12 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Following on last week’s post with some pictures, here’s the video (thanks, Monica!) from the 2009 BTB Award ceremony at which Francisco Goldman told a great story about translating Gabriel Garcia Marquez for Playboy, and I managed to give the wrong award to Barbara Epler.

6 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Best Translated Book of 2008 Award Party will take place on Thursday, February 19th from 7 to 9:00pm, and you’re all invited.

We’re having the party at Melville House Books at 145 Plymouth St. in Brooklyn. (To get there take the F train to York Street, the first stop in Brooklyn.)

Francisco Goldman will be hosting the event, and will announce the fiction and poetry winners for 2008. (The complete list of finalists is below.) We’ll also have appetizers and drinks . . .

If you think you’re going to make it, please RSVP either at the Facebook page or by e-mailing me at chad.post at rochester dot edu. (You don’t need to RSVP to get in, but we’d really like to have some idea of how many people will be there . . . This is going to be a lot of fun.)

Fiction Finalists:

Tranquility by Attila Bartis
translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein
(Archipelago)

2666 by Roberto Bolaño
translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño
translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
(New Directions)

Voice Over by Céline Curiol
translated from the French by Sam Richard
(Seven Stories)

The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik Hermans
translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke
(Overlook)

Yalo by Elias Khoury
translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux
(Archipelago)

Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya
translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver
(New Directions)

Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge
translated from the French by Richard Greeman
(New York Review Books)

Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra
translated from the Spanish by Carolina De Robertis
(Melville House)

The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig
translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg
(New York Review Books)

Poetry Finalists:

Essential Poems and Writings by Robert Desnos
translated from the French by Mary Ann Caws, Terry Hale, Bill Zavatsky, Martin Sorrell, Jonathan Eburne, Katherine Connelly, Patricia Terry, and Paul Auster
(Black Widow)

You Are the Business by Caroline Dubois
translated from the French by Cole Swensen
(Burning Deck)

As It Turned Out by Dmitry Golynko
translated from the Russian by Eugene Ostashevsky, Rebecca Bella, and Simona Schneider
(Ugly Duckling)

For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut by Takashi Hiraide
translated from the Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu
(New Directions)

Poems of A.O. Barnabooth by Valery Larbaud
translated from the French by Ron Padgett & Bill Zavatsky
(Black Widow)

Night Wraps the Sky by Vladimir Mayakovsky
translated from the Russian by Katya Apekina, Val Vinokur, and Matvei Yankelevich, and edited by Michael Almereyda
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

A Different Practice by Fredrik Nyberg
translated from the Swedish by Jennifer Hayashida
(Ugly Duckling)

EyeSeas by Raymond Queneau
translated from the French by Daniela Hurezanu and Stephen Kessler
(Black Widow)

Peregrinary by Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki
translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
(Zephyr)

Eternal Enemies by Adam Zagajewski
translated from the polish by Clare Cavanagh
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

27 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

I think I speak for all the panelists when I say that this was a pretty difficult task. I think we all had 13-15 books that we felt deserved to be in the top 10 . . . But in the end, I think we came up with a very solid list. For additional info about any of these titles, click on the links below, or visit the pretty minisite complete with cover images and additional information about the February 19th party to announce the winners.

Many thanks to all the publishers who sent us copies of the books, to everyone who’s written about this award or read any of the overviews we’ve written, and to all of the panelists (who are listed in detail below).

So here goes:

  • Tranquility by Attila Bartis, translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein (Archipelago) (Overview)
  • 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) (Overview)
  • Voice Over by Céline Curiol, translated from the French by Sam Richard (Seven Stories) (Overview)
  • Yalo by Elias Khoury, translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux (Archipelago) (Overview)
  • Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions) (Overview)
  • Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Carolina De Robertis (Melville House) (Overview)

At the February 19th event at Melville House Books—which will be hosted by Francisco Goldman—we’ll announce the two runners-up and the winner for both the poetry and fiction categories. And you’re all invited, so hopefully we’ll see you there . . .

This year’s panelists included Monica Carter, bookseller at Skylight Books and editor of Salonica ; Steve Dolph, editor of CALQUE ; Scott Esposito, editor of Conversational Reading and The Quarterly Conversation ; Brandon Kennedy, bookseller at Spoonbill & Sugartown ; Michael Orthofer, editor of the Literary Saloon and Complete Review ; Chad W. Post, director of Open Letter Books and this blog ; E.J. Van Lanen, senior editor of Open Letter Books and Three Percent; and Jeff Waxman, bookseller at the Seminary Co-op Bookstores and editor of The Front Table.

UPDATE: To view or download the official press release, click here.

27 January 09 | Chad W. Post |

Here, at long last, are the ten poetry finalists for the Best Translated Book of the Year award:

  • Essential Poems and Writings by Robert Desnos, translated from the French by Mary Ann Caws, Terry Hale, Bill Zavatsky, Martin Sorrell, Jonathan Eburne, Katherine Connelly, Patricia Terry, and Paul Auster (Black Widow)
  • You Are the Business by Caroline Dubois, translated from the French by Cole Swensen (Burning Deck)
  • As It Turned Out by Dmitry Golynko, translated from the Russian by Eugene Ostashevsky, Rebecca Bella, and Simona Schneider (Ugly Duckling)
  • Night Wraps the Sky by Vladimir Mayakovsky, translated from the Russian by Katya Apekina, Val Vinokur, and Matvei Yankelevich, and edited by Michael Almereyda (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
  • A Different Practice by Fredrik Nyberg, translated from the Swedish by Jennifer Hayashida (Ugly Duckling)
  • EyeSeas by Raymond Queneau, translated from the French by Daniela Hurezanu and Stephen Kessler (Black Widow)
  • Peregrinary by Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston (Zephyr)
  • Eternal Enemies by Adam Zagajewski, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

UPDATE: To view or download the official press release, click here.

26 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This post is giving away something about the make-up of the ten “Best Translated Book of 2008” poetry finalists . . . But whatever, there were four great poetry anthologies that came out this past year that deserve a bit of extra recognition, so in advance of tomorrow’s announcement, here are a few extra books worth checking out:

New European Poets edited by Kevin Prufer and Wayne Miller is one of the most comprehensive books of the year. Here’s the opening from Margarita Shalina’s great review:

It is difficult to get beyond the novelty inherent in the New European Poets project. Its remarkable scope, breadth and depth show-cases 290 poets representing 45 nations, all bridged by nearly 200 translators and directed by 24 regional editors. Every contributing poet’s first collection was published in or after 1970. The motivation behind the project is two-fold, reintroduce and reengage American readers with European poetry and express how the borders of Europe have been redrawn in recent decades there by altering its regional identities along with its identity as a whole. And what is contemporary Europe anyway?

This is a mammoth book, and a necessary one for anyone interested in contemporary European poetry.

*

Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World is edited and translated by Niloufar Talebi, and features a range of contemporary Iranian poetry. Peter Conners reviewed this for us and had this to say:

After reading her introduction and the first few sections of Belonging, I realized that Talebi had accomplished perhaps the greatest service that a translator of Iranian poetry for American audiences can provide: she made the Iranian poetic landscape feel familiar. Not only familiar, but modern, full of laughter, rich with wonder, completely joyful and terrible and worthy of revisiting multiple times. Without being able to compare it to the original Persian, I can only say that the poetry in Talebi’s translations is lucid, rich with music, and highly accessible.

In addition to this anthology, it’s worth checking out Niloufar’s Translation Project as well. She’s doing a lot of great things for Persian literature as a whole, and the blend of text and performance is unique and very compelling. (In fact, if you happen to be in San Francisco next week, you should check out the 2nd Annual Iranian Literary Arts Festival that the Translation Project is putting on.)

*

Part of the NEA’s International Exchange program, Contemporary Russian Poetry is an ambitious undertaking. Edited by Evgeny Bunimovich and Jim Kates, it features forty-four Russian poets, all born after 1945. It also features dozens of great Russian translators as well.

(As a sidenote, one of the books I’m looking forward to in 2009 is Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction, another NEA project that Dalkey is publishing. Edited by Alvaro Uribe and Olivia Sears, this looks like a great round-up of the current literary scene in Mexico.)

*

Edited and translated by David Hinton, _Classical Chinese Poetry is another book that, if for nothing else, deserves some praise for its enormous scope:

With this groundbreaking collection, translated and edited by the renowned poet and translator David Hinton, a new generation will be introduced to the work that riveted Ezra Pound and transformed modern poetry. The Chinese poetic tradition is the largest and longest continuous tradition in world literature, and this rich and far-reaching anthology of nearly five hundred poems provides a comprehensive account of its first three millennia (1500 BCE to 1200 CE), the period during which virtually all its landmark developments took place. Unlike earlier anthologies of Chinese poetry, Hinton’s book focuses on a relatively small number of poets, providing selections that are large enough to re-create each as a fully realized and unique voice. New introductions to each poet’s work provide a readable history, told for the first time as a series of poetic innovations forged by a series of master poets. From the classic texts of Chinese philosophy to intensely personal lyrics, from love poems to startling and strange perspectives on nature, Hinton has collected an entire world of beauty and insight. And in his eye-opening translations, these ancient poems feel remarkably fresh and contemporary, presenting a literature both radically new and entirely resonant.

26 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Admittedly, books from university presses are under-represented on this year’s Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, a situation that will hopefully change next year.

But for now, I thought that before announcing the finalists for fiction and poetry (and yes, I do know what they are, but that post won’t go live until tomorrow morning . . .), I’d take a moment to highlight some of the more interesting university presses and the translations they published this year.

At the top of the list has to be Columbia University Press. There’s no other university press in the country doing as many interesting Asian works in translation as Columbia. (Not to mention the fact that their books are handsomely designed, and paperback editions of several — such as I Love Dollars — have been picked up by very prestigious presses, like Penguin.)

The two big books that came out this year as part of the Weatherhead Books on Asia series (both of which could’ve easily made our longlist) are Wang Anyi’s The Song of Everlasting Sorrow and Ch’oe Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls.

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Chinese author Wang Anyi was actually a Reading the World book this year, and got some very nice coverage when it came out this summer. Here’s a description from an article by Howard Choy:

Spanning forty odd years from 1945 to 1986, the novel is tripartite. Book I is set in the glittery city of Shanghai during the latter half of the 1940s. Wang Qiyao, a glamorous girl from a lowly family who dreamed of becoming a movie star in her school days, takes third place in the first Miss Shanghai beauty contest after the war. She is then kept as a mistress by a politician, who is unfortunately killed in a plane crash in 1948. In Book II she retreats to the countryside and soon returns as a neighborhood nurse to the fallen city in the 1950s. Associating with three men—a profligate son of the rich, a half-Russian loafer, and a photographer—she gives birth to a girl out of wedlock in 1961. Largely skipping the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Book III covers the decade after the political turmoil. The protagonist spends a simple life with her daughter and young admirers in the reviving city until her daughter gets married and leaves for the United States. With its thinly veiled allusions to Lady Yang Yuhuan’s (719-755) demise romanticized in Bo Juyi’s (772-846) oft-quoted poem “The Song of Everlasting Sorrow,” the story ends with Wang Qiyao’s violent death while protecting a box of gold bars left to her by the politician. The last thing she sees on her deathbed is the mise en scène of a bedroom murder that she watched forty years ago in a film studio. Miss Shanghai Wang Qiyao’s declining life from youth to old age can be understood synecdochically as Shanghai’s vicissitudes from the postwar to the post-revolutionary periods.

And for anyone interested in sampling this, a pdf excerpt of the first chapter is available through Columbia’s site.

Korean author Ch’oe Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls consists of three stories, including the title one, which “explores both the genesis and the aftershocks of historical outrages such as the Kwangju Massacre of 1980, in which a reported 2,000 civilians were killed for protesting government military rule.”

Bill Marx of PRI’s The World interviewed Ch’oe Yun and made this sound even more intriguing:

The World: Critics describe you as an experimental, post-modernist author, heavily influenced by Western literary influences. How have avant-garde techniques shaped your writing? In what ways have they not?

Ch’oe Yun: In each of the three works I took pains to apply the most appropriate form to the story’s world-view. I’ll grant you that this approach can appear experimental. I’ve never been one to agonize over technique, though. The notion of language and expression as constituting their own world-view is part and parcel of much of what I’ve read in Western literary thought and aesthetics.

*

Another university press that deserves a lot of praise (and actually got some as well) is Syracuse University Press and their Middle East Literature in Translation Series. (American University at Cairo also deserves some special praise for all they’ve done in making Arabic works available to English readers, but I’ll write about them separately at another time.)

The Virgin of Solitude by Iranian author Taghi Modarressi was one of the most intriguing publications to come out from this series last year. Here’s their description:

Set around the time of the revolution, The Virgin of Solitude follows the parallel lives of a transplanted Austrian woman, who has made Iran her home, and her grandson, Nuri, who desperately misses his mother but hides his longing behind a veneer of teenage bravado. As the turmoil of the revolution envelops the country, grandmother and grandson witness the dissolution of social, class, and political order, while searching for a sense of belonging.

Also, Contemporary Iraqi Fiction was a book that we positively reviewed over the summer. On the Syracuse website you can find podcasts of editor Shakir Mustafa reading and answering questions, and an interview with the aforementioned Bill Marx.

*

Although Mikhail Bulgakov’s White Guard wasn’t eligible for the Best Translated Book Award (we don’t consider retranslations), this is a good example of the fine work that’s going on at Yale University Press these days. And this year promises to be even more exciting, with the launch of the Margellos World Republic of Letters series and the publication of Can Xue’s novel Five Spice Street.

There are any number of other university presses deserving of attention—University of Nebraska and Northwestern are two others with a long history of publishing literature in translation—and this year we’ll do our best to review more of their books. In many ways, that’s what a site like Three Percent exists for . . .

23 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is it—the last overview of a book from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist. The 10 finalists will be announced on Tuesday . . . Click here for all previous overviews.



The Book of Chameleons by Jose Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn. (Angola, Simon & Schuster)

Although this is the first (and only, at least so far) book of Agualusa’s to be published in the U.S., he has been making a name for himself and garnering lots of attention and praise from an international audience. Fellow fiction longlist member Antonio Lobo Antunes has called Agualusa, “Without doubt one of the most important Portuguese-language writers of his generation.” And in 2007 he won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for The Book of Chameleons.

He now has two additional titles available in the UK from Arcadia, including Creole and the recently released My Father’s Wives. (A review of which will appear in an upcoming issue of Quarterly Conversation.)

Arcadia is also bringing out a fourth—_Estação das Chuvas_ or Rainy Season—and over at Book Trust, translator Daniel Hahn is currently blogging about his experience working on this book. (His posts range from addressing specific translation issues to the book’s jacket copy—the blog is worth checking out, and is updated on a weekly basis.)

In terms of this particular book, it’s necessary to point out right from the start that it’s narrated by a gecko. A gecko who lives with an albino book dealer and “seller of pasts” (the title can be literally translated as “The Genealogy Salesman”) who provides his clients—who are well-off and have a nice future ahead of them, but nothing special in their lineage—with a complete background.

For one of these clients, Felix Ventura doesn’t just create a past, but provides “Jose Buchmann” with a whole new identity, complete with stories of his mother and her death. Against Felix’s advice, Jose decides to look into this past of his, visiting his native home, etc.

This idea of reinvention ties nicely into the Borges quote that opens the novel:

If I were to be born again, I’d like to be something completely different. I’d quite like to be Norwegian. Or Persian, perhaps. Not Uruguayan, though—that’d feel too much like just moving down the street.

In the Simon & Schuster “Reading Group Guide,” Daniel Hahn asks Agualusa about the influence of Borges on the novel:

This book is a tribute to Borges. It’s a game that I hope Borges would have appreciated. At the same time, it’s also a sort of settling up of accounts. I love Borges as a writer, but think that as a man there was always something about him that was closed and obtuse, reactionary even, and he not infrequently expressed opinions that were misogynistic or racist. His relations with women were very complicated—it’s believe that he died a virgin. Now, in my book Borges is reincarnated in Luanda in the body of a gecko. The gecko’s memories correspond to fragments of Borges’s real life story. Somehow I wanted to give Borges a second chance—in my book he makes the most of his opportunities.

Not sure if the book is all that, but E.J. sums up some of the books qualities in his review:

The Book of Chameleons is not the kind of book that can be completely absorbed in a single reading, and Agualusa packs an impressive amount of narrative depth in the short volume. It’s a novel about writing that manages to not be distractingly metafictional, and it’s also a reflection on what the past means in a country that has been repeatedly wounded by war. That he is able to treat these ordinarily difficult subjects with such a deft touch, and so entertainingly, is a credit to his abilities as a writer.

22 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re into the home stretch now . . . For the next two days we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg. (Austria, New York Review Books)

The Post-Office Girl is the second NYRB title on the fiction longlist (the other being Unforgiving Years) and the third Zweig title that they’ve published. The other two are Beware of Pity, which was the only novel Zweig published during his lifetime, and a new translation of Chess Story, which was sent to his publisher just before Zweig committed suicide.

Before the rise of Nazism, Zweig was an incredibly popular writer well known both for his novels and for his biographies. But as a Austrian Jew, he fled Austria for London, then lived in the United States and Brazil. It was in Petropolis that he and his wife committed joint suicide, stating “I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth.”

Edwin Frank’s monthly erudite letter about a recent NYRB book is by far my favorite publisher newsletter, and the month he wrote about The Post-Office Girl was no exception. (If you’re interested in receiving the NYRB newsletter, you can sign up here.)

Thanks to translator Joel Rotenberg, The Post-Office Girl is at last available in English. It’s no less striking than Beware of Pity and Chess Story, the two other Zweigs we’ve published, but it couldn’t be more different. It’s a book that should change how people think about Stefan Zweig.

The Post-Office Girl is fastpaced and hardboiled—as if Zweig, normally the most mannerly of writers, had fortified himself with some stiff shots of Dashiell Hammett. It’s the story of Christine, a nice girl from a poor provincial family who gets a taste of the good life only to have it snatched away; and of Ferdinand, an unemployed World War I veteran and ex-POW with whom she then links up. It’s a story, you could say, of two essentially respectable middle-class souls who wake up to find themselves miscast as outcasts, but what it’s really about, beyond economic and psychological collapse, is social death. Set during the period of devastating hyper-inflation that followed Austria’s defeat in 1918, Zweig’s novel depicts a country grotesquely divided between the rich and poor, so much so that it has effectively reverted to a state of nature. Christine and Ferdinand and Austria have been hollowed out (even if the country is still decked out in the pomp, circumstance, and pointless bureaucratic regulations of its bygone imperial heyday). They exist in a Hobbesian state of terminal desperation from which—the discovery arrives with mounting horror and excitement—the only hope of escape or redemption lies in violence.

What’s especially interesting about this publication is that the book never came out during Zweig’s life. It was written during the 30s, appeared to be finished, but was left untitled and wasn’t published until 1982. There’s no clear reason why he didn’t publish this during his lifetime. (although Edwin has a hunch)

The first part of the book really does read like a fairy tale, as poor, diligent Christine is whisked away to spend some time with her very wealthy aunt and uncle. A sort of Cinderella story in which Christine gets to see a side of life she wasn’t even aware of, as when she first arrives to her room at the hotel:

The boy opens a door in the middle of the corrido, flourishes his cap, and steps aside. This must be her room. Christine goes in. But on the threshold she stops short, as though she were in the wrong place. Because with all the will in the world, the postal official from Klein-Reifling, accustomed to shabby surroundings, can’t just flick a switch are really believe that this room is for her, this extravagantly scaled, exquisitely bright, colorfully wallpapered room, with open French doors like crystalline floodgates, the light cascading through.

But like all fairy tales, the clock strikes midnight and she has to go back home. As Jeff Waxman explains in his review, this is when the book changes dramatically:

The vacation came to an abrupt end. As dreams do. Fräulein Christiane von Boolen was revealed to be, merely, Christine Hoeflehner and, in shame and anger, she returned to Klein-Reifling, to the small town she came from. With her mother dead and her memories of her time at the resort too vivid, Christine cannot sink back into her own life. This is the real meat of the story; this is the bitter Part Two. A spectre of discontent is introduced in Christine Hoeflehner and Zweig provides it a mate, Ferdinand Farrner. In Ferdinand, Christine finds a kindred spirit, an awareness of the unfairness of life. Together, they come to a precipice familiar to the poor. They can no longer stand. They jump.

Posthumous publishing decisions are always open to criticism (see The Nation review, or any of the comments about the decision to publish 2666 in one volume instead of five separate books), but nevertheless, this is a great book, quite different from his other works, and definitely worth reading.

21 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re into the home stretch now . . . For the next three days we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



Khirbet Khizeh by S. Yizhar, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck. (Israel, Ibis Editions)

I won’t be surprised if this post gets attacked by someone in the “blogosphere”: Jewish-Arab relations and military actions is an intellectual powder keg. So before saying anything, I want to make it clear that this book—written from the point of view of an Israeli soldier involved in the takeover of Khirbet Khizeh and the evacuation of the Arabs living there—is on the longlist is on here for aesthetic reasons only. And for the quality of the prose and the translation.

That preface might not even be necessary . . . Khirbet Khizeh is considered a classic work, and although it has been the focus of many debates over the course of its history, what’s interesting is how it was received when first published in 1949, just months after the 1948 war:

Fifty-nine years ago, when “Khirbet Khizeh” was first published, it was not an expose of wartime misconduct. No expose was needed. In 1949, few Israelis were unaware that Arab villages had been forcibly evacuated. As historian Anita Shapira has shown in a brilliant essay on the novella’s reception from its publication until the 1990s, though “Khirbet Khizeh” was a best-seller in its first years, and though it was much discussed in newspapers and magazines, its veracity was hardly challenged and few questioned whether such an unpretty account of events should be published. When “Khirbet Khizeh” first came out, it was a rumination on something people knew to be true – how could they not? – and its aim was to clearly describe what had appeared vague in the fog of war and then the exaltation of victory: the moral muck inevitable in creating a Jewish majority in Palestine. This was the “Khirbet Khizeh” that was added to the high school curriculum. [from Noah Efron’s review in Haaretz ]

As mentioned in brief above, this short novella is about the violent expulsion of the Palestine villagers by Israeli soldiers acting under orders. The hatred the Jewish soldiers express about the Arabs, the fact that they’re doing this because “they were ordered,” the callous, unforgiving behavior, allows one to make parallels between this situation and other wars/conflicts. And even in the abstract, this base violence toward “the other” is universal, and the book illustrates as much about human nature as it does about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

And for all the beautiful descriptions of Khirbet Khizeh, there are passages that are tough to swallow, that force the reader to see the worst parts of war. From a section after the village is secured and all the inhabitants are being loaded up and sent off:

“They’re just like animals,” Yehuda explained to us, but we did not reply.

The women were gathered onto another truck, and they began to scream and weep, and no one envied those who had to look after them. [. . .]

We felt a mood of beggary, pus, and leprosy, and all that was lacking was the sound of dirges and charity saveth from death.

“Ugh, revolting!” said Shlomo.

“Better they should die!” said Yehuda.

“How many blind people and cripples do they have in this village!” said Shlomo.

Not always so explicit, these sorts of sentiments run throughout the novella and make this a bit hard to read. One of the things that complicates, and elevates, this novel is the main character’s interior reaction to these events, which isn’t always straight down the party line:

But not this . . . not this . . . something was still unclear. Just a kind of bad feeling. Like being forced into a nightmare and not being allowed to wake up from it. You’re caught up with several voices. You don’t know what. Maybe the answer is to stand up and resist? But maybe, the opposite, to see and be and feel . . .

Or:

My guts cried out. Colonizers, they shouted. Lies, my guts shouted. Khirbet Khizeh is not ours. The Spandau gun never gave us any rights. Oh, my guts screamed. What hadn’t they told us about refugees. Everything, everything was for the refugees, their welfare, their rescue—our refugees, naturally. Those we were driving out—that was a totally different matter. Wait. Two thousand years of exile. The whole story. Jews being killed. Europe. We were masters now.

But as David Shulman writes in his afterword, “this story is in fact far from being moralistic, utterly remote from preaching and pontification.” And maybe that’s what’s made it such a lasting book, one that’s prompted a lot of discussion and debate, as great books should.

S. Yizhar—the pen name for Yizhar Smilansky—passed away rather recently (2006), was a longtime member of Knesset, and in addition to Khirbet Khizeh, is known for his 1,156-page magnum opus, Days of Tziklag. (Which hasn’t been translated into English.)

It’s unfortunate that Ibis Editions doesn’t get more attention from American reviewers and publications. They’re doing some very interesting books, and personally, I like the simple, unadorned style and feel of this title. We’ll make a special effort to review more of their books for Three Percent in the upcoming months. But for now, if you can get your hands on it, Khirbet Khizeh is worth checking out.

20 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re into the home stretch now . . . Over the next four days we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



Voice Over by Celine Curiol, translated from the French by Sam Richard. (France, Seven Stories)

Voice Over is a mesmerizing book. So well-done that it’s almost shocking that this is a debut novel from a writer still in her 30s. It was selected as a “French Voices” title (a program designed to highlight the best of contemporary French literature) and found a big fan in Paul Auster.

To some readers, this will seem like a typical French book—it centers around infidelity, and it seems like a book in which nothing really happens. Auster does a great job describing this novel in his introduction:

Voice Over is a story of obsession, alienation, and a descent into near madness. The central character, who works as a public address announcer at the Gare du Nord, falls for a man who is attached to another woman. Slowly and inexorably, something begins to happen between them—or almost. Such is the not so terribly complex plot of this deeply complex novel. Meanwhile, hundreds of events, both large and small, are recounted as Curiol’s damaged and poignant heroine goes about her life, which is filled with numerous random encounters with people as diverse as a female impersonator named Renee Risque, a forlorn African immigrant, a photographer with the delicious name of Olivier Chedubarum, and an actress who happens to have the same name she does.

It’s Curiol’s ability to, again cribbing from Auster, put “the reader both inside and outside at the same time” that makes this such a powerful book. We’re privy to the main characters thoughts, desires, and hopes, but also can see her as others do (a number of characters refer to her as “strange” or “weird” at one point or another), as she somewhat awkwardly—in a way can make the reader more than a bit anxious on her behalf—goes through life. This was one of those books where I actively empathized with the protagonist, secretly wishing things would work out for the best. It’s a very different book from, say, Toussaint’s Camera, another French title on the longlist, but one in which the character’s struggles are quite amusing, as are the very odd twists and turns of his mind. Instead, there’s a palpably feeling of despair and discomfort throughout Voice Over, that is quite affective.

For example, here’s a section from a dinner party she attends at the house of the man she’s fallen for:

She sees the hand of the man wit the stoop reaching out for her plate, on which some tiny puddles of a rich, dark sauce remain. Or did you want to mop up with some bread? Without waiting for her to reply, he whisks her plate away. She wonders whether to pretend to laugh or reward him for his effort. No thank you, she replies politely. She notices the table is being cleared; he hasn’t looked at her since that wink in the kitchen. Ange gets up with the pile of plates, he follows her out. With the couple momentarily gone, the delicately-spun bonds among the guests start to fray. The two husbands lower their voices and turn to their wives; the two bachelors slowly light cigarettes; for a few moments, everyone abandons his or her social role, enjoys a well-deserved mid-performance break. For a brief instant, she fears giving in to the physical urge to rush out the door. That damn silence is starting to get to her. They’re acting in a seven-man locked room drama, and it feels as if she’s the last dead woman who has yet to grasp the rules of hell. She pours herself another glass of red wine, which she forces herself to sip for appearances’ sake. Someone decides to open another bottle to put everyone a bit more at ease. Since they all know each other already and she is acquainted only with the hosts, she senses there will be no escape: she is in for a full-blown interrogation. With everybody listening religiously as though her life were somehow thrilling. And sure enough, the guy with the stoop makes an exceptional effort and asks her what she does for a living. By chance, the question falls during a lull in the conversation, and the entire group feels invited to stick their noses in: the six others wait for the rather unassuming girl at the end of the table to speak up; damn it, it’s about time she contributed a bit more to the discussion.

How she answers this question—she definitely doesn’t tell them that she makes announcements about the train schedule—sets a number of subplots in motion that are both funny, and a bit seedy. (It’s too difficult to explain this in full, but the real end of this subplot happens in a conversation with her somewhat lover and is a perfect example of the discrepancy between how others see her, and how the reader does.)

I’m really glad that this book made the longlist, and completely agree with Auster’s conclusion: “Take note. A superb new writer lives among us.”

19 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re into the home stretch now . . . Over the next five days we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



Yalo by Elias Khoury, translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux. (Lebanon, Archipelago)

In many ways, Yalo is the very definition of a “haunting novel.” For the images, the complex characters, the circular way the story is told, the reflections on torture and truth . . . It is a lasting book that will stay in reader’s minds long after they’ve finished it.

Although the novel is in no way “simple,” the plot itself is pretty straightforward. Yalo is on trial for rape. And is also suspected of being involved in a bombing plot. He’s a twenty-something-year-old veteran of the Lebanese civil war, who, following the war, absconded with some cash and a friend to Paris. His friend abandons him in France, leaving Yalo (who doesn’t speak a word of French) to wander the streets. Eventually he meets an arms dealer who proceeds to bring him back to Lebanon to serve as a guard for his house and family. And that’s where the trouble really begins.

Despite the sympathy the reader comes to feel for Yalo, he’s not necessarily a moral, upstanding person. After seeing people drive into the woods to have sex, he starts spying on them, occasionally robbing them, and once in a while raping the women. He gets involved with Shirin this way, a woman whom he claims to love, and who, depending on which version of the story you believe, has some interest in him as well.

Now on trial—thanks to the accusations of Shirin—he’s tortured in ways that are extremely disturbing, forced to write the entire story of his life, and broken, both mentally and physically.

Yalo’s story is interesting enough, but the way that it’s told in this novel is what really landed this book on the Best Translated Book of the Year fiction longlist.

Using some Faulknerian techniques, Khoury tells Yalo’s story in a looping and repetitive, subjective and uncertain, direct and poetic, fashion that is masterful and compelling. Siddhartha Deb has a nice overview of the book in his review for The Nation:

Yalo, the tenth novel by Lebanese writer Elias Khoury, is such a book. Published in Arabic in 2002 and now available in a translation by Peter Theroux, Yalo is set in 1993 and revolves around a single consciousness unable to make sense of itself or its surroundings. Its opening sentence is “Yalo did not understand what was happening,” and its closing line is “And if I don’t find the end of the story, how will I be able to write it?” In between lies a work that is both one story and several, perpetually revised under the torque of history, memory, desire, fear, understanding and loathing.

And Jeff Waxman’s review for Three Percent also points to some of the complexities of this novel:

Necessarily thicker than most of Khoury’s works, Yalo bears more scrutiny and re-readings than his other novels and in this literary masterpiece, translator Peter Theroux has achieved something exceptional. More than anything else, it is about the conflicts of identity and language in a region rife with upheaval and refugees. From his grandfather, Yalo inherited a complex culture, a legacy of statelessness found in the blending of Kurdish Islam and Lebanese Christianity. This blending of cultures includes an array of languages—Arabic, Syriac, Kurdish—all of which Theroux manages to convey without artifice and in impressive English. All of the alienation of tongues since the Tower of Babel is borne through startlingly clear prose. Yalo’s total estrangement may be the most successful of Khoury’s evocations and it is a constant theme in Yalo’s life. He is a haunted man and a man trapped in a crisis of intangible memory and identity. It’s more than the story of Yalo’s arrest, it’s more than the story of his imprisonment or his rapes and thefts. It’s the story of the entrapment of every character, from his lovesick mother to his grandfather the cohno, the priest. They are trapped as we are trapped—trapped in consciousness, trapped by mortality, trapped in a world that is not and cannot be objective.

Although a few of Khoury’s books had been translated into English at the time, it was Archipelago’s publication of Gate of the Sun that really launched him into the minds of American readers. Yalo is a different sort of book (and a bit shorter), and reinforces the opinion that Khoury is one of the great contemporary Arabic writers.

Khoury was able to tour in support of this book, and at least a couple of his performances were recorded and are available online. (C’mon publishers and booksellers, this seems like an obvious thing to do . . .) Specifically, his appearance at the Seattle Public Library is very interesting. And if you’re interested in learning more about Gate of the Sun, I’d highly recommend listening to his appearance on Bookworm. And the Washington City Paper has a really nice article about Peter Theroux, whose translation is impeccable.

16 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re into the home stretch now . . . Through next Friday we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



Detective Story by Imre Kertesz, translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson. (Hungary, Knopf)

This is one of two Kertesz titles that could’ve made this year’s Best Translated Book fiction longlist, the other being The Pathseeker, which was released by Melville House shortly after Detective Story came out from Knopf. (Ironically, these two books were originally published in one volume in Hungary.)

I have to say that it’s pretty heartening when a Nobel Prize-winning author leaves a big the biggest publisher for an indie press, and in a way it’s too bad that both books didn’t make our list.

Eurozine has a very informative essay by Tim Wilkinson about both of these books.

Detective Story is a novel set in Latin America and written by Anotonio Martens, a former member of the “Corps” (an organization like the KGB, SS, etc.) who has been jailed for his involvement in the murder of Federigo and Enrique Salinas. This novel is Martens’s chance to tell his side of the story and how this murder came about.

It’s a tight, interesting story that, as Michael Orthofer alludes to is greatly disturbing for its universality.

I don’t want to give away too much, but the real power of this book comes from the reader knowing that Federigo and Enrique are innocent, while reading a firsthand account of how the Corps formed their beliefs and what they decided to do about their suspicions.

Another disturbing aspect of this book is the casual way members of the Corps talked about torture devices. This section involves a statue on Marens’s colleague’s desk:

It consisted of a base on which stood two uprights ending in forks. Resting on the forks was a rod, which in turn supported a tiny human figure in such a way that it passed between the bent knees and the wrists handcuffed together behind the knees. A devastating contraption, no two ways about it. Diaz glowered at it.

“What on earth is that?” he asked.

“That? It’s a Boger swing,” Rodriguez responded with great affection.

“Boger?” Diaz fussed. “What do you mean, Boger?”

“That’s the name of the fellow who invented it,” Rodriguez explained. [. . .]

“This bit here”—Rodriguez traced a small circle over it with his finger—“is freed up. You can do with him what you will.” He looked up at Diaz and grinned. I might as well not have been there—which is just as well as I probably only would have stuttered. That reflects badly on a person. “Or else,” Rodriguez continued, “you can squat down here, by his mug, and ask him whatever you want to know.” [. . .]

“What in the blue blazes do you need it for?” [Diaz] inquired in a fatherly tone. “We’ve got every sort of plaything. All you have to do is press a button, and it switches on an electric current. That’s what they use the world over these days: clean and convenient. Isn’t that enough for you?”

Kertesz is one of three Nobel Prize winners on the longlist (Saramago and Laxness being the others), and his Nobel acceptance speech is available online and worth taking a look at. I’ll end here with an interesting, and somewhat relevant quote:

It is often said of me – some intend it as a compliment, others as a complaint – that I write about a single subject: the Holocaust. I have no quarrel with that. Why shouldn’t I accept, with certain qualifications, the place assigned to me on the shelves of libraries? Which writer today is not a writer of the Holocaust? One does not have to choose the Holocaust as one’s subject to detect the broken voice that has dominated modern European art for decades. I will go so far as to say that I know of no genuine work of art that does not reflect this break. It is as if, after a night of terrible dreams, one looked around the world, defeated, helpless.

15 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re into the home stretch now . . . Through next Friday we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik Hermans, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke. (Netherlands, Overlook)

Willem Frederik Hermans is a good example of a classic author who probably should’ve been translated years ago, but for some reason, was only recently picked up by Harvill and Overlook. Now, his two big books—Beyond Sleep and The Darkroom of Damocles—are available to English readers.

The Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature has a good deal of info about Hermans on their website, including this rather interesting bio:

Willem Frederik Hermans (1921-1995) is one of the greatest post-war Dutch authors. Before devoting his entire life to writing, Hermans had been teaching Physical Geography at the University of Groningen for many years. He had already started writing and publishing in magazines at a young age. His polemic and provocative style led to a court case as early as 1952. His caustic pieces were compiled in Mandarijnen op zwavelzuur (Mandarines in Sulphuric Acid, 1963), which was reprinted with additions a number of times. It is Hermans’s belief that in order to survive people have to create own reality. It is inevitable that all these experiences of reality will collide. Language is essential to create order out of chaos and plays an important role in this process. In his essays on Wittgenstein, Hermans studied this problem in depth. In his novels and stories Hermans places his characters in a world of certainty for themselves but equivocal for the reader. It is in this field of tension that the intrigue in De tranen der acacia’s (Acacia’s Tears, 1949) and in De donkere kamer van Damocles (The Darkroom of Damocles, 1958) develops. Although stories such as Moedwil en misverstand (Malice and Misunderstanding) and Paranoia have a surrealistic tendency, Hermans’ novels The Darkroom Of Damocles, Nooit meer slapen (Beyond Sleep), Uit talloos veel miljoenen (From Countless Millions) are more realistic or satirical and everything in his rich oeuvre is subordinate to the author’s pessimistic philosophy.

Darkroom of Damocles is about the tobacconist Henri Osewoudt, a man a bit too short to fight in the Dutch army during World War II, but who gets involved with Dorbeck, a mysterious figure supposedly involved with the Dutch resistance who looks exactly like Osewoudt. Osewoudt is very much a pawn, doing whatever Dorbeck tells him, such as helping British agents and murdering traitors.

The whole time, it’s clear that Osewoudt is in way over his head, and isn’t completely sure what’s going on. What’s worse—for him personally—is that he’s suspected by both the Germans and the Dutch, a situation that really comes to a head after the war ends, and Dorbeck is nowhere to be found.

The impossibility of deciding what’s “right” from what’s “wrong” in relation to the war, is what really drives this book. The NLPVF also has an interesting page about this novel, and its lasting importance:

The story of Osewoudt’s fateful wanderings through the ‘sadistic universe’ (the title of one of Hermans’ essay collections) is extraordinarily gripping. Is Osewoudt hero or villain? Or is he a psychopath, driven by delusions? The Darkroom of Damocles is composed of sharp, suggestive and relentless sentences, and its ambiguous ending is debated by critics to this day. It is the impossibility of ascertaining whether Osewoudt was on the ‘right’ side or the ‘wrong’ side – the moral issue of the Second World War in a nutshell – that makes Hermans’ novel as breathtaking now as when it was written a decade after the war.

Michael Orthofer of The Complete Review has a really nice review of this book that’s worth reading in its entirety. He’s a big fan:

Hermans’ isn’t so much anti-heroic novel as un-heroic. It offers a remarkable picture of the Dutch experience in World War II, and of the difficulty faced by the individual trying to contribute to society. Osewoudt is not even particularly incompetent — a girl sent over from England shows how spectacularly wrong things can be done — and he even makes some contributions (though, as murder, they’re of a decidedly ugly sort), but certainty and a type of competence, as manifested by Dorbeck, prove not to be much better.

Unsentimental and brutally honest, with both a sense for the absurd and a sharp wit, Hermans hasn’t written a sympathetic story, but it’s impressive, nevertheless — grandiose, even, especially in capturing some specific Dutch types. The characters — including Osewoudt, his German captor, his uncle, and the women in his life — are also very nicely realised, and the plotting is excellent. De donkere kamer van Damokles is both war-time thriller and metaphysical mystery. It leaves the reader with an uneasy feeling, but it’s a worthwhile ride.

14 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re into the home stretch now . . . Through next Friday we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



Tranquility by Attila Bartis, translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein. (Romania/Hungary1, Archipelago)

There’s something amazing going on in Hungarian literature. For such a “small” language to have three books on our long list (this one plus the Imre Kertesz book and Metropole) the is pretty remarkable, and in addition there have been a slew of recently published (or reissued) Hungarian books, including works by Gyorgy Konrad, Peter Nadas, Peter Esterhazy, and my personal favorite, Sunflower by Gyula Krudy.

And it’s not like these are a bunch of random books—all of the above titles are high quality, unique, well-crafted works of literary fiction. Especially Tranquility.

Plot summaries rarely do a book justice, but in short, this novel is about Andor Weer, a thirty-six-year-old writer who lives with his mother (a formerly gorgeous stage actress) who hasn’t left the house in fifteen years. She’s bitter, a bit deranged, and pretty aggressive, especially towards Andor’s girlfriends. The two of them are trapped in a incredibly wicked Oedipal mess. On top of this, Andor’s sister Judit defected from Hungary to pursue her music career (this defection brought about the downfall of Rebeka’s stage career), leading their mother to literally bury an casket with all of Judit’s things in the cemetery.

In short, this is a dark, twisted book, and one that’s incredibly gripping and very well written and well translated. (No surprise—Imre Goldstein’s one of the best.) Told is a looping, achronological fashion, the horrors of Andor’s life are revealed bit by bit with a hint of dark humor and a sense that the world (at least for Andor) is total shit.

There’s a sample down by Tim Wilkinson available here, but this paragraph should provide a pretty good sense of the tone and style:

When the woman suggested cremation, I did waver for a moment because I remembered my mother’s hysterical poses, “Look, that’s how they sit up, all of them,” she would say, holding on to the chair by her bedside and showing me how corpses sat up in the oven; a few months earlier she had seen a documentary on the subject and since then she would mention it almost every morning, and I’d say to her, don’t worry Mother, you won’t be cremated, and be careful you’ll spill your tea; but in a few days she’d start all over again, that cremation was ungodly, and I knew she was afraid there would be no resurrection for cremated people, and that was really something, considering she had never in her damned life had anything to do with God. Lately she had demanded I swear she wouldn’t wind up in a crematorium; she forbade me to burn her, to which I replied that I’d swear to nothing and since, luckily, she was still ambulatory, she should go to the notary’s office and get a paper saying it was forbidden to burn her; that shut her up, because for fifteen years she’d been too scared to leave the apartment.

I love reading the way reviews have described the outpouring of horrors in this book—here’s a short sample:

There are certainly other writers who employ nonstop misery (Elfriede Jelinek comes to mind), but I think there’s a particular brand of humorless brutality to Bartis’s that sets it apart. For one thing, its ceaseless ferocity gives it a power, even a certain beauty. It’s not written to shock, or merely for the sake of writing in this manner. To many people (and artists especially) the world is a filthy fucking shithole and there’s no reason to cover that up with devices commonly used to take the sting out of this sort of writing. It perhaps takes a certain type of reader to enjoy an endless stream of pessimism and sourness, but for that type of reader Bartis’s novel is very rewarding. [Scott Bryan Wilson in Quarterly Conversation

“Tranquility” is a moving, emotionally complex, subtle, shocking novel — and the inadequacy of these words of praise might be overcome by considering imagery, such as the narrator’s “remembering how I crawled, like a creeper, upon the back of that woman. Like a slug on the wound of a decaying fruit tree.” Or this: “You live only as long as you can lie into the mug of anybody, and without batting an eye. And when you can’t anymore, well, it’s time to get hold of that razor blade.” Or this: “[The narrator’s mother’s] nakedness was like that of the dead, in whom only the corpse washer and God take any delight.” [Tom McGonigle in the L.A. Times

And maybe Brian Evenson puts it best in his blurb:

Reading like the bastard child of Thomas Bernhard and Elfriede Jelinek, Tranquility is political and personal suffering distilled perfectly and transformed into dark, viscid beauty. It is among the most haunted, most honest, and most human novels I have ever read.

I know I’m making this sound really dark, but amid all of the horrific imagery and overall pessimism is a truly beautiful, accomplished book. One that I think will be read for years to come, and the promising start to Bartis’s career in English translation.

(If you read this and want more Bartis, his short story Engelhard, or the Story of Photography is available online.)

1 Again with the footnotes and the disputable country of origin. One of the things that can be frustrating as a fan of international fiction is the overall lack of info about foreign authors. For example, Attila Bartis doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. So I’m relying entirely on the Archipelago author bio here. (Which includes the word “maverick”!)

Anyway, Attila Bartis was born in Romania, but currently lives in Budapest. His first novel came out in 1995, and he’s published at least one other book—a collection of short stories. He’s also been awarded the Tibor Dery Prize and the Sandor Marai Prize (for Tranquility).

13 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated from the French by Alison Anderson. (France, Europa Editions)

Based in part on choice editorial selections and in part on savvy marketing, Europa Editions has a knack for building huge audiences for their translations. And the independent stores love them. Love them so much in fact that Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog landed on the independent booksellers bestseller list.

Doesn’t hurt that this book has been getting reviewed everywhere.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a very approachable, engaging book featuring two bookishly intelligent characters: Renée Michel, an aging concierge who hides her intellectual pursuits from all of the residents of the swanky apartment building where she works, and Paloma Josse, a precocious twelve-year-old who has decided to kill herself.

In alternating chapters, Barbery (and by extension, her excellent translator Alison Anderson, who does a marvelous job capturing the voices of these characters) gives life to these two characters, allowing the reader to be fully immersed into the character’s head and various psychological issues. This sample is a good example of the tone, and subject of the book.

Monica Carter reviewed this for us, and touches on this novel’s wide appeal:

Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, her sophomore effort after a well-received debut Une Gourmandaise (The Craving), is the perfect introductory foray into those neophytes who consider the world of translated fiction intimidating. It is erudite while being accessible, intellectual as well as sweet, stylistic without pandering to the reader. And all this would seemingly make for a perfect novel that has not only sold well in Barbery’s native France, but also will sell well here in the United States. If you are looking for prototypes of “commercial novel,” look no further than this. [. . .]

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is written in an educated, sophisticated yet casual style with philosophical permeations throughout the novel. The philosophical presence is not inherent in either of the narrator’s points-of-view, as in many French novels, but it is used as more of a literary accessory for both Renée and Paloma—something to demonstrate an element of their character. Because it is a commercial novel, the lack of philosophical depth is overshadowed by Barbery’s statement on French society and the novel’s sentimentality. Ultimately, the reader connects with Renée and wants her to be valued and loved by an intellectual compatriot and the reader also wants her to recognize her self-worth regardless of her station in life.

In addition to the sample I linked to above, the Europa page for this book also includes a short interview with Barbery:

Your concierge, on the other hand, is an expert on Tolstoy, but also on philosophy. And even the teenaged Paloma, in her own way, expresses a propensity for abstract speculation.

MB: I followed a long, boring course of studies in philosophy. I expected it to help me understand better that which surrounds me: but it didn’t work out that way. Literature has taught me more. I was interested in exploring the bearing philosophy could really have on one’s life, and how. I wanted to illuminate this process. That’s where the desire to anchor philosophy to a story, a work of fiction, was born: to give it more meaning, make it more physically real, and render it, perhaps, even entertaining.

In this novel, erudite citations are side by side with references to comic books or the movies, and not just art house movies but commercial blockbusters.

MB: Like my characters, I ask myself: what do I like, what moves me? A good novel, of course, but also the brilliant manga of Taniguchi. Or a film made well and made purely for entertainment. Why deny oneself these things? I am not afraid of eclecticism.

12 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique by Gert Jonke, translated from the German by Jean M. Snook. (Austria, Dalkey Archive)

Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique is the second Jonke book that Dalkey has published, the first being the insanely comic Geometric Regional Novel. And if you like these, there’s even more Jonke on the horizon. In 2009, Ariadne Press is bringing out Blinding Moment: Four Pieces about Composers and Dalkey is doing another (can’t find the title right now) next fall.

This particular novel consists of two linked novellas. The first is “The Presence of Memory” and centers around an annual party thrown by Anton Diabelli and his sister Johanna. But in contrast to past parties, the one this year is going to be different . . . er, exactly the same:

What’s your brother doing? I asked

He’s comparing the photos he took of last year’s party, Johanna answered, with the positions of things as they have been laid out for this evening.

Why?

So there aren’t any mistakes.

What mistakes?

Everything should be exactly as it was at last year’s party, answered the photographer’s sister. [. . .]

What’s going to take place here this evening, said Johanna, is not supposed to be one of our usual summer parties, but rather an exact reflection, no, much more than a reflection: a REPETITION OF THE PARTY that we had last year on the same day at the same time.

It’s supposed to be exactly the same party again, added Diabelli.

Filled with strange conversations, and a nice twist at the end, “The Presence of Memory” is a cute story, made up of some nice, funny moments.

In my opinion, the stronger of the two novellas is the latter, “Gradus Ad Parnassum,” which is about two brothers—both formerly promising composers—stuck in the attic of the conservatory they attended with 111 dusty pianos.

The narrator was a very promising composer, whose career was derailed by his alcohol dependence, and who’s going through withdrawal while they’re trapped in the attic. His brother was a very promising student, except that he had a problem moving his fourth finger independently of the third or fifth, “and it’s this ability that ensures that you can play a scale or an arpeggio exactly evenly in every respect.” He addressed this problem—and failed in addressing it—in a very Jonke-ian way:

I remember that before we took our final examinations in music my brother had screwed a completely useless gadget around his fingers and soon after maintained that he couldn’t move his fingers at all anymore.

Eventually they’re rescued from the attic and the “mystery” of the 111 pianos is unveiled, leading to a pretty absurd predicament.

The main reason I wanted to cover Jonke’s book today though is because he passed away last week and Vincent Kling, one of Jonke’s friends and translators, wrote a nice piece about him:

“. . . because you keep on dreaming your dream about flying and open our eyes to a freedom that might not really exist but that we couldn’t live without.” This tribute to Gert Jonke was spoken by the artistic director of the Burgtheater in Vienna in conferring a significant theater prize last October. By then, the cancer that ended Jonke’s life on January 4 had visibly marked him. Americans can recall the sorrow over David Foster Wallace’s death to feel a similar loss. Wallace died unexpectedly, Jonke by stages the public saw, for he did not cut back on his appearances and was planning on making his debut as an actor later this month. But both writers had exceptional talent, versatility and virtuosity, and clarity within complexity. Decent men, too, people agree—Jonke was never known to say a bad word about anyone, focusing on his craft and ignoring hype and buzz. [. . .]

Jonke was the first recipient of the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 1977 and later he won almost every prize, distinction, award, grant, and honor imaginable, but there wasn’t a whiff of competitiveness about him. While others postured and strutted and pontificated at awards ceremonies in his honor, he would get up and rhapsodize a half-impromptu acceptance speech richer and more satisfying than any item on the select menu. He never pretended to take awards for granted, and it was clear he was having a grand old time. He told me how happy he was to see his work better known, and he was especially taken with Italian and French renderings of his novels. Translators who came to pay their respects usually left feeling as if they were the main event.

It’s a sad loss for literature, and I’m especially glad that Homage made the long list—it’s a small way of honoring his literary achievements and bringing some additional attention to his work.

9 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes. (Hungary, Telegram)

This novel is the international traveler’s worst nightmare. It’s the story of Budai, a linguist on his way to a conference in Helsinki, but who gets off the plane to find himself in a country he doesn’t recognize, where he doesn’t understand the language and where no one can understand him.

Budai’s struggles to find his way home—or at least out of this incomprehensible country—are claustrophobic and unnerving. The concept of being helplessly stuck in a situation where you can’t even figure out how to read the simplest of signs, and where no one can help you seems to me to be the worst situation an intelligent adult could ever be stuck in. And for this situation to persist—and remain compelling to the reader—for over 200-pages, with Budai making small intellectual advances that are followed by new situations of complete bafflement is quite an accomplish. A sort of insane, Kafka-esque accomplishment that may well drive some readers crazy, but an accomplishment nonetheless.

G. O. Chateaureynaud claimed that “with time, Metropole will find its due place in the twentieth-century library, on the same shelf as The Trial and 1984.“ The Kafka connection is obvious and mentioned in every review of this book, including Monica Carter’s review of Metropole will go live later today, and which does a fantastic job of capturing the reader’s somewhat horrifying experience of being trapped with Budai:

And so it goes with Budai, a horrific stream of missed opportunities that lead to deeper isolation. And as readers, we are just as trapped as he is. The long, unsettling paragraphs of description we cannot turn away from because Karinthy leads us to believe that there might be hope just on the other side of the page. But there never is. We want so much to help Budai, help him find a way out, all the while being disconcerted that we know we would not fare any better in the same situation. We know that if he does not escape this city he will run out of money, which he does. We know that he will lose his hotel room because of this, which he does. We know that he will not get his passport back annihilation any chance of escape, which he doesn’t. We feel just as isolated and suffocated as Budai caught in an existential urban nightmare where we merely exist, but don’t matter.

Written in 1970 and considered a modern classic in Europe, it is difficult to avoid comparing Karinthy to Kafka. It is, in fact, inevitable. Budai suffers humiliation, isolation, homelessness, loss of motivation, intellectual atrophy, brief imprisonment, loneliness that leads to lapses in his own morality, yet we never get to the apex of horror. Instead we drudge along on his degrading journey of imminent failures waiting for a moment of absolute despair or absolute hope. Because we never get either and so we encounter, ourselves, a sense of failure.

This is the first of Ferenc Karinthy’s (or, more properly, Karinthy Ferenc’s) books to be translated into English. Some brief info about a few of his other works is available on the Hungarian Literature website. (Though to be honest, none of the other works sound nearly as ambitious or unique as Metropole.)

Ferenc—who was, in addition to being a writer, a water polo champion—was the son of famous Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy. Frigyes is very well-known and respected in Hungary, and was the first proponent of the “six degrees of separation” concept. Which I believe is why he’s mentioned in the “book club extra” on the Lost Season 3 DVD . . . (As a sidenote, Frigyes’s Journey Around My Skull was recently reprinted by New York Review Books.)

On another side note, searching for additional information about Ferenc lead me to translator George Szirtes’s blog, which I didn’t know existed. Based solely on the quality of Szirtes’s translations—not the mention the quality of the authors he translates—this is definitely worth checking out.

8 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge, translated from the French by Richard Greeman. (France1, New York Review Books)

This is one of two NYRB titles on the fiction longlist (the other being Stefan Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl) and one of the two Serge books NYRB has published (the other being The Case of Comrade Tulayev).

Serge lead a very interesting and difficult life (see footnote1 below), and didn’t always have an easy time publishing his books. In fact, as noted in Greeman’s intro (more on that in a second), when the Nazis took over Paris all of Serge’s books were withdrawn from publication because they were considered “subversive.”

Unforgiving Years was finished in 1946—one year before Serge passed away—but wasn’t published until 1971, and wasn’t translated into English until 2008. It’s a very ambitious and wide-ranging book, and the comparison in the jacket copy to “an immense mural or the movements of a symphony” is very appropriate. Richard Greeman’s very informative and well-written introduction does a great job of describing the set-up of the novel:

Unforgiving Years is divided into four sections, four symphonic “movements,” each of which evokes its distinctive time and place through its tone and atmosphere. The first movement, entitled “The Secret Agent,” expresses the sinister unreality of a Paris indifferent to the approach of war in a chill minor key. The second, “The Flame Beneath the Snow,” is discordant, heroic, and secret like one of Shostakovich’s wartime symphonies. It portrays a frozen, starving Leningrad during the “thousand days” of the Nazi siege. The third movement, “Brigitte, Lightning, Lilacs,” imagines the final days of Berlin under Allied bombardment in mode of Wagnerian Gotterdammerung, while the final movement, “Journey’s End,” is a tragic requiem set in the stark, volcanic Mexican selva where death and life repeat their endless cycle.

Against this panorama of planetary catastrophe, Serge poses his collective protagonist: a quartet of loyal, idealistic Soviet secret agents, veteran revolutionary fighters from the Russian Civil War period (1918-1921), now disillusioned. Operating in Europe where Hitler is triumphing and war looming, their faith in the Party is shaken by the Moscow Trials and the Stalinist totalitarian nightmare developing back in Russia. Caught in this “labyrinth of madness,” torn between a heroic sense of duty and the recognition of a historical impasse, doomed to be eliminated by the GPU apparatus if the gestapo doesn’t get them first, they search for an escape from a “world without possible escape” while trying to make sense of history and of their individual lives.

(I wish I could post the entire intro—it’s worth the price of admission, so to speak.)

This is a remarkable book—a perfect example of the type of literature we’d like to bring attention to via this award. It’s a “classic” novel in the best sense of the word, and the diversity in tone and character of the four parts (and the action-packed ending) are what makes this such a strong novel.

1 (I love using footnotes.) Like with Horacio Castellanos Moya, Serge’s background is a bit complex. From NYRB’s author bio:

Victor Serge (1890-1947) was born Victor Lvovich Kibalchich to Russian anti-Czarist exiles, impoverished intellectuals living “by chance” in Brussels. A precocious anarchist firebrand, young Victor was sentenced to five years in a French penitentiary in 1912. Expelled to Spain in 1917, he participated in an anarcho-syndicalist uprising before leaving for Russia to join the Revolution. Arriving in 1919, after a year in a French concentration camp, Serge joined the Bolsheviks and worked in the press services of the Communist International in Petrograd, Moscow, Berlin, and Vienna. An outspoken critic of Stalin, Serge was expelled from the Party and jailed in 1928. Released and living in Leningrad, he managed to publish three novels (_Men in Prison_, Birth of Our Power, and Conquered City) and a history of Year One of the Russian Revolution. Arrested again in Russia and deported to Central Asia in 1933, he was allowed to leave the USSR in 1936 after international protests by militants and prominent writers like André Gide and Romain Rolland. Using his insider’s knowledge, Serge published a stream of impassioned, documented exposés of Stalin’s Moscow show trials and machinations in Spain which went largely unheeded. Stateless, penniless, hounded by Stalinist agents, Serge lived in precarious exile in Brussels, Paris, Vichy France, and Mexico City, where he died in 1947.

7 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver. (El Salvador1, New Directions)

I am not complete in the mind, said the sentence I highlighted with the yellow marker and even copied into my personal notebook, because this wasn’t just any old sentence, much less some wisecrack, not by any means, but rather the sentence that astonished me more than any other sentence I read that first day on the job, the sentence that most dumbfounded me during my first incursion into those one thousand one hundred single-spaced printed pages place on what would be my desk by my friend Erick so I could get some idea of the task that awaited me. I am not complete in the mind . . .

This is how Senselessness, the first of Moya’s books to make its way into English, opens. To give a bit of context: the narrator is a writer who has been hired to edit a 1,100-page report collecting testimonies from survivors of slaughtered Indian villages. “I am not complete in the mind” is one of the lines from this report that surfaces throughout the novel again and again, in a way sort of haunting the narrator who is actually trying to lead a normal life hanging out in bars, picking up women, etc., while working on this very disturbing project.

One of the things I found most interesting about this book was the quality of the excerpts from the 1,100-page report of atrocities. The bits are disturbing, but in a very poetic sort of way, which is one of the reasons the narrator writes a bunch down in his notebook:

You’re a poet, just listen to this beaut, I said before reading the first sentence, taking advantage of the marimba having just ended, and in my best declamatory voice, I read: Their clothes stayed sad . . . and then I observed my buddy, but he in turn looked back at me as if he were waiting, so I immediately read the second sentence in a more commanding tone of voice, if that were possible: The houses they were sad because no people were inside them . . . And then, without waiting, I read the third one: Our houses they burned, our animals they ate, our children they killed, the women, the men, ay! ay! . . . Who will put back all the houses? And I observed him again because by now he must have fathomed those verses that expressed to me all the despair of the massacres, but not to my buddy Toto, more of a landowner than a poet, as I sadly discovered, when I heard him mumble something like “Cool . . . ,” [. . .]

But as I wrote in my review this novel isn’t all violence and depressing stories—it actually has a number of very humorous sections (like the bit about a woman’s stinky feet) and is an incredibly human book.

And the Bernhardian rhythms of the prose are beautifully translated, absolutely drawing the reader into the narrator’s world.

Speaking of the translation, I had a chance to meet Katherine Silver last week at the MLA convention. She’s a remarkable translator—and very fun person—and told me about how she discovered Moya at the Guadalajara Book Fair. I can’t find an account of this online, but basically she said that someone gave her the book, and was blown away when she read it on the plane ride home, and decided that she absolutely had to translate it. And thankfully, Barbara Epler of New Directions (who has spectacular taste) picked it up.

And speaking of Katherine, Scott Esposito interviewed her for Bloomsbury Review, a magazine with a large circulation and completely dysfunctional website. Thankfully, the Center for the Art of Translation re-ran this interview on their site:

Scott Esposito: Now Moya is a big comma-user in Senselessness. To a large degree these commas regulate the pace of the sentences, and the sentences are always changing speed. If you compare Moya to someone like Proust of Henry James, these writers have long, elaborate sentences too, but their sentences always seem to move at the same speed, whereas with Moya we’re up and down depending on the narrator’s erratic consciousness. What was it like trying to reproduce this effect in English?

Katherine Silver: One thing we did, and this was Barbara Epler’s suggestion, we got rid of the serial commas. I liked that a lot because it made the adjective/noun combinations more fluid, like they were all one unit, and it let the comma be more of a pause in these long sentences. If we had cluttered up the book with things like serial commas I think we would have lost the impact of the punctuation.

SE: And do you feel like you were successful in keeping Moya’s rhythms?

KS: I think I was. This was the big challenge of the book, keeping Horacio’s rhythms, and I think it worked. It wasn’t the same rhythms as the Spanish obviously, but I think it mimics the effect. Whenever I see Horacio read the book out loud, I’m always very pleased. I can see him getting into a rhythm with the English, even though he’s not pronouncing the words quite right, he gets into his own rhythm and he seems to have an intuitive sense of the text. And whenever I see him read, it’s like a layering: it’s his work on the bottom, and them my translation, and then him again reading it—interpreting it, really—and drawing on both.

And as one of the big proponents for this novel when it first came out, Scott also published an interview with Moya in The Quarterly Conversation which includes a bit about the “snippets”:

Mauro Javier Cardenas: The snippets of testimony in Senselessness are taken from actual testimonies. You did some work for the human rights report where these testimonies come from. Could you talk about your experience in working with that report? I’m not trying to find out how autobiographical Senselessness is. I’m just wondering about that original experience that was later to become the starting point for the novel.

Horacio Castellanos Moya: What I did was a kind of editorial advisory work for a human rights organization toward the end of 1997 and the beginning of 1998. Back then I wrote in a notebook some of the phrases from the testimonies of the witnesses of the genocide, just as I always write in my notebooks phrases from the books I am reading that make an impression on me. . . . But it was not until six years later, in 2003, when I was planning to travel to Guatemala to find a journalistic job, that I began to browse my old notebooks, found those phrases, and told myself that there was a potential novel in them. I started working on it immediately.

MJC: I remember that when I was reading Senselessness for the first time those snippets of testimony seemed almost humorous to me because of their syntax. It was only when I finished the novel that the sadness of those testimonies began to sink in. They are like relics of a world completely foreign to me, a world that was being disappeared . . .

HCM: The force of those snippets arises from the pain and the desolation that they contain in a very concentrated way; it arises too from the sadness of a Mayan culture submitted to blood and fire for 500 years. The fact that those snippets have been said by people who could barely speak Spanish and who had a different vision of the world gives them their poetic character, and to me it also gave me the liberty to use them as a rich and malleable literary material.

1 This is sort of inaccurate. From the author bio: “Horacio Castellanos Moya was born in 1957 in Honduras, but grew up in El Salvador. He has lived in Guatemala, Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico (where he spent twelve years as a journalist, editor, and political analyst), Spain and Germany. . . . [He] is not living in exile as part of the City of Asylum project in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

5 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



The Taker and Other Stories by Rubem Fonseca, translated from the Portuguese by Clifford Landers. (Brazil, Open Letter)

The Taker and Other Stories by Rubem Fonseca — the one Open Letter title to make the Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist — was one of the first titles that we signed on. (And just to clarify, no one affiliated with Open Letter voted for any OL titles, and won’t when it comes to the shortlist either.)

In the summer of 2007, a few years after receiving a National Endwoment for the Arts Translation Fellowship to work on a Fonseca story project, Clifford Landers e-mailed me the fully translated manuscript for what became The Taker and Other Stories. Ever since reading High Art and Vast Emotions & Imperfect Thoughts I had been interested in finding out more about Fonseca and his work.

It’s a bit tricky to find out more about Fonseca himself. He’s a notorious recluse (although he was very quick to respond to my initial e-mail about publishing his work), and is friends with Thomas Pynchon. (Which, I think, is how the Pynchon quote on the cover of our book came about. I found out about it when David Kipen, Director of Literature at the NEA and Pynchon fanatic, directed me to the Portuguese version on this site. Although I feel like I should bend the truth and tell everyone we got this from The Man Himself. Now the amazing Stewart O’Nan quote we did get . . . )

The work itself is a bit easier. Fonseca’s published eight novels, and is the author of numerous short stories (only some of which are included in this collection). He received the Juan Rulfo Award in 2003 (since renamed), and as mentioned above, a couple of his books were published in English back some years ago. His most famous literary creation is probably Mandrake, a cynical and amoral lawyer who is the basis of an HBO series of the same name.

This book was the first collection of Fonseca’s stories to be published in English. Which is somewhat surprising, since in his native Brazil, Fonseca’s short stories are what really made his reputation. (But as almost every editor in the U.S. and UK will tell you, “short stories don’t sell.” And the battle between sales and art rages on . . .)

The stories themselves are frequently violent. In the title story, a young man is pushed to grander and more destructive acts of violence thanks in part to his new girlfriend. “Night Drive,” the full text of which is available here, starts so peacefully, until the narrator goes out driving to unwind . . .

Fonseca’s depictions of the seedier side of Rio are amazing, but not all of his stories are filled with crimes. One of my personal favorites is “The Enemy,” a story about a middle-aged man thinking about the time he tried to reconnect with his high school friends to reminisce about when Roberto flew and Ulpiniano the Gentle was resurrected only to see how everyone had moved on, and remembered nothing of that mystical time. It’s a heartbreaking story, and one that made me decide that we really had to publish this collection.

“The Eleventh of May” is a funny and haunting story about an insurrection in a somewhat surreal nursing home, and “The Notebook” is a funny, and bit misogynistic, story about a man who keeps a notebook detailing all his “conquests.”

Overall, the stories in this collection are quite varied, and make up a great introduction to the fictional worlds of one of Brazil’s greatest writers.

5 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the break, E.J. put together a microsite for the Best Translated Book of the Year award. With the cover images, schedule of upcoming announcements, and other info on all 25 titles, this is definitely worth visiting.

I’m sure this happens with other awards as well, but I have to say that the experience of reading a lot of this longlist titles one after another has been pretty amazing. All of the titles that made the list are incredibly well done, and each time I finish one, I end up reordering my personal top 10 . . . Not everyone has the time or desire to do this, but if you do decide to undertake a project like this, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

2 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



I’d Like by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich. (Greece, Dalkey Archive)

For me, this collection of linked stories (or collection of unwritten novels? or metafictional labyrinth?) has been the most pleasant surprise on the Best Translated Book fiction longlist so far.

Back a few years ago, when I was working at Dalkey Archive, I wrote the grant application that got this book a decent amount of funding from the NEA and Greek Government as part of the “International Literary Exchange” program that Dana Gioia of the NEA had put together. Anyway, at that time, Ana Lucic had found out about Amanda Michalopoulou and was able to give me a reader’s report and a short sample of the book to help with writing the grant. (In case you’re wondering, it’s great fun writing grants about books you haven’t read in their entirety. On one hand, providing details about why a book is grant-worthy becomes a bit more tricky, but it’s easier to believe that a book is “one of the most important works of the time” without any contradictory literal evidence.)

The sample that I remember reading is the story “What Will You Do Next?” in which a character and his author have a conversation on the phone. It’s a very playful, and very well done story, that got me excited about the book as a whole. (And btw, Karen Emmerich’s translation was incredibly well done. The Emmerich family is a wee bit talented.) But I left Dalkey before the finished translation arrived and over the winter break, finally had a chance to read this book and see just how imaginative, captivating, and complex it is.

When I read “linked stories” in jacket copy, I assume that some of the same characters appear from one story to the next. A baker in story one becomes the protagonist of story four, etc. But I’d Like is a bit more complicated than that. In her own words, Michalopoulou tried “to write stories that would read like versions of an unwritten novel. Or, better, to write the biography of those stories as well as their fictional writer.”

The result is somewhat reminiscent of Nicholas Mosley’s Impossible Object in which a character in one story seems to the be author of a few others, but each time the reader feels she’s figured it all out, the line between fiction and reality jumps once again, and you’re left wondering just how these gem-like stories really fit together.

I’m probably making this sound more confusing than it is . . . Part of Michalopoulou’s triumph is the way in which each story can be read and thoroughly enjoyed independent of the others, but the motifs littered throughout the book help create a sort of grand mosaic when taken as a whole. And it’s through these recurring lines and scenes—the older sister who dies in a car accident, the mom who is tragically injured, the idea that rain only exists inside us and we see it externally when it’s “raining for enough people,” the red beret, etc.—that the reader starts to see a knotted metafictional pattern emerge.

Monica Carter (curator of Salonica World Lit) reviewed this for us a few months back and called for publishers to bring out more of Michalopoulou’s work . . . More recently, Monica interviewed Michalopoulou for Context that touches on the “recurring motif” aspect of the book (and other things):

MC: It’s interesting that you felt you need to strengthen the presence of the red beret. I loved its appearance throughout I’d Like. I also felt that there was a definite drive to communicate certain ideas and themes, as though these stories were a form of release. Were you conscious of that, or was it more of an exploration of each character?

AM: It was both. Characters are the vehicles of ideas, but they have to work as characters. If not, you’re writing theory, not literature. The idea behind the characters in this book is that family can be a mechanism of oppression. I guess all my characters feel very clearly that they are obeying other people’s wishes. Writing can be a true act of disobedience, so the desire the younger sister has to write these stories down is a step towards salvation. I believe that writing can and should do that: save characters who are suffering, and, possibly, their author as well.

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

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



Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. (Portugal, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Jose Saramago is the third Nobel Prize winner (along with Imre Kertesz and Halldor Laxness) to make the Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, and his latest novel, Death with Interruptions, is the perfect book to write about on New Year’s Eve:

The following day, no one died. This fact, being absolutely contrary to life’s rules, provoked enormous and, in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people’s minds, for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary case, of such a phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty-four hours, diurnal and nocturnal, matutinal and vespertine, without one death from an illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not one, not a single one. Not even from a car accident, so frequent on festive occasions, when blithe irresponsibility and an excess of alcohol jockey for position on the roads to decide who will reach death first. New year’s eve had failed to leave behind it the usual calamitous trail of fatalities, as if old atropos with her great bared teeth had decided to put aside her shears for a day.

Saramago’s most notable novels—_Blindness_, The Stone Raft, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ—are all “what if?” stories. What if everyone suddenly went blind? What if the Iberian Peninsula broke off from Europe? Or, in this case, what if people suddenly stopped dying? What would happen to society? Would the prospect of eternal life for all really be a good thing?

The systematic and imaginative way in which Saramago explores all the various ramifications of these “what if” situations is what makes his novels so much fun. For instance, if no one dies, than there’s no need for funeral parlors, causing the whole industry to have to retool. On the other hand, hospitals and nursing homes are suddenly overrun with people on the brink of death, but who can’t die. And how the mafia gets involved in all of this—whenever there’s a money-making opportunity, the mafia, or “maphia” as they call themselves in this novel, is there—is both ingenious and raises some interesting ethical questions for Saramago to play with.

Just the other day, Goodloe Byron wrote an essay on Saramago for Ed Champion’s Reluctant Habits that focuses on Death with Interruptions and does a great job describing the second half of this novel:

But thankfully, death returns! She is classically personified, coming to us with skull, scythe, and all, a contrast to the modern view of death as a biological process. Now the story happens again, localized to a single character: an unsung cellist whom death is unable to kill. Suddenly, the story focuses and takes on the tone of an old school romance, and interestingly shares some traits with romantic obsession narratives such as Marc Behm’s Eye of the Beholder. It is a Da Capo al Fine move, repeating the central premise of the book but altering environmental physics from the purely positive world of his later phase, into the classical fables that characterized his first. Though something along this lines was hinted at in Seeing, to my mind, this is a transition radical enough to be considered entirely new for Saramago, and it presents us with the skeleton key to the book. This time, Death is amazed by her own impotence in the face of the human being, who remains ignorant of her, a nice reversal of the working order. This goes to the core of what Saramago’s all about, recalling the distinction between the human will (the mortal, individual spirit that dies with or before us) and soul (the eternal part of man removed from its human excess) that he explored in Baltasar and Blimunda. Instead of judging humanity by what is naturally effective (a la Deng Xiaoping), Saramago is suggesting that we should judge nature by what is morally affective (which, for Saramago, is grassroots Marxism).

What’s always surprised me is just how popular Saramago’s books are despite the fact that they embody almost all of the elements that supposedly drive readers away from translated literature: long paragraphs with idiosyncratic punctuation, dialogue that isn’t set off by quotation marks or anything else, occasional moments in which the narrator breaks the “fourth wall” and addresses the reader directly. In a recent Guardian article Margaret Jull Costa—who has done an amazing job of rendering Saramago in English—describes his unique writing style and its connection to traditional Portuguese literature:

With Risen from the Ground, about three generations of an Alentejo peasant family, he began the great novels of the 80s, and invented his distinctive style of “continuous flow” with sparse punctuation. His English translator Margaret Jull Costa says his “seamless narrative voice” is meant to sound like speech. He orchestrates sounds and pauses. She also likens him to the 19th-century realist novelist Eça de Queiroz, “in a tradition of mocking Portugal, making fun of it”.

Granted, winning the Nobel Prize helped bring a lot of attention and readers to Saramago, but I think the warmth of his voice and the unique way that his fairytale-esque novels read as if they could be oral histories, that has made him one of today’s most widely read international authors.

18 December 08 | Chad W. Post |

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



Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Carolina De Robertis. (Chile, Melville House)

For the third straight day we’re featuring a Chilean author from the Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, although the author’s country of birth might be the only similarity between Bolano’s novels and Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai. Just in terms of length, 2666 is by far the longest novel of the bunch, whereas Bonsai clocks in at 83 very white-space heavy pages.

Which isn’t to say that this novel is “slight,” or that it lacks the depth of longer novels. The thing that first struck me about this novel is how sweeping Zambra’s short, perfectly crafted chapters can be. Actually, I take that back. The thing that first caught my attention was this fantastic opening paragraph:

In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was along some years before her death, Emilia’s death. Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called, and continues to be called Julio. Julio and Emilia. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature:

So there. That takes care of the plot and suspense about how the novella ends . . . Although obviously it doesn’t. The “middle” of books is what’s often the most fascinating, and that’s absolutely true of Bonsai.

In a way, the book is constructed like a bonsai, with little tufts of story that connect in a deeper, trunk-like way. For instance, the way we (and Julio) learn of Emilia’s death through a third person who is connected to Emilia and only tangentially to Julio leads to a very moving scene that is also quite intricate.

And Zambra’s playful tone is very compelling, and the quasi-metafictional moment in the middle of the novel. Julio, who has already broken up with Emilia and is with a new girlfriend, interviews for a job transcribing a famous author’s novel. He tells his girlfriend that he got it, only to find out the next morning that the project went to someone else. Rather than admit this, he starts going to a park every day and frantically writes a novel called “Bonsai,” which he passes off as the work of the famous novelist.

To Maria: It’s the greatest test for a writer. In Bonsai almost nothing happens, the plot could be told in two paragraphs, a story that perhaps is not that good.

And what are they called?

The characters? Gazmuri didn’t name them. He says it’s better, and I agree: they are He and She, Huacho and Pochocha, John and Jane Doe, they don’t have names and maybe they don’t have faces either. The protagonist is a king or beggar, it’s all the same. A king or beggar that lets go of the only woman he ever truly loved.

And he learned to speak Japanese?

They met in a Japanese class. The truth is that I don’t know yet, I think that’s in the second notebook.

Bonsai is a perfect example of what Melville House is doing with their Contemporary Art of the Novella Series. Zambra started his writing career as a poet, and after publishing two collections, started a book that “little by little, capriciously, the text took on the form of a novella or long story or bonsai-book.” Not many publishers are willing to publishing books of this length, preferring longer novels, or a novella plus stories (which they’ll then claim doesn’t sell), which is sort of sad, since this book is the exact length it needs to be and stands well on its own.

But thanks to Melville House and what they did with their “classic” novella series—publishing “known” authors and creating an attractive “set” of books—they’re now able to sucessfully introduce American readers to authors like Zambra (or Kevin Vennemann, or Benoit Duteurtre).

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

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



Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolano, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. (Chile, New Directions)

Nazi Literature in the Americas stands in stark contrast to the other Bolano book on the Best Translated Book of the Year fiction longlist. It’s a quarter of the length, much more concise and focused, and, in some ways, more imaginative. But it didn’t receive anywhere near the same amount of hype and attention that’s being heaped on 2666.

Which is really too bad. For a number of years now (and a number of years to come), New Directions has been publishing Bolano’s shorter works, including By Night in Chile, Distant Star, Amulet, the short story collection Last Evenings on Earth, and the poetry collection Romantic Dogs. They were the first U.S. publisher to start doing Bolano and have done a great job establishing his reputation, building his fan base, etc. And there are a lot of Bolano fans who feel that these shorter works are much stronger than the sprawling, diffuse longer novels.

I think these shorter books are masterful—especially the short story collection and this “encyclopedia” of fascist writers. A very Borgesian novel, Nazi Literature in the Americas is a collection of “entries” on imaginary Nazi writers, magazines, publishers, etc. It’s a very creative book, one in which Bolano not only invents these fascist characters, but describes a lot of their works as well, capturing these authors and their works in a concise, intriguing, typically Bolano, fashion. From the section on Argentine writer Silvio Salvatico, who advocated for

among other things, the re-establishment of the Inquisition; corporal punishment in public; a permanent war against the Chileans, the Paraguayans, or the Bolivians as a kind of gymnastics for the nation; polygamy; the extermination of the Indians to prevent further contamination of the Argentinean race; curtailing the rights of any citizen with Jewish blood; a massive influx of migrants from the Scandinavian countries in order to effect a progressive lightening of the national skin color, darkened by years of promiscuity with the indigenous population; life-long writer’s grants; the abolition of tax on artists’ incomes; the creation of the largest air force in South America; the colonization of Antarctica; and the building of new cities in Patagonia.

He was a soccer player and a Futurist.

And about his works:

From 1930 on, burdened by a disastrous marriage and numerous offspring, he worked as a gossip columnist and copy-editor for various newspapers in the capital, hung out in dives, and practised the art of the novel, which stubbornly declined to yield its secrets to him. Three titles resulted: Fields of Honor (1936), about semi-secret challenges and duels in a spectral Buenos Aires; The French Lady (1949), a story of prostitutes with hearts of gold, tango singers and detectives; and The Eyes of the Assassin (1962), a curious precursor to the psycho-killer movies of the seventies and eighties.

These biographical sketches range are sometimes disturbing, always interesting, and occasionally funny, as in this section, one of my personal favorites:

That was not to be Perez Mason’s last visit to the jails of socialist Cuba. In 1965 he published Poor Man’s Soup, which related—in an irreproachable style, worthy of Sholokov—the hardships of a large family living in Havana in 1950. The novel comprised fourteen chapters. The first began: “Lucia was a black woman from . . .”; the second: “Only after serving her father . . .”; the third: “Nothing had come easily to Juan . . .”; the fourth: “Gradually, tenderly, she drew him towards her . . .” The censor quickly smelled a rat. The first letters of each chapter made up the acrostic LONG LIVE HITLER. A major scandal broke out. Perez Mason defended himself haughtily: it was a simple coincidence. The censors set to work in earnest, and made a fresh discovery: the first letters of each chapter’s second paragraph made up another acrostic—THIS PLACE SUCKS. And those of the third paragraph spelled: USA WHERE ARE YOU. And the fourth paragraph: KISS MY CUBAN ASS. And so, since each chapter, without exception, contained twenty-five paragraphs, the censors and the general public soon discovered twenty-five acrostics. I screwed up, Perez Mason would say later: They were too obvious, but if I’d made it much harder, no one would have realized.

Bolano is the only author who has two books on this year’s longlist, both of which are definitely worth reading.

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

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



2666 by Roberto Bolano, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer. (Chile, FSG)

What more is there to say about 2666? Earlier this year I claimed it was the “big book at BEA,” I also have told various people that it is one of the greatest books to be published during my reading lifetime. It’s gotten a ton of review attention, and was the only non-Knopf book to make the New York Times Top 10 Books of 2008 list. It’s big, it’s available as a three-volume paperback and in hardcover, it’s ambitious, it’s five novels in one, and it’s on our longlist.

A simple Google search will bring you more reviews and descriptions of the book than you care to read, despite the fact that this isn’t an easy book to talk about or review. (In terms of Best Translated Book panelists, both Michael Orthofer and Scott Esposito have reviewed this.) Each of the five sections is very distinct, although they link together in a sort of mind-blowing fashion. And at the center of the novel are the disturbing Ciudad Juarez murders. From the “Note to the First Edition”:

In one of his many notes for 2666, Bolano indicates the existence in the work of a “hidden center,” concealed beneath what might be considered the novel’s “physical center.” There is reason to think that this physical center is the city of Santa Teresa, faithful reflection of Ciudad Juarez, on the Mexican-U.S. border. There the five parts of the novel ultimately converge; there the crimes are committed that comprise its spectacular backdrop (and that are said by one of the novel’s characters to contain “the secret of the world”). As for the “hidden center” . . . , might it not represent 2666 itself, the date upon which the whole novel rests? [. . .]

A final observation is perhaps in order here. Among Bolano’s notes for 2666 there appears the single line: “The narrator of 2666 is Arturo Bolano.” And elsewhere Bolano adds, with the indication “for the end of _2666_“: “And that’s it, friends. I’ve done it all, I’ve lived it all. If I had the strength, I’d cry. Farewell to you all, Arturo Bolano.”

Earlier this month, Words Without Borders hosted a special event at Idlewild books with Natasha Wimmer (the translator of 2666) and novelist Francisco Goldman (who, I believe, was the first person to turn Barbara Epler of New Directions onto Bolano). Sounds like the event was spectacular, at least according to these two write-ups:

I think I could have listened to Francisco Goldman tell stories all night long, despite the heat raditating from over a hundred of us standing, eager Bolaño fans at Idlewild Bookstore Thursday night. While Goldman and Bolaño had never met – indeed, Goldman had not read Bolaño until shortly after his death – he effused passion for the subject of the night’s talk and channeled their many mutual friends and admirers for a surprisingly intimate look an author who is taking on the near mythical status he’s had for some time now outside of the U.S. [From Bud Parr’s report for Words Without Borders

And, one of the most important details from Scott Bryan Wilson’s write up at Conversational Reading

Goldman pronounced the title “Two-six-six-six,” perhaps emphasizing the Number of the Beast association, while Wimmer opted for the lengthier but seemingly more correct “Twenty-six-sixty-six.

What’s even better is that both Natasha Wimmer and Francisco Goldman wrote essays for this event (click above names for both) that are quite interesting. Here’s a nice section from Francisco’s piece that’s also a good note to end on:

Bolaño drew from reality in his fiction, and from his own life, yet his fiction is not really realist. His fiction pointed away from reality, and certainly away from mundane political or moral interpretations of reality, towards something else—poetry, open-endedness, a kind of philosophical and tragicomic shock; his fiction always opens “new paths,” as Bolaño said of Borges’s writing. And it is partly this mysterious, radical quality, sometimes even a quality of epic parable (someone in 2666, Amalfitano maybe, says something along the lines of “if you could solve the mystery of the murders of women in Santa Teresa, you’d decipher the meaning of evil in our time”) that makes his writing seem more kin to the spirit of Borges and even Kafka than to other Latin American writers he also admired, such as Lezama, Onetti, Cortazar, or Bioy.

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

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

The Lemoine Affair by Marcel Proust, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell. (France, Melville House)

One of the reasons this award is so much fun is the fact that someone like Marcel Proust can be on the same list as someone like Celine Curiol. Although I have to admit, I had no idea that there was anything from Proust that hadn’t already made its way into English . . . especially nothing this interesting.

The Lemoine Affair is part of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, a collection of classic novellas by classic authors, such as Joyce’s The Dead, Cervantes’s The Dialogue of the Dogs, Balzac’s The Girld with the Golden Eyes, and Melville’s Benito Cereno. (MHP also does an Art of the Contemporary Novella series, which will be featured later this month in relation to Zambra’s Bonsai.)

This novella is a very unique, very playful book. It was written shortly after the “Lemoine Scandal,” a scam explained by Proust in the “Author’s Note”:

The reader may have forgotten, since ten years have now passed, that [Henri] Lemoine, having falsely claimed to have discovered the secret of making diamonds and having received, because of this claim, more than a million francs from the President of De Beers, Sir Julius Werner, who then brought action against him, was afterwards condemned on July 6, 1909 to six years in prison. This legal affair, which, although insignificant, enthralled public opinion at the time, was selected one evening by me, entirely by chance, as the common theme for a few short pieces in which I would set out to imitate the style of a certain number of writers.

As a series of pastiches written around a central event, this isn’t your typical novella. And that’s one of the things that makes it so intriguing. As Charlotte says in the interview below (more in a second), it’s Proust doing Balzac, doing Flaubert, doing Saint-Simon!

In order to celebrate this novella’s inclusion on the Best Translated Book of the Year fiction longlist I interviewed Charlotte Mandell, who, in addition to translating this book has translated Balzac’s _The Girl with the Golden Eyes, Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, and most recently Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, along with many, many other titles:

Chad W. Post: When I first heard about The Lemoine Affair, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there was something of Proust’s that hadn’t made its way into English. How did this project come about? Did you bring it up with Melville House, or did they contact you?

Charlotte Mandell: The Proust project was my idea—Dennis and Valerie had asked me for some French ideas for their novella series, so I came up with three: Balzac’s The Girl with the Golden Eyes (which has been translated a number of times, but not to my liking), Jules Verne’s The Castle in Transylvania (_Le Château des Carpathes_, which was translated as The Carpathian Castle a while ago but is now out of print), and Proust’s Pastiches. (I had already translated Flaubert’s A Simple Heart and Maupassant’s The Horla for Melville House.) My friend Mark Cohen had given me a copy of Pastiches et mélanges a year or so before that, and while I knew the Mélanges (a collection of essays on art and literature) had been translated and published as Against Sainte-Beuve, I couldn’t find any published translation of the Pastiches. Which is sort of shocking, considering what wonderful material it is—Proust writing as Flaubert and Balzac!—but then again, it is a difficult piece to translate, so maybe no one wanted to tackle it before.

CWP: It really does seem like a difficult book to translate—everything’s so precise, and to really work you have to capture the voice of a number of different authors. Is there anything in particular you did to prepare for this translation? Reread bits of Balzac and Saint-Simon?

CM: Any good text speaks for itself, so if a text is well-written, and its narrative voice is convincing, there really isn’t any need for the translator to do anything but stay true to the text. And since Proust is a master stylist, he imitates each author’s style so well that it needed no help from me. That said, I did do some research as I was translating the book: I read a bit in Saint-Simon’s memoirs. And since Proust put many of his own friends into the Saint-Simon chapter, and since these same friends would later figure as characters in Remembrance, I read several biographies of Proust (the most helpful of which were William Sansom’s Proust and His World; The World of Marcel Proust by André Maurois; and A Proust Souvenir by William Howard Adams, with period photographs by Paul Nadar).

CWP: Was there a section that was particularly tricky?

CM: The most difficult pastiche to translate was definitely the Saint-Simon chapter, because it blends obscure 18th century court intrigue with Proust’s own intricate style and Saint-Simon’s interminable sentences, and places Proust’s friends in the court of Louis XIV. Proust admired Saint-Simon as a writer; I think one of the reasons the Saint-Simon pastiche is the longest one is that Proust got a little carried away with it, and it began to sound more like Proust than like Saint-Simon (the long sentence describing Proust’s close friend Robert de Montesquiou, the Symbolist poet and one of the models for Charlus, on pp. 79-80 sounds like pure Proust at his best). Proust said he wrote the pastiches partly to purge these authors from his system, so that when he began his great work, A la recherche du temps perdu, his voice would be entirely his own. I think Saint-Simon was the hardest author for him to exorcise!

CWP: In the piece you wrote about the book, you mention that the pastiche was a popular exercise back in the 1890s. It’s a really fun form, one that would have interesting results in just about any day and age. Which other famous pastiches as compelling as this one? (I’m mostly just curious. It seems to me like something the Oulipo would revive . . . )

CM: Rabelais was the first author I know of to write pastiches—The Third Book of the Pantagruel features a lot of pastiches written in the style of authors of his day. Alexander Pope, who spent years translating (or sub-contracting) Homer, did our most famous pastiche of the epic form in The Rape of the Lock. Henry Fielding’s Shamela is a much shorter parody and pastiche of Samuel Richardson’s commercially successful but interminable Pamela. Mark Twain has the Duke do a hilarious Shakespearian pastiche in Huckleberry Finn. La Bruyère pastiched Montaigne, I think. Max Beerbohm parodies different literary styles (H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and many others) in A Christmas Garland. The French author Paul Reboux, in collaboration with his friend Charles Müller, wrote many volumes of pastiches, titled A la manière de . . .; Proust is pastiched in it, along with his friends Alphonse Daudet and Anna de Noailles, as well as Tolstoy, Arthur Conan Doyle, Sartre, Jean Jaurès, Mallarmé . . .

It’s interesting you mention Oulipo – Raymond Queneau’s wonderful Exercices de style is a form of pastiche, since it tells the same story in 99 different styles (Umberto Eco translated that into Italian). That work spawned a number of other pastiches: Stéphane Tufféry’s Le style, mode d’emploi, in which he pastiches Balzac, Hugo, Verne, and Flaubert, among others; Lucien d’Azay’s Nouveaux exercices de style, in which he pastiches Duras, Echenoz, and Le Clézio, to name just a few; and the Oulipian Hervé Le Tellier, who presents 100 different views of the Mona Lisa in his Joconde jusqu’à cent, then 100 more in Joconde sur votre indulgence.

CWP: For readers unfamiliar with French literary history, this book could seem a bit heady or daunting with all the references and whatnot. Personally, I found it really enjoyable and entertaining, even in the sections where Proust was imitating someone I hadn’t read. Is there anything you would tell a potential reader in advance to increase his/her pleasure when reading this?

CM: Relax! Don’t worry about not getting all the references—just sit back and let the text lead you where it will. I’ve never read Henri de Régnier, but I felt I knew him perfectly after reading Proust’s pastiche—and I laughed out loud as I was translating it. All those endless parallel constructions (it was not this, but that . . .), the redundant and outrageous use of symbolism (Hermes’ caduceus, mucus resembling a diamond) . . . The wonderful thing about Proust is his ability to capture a particular author’s style and encapsulate it in just a few pages, or in some cases (as in the heartbreakingly beautiful end of the Flaubert pastiche) in just a few sentences. The pretended diamond is a fitting subject in this case, since each pastiche is a brilliant artificial gem of insight and style, and each one stands out and sparkles on its own. (It’s interesting to compare a Proust pastiche to a Beerbohm pastiche: Beerbohm is obviously Beerbohm writing in the style of . . . , whereas Proust becomes that author so convincingly you can forget you’re reading Proust. I think that wonderful ability to see through the eyes of another author is one of the things that makes Proust so great: as we read A la recherché, each character is so real that we become the narrator interacting with these characters, so that by the end of the book we feel as if all these characters were intimate friends of ours, and the narrator’s life and thoughts were our own.)

CWP: We (Three Percent and Co.) recently released our “Best Translated Book of 2008” fiction longlist, which includes Proust’s The Lemoine Affair. Assuming you think this book deserves to be on the list, are there any other translations you read/worked on this year that you’d like to recommend?

CM: I’m really pleased The Lemoine Affair made your longlist! I think I had six translations published in 2008, but the Proust is my favorite by far, and the one I’m most proud of, since it’s never been translated before (to my knowledge). A few other books of interest: Peter Szendy’s Listen: A History of Our Ears, an impassioned and erudite musicological look at the history of listening and who exactly “owns” the rights to classical music, and Balzac’s weird tale The Girl with the Golden Eyes. Jean Paulhan’s On Poetry and Politics is worth taking a look at, since Paulhan is an important figure in French letters and these essays are appearing in English for the first time. Also Pierre Bayard’s Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong, in which Bayard argues that fictional characters have lives of their own (as in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds or any of the Jasper Fforde novels), and are capable of doing things (including murder) without the author (or the author’s star detective) knowing it. Most beautiful of all perhaps is Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Fall of Sleep, which is coming out next year—an extraordinary instance of theory as lyricism.

CWP: What projects do you have lined up for the future? Are there any other gems like this that you’d love to work on but haven’t found a publisher for yet?

CM: The book I’m most excited about at the moment is Mathias Énard’s Zone, which you’ll be publishing! I think it’s the next Great Book, and I can’t wait to start work on it. As for other unpublished or out-of-print books, I’d love to translate Jules Verne’s Le secret de Wilhelm Störitz, about a mad scientist who turns a woman who spurns him invisible. I’d also like to translate Flaubert’s L’Éducation sentimentale someday, since I don’t know of any translations that do it justice.

11 December 08 | Chad W. Post |

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

The Enormity of the Tragedy by Quim Monzo, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush. (Catalonia, Peter Owen)

The set-up of The Enormity of the Tragedy sounds like a dirty joke for the Viagra generation: Ramon-Maria wakes up one morning with an “indefatigable erection.” After many “experiments” trying to “relieve” his condition, he goes to a doctor and finds out that his erection is a symptom of a rare and fatal disease that leaves him with two months to live.

But one of the things that makes this novel so interesting is the fact that it doesn’t devolve into penis jokes and sexual set-pieces. Instead, Monzo focuses a lot on the “tragedy” in the title, treating Ramon-Maria situation—his fatal condition and the fact that his stepdaughter plots to murder him—in a straightforward, natural way. Monzo’s warmth as a writer ensures that the book is still funny, it’s just not the sort of slapstick comedy of errors that the initial description seems to point to.

Before reading this, I had read a couple Monzo stories, but that’s it. (Not much has been published in English, although in the interest of full disclosure, Open Letter will be publishing Benzina and Guadalajara over the next year.) This book blew me away though. Peter Bush’s translation is wonderful, and the way that Monzo crafts his story—playing Ramon-Maria’s attempt to “live large” (pun only half-intended) over his last few months against the adolescent struggles of Anna-Francesca. As the novel progresses and the plot becomes more complicated, everything builds to an inevitable conclusion that is also a bit shocking. And definitely not the punchline to a dirty joke.

When this first came out, I wrote a full-length review, which included this passage that does paint a decent picture of the Monzo universe:

Outside a molossus mastiff was observing a whisky-coloured cat. The cat started to run. The dog chased it. The cat tried to get away but found itself trapped in the cul-de-sac with no escape route and walls too high to climb. It turned around, fur bristling. The mastiff stopped. They both looked at each other, motionless. In the distance, a gate squeaked. The cat moved almost imperceptibly, jumped, legs outstretched, and scratched the dog’s cheek striping it in blood. It tried to take advantage of the mastiff’s disarray to make an escape, but the dog jumped nimbly, pounced on the cat, opened its jaws and tore it apart.

In terms of Monzo himself, he’s considered one of the best contemporary Catalan writers. He even gave the opening speech when Catalan was the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year. This speech is another good example of his playful, self-referential style:

Won’t reading the names of all these writers (most of whom are unknown to the literary world that circulates in Frankfurt) just be tedious for the audience at the opening ceremony who will have to listen to so many unfamiliar names? Won’t they be looking at their watches and thinking, “What a bore!”? And so he decides he won’t mention any names (even though, in fact, he has already mentioned them in the very process of describing his doubts as to whether he should mention them or not). What’s more, he’s read that at the Frankfurt Book Fair there will be an exhibition that explains all this. Although—to be frank—how many of the persons who attend this inaugural event will later visit this exhibition with any more interest than a merely official show of etiquette? Let us be frank and optimistic: very few. Even if this is a Book Fair, where the least-known authors ought to be the ones who would most pique the reading appetite of those who were interested in discovering literary gems and not simply following the commercial drumbeat of what is in vogue at the time.

Monzo is an important writer, both for his novels and him many short story collections, and truly deserves to be on the Best Translated Book fiction longlist.

10 December 08 | Chad W. Post |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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8 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

Camera by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, translated from the French by Matthew B. Smith. (France, Dalkey Archive Press)

Camera is one of three Dalkey Archive Press titles that made the Best Translated Book of 2008 list (along with I’d Like and Homage to Czerny), and one of four Jean-Philippe Toussaint books that Dalkey currently has in print (the others are The Bathroom, Television, and Monsieur, with Running Away due out in 2010).

Toussaint is a strange, affecting writer. Nothing really happens in any of his books, or at least no “exciting” events like you find in a lot of plot-heavy books—in this one, a self-obsessed man falls in love with the woman from a driver’s ed office, they fall in love, they go on vacation, he finds a camera on a ship—but that’s sort of the point. The focus of his novels is more on the inner workings of the protagonist’s mind (workings which are usually a bit off, in a captivating, humorous sort of way), rather than external events that befall him.

In the afterword included in Camera, Toussaint describes this novel as “the description of a condition, the condition of someone’s place in the world. The book progressively shifts from the ‘struggle of living’ to the ‘despair of being.’ “ Sticking with the theoretical (sic) for a moment, Toussaint then goes on to explain the underlying program of this novel:

Yes, you’re right, it’s a manifesto, a program. I don’t know how aware of this I was. But still, it took me over a month to write the first paragraph. [. . .] It’s a very impertinent opening. I’m responding very offhandedly to Kafka’s famous aphorism: “In the fight between you and the world, back the world,” with “In the fight between you and reality, be discouraging.” So yes, it’s a manifesto, but it isn’t a theoretical essay or piece; it’s there, in the book itself, int he opening paragraph of the book, as a theory in action. Underlying my novel is, although it isn’t express theoretically, an idea of literature focused on the insignificant, on the banal, on the mundane, the “not interesting,” the “not edifying,” on lulls in time, on marginal events, which are usually excluded from literature and are not dealt with in books.

Don’t let this emphasis on the “uninteresting” dissuade you though—Camera, like all of Toussaint’s books, is a very funny, very charming novel. That first paragraph that Toussaint alludes to is a great example:

It was about at the same time in my life, a calm life in which ordinarily nothing happened, that in my immediate horizon two events came about, events that, taken separately, were of hardly any interest, and that, considered together, were unfortunately not connected in any way. As it happens I had just decided to learn how to drive, and I had barely begun to get used to this idea when some news reached me by mail: a long-lost friend, in a letter composed with a typewriter, a rather old typewriter, had informed me he was getting married. Now, personally, if there’s one thing that terrifies me, it’s long-lost friends.

Over at The Front Table, editor Martin Riker explains his view of Toussaint and why Dalkey brought out three books by Toussaint this year:

There’s something very exciting about publishing several of an author’s books together. Instead of putting a single work out into the world, you’re putting into the world a whole way of seeing. You’re saying: This is not just about a book. Here’s a writer who is doing something beyond mere temporary curiosity. This is the real thing, an actual innovation, literature finding a new way to relate to life.

This is why, in the jacket copy for Camera, I refer to Toussaint as a “comic Camus for the twenty-first century.” It isn’t because Toussaint’s writing reminds me of Camus’s stylistically, but because Toussaint offers something that Camus once offered: a new way to think about the experience of being. Though both comic and compelling, Toussaint’s “being” is also quite strange, and at times disorienting. Something often seems to be missing, and indeed something often is.

4 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [10]

After weeks of reading, researching, voting, taking recommendations, discussing, and passionately defending, we’ve finally come up with our 25-title fiction longlist for the “Best Translated Book of 2008:”

  • The Book of Chameleons by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Simon & Schuster)
  • Tranquility by Attila Bartis, translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein (Archipelago)
  • 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
  • Voice Over by Céline Curiol, translated from the French by Sam Richard (Seven Stories)
  • Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes (Telegram)
  • Detective Story by Imre Kertesz, translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson (Knopf)
  • Yalo by Elias Khoury, translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux (Archipelago)
  • I’d Like by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Dalkey Archive)
  • Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions)
  • The Lemoine Affair by Marcel Proust, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (Melville House)
  • Death with Interruptions by José Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
  • Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge, translated from the French by Richard Greeman (New York Review Books)
  • Camera by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, translated from the French by Matthew Smith (Dalkey Archive)
  • Khirbet Khizeh by S. Yizhar, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck (Ibis Editions)
  • Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Carolina De Robertis (Melville House)
  • The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg (New York Review Books)

We will be announcing the 10 finalists on January 27th, with the winning titles announced on February 19th at a party at the Melville House offices. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be highlighting each of these titles one-by-one leading up to the announcement of the finalists.

In terms of criteria, we only considered original titles published (or released) in the U.S. in 2008. No retranslations, no reprints, no paperbacks of previously published hardcovers were eligible. And what we’re looking for is the best translated book, not just the best translation. Speaking for all the judges, we believe that a great translated book is a combination of a great original and a great translation, and as such, we’d like to honor the book as a book, as a collaborative effort between author, translator, editor, and publisher.

This year’s panelists included Monica Carter, bookseller at Skylight Books and editor of Salonica ; Steve Dolph, editor of CALQUE ; Scott Esposito, editor of Conversational Reading and The Quarterly Conversation ; Brandon Kennedy, bookseller at Spoonbill & Sugartown ; Michael Orthofer, editor of the Literary Saloon and Complete Review ; Chad W. Post, director of Open Letter Books and this blog ; E.J. Van Lanen, senior editor of Open Letter Books and Three Percent; and Jeff Waxman, bookseller at the Seminary Co-op Bookstores and editor of The Front Table.

(And just so everyone knows this is on the up-and-up, E.J. and I were excluded from voting on Open Letter books, and won’t vote on Taker in choosing the finalists.)

For some additional information, click here for an official press release.

(Sorry there’s no link to the Saramago book. Apparently, in addition to freezing acquisitions, the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s innovative new business model includes not listing individual books on their website. Brilliant!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31 October 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [5]

It’s been a few months since I last posted an update to our ongoing “translation database” project. Over the past 10 months, I’ve been going through every catalog I can get my hands on, all reviews in Publishers Weekly, every new book announcement from Small Press Distribution, and e-mails from cultural centers and publishers from around the world in hopes of building an accurate list of all new works of fiction and poetry published in translation this year.

(Disclaimer: I only tracked new titles that had never been translated before, so no new translation of Kafka, no reprints, no paperback versions of previously published hardcovers, and no kids books or graphic novels.)

It’s gotten to the point where I’m not finding any new titles, and with our “Best Translated Book of the Year” award on the horizon, it seems like the perfect time to post the most up-to-date (and possibly final) spreadsheet of 2008 Translations.

As in the past, this file contains info on all 328 books I identified (261 fiction, 67 poetry), breaking the list down by country of origin, language of original, publishers, month published, etc.

At the start of this project, I naively predicted that there would be “420-450” titles by the end of the year. . . . Well, being off by more than 100 (or 25%) isn’t too bad . . . right?

So the number is even smaller than imagined. And assuming that Bowker’s numbers for 2008 are similar to 2007, these 328 titles represent 0.6% of all the new fiction titles being published in the U.S., and 3.3% of all literature titles. (I assume I know the difference in these categories, but Bowker’s info isn’t all that clear.)

Michael Orthofer wrote a great piece on this a while back, but the growth of works of fiction and literature published in 2007 is astounding:

According to Gallagher, among the major publishing categories, the big winners last year were once again Fiction and Literature. There were 50,071 new fiction titles introduced in the U.S. last year, up 17% from 2006, and the number of new titles in the category in 2007 was almost twice what it was as recently as 2002. Similarly, there was an 19% rise in new literature books last year, to 9,796, which followed a 31% increase in new literature titles in 2006. Bowker

As I mentioned above, we’re gearing up for our “Best Translated Book of 2008” award. This year we’re going to do things a bit differently. We will be announcing a longlist of 25 works of fiction in December, announce a shortlist in January, and a winner in February. (For poetry, we’ll announce a separate shortlist, since there’s a disproportionate amount of fiction titles, and merging the two into one list would do a disservice to the great works of poetry published this year.)

In addition to our panelists, we really want to enlist your help. So, if you have any titles you’d like to recommend, please post them in the comments below, or e-mail me at chad.post at rochester dot edu. We’ll include all reader votes in deciding on the longlist. And as we did last year, we’ll allow everyone to vote on the shortlist and will announce your choice along with the panel’s as the best translation of the year.

Point of clarification: what we mean by “best translated book,” is the best overall book published in 2008 in terms of literary quality and translation. In other words, we’re not looking for just the most skillful translation from last year, but the best book that was published in translation. A translated book is only as good as its translation, so we’re not ignoring the skill of the translator, but a quality translation of a flawed novel isn’t what we’re interested in.

Enough said for now . . .

....
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