27 November 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Thanks to a blown out tire, which forced me to spend most of last Friday riding in a tow truck and sitting in a tire shop, I didn’t have a chance to write my weekly Weekend Reading post.1 So this week, I’m going to triple up on the normal post and write about the three books I hope to spend the next four days reading.

First up is Wiesław Myśliwski’s A Treatise on Shelling Beans, which is translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston and published by Archipelago Books. In case you don’t remember, Bill’s translation of Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone won the Best Translated Book Award in 2012, so I’ve been looking forward to this for a couple years.

And to be honest, I’ve been reading it for the last week. In many ways, it’s similar to Stone Upon Stone—a long, looping monologue detailing the crazy adventures of one person’s life, very plain language, intricate narrative structure—but also a bit different in the way that narrator isn’t quite as self-mythologizing as the guy from Stone Upon Stone, and the general setting (in a part of Poland completely destroyed in WWII). Regardless, it’s an excellent book, and one that I’m definitely going to finish tonight or tomorrow, and will be reviewing in full next week.

Next up is a book I should’ve read years ago: The Girl with the Golden Parasol by Uday Prakash, translated from the Hindi by Jason Grunebaum, and available from Yale University Press. Jason is a good friend, and one of the funniest people I know, which is one reason it’s inexcusable that I’ve had this on my “to read” shelf for so many months.

The main reason I’m picking it up now though is thanks to Jason’s essay “Choosing an English for Hindi” from the invaluable collection, In Translation, which was put together by Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky.

In this essay, Jason invents two possible readers for this novel—Krishna, who lives in South Delhi, is a polyglot who is comfortable reading and speaking in Hindi, English, and Panjabi; and Kris, an English-reader born in Detroit and living in Chicago who has lots of South Asian friends and has attended bhangra dance parties. The crux of Jason’s piece is on whether he should translate The Girl with the Golden Parasol for Krishna (and the potentially huge audience of Indians who would be comfortable reading this book in English), or for Kris (and the much smaller number of American counterparts who might buy this), and what falls out from that particular decision.

Leaving certain words from the Hindi in the English translation won’t be the only difference in strategy if I translate for Krishna. I might also decide to write in a more South Asianized English. I might use an idiomatic phrase like, “I am just coming,” confident that Krishna would take this to mean what in American English would translate as, “I’ll be right back.” Sometimes Uday’s characters use English words in their Hindi or even speak in complete English sentences, like when the protagonist, Rahul, bursts into tears, and his friend implores him (and this is the Hindi), “Don’t be senti, Rahul!” “Senti” comes from the word “sentimental,” and here means an excessive public display of emotion: when someone loses it, can’t keep a grip on himself, fails to keep a grip on himself or hold it together. Krishna would know what “senti” means, and I could leave this, and many other instances of English-in-the-Hindi, as is.

There are several more interesting examples, but you’ll just have to buy, borrow, or steal In Translation to find out what they are.

And the last book I’d like to get to this weekend: The Only Happy Ending for a Love Story Is an Accident by J. P. Cuenca, translated by Elizabeth Lowe, and available from Tagus Press.

First off, this is a Brazilian book, and if you’ve been following this blog at all the past few months, you’ve probably heard about my Brazil obsession. (Which will culminate in our publication of Rafael Cardoso’s The Chronicle of the Murdered House in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation a few years from now.) As a result, I’ve been reading bunches of Brazilian books, but mostly by author’s I’d already heard of. By contrast, I hadn’t heard of J. P. Cuenca until reading “Before the Fall” in Granta’s special young Brazilian authors issue.

It’s also really intriguing that the setting for this book is Tokyo, in the near future, and featuring a mad poet whose hobby is spying on his son. I’ve read the first few chapters in this book, and can confirm that the jack copy is pretty much on target:

In poetic and imaginative language, Cuenca subtly interweaves reality and fiction, creating a dreamlike world whose palpable characters, including a silicone doll,2 leave a lasting impression. Written like a crime novel, full of odd events and reminiscent of Haruki Murakami’s work,3 this disturbing, kaleidoscopic story of voyeurism and perversion draws the reader in from the very first page.

What I really like about this book though is the title. Such a great title. And the fact that it’s from Tagus Press, a relatively new venture specializing in lusophone writing.

Anyway, that’s it for this week—see you after the break!

1 OK, yes, I know this is only “weekly” in my mind, but I do have every intention of making this a more regular feature. Also, to follow up on the last one of these posts—the one about Viviane by Julia Deck—I have to tell you that Viviane turned out to be amazing. So amazing that I’m going to be teaching it in my class next semester, and highly recommend it to everyone.

2 If I had written this copy, I would’ve referred to Yoshiko as a “silicone sex doll.” I’m not sure how accurate that is, but from the first page: “I could not be anything else because I have this body, and I only have this body, I am this body. And the purpose of this body is just one thing: to serve Mr. Okuda.”

3 But better.

22 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the front graphic:

And here’s where you can buy it.

18 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Andrej Stasiuk, one of Poland’s foremost contemporary authors and founder of Wydawnictwo Czarne press, has led a life as complex and colorful as his writing. He was born in Warsaw in 1960 but left his hometown at age 26 to reside in the secluded city of Czarne, where he discovered the provincial beauty of rural Poland—a beauty that would serve as a characteristic landscape for his poetry and prose. Stasiuk was a dedicated participant in the Polish pacifist movement. His ardent opposition to compulsory military service led to his arrest as an army deserter; the year and a half he spent in prison inspired a collection of short stories called The Walls of Hebron (1992). It was this collection that brought Stasiuk to the fore of the Polish literary scene. Since the publication of The Walls of Hebron, Stasiuk has touched every genre, gaining popularity as a travel writer, poet, and novelist. His writing has a distinctive lyrical style, describing modern Poland through impressionistic portrayals of its small towns and the people who inhabit them. Stasiuk’s White Raven (1995; translated by Wiesiek Powaga, Serpent’s Tail, 2001) won the Kultura and Koscielski prizes and has since been made into a film. In his 1997 novel Dukla, presented in English by award-winning translator Bill Johnston, Stasiuk guides the reader through Poland’s landscape with the deft observational savvy of a seasoned traveler and a richness of imagery that exemplifies his poetic voice.

In Dukla, Stasiuk speaks to his reader through the voice of an unnamed narrator whose eccentric descriptions of the world around him echo the author’s avowed mission to illuminate Eastern Europe in print. But while his miniature epic certainly paints a picture of the land and offers insight into the changes that have taken place through the twentieth century to the modern day, the quirky narrator of Dukla insists that he is only interested in talking about light.

Stasiuk’s stylized anti-narrative offers a series of episodes in which the narrator travels to Dukla—a small town in the Carpathian Mountains in southeast Poland—and then returns to his hometown, the name and location of which the reader never learns. The narrator usually travels alone, and when he breaks his habitual solitude he offers the reader no formal introduction to his companions. These secondary characters—we never learn if they are the speaker’s friends, family members, or lovers—exist on the road to Dukla only as first names or lonely initials. The narrator pays more attention to revealing Dukla’s inhabitants, a population inseparable from the landscape. Like a trick of the light, the narrator’s voice transforms commonplace events into a series of visceral, charged experiences:

In the dark shelter that resembled a ruined arcade there was a family sitting and waiting for their bus. No one was talking. The children copied the stoical gravity of their parents. The only thing moving were the little girl’s legs, which swung rhythmically above the ground in their white stockings and shiny red shoes with golden buckles. In the emptiness of the Sunday afternoon, in the stillness of the bus station, this motion brought to mind the helpless pendulum of a toy clock unable to cope with the burden of time. The girl had slipped her hands under her thighs and was sitting on them. The glistening red weights of her feet were rocking in an absolute vacuum. Nothing was added or taken away by the swinging. It was pure movement and ideal, purified space. Her mother was staring emptily ahead. A yellow frill bubbled under her dark blue top. The father was leaning forward, his arms resting on his spread knees, and he too was peering into the depths of the day, toward the meeting point of all human gazes that have encountered no resistance on their path. The woman straightened her hands where they lay in her lap and said, “Sit still.” The girl froze immediately. Now all of them were gazing into the navel of afternoon emptiness, and it was all I could do to tear myself from that motionless slumber.

The narrator never speaks explicitly about how he feels about what he sees. He does not overtly acknowledge the melancholy he evokes or note the powerful influence of nostalgia on his interpretation of the world around him. These moments—distilled to their essence—seem to move him physically, prompting his journeys to and from Dukla. And yet the narrator insists that he returns to Dukla simply “to observe it in different kinds of light and different seasons.” In spite of these assertions, his affected reminisces provide clues that the speaker is looking not for something that is happening but rather for something that happened a long time ago.

The road to Dukla is paved with details. The reader is challenged to move quickly from episode to episode, coming to her own conclusions about these highly descriptive but emotionally unqualified images. The straightforward reporting is punctuated by subtle manipulations of language: Repetition, unusual images, and shifts in tone hint at the feelings of a narrator who stubbornly resists self-expression. Bill Johnston’s skills shine as he helps the reader stay afloat on the narrative’s stream-of-consciousness. Johnston develops the narrative voice by tweaking common language, retaining the lovely oddities of Stasiuk’s metaphors without straining the clarity of the prose. For example, the scene at the bus station makes a refrain of the word “empty,” but pushes the word’s descriptive ability by applying it to an action: “Her mother was staring emptily ahead.” The book’s language insists on passivity; the girl isn’t swinging her legs; her legs are just swinging. The sense of emptiness is furthered as the description continues with, “Nothing was added or taken away by the swinging,” here Johnston utilizes uses the passive voice and makes “nothing” the very subject of the sentence. And yet in the midst of all this nothingness The novel provokes the mind’s eye with striking images that Johnston beautifully captures: A “helpless pendulum” and a family “gazing into the navel of afternoon emptiness.”

Dukla is a verbal representation not only of landscape and light but also of seasons and time. As the narrator travels, his mind wanders back and forth along the years in parallel journeys to the Dukla of the past and a Dukla that exists only in the realm of possibility. For example, as he sits on a crowded bus to Dukla the narrator envisions the train that “should” exist instead. He invokes specific objects and brand names that act as relics of Dukla’s past lives, adding his own idealism to conjure an image of a train so real that it begins to seem less a daydream than a possibility:

The cars would absolutely have to be dark green, faded, and old . . . Everything as it once used to be, like in a transparent dream where ribbons of time and memory are superimposed on one another like a consolation for a too-short life. Cigarettes with a mouthpiece instead of a filter, in hard cardboard boxes with a sphinx on the lid, or with no mouthpiece, but pressed flat, like the Hugarian Munkás brand. Pants had to be pressed and appropriately wide, while in the pocket of your jacket there should be a flat bottle with an inscription on its bottom reading: Baczewski Distillery of Vodkas and Spirits, Lwów. And a Panama hat. What else? Probably the line should end in Dukla. Right next to the place where there’s a bakery kiosk now; the rails come to a stop at a huge wooden buffer on iron girders. Beyond that there’s nothing.

The reader is transported from the “fact” of the narrator is sitting on a bus traversing an imaginary rendering of Dukla to the “real” Dukla in the present day. The passage closes with a single ambiguous statement all the more striking for its contrast to the delicate specificity that precedes it: “Beyond that there’s nothing.” Is Stasiuk telling us that there is nothing beyond the imaginary train station, or that there is nothing more to the narrator’s fantasy? Or that the bakery is at the city limits? The open-ended comment challenges the reader to engage with the text—given all that this town seems to represent for the narrator, what does it mean if there is nothing beyond Dukla?

Is Dukla, as the speaker insists again and again, a novel about light? Perhaps. A reader might be tempted to embrace light as a symbol, but if she approaches the novel with this intention she is in for a difficult task. Stasiuk forces the reader to see through the speaker’s eyes, moving from scene to scene—and year to year—as quickly as the light shifts over the market square in the heart of Dukla. The novel speaks to Stasiuk’s influences in Polish and international literature—an almost cynical realism that echoes Maciej Hłasko and a stream-of-consciousness denial of linear storytelling reminiscent of American beat poets. Dukla uses light and, just as importantly, the requisite darkness that is light’s inexorable consort, to create a character whose thoughts offer inclusive social commentary and a meditation on isolation, a fascination with change and a nostalgic mourning as the familiar is eradicated, and a outlook on his country that becomes a relentless seed of realism in the mind of a dreamer. According to the narrator—and perhaps Stasiuk himself—light is the only reality because it allows us to see.

18 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The lastest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Claire Van Winkle on Andrej Stasiuk’s Dukla, which is translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston and available from Dalkey Archive Press.

Claire is the first of three students (so far) of Susan Bernofsky’s who have written reviews for Three Percent. I’ll be running the others over the next few weeks, along with all the reviews I’ve been hoarding and need to get up here . . . So expect to be inundated with tons of reviews of interesting books.

Here’s the opening to Claire’s review of Dukla, the latest Stasiuk book to make its way into English (thanks to the amazing Bill Johnston):

Andrej Stasiuk, one of Poland’s foremost contemporary authors and founder of Wydawnictwo Czarne press, has led a life as complex and colorful as his writing. He was born in Warsaw in 1960 but left his hometown at age 26 to reside in the secluded city of Czarne, where he discovered the provincial beauty of rural Poland—a beauty that would serve as a characteristic landscape for his poetry and prose. Stasiuk was a dedicated participant in the Polish pacifist movement. His ardent opposition to compulsory military service led to his arrest as an army deserter; the year and a half he spent in prison inspired a collection of short stories called The Walls of Hebron (1992). It was this collection that brought Stasiuk to the fore of the Polish literary scene. Since the publication of The Walls of Hebron, Stasiuk has touched every genre, gaining popularity as a travel writer, poet, and novelist. His writing has a distinctive lyrical style, describing modern Poland through impressionistic portrayals of its small towns and the people who inhabit them. Stasiuk’s White Raven (1995; translated by Wiesiek Powaga, Serpent’s Tail, 2001) won the Kultura and Koscielski prizes and has since been made into a film. In his 1997 novel Dukla, presented in English by award-winning translator Bill Johnston, Stasiuk guides the reader through Poland’s landscape with the deft observational savvy of a seasoned traveler and a richness of imagery that exemplifies his poetic voice.

In Dukla, Stasiuk speaks to his reader through the voice of an unnamed narrator whose eccentric descriptions of the world around him echo the author’s avowed mission to illuminate Eastern Europe in print. But while his miniature epic certainly paints a picture of the land and offers insight into the changes that have taken place through the twentieth century to the modern day, the quirky narrator of Dukla insists that he is only interested in talking about light.

You can read the full review by clicking here.

28 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next two weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

In Red by Magdalena Tulli, translated by Bill Johnston

Language: Polish

Country: Poland
Publisher: Archipelago Books

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

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

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

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

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

11 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next five weeks highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski, translated by Bill Johnston

Language: Polish
Country: Poland
Publisher: Archipelago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on the Read This Next feature of Magdalena Tulli’s In Red, we now have now posted an interview with Polish translator Bill Johnston about this novel.

Bill is an amazing translator and reader, and this interview is filthy with interesting insights into both the translation process and Tulli’s work as a whole. HIGHLY RECOMMEND. Here’s an excerpt:

LY: So do you think in her progression towards a more traditional narrative style, she’s losing something, or do you think that this is actually highlighting the unusualness of her writing?

BJ: Well, to me Flaw is the first overtly personal book that she’s written. It’s about a square in a bourgeois area of an unnamed city where a streetcar runs around the square in a circle. Over the course of the single day, refugees start to emerge from the streetcar and gather in the square. The people living around the square don’t know what to do with them and end up herding the refugees onto the little lawn at the center of the square and telling them they have to stay there. And at one point, one pregnant woman gives birth on the square. The baby’s delivered, but in the confusion the baby goes missing. It just disappears. One of the recurring devices in the book is that Tulli says of a particular character, “it could be you, it could be me,” and basically says about this baby: “it could be me.” It was at that point that I realized how personal the book is for Tulli. Her mother was a Holocaust survivor, and I think there’s a degree of trauma that can be read into all of her writings, but especially Flaw. This is a book about how one deals with “the unwanted,” what Mike Davis calls “surplus humanity,” but it’s also a book about Tulli herself. This was the first time I had seen her overtly present in one of her own books, not hiding behind the mask of a rather sort of pedantic narrator, which she often draws on. I see that very much as a progression.

And has she lost anything? I think Dreams and Stones is a really beautiful book. It’s very much a book of ideas, but it’s also a book of poetry for me, a book of images of extraordinary vividness. But I don’t think she loses that. Her style is always incredibly precise. When you sit down and start to translate something, you really quickly start to see whether the prose has been put together carefully, and in Tulli’s case there’s an extraordinary precision in her choice of words, in the choice of sentence structure, in the exact positioning of perspective mediating between the writer and the narrator, in the characters and so on. And I think that follows through all of the books. When I’ve shown Tulli drafts of the translations, we’ve had very long discussions about very precise phrasing. In fact, she’s even changed some of the original phrases for the English translation. I’m always a little worried that somebody’s going to sit down and compare the two versions and say this is a bad translation. There are some differences between the Polish and the English, but that’s because Tulli decided she should have written it differently. She’s known for revising her own work a great deal, so with each of her books I’ve had to make sure that the version that I’m working with is in fact the most recent version. It’s a little scary when you’re getting into a translation and somebody says, “Oh by the way, this new revised version just came out . . .”

So she’s very much a stylist in the mode of Flaubert, very concerned about word choice, and punctuation and sentence structure and so on, and I think that’s something that remains throughout all four books.

LY: Do you think this makes the process of translating her more difficult, or more enjoyable?

BJ: Both, definitely. For me, as a translator, difficult is enjoyable. Usually. When it’s a good challenge. As a translator I love writers who are very precise and creative with language. Who are not just telling a story in a kind of workmanlike fashion, but really revel in the material with which they’re making their stories. Tulli is very much in that mode. She’s extremely difficult, so it’s a slow process, but a very rewarding one when it finally comes out. It helps to have translated her other three books, because even though each book has a particular narrative voice, there’s still kind of an authorial—I hesitate to use the word “spirit” because of Douglas Robinson—there’s an authorial kind of underlying voice or discourse that can be traced from one book to another. Not that it goes any faster, but maybe I feel a little more confidence. Also, having corresponded so much with Tulli, as I’m working I can hear her comments, saying It’s not that word it’s this word and Could we not do it this way? or Do we have to have to have this syntax? and I think that helps.

Read the whole thing here.

11 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In case you missed it, last Friday, as part of the RTN feature on Tulli’s In Red, we posted this interview with Polish translator Bill Johnston.

Here’s the opening:

Lily Ye: I should start off by saying that I’m not actually that familiar with the other works of Tulli, so I wanted to ask you where you thought In Red fell in her progress as an author, since I know you said that Dreams and Stones was more of a prose-poem, and then later on she moves into a more narrative structure, so where do you think In Red falls?

Bill Johnston: In Red is actually [her second novel], Dreams and Stones was the first and then there was In Red, and then the novel which is called, in English, Moving Parts, and then Flaw is the last one. Tulli and I actually disagree about Dreams and Stones. She still calls it a novel, and I tend to think of it as a prose poem, and you know, I think that would be an interesting argument or discussion in terms of genre. I think for me, a book which doesn’t really have any characters, like human characters, is hard to describe as a novel, it’s a book of ideas—I’m talking about Dreams and Stones—and it has a kind of a story arc which is kind of what she, I would imagine, is what she was thinking about when she described it as a novel. I mean, it also has a fundamental underlying conflict like you find in novels, or particularly dramatic works, but in Dreams and Stones it’s much more to do with the conflict of metaphors, is the city like a tree or is it like a machine? But it’s still very far from anything that we would think of in normal parlance as a novel.

I think with In Red she starts to adapt more elements from traditional novels, and do very interesting and very original things with them, but still we have people, we have people who say things, we have conversations, we have a plot, we have a setting, we have you know a lot of the traditional elements that even today are in most novels, in most books that are called novels. So In Red is kind of the first time that she does that, she has something we might call dialogue, she has these characters, she has a plot and so on. I think her third book, Moving Parts, is a little atypical. That’s the one that most people refer to when they talk about meta-fiction, which was one of your questions that we can talk about in a moment. That’s a book which is very difficult very complex, and I think in a sense she returns to the narrative formats in Flaw, and Flaw is the first of her books that has like a single story arc, that begins on the first page and ends on the last, over the course of a single day, but a lot happens there and you have some kind of unity of plot and place, and time and so on. I mean I guess one could argue that it almost plays out more like a Greek tragedy rather than any sort of novelistic piece. All of her books are really short, many people might consider them more novella length, but definitely Flaw has this single story, the feel of a novella or short novel, In Red is still sort of groping toward that.

You can see In Red has an interesting structure, it’s in three parts, and in each of the parts the central town of the, the setting is somehow different, in one it’s very cold in the other it’s very tropical and so you got these three almost sort of self-contained different takes on what goes on there, but they’re also related in terms of time, and there is an overall time arc that takes us through maybe through the, I don’t what it’s supposed to be, maybe the first half of the twentieth century or something like that. And not characters but relations between characters whether it’s master and servant or fathers and children and relations, they pass from one part of the book to another, so it’s a book which does have an overall unity of structure and has many more of the elements which one would think of as a novel.

I’ve been reading Proust recently, and I see strong echoes of that kind of writing in what she’s doing and obviously what she’s doing in In Red is not imitating the great realist and modernist novels, but she’s taking a lot of elements from them in order to, in a sense, highlight the unusualness of her own writing. But there are scenes, you in the scene where Natalie Zugoff kind of flounces off the train station expecting all the men around to pick up all of her, what is it, 15 suitcases and so on. That’s straight out of Proust, that scene. Clearly in terms of realism and in terms of the authorial voice she’s very different from those writers, she’s very much a writer of the early 21st century, it’s just interesting to see her folding in those more traditional elements, to point out what’s unusual.

Click here to read the full thing.

8 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

Here’s the opening of her review:

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

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

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

Click here to read the full review.

8 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

The book begins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

Here’s the opening of Kaija’s review:

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

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

Click here to read the entire review.

13 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Absinthe 14 arrived in yesterday’s mail, and is loaded with interesting authors and pieces, including:

  • An excerpt from Wieslaw Mysliwski’s Stone Upon Stone, which was translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston and recently published by Archipelago books. (Actually using this in the “Translation & World Literature” class I’m teaching this spring.) Since there’s nothing about issue 14 on the “Absinthe website” quite yet, below is a description of the novel from Archipelago. And click here to hear the Reading the World Podcast episode featuring Bill Johnston.

Myśliwski’s grand epic in the rural tradition—a profound and irreverent stream of memory cutting through the rich and varied terrain of one man’s connection to the land, to his family and community, to women, to tradition, to God, to death, and to what it means to be alive. Wise and impetuous, plain-spoken and compassionate Szymek, recalls his youth in their village, his time as a guerrilla soldier, as a wedding official, barber, policeman, lover, drinker, and caretaker for his invalid brother. Filled with interwoven stories and voices, by turns hilarious and moving, Szymek’s narrative exudes the profound wisdom of one who has suffered, yet who loves life to the very core.

  • An excerpt from Agnomia by Robert Gal, translated from the Slovakian by Michaela Freeman and Jim Freeman, and opening interestingly enough:

They select some man, sufficiently experiment with him and only then identify him as the object of the experiment. They slip him hidden meanings of his multisense expressions which, for them, are univocal. They let him deal with it for years. What they tie in a knot through definition in a moment, he is forced to spend years untying through conscientious interpretation. In the meantime, their definitions are petrified solid. His interpretations appear, as if they were made of butter and deliberately throw them on his head, so that they could laugh at these babbles.

  • A bit about Mateiu Caragiale’s The Rakes of the Old Court, which was published in 1929 and was recently voted “the Romanian novel of the twentieth century.” This bit from the intro by Paul Cernat makes it sound pretty interesting:

For those who wish to gain a closer knowledge of the peculiarities of the Balkan mindset, a reading of this text, which has the value of an emblem of national identity, is, I might say, obligatory. Of course, we are dealing with a “Balkanism” that has been filtered through the work of Huysmans and Edgar Allen Poe, captured in a hypnotic narrative whose density of meanings has led literary theorist Matei Calinescu to compare it with Borges’ El Aleph. It is an unusual narrative, whose effects are those of an addictive literary drug.

There’s also a piece by Thomas E. Kennedy called “A Visit to Hunger 120 Years Later,” and book reviews of The Other City by Mchal Ajvaz (reviewed by Jeff Waxman) and When a Poet Sees a Chestnut Tree by Jean-Pierre Rosnay (reviewed by John Taylor).

As mentioned above, the Absinthe site for issue 14 is still coming together, but you can order the issue by clicking here.

20 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 June 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [2]

This month we talk with translator Bill Johnston about Polish translations, dialects, and his forthcoming translation “Stone upon Stone” by Wieslaw Mysliwski.

Read More...

20 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Dan Vitale on Andrzej Stasiuk’s Fado, which was translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston and published by Dalkey Archive Press.

The book’s gotten a lot of nice attention already, and Stasiuk is considered one of the most interesting contemporary Polish writers. (And his wife runs a really fantastic publishing house. I actually met her in Germany a couple months ago at a special hearing on translations.) Stasiuk has a few books available in English, including Nine, which came out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt a couple years ago. (Although I can’t find a listing for a paperback edition, which is weird and shitty.)

Dan Vitale is one of our contributing reviewers, and has written reviews for us of books by Peter Handke, Roberto Bolano, and Amos Oz, among others.

Here’s the opening of his piece on Fado:

The Polish novelist and essayist Andrzej Stasiuk owns a century-old travel map of Austro-Hungary. Aside from its fragility, he writes, its most notable feature is its level of detail: “[E]very village of half a dozen cottages, every godforsaken backwater where the train stops—even only the slow train, even only once a week—all those places are marked and labeled, all are preserved and their names can be read with a magnifying glass, just as if you were reading the past itself, or discovering the origins of a legend.”

Throughout this captivating collection of essays, Stasiuk does much the same job of preservation for contemporary Central Europe—in particular, the region of the Carpathian Mountains of southern Poland where he lives, just over the border from Slovakia, and the surrounding countries within driving distance of his home. He visits a World War I military cemetery; he encounters Gypsies who have “survived the perils of extermination and the lure of assimilation”; and he provides pithy descriptions of the cultural traits of many other Central European national and ethnic groups in this region that he calls (borrowing the term from Hannah Arendt) the “zone of mixed populations.”

Fado is named for a style of Portuguese folk song noted for its melancholy. But while a melancholic tone occasionally creeps into Stasiuk’s prose, he is no wistful nostalgist. His clear-eyed observations of the present are every bit as engaging as his reclamations of the past.

Click here to read the full review.

20 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Polish novelist and essayist Andrzej Stasiuk owns a century-old travel map of Austro-Hungary. Aside from its fragility, he writes, its most notable feature is its level of detail: “[E]very village of half a dozen cottages, every godforsaken backwater where the train stops—even only the slow train, even only once a week—all those places are marked and labeled, all are preserved and their names can be read with a magnifying glass, just as if you were reading the past itself, or discovering the origins of a legend.”

Throughout this captivating collection of essays, Stasiuk does much the same job of preservation for contemporary Central Europe—in particular, the region of the Carpathian Mountains of southern Poland where he lives, just over the border from Slovakia, and the surrounding countries within driving distance of his home. He visits a World War I military cemetery; he encounters Gypsies who have “survived the perils of extermination and the lure of assimilation”; and he provides pithy descriptions of the cultural traits of many other Central European national and ethnic groups in this region that he calls (borrowing the term from Hannah Arendt) the “zone of mixed populations.”

Fado is named for a style of Portuguese folk song noted for its melancholy. But while a melancholic tone occasionally creeps into Stasiuk’s prose, he is no wistful nostalgist. His clear-eyed observations of the present are every bit as engaging as his reclamations of the past. Here he is describing a gathering of youths in the main town of his home county:

You can hear shouts, curses, sometimes the sound of breaking glass. Occasionally a police car appears and for a moment there’s calm. Then the police drive off and the party starts up again. Someone throws up, someone cuddles someone else, someone goes into the store for another can of beer. Groups move from one car to another. It’s a little like a caravan encampment where cars play the roles of both horses and tents. From time to time someone drives off and a short while later returns. Because these young people have cars, but they don’t have anywhere to travel to in them. Or perhaps it just doesn’t occur to them that they could actually go somewhere.

As good as he is on such details, Stasiuk is equally at home in the realm of the analytical and the abstract. For example, contrasting the lives of Central and Eastern Europeans under communism with those of Western Europeans, he writes of the former:

[W]e practiced something that might be called pathological cosmopolitanism. We lived in our cities and countries in appearance only, because for us they were fictitious entities. They did not exist in and of themselves. Real life happened elsewhere, in the West. Our world was unreal. We had to make it so, because otherwise we would have had to despise it. Attempts to render our world more real resulted in sorry expeditions into an idealized past, or a hazy millenarianism that proclaimed the imminent arrival of a miraculous hybrid—the three-headed dragon of social equality, universal prosperity, and absolute freedom.

Stasiuk also takes occasional detours into the personal, including an essay on his daughter’s growth from childhood into adolescence and another on his own childhood trips to his grandparents’ farm (where, incidentally, tools and household utensils were used and repaired as long as humanly possible, so perhaps Stasiuk comes by his respect for remnants of the past genetically). And in a further departure, he gives us an essay on the importance of Pope John Paul II in the lives of his Polish compatriots, which contains a remarkable meditation on the Pope’s impending death:

In this idiotic world where old age has become outlawed, where sickness and weakness border on the criminal, where anyone who lacks the strength to produce and consume becomes an outcast, where failure and destitution are acceptable only in television reports from distant lands, he had the courage to die with millions watching; he had the courage to show us his wasted body, his face constricted with suffering, his dragging feet, his death throes. This was his last lesson, at a time when he could no longer speak.

The overarching subject of Fado is the encroachment of the present upon the past, and the past’s mighty struggle to hold its own in the face of the modernizing forces that threaten to obliterate it. And yet, despite—or perhaps in keeping with—his loving acts of preservation, Stasiuk voices pessimism about the ability of past ways of life to survive:

Perhaps this is what the future will look like. Our homelands, our countries, will vanish, as mental or cultural points of reference. Poland will disappear, Italy will disappear, France will disappear. Why not? More and more things are disappearing and more and more new ones are emerging in their stead. What will remain is Fiat, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Nike, and Johnny Walker. Then Fiat and Ford will disappear too, even Nokia will disappear, and their more perfect future incarnations will arrive, to which we will pray in turn for consolation and hope.

It’s entirely likely that in such a way the West will finally join with the East. The homelessness of all the mental emigrants will in the end become our common home.

Even if so, this book is an important contribution to shoring up the fragments of Central Europe’s past against their eventual ruin.

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

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



The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch. Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston. (Poland, Open Letter)

The Mighty Angel is a difficult book to talk about. Although, ironically, this glass of wine is totally loosening me up. BTW, I’m writing this on Saturday night—not completely inappropriate time to be drinking. But seriously, how can one relate humor, the joy that comes from reading about a writer (named Jerzy) who is a life-long alcoholic and spends most of his time either getting out of rehab or going on the bender that will send him right back? How can a novel that relates—in painfully true to life detail—story after story of people hitting rock bottom, of people destroying their lives for another drink, another high, another lost night, how can a novel with this much pain and pathos also be incredibly fun to read?

It’s Pilch’s genius to be able to craft a narrative that’s both honest and deceiving. That doesn’t pull punches when exposing his character flaws, but does so in a way that makes it seem like he might be writing himself better, so to speak. That by putting these things down, by conveying them in a way that you can relate, that you can see the problem, that if he can do that, he can cure himself.

The eternally postponed notion of repairing my old washing machine or buying a new one eventually perished of its own accord, to a large extent independently of my foibles. In my life I’ve drunk away a vast amount of money, I’ve spend a fortune on vodka, but the reprehensible moment of drinking away a sum set aside for the repair of my washing machine has never occurred. I make this confession not with pride in my heart but with a sense of abasement. For the fact that I never drank away a sum of money set aside for the repair of my washing machine arises from the fact that I never set aside any sum of money for the repair of my washing machine in the first place. Before I ever managed to set aside a particular sum for the repair of the washing machine, I drank it away along with all the other sums of money not yet set aside for any special purpose. I drank away the money before I’d had time to set it aside for something else; therefore I can say, seemingly contradicting myself (yet only seemingly, for in the former case there was only a small quantifier, while in this case there is a large one), I can say then that in fact I did drink away the money for the repair of the washing machine. I drank away the money for a whole series of repairs, I drank away the money for all possible repairs. What am I saying, repairs? I drank away the money for an entire new washing machine, I drank away a whole series of new washing machines, I drank away a thousand new washing machines, I drank away a million new automatic washing machines, I drank away a billion state-of-the-art washing machines. I drank away all the washing machines in the world.

This sort of honest humor runs throughout the book and creates a very untrustworthy narrator. One who always believes salvation is right around the corner in the form of one girl or another who will serve as his caretaker and will cure him. And every time he ends up right back in the alco ward . . . Which makes the ending of this novel so intriguing and conversation-provoking . . .

Bit of bio info on Jerzy Pilch: he is the author of sixteen volumes, including His Current Woman (published by Northwestern University Press some time back), A Thousand Peaceful Cities (forthcoming from Open Letter), and My First Suicide and Other Stories (also forthcoming from Open Letter). Pilch’s works have been nominated for the NIKE Literary Award on four occasions, with The Mighty Angel winning the award in 2001. One interesting tidbit about Pilch is that he’s a Lutheran—obviously pretty unusual in Poland—and includes a lot of Lutheran stuff in his novels.

But going back to The Mighty Angel, I think the best place to end this post is with this observation by the narrator: “I’m aware, I really am fully aware that it’s impossible, in my case especially it’s impossible, to live a long and happy life when you drink. But how can you live a long and happy life if you don’t drink?”

26 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This was a great week for Open Letter books, with three of our recent releases getting some nice coverage:

First up was Hannah Manshel’s review of Death in Spring for The Front Table:

In English for the first time in Martha Tennent’s translation, Death in Spring is about a society that finds highly elaborate ways to elude the inevitable and to conquer time. Its means are slow and insidious, ritualistic and bizarre, always teetering on the line between the real and the magical. Its members, obsessed with imprisoning themselves, pour concrete into the mouths of the dead to keep their souls from escaping. Every spring, they paint the houses pink and it’s unclear whether anyone remembers why. Though the novel is propelled forward by a linear narrative, it is its characters’ evasion of this diachrony that is most captivating. The book is driven by linguistic and thematic repetition, like a prose sestina in which the end words could be symbols or simply icons, aesthetic trends or markers that unfold and elaborate the path of the narrative. We see wisteria and bees, horses and butterflies, souls and prisoners weave in and out of the text, each time reappearing with a new relevance, a new level of meaning.

Christopher Byrd’s review of Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel in the B&N Review is also pretty fantastic:

From the opening paragraph — in which the protagonist awakens to discover a couple of Mafiosi in his room who have taken it upon themselves to act as literary agents for a female poet — to the closing paragraphs that flick away the tragic arc that’s usually prefabricated for books in the end-of-the-bottle genre, Pilch teases out plenty of LOL moments from desultory situations. All told, The Mighty Angel furnishes enough Schadenfreude to stylishly blacken just about any comedic sensibility.

Becky Ferreira at L Magazine agrees:

Pilch’s prose is masterful, and the bulk of The Mighty Angel evokes the same numb, floating sensation as a bottle of oadkowa Gorzka. But it’s not until Jerzy haphazardly reveals facts of his grandfather’s life that the naked grotesquerie of alcoholism pierces through the book’s often casual and flippant wit. Though the final chapters posit a chance at redemption, it remains unclear whether Jerzy is breaking the cycle, or just trading in one vice for another. To Pilch’s credit, both of Jerzy’s possible paths seem unfortunate and equally likely.

And finally, Michael Orthofer is the first to weigh in on Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s Rupert (he gave it a B+):

What’s riveting about Rupert’s account is his self-assuredness. Yes, he often speaks of ‘Rupert’ in the third person, an abstraction he’s removed from — but then Rupert is, after all, the ultimate ‘I am camera’. It’s a fascinating split-personality on display here — and some . . . perversely fine writing. [. . .] Cleverly, artfully done, Rupert: A Confession is no pleasant read, but an oddly seductive one. Well worthwhile.

24 November 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be unveiling the Open Letter Spring 2009 list. (All posts about this list can be found here.) This “unveiling” kicked off last week with a bit about Jakov Lind’s Landscape in Concrete, and next up is our April 2009 title, The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch.

A novel about an alcoholic novelist who goes in and out of rehab (eighteen times!) doesn’t immediately sound like the funniest novel out there. Yet, Pilch’s The Mighty Angel is a hysterical, and occasionally sobering book. The title comes from the liquor store the protagonist flees to the second he’s out of rehab, and that sort of endless cycle—hit bottom, enter rehab, recover, feel great, feel so great you need a drink, drink heavily, hit bottom—is at the center of this book.

In Jerzy’s (the protagonist, not the author) case, there’s an added bit to his cycle—the reliance on some pretty young woman to take care of him and make everything better. His belief that love can fix his life is tragic and kind of touching, and is one of the reasons why the ending is so ambiguous . . .

This still doesn’t sound that funny, but trust me, Jerzy’s (the character) imagination and wild stories about the people in rehab—Don Juan the Rib, The Most Wanted Terrorist in the World, the Sugar King, the Hero of Socialist Labor—are wonderful. As is this excerpt about the potential plagiarism of an alcoholic’s “rock bottom confession.” Pilch reminds me a bit of Tadeusz Konwicki, especially The Polish Complex.

Early in his career, Jerzy Pilch was considered one of Poland’s greatest up-and-coming writers, and was even referred to by Czeslaw Milosz as the “hope of young Polish prose.” Now almost sixty, he’s a very established figure, and one of the great contemporary Polish writers. He’s been nominated for the prestigious NIKE Award on six occasions (including this past year), and won in 2001 for The Mighty Angel.

It’s also worth noting that this book was recommended and translated by Bill Johnston, one of the greatest Polish translators working today (actually, he may be one of the greatest Polish translators ever), who also translated Pilch’s His Current Woman, which was published by Northwestern University Press in 2002.

15 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Someone from Polish Writing posted this in the comments section, and since it’s such a good interview, I thought I’d post about it separately.

First off though, if you haven’t seen Polish Writing, it’s definitely worth checking out. Great interviews, info about Polish books and authors, and even a graph detailing how many books have made their way into English. . . . Looks like last year there were about 10, although 1990 was a banner year.

The interview with Bill Johnston about Magdalena Tulli is pretty interesting (and a good example of what’s cool about this site):

What have been the main developments in her writing style between Dreams and Stones and Flaw?

In Dreams and Stones there are practically no people, or more precisely, no characters. It’s a novel about objects and about ways of seeing and explaining. The only actual character is the narrator, whose rather pedantic voice is our only clue to his existence. (Tulli and I disagree over what kind of book Dreams and Stones actually is—Tulli claims it’s a novel, whereas for me it’s a prose poem.) In her subsequent books Tulli gradually introduces narrative, though she does so in a very tentative and self-aware way (this is why she’s sometimes accused, wrongly, of writing “meta-fiction”). In In Red she retells the story three times; the plot of Moving Parts (Tryby) also unexpectedly changes course at several moments. It’s only in Flaw that she settles into a single narrative arc that carries through the entire book.

And related to Daniel Green’s desire for an introduction to Flaw (and my echoing of the need for more contextual info):

Archipelago also tend not to include many notes or translator’s introductions. Is this a conscious intention for the work to stand on its own?

I can only speak about my own translations with Archipelago. I’ve always tried to minimize paratext in any form, and my hope is always that a work ought to be able to stand either completely or mostly alone—this is certainly the case with Tulli, who simply needs to be read carefully. You don’t need to know a lot of Polish history or culture to “get” her, I think. For me, footnotes and so on are a major part of the ghettoization of small literatures I referred to above, and I avoid them whenever I can—they make texts look like academic treatises rather than novels to be read and enjoyed.

I definitely agree re: footnotes and the like, although I still feel that there’s a way of creating a context for approaching someone like Tulli, be in through an intro/afterword, promotional materials, or whatever.

And finally:

A significant number of authors who came to prominence in the 1990s have now made it into English. Are there any newer writers you are keen to translate?

A current project of mine is the translation of Tomasz Różycki’s brilliant 2004 epic poem Dwanaście stacji or Twelve Stations. He’s by far the outstanding poet of his generation (he was born in 1970); his lyric poetry has been (and is being) translated wonderfully by Mira Rosenthal, and I’m going to have a go at this longer piece.

24 April 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

Bill Johnston, who is translating Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel for us, has an interview on Polish Writing, where he discusses Magdalena Tulli and translation.

10 April 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Just got a message from the Polish Book Institute that Bill Johnston (translator of numerous Polish authors, including Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel, another Open Letter book about drunks that we’ll be publishing in Spring 2009) has won the first ever Found in Translation award.

He won for his translation of Tadeusz Rozewicz’s New Poems available from Archipelago.

As pointed out in the press release about the award, this isn’t the first honor for Rozewicz’s book—it was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry.

Bill is a really incredible translator and perfect example of how someone can help promote a particular country’s literature in translation.

He has translated the classics – J. Słowacki, B. Prus, S. Żeromski and Witold Gombrowicz. His splendid translations of books by authors such as Magdalena Tulli and Andrzej Stasiuk have also allowed American readers to become acquainted with Polish contemporary literature. Bill Johnston is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and Second Language Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington (USA).

The Found in Translation award was established last October by the Book Institute, the Polish Cultural Institute in London, the Polish Cultural Institute in New York, and W.A.B. Publishers. The winner receives 10,000 PLN (almost $5,000) and a three-month Book Institute scholarship.

7 January 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

All funding, all day, it seems . . .

On the heels of the ACE debacle, and the NEA’s increase, here’s an announcement from the Polish Book Institute:

Found in Translation Award

The Polish Book Institute, Polish Cultural Institute in London, Polish Cultural Institute in New York and W.A.B. Publishing House in Warsaw announce the FOUND IN TRANSLATION Award.

The FOUND IN TRANSLATION Award is to be given annually to the translator or translators of the best translation of a work of Polish literature into English that was published as a book in the preceding calendar year.

The Award consists of a three-month residency in Krakow, with lodging, a stipend in the amount of 2,000 PLN monthly, an airline ticket to and from Krakow funded by the Polish Book Institute, and a financial award of 10,000 PLN funded by the W.A.B. Publishing House.

The Award is given by a Selection Committee consisting of representatives of the Polish Book Institute, Polish Cultural Institute in London, and Polish Cultural Institute in New York. The Director of the Polish Book Institute is to be President of the Selection Committee.

The name of the laureate is to be announced during the award ceremony, which will be organized each year in the laureate’s country of origin, preferably during the International Book Fair in that country.

Candidates for the Award can be nominated by private persons as well institutions in Poland and abroad.

Nominations are to be sent to the Polish Book Institute, 31-011 Kraków ul. Szczepańska 1, Poland, e-mail biuro@instytutksiazki.pl with the subject-heading FOUND IN TRANSLATION.

The nomination is to include the book title, name of the author, name of the translator, publisher, and a statement of the reasons for the nomination. The deadline for sending nominations is January 31 of each year, by midnight.

It’s years off the future, but I’m already planning on recommending Bill Johnston for his translation of Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel that we’ll be bringing out next year . . .

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