dialog. Each episode is preceded by one of the myriad advertisements, tag lines, and song lyrics that surround these characters and color their points of view. “As long as you can smile, success can be yours!” claims a toothpaste commercial. “He treated her rough, and she loved it!” winks the tag line for a Jean Harlow film.

25 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Built on recollections of his small hometown in the heart of the Argentine pampas, Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango is a dizzy and heartfelt pastiche of seduction, jealousy, daydreams, and spoiled hopes in the lives of a self-indulgent and consumptive Casanova named Juan Carlos, his workingman best friend, and the women who suffer their affections. Blending documentary-style narration with the melodrama of radio plays and the clear-eyed aspirations of Golden Age Hollywood musicals, Puig intermixes high and low art—“the avant-garde with popular appeal,” he once wrote—so as to delight and entertain while mercilessly laying bear the hypocrisies and regressiveness of village life.

In her biography Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman, imminent Latin American translator Suzanne Jill Levine (who was also close friends with the author) notes that “Manuel saw Villegas [his hometown] as an ongoing melodrama or, translated to radio, a soap opera like the ones people used to listen to every afternoon . . .” Speaking of his friends and neighbors, Levine explains that, “. . . their feelings were the feelings of characters in a melodrama, and they spoke the language of those old songs, radio plays, and movies to which they were addicted.”

Heartbreak Tango likewise stages itself as a serial drama, and is divided into sixteen “episodes,” comprised of letters, newspaper clippings, police reports, diary entries, and scenes of dialog. Each episode is preceded by one of the myriad advertisements, tag lines, and song lyrics that surround these characters and color their points of view. “As long as you can smile, success can be yours!” claims a toothpaste commercial. “He treated her rough, and she loved it!” winks the tag line for a Jean Harlow film.

These epigraphs offer a bittersweet and ironic counterpoint to the mundane realities of the characters’ lives—days spent laundering rich women’s linens, doing backbreaking construction work, or fending off the advances of would-be suitors. As the book progresses, however, they begin seem less and less farcical, and increasingly reflective of the bubbling tensions at play in these individuals’ world. A “Miss Spring” pageant ignites jealousy and gossip among debutants. Juan Carlos seduces several neighborhood daughters (all friends), while simultaneously conducting a very public affair with a much older widow. A family loses their fortune and social standing when an English investor is snubbed by their daughter. A poor maid murders the father of her illegitimate son after discovering his affair with her employer’s daughter. Life imitates art, with fewer happy endings.

Puig’s first love was the movies (he originally planned to become a film director), a fact is apparent in much of his work, not least Heartbreak Tango. This is more than just a fondness for referencing movie stars and Hollywood films throughout his novels, though—it’s a way of seeing. Puig is a master of montage, of cross-cutting intimate snapshots of multiple characters to show them in their greater context. For example, in one episode, he follows everyone through their daily routine, while also revealing their greatest fears and desires in that precise moment. It’s a day much like any other day, filled with work and worry, and yet Puig imbues it with such specificity that even the most trifling desires resonate with the reader.

The fact of the matter is, however, that most of their greatest fears are legitimate ones—weighty and insurmountable problems which threaten to overshadow whatever small happinesses they are able to steal for themselves in the form of an air conditioned movie, a cool siesta, or a freshly pressed and polished uniform. Juan Carlos cannot raise the money he needs to go to an expensive sanatorium to be treated for tuberculosis. After marrying a well-to-do public auctioneer and moving to Buenos Aires, a neighborhood girl is still can’t afford to send her family money to pay for her father’s medical treatments. An unwed mother struggles to find ways to support herself and still spend time with her infant son.

Perhaps then, it is no surprise that these characters take refuge in the romantic dramas of radio plays, the fictional tragedies of their favorite tangos. That well into middle age, they still cherish remembrances of short-lived adolescent passion, even if over time, their memories have edited out fickle lovers and disappointed youthful hopes. Or as two childhood friends realize while sharing a cup of maté years later, “’[O]ne always thinks the past was better. And wasn’t it?’ . . . Both found an answer for that question,” Puig reveals. “The same answer: yes, the past was better because then they both believed in love.”

25 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is still a few weeks away, but seeing that I’ll be off in Abu Dhabi for a while (see tomorrow’s post), I thought I should mention this now.

On Thursday, March 11th at 7:00pm at the Americas Society (680 Park Ave, NYC) there will be a special event in honor of the first English publication of Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel), which the author referred to as “The best novel since both it and the world began.” Hence our witty event title . . .

But seriously, this is going to be an amazing event. Todd Garth (author of The Self of the City) will read a bit from Spanish and English and will talk about Macedonio and his influence on Latin American literature. Margaret Schwartz will talk about the intense process of translating this novel. And Edith Grossman—whose first translation was of a short story by Macedonio—will be there as well.

I’ll post another reminder in a few weeks, but for now, posted below is a description of Museum from the Open Letter website. And this has actually gotten a few stunning reviews: Bookforum‘s was probably the most enthusiastic (but isn’t available online), Complete Review gave it a B+ (solid!), and Luis Alberto Ambroggio wrote a nice piece for First Person Plural. And here’s the jacket copy:

The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel) is the very definition of a novel written ahead of its time. Macedonio (known to everyone by his unusual first name) worked on this novel in the 1930s and early ’40s, during the heyday of Argentine literary culture, and around the same time that At Swim-Two-Birds was published, a novel that has quite a bit in common with Macedonio’s masterpiece.

In many ways, Museum is an “anti-novel.” It opens with more than fifty prologues—including ones addressed “To My Authorial Persona,” “To the Critics,” and “To Readers Who Will Perish If They Don’t Know What the Novel Is About”—that are by turns philosophical, outrageous, ponderous, and cryptic. These pieces cover a range of topics from how the upcoming novel will be received to how to thwart “skip-around readers” (by writing a book that’s defies linearity!).

The second half of the book is the novel itself, a novel about a group of characters (some borrowed from other texts) who live on an estancia called “la novella” . . .

A hilarious and often quite moving book, The Museum of Eterna’s Novel redefined the limits of the genre, and has had a lasting impact on Latin American literature. Authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, and Ricardo Piglia have all fallen under its charm and high-concepts, and, at long last, English-speaking readers can experience the book that helped build the reputation of Borges’s mentor.

7 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



Op Oloop by Juan Filloy. Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman. (Argentina, Dalkey Archive)

I waited years for this book to come out. Years. Back in the early 2000s I went on an editors trip to Germany that was organized by the wonderful Riky Stock and included stops in Munich, Berlin, and Frankfurt. During one of these visits (my memory! I assume now that I’ve been in publishing for 10 years, I can start forgetting some details, right?) I met with the guys from Tropen Verlag, who not only were super-cool, but told me that rather than pimp any of their German authors, the one person I needed to pay attention to was a semi-obscure Argentine author named Juan Filloy.

Once I got back to the States, I started looking into Filloy and this handful of facts convinced me that no matter what, we (re: Dalkey Archive) had to publish him:

  • He lived in three centuries—born in the nineteenth, and passing away in 2000 at the age of 106;
  • Julio Cortazar loved him, and references Filloy’s Caterva in chapter 108 of Hopscotch;
  • Freud was a fan of Op Oloop, which led to a personal correspondence between the two;
  • Filloy was a lover of palindromes and wrote over 6,000;
  • and, not to be overlooked, almost all fifty-plus of his novels and collections of poems have seven-letter titles. (Op Oloop, Caterva, Vil y Vil, so on and so forth.)

The plot of Op Oloop is pretty simple: it chronicles the final day and night in the life of its titular character, Op Oloop, a Finnish transplant in Buenos Aires who is recently engaged to Franziska, the Finnish consul’s niece. As he likes to state, Op Oloop is a “man of method,” a statistician who lives his life in a very orderly, pre-arranged way.

Thus, Op Oloop was convinced yet again that it was simply impossible for him to act contrary to his nature. “SUNDAY: WRITING, BETWEEN 7:00 AND 10:00 A.M.” That was the rule. When life is as ordered as a mathematical equation, you can’t just skip a digit whenever you feel like it. Op Oloop was entirely incapable of any impromptu act that might violate the pre-established norms of his routine; even such a trivial, graphical set such as addressing an envelope he’d already begun while still within the allotted time.

It’s clear from the start that Op Oloop isn’t all there—his speech to the employees at his local spa about the need to unite on tipping and form a “Gratuity International” is proof enough—but on this particular day, things go from bad to worse, as Op’s “method” is thwarted and he can’t regain his sense of order.

Filloy’s protagonist is a step beyond eccentric, and Lisa Dillman’s ability to capture his peculiar speech, wordplay, and insanity is quite impressive. This is especially true in the lengthy section detailing Op Oloop’s special dinner with his friends (in preparation for him to sleep with his 1,000th prostitute—a situation that doesn’t go according to plan and is the final nail that breaks Op’s mind). This dinner is the section of the book that seems most Cortazar-like (Hopscotch is filthy with groups of characters bantering and making statements about Argentina and its people), although Filloy’s not quite as tight and witty and fluid as Cortazar (who is?).

“In Hollywood, everyone knows the caloric value of everything. Just as they all aspire unanimously to stardom, they’re all equally fanatical about being tres mince rather than overweight. Truly, there’s a veritable obsession with fat. Dieting forces them all to undertake endless calculations and combinations. All portions are measured on a basis of one-hundred-calorie units. For example, one hundred calories equals: a tablespoon of honey, or two mandarin oranges, or four dates, or twenty asparagus tips, or a quarter-inch thick steak measuring five inches long and two and a half inches wide . . .”

“So you must’ve gone round with tape measures, eyedroppers, and scales . . .”

“It’s not a joke. You know, I’ve noticed that Argentines in general tend to be quite sarcastic, yet they’re entirely lacking in humor deep down. They make fun of everything in particular, and yet as a nation are all unanimously dull. It’s truly incongruous!”

As the novel lurches from scene to scene, Filloy creates an interesting account of one man’s mental breakdown. With the exception of what happens at the whorehouse, most of the underlying motivations for his breakdown are mysterious, summed up by the idea that he’s “method personified.” A more conventional book would delve into this issue, maybe explain how the hell he ended up with Franziska in the first place, etc., etc., but this isn’t a conventional book. Which is why it’s on the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist . . .

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

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



Ghosts by Cesar Aira. Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. (Argentina, New Directions)

During a late night phone conversation last night, I mentioned that one difference between last year’s BTBA for fiction and this year’s was the lack of a “Big Book.” Last year we had Bolano’s 2666, which everyone and their brother knew would be a longlist title. We also had Moya’s Senselessness, a fan favorite that received a lot of buzz all year. But this year . . . ? There are a few big names—Bolano, again, Pamuk, Le Clezio—but there’s no single book that overshadows all the others, that has achieved that elusive goal of being a translated book that everyone seems to be talking about.

But on second thought, I wonder if Ghosts by Cesar Aira might not fit that bill. Not giving away much by saying that this book was high on the list for most (all?) of the fiction judges. And that we’d been referencing it on Google Docs and e-mails for months.

Aira’s got a few things going for him: New Directions has already published two of his other novels—An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, and How I Became a Nun—and will be doing more in the future. Anyone who knows Aira’s work (like every single literate person in Argentina) will point to how each of his books employs a different style, almost as if they were written by entirely different writers.

The other constant is the fact that Aira’s books are short. Which hurts in terms of being perceived as having written a “Big Book,” but also helps in the sense that it only takes a few hours to read one of his novels. (Or novellas, depending on your view of that.) For all its intricate plotting and expansive ideas clocks in at a mere 139 (small) pages—just a fraction of News from the Empire or 2666.

Of the three Aira books to make their way into English, this one is by far my personal favorite. It’s just so tight. Not a wasted word. And the opening is incredibly impressive and grand, depicting the setting for the novel (New Year’s Eve at a fancy high-rise that’s still under construction) through a variety of perspectives, from the earlier morning visits of the future inhabitants to check in on how things are going, to the mind of the architect, to Patri’s cousin who gets all the workers their lunch, to Patri’s mom, before settling in on Patri herself. This extended intro is almost like a supernatural flight, a way of passing through all the layers of the building and the class divisions of the people involved with it. And beyond setting up the plot and players, it also gives Aira a chance to show off his skills and to start his mediation on space, happiness, and potentiality:

The owners of the apartments had their own idea of happiness; they imagined it wrapped in a delay, a certain developmental slowness, which was already making them happy. In short, they didn’t believe that things were going to proceed as planned, that is, quickly. They preferred to think of the gentle slope of events; that was how it had been since they paid the deposit and signed the settlement a year earlier. Why should they adopt a different attitude now, just because the year was coming to an end? True, they knew there would be a change, but at the last moment, beyond all the moments in between. It wouldn’t be today, or tomorrow, or any day that could be determined in advance. Like the spectrum of perception, the spectrum of happening is divided by a threshold. That threshold is just where it is, and nowhere else. They were focusing on the year, not the end of the year. Needless to say, they were right, in spite of everything and everyone, even in spite of right and wrong.

As mentioned above, this high-flying, semi-abstract, cursory introduction to the building ends up resting on Patri, a teenager who is going to have to make a critical choice by midnight. Her story—which serves as the core conflict for the book, one that is both incredible compelling and universal—is encapsulated in this mini-story that’s told over dinner:

Patri thought for a moment before speaking: I remember a story by Oscar Wilde, about a princess who was bored in her palace, bored with her parents, the king and queen, bored with the ministers, the generals, the chamberlains, and the jesters, whose jokes she knew by heart. One day a delegation of ghosts appeared to invite her to a party they were giving on New Year’s Eve, and their descriptions of this party, which included the disguises they would wear and the music to be played by the ghost orchestra, were so seductive, and she was so bored, that without a second thought that night she threw herself from the castle’s highest tower, so that she could die and go to the party. The others pondered the moral. So the story doesn’t say what happened at the party? asked Carmen Larrain. No. That’s where it stops.

This is Patri’s dilemma exactly. There are ghosts throughout the construction site, ghosts that are generally playful but, especially according to Patri’s mother who quips about the princess’s imminent disappointment when she arrives at the afterlife only to find out that all “ghosts are gay,” also have a sinister side. And they want Patri to join them at midnight for their party.

But this ghost story isn’t necessarily that simple. The numerous architectural references (including a long dream sequence about building and the unbuilt) are more theoretical and reflect back on novel-making as a craft, and how these “word-structures” can convey meaning:

An example might clarify the point, though only in an analogical mode: imagine one of those people who don’t think, a man whose only activity is reading novels, which for him is a purely pleasurable activity, and requires not the slightest intellectual effort; it’s simply a matter of letting the pleasure of reading carry him along. Suddenly, some gesture or sentence, not to speak of a “thought,” reveals that he is a philosopher in spite of himself. Where did he get that knowledge? From pleasure? From novels? An absurd supposition, given his reading material (if he read Thomas Mann, at least, it might be a different story). Knowledge comes through the novels, of course, but not really from them.

Overall, Aira packs a lot of beauty into the slender book. It’s an impressive achievement, one that deserves even more attention and readers than it received so far. Impressive enough that it’s one of the favorites to make this year’s shortlist . . .

10 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of my favorite parts of this job (aside from seeing our own books in print and on bookstore shelves) is opening the mail and seeing all the new books coming out. Especially when I receive things like the first two volumes of the new Borges series that Penguin Classics is bringing out next April.

These first two volumes—Poems of the Night and The Sonnets, pictured above and below—are coming out just in time for National Poetry Month, and by themselves are pretty amazing collections. Quoting from the jacket copy, Poems of the Night is “a moving collection of the great literary visionary’s poetic meditations on nighttime, darkness, and the crepuscular world of visions and dreams, themes that speak implicitly to the blindness that overtook him late in life.”

And The Sonnets contains, well, all of Borges’s sonnets, many of which are appearing in English for the first time.

Beyond the contents though, check this list of translators included in these volumes: Willis Barnstone, Robert Fitzgerald, Edith Grossman, Kenneth Krabbenhoft, Anthony Kerrigan, Stephen Kessler, John King, Suzanne Jill Levine (who is also the series editor, more below), Eric McHenry, Christopher Maurer, W. S. Merwin, Alastair Reid, Hoyt Rogers, Mark Strand, Charles Tomlinson, Alan S. Trueblood, and John Updike.

Now, about the series: I’d heard about this from John Siciliano and Jill Levine back some time ago, and thanks to the wonderful people at Penguin, I just got some additional info about all five volumes. These are based on the Collected Fiction, Selected Poetry, and Selected Nonfiction volumes that came out a few years ago, but each new volume includes new material as well. Kristen Scharold sent me this info about the next three volumes, which will come out in June of next year:

On Writing constitutes a guide to writing by one of the twentieth century’s most revered writers and literary thinkers. On Argentina constitutes a guide to Borges’s beloved Argentina and Buenos Aires—perfect for the literary traveler. On Mysticism, which is edited and introduced by Borges’s widow, Maria Kodama, is a collection of Borges’ essays, fiction, and poetry that explores the role of the mysterious and spiritual in Borges’ life and writing.

It’s always a good time to read Borges, and I have a feeling I’ll end up reading all five of these volumes over the next year . . . And speaking of Suzanne Jill Levine, here’s an interesting interview with her that recently appeared in Words Without Borders.

18 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I went on this trip a couple of years ago (and wrote about it and the U.S. Embassy back in the early days of Three Percent), and can’t recommend it highly enough. Amazing experience and the best opportunity I know of to really find out about Argentine literature. Not to mention, Gabriela Adamo does a brilliant job organizing this and is an incredible woman. Plus, there’s the tango!

So if you’re fluent in Spanish (or sort of fluent in Spanish), you should definitely apply:

For seven years now, Fundación TyPA has been working to make Argentine literature better known around the world. Seventy professionals from many different countries have already taken part in our programme. They visited Buenos Aires, established first-hand contact with the local publishing world and discovered astounding books they’re now publishing on their own. Today, many Argentine books can be found in bookstores in Paris, Berlin, Rome, London, Sao Paulo, New York, Athens, Zurich, Tel Aviv, Amsterdam…

In 2010, Argentina will both be guest of honor at the Frankfurt Bookfair and celebrate it’s 200 years of Independence with an ongoing stream of cultural events. We are happy to be a part of it and are looking for the most talented and open-minded publishers to invite.

DATE: From Sunday, April 18, to Saturday, April 24.

ORGANIZED BY: Fundación TyPA

WITH THE SUPPORT OF: Fundación El Libro (Buenos Aires Bookfair) and the embassies of Brazil, Israel and Italy, among other institutions.

DESCRIPTION: Ten publishers are invited to spend a week in Buenos Aires, where they will listen to talks about contemporary Argentine literature, meet authors, critics and journalists, visit publishing houses, bookstores and cultural centres. There will also be special meetings as requested by the participants.
The grants offered by TyPA include lodging and food, local transportation and all organizational costs. There is also a limited number of complete grants, which include the air tickets to Argentina.

WHO SHOULD APPLY: Publishers and acquisition editors working with translated fiction. We may also consider a limited number of applications by translators and critics. Candidates should be able to read and understand Spanish in order to profit from the visit, since most events will be held in that language.

HOW TO APPLY: Send a brief CV and a letter explaining why you would like to apply to: gadamo [at] typa.org.ar.

DEADLINE FOR APPLICATIONS: Friday, October 30, 2009.

ANNOUNCEMENT OF PARTICIPANTS: Monday, December 21, 2009

26 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece on Juan Filloy’s Op Oloop, which was translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman and is forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press.

Pretty interesting book from a very interesting author:

The first time I heard of Juan Filloy was during an editorial trip to Germany, organized by the German Book Office and including a day of “speed dating” with other publishers. It was at one of my first “dates” that I met the very hip editors from Tropen Verlag who, after finding out that I worked at Dalkey Archive, the publisher of David Markson’s best works, suggested that instead of doing any of the German authors they might recommend, the one author that Dalkey absolutely had to publish was the Argentine writer Juan Filloy, especially his Op Oloop.

Before even getting to his actual novels, there’s a lot Filloy had going for him:

  • He lived in three centuries—born in the nineteenth, and passing away in 2000 at the age of 106;

  • Julio Cortazar loved him, references his Caterva in chapter 108 of Hopscotch;

  • Freud was a fan of Op Oloop, which led to a personal correspondence between the two;

  • Filloy was a lover of palindromes and wrote over 6,000;

  • and, not to be overlooked, almost all fifty-plus of his novels and collections of poems have seven-letter titles. (Op Oloop, Caterva, Vil y Vil, so on and so forth.)

Who wouldn’t want to publish someone like this? And thankfully, six years later, Op Oloop is finally available to English readers.

Click here for the rest of the review.

26 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The first time I heard of Juan Filloy was during an editorial trip to Germany, organized by the German Book Office and including a day of “speed dating” with other publishers. It was at one of my first “dates” that I met the very hip editors from Tropen Verlag who, after finding out that I worked at Dalkey Archive, the publisher of David Markson’s best works, suggested that instead of doing any of the German authors they might recommend, the one author that Dalkey absolutely had to publish was the Argentine writer Juan Filloy, especially his Op Oloop.

Before even getting to his actual novels, there’s a lot Filloy had going for him:

  • He lived in three centuries—born in the nineteenth, and passing away in 2000 at the age of 106;
  • Julio Cortazar loved him, and references his Caterva in chapter 108 of Hopscotch;
  • Filloy was a lover of palindromes and wrote over 6,000;
  • and, not to be overlooked, almost all fifty-plus of his novels and collections of poems have seven-letter titles. (Op Oloop, Caterva, Vil y Vil, so on and so forth.)

Who wouldn’t want to publish someone like this? And thankfully, six years later, Op Oloop is finally available to English readers. (Hopefully it won’t take another six years for Caterva to come out.)

The plot of Op Oloop is pretty simple: it chronicles the final day and night in the life of its titular character, Op Oloop, a Finnish transplant in Buenos Aires who is recently engaged to Franziska, the Finnish consul’s niece. As he likes to state, Op Oloop is a “man of method,” a statistician who lives his life in a very orderly, pre-arranged way.

Thus, Op Oloop was convinced yet again that it was simply impossible for him to act contrary to his nature. “SUNDAY: WRITING, BETWEEN 7:00 AND 10:00 A.M.” That was the rule. When life is as ordered as a mathematical equation, you can’t just skip a digit whenever you feel like it. Op Oloop was entirely incapable of any impromptu act that might violate the pre-established norms of his routine; even such a trivial, graphical set such as addressing an envelope he’d already begun while still within the allotted time.

It’s clear from the start that Op Oloop isn’t all there—his speech to the employees at his local spa about the need to unite on tipping and form a “Gratuity International” is proof enough—but on this particular day, things go from bad to worse, as Op’s “method” is thwarted and he can’t regain his sense of order.

Filloy’s protagonist is a step beyond eccentric, and Lisa Dillman’s ability to capture his peculiar speech, wordplay, and insanity is quite impressive. This is especially true in the lengthy section detailing Op Oloop’s special dinner with his friends (in preparation for him to sleep with his 1,000th prostitute—a situation that doesn’t go according to plan and is the final nail that breaks Op’s mind). This dinner is the section of the book that seems most Cortazar-like (Hopscotch is filthy with groups of characters bantering and making statements about Argentina and its people), although Filloy’s not quite as tight and witty and fluid as Cortazar (who is?).

“In Hollywood, everyone knows the caloric value of everything. Just as they all aspire unanimously to stardom, they’re all equally fanatical about being tres mince rather than overweight. Truly, there’s a veritable obsession with fat. Dieting forces them all to undertake endless calculations and combinations. All portions are measured on a basis of one-hundred-calorie units. For example, one hundred calories equals: a tablespoon of honey, or two mandarin oranges, or four dates, or twenty asparagus tips, or a quarter-inch thick steak measuring five inches long and two and a half inches wide . . .”

“So you must’ve gone round with tape measures, eyedroppers, and scales . . .”

“It’s not a joke. You know, I’ve noticed that Argentines in general tend to be quite sarcastic, yet they’re entirely lacking in humor deep down. They make fun of everything in particular, and yet as a nation are all unanimously dull. It’s truly incongruous!”

As the novel lurches from scene to scene, Filloy creates an interesting account of one man’s mental breakdown. With the exception of what happens at the whorehouse, most of the underlying motivations for his breakdown are mysterious, summed up by the idea that he’s “method personified.” A more conventional book would delve into this issue, maybe explain how the hell he ended up with Franziska in the first place, etc., etc., but this isn’t a conventional book. It’s a more daring, playful novel, that, while not perfect, is one of the most fun novels I’ve read this year. I only wish the graph of Op Oloop’s day that’s in the Spanish edition was also included in this galley.

27 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The entire plot of Ghosts, Cesar Aira’s third novel to be translated into English and published by New Directions, is encapsulated in this story told over New Year’s Eve dinner:

Patri thought for a moment before speaking: I remember a story by Oscar Wilde, about a princess who was bored in her palace, bored with her parents, the king and queen, bored with the ministers, the generals, the chamberlains, and the jesters, whose jokes she knew by heart. One day a delegation of ghosts appeared to invite her to a party they were giving on New Year’s Eve, and their descriptions of this party, which included the disguises they would wear and the music to be played by the ghost orchestra, were so seductive, and she was so bored, that without a second thought that night she threw herself from the castle’s highest tower, so that she could die and go to the party. The others pondered the moral. So the story doesn’t say what happened at the party? asked Carmen Larrain. No. That’s where it stops.

The teenager Patri shares this story shortly before midnight, and shortly before having to decide whether she should follow in the footsteps of the princess, or stay in this world and resist the temptation of the ghosts inhabiting the building where she lives.

Taking place over the course of New Year’s Eve, this novel is set in an unfinished, soon-to-be swanky high-rise in Buenos Aires, where a number of Chilean construction workers (including Patri’s family) both work and live. The novel opens beautifully, taking the reader through a variety of perspectives, from the earlier morning visits of the future inhabitants to check in on how things are going, to the mind of the architect, to Patri’s cousin who gets all the workers their lunch, to Patri’s mom, before settling in on Patri herself. This extended intro is almost like a supernatural flight, a way of passing through all the layers of the building and the class divisions of the people involved with it. And beyond setting up the plot and players, it also gives Aira a chance to show off his skills.

Aira—who is immensely popular in his home Argentina, and is the author of dozens of novels cherished by thousands of portenos who just don’t get why he hasn’t exactly taken off in the States yet—is a remarkably skilled and varied writer. How I Became a Nun, which ND published in 2007, is rather surreal, angular, and disjointed. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter came out in English in 2006 and is more historical and detached than either of the other two titles. The scope of Aira’s imagination and skills are quite incredible—if unlabled, it would be rather difficult to surmise that these three books were written by the same person.

That said, the one intangible constant across the three is Aira’s complete control and mastery of language. His writing is always graceful, especially when setting a particular scene, be it the Argentine pampas, as in An Episode, or a oppressively hot day on a construction site in Buenos Aires.

A construction site that is an interesting nexus of both construction workers and ghosts—ghosts that peek in on the family around siesta time, silently, not disturbing anyone. These are rather playful ghosts (rather than sinister), which are taken for granted and casually discussed by the living inhabitants.

That said, there is something sinister about the ghosts—at least in the opinion of Patri’s mother who quips about the princess’s imminent disappointment when she arrives at the afterlife only to find out that all “ghosts are gay.” A comment that builds on Elisa’s earlier conversation with her adolescent daughter about the “ ‘real men’ who were destined to make them happy” and points to a deeper reading of this charming ghost story as a twisted sort of sexual coming-of-age narrative. One that hinges on Patri’s potentially deadly decision—either she chooses a “real man,” or a neutered death.

Not that this novel can be reduced so simply. The numerous architectural references (including a long dream sequence about building and the unbuilt) are more theoretical and reflect back on novel-making as a craft, and how these “word-structures” can convey meaning:

An example might clarify the point, though only in an analogical mode: imagine one of those people who don’t think, a man whose only activity is reading novels, which for him is a purely pleasurable activity, and requires not the slightest intellectual effort; it’s simply a matter of letting the pleasure of reading carry him along. Suddenly, some gesture or sentence, not to speak of a “thought,” reveals that he is a philosopher in spite of himself. Where did he get that knowledge? From pleasure? From novels? An absurd supposition, given his reading material (if he read Thomas Mann, at least, it might be a different story). Knowledge comes through the novels, of course, but not really from them.

Of Aira’s novels to make their way into English, this is the one with the best chance of finding its audience. The tone of this novel perfectly melds with the plot and underlying ambitions, and it’s an incredibly enjoyable book that can be read during a nice summer afternoon. All of Aira’s books are pretty short, but this is deceptive—there’s a lot of joy and thought packed into this slender volume. I’m not sure Americans will ever appreciate the diversity of his books or the precision of his prose as much as Argentinean readers do (Roberto Bolano: “Once you have started to read Aira, you don’t want to stop”), but this is a novel with a lot of appeal, which will hopefully expand his overall English readership.

18 November 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

In one of my Frankfurt posts I mentioned the 30 Great Authors from Argentina (warning—pdf file) “brochure” that the Fundacion TyPA put together to help promote writers who had yet to be translated out of Spanish.

It’s hard to describe this elegant, unique brochure (more like oversized trading cards in a box than a printed brochure), but some (poor quality) pictures might help:

It’s really cool that TyPA decided to feature only authors who hadn’t been translated. Sure that leaves out some great contemporary writers (in the intro they mention Cesar Aira, Martin Kohan, and Alan Pauls), but brings attention to authors most editors otherwise wouldn’t hear about, such as Eduardo Muslip, Oliverio Coelho, and Carlos Gamerro. (Descriptions of their novels can be found in the pdf version of the brochures.)

There were three books that really caught my eye:

The No Variations by Luis Chitarroni (Interzona, 2007): “In this book—one of the most complex and challenging texts of Argentine literature in recent years—the Borgesian themes of erudition, tradition, and consecraton are sent through the shredding machine. The result is a ‘novel’ made up of diaries, notes, forgetfulness, articles, and poems created by writers invented by the author.”

Apex by Gustavo Ferreyra (Sudamericana, 2004): “The city—Buenos Aires—emerges slowly in this novel, and it is the city we deserve, the novel-city of the present. Action and geography seem to walk together and, sometimes, join efforts to keep the characters of the story apart, missing each other in the places where they should have met. And the other way around. In this way, we—the readers—can discover details that a more general view would never show us. Up close, Apex seems to say, every act is a criminal act; up close, every fictional character is a monster.”

Neon by Liliana Heer (Paradiso, 2007): “Neon, a wonderful example of this century’s expressionism, invites the reader to delve into the fundamentals of power. In this novel three characters recreate humanity in Kafka’s style. Evil is shown from different points of view, in relation with an inheritance, with repression, with racial prejudices, and with some humorous lines that balance on the edge between madness and reason, justice and injustice, man and animal. And above all towers an erotic scene that is the leitmotiv of the whole story . . .”

22 May 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Here’s an article about the editors trip to Buenos Aires that I participated in last month.

It’s a nice overview article on a few of the editors who participated in the trip, including Cristiana Costa, Patricia van Daalen, Claudia Stein, Ori Preuss and Gianluca Catalano. Nice background on the program itself and it gives a better sense of what each of the editors thought of the trip. A lot of the names that’ve been mentioned here show up a few times—Fogwill, Walsh, Forn, Gamerro—and the reference to The Invention of Morel being on Lost is pretty cool.

And there’s also a very nice picture of all of us. Well, nice picture of everyone else. Continuing my unbroken string of crappy photos, I’m the only person with my eyes closed.

29 April 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Below is the text of the speech that Carlos Gamerro gave earlier in the week on the history of Argentine literature. I found this really interesting, and am very glad that Carlos is allowing us to publish it here.

See the bottom of the article for a list of all the authors and books mentioned in the speech.

There were no prominent Argentine women writers in the 19th Century, for approximately the same reasons Virginia Woolf gives, in A Room of One’s Own, for their absence in the English 18th. The first generation of Argentine women writers are more or less contemporaries of Borges and belong to the same aristocratic milieu: Victoria Ocampo, the great lady of Argentine letters, was the founder of Sur magazine and an ardent advocate for the constant updating of invigorating foreign influences: as a publishing house Sur was responsible for the first translations of Faulkner’s Light in August, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Orlando, and Nabokov’s Lolita. Her sister Silvina, lifelong wife of Bioy Casares, is one of our best short story writers and specially apt in the difficult art of portraying the world view of children—Cortázar’s predecessor and only rival in this respect. In the words of her elder sister, her work is remarkable for “an atmosphere of its own, where the most incongruous and unlikely things are close to each other and walk hand in hand, as in dreams”. Women novelists include the remarkable Sara Gallardo; Beatriz Guido, whose claims to fame lie more in the scripts she wrote for her husband Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, the greatest of Argentine film directors so far (his are the film versions of such classics as Martín Fierro, Los siete locos, Boquitas pintadas and Borges’ “Emma Zunz”) than for her schmaltzy novels; and the angry and opinionated Silvina Bullrich, who unselfishly devoted her life to the heroic task of creating the Argentine best seller. If in the mainstream narrative genres the position of women is somewhat subsidiary, they occupy a very prominent position in poetry—with names such as Alfonsina Storni and Alejandra Pizarnik—in drama—Griselda Gambaro—and in generic narrative such as Science Fiction—Angélica Gorodischer. Argentine women writers have, as a whole, had to deal with a particular monster of their own—the as yet not fully challenged predominance of male writers and a masculine oriented tradition in Argentine mainstream narrative, of which this lecture might be, unfortunately, another example.

Read More...

28 April 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Below is the text of the speech that Carlos Gamerro gave earlier in the week on the history of Argentine literature. I found this really interesting, and am very glad that Carlos is allowing us to publish it here. Tomorrow we’ll publish part 2, which includes a list of all the authors and books mentioned in the speech.

The quality of Argentine literature has always depended on the quality of its monsters. This might help explain why Argentine literature was off to a good start and a bad start almost simultaneously, and both at the hands of the same writer: Esteban Echeverría.

In La cautiva, a long narrative poem published in 1837, the enemies are the native inhabitants, “the indian” as they were invariably called, and the heroine, a white woman abducted by them – a topic later to recur in William Henry Hudson’s “Marta Riquelme” and in Borges’ “Historia del guerrero y de la cautiva”. Echeverría’s poem is wordy, bathetic, unsufferably Romantic, and one would be tempted to set it forth as an example that a justification – however oblique – of genocide can never aspire to aesthetic greatness, if the second part of Martín Fierro, as we will see, would later offer much of the same fare but this time in powerful and authentic verse.

El matadero, on the other hand, is perhaps – even by today’s standards – one of the best pieces Argentine short prose has to show. The setting is as Argentinian as can be: a slaughterhosue for cattle in our first period of bloody tyranny, that of the dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas, who ruled the country from 1829 to 1852. The slaughter of the animals metaphorically stands (as later in Eisenstein’s Strike) for that of political dissenters, one of which, a young unitario, is eventually dragged to the slaughterhouse and publicly tortured, and is only spared from further humiliation (rape, if not mentioned, is implied) by what seems to be a timely heart attack.

Why is La cautiva so bad and El matadero, written more or less at the same time, so good? In part because “the indian”, seen as a terrible menace by the white men of the time, was really a victim, and a doomed victim at that. Rosas and his gangs of killers, known as the Mazorca, were on the other hand a formidable and terrifying enemy – and for twenty years writing was the only effective weapon to be mobilized against them. For his opposers, Rosas’ dictatorship represented the triumph of the primitive, barbaric and rural America of the past over the modern and cosmopolitan civilization they heralded. For this reason, artists and intellectuals were, as a block, united against him. One could say that Rosas scared the Argentine intelligentsia into art, thus inaugurating two lasting traditions: that of turning to literature when politics offers no outlet, and that of the artist-or-intellectual-in-exile. Rosas also supplied our cultural unconscious with one of its first icons of horror: that of the severed heads of the opposers lined upon the cart of a melon vendor – throat-cutting and beheading were emblematic of Rosas’ reign of terror just as ‘the disappeared’ have been emblematic of that of the recent military juntas. The anti-Rosas sentiment fuelled the birth of the Argentine novel (Amalia, by José Mármol) and, more significantly (since Amalia, as a novel, is rather bad), of a mixed genre we could term the narrative essay, noticeably in the writings of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento.

His Facundo: civilización y barbarie is a biographical interpretation of the figure of the rural caudillo (a semi-Feudal type of warlord) Facundo Quiroga. In Sarmiento’s view there were two Argentinas: one represented by cities and written culture, which was modern, civilized, cosmopolitan; the other represented by the rural hinterland: backward, savage, cruel. All the enemies of civilization – Rosas, the gaucho and the indian – are conflated by Sarmiento into one (notwithstanding the fact that Rosas conducted the first large-scale campaign against the natives, and the gauchos were its executors). In Sarmiento’s view the two Argentinas cannot be united or reconciled: one must triumph over the other and absorb it. This helps to understand why the civil war that raged before, during and after Rosas’ rule was basically a war between Buenos Aires and the provinces.

Read More...

1 November 07 | E.J. Van Lanen |

In selling literature in translation, there’s always a joke/fear that readers won’t pick up a book by an author whose name they can’t pronounce. Or if they do, that they’ll struggle dealing with names and places that are unfamiliar, with too many consonants, that are obviously foreign.

Rodolfo Fogwill’s Malvinas Requiem has a similar, yet different problem—my guess is that most U.S. readers have no idea what “Malvinas” might signify, and although “Falkland Islands” might help clarify, the Falkland War is not something frequently studied in our not-very-top-notch public school system.

Which is a shame, since Fogwill’s book is quite remarkable, deserving of the Catch-22 comparison in the jacket copy, and a very interesting, literary “war book” that is both localized and universal in its themes.

Just to refresh everyone’s memory, the Falklands War was fought in 1982 between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the disputed Falkland (or Malvinas) Islands. Argentina invaded in March, lost the war in June. About 250 Brits died in the war, and about 650 Argentines. What’s also worth noting—at least in regards to Argentina—is that this war fueled the growing protests against the Argentine military government, leading to its collapse.

Against this backdrop, Fogwill tells the story of the “dillos” (short for armadillo), a group of Argentine deserters who are living inside a cave, trading goods with both the British and Argentine armies, trying to survive the conflict.

Each newcomer was told: the Kings are in charge here, they’re the ones who started everything. The Sergeant started it all. The Sergeant had got together the Turk, Quique and Viterbo, when they began to dig the trenches. He had lined them up in front of him, grabbed them by the lapels, gave them a shaking, and asked:

‘Are you arseholes or what?’

‘Yessir!’

‘No! You lot aren’t arseholes, you lot are the smart ones. Are you smart?’ he’d screeched.

‘Yessir. Yes, Sergeant,’ the three replied.

‘Well then,’ the Sergeant said to them. ‘Here’s what you do. Go further up,’ he pointed at the mountain, ‘and dig there.’

He explained that the trenches were useless. Headquarters had designed them, drawn them on a map. He said that when it rained those trenches would flood, and that everyone would either drown or freeze like idiots, and that the smart ones should go and start digging in the mountainside, without a word to anyone.

The dillos, firmly established in their Warren, with a pack of smokes a day for everyone, and plenty of food (from giving away strategic info to the Brits), joke, talk politics, and create a livable community. But the war is always raging on in the background, and Fogwill has a tremendous ability for switching from more light, casual writing to something more jarring and violent. The use of the second-person in this passage works particularly well to disrupt the reader’s sense of comfort.

On the islands the sheep run and jump about more than the dogs do. They leap over a wire fence as if it were nothing to them: just raise their forelegs and jump. Now the human observes the sheep from a way off and thinks: ‘What a fucking stupid animal: the best it can manage is to run off!’ He carries on observing her for a while, having nothing better to do, while waiting for real night to close in, so he can return to the Warren. All of a sudden there’s a flash of light: boom! Beneath the sheep’s hooves lay a mine and when she trod on it, there was a blinding flash of fire as through the sun had suddenly risen. You could see the whole sheep suspended in mid-air. She pulls in her legs, turns her head, and looks backwards, twisting her head as if she had the neck of a giraffe. She’s flying through the air, and it’s only then that the human, at the very same instant, hears the sound of a mine exploding, blown apart by the sheep.

And expanding from an individual act of random destruction is the group chaos:

When the other sheep—if there are any—hear this, and see what happened to their mate, they stampede in the opposite direction. Instead of remaining quietly on their own, they herd together, before all rushing off as one. That’s the big mistake, because as soon as the next flash of light occurs—meaning another landmine has gone off—another sheep flies into the air like a toy animal then disintegrates, and the ten or twelve other stupid sheep around her also jump and, too far from the explosion to be blown apart, still drop down dead with their muzzles flat on the ground, after struggling in vain to get up again.

In many ways, this is a nasty, disturbing book. The reader’s comfort is constantly provoked, building up to a rather horrifying conclusion. This is much more than a war novel though, and the construction of the novel is quite interesting. As the reader finds out towards the end, the author of the book is writing it based on tapes of conversations with the dillos. Which leads to an interesting artistic question—this novel first came out 1983 and was written right after the war, when there wasn’t a lot of widespread information about what had actually happened on the islands, yet according to others, Fogwill’s descriptions are remarkably accurate, and insightful, which is one of the reasons this book is credited with helping fan the anti-military fires in Argentina.

And today, twenty-five years later, the book is definitely still work reading. The translation is fantastic—Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson always do a wonderful job—and the book is interesting on so many levels, even if you have no idea where the Falkland Islands are located.

....
Writers
Writers by Antoine Volodine
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .

Read More >

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

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

Read More >

Stealth
Stealth by Sonallah Ibrahim
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

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

Read More >

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

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

Read More >

Kamal Jann
Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

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

Read More >

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

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

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

Read More >

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

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

Read More >