School is back in swing, a war with Syria looms and the new iPhone 5s is about to take over the world. Yet, let’s not forget the simple joys in life. Like books. More specifically, books in translation. Even more specifically than that, this year’s books in translation. As we begin the slow rev to the Best Translated Book Awards short list, the judges have decided to voice their comments, appraisals, frustrations, and declarations of love for the fiction entries along the way. As a judge, I can attest to the fact that even though I know a book may not be the strongest contender for the long or short list, I still can fall madly, deeply and begrudgingly in intellectual lust with it.
This brings me to my impressions of a few of the entries I’ve read so far that have made me think, intrigued me or challenged me to understand why the novel is so compelling even though the main character thoroughly disgusts me. The first novel I want to recommend is Marc Auge’s No Fixed Abode: Ethnofiction.
Ethnofiction blends truth and fiction (doesn’t all fiction?) that asks the reader to not necessarily identify with the main characters in the novel, but rather to reflect on the conditions in which she exists. This is a genre that began in film and is making it’s way into the literary vernacular, especially in France and England. Also known as docufiction or ethnography, it aims to take the viewer or reader into the world of a marginalized part of society and present that reality through the eyes of a main character. In Auge’s slim novel,translated by Chris Turner, he chooses to focus on homelessness through the life of the main character, Henri. Divorce, retired and struggling financially besides receiving a small pension, he sells all his belongings, gives up his studio apartment and moves into his Mercedes(pretty posh for a homeless guy).
Through diary entries, we learn of his nomadic life around his neighborhood: where he moves in car to avoid tickets, the cafe he visits to sit during the day and evening, and his homeless colleague who lives on the pavement near his parking space. As he gradually disengages from society and responsibility, the loneliness and alienation from mainstream society become contrastingly overwhelming but comfortable. At the end of the novel, he is forced to make a choice about whether he will decide to participate in society as he once had or to continue as homeless. What makes this so engaging is that even though we are drawn into the desperation of homelessness and our dismissal of the homeless, we still identify with the main character because it so well written.
I really enjoyed this book because as quick it was to read, Henri stuck with as well as the questions Auge raised. As far as the narrator, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another favorite of mine, The Waitress Was New about a lonely unemployed bartender on the outskirts of Paris. The same honest and touching voice. It also had elements of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which is a memoir, but began as a piece of investigative reporting and doesn’t feel to far off from ethnofiction.
The second novel I’d recommend is another short one, but no less intriguing. Scissors by Stephane Michaka is actually almost three times as long as No Fixed Abode, but reads just as quickly.
Michaka recreates the last ten years of Raymond Carver’s life through alternating voices – Douglas, his editor (okay, Gordon Lish), Marianne, his ex-wife and Joanne, his new poetess-lover and his own. There are fictionalized excerpts of Carver stories that add to the believability of this imagined decade. The fraught relationship between Douglas and Ray eventually leads to a power struggle between who is actually responsible for Carver’s success. No doubt they are inextricable. What makes this books so strong is that essentially Michaka gets to the kernel of the creative process from beginning to end including the pitfalls of alcoholism, passivity, ego and the trials of those who support a creative personality. The book feels very American because the subject is Carver whose stamp on the minimalist style pushed it to the front of acceptable literary styles. This American feel is due equally to the writer and the translator, John Cullen. Carver, like any artist American or not, struggled and at the end we see it not as Raymond Carver struggling, but the possible battles that lie in waiting for any creative pursuit.
The last novel is from a new ebook publisher that I’m really excited about, Frisch and Co.. Among other their new titles is Under This Terrible Sun by Carlos Busqued, translated by Megan McDowell, a brutal, downbeat novel full of weed, violence, carcasses and squid.
Part me of thinks, “I know, don’t ask,” but the other part of me(I guess it’s the sick part) couldn’t put down this stoner tale of criminality. Cetarti is a pot-smoking loser nearing forty, who is unemployed and running out of money. And like it always does, trouble starts with a phone call. He finds out that his mother and older brother were shot by her married boyfriend who then shot himself. He drives from Cordoba to Lapachito where the remains of his mother and brother are and is met by Duarte, a smarmy, aged, pot-smoking friend of Molina, Cetarti’s mother’s lover. Duarte offers a deal to Cetarti to collect on insurance. Cetarti is quick to agree since he has no emotional attachment to his mother or brother and is in need of money. A bit later we are introduced to a second narrator, Danielito, the son of Molina’s ex-wife. Danielito is young and also a heavy duty pot-smoker. He is the minion of Duarte who turns out to be a violent kidnapper. Through a weed haze, we learn of each character’s fascinations including giant squid, dancing elephants, disgusting fetish porn and model airplanes. Despite all that, I was drawn in by the duality of each character and bizarre loyalties each one rationalizes. Even though it’s difficult to believe anything gets done with all the 420 going on, there is a streamlined plot that pushes this forward in a really powerful way.
It’s about time I return to more entries for this year’s award, but it’s reading very well so far. Don’t just take my word for it, grab one the titles above and see for yourself. Stay tuned for posts from all our judges!
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. And I’ll kick things off with a post I wrote about Javier Marias’s book.
Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marias, translated by Esther Allen
Publisher: New Directions
Why It Should Win: Elvis! and a hysterical description of Fun in Acapulco; stars a translator and the plot hinges on translator’s interpretation; it’s Javier Marias, it’s Esther Allen, it’s New Directions
Although it’s only 57-pages long, this novella is packed with awesomeness. The basic story: some years back, a young Spaniard is hired to go to Mexico with Elvis and help him with his Spanish pronunciation. (Elvis wants to speak his ‘c’s like a true Spaniard—not like a Mexican.) While there, a confrontation takes place with locals in a bar—a confrontation that, by linguistic necessity, puts out narrator in the line of fire (literally and figuratively).
Marias is absolutely one of the best, and this book dazzles from its opening line:
No one knows what it’s like to be hunted down without having lived it, and unless the chase was active and constant, carried out with deliberation, determination, dedication and never a break, with perseverance and fanaticism, as if the pursuers had nothing else to do in life but look for you, keep after you, follow your trail, locate you, catch up with you and then, at best, wait for the moment to settle the score.
It might be due to the brevity of the text, but there’s a way in which every scene, every description, every event seems absolutely locked together, with each paragraph having to follow from the one previous. That’s not usually how I think of Marias, with his long-winding sentences (see above), constant contemplation, and the way his prose mulls. But Bad Nature really is the very definition of tight.
The fact that this book is about a translator—and the process of translation—might give it an edge with the panelists. This isn’t the first time Marias has written about a translator or used an act of translation as a plot point (see A Heart So White). Regardless, the moment in which the translator chooses his words in conveying Elvis’s insult to the ruffians is thick with tension, and such a perfect example of how translation is interpretation . . .
All that’s great, Marias is great, Esther’s translation is great, but the real reason this should win? These two passages. First, a description of the film:
I don’t really know what the plot of the film was supposed to be, and not because it was too complicated; on the contrary, it’s hard to follow a plot when there is no story line and no style to substitute for one or distract you; even later, after seeing the film—before the premiere there was a private screening—I can’t tell you what its excuse for a plot was. All I know is that Elvis Presley, the tortured former trapeze artist, as I said—but he’s only tortured sometimes, he also spends a lot of time going swimming, perfectly at ease, and uninhibitedly romancing women—wanders around Acapulco, I don’t remember why, let’s say he’s trying to shake off his dark past or he’s on the run from the FBI, perhaps some thought the fratricide was deliberate (I’m not at all clear on that and I could be mixing up my movies, thirty-three years have gone by). As is logical and necessary, Elvis sings and dances in various places: a cantina, a hotel, a terrace facing the daunting cliff. From time to time he stares, with envy and some kind of complex, at the swimmers—or rather, divers—who plunge into the pool with tremendous smugness from a diving board of only average height.
And from this description of the ridiculousness of Elvis:
Since he was a hard and serious and even enthusiastic worker, he couldn’t see how his roles looked from the outside or make fun of them. I imagine it was in the same disciplined and pliant frame of mind that he allowed himself to grow drooping sideburns in the seventies and agreed to appear on stage tricked out like a circus side show, wearing suits bedecked with copious sequins and fringes, bell bottoms slit up the side, belts as wide as a novice whore’s, high-heeled goblin boots, and a short cape—a cape—that made him look more like Super Rat than whatever he was probably trying for, Superman, I would imagine.
Super Rat FTW!
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