10 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Approximately five minutes, the winners of this year’s Best Translated Book Awards were announced at a special celebration at Idlewild Books in New York City. Hopefully the party is raging, and the winners are enjoying themselves . . .

Competition was pretty steep for this year’s awards. The poetry committee came to a consensus rather quickly, granting the award to Elena Fanailova for The Russian Version, translated from the Russian by Genya Turovskaya and Stephanie Sandler and published by Ugly Duckling Presse.

On the fiction side of things we debated and debated for weeks. There were easily four other titles that could’ve easily won this thing. Walser, Prieto, Aira were all very strong contenders. But in the end, we gave the award to Gail Hareven for The Confessions of Noa Weber, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu and published by Melville House Press.

You can download the official 2010 BTBA Winners Press Release by clicking there. And you can visit these links for overviews of The Confessions of Noa Weber and The Russian Version.

3 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next three days, we’ll be featuring each of the ten titles from this year’s Best Translated Book Award poetry shortlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



The Brittle Age and Returning Upland by Rene Char. Translated from the French by Gustaf Sobin. (France, Counterpath)

This guest post is by Brandon Holmquest—poet, translator, and editor of CALQUE. Brandon is devoted to the reception and promotion of international poetry, so I’m really glad he was able to serve on the panel this year. And write up a couple books!

On one particularly bad night we were all in the kitchen with this book, idly translating it into German, Spanish, Chinese. Then the war began. Another time, I handed it to a guy and, flipping through it and seeing how “The Brittle Age” is composed often of single sentences each on their own page, he called it a waste of paper. I made him take it home and when he returned it I asked him if he still felt the same and he shook his head very slowly. I think I’ve read it five times now. Maybe six.

All of which is to say that The Brittle Age and Returning Upland is an eloquent, disquieting book. One that makes an impact. That these two works by a poet who’s been dead for more than two decades is being published in this country for the first time is both great and puzzling. I am unfortunately ignorant of the history of how it came to be published. But neither am I terribly concerned about that, grateful as I am for the mere fact of its existence.

The book contains two poems written in the 60s. The first, “The Brittle Age,” stretches across some 87 pages, made up of single fragments, none of them longer than five lines, many a few words. The second, “Returning Upland,” is more properly a series of poems, if not a serial poem. The two works are discrete, having no relation other than having been written by one person, translated by another.

“Comfort is crime, the fountain told me from its rock.” And on the next page: “Be consoled. In dying you return everything that you were lent, your love, your friends. Even that living coldness, harvested over and over.” And the next: “Death’s great ally, where its midges are best concealed, is memory: the persecutor of our odyssey, lasting from an eve to the pink tomorrow.”

And so on. “The Brittle Age” is undoubtedly the star here, though I doubt very seriously is “Returning Upland” could get a fair hearing in any court containing the other poem. The inclusion of both of them makes the most sense in light of the fact that both were translated by Gustaf Sobin, an American poet for whom Char appears to have been something between mentor and father-figure.

Even the cursory sort of French I possess is enough to reveal the quality of Sobin’s work here. His ear is so good, and his sense of English poetry so sound that he can rewrite individual sentences as he needs to in order to maintain Char’s voice, changing the letter, capturing the spirit of the thing, as when Char’s French reads:

Il advient que notre coeur soit comme chassé de notre corps. Et notre corps est comme mort.

And Sobin’s English gives us:

Sometimes our heart seems as if chased from our body, and our body, as if dead.

Sobin makes two sentences into one. He uses commas to create pauses that work to excellent rhythmic effect and to enable a reproduction, with the double use of the word “body,” of an echo of the homophonic effect the French has with couer and corps, which is where most of Char’s art in this passage resides.

One example, pulled at random from a book which teems with them.

2 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next four days, we’ll be featuring each of the ten titles from this year’s Best Translated Book Award poetry shortlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



If I Were Another by Mahmoud Darwish. Translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah (Palestine, FSG)

This guest post is by Brandon Holmquest—poet, translator, and editor of CALQUE. Brandon is devoted to the reception and promotion of international poetry, so I’m really glad he was able to serve on the panel this year. And write up a couple books!

Translation has a lot of unintended consequences, like most human endeavor. Obviously it brings a given work, or the work of a given writer, to a new audience. At times, in doing so, it carries with it a literally “foreign” concept of poetry itself or, in the case of Mahmoud Darwish, of the poet as a social institution. It’s all well and good to say Darwish was “the national poet of Palestine,” but even a cursory examination of that statement reveals complications. For one, Palestine is not technically a nation at all, so how does that work, exactly? And so on.

Questions of this kind are germane to Darwish’s work, especially the late work. He was well aware of his role in Palestinian culture, as a representative, spokesman, voice, etc. He took that role and its responsibilities very seriously. Over time, this had a marked effect on his work, for example in his serious attempt to speak for and to all levels of Palestinian society, the doctors as well as the refugees, which lead him away from opacity and towards story-telling, parables, and other such devices.

This same phenomenon can be seen in the work of other poets who shared Darwish’s circumstances, writing to and for a people undergoing a difficult history. Zbigniew Herbert in Communist Poland, Nicanor Parra in Pinochet’s Chile. In such cases, what it means to simply be a poet is very different from anything we’ve experienced in this country in a very long time, perhaps since Whitman.

An American poet picking up Fady Joudah’s translations encounters this very quickly. Translation foregrounds the content of such work. All of these poems might well have been written in one or another complicated form. In Arabic, they may be in quantitative verse and rhyme like the devil himself. In English, they read like so:

If I were another on the road, I would not have looked
back, I would have said what one traveler said
to another: Stranger! awaken
the guitar more! Delay our tomorrow so our road
may extend and space may widen for us, and we may get rescued
from our story together: you are so much yourself . . . and I am
so much other than myself right here before you!

Well constructed, somewhat conservative free verse, which is pretty vanilla stuff in contemporary English-language poetics. The kind of poems people can “understand.”

And our hypothetical American poet either writes Darwish off, which would be stupid, or s/he takes a deep breath and starts to rethink some things, and maybe as a result that poet’s idea of the possible, the valid and the poetic expands.

Because, really, fifty million Elvis fans just can’t be wrong. And once that happens, things get very interesting very quickly. Once one accepts Darwish’s self-evident validity as a poet who says things, the next thing is to wrestle with what it is he’s saying.

It is here that If I Were Another becomes very valuable. It is a collection of Darwish’s very late work, very well and elegantly translated. As such, it contains some of his most intellectually and emotionally nuanced work. Poems you meditate over, argue with, or simply contemplate; poems that make statements in compact, associative and/or Aesopish way impossible for prose. Poems that, even in Joudah’s English, sound like pure Darwish.

26 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next six days, we’ll be featuring each of the ten titles from this year’s Best Translated Book Award poetry shortlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Scale and Stairs by Heeduk Ra. Translated from the Korean by Woo-Chung Kim and Christopher Merrill. (Korea, White Pine Press)

This guest post is by Kevin Prufer, whose newest books are National Anthem (Four Way Books, 2008) and Little Paper Sacrifice (Four Way Books, forthcoming). He’s also Editor of New European Poets (Graywolf Press, 2008) and Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing.

The speakers in these carefully crafted poems are, first of all, keen and imaginative observers. One sits in a cafeteria watching a workman eat boiled rice until the grains “carried by the chapped hand / . . . gather and scatter like clouds between the blistered lips.” Another stands outside at night observing the moon, telling us how “I turned around / and caught her furtive eye, her soiled feet. / Blushing, as if she were being watched, she hid behind a cloud / and reappeared in the distance.” A third narrator stands in a hospital corridor listening to the agony of the others, “a judge of cries,” teasing stories out of pain. “Every cry is singular,” she tells us,

            like a bird’s feather,
so that even without touching the trembling shoulder
you can tell if the crier has just learned the name of his disease,
or if he has been sentenced to death,
or if he weeps over a cold body.

Heeduk Ra’s poems, set in Korea’s cities (a hospital elevator, a church’s back stairway) and natural landscapes (where graves become boats and falling snow becomes feathers, flowers, rice), are filled with intricate detail, surprising turns, and moments of sadness, transcendence and breathtaking grace. Here, the daily minutia of Korean life are rich with imagery, reflecting not just their own details, but the brilliant and unpredictable mind that would tell us about them and, in so doing, imbue them with deeply personal turns of phrase and sharp, often witty, metaphors.

In one of the book’s most lovely poems, the speaker contemplates renting a room, finding in the mundane task a deep connection with Korea’s history and the lives of others:

To rent a room in Damyang or Changpyung,
to visit it like a chipmunk,
I looked in every village I came across.
Walking past a place in Jasil,
I saw common flowers in the yard
between the traditional Korean house and a modern annex.
When I entered through the open gate,
a man was sharpening his scythe on the grindstone
and his wife’s scarf was wet, as if she had just returned from the fields.
“Excuse me, I wonder if I could rent a room.
I’ll stay here two or three nights a week.”
When I pointed at the traditional house
she smiled. “Well, our children moved to Seoul,
so we live in the annex. Yes, the main house
is unoccupied, but we hold it in our hearts.
Our family history lies there.”
Listening to her, I saw the clean wooden floor
on which lay day’s last light.
I didn’t press for the room, I left,
wondering if the couple knew
that I’d already rented it, was living in their words—
that in their hearts they lived in the vacant house.

Heeduk Ra, born in Nonsan in 1966, is widely regarded as one of Korea’s preeminent younger poets. Woo Chung-Kim and Christopher Merrill’s plainspoken, moving translation makes it clear why. Distinguished for their graceful sensibility, rich imagery, and subtle intelligence, these poems will hopefully bring a wide English language readership to this valuable poet.

25 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next seven days, we’ll be featuring each of the ten titles from this year’s Best Translated Book Award poetry shortlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



K.B. The Suspect by Marcelijus Martinaitis. Translated from the Lithuania by Laima Vince. (Lithuania, White Pine Press)

This guest post is by Kevin Prufer, whose newest books are National Anthem (Four Way Books, 2008) and Little Paper Sacrifice (Four Way Books, forthcoming). He’s also Editor of New European Poets (Graywolf Press, 2008) and Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing. We’ll have another post by Kevin tomorrow . . .

Who exactly is K.B. the suspect? Is he a sort of Post-Soviet everyman, wandering the streets of Vilnius, bewildered by the rapidly changing city? Or is he something more sinister, a character who, according Marcelijus Martinaitis, was not a member of the KGB, but could have been, had he been asked? Is he a symbol for all Lithuania, or merely an alter-ego of the poet who created him?

He is, of course, all of these things. In Martinaitis’ brilliant poetic sequence, K.B. emerges as both a distinct personality and a slate on which recent Lithuanian history might be written, interpreted, or erased. “The reader does not know for certain what K.B.’s background is and never finds out,” translator Laima Vince writes. “Similarly, in Lithuania today people do not know about their neighbors’ or colleagues’ pasts, and even if they did, there’s nothing they can do about it.”

But for all these poems’ historical and political ambitiousness, K.B. comes across memorably and vividly, quick to make keenly insightful (and sometimes absurd) observations, a loner perpetually cut off from others, commenting on their actions both nervously and analytically. Often, he addresses the beautiful Margarita, who suggests for him both perfect aesthetic beauty and our human inability to achieve transcendence. (Once, he observes her taking out the trash, making “little noble aristocratic steps” among the dumpsters.) Or he comments on the creeping Western influences of commodification and commercialization, at one point interjecting into his narrative an advertisement for Colgate Toothpaste:

I repeat—
the safest thing of all
is the toothpaste Colgate.

I’d also like to remind you
that by using this toothpaste daily
your teeth will remain healthy
a hundred years after you are gone.

All around him, he senses a sort of amorphous danger—perhaps it is Lithuania’s recent past waiting to re-emerge, perhaps it is only nerves—so K.B. keeps to the shadows, observing, fantasizing, and writing it all down. “My documents,” he tells us,

are in order. I haven’t been tried.
I’m without my gun and almost without any thoughts.

Only parasites, all manner of insects,
flies and worms creep across my face,
crawling into my mouth, my nose,
they suck my blood.

Any direction I turn someone is hiding, fleeing,
staring suspiciously, cowering, collaborating, keeping silent:
I could catch them all, crush them under my feet, end it.

Finally, these complex, paranoid poems create for us a sort of shadow-world of the Post-Soviet Eastern European consciousness, a world brought harrowingly to life through Marcelijus Martinaitis’ startling sense of character and Laima Vince’s fluid, witty, and deeply engaging translation.

24 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following on the last post about McNally Jackson, the other thing that I e-mailed to the booksellers on our mailing list was this pdf brochure/flyer that anyone can print out and use in promoting this year’s BTBA finalists.

This can be printed double-sided (just make sure to go into print settings first and indicate that the size is U.S. Letter, the orientation is Landscape, and in the print menu, be sure to turn off page scaling and turn on auto rotate and center), folded in half and handed out to customers. Or you can print two and hang it on a wall—the choice is yours.

I hope this is useful, and again, if your store does a display, send me a pic and I’ll post it as part of our ongoing BTBA coverage.

24 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Last week I sent out a brief message to our indie bookseller mailing list (which all booksellers can easily join by e-mailing me at chad.post [at] rochester.edu) about the Best Translated Book Award Finalists and how we’d be willing to run pictures of any displays that the stores put together for the award. (To be honest, this is mainly a means to gushing about the bookstores I love . . .)

The first to come back with pics was McNally Jackson, which one of my interns refers to as her “favorite bookstore in the world.” (I think one of the reasons she so loves McNally Jackson is because of the high propensity of Open Letter titles on display there. And really, who doesn’t love that? But seriously, it’s really cool for an intern to see something she worked on out on display in the “real world.” I’m still saving my over-the-top thrill for my subway moment: when I see someone on the subway reading one of our books, I’ll feel like we’ve really made it.) There are so many cool things about McNally Jackson that I made a list:

  • unique book selection and display, thanks to buyer John Turner and a staff of engaged, insatiable readers;
  • all the fiction is organized by country/region;
  • thanks to Javier Molea, the Spanish language section is the best in New York (which, I believe according to the rules of East Coast bias makes it the Best In The World);
  • the fact that Sarah McNally is simply awesome;
  • beautifully lit and designed store;
  • excellent events (I was at the McNally event for the announcement of the NBCC finalists back when Voices from Chernobyl won—one of the high points of my publishing life);
  • connection to Canada;
  • did I mention that McNally is one of the top 3 stores in terms of sales of Open Letter books?

Anyway, here’s their BTBA display with the randomly fantastic sign advertising the University of Rochester:

24 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next eight days, we’ll be featuring each of the ten titles from this year’s Best Translated Book Award poetry shortlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Lightwall by Liliana Ursu. Translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter. (Romania, Zephyr Press)

Poetry judge Matthew Zapruder — poet, translator, academic, and co-editor of Wave Books — wrote the review below. I want to publicly thank him — and all the poetry judges — for helping provide info about all of the BTBA poetry finalists.

The Romanian poet Liliana Ursu’s wonderful new volume, Lightwall, continues to establish her reputation as one of the foremost living Central European poets. This is her fourth book in English: previously she worked with legendary Romanian translator Adam Sorkin and poet Tess Gallagher, to marvelous effect, and this time she is lucky again to collaborate on the translations with Sean Cotter, who has also written a fascinating introduction to the book. The results in English are full of power and grace. Ursu’s poems are sometimes mythic, taking place in an imagined landscape; at others, they are full of everyday details, but always viewed through her particular pleasurably tilted lens. In this latter way she is, as Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun justly calls her, “an archeologist of light.” Ursu’s poems are built structures in which light, aka consciousness, or seeing, bounces pleasurably and strangely around.

The poems of this bilingual edition continue to exhibit Ursu’s idiosyncratic transformative imagination, but also include more details of everyday life in America, where she has spent significant time over the past decade, teaching and writing. “Waiting for Hurricane Isabella to Pass” for instance begins with the lines:

On my table: The Art of Poetry, Lives of Egyptian Saints
and the coffee from Starbucks I drink every morning
with eyes lost to my American window.

This is a perspective somewhat familiar to any reader of contemporary American poetry, but also more confident and stranger in its distance. And when the second stanza begins “

I also talk to an old tree
whom I address as ‘Your Majesty,’

we feel in the presence of a European, contemporary poetic perspective, one that is, like this entire terrific book of poems, very exciting and welcome.

23 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next nine days, we’ll be featuring each of the ten titles from this year’s Best Translated Book Award poetry shortlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



In Such Hard Times by Wei Ying-wu. Translated from the Chinese by Red Pine. (China, Copper Canyon)

Poetry judge Matthew Zapruder — poet, translator, academic, and co-editor of Wave Books — wrote the review below. I’m running another of his write-ups tomorrow, as we work our way through the poetry finalists.

The poems in In Such Hard Times: The Poetry of Wei Ying-wu feel strangely connected to our current historical situation. The struggle of this individual poet to find himself, personally and spiritually, through his poems, feels like a contemporary search. Like other T’ang Dynasty poets (Li Po and Tu Fu and many others) Wei Ying-wu writes to his friends, and wonders what he is going to do with his life, why he is living and working the way he is. He is caught between the needs of the world and his spiritual impulses. He wonders and despairs. Yet somehow, even more than Tu Fu and Li Po, whose poems are deservedly beloved in their various translations, Wei Ying-wu in particular feels like our T’ang poet: the one who most directly connects to the spirit of our time, today.

English translations of Chinese poets of the T’ang dynasty period (618-907 A.D.), by Ezra Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, David Hinton, David Young and many others have played a major role in the development of contemporary American poetry. The T’ang was perhaps the greatest era of poetry writing in human history. And the addition of another significant translation would be, in purely historical terms, a major event. The fact that these poems are translated with such clarity, unassuming erudition, good humor, precision and just plain old skill by Red Pine (aka Bill Porter) is unsurprising, given the translator’s previous output, including a translation of the canonical anthology of Chinese Poetry Poems of the Masters, as well as poems by Cold Mountain, several important Sutras, and an edition of the Tao Te Ching. And these new translations are nothing short of a poetic revelation.

22 February 10 | N. J. Furl | Comments


Continuing his proud tradition of infiltrating your local morning news shows (if your locale happens to be Rochester, NY), Chad was on WHAM news, again, this morning. In just over four minutes, he talked about the recently announced Best Translated Book Award finalists, the breadth of languages and cultures highlighted therein, and the (very important) relative spine-widths of these books.

Enjoy.

22 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

A commenter asked the other day for links to all of the daily summaries for this year’s BTBA fiction finalists. Well, I’ll do you one better . . . Below are all ten shortlisted books with links to AND excerpts from the overview pieces:

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

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

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

We’re not the only ones to praise The Twin—Jessa Crispin included it on the list of “Top Foreign Fiction” books that she put together for NPR. In her summary she gets at another interesting aspect of this novel—it’s lost sense of time. It feels very turn-of-the-century, and is, but in a 20th becoming 21st sort of way . . . Or as Jessa puts it: “In its candor about the bitterness that can arise from family obligations and the responsibility of caretaking, The Twin is both touching and surprising. Bakker’s beautiful and uncluttered prose style is almost old-fashioned. A character’s remark about the farm — “It’s here on this road now, but it might just as well be 1967 or 1930” — could refer to the novel itself. Family drama, after all, is timeless.”

Ignácio de Loyola Brandão, Anonymous Celebrity. Translated from the Portuguese by Nelson Vieira. (Brazil, Dalkey Archive)

Centered around an unreliable narrator obsessed with the idea of becoming famous, Anonymous Celebrity reads more like a scrapbook than a novel, teaming with information and jokes, switching tone on every page, forcing the reader to come to terms with the manic, slightly unhinged mind behind it all. And by “slightly unhinged,” I mean willing to murder the “Lead Actor”—who supposedly looks just like our narrator—so that he can take over all of L.A.‘s roles.

All the various sections, such as the “Rescuing the Anonymous” bits to draw attention to the nearly-famous (like Marli Renfro, who served as Janet Leigh’s body double in Psycho, or the unknown friends present in a photograph of Hemingway) are brilliant. The manuals for how to be famous and the gallery of characters extremely fun. But it’s obvious as you move through this book that there’s something going on underneath to decipher. The entire narrative is steeped in lies and delusions, constructing a wonderful game for the reader to puzzle through. All is clarified by the end (maybe a bit overclarified), but along the way the writing is brilliant, the posturing and the bittersweet appeal of celebrity is palpable.

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

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

The plot is set in motion when de Rijckel attends a masquerade ball, falls for a woman (isn’t it always the case?), and then meets a young student the next morning who knows the woman and where she lives. Michael can take it away: “The woman lives at Almout castle, in Hekegem, and they go there. Taking a room at a local inn the teacher passes the boy off as his nephew, but eventually they suspect him of being a paedophile; rather than turn him in, however, they want their silence to be bought — typical, it turns out, for this morally compromised nest. Reaching Almout de Rijckel is mistaken for someone else, the Dutch delegate to a meeting taking place there.”

Wolf Haas, The Weather Fifteen Years Ago. Translated from the German by Stephanie Gilardi and Thomas S. Hansen. (Austria, Ariadne Press)

In the novel The Weather Fifteen Years Ago, Wolf Haas is being interviewed about a book he wrote with the same title that is more or less a prolonged story of unrequited love. The novel inside the novel revolves around one Vittorio Kowalski, who appears on a game show to show off his ability to remember what the weather was like in a particular small village in the Austrian Alps every day for the past fifteen years. In and of itself, this is a pretty remarkable, but the Haas of the novel knows that there’s something more to the story . . . Why would a man memorize the weather every day for some podunk town where his family once vacationed? (A: A girl. It’s always a girl.)

From this seemingly innocent, yet oddly compelling story, a whole world unfolds, one that’s both intricate in terms of its plot (there’s a lot more to this little summer love than one initially expects) and in terms of how the interviewer talks with (fictional) Haas about the way the (imaginary) book is written.

Gail Hareven, The Confessions of Noa Weber. Translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu. (Israel, Melville House)

. . . After the first handful of pages I was in love with Noa’s voice. As I mentioned in my review, this is one of those novels in which the voice and telling of the story far outstrips the plot of the actual book. At its most basic, The Confessions of Noa Weber is about a middle-aged writer who married a man out of convenience (to escape her military duty) and continues to love for the rest of her life despite the fact that he leaves her for Russia, for another woman, for a different life.

Noa goes on to become a very successful author of Nira Woolf detective novels, but never stops loving Alek. And this book is her gut-wrenchingly personal account of her obsession and her life as a whole. In our blog & Twitter-obsessed world, this book is perfectly suited for our times. It reads like a too-personal look into someone’s life, but one that is charming, honest, smart, self-critical, sarcastic, and absolutely captivating.

Jan Kjærstad, The Discoverer. Translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. (Norway, Open Letter)

What’s fascinating about this trilogy—and the reason why you don’t need to read all three books to “get it”—is the way that each volume presents Jonas’s life and Margrete’s death in completely different ways. There’s some tricksy narrative stuff going on—who is narrating The Seducer and how do they know all the details of Jonas’s life? who is the woman giving the professor all the dirt on Jonas in The Conqueror?—but on a basic level it’s pretty straightforward: in The Seducer, Jonas is a superstar who is one degree from perfection and arrives home from a trip to find that his wife has been murdered, and in The Conqueror, he’s always has some violent urges which culminated in him murdering his wife. And in The Discoverer, he’s out of prison sailing down a fjord with his daughter and a group of young people working on a high-tech multimedia project. [. . .]

And that’s Kjaerstad’s genius. The way these three separate visions overlap and interplay is absolutely brilliant. You can start anywhere with the series, and depending on the order in which you read these, you’ll end up with a different impression of Jonas, of what really happened, and of the various threads that tie together the three books.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future. Translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull. (Russia, New York Review Books)

This is one of those books that must drive a certain B&N buyer (and a dozen sales reps) absolutely insane. All the book world prejudices come into play: 1) short story collections don’t sell, 2) dead authors don’t sell, 3) who gives a shit about Soviet Russia?, 4) could be cross-shelved in either sci-fi or literature, and 5) how do you pronounce “Krzhizhanovsky”? [. . .]

Although the pieces aren’t quite as avant as Kharms, the strange sense of humor and the self-reflexiveness of the book remind me of the OBERIU. With a little bit of Calvino thrown in for good measure.

José Manuel Prieto, Rex. Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen. (Cuba, Grove)

Trying to summarize this book is a bit tricky. It’s like a mafia thriller filtered through Nabokov. It’s a dense book with a narrator who is both unreliable and maybe a bit confused, and who is obsessed with Proust. It was also the subject of an incredible conversation Erica Mena and I had with Esther Allen for a forthcoming Reading the World podcast. (That’s a subtle enough plug, right?)

Anyway, the basic set-up of this book is that the narrator has been hired by a Russian couple living in Marabella, Spain to tutor their son. The narrator decides that all the kid needs to do is read Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, which is the book that contains everything from psychology to quantum physics. The world is in there.

Robert Walser, The Tanners. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky. (Switzerland, New Directions)

I think I’ll close this off with one of my favorite quotes from the novel. It’s from the very end, but really, this is a book that’s more mood than plot, so I’m really not giving away much of anything:

“No,” she said, “you won’t sink. If such a thing were to happen, what a shame it would be—a shame for you. You must never again condemn yourself so criminally, so sinfully. You respect yourself too little, and others too much. I wish to shield you against judging yourself so harshly. Do you know what it is you need? You need things to go well for you again for a little while. You must learn to whisper into an ear and reciprocate expressions of tenderness. Otherwise you’ll become too delicate. I shall teach you; I wish to teach you all the things you’re lacking. Come with me. We shall go out into the winter night. Into the blustery forest. There’s so much I must say to you. Do you know that I’m your poor, happy prisoner? Not another word, not one word more. Just come—”

There you go . . . Enjoy the write-ups and the books. I’d love to hear from anyone who has read and loved (or hated) any of the books on the list, and since the winner has yet to be decided, feel free to lobby for your favorite in the comments section below . . .

22 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next ten days, we’ll be featuring each of the ten titles from this year’s Best Translated Book Award poetry shortlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



The Russian Version by Elena Fanailova. Translated from the Russian by Genya Turovskaya and Stephanie Sandler. (Russia, Ugly Duckling Presse)

For the poetry finalists, each of the five judges is writing about two books. Idra Novey—poet, translator, executive director of the Center for Literary Translation at Columbia University—is up first.

The Russian Version obliterates the stereotype of what Great Russian Poetry should sound like. Fanailova has the candor and compassion of Akhmatova and a gift for striking metaphor that might bring Mandelstam to mind, but she is also ruthlessly quick to fire “from the hip,” as she says in the title poem, and her aim is impeccable. In the ironic poem “(The Italics are Mine),” she writes:

In the era when poetry flowed
From human shortcoming,
When poetry was waiting
For dry remainders,
It did its best, I beg your pardon,
Like a hysterical bitch . . .

All of the poems in The Russian Version veer off in delightfully unexpected directions like this. What begins in sweeping historical statement often turns to sly aside or to some in-your-face metaphor. Turovskaya and Sandler do a superb job of keeping these shifts in tone in Fanailova’s poems palpable and surprising. Throughout the book, the voice in these translations are as lively and distinctive as in any poetry currently being written in the US, if not more so. To the credit of both Fanailova and her translators, the poems consistently come across as both alluringly raw and carefully honed. “Now you can say what you actually think,” Fanailova writes in “The Queer’s Girldfriend, “and not what Great Russan Poetry demands.”

Instead of striving for Great Russian Poetry, Fanailova tells of a “tired Petersburg,” a grandmother who sets an apple tree on fire and has the stained dress of a “perpetually slovenly cook.” In an excerpt from her 2002 collection Transylvania Calling, she writes of a woman off to an abortion clinic “like a soldier marching the familiar march” and in the next line of soldiers “fucking beautiful Uzbek girls/unbraiding bridles with their tongues.” Powerful juxtapositions like these, of a tired city and a tree on fire, or of a woman marching like a soldier and soldiers marching over women, crop up throughout the poems. Fanailova, never takes these moments too far or editorializes unnecessarily. Like the scars of the married couples she describes in the same poem, she lets her lines “speak for themselves.”

A well-placed silence is key to the craft of poetry and Fanailova is a master of such silences. In a poem earlier in the collection, she writes:

I love to keep silent,
And to guard the thin-walled, fragile things
I save in cigarette papers.

In the selections contained in this book, spanning nearly twenty years of work, Fanailova knows just when to quietly roll up a poem in cigarette paper and when to let it unfurl. Her version of Russia is one told through a “grease-paint made of crystals” and the result is mesmerizing.

16 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Man, was it tricky to come up with a top 10 for this year’s BTBA fiction award. This was a really deep list—due in part to the added judges, the fact that we were more focused on reading books for the award all year, and the high quality of stuff that came out in 2009—and any of the twenty-five books on the longlist could easily have been included as a finalist.

That said, these ten books separated themselves from the rest of the pack for their overall quality, including the greatness of the original book and its translation;

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

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

Ignácio de Loyola Brandão, Anonymous Celebrity. Translated from the Portuguese by Nelson Vieira. (Brazil, Dalkey Archive)

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

Wolf Haas, The Weather Fifteen Years Ago. Translated from the German by Stephanie Gilardi and Thomas S. Hansen. (Austria, Ariadne Press)

Gail Hareven, The Confessions of Noa Weber. Translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu. (Israel, Melville House)

Jan Kjærstad, The Discoverer. Translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. (Norway, Open Letter)

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future. Translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull. (Russia, New York Review Books)

José Manuel Prieto, Rex. Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen. (Cuba, Grove)

Robert Walser, The Tanners. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky. (Switzerland, New Directions)

Now to decide the winner . . . Good thing we have a little time—there are at least five books here that deserve to win . . .

As mentioned on the poetry finalists post, the official award will be given out on Wednesday, March 10th at a special Idlewild Books event.

16 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As mentioned before, we didn’t announce a poetry longlist mainly because there were only 50-some-odd books eligible for this year’s award, and name-checking half of them would seem to dilute the award . . .

That’s not to say that there weren’t a ton of great collections in translation that came out last year worthy of a little extra attention. In fact, I’m sure the poetry judges could name an addition half-dozen that could’ve made the list in a different year . . .

But anyway, here are the 10 titles that the fantastic people on this year’s poetry panel selected as the finalists:

Nicole Brossard, Selections. Translated from the French by various.1 (Canada, University of California)

René Char, The Brittle Age and Returning Upland. Translated from the French by Gustaf Sobin. (France, Counterpath)

Mahmoud Darwish, If I Were Another. Translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah (Palestine, FSG)

Elena Fanailova, The Russian Version. Translated from the Russian by Genya Turovskaya and Stephanie Sandler. (Russia, Ugly Duckling Presse)

Hiromi Ito, Killing Kanoko. Translated from the Japanese by Jeffrey Angles. (Japan, Action Books)

Marcelijus Martinaitis, KB: The Suspect. Translated from the Lithuanian by Laima Vince. (Lithuania, White Pine)

Heeduk Ra, Scale and Stairs. Translated from the Korean by Woo-Chung Kim and Christopher Merrill. (Korea, White Pine)

Novica Tadic, Dark Things. Translated from the Serbian by Charles Simic. (Serbia, BOA Editions)

Liliana Ursu, Lightwall. Translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter. (Romania, Zephyr Press)

Wei Ying-wu, In Such Hard Times. Translated from the Chinese by Red Pine. (China, Copper Canyon)

Similar to the fiction longlist, there’s a great deal of country balance here, and a lot of small press love. (Go White Pine and Zephyr!)

Similar to what we did for the fiction titles, starting next week, we’ll be featuring a book a day from this list, with all the write-ups being written by the esteemed panelists (Brandon Holmquest, Jennifer Kronovet, Idra Novey, Kevin Prufer, and Matthew Zapruder).

And as with the BTBA for fiction, the winner will be announced on March 10th at an event that will take place at Idlewild Books.

1 Here’s the complete list, which is really too long to include above without ruining the whole aesthetic of this post: Guy Bennett, David Dea, Barbara Godard, Pierre Joris, Robert Majzels and Erin Moure, Jennifer Moxley, Lucille Nelson, Larry Shouldice, Fred Wah, Lisa Weil, and Anne-Marie Wheeler.

16 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

(A glamorous shelf in my glamorous office filled with BTBA titles.)

Just a reminder that after five weeks of build-up, we’ll be announcing the fiction and poetry finalists for this year’s Best Translated Book Awards tonight at 7pm tonight at Idlewild Books (12 W. 19th St.).

Cressida Leyshon will be moderating the event, and Idra Novey (poet, translator, executive director of the Center for Literary Translation at Columbia University) will announce the poetry books, and I’ll do the honors for the fiction.

Most of the time will be spent mingling and drinking wine (and hopefully buying books), and it promises to be a lot of fun. So if you’re in the NY area, be sure to come out.

Oh, and yeah, I’m totally open to bribes if anyone wants to find out what’s on the list before the event . . .

16 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We did it! Here’s the final featured title from this year’s Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Desert by J.M.G. Le Clézio. Translated from the French by C. Dickson. (France, David R. Godine)

Below is a guest post from Monica Carter, a member of the BTBA fiction committee, bookseller at Skylight, and curator of Salonica. Thanks again for all your help covering the longlist titles!

Desert by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio is a perfect example of why Le Clézio won the Nobel in 2008, even though he was little known in the United States—sprawling, place specific narratives that bring to life the histories of cultures we do not know and that the world is quickly forgetting. One thing not to expect when you read Desert is a fast-paced narrative that immediately transplants you into another place and time. It does take you to another place, but in a slow, slightly repetitive pace that moves like the Earth’s rotation. A pace that you know is happening but subtly enough that you don’t notice.

The novel begins with the story of Nour, fourteen year old boy who is part of a North African people, the Taureg, more commonly referred to as the “blue men” because of the sky blue robes that they wear to honor the father of their people. In 1909, the French Colonialists are forcing the blue men out of their native land and into an aimless horrifying journey through the desert, led by their frail spiritual leader, Ma al-Aïnine. From the onset of the novel, there is the presence of an unnamed character, which is the Earth itself and all it’s natural elements. Throughout the novel, we learn Nour has a family—parents, sisters and brothers—and we learn of his staid character, his generous and loyal nature. But mostly he is the observer, the eyes we see through as we watch this Berber tribe lose their land, their leader and their hope to ward off the superior warring efforts of the Christians. Although, it’s the Earth that is just as prominent in the narrative being equal parts friend and enemy, and becoming a major character that only has allegiance to itself. The Earth shows no favoritism. She provides food and water to sustain them yet also tortures them with unrelenting rugged terrains and a scorching sun that dehydrates and destroys. Nour observes the toll of the journey and the effect of the elements on his people:

Standing by the side of the trail, he saw them walking slowly past, hardly lifting their legs, heavy with weariness. They had emaciated gray faces, eyes shiny with fever. Their lips were bleeding; their hands and chests were marked with wounds where the clotted blood had mixed with golden particles of dust. The sun beat down on them as it did on the red stones of the path, and they received a real beating. The women had no shoes, and their bare feet were burned form the sand and eaten away wit the salt. But the most painful thing about them, the most disquieting thing that made pity rise in Nour’s breast, was their silence. Not one of them spoke or sang. No one cried or moaned.

The close third person point-of-view by Le Clézio makes it difficult for us to not feel the effects of the sun, the scorching ground under our feet, the utter exhaustion that Nour and his people must endure. To combat complete fatigue of the reader, he introduces Lalla, a young girl living in the slums of Tangier as a descendant of the blue men. This is where nature becomes cleansing, vivifying and spiritual. Lalla does not go to school. She does not read or write. Instead she wonders her countryside jumping dunes, laying on the white sand and running along with the wind, breathing in its rhythm and essence. She lets the sun edify her, erasing her hunger and loneliness, inhaling it as if it were the source of life itself. She befriends flies and wasps, recognizing their role in the cycle of life and she finds comfort and solitude in the sea and the freedom it offers.

But the voice is still murmuring, still fluttering inside of Lalla’s body. It is only the voice of the wind, the voice of the sea, of the sand, voice of the light that dazzles and numbs people’s willpower. It comes at the same time as the stranger’s gaze, it shatters and uproots everything on earth that resists it. The in goes farther out, toward the horizon, gets lost out at sea on the mighty waves, it carries the clouds and the sand toward the rocky coasts on the other side of the sea, toward the vast deltas where the smokestacks of the refineries are burning.

Lalla lives with her Aunt Aamma. Lalla’s parent died when she was young and what she knows of them is through Aamma. Lalla has friends like the shepherd boy, the Hartani, who does not speak and the fisherman, Naman, who regales her stories of all the places where he has traveled. There is al-Ser, which stands for the Secret, a spirit she visits in the middle of the desert who fills her with an overwhelming sense of well-being and becomes her spiritual guide. After an attempt by her aunt to arrange a marriage for her, Lalla leaves with the Hartani to escape her destiny. The Hartani and Lalla become separated and Lalla ends ups months later in Marseilles, where her aunt has already situated herself in one of the immigrant tenement housing projects. Lalla finds work and befriends a gypsy teenager, Radicz, who steals for a living. She is thrust in the eye of the public as the ethnic model, Hawa, after a photographer spots her in a café and she becomes his muse. She goes through life like the wind, without a true purpose, flowing in any direction that pulls her. But the freedom and solitude that nature offers her are the only real things that compel her to thrive. Eventually she returns to Tangier to give birth to the son of the Hartani in the vast landscape of Morocco with its promise of peace and independence.

Le Clézio facilely creates the symbiotic relationship between the Taureg and nature. Lalla and Nour listen to the earth for answers, sustenance and portents. The wind, the sun and the sea do not control their lives, but they pulse within their blood and live within their hearts. This is what Le Clézio gives to the global readership, a perspective of a people that roamed the desert in search of their own land and their own traditions. But the hunger for power slowly wipes clean the slate of ethnic diversity. Desert is Le Clézio’s effort to give voice to the people who spoke through their journeys and through their respect for nature and through their silence, he makes hear how much they deserve a place on this Earth.

15 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



Brecht at Night by Mati Unt. Translated from the Estonian by Eric Dickens. (Estonia, Dalkey Archive)

Below is a guest post from Bill Marx — the man behind PRI’s World Books — about another BTBA 2010 title. Almost there . . . Almost time to announce the finalists . . .

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
There will also be singing
About the dark times.
Bertolt Brecht, Svendborg Poems

But can an artist who has absorbed some of the dark times sing of them? Questions of political opportunism, as well as the twisted prerogatives of creative egotism, drive the late Estonian writer Mati Unt’s postmodern historical novel Brecht at Night. Unt isn’t concerned about how playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht sang about the rise of Hitler and Stalin or the outbreak of World War II in Europe. Instead, Unt examines, via an arch vaudevillesque irony, the narcissistic machinations of Brecht in the year 1940, when, fleeing Nazi Germany, he and his entourage of wife, mistresses and children end up in Finland, the guests of playwright Hella Wuolijoki, a rich Communist sympathizer with Estonian roots. It is the portrait of the artist as a determinedly abstracted man, aside from his paranoid fear that Hitler has sent out assassins to kill him.

Unt’s Brecht is primarily concerned with making it to America, not attempting to make sense of the gathering forces of the night, which would touch on his uneasy relationship with the Soviet Union, Stalin, and Communism. The general impression left by the book is that it isn’t fear of censorship so much as a pervasive inner decay that holds Brecht back from dealing with reality: The worse thing for a writer is not, Brecht thinks, having to keep your mouth shut. Its a lot worse when you have nothing to say via that mouth.

Sadistically, Unt, a narrative kibitzer in the book, surrounds Brecht with realities that should have given the writer plenty to talk about. He provides excerpts from non-fiction accounts (newspaper articles, academic studies) of the horrendous happening in Europe, with a grim emphasis on the Soviet Unions thuggish hijacking of Estonia. He also provides potted biographies of Brecht’s friends and lovers, showing how they were used and abused by Brecht and by history, camp followers betrayed or left on their own to survive.

All of this could have been heavy-handed Brecht the selfish artist slapped around, over and over, in a circumscribed barrel. At his best, however, Unt brings sardonic humor to the dark proceedings, perhaps tapping on his own feelings about being an artist (playwright, novelist, director) bottled up by the Soviet Union. Unt’s Brecht chooses to see the world through Marxian rules, Hegelian hocus-pocus: The covert theme of the book is, of course, dialectics, Brechts greatest love. That streamlined notion of Brecht’s vision isn’t entirely fair, as least to his poetry, which at the time made use of ambiguity and skepticism, a satire that made full use of mockery. Still, the characters intellectual triangulation amusingly seems to free him from looking too deeply at the demands of the here-and-now, aside from the sexual and secretarial demands he makes on the women in his life. (Unt draws on John Fuegi’s biography The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht, which details the authors swinish treatment of women.) Occasionally the author tries to wake Brecht up via an impish surrealism, such as having a very un-dialectical frog pop up in his room to give him a scare.

Unt includes a memorably funny chapter about a real-life Estonian government who served as a stooge for the Soviets named M Unt (no relation to the author). The guy counts down his acts of repression before his bosses murder him: Lithuania has been accepted as part of the Soviet Union (3rd August). There’s still time to go before my death.

Still, it is difficult to keep the inventive black humor coming, and by mid-point Brecht at Night increasingly shoves the title artist aside to chronicle the lethal facts of Soviet domination. The books imagination gives way to presentation; it suggests that Unt lost interest in drawing (and re-drawing) ironic attention to Brecht’s disinterest in reality, his obsession with bourgeois comfort during a time of chaos. If Unt had included more of the un-dialectical consciousness that informs the (anti)lyrics in Svendborg Poems the books exploration of the amoral writer-in-exile would have been richer and more compelling. Unt has a considerable reputation as a stage artist but there is surprisingly little dramatic conflict in the book. His Brecht devolves into a didactic puppet.

Unt’s other novels available in English, Things in the Night and Diary of a Blood Donor, tap on rich veins of fantasy (apocalyptic meltdown, vampirism) to evoke the brutal truths about the somnambulism of life under (or after) the domination of the Soviet Union. In Brecht at Night the author speaks openly and powerfully about the crimes of authoritarian barbarity, the degradation of creativity and morality, the slippery slope of self-involvement. But one misses his customary wildness, his imaginative gusto, as he goes about it.

12 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

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



Landscape with Dog and Other Stories by Ersi Sotiropoulos. Translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich. (Greece, Clockroot Books)

Below is a guest post from Monica Carter, a member of the BTBA fiction committee, bookseller at Skylight, and curator of Salonica. Thanks again for all your help covering the longlist titles!

Ersi Sotiropoulos, a virtuoso of postmodern Greek fiction, masters the short story in her collection, Landscape with Dog and Other Stories. Sotiropoulos, whose 2000 novel Zigzag through the Bitter-Orange Trees, won both the national Greek book award and the book critics award, continues to use her deft sense of psychological insight and poetic language to give us portraits of the intimate and the abstract.

From the very first story, there is a familiarity that draws the reader in, that reminds of something comforting. But Sotiropoulos layers on top of that security a sense of foreboding. There is an ambiguity to her scenes and to her characters so that we are left to question our own instincts. She infuses the narrative of each story with a controlled terror that makes characters relationship seem like they could snap at any moment. Yet, she never gives us that release or makes it that easy for the reader, that definitive. The beginnings, middles and ends are blurry and we are left to decide where the story began and ended. This is not to say that the stories in this collection are not definitive, they are. They present the moments in life that fall into the grey area, that at one point may look white and then years later, pitch black. This requires a very deliberate prose, a deep understanding of narrative tension and skilled working knowledge of human behavior. Even more impressive is that Karen Emmerich’s translation let’s all of Sortiropoulos’ style and depth showcase itself in a sparse fluidity. The best way to understand what Sortiropoulos has to offer is to read this excerpt from “Christmas with Leo,” which is an woman addressing her dog after she tells him a story, but somehow it feels as if she is addressing the reader:

He isn’t satisfied with the denouement. He wants something more, I know. A happy ending or some big drama. But there’s nothing I can do. That something doesn’t exist. And I don’t want to lie to him. For a while we eye one another, tense as a dog and cat. Then he lays his head on my shoulder and sighs deeply. We sit there side by side, motionless, watching the lights on the tree.

And that’s how we feel as we read engaging story after engaging story, we come to terms with what she gives us, with what life gives us. Big things happen, but it’s in the moments, hours, days, and years later that we parse it out emotionally. She lets us see those moments when we know something is about to happen and illuminates in them the fear of the inevitable. All of this is done with an agile poetic hand that turns away from the lyrical but hits head on the dense and minimal, as shown in the story “The Woman” where she describes a couple making love upstairs, “their headboard hitting the wall rhythmically, monotonously. Tock, tock. An epilectic’s morse.” Details like that rise out of the narrative with a subtle and thunderous boom and it’s difficult to escape the oppressive quality of these stories.

Finding a convenient way out of her stories is difficult and that makes her challenging and simultaneously satisfying. Sotiropoulos gives us no directives. She leads us down a path but we never end up where we think we are going. The reader is expecting doom and is on edge waiting for it, like in “An Almost Guinea Fowl,” where a couple, Maro and Telis, invite over another couple to enjoy the guinea fowl that they bought which turns out to not to be guinea fowl, but some cheaper substitute. As the evening progresses, Telis threatens to tell the guests while they are in the nursery, tending to their crying infant:

“Tell them,” he said listlessly. “Tell them, if it’ll make you feel better.”

Maro started to cry, little sobs that kept getting louder. Her tears fell on the baby, who woke up and wriggled around in the crib. She picked him up and pressed his forehead to her wet cheeks. He was warm and very soft, almost spineless, and every so often his little body would give an irritated jerk as if shot through by an electric current. Suddenly he let out a loud shriek and hit her face with his head.

“I’m going back,” Telis said.

She stood there in the half darkness, with her back against the door and the baby in her arms. They were both crying, pressed up against each other, and the sound of their breathing, fitful and erratic, pierced the milky light of the room.

Scenes like this pull us along in search of a resolution. The couple in trouble, the dysfunctional mother and son, the depressed writer become fertile emotional landscapes that Sotiropoulos mines for fissures that happen long before the final break happens. It’s her acuity of the small breaks in relationships that drive this collection and make it fraught with an anxiety that is enervating and invigorating. Landscape with Dog and Other Stories lets us see what a consummate writer she is who has the power to capture the tiny moments of discomfort and doesn’t dare to give us answers, but to let us find our own way.

11 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



The Ninth by Ferenc Barnás. Translated from the Hungarian by Paul Olchváry. (Hungary, Northwestern University Press)

Below is a guest post from Bill Marx, one of this year’s fiction judges and the man behind PRI’s World Books. We’ll run another guest post of his later this weekend.

A brilliantly unconventional look at life in a small village outside of Budapest in the late 1960s, Ferenc Barnás’s marvelous novel The Ninth comes off as an inventively dour, sardonically humorous version of Huckleberry Finn, except that the book’s nine-year-old narrator can’t light out for the territories once he begins to understand the duplicities of home, society and morality. His indigence is too overwhelming, his family situation too absurd (he has nine siblings) and the soft authoritarianism of the government too robustly restrictive.

What’s more, Barnás gives his observant child hero an additional handicap – a disability that makes it difficult for him to speak and to read. Thus book’s central metaphor works itself out with grim logic: in surroundings this resolutely repressive, everything of value—creativity, morality, truth, and humanity—is bottled up inside, pressurized. What sort of steam could escape the Communist stopper? The answer suggests why Barnás’s third novel, which he admits is autobiographical, takes the form it does—a child’s frank, fanciful, and anarchistic view of moral survival amid repression.



Yet Barnás doesn’t revel in the gloom, an admirable artistry of refusal that turns away from predictable opportunities for extremism to nurture an indirection and subtlety that only deepens the factual surrealism of the situation and the time. The ninth child lives in a poverty-stricken, secretive Catholic family that scrapes along by selling rosaries and religious gewgaws condemned by the Communist government. The boy’s domestic and school life is marked by starvation, overcrowding (the ten children sleep in three beds), overwork and abuse. His father is tyrannical and short-tempered; his mother is kind but passive. In the course of the book the family’s exhausting focus, under the father’s stern command, is to earn enough money to move into a larger house.

Barnás conveys the environment’s barbarism through ironic humor (“One afternoon, when for some reason I wasn’t in the mood to mutilate frogs out in the yard with the others . . .”) and memories of violence that are kept off-stage (“the other day our father gave us twenty lashes on our soles for being late, he used the iron’s chord but it was better than watching klaro get it . . .”). Catholicism serves as a rich satiric source of meager solace, wry hypocrisy, and amusingly secular observations, such as the peculiar but understandable satisfactions the inarticulate kid finds in serving as an altar boy: “It’s so good to see people shut their eyes while sticking their tongues above the tray! Nowhere else could I see so many different sorts of tongues; lots of them are quivering, and some are colored stranger than I ever would have thought.”

It is this agile emphasis on homey detail rather than trauma and despair that has led the book’s too few reviewers to dwell on Barnás’s admirable modesty and nuance. For me, The Ninth is all the more provocative because it depicts, through a nimble exploration of a child’s stream-of-consciousness, the vicissitudes of his imagination, and the tee-tottering state of his soul amid the village’s sickening perfidy, corruption, and stupidity. When the kid steals money from his teacher and spends his ill-gotten gains on cakes and candies for his classmates the idea is not to stage a pint-sized crime and punishment.

Barnás wants us watch his narrator shape the parameters of the self he will become, dramatizing whether the child will absorb the guilt and spiritual poverty around him or become an individual by embracing the possibility of change, by speaking the self-incriminating truth. Memorably, his confession seems to burst out of him, against his will: “Everything becomes even hotter inside me as something begins surging up into my chest, something sure to gush into my mouth in no time: the saliva is already sour in my throat, as at other times. ‘It was me,’ I say.” What looks like a modest tale of growing up becomes a far more ambitious examination of the formation of an ethical consciousness, almost out of thin air, in an authoritarian state built on lies and coercion.

Barnás’s nine-year-old narrator is a brave construct, an unconsciously sophisticated consciousness that filters life’s hardships and decisions through a startling innocence, an amoral earnestness. The character’s emotional life is weirdly attenuated, his thoughts often taking on a gnomic vagueness redolent of post-modern philosophy: “It must count a lot, what we assume on account of what, and what we imagine we hear in what; at least that’s what the last month taught me.” Translator Paul Olchváry skillfully captures the novel’s fascinating blend of arch artificiality, sharp-eyed realism, and antic fantasy, all at the service of depicting the inner life of the marginal among us.

10 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



News from the Empire by Fernando del Paso. Translated from the Spanish by Alfonso Gonzalez and Stella T. Clark. (Mexico, Dalkey Archive)

I can’t do half the job summing up this mammoth book that Paul Doyle did for Quarterly Conversation. So rather than even try, I’m going to give all props to Paul and use his review to profile this particular BTBA title:

If there wasn’t so much fiction in News from the Empire, it could be called a work of history. In fact, the focus of this broad work is history itself, as well as the many unrecorded lives and events that history has forgotten from this strange era in Mexico’s early nationhood. Using Emperor Maximilian and his wife, Carlota, as a starting point, Fernando Del Paso both considers what Mexico is and the country’s place in the larger narrative of world history. The book spans the palaces of Europe and the villages of Mexico, yet despite its broad focus News is a book rich in characters and details, a work that opens up this era of Mexican history to readers without specialized knowledge.

Maximilian and Carlota are the focus of the book, and even if they are not explicitly on every page, they are always in the background somewhere, providing the humanizing contradictions that fill it. Maximilian I, who ruled Mexico from 1864 to 1867, was a member of the Hapsburg-Lorraine family that reigned over the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and was placed on the Mexican throne by the French Emperor Louis Napoleon. Although Maximilian thought he was bringing stability to Mexico and restoring some power to the Catholic Church, Napoleon was attempting to take advantage of political instability in Mexico to expand French influence into the Americas. Del Paso draws a complicated picture of two naïve people placed in a situation they could not manage and a country they did not understand. This innocence is especially inexplicable in the case of Maximilian, who, as brother of Austria’s Emperor Franz Josef, should have known something about ruling but is completely unable to govern. He’d rather spend time in Cuernavaca collecting specimens or planning the protocol for a state visit. He means well but he just doesn’t know how to be an effective ruler.

This is largely due to his incredible ignorance of the country he was to govern. Del Paso gives the impression that Maximilian thought Mexico was European in the sense that he would preside over a well-established state apparatus: all he would have to do is show up and take over. This is obviously delusional, yet as Del Paso sympathetically points out “the divine right to govern nations, inculcated indelibly in the minds of many of these European princes, and then the political necessities imposed by the matrimonial alliances . . . cause many of those princes to grow up with the conviction that they had the capacity to govern and duty to love any foreign people they happened to be placed over.” [. . .]

History as one of the larger preoccupations of the book leads to a secondary question: What it is to be a Mexican? And how does one put Mexico in a wider historical frame? For Del Paso, Mexico is a country made up of many little pieces that history has forgotten, but Maximilian and Carlota, too, are Mexican because they gave up so much and, therefore, became Mexican and part of Mexico’s history. Even though they were forced upon the country, Del Paso argues that it wasn’t so much the fact of their imposition that defined Maximilian and Carlota’s role but their horrible timing. He quotes Octavio Paz: “[to] set up a barrier to the expansion of the Yankee republic wasn’t really such a bad idea in 1820, but it was anachronistic by 1860.” Anachronistic, perhaps, but paradoxically it was this intermingling of Maximilian and Carlota with Mexico that put the country into a wider global frame, releasing this era of Mexican history from a parochial interpretation that kept Mexico as a side show to Europe.

Ultimately, the fragmentary chapters lead away from a universal history, making News from the Empire a work that is both particular and personal. Nothing in the book is complete; there is always a gap in the story, whether it be the story of Maximilian’s death or Carlota’s madness. Del Paso’s goal is not to present the verdict of history, “because the insanity of History didn’t end with Carlota’s, but also because rather than a true, impossible, and . . . undesirable ‘Universal History,’ we only have many little histories, personal and under constant revision, according to the perspectives of the times and places in which they are ‘written’.” News from the Empire succeeds in this sense.

This is a much different novel from Palinuro of Mexico, the other del Paso book that’s made its way into English. (And is also published by Dalkey Archive.) Both are incredibly ambitious, with Palinuro being more manically hilarious and drunk on lists.

That’s not to say News from the Empire isn’t remarkable—it’s an amazing achievement, and the writing is beautiful, even when the central focus is historical positioning and events. It’s a tough book to quote from, but here’s the opening bit of the first “historical section” (in contrast to the “Carlota sections,” which are all set in 1927 at the end of her life).

In the year of our Lord 1861, a sallow Indian named Benito Juarez governed Mexico. He had been orphaned at three, and at eleven had become a shepherd who climbed the trees by the Enchanted Lagoon to play his reed flute and talk to the birds and beasts in Zapotec, the only language he knew.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Napoleon III reigned in France. Some had given him the nickname “Mustachoo” because of his long, full, black, and pointed mustache, which he treated with Hungarian ointments; others called him the Little Napoleon to distinguish him from his famous uncle, Napoleon the Great—that is, Napoleon Bonaparte.

One day, Benito Pablo left the relatives who had taken him in. He abandoned his sheep, and the town of his birth, Guelatao—a word meaning “deep dark night” in his language—and walked twenty-six leagues to the city of Oaxaca, where he could find work as a servant in a wealthy home like his older sister had done; and most of all where he could get an education. Oaxaca, the capital of the state of the same name, was a city that could be described as “ultra-montane,” not only because it was located beyond the mountains, but also because of its sanctimoniousness and its submissiveness to Rome. There, Juarez learned Spanish, arithmetic and algebra, Latin, theology, and law. In time, not only in Oaxaca, but also in other cities, undergoing other exiles—whether he was stubbornly pursuing a goal or fulfilling a destiny sent by Heaven—he also learned to be a representative, then governor of his State, Minister of Justice, Secretary of the Interior, and, finally, President of the Republic.

Little Napoleon didn’t manage to become Emperor of France until his third attempt. Nothing seemed to help: not Napoleon and Josephine’s wedding ring, which people say, he had used as a talisman during his first attempt; not the strip of bacon some say he fastened to his hat during his second attempt—so that an eaglet, a bird he had bought for a pound sterling at Gravesend soon after embarking down the Thames on the Edinburgh Castle—would always follow him and hover around him. No, none of these ploys helped Little Napoleon gain the power he sought on his arrival in France.

This is a dense book that takes some time to read, but in the end, it’s definitely worth it.

10 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

The other week I was talking with Paul Kozlowski of Other Press about studies that have been done on what gets a reader to actually purchase a book. As we all cynically assume, when it comes to purchasing a physical book from a brick-and-mortar store, reviews hardly matter at all—it’s all about the cover and the placement. This is obvious, sort of distressing (see previous post about the doom and gloom that tends to taint the covers of a lot of works of international literature), but also emphasizes the impact that a great display can have on getting certain books into the hands of readers.

So to that end—and to help promote at least one awesome bookstore that are helping promote the Best Translated Book Award—I thought I’d post this pictures of a display that Boswell Book Company put together in honor of the BTBAs. (If you’re not familiar with Boswell, it took over the former Harry W. Schwartz store that was on Downer Ave. in Milwaukee. It’s owned by Daniel Goldin—an amazing bookseller who shocked me with his intimate knowledge of Rochester when I first moved here.)





(Special thanks to Stacie Willilams for sending these along!)

9 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



Vilnius Poker by Ricardas Gavelis. Translated from the Lithuanian by Elizabeth Novickas. (Lithuania, Open Letter)

Vilnius Poker may well be one of the darkest and most dense books on the list. (OK, I know that’s not selling language, but I’m banking on the fact that the blurb below will wow everyone.) Using my insider knowledge, I can tell you that after reading the 20-page sample that Elizabeth Novickas sent us, everyone on the Open Letter editorial committee agreed that we had to publish this book. It’s complicated, occasionally humorous, fragmented, told from several conflicting viewpoints, inconclusive, and considered to be “the turning point in Lithuanian literature.” And more relevant to this award, the translation is spot-on.

The novel itself is set during Soviet times and centers around Vytautas Vargalys, a survivor of the labor camps who’s obsessed with Them, a shadowy group that’s taking over, crushing the souls of people, and turning the world to shit. Lolita—a young woman who just started working with Vytautas at an absurd library—is possibly one of Them, or Vytautas’s great love. As his mind continues to fall apart, their relationship takes a decidedly tragic turn . . .

This isn’t an easy book to describe, but I think translator Elizabeth Novickas does a great job in the essay that appeared in CALQUE:

When asked to come up with a summary of what the book is about, or a single section that could characterize it, I find myself groping at so many things that I’m completely at a loss. Yes, I suppose one could summarize something of the plot: there is a murder, a love story, four narrators, a number of characters, a more or less concrete time frame, and most certainly a concrete place, but how to include that time also goes around in circles, and on two occasions actually stops? And what to do with details of the plot that get told over and over, so that in the end you hardly know which version to believe, much less how to describe it? The best I can come up with, without writing a doctoral thesis on the subject, is also the simplest: this is a piece of fiction about life. The four narrators are all flawed people, but they are all people nevertheless, including the last narrator—the reincarnation of one of the characters as a dog. They make us squirm at their rawness, cringe at the depth of their self-deceptions, laugh at their stories, and in the end, when we see what cards they have been dealt, break our hearts.

Gavelis passed away in 2002, but not before writing a series of interesting books with great titles, such as The Life of Sun-Tzu in the Sacred City of Vilnius, The Last Generation of People on Earth, and Seven Ways to Commit Suicide.

Getting back to Vilnius Poker . . . most reviewers tend to focus on the section fo the book that Vytautas Vargalys narrates. And for good reason: it’s a brilliant, haunting, claustrophobic descent into madness that takes up half of the book. If you want to read a sample, click here. But to shake things up a bit, here’s a quote from the second section, narrated by Martynas Poska, a librarian and academic whose “log” is a bit more upbeat that V.V.‘s ravings, and puts what V.V. conveyed into a new light:

Half the world knows what a homo sovieticus is (excepting homo sovieticus himself). However, no one has studied homo lithuanicus, or even homo Vilnensis. These species matter as much to the future of mankind as to its history.

Mankind should be grateful to the Lithuanians that they exist. But it will never forgive them if they do not describe their experience of existence, if they don’t introduce the entire world to it.

Only a Lithuanian is qualified to write the opus “What is the Ass of the Universe.”

The history of the great nations has been explored backwards and forwards. It’s impossible to learn anything more from them. It’s paradoxical, but humanity knows much more about various archaic tribes than it does about the history of European minorities—that quintessence of injustice, absurdity, and errors. The world may be doomed for the simple reason that no one noticed our plight in time. An ethnologist who diligently researched some Albanians or another would be much more useful than one who had written up hundreds of obscure African tribes.

Never forget that we are all, in a certain sense, a bit Albanian. All of us are just a tad Lithuanian. And worst of all—every one of us, in the depths of our hearts, is a Vytautas Vargalys.

9 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We still have a few (like seven) books from the fiction longlist left to profile, but to be honest, my attention is turning to next week’s announcement of the fiction and poetry finalists . . . As we did last year, we’ll be announcing 10 books from each category—truly the best of the best of the literature in translation published last year.

Rather than simply announce these on the website, this year we’re going to have a special event at Idlewild Books to celebrate the finalists.

So, next Tuesday, February 16th at 7pm, Cressida Leyshon of The New Yorker will host the festivities and Idra Novey and I will make the grand announcements. This won’t really be a formal panel—more a chance for us to talk about the importance of international literature and to bring some extra deserved attention to these books.

And, as with every great publishing party, there will be drinks.

Everyone reading this should definitely come, and tell all your journalist and blogger friends. It’d be great to use this event as the next push to bring attention to all of these wonderful books and the great translators who often go unappreciated . . .

Copies of all the books will be on hand as well so that attendees can cough financially support cough the publishers/authors/translators/Idlewild. (And all BTBA titles are 20% off . . . )

Hope to see you all there!

8 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



In the United States of Africa by Abdourahman Waberi. Translated from the French by David and Nicole Ball. (Djibouti, University of Nebraska Press)

Below is a guest post from Monica Carter, a member of the BTBA fiction committee, bookseller at Skylight, and curator of Salonica. She’s going to be helping out this week with a couple other posts so that we can be sure to cover all 25 books before 2/16’s announcement of the finalists . . .

Abdourahman A. Waberi writes in his novel, In the United States of Africa, what many people in third world countries dream of—that they were born into the richest country in the world and had every advantage that Americans have. What is so captivating about this novel is its commitment to this idea, to realizing this dream in an imagined world, to reimagining the context of race and politics. Immediately, the reader is struck by that concept—what would it be like if Africa were America and the United States and Europe were third world countries where the whiteness of your skin was a disadvantage, a mark of poverty and prejudice. To enrich this conceit, Waberi adds two characters, Yacuba and Maya. These two characters do not know each other or interact, but react to each other’s appearance according to their own backgrounds. Yacuba, a poor carpenter from the bowels of Europe, emigrates to Africa in search of a better life. Yacuba’s life does not improve; in fact, it hovers in the same misery and becomes even more miserable as he is opened up to the constant prejudices that he sees propagated against himself and his people daily in real life and in the media.

But most of the novel is told through the eyes of Maya, or at least, through the mind of Maya. Waberi chooses a removed second person, as if someone is telling Maya her history, her movements and her thoughts:

Ever since your mother’s illness, everything—your body and your mind, your dreams and your feelings—have been focused on death. You examine every sin, Maya, every word, every particle of darkness, every rumor you hear on the radio. Just yesterday, your were struck by a detail in a popular song written by our great lyric songwriter, the illustrious Robert Marley.

Maya, adopted when she was little by African doctor, is white and privileged. She never realized the color of her skin would be a problem until she went to school and other children made fun of her. Feeling out of place with the world she lives in, she goes in search of her mother. This leads her to the underbelly of France, ripe with the grit and grime of poverty and hopelessness. Maya (her real name is Malaika) encounters head on her prejudices but also the contrast of the color of her skin with her background.

Already the theater of your journey is set up in this corner of France. You have a solid advantage, Maya. As you very well know, you have the local color. As long as you don’t open your mouth, nobody can suspect your foreign status, the source of many privileges. You usually keep quiet or else you express yourself in elementary French, as correct as possible. You try to erase your accent, which sounds like it comes from far away, as it wasn’t easy to find a professor to teach you the rudiments of this language—your parents insisted you learn it, if only because of your personal history.

Subtle as this point is, it reverberates—imagine that your culture, your language, your customs were slowly and quickly dismissed because your country’s financial status didn’t have an impact on global economy. Who you are as an individual is wrapped up in the disregard of rich countries and their motivations. Waberi attempts to deliver this message with alternating turns of humor and emotion, leaving us to wonder what our roles are in all of this.

Equally impressive to the goal of this novel, is Waberi’s sense and use of language. He is lyrical and direct, both earthy and ethereal. In his language you sense the rugged landscape of his native Djibouti but also the fantastical lightness of its traditions. All this is served so well by the deft translation of David and Nicole Ball.

This novel is not perfect, but it is imperfect in a very acceptable and forgiving way. The lofty aim and the mechanics Waberi uses emphasize his talent as a writer and his responsibility as a writer. To make us think in a different way about the world we live in, but rarely question. For moral integrity alone, this book deserves to be on the longlist.

7 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



The Discoverer by Jan Kjaerstad. Translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. (Norway, Open Letter)

Yes, The Discoverer is the third volume in Jan Kjaerstad’s “Wergeland Trilogy.” And yes, the other two books are also quite long. I only mention this because it was such a big deal to Tom Shone when he reviewed the book for the New York Times, and I quote:

Reviewing books doesn’t often feel like real work — not the kind of work that makes you break a sweat or join a union. So when an editor from The New York Times calls you up and asks if you want to review a new novel from Norway, and the novel turns out to be not only over 400 pages long and largely set in a fjord, but also Part 3 of a trilogy, Parts 1 and 2 of which ran to over 1,000 pages, with multiple narrators and a nonlinear time scheme — yeesss — then you jump at the chance to take your place as a worker among workers.

Which is kind of a shit way to start a review, no? It’s like saying “fuck modernism” because Ulysses is going to take a while to get through.

All that aside, I really want to point out that there’s no need to read the other two volumes in this series before reading The Discoverer. If you have read The Seducer (available from Overlook) and The Conqueror (from Open Letter) before approaching this book, the resonances will resonate that much more and the depth and awesomeness of the novel will be that much more complex and, well, awesome. But dif you can’t squeeze 1,000 pages of prose into your free time, don’t worry, here’s a little primer:

Jonas Wergeland is a Norwegian television celebrity responsible for “Thinking Big” an artsy program depicting a series of very important Norwegian people. He’s extremely popular. He’s bigger than Terry Gross plus Ken Burns. But following the mysterious death of his wife, he’s not quite so universally loved . . .

What’s fascinating about this trilogy—and the reason why you don’t need to read all three books to “get it”—is the way that each volume presents Jonas’s life and Margrete’s death in completely different ways. There’s some tricksy narrative stuff going on—who is narrating The Seducer and how do they know all the details of Jonas’s life? who is the woman giving the professor all the dirt on Jonas in The Conqueror?—but on a basic level it’s pretty straightforward: in The Seducer, Jonas is a superstar who is one degree from perfection and arrives home from a trip to find that his wife has been murdered, and in The Conqueror, he’s always has some violent urges which culminated in him murdering his wife. And in The Discoverer, he’s out of prison sailing down a fjord with his daughter and a group of young people working on a high-tech multimedia project.

For the first time in the trilogy, Jonas finally gets to speak for himself. And instead of really clarifying anything, he just adds another level of uncertainty as to what sort of person he is, and what actually happened to his wife. As Jan told me during his visit here to the States: people always turn to this volume for the “Real Truth” but in many ways it’s less reliable than either of the other two volumes . . .

And that’s Kjaerstad’s genius. The way these three separate visions overlap and interplay is absolutely brilliant. You can start anywhere with the series, and depending on the order in which you read these, you’ll end up with a different impression of Jonas, of what really happened, and of the various threads that tie together the three books.

Going back to the tricksy nature of these for a second: in all three books, the plot (or plots, since these are composed of hundreds of mini-stories from Jonas’s life), is way overshadowed by the overall structure of the book. The Seducer is organized like a fugue, with story nested inside of story, bouncing up and down between levels before coming to rest on the “present now” of Jonas arriving home to find his wife on the floor. The Conqueror is more like a mosaic in the form of a spiral, with little chunks of different stories coming up every hundred pages or so, gaining momentum as the book progresses, and leading to a hugely powerful payoff.

In many ways, The Discoverer is a much different, in some ways more mature, and—although it’s almost unbelievable to say so—more ambitious than the previous works. Although the meta-structures are very different, both of the other volumes are constructed from very short pieces that build on one another. The Discoverer is made up of eight longer chapters that are named after planets and moons (Jonas narrates the former, his daughter the latter) that weave several episodes from Jonas’s life into a highly literary, well-rounded (sic), almost standalone story.

I’d have to quote tens of pages to give you the full effect, but here’s a bit from the opening chapter, that sets the scene and motions toward the whole construction of this book, and the way is moves through the times of Jonas’s life:

Why did he do it?

One has to start somewhere, and a good, not to say almost perfect, departure point—or even, to stick with the climbing motif: viewpoint-from which to examine Jonas Wergeland’s life would be another stony edifice, another gallery, a hallowed hall, a room with walls of granite, and an autumn day in the 1980s—an autumn day which would bring with it deep sorrow and wisful joy, as well as a strange mystery, an incident bordering on the scandalous. Nor is it entirely inappropriate that Jonas should be at the organ, an instrument befitting his history and the pwoer which for so long he had exerted over the minds, not to say the souls, of the Norwegian people. Jonas Wergeland is playing the organ, framed by its gleaming, monumental face, making the whole church tremble with his playing, making the very stone, the bedrock of Norway, sing. He is not an organist, but he handles the instrument almost like a professional musician; he is an organist by nature, he might have been made for this part, this pose. No wonder he once replied when asked, in Samarkand, what he did for a living: “I am an organist.”

Scarcely an hour earlier, after collecting a pile of sheet music, he had closed the gate of the house he would soon be moving into and which people would dub Villa Wergeland, and set off down the road he had walked every day of his childhood. Wherever he turned his eye he risked becoming lost in memories: a life-threatening bonfire, the windows Ivan broke, the wallet in the ditch which brought him a heaven-sent fifty-krone reward, the magnetic, nipple-shaped doorbell on the front door of Anne Beate Corneliussen’s building. He sauntered along, wishing to prolong the poignant aspect of the moment. There was a strange mood in the air too. It felt as though there was no longer anyone living in the houses he passed. Even the shops looked deserted. It was an exceptionally dull day. Damp. The last leaves had fallen from the trees. The ground was covered with an indeterminate gunge, as if after an incredibly drunken party. The blocks of flats and the shopping center reminded him of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union. The whole of life seemed suddenly drab and dreary. And yet—in spite of all this—he felt hopeful. As if he knew that behind all the greyness lay something else, something surprising. Something is about to happen, he told himself.

Kjaerstad is a gifted writer, and even if it takes a year to work your way through all three books, it’s totally worth it.

2 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



The Weather Fifteen Years Ago by Wolf Haas. Translated from the German by Stephanie Gilardi and Thomas S. Hansen. (Austria, Ariadne)

Wolf Haas’s The Weather Fifteen Years Ago has the dual distinction of being the most obscure title on this year’s Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist and also the most formally experimental. Although before you run away and hide, I should say right now and here that this is also one of the most readable and engaging titles on the longlist—despite its formalist tendencies.

Which, given Haas’s background, makes a bit of sense. Haas is most famous in Austria for his “Detective Brenner” crime novels that “present the exploits of a cantankerous ex-cop plagued by migraines” (according to Thomas S. Hansen’s afterword). The Weather Fifteen Years Ago, originally published in German in 2006, may be his first non-thriller, but the way in which the reader pieces together the plot from the five-day long interview between Wolf Haas and an anonymous female book reviewer, functions sort of like a mystery.

In the novel The Weather Fifteen Years Ago, Wolf Haas is being interviewed about a book he wrote with the same title that is more or less a prolonged story of unrequited love. The novel inside the novel revolves around one Vittorio Kowalski, who appears on a game show to show off his ability to remember what the weather was like in a particular small village in the Austrian Alps every day for the past fifteen years. In and of itself, this is a pretty remarkable, but the Haas of the novel knows that there’s something more to the story . . . Why would a man memorize the weather every day for some podunk town where his family once vacationed? (A: A girl. It’s always a girl.)

From this seemingly innocent, yet oddly compelling story, a whole world unfolds, one that’s both intricate in terms of its plot (there’s a lot more to this little summer love than one initially expects) and in terms of how the interviewer talks with (fictional) Haas about the way the (imaginary) book is written.

I know that sounds confusing, but here’s the opening page just to give you a sense of how easy it is to fall into this book and how many levels this works on:

BOOK REVIEW: Mr. Haas, I’ve been going back and forth for a long time about where I should start.

WOLF HAAS: So have I.

BOOK REVIEW: Unlike you, though, I don’t want to start at the end. Actually—

WOLF HAAS: Strictly speaking, I don’t start at the end either. I start with the first kiss.

BOOK REVIEW: But in a way that’s the whole point of the story you’re telling. Or, the way I see it, the goal toward which everything moves. Speaking strictly chronologically, it belongs at the end of the story. Your hero has been working toward this kiss for fifteen years, and in the end he finally gets it, but you don’t describe this scene at the end. Instead, you prefer to put it right at the opening.

WOLF HAAS: There were actually a few openings I liked better. My problem wasn’t so much the beginning, or how I should start, but where to put the kiss. You can’t just stick it at the end, where it belongs, so to speak. But that would be intolerable. When someone has been waiting for, or as you say, working toward, a kiss for fifteen years, and hten he finally gets it, how are you supposed to describe that?

BOOK REVIEW: While I was reading, I wondered if you were declaring war on the reviewer by moving the conclusion to the first page.

WOLF HAAS: That would have been pushing it too far.

This infamous kiss—described so precisely, clinically in Haas’s imaginary book—is what the Book Reviewer and (fictional) Haas then build to in their interview, and by the time you as a reader actually get there, the weight of the moment is incredible . . .

It’s a lot of fun to puzzle out the various plot points of the imaginary book under discussion, and I’d be interested in hearing from other readers as to whether they think the imaginary book is supposed to be all that well written. The Book Reviewer seems to have a lot of respect for it, and for (fictional) Haas’s writing, but at the same time, there are scenes she describes that seem interminably dry:

BOOK REVIEW: When you read this passage, it’s almost maddening how you describe the wedding guests in such a detailed way. Here, of all places, when all you want to know is if, and how, Vittorio Kowalski escapes, you lose yourself in the artistry of describing Anni’s wedding dress. When it first appeared three days ago, Anni called the color “vanilla.”

WOLF HAAS: Three days and seven hours ago, yes.

BOOK REVIEW: And now it says it was by no means vanilla. And then there follow some digressions about vanilla ice cream at the swimming pool and you even give the price of a scoop of vanilla ice cream at that time.

That’s what makes this book a lot of fun: to imagine the imaginary literary work behind all these allusions and discussions. And (the real) Haas does a marvelous job of making this feel like a genuine conversation. Sure, belief is suspended when you consider the idea of a book reviewer spending five days talking to an author about a single book (not to mention the implausibility of just how precisely she seems to know the book . . .), but still, the conversation flows and as the book progresses, it gets more and more engaging. The “metafictional” frame never distracts from the story. And speaking of the “metafictional” element, I’ll end with a long quote from Hansen’s afterword about this:

All metafiction confronts readers with clearly playful literary experiences. Haas chooses to do more than interrupt a plot line with meta-narrative or digression; he presents the whole narrative in this form. The result produces some intriguing puzzles to engage readers in constructing their own interpretations and even alternative story lines. The often argumentative conversation between the fictional author and the interviewer, in which they disagree about interpretation and even plot, establishes the unreliability of any narrative point of view. “Haas” claims to tell Vittorio Kowalski’s quest for love, and in doing so, he betrays an identification with his character so close that at one point the third person and first person pronouns merge: the narrator’s “he” (describing Kowalski) slips into “I.” To add to this shifting point of view, the time levels in the tale are also porous. The narrated sequence of events does not unfold chronologically but emerges according to the associative vagaries of interviewer and author—and both comment on this fact. Time is almost an exercise in praeteritio, which is driven by disclaimers like “we won’t mention the fact that . . .” or “I’ve cut a certain passage.” These strategies themselves generate new content and propel the reader through various associative digressions toward the dramatic climax.

Definitely worth reading.

1 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

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



Death in Spring by Merce Rodoreda. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent. (Spain, Open Letter)

The other day, I had a really interesting conversation with David Del Vecchio and Lewis Manalo of Idlewild Books about covers for literature in translation. All the BTBA longlist titles are on display at Idlewild (rock on!) and it’s really interesting to take these all in at once.

One of the things David pointed out was just how dark all these books were. (Sidenote: I REALLY HOPE that one day he’ll write a long piece for us about all of his cover observations—all of us publishers could learn a ton from listening to a bookseller like David. I mean, we’ve seen Sessalee at B&N influence the look of more commercial fiction—pictures of hair anyone?—so it’s only cool that a hip, indie bookstore could help shape the look of translated titles.) I hadn’t really thought about the look of all these titles together—see, I don’t judge a book by its . . . actually, yes I do, we all do—but seriously, look at The Ninth, The Skating Rink, Confessions of Noa Weber, and, cough, Death in Spring, and the impression you get is that all of these books are bleak, dark, somewhat depressing, etc.

Personally, I think the Death in Spring cover kicks some serious design ass, but I can see how someone looking at a tree made of various bones might get the impression that the book is a bit morbid . . . But well, you know, in contrast to some of the other BTBA titles that might misrepresent (Memories of the Future looks awful mechanistic for such an insanely funny book), this one is pretty spot-fucking-on. The book opens with the narrator’s father trying to bury himself in a tree in order to avoid the village’s traditional death ritual . . . His attempt fails in brutal, disturbing fashion:

They started to shout. They shouted at my father who had little remaining breath and was clearly near his end. He was still alive, but only his own death kept him alive. They dragged him from the tree, laid him on the ground, and began beating him. The last blows made no sound. Don’t kill him, shouted the cement man. The mortar trough, filled with rose-colored cement, lay at his feet. Don’t kill him before he has been filled. They pried his mouth partially open, and the cement man began to fill it. First with watery cement so it would slide far down inside him, then with thick cement. When he was well cemented, they stood him up and put him back inside the tree. They replaced the cross and left to prepare the Festa.

Welcome to Merce Rodoreda’s nightmare world.

To fans of her earlier works—especially The Time of the Doves, this is shocking and totally unexpected. But it does sort of fit an evolution of Rodoreda’s work. Doves is a more conventional story of a woman’s loves and losses during the time of the Spanish Civil War. It’s gorgeous and lush, and has something in common with Virginia Woolf’s writing. But then there’s A Broken Mirror, which chronicles the dissolution of a family in three distinct sections, each written with a different tone and sensibility, starting with a more Victorian feel, then turning modernist, and ending with a very fractured, post-modern section. And then comes Death in Spring.

Death in Spring is a very surreal, violent (even houses are “upwrenched”) novel that traces the life of a young boy, through whose eyes we witness the terrifying and incomprehensible rituals that shape life in the village. In addition to the cement-pouring ritual (which is freaky) and the burying people inside of trees bit, there’s also the annual “trip down the river,” in which one unlucky person has to float through the river running under the village to clear out any rocks blocking the water’s passage . . .

The book can be interpreted in several ways—as a metaphor for life under Franco, as a creepy bildungsroman, so on—but one constant is the beauty of Rodoreda’s prose, especially as she struggles to convey something that’s almost beyond words. (To be honest: I’m stealing some of the comments Erica Mena made about this book and all of the times “language fails” in the book.) Personally, I think this is one of the most important books Open Letter has published so far. I can envision scholars and readers debating this a hundred years from now—and studying Martha Tennent’s inventive translation.

So I’ll leave off with another passage that’s beautifully sad:

When they pulled the boy from the river, he was dead; they returned him to the river. Those who died in the water were returned to the water. The river carried them away and nothing was ever known of them again. But at night, at the spot where the bodies were thrown into the water, a shadow could be seen. Not every night. Not today or tomorrow, but on certain nights a shadow trembled. They said the shadow of the dead returned to the place where the man was born. They said that to die was to merge with the shadow. That summer, the shadow of the boy was clearly distinguishable. It was unmistakably him because he had been separated from one of his arms, and the shadow had but one arm. Struggling against the current, the shadow—which was only will, not body or voice—attempted to slip beneath the village. And as the shadow struggled, the prisoner neighed.

27 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull. (Russia, New York Review Books)

Since today is the day Apple revolutionizes the future of book publishing and saves us all releases their new overly-slick device, and with Lost only six days and a handful of hours away, it seems like the perfect day to write about a fantastical story collection that includes a lengthy piece on time travel.

This is one of those books that must drive a certain B&N buyer (and a dozen sales reps) absolutely insane. All the book world prejudices come into play: 1) short story collections don’t sell, 2) dead authors don’t sell, 3) who gives a shit about Soviet Russia?, 4) could be cross-shelved in either sci-fi or literature, and 5) how do you pronounce “Krzhizhanovsky”? (The last one is actually serious . . . Can anyone give me a phonetic? Marian? Anyone?)

To be completely honest, I was only able to read a few stories from this before it was selected to the longlist. But after finishing it last night, I’m extremely glad that it made the cut and that I had the chance to fall into Krzhizhanovsky’s meta-fictional, Borgesian sort of world.

According to the bio info in the book, it sounds like Sigizmund lived a pretty interesting life . . . Born in 1887, he died in 1950 and it wasn’t until 1989 that a collection of his fictions could be published. The censors killed the first few possible publications since his writings didn’t portray the new Soviet state “in a positive light” and then WWII got in the way.

Although the pieces are quite as avant as Kharms, the strange sense of humor and the self-reflexiveness of the book remind me of the OBERIU. With a little bit of Calvino thrown in for good measure.

The book opens with a surreal story named “Quadraturin” after a strange substance that you can apply to the walls, floor, and ceiling of your apartment to make it bigger. And bigger. And bigger. Until the vastness of the apartment is much more problematic than its original confined nature.

“The Bookmark” further evidences Krzhizhanovsky’s obsession with the impossible or surreal—this story includes a bit with a guy telling a story about how the Eiffel Tower just gets up and walks away—but also introduces a metafictional element that really caught my imagination and runs through a number of the other stories:

“You see,” the sharp-featured man burst out. “It hooked you. How? You haven’t read it?” he glanced back over his shoulder. “No? Well then. The idea: to debunk all the bunk of which life is made. The plot: a writer, at work on a novel, discovers a character missing. The character has slipped out from under his pen. Work comes to a halt. One day, the writer happens to look in on a literary reading and is stunned to find himself face-to-face with his character. The character tries to run out the door. But the writer—I think this is how it goes—grabs him by the shoulder and elbow, like this, and says: ‘Listen, just between us, you’re not a person, you’re a . . . ‘ They end by agreeing not to spoil things for each other anymore and to devote themselves wholeheartedly to their common cause: the novel. The author introduces his character to an individual essential to the plot’s development. This individual then introduces the character to a charming woman with whom he falls head over heels in love. The remaining chapters of this novel withing a novel quickly begin to go awry and askew, like lines typed on a sheet that has popped out from under the bar. The author, upon receiving no new material from his love-besotted character, insists he break with the woman. The character tries to dodge, to play for time. At his wits’ end, the author demands (this over the telephone) immediate submission to his pen or else . . . But the character simply hangs up. The End.”

Granted, this sort of meta-twist might have been ballsy in 1927, but in today’s meta-infested world, fictional games like this are only as interesting as the uniqueness of the ideas they convey. Like this lengthy speech that the eccentric idea-man Saul Straight gives in “Someone Else’s Theme” when talking to a book critic:

“Didn’t one of your confrers, the most outspoken of them, I’m thinking of Hennequin, wasn’t he so incautious as to admit that ‘a work of fiction affects only those whom it portrays’? Open La Critique scientifique: that’s literally what it says. But a work of fiction recounts the life of its characters. If one were to allow a character into life without a ticket, so to speak, if one were to give him the bookcase key and the right to knock on existence’s door, then that character would be forced during his sojourn among us—about this there can be no doubt—to devote himself to criticism, and criticism alone. Why? Simply because he of us all is the one most concerned with his own fate, because he must hid his nonexistence, a nonexistence that, you must agree, is more inconvenient even than being of noble birth. And so a creature less real than the ink with which he writes takes up self-criticism in a desperate attempt to prove his alibi with respect to the book: I was never there, he says, I was an artistic failure, the author couldn’t make readers believe in me as a type in there, in the book, because I’m not a type and not in the book, rather I, like all of you, dear readers, am out here among you, this side of the bookcase door, and I write books myself, real books, like a real person. True, when the critic is making a fair copy of this tirade, he always changes ‘I’ to ‘we’ (‘As we wrote in our article’—‘We are glad to report’): all this is perfectly natural and explainable—a creature with a poor sense of identity had best avoid the first-person singular. At any rate, the characters populating books, like us, the people populating our planet, are either believers or atheists. Clearly. What I’m trying to say,” Straight wen on excitedly (the critic couldn’t get a word in), “is that not all characters turn into critics (if that were to happen, we’d all be done for!). No, the ones who become critics are the ones who deny their author’s existence—they’re the book’s atheists. They don’t wish to be invented by some inventor and so take revenge the only way they know how: by trying to prove that it’s not the author who invents the characters, it’s the characters who invent the author. You’ll say I stole that from Feuerbach: I don’t deny the critic’s erudition, I only deny his existence.”

These kind of cerebral games can be traced throughout the stories in this book, but rather than go on and on, I’d rather point out that the title story (or more of a novella), “Memories of the Future” is absolutely brilliant. And reading it when I did, it played right into my current Lost obsession. Basically it’s the story of a young boy who decides he wants to make a “timecutter” so that he can skip ahead into the future . . . or go into the past. He’s a Faraday-like character, and his ideas about the “shape of time” and the idea of making time “dance in a circle” are great, but so is this bit about time and essence (last long quote, I promise):

A quarter of an hour after the first aphorism an outside observer might have acquainted himself with the theory of time’s cuts as set forth in the batting eyes of the lady from across the river.

As applied to love, the theory went like this: memory, “unrolling its long scroll,” may, like a reel of film, be edited. One may cut bits out of both time and the reel and dispense with the longueurs. Thus if one were to make cuts between a woman’s first meetign with her first lover and her first meeting with her second, her third, and so on, that is, if one were to leave what was purest, most sincere, and deeply embedded in memory, the film reel onto which we had transposed this series of spliced-together first meetings would show us the woman—with the speed of a roulette ball skipping from number to number—whirling from embrace to embrace and aging before our eyes. To a lawyer, of course, this would recall the article in the Criminal Code dealing with mass violence. Try editing the superfluous out of anything at all, leaving only what is essential, and you’ll see that it won’t be to your . . .

Overall, and simply put, this book kicks ass and if you like anything above, run out and buy it immediately.

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto. Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen. (Cuba, Grove Press)

I’m about to give away the game in relation to this novel . . . So if you’re an anti-spoiler sort of person, I recommend skipping this post and simply buying the book and enjoying all the literary games packed within.

Trying to summarize this book is a bit tricky. It’s like a mafia thriller filtered through Nabokov. It’s a dense book with a narrator who is both unreliable and maybe a bit confused, and who is obsessed with Proust. It was also the subject of an incredible conversation Erica Mena and I had with Esther Allen for a forthcoming Reading the World podcast. (That’s a subtle enough plug, right?)

Anyway, the basic set-up of this book is that the narrator has been hired by a Russian couple living in Marabella, Spain to tutor their son. The narrator decides that all the kid needs to do is read Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, which is the book that contains everything from psychology to quantum physics. The world is in there.

It startled, even frightening him when I spoke that way about the Book, this being without fixed age—at first I’d thought that was me, that the Writer might be referring to me, but on an instant’s further reflection I realized the phrase applied rather to the man who had greeted me, Batyk. A man bearing a perfect resemblance to a peon, someone fetched from the depths of the darkest, sootiest oil painting.

I am concerned, he announced, with the infinite cunning and unction of Norpois (in the Writer); I am concerned, I fear that your manner of teaching, an education such as the one you propose, based on a single book, may not be the correct or appropriate one. So distorted an education, its vortex resting upon a single book, cannot, by all rights, amount to much. Didn’t you list the classes you were to give him on my behalf? Spanish, mathematics, geography in Spanish? Hadn’t you also mentioned physics? Didn’t you assure me you were well grounded in physics, extremely (sarcastic here) well grounded in physics, didn’t you agree to cover the entire sixth-grade curriculum and the seventh, as well?

And yet all I did in the first class was talk about the Book, and in the second I talked only about the Book, and in the third read aloud selected passages from the Book. That drew him closer.

Rex is constructed out of a series of “Commentaries” from the narrator to the young boy. Most of these sections focus on telling the story of the boy’s parents and of the narrator’s attempt to figure out what the hell is really going on. (More on that in a second.) Littered throughout these commentaries are references to other books—sometimes Proust, sometimes others. Sometimes these phrases are bolded, sometimes they’re not. In translating the book, Esther Allen created a list of references that she worked from, and Jose Manuel Prieto did the same, resulting in an invaluable “author’s note” at the end that provides an amazing set of references.

It’s through this intricate set of references that the reader has to figure out what’s “going on” with the family that has employed our narrator. Initially he thinks they’re one of the wealthiest families he’s ever met. Although how they got their money is a bit suspicious and unnerving . . . Because they are Russian and living in a mob-heavy community—and because of the enormous diamonds that are just around—he’s initially convinced that he’s working for a couple major players in the mafia . . . But that’s not actually right. It’s actually a bit more complicated and involves fake diamonds (like in Proust’s The Lemoine Affair, which may be more of an ur-text for the novel than In Search of Lost Time), a dangerous scam, and some members of the mob that have recently been released from prison . . .

Rex is one of those novels that benefits from multiple readings. And it really doesn’t matter if you know the “plot” or not. The joy is in all the literary games . . .

21 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next four 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 Skating Rink by Roberto Bolaño. Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. (Chile, New Directions)

Well, 2009 wasn’t nearly the “Year of Bolaño” that 2008 was . . . Last year’s Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist included both 2666 and Nazi Literature in the Americas, which sparked various debates about whether Bolaño was overrated, whether his shorter prose was better than his overly ambitious, epically long novels, whether or not he actually needed the attention the award might bring, etc., etc.

In the end, 2666 was one of the three real finalists for the award (along with Senselessness and eventual winner Tranquility) and I think I spent more time explaining why it didn’t win than focusing on the awesomeness of Attila Bartis’s dark, creepy novel.

With three Bolaño books coming out in 2010, who knows what next year’s award might look like, but for now, we only have one Bolaño book to talk about: The Skating Rink. (Although I am going to make this a “Day of Bolaño” by also posting the review of Monsieur Pain that just arrived . . . ) The Skating Rink is an early novel of Bolaño’s, and one that put him on the literary map in part for his use of three narrators to tell the story and the unique way he constructs a detective novel that contains no actual detective . . .

In brief, this is a novel of three men living in the town of Z whose lives are intertwined: Remo Moran, a successful businessman; Gaspar Heredia, a former poet who works at Moran’s campground; and Enric Rosquelles, an overweight psychologist working in the town’s Social Services Department. And of course there are also a couple women: Caridad, a somewhat crazy woman that Gaspar falls in love with; and Nuria Marti, the gorgeous figure skater who’s involved with both Remo and Enric.

There’s also a murder. And some shady political dealings. A skating rink. And a twisted love story.

But similar to Noa Weber, what’s most amazing about this novel are the voices. Each chapter is narrated by one of the three male protagonists, and these monologues read almost like confessions, or responses to some line of questioning—yet as pointed out above, there is no detective in the pages of this mystery. Nevertheless, right from the start, the reader knows something has gone down and that Enric Rosquelles is the main suspect:

Until a few years ago I was a typical mild-mannered guy; ask my family, my friends, my junior colleagues, anyone who came into contact with me. They’ll all tell you I’m the last person you’d expect to be involved in a crime. My life is orderly and even rather austere. I don’t smoke or drink much; I hardly go out at night. I’m known as a hard worker: if I have to, I can work a sixteen-hour day without flagging. I was awarded my psychology degree at the age of twenty-two, and it would be false modesty not to mention that I was one of the top students in my class. At the moment I’m studying law; in fact, I should have finished the degree already, but I decided to take things easy. I’m in no hurry. To tell you the truth I often think it was a mistake to enroll in law school. Why am I putting myself through this? It’s more and more of a drag as the years go by. Which doesn’t mean I’m going to give up. I never give up. Sometimes I’m slow and sometimes I’m quick—part tortoise, part Achilles—but I never give up. It has to be admitted, however, that it’s not easy to work and study at the same time, and as I was saying, my job is generally intense and demanding. Of course it’s my own fault. I’m the one who set the pace. Which makes me wonder, if you’ll allow me a digression, why I took on so much in the first place. I don’t know. Sometimes things get away from me. Sometimes I think my behavior was inexcusable. But then, other times, I think: I was walking around in a daze, mostly. Lying awake all night, as I have done recently, hasn’t helped me find any answers. Nor have the abuse and insults to which I have, apparently, been subjected.

Granted, The Skating Rink has nowhere near the scope and ambition of 2666 or The Savage Detectives. It’s not game-changing in terms of the possibilities of literature. It’s not even Bolaño’s best short work. Still, it’s a captivating early novel, one that sets forth some typical Bolaño themes in a fun, genre-tweaking way that highlights his novelistic skills. Definitely worth reading, and who knows, maybe the tightness of this book will impress the fiction judges more than the explosive looseness of 2666 . . .

18 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next four 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 Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven. Translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu. (Israel, Melville House)

It’s hard to write an objective overview when it comes to books like this. I first heard about this via Jessa Crispin’s review for NPR, then coming across Michael Orthofer’s review at Complete Review, where he gave it an “A-.” (Anyone who follows Complete Review knows how rare anything above a B or B+ is . . . ) Completely intrigued but living through the beginnings of my divorce—a divorce that at the time I wasn’t totally in favor of—I picked this up over the summer despite my slight fear that a book about a woman’s obsessive love for a man who left her was maybe not the best thing for my state of mind.

Who knows if it was or wasn’t, but after the first handful of pages I was in love with Noa’s voice. As I mentioned in my review, this is one of those novels in which the voice and telling of the story far outstrips the plot of the actual book. At its most basic, The Confessions of Noa Weber is about a middle-aged writer who married a man out of convenience (to escape her military duty) and continues to love for the rest of her life despite the fact that he leaves her for Russia, for another woman, for a different life.

Noa goes on to become a very successful author of Nira Woolf detective novels, but never stops loving Alek. And this book is her gut-wrenchingly personal account of her obsession and her life as a whole. In our blog & Twitter-obsessed world, this book is perfectly suited for our times. It reads like a too-personal look into someone’s life, but one that is charming, honest, smart, self-critical, sarcastic, and absolutely captivating.

The temptation always exists to be flippant at your own expense in the marketplace of anecdotes and then to go around with your hat and collect the laughter. Everything’s a joke nowadays, everything’s a laugh, it’s the fashion. So that feeling seriously has become utterly and completely pathetic. A kind of social impropriety which only a real blockhead would be guilty of. You won’t usually catch me making this kind of faux pas, because I am a polite person, I have self-respect and I don’t want to cause embarrassment either. And since I’m such a classy gal, everything about me is classy too. In other words, in the framework of the anecdote and the shtick, the best thing about a good shtick is that like a hawker in the marketplace you can dish it out to people like a tasty morsel of yourself.

So I could sell you this wild shtick about how I got turned on by Alek, and how from the thing we had together I got pregnant, and how afterwards I got back into that whole scene again; and it’ll all be terribly flippant and witty, how I’ll laugh at her, and for a few moments perhaps I’ll even feel healed, because I’ll be really capable of laughing at “her,” who by then is already not completely me.

The truth is that emotional seriousness involves not a little stupidity. The stupidity lies in that toad-like inflation itself, as if vis-a-vis all the terribly painful and terribly important and terribly, terribly terrible things happening in the world, Noa Weber jumps up and croaks out loud: Listen, listen, look, look, I too have something terribly painful and terribly important to tell. Something about my tortured soul. Something about my delusions.

Once you start reading this book, it’s almost impossible to put down. Noa Weber is an amazing character—one that you could listen to forever. In fact, I know someone who refuses to finish the last five pages just so that it won’t be over . . .

Gail Hareven won the Sapir Prize for Literature for this novel, and although I have no idea what her other books are like (she’s the author of five other novels and three story collections), I really hope Melville House (or someone) will bring them out in Dalya Bilu’s translations. Even if they’re half as good as Noa Weber, they’d still be totally amazing.

16 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



The Zafarani Files by Gamal al-Ghitani. Translated from the Arabic by Farouk Abdel Wahab. (Egypt, American University in Cairo Press)

I came across The Zafarani Files at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair last March. At a pretty over-the-top ceremony in the Emirates Palace, Gamal al-Ghitani was awarded the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Literature. (Which I believe is one of the wealthiest prizes in the world—certainly for Arabic writers—and comes complete with gold coin.) For ages I’d been wanting to get more AUC Press books, since, like most Americans, I hadn’t read very many works of contemporary Arabic fiction. And since the jacket copy for The Zafarani Files hit on the magical combination—“wicked humor” and “darkly comedic novel”—I thought I’d give this a try.

As mentioned in the review I wrote, I really didn’t know what to expect when I started this on the long flight from the UAE to JFK. I certainly didn’t expect an incredibly funny, inventive novel about an impotence curse . . .

The novel is made up of a number of different “Files” about the residents of Zafarani. These “Files” a written from a mysterious point of view, a cloaked observer who knows quite a bit about residents and the goings-on. And they have a sort of police file vibe, occasionally opening with a run down of a particular character’s vital characteristics:

Name: Hussein al-Haruni, also known as Radish-head [. . .]

Current Address: Number 3 Zafarani Alley

Distinguishing Marks: Height 127 cm; head elongated, curved, pointing upward, narrowing at the top like a sugar cone or radish; eyes round like marbles, pupils always cast down as if in consternation; lips parted, and sometimes visible, a very fine line of saliva threading its way from mouth to chin.

Following these brief descriptions is usually a little story about that particular character’s relation to the rest of the people in the neighborhood. About some recent developments in his/her life. Especially in his/her sexual relationships . . . See, at the start of this book, a number of men in Zafarani Alley have encountered a little problem. This bit about Usta Abdu Murad, a driver for the Cairo Transit Authority who is married to a former dancer, sets out the basic problem and puts the plot in motion:

The Usta spoke quickly and, just as his wife had instructed, came straight to the point, saying that his marital life was in jeopardy, that his home was falling apart, and that he didn’t know what to do. He was no longer able to fulfill his conjugal duties, and this had already lasted a week. When he was engaged to be married, but before signing the contract, his fiancee, as she then was, had asked him specifically, “Can you water the soil, daily?” Refusing to believe his nod of affirmation, she had tested him thoroughly. For many years, apart from the days of her period, he had not ceased. She would fall ill and lose weight if he failed to mount her each and every day. This passing of a dry, unproductive week had been terrible, especially since his condition was showing no signs of improvement. He was getting so tense and his nerves were so bad that he now thought twice about going home.

As it turns out, all the males in the alley are impotent thanks to a curse placed on them by the sheikh that has three parts:

  • Any male whose feet touched the ground of Zafarani would be impaired.

  • Any child born from now on in Zafarani would be, a priori, a loser.

  • Any Zafarani woman who slept with any man, anywhere in the world, would make him impotent, without regard to nationality or religion.

He said that he had excluded one Zafarani man and one Zafarani woman for his own secret reasons, and that he would never reveal their names.

The ramifications of this curse—and all of the ensuing rules the sheikh imposes on the people of Zarafani with the stated goal of “bettering the world”—take on a global scale, as the curse spreads and the goings-on of the alley become more and more shrouded in mystery since no one can actually enter without suddenly becoming impotent—something no one wants.

What most intrigues me about this novel is the knitting together of the various characters and stories. Gamal al-Ghitani creates a wonderful, lively world that is more ironic, funny, and verbally dazzling than any other contemporary Arabic book that I’ve read in recent years.

14 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?”

12 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



The Tanners by Robert Walser. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky. (Switzerland, New Directions)

Thanks to New York Review Books, University of Nebraska Press, and New Directions, Robert Walser is experiencing something of a renaissance. Jakob von Gunten was one of the first books NYRB brought out, and a couple years later they did a volume of selected stories. Around the same time, UNP published The Robber. And in addition to The Tanners, ND recently brought out Susan Bernofsky’s translation of The Assistant, and next year will be doing some of his “Microscripts.” (If you’re not familiar with the “microscripts,” it’s a pretty fascinating subject for another post, but in the meantime, here’s a picture of one of his almost indecipherable microscript pages.)

What’s especially nice is the amount of attention these publications have been getting. One of the best PEN World Voices events I ever attended was a special tribute to Robert Walser featuring Michael Kruger, Deborah Eisenberg, Jeffrey Eugenides, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Susan Bernofsky. It was almost magical—Kruger gave a great introduction, and each of the other panelists read an excerpt from Walser’s oeuvre. (Recordings of all of these should be on the PEN America website, but for some reason, most of the links are broken . . . The only one currently available is Jeffrey Eugenides’s reading of “Trousers.”)

In terms of print coverage, although it’s almost a decade old now, J.M. Coetzee’s The Genius of Robert Walser article in the New York Review of Books is fantastic, and more recently, Benjamin Kunkel wrote a great piece for the _New Yorker.

Kunkel’s piece gets right at the heart of what makes Walser’s books so damn good and so damn addicting—the idiosyncratic voice of his characters:

The incredible shrinking writer is a major twentieth-century prose artist who, for all that the modern world seems to have passed him by, fulfills the modern criterion: he sounds like nobody else.

In Walser’s case, this means that he achieved a remarkable tone, in which perfect assurance and perfect ambiguity combine. His narrators are all ostensibly humble, courteous, and cheerful; the puzzle lies in deciding where they are speaking in earnest and where ironically.

A perfect example of this can be found in Monica Carter’s review of The Tanners when she quotes Simon’s farewell speech from the bookstore that he briefly worked at:

“You have disappointed me. Don’t look so astonished, there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall quit your place of business this very day and ask that you pay me my wages. Please, let me finish. I know perfectly well what I want. During the past week I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly if it must entail standing at one’s desk from early morning till late at night while out of doors the gentlest winter sun is gleaming, and forces one to scrunch one’s back, since the desk is far too small given my stature, writing like some accursed happenstance copyist and performing work unsuitable for a mind such as my own, I am capable of performing quite different tasks, esteemed sir, than the ones entrusted to me here. I’d expected to be able to sell books in your shop, wait on elegant individuals, bow and bid adieu to the customers when they’re ready to depart. What’s more, I’d imagined I might be allowed to peer into the mysterious universe of the book trade and glimpse the world’s features in the visage and operation of your enterprise. But I experienced nothing of the sort.”

A semi-autobiographical novel, Simon is Walser’s stand-in: a young man without a clear purpose drifting from job to meaningless job, pontificating, convincing bosses to hire him without any personal recommendations (“To me, the most appropriate thing would be if you didn’t make inquiries at all! Whom would you ask, and what purpose would it serve!”), before moving on after being disappointed by one thing or another.

Even though Simon might be the most charming in all of his oddness, all of the characters in The Tanners are pretty wonderful. They tend to speak in paragraphs that allow their strange paths of thought to twist, turn, and entertain.

One of the wonderful things about Walser’s writing (I believe Sebald mentions this in his introduction, but I’ll be damned if I can find it now), is how it sort of erases itself as it goes. How as a reader, every page, every paragraph is charming and charged with meaning, only to sort of dissolve, become more foggy, less specific, the minute you put the book down.

Echoing the Kunkel quote from above, there’s no one else who writes like Walser did. He’s a special case, and this novel is one of the most well-crafted and immediately enjoyable books on the fiction longlist.

I think I’ll close this off with one of my favorite quotes from the novel. It’s from the very end, but really, this is a book that’s more mood than plot, so I’m really not giving away much of anything:

“No,” she said, “you won’t sink. If such a think were to happen, what a shame it would be—a shame for you. You must never again condemn yourself so criminally, so sinfully. You respect yourself too little, and others too much. I wish to shield you against judging yourself so harshly. Do you know what it is you need? You need things to go well for you again for a little while. You must learn to whisper into an ear and reciprocate expressions of tenderness. Otherwise you’ll become too delicate. I shall teach you; I wish to teach you all the things you’re lacking. Come with me. We shall go out into the winter night. Into the blustery forest. There’s so much I must say to you. Do you know that I’m your poor, happy prisoner? Not another word, not one word more. Just come—”

....
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