27 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the course of this week, we will be highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. All of these are written by the BTBA poetry judges under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win.” You can find the whole series by clicking here. Stay tuned for more information about the May 3rd ceremony.

Transfer Fat by Aase Berg, translated from the Swedish by Johannes Göransson, and published by Ugly Duckling Presse.

Jennifer Kronovet is the author of the poetry collection Awayward, which was selected by Jean Valentine for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. She is the co-founder of Circumference: Poetry in Translation.

Why this book should win: It amazingly makes English feel like a new language with visceral power.

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that almost everyone reading this review here is interested in foreign languages. Although some books in translation may try to hide the very fact that they are translated, many of us turn to books in translation because they are that—a twisty relationship, a multi-dimensional trip, a dynamically charged confluence, language within language within language. Part of the engaging pleasure of reading contemporary Swedish poet Aase Berg’s Transfer Fat, translated by Johannes Göransson, is that one feels as though one is reading in a foreign language, and yet, has access to understanding the words as themselves.

Transfer Fat makes a world and puts us inside it to hear its language, to be subject to its laws and materiality, to be a citizen called upon to act and be acted upon. Articles are removed, new compounds words are made, and commands are given, and so this language feels like a paradigmatic example of itself, essential and new as it subverts expected idioms and means multi-directionally. This language is both highly prepositional and highly visceral; we are in relation and on top of relations and at relationships. With what? Whale fat, breast-gristle, hare-milk, glasswater, a fatcatatonic election promise, Hal, the hare Cosmos, and more nouns that seem pure thing and pure metaphor, Swedish and of my Midwestern backyard, political and inborn. These contrasts are productively disorienting. One learns to see this new language (am I beginning to think in it?) as one capable of bringing the body and the body politic together, and the body and the mind that charges it.

The first poem begins:

Cut the keel
in harebrood pool
cut fin in fat
fishtailborn

Right away the speaker asks us to perform a violence (as translators are often accused of doing) and in that violence, a new word is made, fishtailborn, and perhaps this new word is us, now composed of parts, of language severed and re-glued. After a large space on the page the poem continues:

Keep fat
let fat wait
keep time
let time go
let time rock calmly in hare
let fat build core in hare
in the hare Cosmos
time is shell

If we follow the speaker’s suggestions, follow the new language happening, we end up with a new feeling for how time works, a new metaphysics. The manipulations of language in the book never feel coy or like play for playing’s sake. Rather, through the thick scrim of foreigness, language is amplified as being viscerally of the body and of time, capable of leading us to bold ideas if we follow its permutations.

In the translator’s note, Göransson, a poet in English and native speaker of Swedish, writes that Forsla fett is “an ambient space where the Swedish language goes through all kinds of permutations: words, connotations, meanings letters are put into flux, combining and recombining continually.” Göransson notes that Berg brings parts of English-language texts into her poems which further “deforms the Swedish language.” Thus, the book is its materiality, is the way it moves in language, or rather, moves languages out of themselves. How does one translate such a text, when carrying over only the “meaning” of the words would be to lose almost everything? Göransson takes risks. He challenges and deforms English. He moves into the world of Forsla fett and practices the processes it demands on English, cutting and recreating, melting together and splicing, transferring and fattening and thinning, and we are left with the fat and the muscle of meaning, new language we can work with, that works on us.

26 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the course of this week, we will be highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. All of these are written by the BTBA poetry judges under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win.” You can find the whole series by clicking here. Stay tuned for more information about the May 3rd ceremony.

The Invention of Glass by Emmanuel Hocquard, translated from the French by Cole Swenson and Rod Smith, and published by Canarium Books.

Brandon Holmquest is a poet, translator, and the editor of CALQUE.

1. Because it manages the difficult trick of being intellectual without being academic, of being lyrical without being Romantic, of being poetic without being precious.

2. Because it is skillfully, by which I mean subtly, modeled on glass itself. There is a transparent quality to the poems, they are faintly traced through with colors at times, they tend to slightly warp the images and people one glimpses through them.

3. Because it contains lines like:

. . . Between Deleuze and Wittgenstein
there is Reznikoff and there is also
a wall . . .

4. Because after an 84-page section called “Poem” comes a 24-page one called “Story” which appears to explain the references and anecdotes in the poems, and does to some extent, but which also contains a further crop of anecdotes, more prosaic but no less charming than any that come before.

5. Because in it there is an openly-declared influence of American poets, which somehow does not result in the translation simply sounding like the specific poets quoted or winked at. This “somehow,” in my experience, is almost always explained by the skill of the translators, and such is the case here.

6. Because it is a book of poems from France that is about the difficulties of being a real person, as opposed to the more frequently seen subject of recent French poetry, the difficulties of being a person with money.

7. Because in reading it one is reminded of those French poets of the last forty or fifty years that really matter, especially Ponge and Char, without feeling like what one is reading is derivative of those writers. It seems rather to be the case that Hocquard is himself part of something they are part of as well, and he therefore merits wider readership so that this larger whole may be better understood, if for no other reason.

7.5 Because there are many other reasons.

25 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the course of this week, we will be highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. All of these are written by the BTBA poetry judges under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win.” You can find the whole series by clicking here. Stay tuned for more information about the May 3rd ceremony.

Almost 1 Book / Almost 1 Life by Elfriede Czurda, translated from the German by Rosmarie Waldrop, and published by Burning Deck.

Erica Mena is a poet, translator, and editor, not necessarily in that order. Her original poetry has appeared in Vanitas, the Dos Passos Review, Pressed Wafer, and Arrowsmith Press. Her translations have appeared in Two Lines, Asymptote, PEN America, and Words without Borders, among others. She is the founding editor of Anomalous Press.

Most of us have probably never heard of Elfriede Czurda. That’s because this translation is her first publication in English. More interestingly, it’s a translation of (almost all of) her first book to appear in her native German, as well as the entirety of her second book. It’s unusual for poets’ first books to be translated into English, in part because of most publishers’ self-fulfilling expectations that unknown poets are hard to sell, and even harder in translation. But translator, and extraordinary poet herself, Rosmarie Waldrop has an advantage in this sense: she and her husband co-edit this book’s publishing house, Burning Deck, and so can take risks on new work they feel deserving of an English readership. (Burning Deck, I want to point out, brought out the phenomenal BTBA finalist engulf — enkindle by Anja Utler, translated by Kurt Beals that I reviewed last year for Three Percent.)

Which is not to say that Elfriede Czurda is unknown in German. She’s won numerous awards for her work which includes poetry, plays, and criticism, and has published three books in the past five years. But introducing new, living, experimental authors to an English poetry readership already resistant to works of literary translation is a daring move, one that we’re fortunate independent houses like Burning Deck continue to take. And that brings me to why, I think, Almost 1 Book / Almost 1 Life should actually win the Best Translated Book Award this year. It’s utterly daring.

The book is divided into two sections, “Almost 1 Book” and “Almost 1 Life.” The first part of the work is definitively hybrid: it includes lineated verse; long, meandering lines that spill across the page; blocks of prose; images; diagrams; and text-images reminiscent of the world-wide mid-century concrete poetry experiments. Take one page spread of the book as an example, the one that is the most varied:

The verso is the second and page of a section of a long poem called “Mutilation with Intent,” this section titled “manifesto of the stitchomantic cat.” I can’t imagine what the word “stitchomantic” was in the original German, my German being literary nonexistent. What I do know is that it’s evocative, inventive, and fascinating in English. It resonates with schizophrenic. It makes me think of an automated sewing machine, and a particular kind of invented advertising language that might say “stitch-o-matic.” The “-mantic” also could be “manic,” especially given that it’s a cat and all cats are of course neurotic. The recto is a narrative-poem-rhebus of sorts. This sets my mind spinning, thinking about translation of image-reliant poetry; how the images sound in English versus how they sound in German, the meanings that can be read into and out of them shifting based on context (of the poem, and of the culture). Images are percieved to be universal, but of course are far from that.

It’s not all flashy typographics. One of my favorite poems in the first section is a obsessively comprehensive microscopic description of a landscape that shifts into the poets body, and the body of an unknown you:

by the rain-puddled wheel-rutted road on the mossy ground rank
dandelion ribwort plantain clover milkwort grass
on either side of the road pear- apple- and plum-trees galore
a beetle with a black carapace and an orange dot in the lower third
of it climbs up a blade of grass and tries belly-up head-first to reach
the next blade belly and legs pale pink like shrimp shells

The excessive detail, the attempt at wholeness of description, the violence done to the landscape and the body in this attempt, is exquisite.

The second section of the book, “Almost 1 Life,” is a poem composed of seventeen sections with three “editorial digressions” and is part satire, part “(almost) true-life-novel,” and begins with discussion of the work at hand in relation to its reader:

i put the reader off with promises: all our famous animosities will
become characters in this (almost) true-life-novel
the reader’s reaction is not what i expected (he wants to wait and see)

And readers who do wait and see, who are willing to take the risk that Czurda and Waldrop have taken, each in their own language, are richly rewarded. The reward of a work like this is directly proportional to how challenging it is to read. The playfulness of the language belies a serious challenge to readerly poetic expectations, it gives with one hand and takes twice as much with the other. It entrances and disturbs, and stays, like good poetry should, lodged under your skin like a bullet.

24 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the course of this week, we will be highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. All of these are written by the BTBA poetry judges under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win.” You can find the whole series by clicking here. Stay tuned for more information about the May 3rd ceremony.

Notes on the Mosquito by Xi Chuan, translated from the Chinese by Lucas Klein, and published by New Directions.

Jennifer Kronovet is the author of the poetry collection Awayward, which was selected by Jean Valentine for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. She is the co-founder of Circumference: Poetry in Translation.

When I had the chance to meet the Chinese poet Xi Chuan at a conference on translation in Beijing, I asked him about the choice to write prose poems. Prose poems make up approximately half of Notes on the Mosquito, his selected work translated by Lucas Klein. He responded that years ago, an artist asked if he would write a poem in relation to a photograph of someone washing with a plastic wash basin. He told this artist that he did not know how to write about plastic basins, only wooden ones. Prose was a way for Xi Chuan’s poems to step outside of the imagery and language of traditional Chinese poetry and reenter with a different idiom and perspective. Xi Chuan’s prose poems are nodes of intense and felt thinking in relation to China’s present, expressed in a voice that is starkly contemporary and layered with history. Form and voice in Xi Chuan’s work feel like rooms where impossible thinking explains everything. In one poem he writes:

In a crowd of people some people are not people, just as in a flock of eagles some eagles are not eagles; some eagles are forced to wander through alleyways, some people are forced to fly in the sky.

As much as Xi Chuan’s prose poems step outside of classical poetry to look back in, his lineated verse voraciously considers beyond the borders of China to expand a framework tied to the history of Chinese poetry, reframing the frame and what is beyond it. In a poem that reflects on turning thirty, Xi Chuan writes:

in my first decade
the moon revealed its silent craters
while under the moon, in the town I lived in
a clatter of exorcismal gongs and shouts in the street
     my limping uncle swore in the courtyard
     careless I met with a white rooster’s kiss
     and a girl pulled down her pants in front of me…
hail bounced in exhaustion on the road to the commune
     I entered an immaculate school and studied revolution

Here, lyrical observations on symbols of the natural world intermix with the surreal, the political, and the daily. In another poem, Xi Chuan writes:

even the moonlight is polluted blurring our shadows
even the mountaintops grow like fissures brewing

even the Tang Dynasty fell in the end
even the dumpsters have people living in them . . .

This is a poem of nihilistic momentum. Past dynasties can illustrate a mindset and so can polluted skies and ancient mountains—all re-envisioned in Xi Chuan’s verse.

So many of us are curious about how China sees itself, and so is Xi Chuan. Throughout the book, he reflects on, interrogates, builds up, tears apart, repaints and enacts what modern China means. This is, of course, a huge topic, and one feels the kinetic struggle in language to figure China’s dichotomies; the reader participates in the erratic dance between country and self, between an interior dialogue and a public setting forth. The poems are neither distanced considerations nor fleeting impressions. Rather, we see a mind using everything at hand—from ancient history to the senses, from the philosophers to the annoyance of neighbors, and sometimes what comes through most is this sense of urgency. Here, urgency feels like action against a fixed and false sense of the present. Thinking is political and personal, predetermined and endlessly open. Xi Chuan writes:

Trees eavesdrop on trees, birds eavesdrop on birds; when a viper stiffens and attacks a passing human it becomes human . . . The truth cannot be public, echoless thoughts are hard to sing.

This is not nature poetry and yet it is. It is not political and is. It is impersonal and personal and cold and emotional. It is foreign and very near.

Lucas Klein, brings the poems into an English that feels lively and forceful, apparent in both the lineated and the prose poems, all of which sound intriguingly new and yet spoken by a familiar friend. He has not made these poems American, but rather allowed us to hear Xi Chuan’s poetics and ideas in an American idiom, in an English that is alive with personality. Klein’s knowledge of Chinese culture and history allows references to appear without explanation or odd framing. Rather, he translates the impulse of the poems so that we might eavesdrop on one of the more important conversations about national identity happening in poetry.

23 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the course of this week, we will be highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. All of these are written by the BTBA poetry judges under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win.” You can find the whole series by clicking here. Stay tuned for more information about the May 3rd ceremony.

pH Neutral History by Lidija Dimkovska, translated from the Macedonian by Ljubica Arsovska and Peggy Reid, and published by Copper Canyon Press.

Idra Novey is the author of Exit, Civilian, a 2011 National Poetry Series Winner, and The Next Country. She is also the translator of The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector, On Elegance While Sleeping by Viscount Lascano Tegui, and The Clean Shirt of It, for which she was awarded a 2007 PEN Translation Fund Grant.

Born in Macedonia but long a resident of Slovenia, Lidija Dimkovska is a post-national writer. Her exuberant poems, vividly translated by Ljubica Arsovska and Peggy Reid, are international in scope and intimately so. In pH Neutral History, her second collection to appear in English, one poem opens with a “Peter Pan bus from New York to Amherst” and another in cold Schloßberg with stoves full “of our nails and hair.” Dimkovska’s radical mix of old world/ new world references make for a poetry that feels necessary to the future of poetry, and compellingly so. In the excellent long poem “Recognition,” she writes:

You have a sense of direction even in worlds
you’ve never visited, A.
You can tell what personal misery will give birth to a work of art
that will travel the world like the mind of an imbecile.
And which imbecile will return from no-man’s land, and which won’t.
That’s why in Christian bookshops
you pause with the Bible open in your hands
to listen to the singer simulating orgasm on the radio.

The leap from misery to art to imbeciles and Christian bookshops is funny and smart and darkly so. Like A., Dimkovska also has a sense of direction in worlds she hasn’t visited, or has witnessed only briefly. Her poems are equally lived and imagined, rooted and drifting. In her hands, an assassination attempt on the president is the work of Scheherazade. In her Collected Prose, Rae Armentrout says that “doubleness is the essence of consciousness.” In Dimkovska’s post-national poetry, the consciousness is more of a tripleness or quadrupleness. With these superb translations from Arsovska and Reid, pH Neutral History is a serious contender for this year’s Best Translated Book Award in poetry.

22 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the course of this week, we will be highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. All of these are written by the BTBA poetry judges under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win.” You can find the whole series by clicking here. Stay tuned for more information about the May 3rd ceremony.

Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stanescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter, and published by Archipelago Books.

Russell Valentino is the chair of Slavic Studies at Indiana University, editor of The Iowa Review, founder of Autumn Hill Books, and translator of eight literary works from Italian, Croatian, and Russian. Oh, and he’s also received two Fulbright-Hays research grants and two NEA Fellowships.

A friend of mine once did commentary for a literary death match in the language of wine labels: a fruity blend of blackberry and barnyard; hints of oaky tangerines and smoked chestnuts; and so on. This worked well because no one forgets irony in literary death matches: everyone knows the contest cannot ever really be a contest. Unfortunately not the cast with the things called contests, and O, do we need some irony here!

This is one—though just one—of the reasons that Nichita Stanescu’s Wheel with a Single Spoke, in Sean Cotter’s English translations, should win this contest. It knows for irony, as when, in the love lyric, “Beauty-sick,” the lover enjoins, “Do your best not to die, my love / try to not die if you can”; or, in a nod to trans-sense, (“What is the Supreme Power that Drives the Universe and Creates Life?”), it turns out to be “A and E / and I and O / and U.” And once this tone, then everything takes on a tinge, or you at least have to wonder, when he writes words like “consciousness” and “cognition” and “being” and “ah” and most definitely “O.”

It should also win because through the irony the post-War, Cold War, otherwise all-too-depressive seriousness grows deeper, more meaningful, easier to understand and appreciate, brighter, as when he writes, “Because my father and because my mother, / because my older sister and because my younger sister, / because my father’s various brothers and because my mother’s various sisters, / because my sister’s various lovers, / imagined or real,” after which you can’t help but want to know more, read another line and another. And because Cotter has selected, pulled together, found coherent, compelling English form. And because the book itself is beautiful.

And because of poems like “Knot 33. In the Quiet of Evening””:

I thought of a way so sweet
for words to meet
that below, blooms bloomed
and above, grass greened.

I thought of a way so sweet
for words to crash
that perhaps grass would bloom
and blooms would grass.

Finally, it should win because it’s ambitious and humble at the same time. This may smack of the poetry version of wine label verbiage, but I don’t know how else to express it, and I don’t mean it ironically. Though it’s true that such a combination settles with a surprising tingle upon the palate, and leaves one stimulated long after.

9 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Transit by Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated from the French by David Ball and Nicole Ball, and published by Indiana University Press.

Since I love The United States of Africa, I chose to write up this one.

1. This is the most political book on the longlist. (Of the ones I read at least.) The frame story of Transit takes in the Paris airport in the early 2000s, as two immigrants from Djibouti are entering the country. One, Bashir, is a recently discharged soldier, the other, Harbi, has been arrested as a political suspect. In a series of flashbacks, the reader learns about a shitton of horrors about life in Djibouti and the never-ending series of conflicts taking place between the government and the rebels. David and Nicole Ball’s introduction puts this into context:

Transit is as fresh and relevant today as when it first appeared in France in 2003. This is a terrible—and wonderful—thing to say.

Terrible, because its picture of an impoverished country ravaged by war and repression is still the reality of life in Djibouti, that little country squeezed between Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea at the edge of the Horn of Africa. The drought that devastated these countries was not the only cause of the famine that reached catastrophic proportions in 2011; it merely aggravated the conditions we see through the eyes of the characters of Transit, even if those characters were created nearly a decade ago. Terrible, too, because its portrayal of their desperate attempt to flee the country is still relevant today—and not only in Djibouti.

2. Because, Djibouti. Such a fun word to say. And a place that most people couldn’t find on a map. But it’s home to one of the most interesting contemporary authors in Waberi, whose other books—The United States of Africa and Passage of Tears—are also worth reading.

3. African literature is some of the most underrepresented in English. How many translations of Sub-Saharan African writers do you think were published in English last year? Three. That’s it. Three. There were more books from Iceland—a country of 300,000 people—published in English last year than this. That’s fucked. If we’re going to view literature in translation as a way of learning about the rest of the world, we need to translate—and promote—more books from places like Africa.

4. Indiana University Press deserves some props. Honestly, I had no idea that Indiana University Press published fiction before finding out about this book. Nor did I have any idea that Dominic Thomas was editing a “Global African Voices” series for them that includes not just Waberi, but Alain Mabanckou, another personal favorite. And since the Hoosiers shit the bed in the tournament this year—wrecking my bracket in the process—I think the school needs this win as a salve for their self-esteem.

5. Bashir’s voices must’ve been incredibly hard to capture. Just check this out:

I’m in Paris, warya—pretty good, huh? OK it’s not really Paris yet but Roissy. That the name of the airoport. This airoport got two names, Roissy and Charles de Gaulle. In Djibouti it got just one name, Ambouli, an I swear on the head of my departed family, it’s much-much tinier. OK, this trip here, everything went all right. I gobbled the good food of Air France. Went direct to the war film before I fell into heavy sleep. I was stocked, no I mean scotched—taped—in the last row of the Boeing 747 where the cops tie the deportees up tight when the plane goes back to Africa. That’s true, that the way they do it.

David and Nicole deserve the award for the deft way in which they handled this throughout the book.

For all those reasons, Transit deserves to win.

9 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, and published by New Directions.

This piece is by bookseller and BTBA judge, Stephen Sparks.

Few contemporary writers are as conceptually imaginative or as willing to acknowledge their debts as Enrique Vila-Matas, which comes as a breath of fresh air, especially to those of us reading in the United States, where literary insularity is the norm. Each of his books to be translated thus far—Montano’s Malady, Bartleby & Co., Never Any End to Paris, and our subject here, Dublinesque—takes as its starting point a book or writer and from that point delves into clever, incisive examinations of what it means to be a modern reader.

Dublinesque (translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean) is concerned with a pivotal moment in the history of literature: what Vila-Matas refers to as the end of the Gutenberg Galaxy. It is, as one might expect, an elegy. The plot follows the downward trajectory of an exemplar of that unfortunate species, the literary publisher, whose battles with alcohol and entropy (personal and professional) constitute the lament at the heart of the book. Riba, whose career has long since dried up and whose days are spent in front of a computer, grows convinced that in order to exorcize his demons, he needs to hold a funeral for the age of the printed book. There is no better place for this than Dublin, he reasons, because Joyce’s masterpiece was the culmination of the printed book. And so he begins to plan this funeral, all while battling his own personal demons and obsolescence.

Like Vila-Matas’ other books, this is one is melancholy, focused like the others on exhaustion—it’s also a rain-soaked and haunted novel. Dublinesque nevertheless manages to maintain a degree of levity. This is due to Vila-Matas’ wistful humor and his vast knowledge of literature: the book is full of allusions, references, cameos, and digressions on such figures as Robert Walser, Juan Carlos Onetti, Emily Dickinson, Julien Gracq (!), and, more centrally, Joyce and Beckett. In typical fashion for Vila-Matas, there are also references to fictitious writers who leave the reader pining for more. Nothing impresses so much as the range of Vila-Matas’ reading and his ability to weave into his narrative strands from other works, a technique that helps to bolster his occasionally patchy plots.

To be honest, I found the thin spots in the book endearing in a way, as if Vila-Matas littered his book with trapdoors into which a reader might fall. Of all the books on the longlist, Dublinesque is the most reflexive and its concern with the state of serious literature, where it’s heading and how it got here, makes it worthy of winning this year’s Best Translated Book Award.

8 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Happy Moscow by Andrey Platonov, translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and others, including Olga Meerson, Jonathan Platt, Nadya Bourova, Angela Livingston, and Eric Naiman, and published by New York Review Books.

This piece is by BTBA judge Bill Marx, who also runs Arts Fuse, a great source for criticism and commentary on a range of art forms.

To my knowledge, none of Russian writer Andrey Platonov’s early science fiction novels have been translated into English. Robert Chandler, the writer’s fearless advocate and translator, once told me in conversation that they were minor efforts, though I would love to read them. To my mind, Happy Moscow reads at times like a marvelous anticipation of the futuristic excursions of Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. As in the latter’s acerbic novels, wry but demented visions of utopia and dystopia meet, mingle, and morph at the bloody crossroads of humanity and technology, language and gibberish, innocence and despoliation. As Eric Naiman writes in his introduction to an earlier version of the NYRB translation, “in both form and content this work captures the strange combination of enthusiasm and catastrophe that characterized Russia in the twentieth century.” Neither proclamations of unshakeable cheer nor prophecies of global meltdown are in short supply today: Platonov dramatizes the clash between Russian extremes of propaganda and reality to the point of cartoon absurdity. His deconstruction of reality-denying hubris remains provocative, still one step ahead of the postmodern pack.

Written between 1932 and 1936 and unpublished until 1991, Happy Moscow generates its characters (in particular Moscow Chestnova, the book’s sexy but sentimental and injury prone heroine) out of pure Stalinist kitsch, bloated visions of “immortal” vitality that from time to time crash into an increasingly degraded existence. Early on, the bold and beautiful parachutist Moscow finds herself plummeting helplessly to the ground:

She flew, her cheeks red and burning, and the air tore harshly at her body, as if it were not the wind of celestial space but a heavy dead substance—it was impossible to believe that the earth could be harder and still more merciless. “So, world, this is what you’re really like!”

Ah, the tragicomic exhilaration of the new Soviet woman falling toward the old, old ground.

Unsurprisingly Happy Moscow counterpoises its energetic (and amusing) rhetoric of ideological confidence with compelling images of excrescence and decay. Platonov’s humane ethos is articulated by a skeptical character as he is leaving a room filled with corpses that are being dissected in the scientific search for “the cistern of immortality”:

He was saddened by the sorrow and poverty of life, saddened that life is so helpless that it must almost uninterruptedly distract itself through illusion from an awareness of its own true situation. Even Sambikin was seeking illusions in his own thoughts and discoveries—he too was carried away by the complexity and great essence of the world in his imagination. But Sartorius could see that the world consisted primarily of destitute substance, which it was almost impossible to love but essential to understand.

Happy Moscow is a wild study in cosmic disillusionment, a diagnosis of linguistic, political, and metaphysical fiddle-faddle whose challenging use of broad caricature and stylistic instability will lead some readers to toss it into the bin of genre fiction, while others will dismiss it as a surreal doodle. But this book deserves to win because it is a sui generis masterwork, a satiric fantasia of unmistakable brilliance from one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, with ample collaborative evidence offered by the other pieces in this volume, particularly the story “The Moscow Violin.”

8 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller, translated from the German by Philip Boehm, and published by Metropolitan Books

This piece is by BTBA judge Bill Marx, who also runs Arts Fuse, a great source for criticism and commentary on a range of art forms.

In A Thousand Darknesses, her critical study about how literature manages to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, critic Ruth Franklin asserts that “every canonical work of Holocaust literature involves some graying of the line between fiction and reality.” One could apply that claim to the literature about the pitiless existence in the death camps of the period as well, the Russian gulags. Romanian writer Herta Müller’s masterpiece, The Hunger Angel, describes life in a Soviet forced-labor camp right after the war through a powerful, almost uncanny, melding of imagination and first-hand testimony. Beautifully translated by Philip Boehm, this is the finest volume I have read so far by the Nobel prize-winning author, and I have no doubt that it is a canonical work because it meets Ezra Pound’s oft-quoted demand for literature. What’s more, it does so despite the odds—transforming stale pieties and images about the era’s inhumanity into news that stays news.

Back in the early ’60s, critics such as Ted Solotaroff already felt that all that could be said about the horror had been said: “By now there have been a glut of books and articles, reminiscences and diaries, documentary history and objective analyses tell us everything we need to know about the ghettos and prisons and death camps; no survivor need feel compelled to assume the burdens of testimony to the degradation, torture and murder that reiterate through these accounts and finally dull and deaden consciousness of their import.” So much more has been revealed since then.

So how does The Hunger Angel expand our consciousness of this well-worn material? Partly because it deals with what had been a repressed part of Romanian history, an episode that the authoritarian Ceaușescu regime did its best to keep a secret. After the war, Romanians with a German background were sent off to Soviet work camps, where thousands died. Müller explains in her afterword that “the deportations were a taboo subject because they recalled Romania’s fascist past.” She wanted to write about this hushed-up injustice, and spoke to a number of elderly survivors about life in the camps, developing a special relationship with the poet Oskar Pastior. There was talk of a collaboration, but when Pastior died Müller fashioned the material into a novel that evokes, amplified through her distinctive creative vision, the man’s playfully stark poetic sensibility.

The book creates the consciousness of seventeen-year-old prisoner Leo Auberg through his meditations on objects (in his past as well as in the camps), minimalist contemplations of horror that are pungent, sardonic, poetic, humorous, acidic, and heart-breaking. Along the way Müller invents words to describe the dehumanizing experiences that beset the narrator, a compelling language that, according to translator Boehm, evokes “the displacement of the soul among victims of authoritarianism.” The value of such an inspired articulation of historical witnessing is summed up near the end of the book: “Little treasures have a sign that says, Here I am. Bigger treasures have a sign that says, Do you remember. But the most precious treasures of all will have a sign saying, I was there.”

6 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Awakening to the Great Sleep War by Gert Jonke, translated from the French by Jean M. Snook, and published by Dalkey Archive Press

This piece is by writer, BTBA judge, and runner of Salonica World Lit, Monica Carter.

I will confess that I have a strong predilection for the works of the late Austrian writer Gert Jonke. The opportunity to wax on about his gifts in an open forum led me into dangerous territory: do I unabashedly demand that Awakening to the Great Sleep War win the Best Translated Book Award solely on my enthusiasm or do I try to pragmatically and logically lay out the novel’s superior strengths based on a unbiased literary perspective? I know I should do the latter. But the problem is that his gifts are so unique and particular that his work really defies logic. If you are the type of reader that can wholly surrender your logic and reason to the absurd and surreal fictional worlds Jonke creates, then you will end up loving him as I do and eschewing attempts at critical pragmatism and decorum. You, too, will rant like a literary lunatic when anyone questions his originality or place in the canon of world literature.

Awakening to the Great Sleep War does not have a traditional plot or narrative. None of Jonke’s works are known for their adherence to the basic tenets of story. He is no Robert McKee. In “normal” Jonke works, a character is introduced into an abstract world that can lead the reader in endless philosophical and metaphysical offshoots that give the reader pause to discover their own imagination. In this novel, Burgmüller is the character through which we experience the surreal experience of time, space, love and the city. An “acoustical decorator,” he begins the novel by trying to teach the telemones how to sleep since they have held up buildings for so long, surely they must be tired. As ridiculous as this may sound, Jonke somehow manages to impart a sense of empathy on the reader for an inanimate object and the job of architecture in general. When discovers that the building with the telemones is gone one day, Burgmüller considers the possibilities before he arrives the conclusion that his efforts could have been useful:

Or had they, in his absence, learned how to sleep after all-had they gotten tired at last, as sleepy as petrified darkness pulled in toward the center of the earth when the trap doors to the planet’s cellar began to open?

That’s a reason this novel should win in my opinion. How many authors can pull that off?

Never fear, traditionalists; there is a love story amongst the surreal renderings of our dear Jonke. There are two love stories of the classic sort—man loves woman, she leaves; man loves another woman, she too leaves. Then there is the lesser-known love story between a woman and a housefly named Elvira. But regardless of who loves whom, the love is as poetic and mournful as any other love story, as Jonke displays in Burgmüller’s girlfriend’s plea to love the housefly as she does:

But the most important thing at present, she continued, was to give Elvira a chance to rest, not to frighten her in any way, above all not to make an unnecessary noise, you know, people talk much too loudly, as she was now noticing, and if he would please just put himself in the position of the housefly; just imagine, she explained, if that huge building over there across the way suddenly started a conversation with the church tower behind it, can you imagine how loud their words would sound to you, you would thin the tall building or the church yelling at you, or that they were screaming at each other, do you understand what I mean, and when we talk with each other, it must seem about that loud to Elvira, in future we have to talk much more quietly, better yet, whisper, do you understand, nothing above a whisper!

Burgmüller loves this woman and feels he must love Elvira as much to prove his love for her. It’s one thing to explore the love relationship between a woman and a housefly, but to do it with a blend of humor and poignancy is rarely done in adult literature and done successfully. Through the rest of the novel, Jonke examines the vicissitudes of love with another doomed love affair. Burgmüller falls for a writer who views her typewriter as a “reality-producing projector.” Within one paragraph, the invisible line between reality and art as a reflection of reality is woven into her struggle as an artist to perfectly represent reality and how this struggle affects their relationship:

Unflustered, she crouched at her typewriter, into which she transmitted her tapped signals as usual long into the night, continuing to work on her world, in which her eyes now became a compass rose torn by its own magnetic needle, cut up by the letters of a white-hot cuneiform script, yes, a cuneiform script of the harbor cities that reproduced themselves incisively upon all the coasts with their power-saw boats, in the service of an endless alphabet, like a science without proofs, until the morning flickered like fire from the towers, all of which crossed her lips as usual, whispered in a low voice, while she was sitting at her typewriter as if at a steamship propelled by sewing machines, floating, drifting downstream in the room, midstream in her description, from which he could now hear something about cats with heads like ants, and palm trees with crayfish living in their branches, but that could also have had to do with an entirely different chapter of her story that had crushed on ahead, considering her work tempo he never know how far ahead of him she was at any given time.

Jonke tackles the philosophical questions of literature and art and how the artist struggles between the importance of the word and the importance of what the word represents. Can anyone ever really love in a reality like that? These are questions not often asked to the reader, but nonetheless are always present in the relationship between the writer and the reader. No other novel on the long list challenges us in this way.

A novice translator could easily have mishandled all of Jonke’s absurd, surreal concepts and themes, but Ms. Snook understands the nuance in Jonke’s text to convey the aims of his novel. With a traditional narrative and story structure, it is easier to be more loyal to the text and more literal. In this case, the translator must also understand the abstract concepts and how to put those conceptual ideas in play without sacrificing the wit of Jonke’s style. Thus, this seems one of the most challenging efforts as far as translation is concerned because the translation must carry through thematically as opposed to carrying the story through a conventional structure. Each word holds more weight so that the subtext is present. To have such intimate knowledge of the writer’s work as well as the language clearly makes this novel the strongest translation on the list.

Finally, there is the simple fact that Jonke’s lyrical language paired with his post-modern themes makes for a the most distinctive voice among the top twenty-five books. He was a novelist ahead of his time that created a body of work so magical, original and insightful it would be a disservice to not give the award to Awakening to the Great Sleep War. No other novel on the list is as creative. No other novel on the list offers itself as the masterpiece of the writer’s entire body of work nor solidly establishes that writer as a prominent voice in the history of their country’s literary heritage. Then again, I am in love with Jonke and always will be. And that is lOve with a capital O which is as close to Jonkean love as one can get.

4 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Atlas by Dung Kai-Cheung, translated from the Chinese by Anders Hansson and Bonnie S. McDougall, and published by Columbia University Press

Having wanted to read this book for months, I took the opportunity to snag this for myself when we were lining people up to write for this series. And I’m damn glad that I did.

1. It’s not Jackie Chan. As Bonnie McDougall points out in her introduction, most depictions of Hong Kong that the typical American reader are familiar with are written by outsiders. John le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy. Paul Theroux’s Kowloon Tong. John Lanchester’s Fragrant Harbour. Basically all the books on this list. Not so with Atlas! Dung Kai-Cheung is Hong Kong’s greatest novelist, and as such, offers a different—and more genuine?—perspective on this really interesting part of the world. From Kai-Cheung’s introduction:

There are enough fictitious Hong Kongs circulating around the world. It doesn’t matter so much how real or false these fictions are but how they are made up. The Hong Kong of Tai-Pan and Suzie Wong, a mixture of economic adventures, political intrigues, sexual encounters, and romances; the Hong Kong of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li kung fu fighting their way through to the international scene; the Hong Kong of John Woo’s gangster heroes shooting doublehanded and Stephen Chow’s underdog antiheroes making nonsensical jokes. And yet, in spite of these eye-catching exposures, Hong Kong remains invisible. A large part of the reality of life here is unrepresented, unrevealed, and ignored. Hong Kong’s martial arts fiction, commercial movies, and pop songs are successful in East Asia and even farther abroad, but for all the talents, insights, and creativity of its writers, Hong Kong literature attracts minimal attention—not just internationally but even in mainland China. I am not claiming that literature represents a Hong Kong more real than the movies, but it has its unique role and methods and thus yields different meanings. It is not just a different way of world-representing but also a different way of world-building, that is, creating conditions for understanding, molding, preserving, and changing the world that we live in.

For this alone, Atlas deserves to win.

2. It’s like Calvino plus Borges . . . At first glance, Atlas sounds a lot like Calvino’s Invisible Cities with a touch of the Borges:

Set in the long-lost City of Victoria (a fictional world similar to Hong Kong), Atlas is written from the unified perspective of future archaeologists struggling to rebuild a thrilling metropolis. Divided into four sections—“Theory,” “The City,” “Streets,” and “Signs”—the novel reimagines Victoria through maps and other historical documents and artifacts, mixing real-world scenarios with purely imaginary people and events while incorporating anecdotes and actual and fictional social commentary and critique.

And in his fanciful writing, Dung does bring both writers to mind, such as in this bit about a plaza enclosed by a square street:

The only way of finding one’s way in the square street seems to have been by determining the direction. The four sides of the square street were fixed according to the four points of the compass, north, south, east, and west, but because there was no door numbers along the street (for no one could say where the street began and where it ended), it was rather difficult to determine if one were proceeding along the east street, the west street, the north street, or the south street. To be sure, this was not a problem for the local inhabitants, because whatever side of the street they lived on made no difference to them. Another special characteristic of the square street was that there was a flight of steps at each corner. It was said that if you kept turning right as you walked, the steps would lead upward, but if you went in the opposit direction, to the left, the steps would lead down. But whether you went up or down, you would still return to your original place by way of the four flights of steps and the four corners. Experts in cartography maintain that such phenomena can occur only on the surface of maps, or in pictures with fanciful optical illusions.

3. . . . except that it’s not. This isn’t just a derivative attempt to write something Calvino-esque or Borgesian. (Or, Calgesian? Borvino?) A unique combination of cartography, fabulism, and philosophy, Atlas brings up a ton of interesting questions about how the world can be (or should be) represented and how we read these representations. It’s definitely in the vein of those other two authors (who are mentioned in the book, along with Barthes and Umberto Eco), but it’s also something quite different and all of its own. (The titles Dung’s other novels make these influences even more obvious: The Rose of the Name and Visible Cities.) At times, this is more cerebral and heady than Calvino’s work, which makes this even more interesting.

4. It’s written in Cantonese and Mandarin. Esther Allen talked to my class the other week about José Manuel Prieto’s Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia and emphasized how she tried to retain the mixture of languages present in the original by including Russian texts, Japanese script, bits in Spanish, etc. This wasn’t just an aesthetic decision, but a political one as well. In her own words:

For the reader of the original text, the book’s origin in the Spanish-speaking world is evident in its every word and requires no further emphasis. As its translator into English, my overwhelming primary allegiance was to the Spanish language. If readers of the English translation were allowed to forget that the book was first written in Spanish—not Russian or English—and was translated from Spanish—not Russian—the book risked being denatured, stripped of all the historic and cultural meaning that derives from the specific language in which it was first written.

The translation therefore explicitly sought to emphasize the Spanish-ness of this text about Russia, but in a way that did not undermine the original’s will to leave its Latin American origins in the deep background. Keeping certain words or phrases in the source language, always an option, here became an imperative, and the English retains as much Spanish as I felt was possible. No longer the language of the text itself, Spanish becomes a key element in its polyglossia.

This came to mind in reading McDougall’s introduction when she talks about Hong Kong’s linguistic multiplicity and the fact that is book is originally written in Mandarin with some Cantonese expressions. This mix occurs in other works of Hong Kong literature, but may also be why it’s not accepted as readily by mainland China. In my mind, this sort of situation—overlooked even within its own country because of the linguistic mix—is a valid reason for awarding this novel the Best Translated Book Award.

3 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

With the Animals by Noëlle Revaz, translated from the French by W. Donald Wilson

I wrote this one. Initially out of necessity—no one else snatched this one up—and a desire to read this “Céline-esque” novel, since I need a little more mud and anger in my life.

1. W. Donald Wilson’s introduction. Well, not specifically his introduction, which is fine in and of itself, but his articulation of the core problem in translating With the Animals:

In the original French, Paul [the narrator and protagonist of the novel, an uneducated farmer who smacks his wife around and can’t remember the names of his kids] lives in no specific place, nor does he use any particular form of speech or dialect: his idiom is an invented one. Of course many of the idiosyncrasies of his French are unavailable in English, such as his mangling of the more complex French negatives, his ease in inventing reflexive forms of verbs and his placement of adjectives before rather than after nouns (and vice versa). Also unavailable was his constant use of the impersonal pronoun “on,” used to create a greater impression of detachment and depersonalization than is allowed by its closes available English equivalent, “you.” I was therefore concerned to develop a voice that, while delivering that “slap in the face,” would not show any strained attempt to write incorrectly or distort the English language unnaturally, but would flow instead from Paul’s character and situation. Lacking any example or conventional usage to follow, Paul would have to improvise his language, resulting in a certain stylistic awkwardness. His word-order would be unconventional, reflecting the spontaneous order of his thoughts (for instance in the placement of adverbs or in stating the topic or subject of sentences first, as in Georges, he said). His use of conjunctions would be weak. Object pronouns would sometimes be omitted, and the definite article would sometimes occur where no article is normal in English. He would be uncertain of grammatical categories, confusing nouns, adjectives, and verbs. His grasp of verb forms, especially the verb ‘to be’ (as in there is + plural, or you/we/they was), and of pronouns would be unsure (as in me for I and them for those). Yet he would not use common dialect forms such as ain’t, and only occasionally employ double negatives.

In basic English, Paul don’t speak right. Which is really difficult to replicate . . . Seriously. Try writing incorrectly, yet coherently, for a paragraph. Then a page. Then 233. And as much as translation takes its cues from the original text, this is a massive act of creation on the part of Wilson.

2. This gambit of Wilson’s works. Right from the start, Paul’s voice is unique, strange, grammatically distorted, and, most important, interesting to read:

Before when I go out in the morning I’ve knocked back a good brimmer already and things fall together like straw. Till then I’ve a face like night on me and a garlic mouth and I can’t stand anyone wants to be coddled like a snot-nosed pup. Head under the tap and already I’m getting the machines out. Vulva, she’s still dragging round, she scrubs down in a corner and dries off in the kitchen.

3. Use of the term “brimmer.” I love neologisms and reappropriated words and slang that isn’t really slang because only a dozen people use it and none of them are Gawker. So “brimmer” is my new term for a full glass of “plum.” Sure, it’s 10:22 right now, but I CAN NOT WAIT to get home and fill some brimmers and knock them back.

4. Holy shitsnacks is this book offensive. All the Dalkey copy compares Revaz to Louis-Ferdinand Céline, which, sure, I suppose so. Personally, I think that comparison is a bit broad—Céline wrote angry, narrator Paul is angry; Céline was insulting, narrator Paul refers to his wife as “Vulva”; Céline used a ton of ellipses, Revaz wrote in an untraditional way. That said, I think Revaz is up to something different—for one, her book isn’t written in a semi-autobiographical voice—and to reduce her to being “Céline-esque” feels reductive. But anyway, the hate and disgust Paul has for his wife and the world—not to mention the litany of insults and physical beatings he unleashes on “Vulva”—is pretty staggering. This isn’t a character you cuddle up next to and “relate to.” I like that. That’s a difficult thing to do well, to sustain for a whole book. Here’s an example from a point when Paul’s wife is in the hospital having a tumor removed:

What can you say to her, Vulva, when you never think of her? Me, in the end I’ve forgotten she exists, and what difference to me if she goes off to the hospital to have her belly sliced open or her varicose veins shrunk: I don’t give a rat’s fart, it doesn’t squeeze a single big tear out of me nor get the snot-rag out of my shirt pocket, so she can stay away there till the next century if that’s what she’d rather. At least it counts as much for me she’s not around no more to give her jeremiahs after us and go complaining at us every time we open a bottle or go on a wee binge.

5. Because Dalkey has yet to win the BTBA. Granted, this is a reason that goes beyond the text itself, but considering that Dalkey publishes more literature in translation than other publisher in the United States, they’re bound to strike gold at some point. And this book is both brilliant in and of itself, but also presents—and solves—a really fundamental translation challenge. For all these reasons, With the Animals by the Swiss author Noëlle Revaz should win this year’s Best Translated Book Award.

2 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes and published by New Directions

Bromance Will—who is probably still smarting from Duke’s AWFUL performance on Sunday—is back. Will Evans is in process of setting up Deep Vellum, a publishing house based in Dallas dedicated to international literature. More info on that in the near future.

What if you did dance with the devil in the pale moonlight? What if you did meet the devil at a crossroads and sold your soul for a special talent? What if your own Faustian bargain brought about the end of everything? What if you were at your wits end, and devoid of even the faintest glimmer of hope, but a mysterious stranger in any form could offer you some sort of reprieve, some sort of change? Would you take it? Of course you would. And you would become another loser in the history of the world, another sad character in a Krasznahorkai novel. But make no mistake, you are already that loser, history has already forgotten you, you are helpless, you are weak, you are inconsequential. This is what Satantango should make you feel. And it is why it should win the 2013 Best Translated Book Award.

Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango takes a look at evil in its everyday forms. Satantango is a diabolical novel, a bleak, haunting, hypnotic, philosophical, black comedic deconstruction of apocalyptic messianism. Translated flawlessly by George Szirtes, Hungarian poet and translator of renown, the story of Satantango‘s appearance in English is so miraculous, and the end result so perfect, from the gorgeous first edition hardcover that New Directions released, to the quality of the translation inside, that it is clear: Satantango deserves to win the BTBA.

Satantango was Krasznahorkai’s first novel to be published way back in 1985, and was turned into a legendary seven-hour film by the author’s friend and frequent working partner, the director Béla Tarr, in 1994. Despite the film’s renown, or perhaps because of it, the legend holds that the translation of Satantango took nearly 20 years to complete. And it’s not just that we had to wait 27 years for this masterpiece, Satantango could and should win the BTBA in and of itself because it is a harrowing and bleakly funny look at the frailty of the human condition and our divine aspirations.

Though the film version is nearly seven hours long, Satantango is by far the shortest and easiest Krasznahorkai novel to digest of the three published in English by New Directions thus far. Though the sentences are long and there are no paragraph breaks in each chapter, as per Krasznahorkai’s unique style, the narrative pace is brisk, with a black comedy underlying the character’s thoughts and actions, or rather, lack of actions. Set up in a cycle of twelve chapters that progress from I-VI, then backwards from VI-I, with the eponymous Satan’s tango in the middle, the story tells of a wretched collective farm fallen into a hapless state of disrepair that suddenly perks up with life when word gets to the inhabitants that the mysterious and enigmatic Irimiás was coming back.

Irimiás had left the collective farm some years before, promising great change upon his return, but when we meet him and his sidekick, Petrina, the pair are plotting to return to the farm to wreak havoc under the direction of an unnamed, evil government bureaucracy. The inhabitants had been waiting for the day when their messiah, Irimiás, would return to deliver them from their squalor to a brighter future, unaware that Irimiás is a false prophet, who despises them and will bring them only to their doom. Take this conversation between Irimiás and Petrina on the road back to the village, one of my favorite passages in the whole novel (all bolding mine):

“God is not made manifest in language, you dope. He’s not manifest in anything. He doesn’t exist.” “Well, I believe in God!” Petrina cut in, outraged. “Have some consideration for me at least, you damn atheist!” “God was a mistake, I’ve long understood there is zero difference between me and a bug, or a bug and a river, or a river and a voice shouting above it. There’s no sense or meaning in anything. It’s nothing but a network of dependency under enormous fluctuating pressures. It’s only our imaginations, not our sense, that continually confront us with failure and the false belief that we can raise ourselves by our own bootstraps from the miserable pulp of decay. There’s no escaping that, stupid.” “But how can you say this now, after what we’ve just seen?” Petrina protested. Irimiás made a wry face. “That’s precisely why we are trapped forever. We’re properly doomed. It’s best not to try either, best not believe your eyes. It’s a trap, Petrina. And we fall into it every time. We think we’re breaking free but all we’re doing is readjusting the locks. We’re trapped, end of story.”

The moral of Satantango is unclear, if there is one at all. You can draw your own conclusions, you can read into anything and everything, the questions that arise from the text are not immediately answerable. Is Irimiás himself the Devil? Or just another false prophet, like so many who came before him? Like the Communist leaders who promised utopia on Earth, and who were still firmly in charge of Hungary, though a barely-breathing corpse, when Krasznahorkai wrote the novel in ’85? Irimiás seems to take his instruction from the nameless and faceless bureaucrats in the capital who send him on the ill-fated mission that comprises the novel’s downfall (with the chapters numbered in ascending, then descending order). And what about the doctor, the unconscious narrator of the novel, daydreaming of ahistorical time in his chair while the world around him spins downward to ultimate ruin? What of the pitiful women in the story, the little girl/cat-killer, or the prostitutes hanging about in the ruins? Should we be depressed when the novel ends, realizing that we live in a different kind of shit (“Same shit, different toilet”, not a Krasznahorkai quote, but which applies here), or impressed with an author who is willing to confront the hopeless idiocy of humanity’s basest instinctual elements?

The vagueness and banality of evil is at the core of Satantango; reading Satantango is a much-needed antidote to the garbage you read in the techno-centric positivism online about everything these days. Though it seems like lot of time has passed since 1985, make no mistake, no time has passed at all in the primordial sense of time, you are still inconsequential; and vast droves of people seem to think that the leaps forward in technological advancement has meant grand changes to humanity, but they’re wrong: in the grand scheme of things we’re still the same awful, evil creatures we were 27 years ago, a thousand years ago, a million years ago, and the cult of the digital revolution or whatever the latest fad or technological advancement may be, none of them are any different than the false prophet of Irimiás’s empty promises to lead us all to some nonexistent exalted future.

Satantango should win the 2013 Best Translated Book Award because as a people, humanity needs to gain some awareness of our own rotten core, and if Satantango goes unrecognized as a work of the purest genius it is because we as a people are too afraid to look deep within ourselves, too scared of what we might find, or too scared to realize what was never there in the first place.

1 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Kite by Dominique Eddé, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz and published by Seagull Books

This recommendation Rick Simonson, legendary bookseller at the “Elliott Bay Book Company.”:http://www.elliottbaybook.com/

Translator Ros Schwartz and Seagull Books have given English-language readers a brilliant, searing look at the layers of a very contemporary relationship in this translation of Dominque Eddé’s Kite. Going back and forth in time and in place—from Beirut to Paris, to Cairo and London—this book is both a powerful exploration of love and of the shifts in intellectual culture at a tumultuous time in the Arab and western worlds. Ros Schwartz deftly traces the shifts and changes in setting and narrative through Edde’s wonderfully dense and shifting prose.

But a novel from the Calcutta-based Seagull Books might still seem like a darkhorse in this race and this is only the second time a book of theirs has appeared on the BTBA long list, though they’ve been publishing translations for thirty years and they rank with New Directions and Dalkey Archive in the numbers of new translations they publish every year. They’re also gaining a lot of traction with indie booksellers—I’ve seen new staff recommendations for their books appear here at Elliott Bay, and all down the west coast at City Lights, Green Apple and Skylight Books. And with good reason: Kite contains a richly rewarding depiction of a character—one who reads, who writes!—going blind that is, by itself, worth the price of the book.

*

Chad here. To add a special bit of something to Rick’s write-up, here’s a really fun bit of the interview Seagull Books founder Naveen Kishore gave in Shelf Awareness:

Shelf Awareness: What do you love about books in translation?

Naveen Kishore: The “edginess” of literature different from mine. The “getting-under-the-skin” quality. The sense of dislocation and being “torn asunder.” And the intuitive recognition of humor across cultures!

SA: What do you think is the future of the printed book?

NK: Healthy. More beautifully crafted than ever before. Shine on, you crazy diamond!

29 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

A Breath of Life by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz and published by New Directions

This piece is by Will Vanderhyden (aka Willsconsin), student in the University of Rochester’s Translation Program and translator of Carlos Labbé’s Navidad and Matanza, which will be released in 2014.

Before I talk directly about why I think Clarice Lispector’s A Breath of Life deserves to win this year’s Best Translated Book Award, I want to offer a little background about how this novel’s English publication came about, mostly because it strengthens my overall argument, but also because it deals with issues relevant to literature in translation more broadly. (I realize that readers of Three Percent might already be familiar with much of the following information regarding Lispector and her English translations, so if you are one of those readers, please forgive the lengthy digression).

Although she is considered by many to be the greatest Brazilian writer of the twentieth century, Clarice Lispector has never enjoyed a large English language readership. She is wildly popular in Brazil, revered and adored to the point of idolatry. Her strange, captivating prose, epic life story, and striking beauty have made her a legendary national icon. Her books are sold in vending machines, her face adorns postage stamps, and her name appears regularly in all sorts of literary and popular media. But for whatever reason—be it the challenging nature of her work, the fact that she’s a woman, flat English translations, or a general lack of interest in Brazilian literature—she has never enjoyed the popularity among English readers of other Latin American Boom writers like Jorge Amado, Julio Cortázar, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Over the last several years, New Directions and Benjamin Moser—author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, a finalist for the National Book Circle Critics Award in 2009—have been working to change that. In 2011, New Directions published Moser’s retranslation of The Hour of the Star (the last novel Lispector published during her lifetime), and in June of 2012 they published a series of four new translations of Lispector novels, all edited by Moser. This series includes retranslations of three of her most well known books—Near to the Wild Heart (translated by Alison Entrkin), Aqua Viva (translated by Stefan Tobler), and The Passion According to G. H. (translated by Idra Novey)—as well as the first English edition of A Breath of Life (translated by Johnny Lorenz), a novel which was published after Lispector’s death, and assembled, organized and edited by her close friend Olga Borelli.

In the introduction to A Breath of Life, Moser refers to New Directions series of Lispector translations as “the most important project of translation into English of a Latin American author since the complete works of Jorge Luis Borges were published a decade ago.” According to Moser, the original English translations of Lispector’s work were woefully inadequate, flattening out, “correcting,” and explaining the strange grammar, idiosyncratic syntax, and surprising word choices that define Lispector’s style. Lispector’s own response to an early French translation of Near to the Wild Heart, which upset her because of the liberties it took in translating her style, provides definitive support for Moser’s sentiment, in a letter to her editor at the time she wrote:

I admit, if you like, the sentences do not reflect the usual manner of speaking, but I assure you that it is the same in Portuguese. The punctuation I employed in the book is not accidental and does not result from ignorance of the rules of grammar. You will agree that elementary principals of punctuation are taught in every school. I am fully aware of the reasons that led me to choose this punctuation and insist that it be respected.

Though he acknowledges that, to some extent, translators invariably tend to smooth out oddities and correct “errors” present in original works, for his own translation of The Hour of the Star and for the other Lispector translations he edited for New Directions, Moser aimed for the greatest fidelity possible to the syntax and grammar of her Portuguese originals. In the afterword to The Hour of the Star, he writes: “The translator must therefore resist the temptation to explain or rearrange her prose, which can only flatten it and remove from it the ‘foreign’ aura that is its hallmark, and its glory.”

Lispector has clearly carved out her place in the canon of world literature. Her unique artistic vision, innovative narrative style, and philosophical insight situate her comfortably among the best writers of the twentieth century. And in light of the aim—and what I believe to be the success—of the Moser/New Directions project, the comparison to the translation of Borges’ complete works, which might come off as overblown at first glance, seems to me entirely appropriate. Because A Breath of Life is the only title in the New Directions series that is not a retranslation, it is the only one eligible for the BTBA. Which is not to say that it necessarily represents the significance of the entire project, but at the same time, its importance as a translated book cannot be fully appreciated outside that context.

So, finally, A Breath of Life. This novel, like much of Lispector’s work, delves into the relationships between thoughts, sensations, words, facts, and objects; into the ways language constructs and mediates what we call reality. It is structured as a sort of dialogue between a male “Author” and Angela, a character he creates. In short, alternating passages, the two voices reflect on the nature of time, meaning, death, and on the relationship between author and character, between creator and creation. As the “Author” states:

Angela and I are my interior dialogue: I talk to myself. Angela is from my dark interior: she however comes to light. The tenebrous darkness from which I emerge. Pullulating darkness, lava of a humid volcano burning intensely. Darkness full of worms and butterflies, rats and stars.

If the novel had a plot, it might be described as the “Author’s” struggle to understand Angela and his relationship to her, and Angela’s struggle to understand herself and her relationship to the “things” of the world. But it all takes place inside; there is no action, no grounding in the world, no “real” handhold.

The structure of an interior dialogue between author and character—which might be thought of as defining a split in Lispector’s mind, a divided self—undermines the distinction between form and content, laying bare the ways in which not only fiction and fictitious characters, but the “facts” of the world in which we live, and our identities, what we call “selves,” are fabrications of language. As the “Author” writes: “Reality does not exist in itself. What there is is seeing the truth through dream. Real life is merely symbolic: it refers to something else.” And: “I wouldn’t exist if there were no words.” And: “Angela goes from language to existence. She wouldn’t exist if there were no words.”

If all this sounds really abstract, well, it is. Many questions are raised and very few unambiguous answers are given. Angela tells us:

I know the secret of the sphinx. She did not devour me because I gave the right answer to her question. But I am an enigma for the sphinx and nevertheless I did not devour her. Decipher me, I said to the sphinx. And she fell mute. The pyramids are eternal. They will always be restored. Is the human soul a thing? Is it eternal? Between the hammer and the blows I hear silence.

There are many such quotable lines and Nietzsche-esque aphorisms, but in itself this probing into the nature of reality, identity, and meaning is not really what gives this book its power. It is the way Lispector’s style is able to render these ideas not only thought but also felt. The structure and rhythm of her sentences, the surprising juxtapositions, and subtle, provocative rearrangements of ordinary language are able to tap into something primordial that transcends the limits of ordinary expression. And here we readers of Lispector in English are indebted to the extraordinary work of translator Johnny Lorenz and the vision of Benjamin Moser, who, by holding true to Lispector’s unconventional grammar and syntax, sustain the jagged, hypnotic musicality that makes her prose so intellectually rewarding and so viscerally resonant.

A Breath of Life deserves to win the BTBA because it is the only entirely new part of a translation series that reintroduces a canonical writer to English readers; but also because it is a beautiful, original, and deeply intelligent book by a writer who leaves us, like the sphinx, mute and wondering at her genius and her mystery.

(As far as wrestling goes, no contest: Lispector will seduce all comers with her feline eyes then crush them with the weight of her brain).

28 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch._

The Island of Second Sight by Albert Vigoleis Thelen, translated from the German by Donald O. White and published by Overlook

This piece is by Berlin book person, Amanda DeMarco, who is the brains behind Readux, a literary website with “reviews, interviews, articles, and opinion on German and French books and events.”

“All of the people in this book are alive or were at one time,” begins Albert Thelen’s foreword to The Island of Second Sight. However, they “appear subject to greater or lesser degrees of personal disjuncture, similarly the sequence of events has undergone chronological rearrangements that can even involve the obliteration of all sense of time. In case of doubt, let truth be told.” This is a book, then, with a troubled relationship to reality and an untroubled one to truth. That is, one that claims the ultimate authority of the storyteller.

Just as in his own life, the author’s alter-ego Vigoleis arrives on the island of Mallorca in 1931 with his wife Beatrice, and the pair flee the increasingly inhospitable political climate in 1936. The degree to which the intervening five years hew to Thelen’s biography is debatable; as is the book’s position in the cannon. Lauded as one of the great works of twentieth century literature, The Island of Second Sight is not only under-appreciated abroad (it was first translated into English 57 years after its original publication), but also at home, where its status is rather that of a cult classic, absurd for a book of its stature.

Vigoleis and Beatrice travel to Mallorca because they believe that Beatrice’s brother Zwingli is dying there. Instead they find that he’s been incapacitated by the unstoppable sexual powers of Pilar, a particularly beautiful Spanish prostitute. Thus begins the Vigoleis’s long engagement with putas, whom he greets with the same shoulder-shrugging cheer as the rest of the turpitude and degeneration he encounters on the island, as well as in his own mind: “The philosopher Scheler had been right after all, when he responded to the Archbishop of Cologne, who had accused him of unvirtuous conduct, by asking His Eminence if he had ever seen a signpost that had ever gone in the direction it pointed to.”

Before Vigoleis, too, succumbs to Pilar, she mercifully kicks the couple out and they drift from one absurd lodging and low-paid occupation to the next, two bohemians at the mercy of fortune, never far removed from the moans and wails of the cathouse. A growing gaggle of locals, emigrés, and vacationers populate the story as Vigoleis and Beatrice settle into Mallorcan life. Therise of fascism paints a thickening black streak through the story, whose shadiness is otherwise derived from the more quotidian excesses of various human appetites and failings.

In other reviews, you’ll read about Thelen’s quick-witted Nazi-mocking, including one magisterial scene in which Vigoleis, working as a tour guide (called a “Führer” in German, literally a “leader”) deludes and delights a gaggle of German tourists by narrating their tour with lies that aggrandize the Teutonic tradition. The Island of Second Sight is also praised for its numerous literary allusions, as well as for the diverse intellectuals of the day that Vigoleis comes into contact with and lampoons.

None of these are the reason that The Island of Second Sight should win the Best Translated Book Award 2013. What does make it worthy of the prize is its sheer linguistic fecundity and the contribution it makes to the tradition of narrative. Vigoleis is one of the true great incarnations of the storyteller. He’s very nearly a shape-shifter, and he employs his art not only on rightist tourists, but also lonely heiresses, local functionaries, and first and foremost on the reader.

Vigoleis is so garrulous, clever, and original that you will willingly follow him down any cow-path he cares to tread. Which is every path that offers itself. At 736 pages, discursion is the novel’s mode, and it is hard to say what is plot and what is tangent. Multiple, extended scenes dedicated to the attempted and ultimately counterfeited nonconsensual consummation of the miscegenational union of a purebred Pekinese and a lapdog of impure lineage? Journeys back into childhood, into the Middle Ages? The story of the joke that cost Unamuno his life? Ever-deepening reflections on the failings of Catholicism? On the writings of Teixeira de Pascoaes, whose writings Thelen translated from the Portuguese in real life? On the philosophical significance of the donkey? Why not.

Perhaps even more interesting are the recursive discursions, that is, the ones that themselves reflect on the nature of narrative. Thelen refers to Vigoleis in the third person, except when he doesn’t, for example, when pulling back to comment on his own storytelling prowess, which hazily bleeds into Vigoleis’s as we reenter the stream of the plot. Rumor, translation, transcription, letter writing, note-taking, testifying, confessing, lying for personal gain, lying for sport—every manner in which a story can be transmuted and transmitted has its day in The Island of Second Sight.

The text is as rife with neologisms as archaisms, rhetorical devices as well as low puns, enriched by a sprinkling of words from the six languages Thelen spoke. The book is a lexicographical treasure that particularly delights in the description of all that is base. Beatrice’s debauched brother Zwingli is even the editor of a poly-lingual dictionary of obscenities, to which Vigoleis is naturally a helpful contributor.

That translator Donald White has managed to capture the book’s riotous linguistic profusion is a small miracle. Let me cite one of the innumerable jewels that dot the novel: Vigoleis describes a period of uncharacteristic domestic harmony: “Wherever one looked, it was a scene of peace and concord. It was as if the word puta had been struck from our dictionary.” A paragraph later, Don Darío, fellow lodger and exploiter of Vigoleis’s half-baked business ideas, disrupts this rare bliss. Why? “. . . it was only an American millionaire who had enraged my putative business partner.” Of course, if harmony is puta-free, then an angry man is putative.

This is a book whose form echoes the copiousness of the chaotic, shifting social order it depicts. Filthy, generous, good-natured, manipulative, The Island of Second Sight is an utterly, amply, completely human book, and that is why it deserves to win the BTBA.

27 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch._

Basti by Intizar Husain, translated from the Urdu by Frances W. Pritchett and published by NYRB Classics

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

Intizar Husain, despite being widely regarded as the most significant living writer of Urdu fiction, is likely to have flown under the radar for most English-language readers prior to his recent nomination for the Man Booker International Prize. It’s particularly fortuitous, then, that the redoubtable team at NYRB Classics chose to issue Basti earlier this year, the only one of Husain’s five novels to have been published in English translation.

The novel opens with the narrator-protagonist Zakir as a child in the fictional town of Rupnagar, a place of harmony whose existence is predicated upon its timelessness and isolation from the outside world. As he grows up, Zakir forms an ambiguous yet touching attachment to his cousin Sabirah, from whom he is later separated when she chooses to remain behind in India post-partition. Zakir, now living in Lahore with his parents, is nominally a teacher of history but spends the majority of his time bickering with his friends in coffee houses as, outside, political slogans resound as the country descends into the madness of war. As Zakir’s narration comes to a close, the frequently-promised moment of revelation remains, as ever, tantalisingly just out of reach.

The fundamental disjunction between a semi-mythical past of harmonious tolerance and the all-too-present realities of political violence and the horrors of Partition is represented both structurally and linguistically in Basti, and refracted through the increasingly insular consciousness of its protagonist (particularly towards the latter stages of the novel, in which interior monologue plays an increasing role, blended with passages from what we are told is Zakir’s diary). Husain makes use of his vast knowledge of Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist traditions by quoting from their texts and alluding to their histories both classical and modern, weaving a shimmering tapestry of tone and register by turns lyrical, dreamy, prophetic, and fervid.

Frances W. Pritchett’s translation grapples admirably with a novel bursting with ambitious linguistic effects. The frequent repetition of the vocative yar, which Pritchett has chosen to retain, while initially jarring, becomes over the course of the novel an invaluable evocation of place for the reader, who is also, thanks to the sensitivity of the translator, not shut out from the subtle ways in which the characters’ various relationships are constructed and indicated in the original. That this visionary, modernist masterpiece is now made available in a translation which matches the ambition of the original is a truly impressive achievement.

26 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch._

We, the Children of Cats by Tomoyuki Hoshino, translated from the Japanese by Brian Bergstrom and Lucy Fraser and published by PM Press

This piece is Clark Allen, an artist living in New Orleans, LA who works as a book buyer at Maple Street Used and Rare Books.

I think cognizant persons, those who can see even an inch beyond their own arm’s length, generally have some awareness of this massive oaf, the human condition, something vast and quite unnameable in any perfected sense. We are each individually imprisoned in the obvious confines of the self, an incredibly annoying facet of existence for all sorts of reasons, but primarily inasmuch that it creates a serious hindrance in universal communication when we try to define what we observe—love, art, beauty, humor, despair, this fat stupid thing that can’t be seen but can be abstractly “felt,” just out of reach of, of . . . oh, I don’t know. The task of the artists, novelists and poets (so I’ve read) is to find it within themselves to converse with this condition, open a dialogue upon its table and share their perspective in a veritable pot luck of musing.

In Tomoyuki Hoshino’s recently translated collection, We, the Children of Cats, the reader is invited to his end of the banquet. Five short stories and three novellas written in a span scattered across near ten years, with each tale sidestepping any particular categorization. Magically real, surreal, sometimes humorous, sometimes scary, and by all proper accounts just plain bizarre, the characters in Hoshino’s stories each orbit one similar theme—the confrontation of something at once unnamable and all too human, and their (most often failed) attempts to transition beyond and transcend. To become something other than the self they perceive.

So how does this manifest in Hoshino’s stories? Genital mutilation? Mysterious child-run death cults? First to third world relocation? Well yeah, those are some starts. It is a book which involves sex and privilege, murder and dance, betrayal and longing, drugging and starving all seamlessly. His characters are affected with such invisible problems that it is beyond their ability to contact a solution. Not that it is a hopeless collection of course, but the few who happily make their way to the other side seem merely lucky. More often the reader is drawn into a venn diagram of desires prescribed by multiple narrators that whorl and tangle, forced compatible merely by the fact that they are occupying the same landscape. It is a book populated with mystic sickness and confusion, its characters living strangely and often dying in their own way.

Such are the final words of the protagonist in the story “Paper Woman”

. . . there is no paper, no words that exist in a state of perfection, pristine and hidden from human eyes, such paper is not really paper at all . . .

And yet Hoshino still attempts to confront these human impossibilities. The barriers of perspective and language, how they bleed together and intermingle despite how often they are oil and water. Through his fiction he asks where we are meeting and how we are different, and what is it that can bring us all the closer? It is, in a sense, a collection of stories that serves as a perfect example of why we desire translation in the first place.

25 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch._

Traveler of the Century by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia and published by FSG

This piece is by bookseller and BTBA judge, Stephen Sparks.

Let me entice you by stating flat out that Andres Neuman’s Alfaguara Prize-winning Traveler of the Century (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia) is a 600-page novel in which not much happens. In some ways, it stands, a hulking mass (Andres the Giant?), in the corner opposite Houellebecq’s Map and the Territory. (Wrestling allusion thrown in for Chad’s sake.)

There is a plot, yes—the young traveler of the title stumbles into the neither here-nor-there city of Wandernburg (think of a magic mountain nestled among invisible cities), falls in love with a betrothed woman (you will too), demonstrates the affinities between translation and love (it’s sexy), fends off the stuffy morality of small town life (no surprises here), all while a mysterious rapist is on the loose (actually, stated like this, a lot does seem to happen)—but this is above all a novel of ideas, of heady conversation, of intellect. Which, fortunately, does not make it any less riveting.

Most of the action, for lack of a better word, in Traveler of the Century takes place in a salon, among a set of conversationalists who range from the brash and revolutionary to the staid, the ill-informed, and the amusingly ill-equipped. Ideas are bandied about, poetry is recited, and sexual tension swells until it can no longer be contained. Neumann’s ability to pace a novel in which conversation is the primary mover is admirable and although some of his efforts early in the novel are a little clumsy, he picks up steam and refinement as he proceeds. This is an interesting phenomenon to watch unfold: Neumann’s work is by no means perfect. Instead, it’s one of those novels in which the seams sometimes show, reminiscent of Bolano’s Savage Detectives, in which the reader gets to watch a writer figure it out as he goes along. The rewards have to be more than sufficient for a book like this to work, and they are, they are.

Fittingly, some of most remarkable moments in Traveler of the Century concern translation. In one memorable scene, the professor, a staid conservative who rests on his laurels, argues against the possibility of translation. As the bore goes on and on, Hans, the traveler of the title, reflects that

everything he said was applicable to the field of emotions—in short, someone who disbelieved in the possibilities of translation was skeptical of love. This man . . . was linguistically born to solitude.

And, a few moments later, Hans is forced to concede a point as the professor argues

that it is far easier to think in a foreign language than to feel in it . . . and from this one can deduce that any feeling expressed in another language cannot be the same feeling, not even a variant of it. At best it can be inspired by another feeling. Call this an exchange, an influence or what you will. But, I beg you, do not call it translation.

This fruitful dialectic is a prime example of Neumann’s strategy for moving his novel along. It also brings to mind several questions about the nature of translation, which is of course relevant to anyone reading this blog.

I stated earlier that this is not a perfect book, but I nevertheless believe it deserves to win the BTBA because its merits far outweigh its imperfections: Traveler of the Century is, like the wandering city in which the traveler finds he cannot escape, a place to get lost in.

22 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch._

My Father’s Book by Urs Widmer, translated from the German by Donal McLaughlin and published by Seagull Books

This piece is by translator, critic, and BTBA judge, Tess Lewis.

Urs Widmer, woefully underappreciated in the English-speaking world, is one of Switzerland’s most prominent and prolific writers. And My Father’s Book is one of Widmer’s very best. A fictionalized biography of his own father, Walter Widmer, this novel is by turns heart-wrenching and laugh-out loud funny. Heady, intellectual passages alternate with slap-stick comedy in this exploration of how much we can know even those closest to us.

The narrator’s father, Karl Widmer, is an unworldly, intellectually voracious man whose fiery temper is balanced by his essential good nature and extreme absent-mindedness. He lives primarily through the great works of French literature he translates—Stendhal, Flaubert, Rabelais, Balzac, and Diderot, whom he treasures above all others—and dies in his fifties of a heart ailment exacerbated by a life of chain-smoking. Karl is an inveterate idealist who venerates the Encyclopédistes and the rationalism of the dix-huitième. He becomes a Communist for a time, but is too impolitic for the Party. What he loves, he loves ardently. He only occasionally registers the fact that his beloved wife’s tendency to withdraw is a sign of unhappiness, and always too late.

According to tradition in Karl’s remote ancestral mountain village, on his twelfth birthday he was given a book for him to record each day’s events throughout his life. On the day after his father dies, the narrator learns to his horror that his mother had already disposed of Karl’s book along with mountains of manuscripts and unpaid bills. The narrator, who had only glanced through it the night before, resolves to rewrite his father’s book, now in the readers’ hands. Widmer not only recalls the events and circumstances of Karl’s life, he is able to render a sense of the man’s internal life by quoting imagined passages from the imaginary book.

As the Germans advance through Europe, Karl, until now unfit for service, is called up along “with a few other oldish men with weak hearts” to protect Basel from the Wehrmacht. In the barracks at night Karl dutifully makes his daily entries in which mundane events alternate with vivid meditations on things literary.

19.5.40 Letter from Clara,’ my father wrote, once he’d saved the quill from the hobnailed boots of a comrade racing to the toilet. ‘Kitchen duty for insubordination (the corporal asked me—it was to do with the dismantled gunlock I wasn’t able to put together again—whether I thought he was stupid and I said yes). The Germans still aren’t here yet. General mobilization nonetheless. —In the ancien régime, ladies vaginae could speak too. Not just their mouths. Often the gentlemen would sit with their countesses and ducal lovers, having tea, and chatting to one another about an especially good bon mot of Madame de Pompadour or the Pope’s last bull, while, simultaneously, from beneath their skirts—many-layered mountains of material—came a chattering and sniggering, the sense of which they didn’t quite catch. At any rate, there was almost constant chat from down there. The many different materials muffled the voices, but people sometimes thought they would hear their names, without knowing what the braying laughter beneath all the other skirts was all about. —The light! The light of the dix-huitième, you don’t get light like that nowadays.

My Father’s Book is a boisterous, expansive novel, an encapsulation of twentieth century Swiss life through an idiosyncratic and highly concentrating prism. This sense of breadth comes not only from the contrast of Karl’s engagement in politics and his ludicrous stint as a soldier with his wife’s extreme introversion, but also from his appetite for life and the arts, which Widmer evokes beautifully. The sheer artistry of the writing in this novel alone would be deserving of the Best Translated Book Award, but in addition Donal McLaughlin’s translation is pitch-perfect, capturing the various registers and tonalities of Widmer’s prose and, most difficult of all, the many shades of his humor.

21 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz and published by Open Letter Books

BROMANCE WILL IS IN THE HOUSE.

Mikhail Shishkin’s debut English-language novel Maidenhair deserves to win the 2013 Best Translated Book Award because it is not only the best translated book in the best translation to have come out in English—it is the best book that came out in 2012, period. Accomplished translator Marian Schwartz has wrought a miraculous, beautiful, lyrical rendition of Shishkin’s unique poetic language that draws on the grandest narrative traditions of the nineteenth century classics and combines them with the living, breathing Russian language as it exists today.

Language itself, and the importance of the Word in life, love, and history, is at the heart of Maidenhair. The plot, or what semblance there is of a plot, centers on an unnamed interpreter who works for the Swiss immigration office, translating the horrific stories of would-be Russian immigrants describing why they deserve asylum in Switzerland to the interpreter’s boss, a figure described as Peter, guarding the gates of Heaven, determining who is able to enter Paradise within the Swiss borders. The interpreter is the axis on which the narrative magic of Maidenhair spins: he is a narrator who retells the stories of the asylum-seekers; a conduit for the historical stories he is reading about the Persian Wars; a doting father writing letters to his son, all addressed to “My dear Nebuchadnezzasaurus!”; the son lives with his former wife, who in one thread travels to Rome with the narrator, only to have their marriage fall apart; he is a would-be biographer of a talented young singer in late tsarist, early Soviet period, Isabella Yurievna.

The stories all weave together in head-spinning fashion, the interpreter is the only connection between the separate narratives within the novel, though it takes a while for the reader to piece together how these stories are connected, as the characters’ philosophical monologues and asides demonstrate the grand themes Shishkin is working with. And that reminds me of Shishkin’s own words: that Maidenhair is not a novel to be understood, but rather to be felt; it is a novel that hinges less on plot than on the emotional resonance that connects each separate story. Schwartz handles the narrative shifts within Maidenhair with the grace of a prima ballerina, confident and even-keeled, even as the narration jumps from an early twentieth century language of the Petersburg intelligentsia to the coarse, brutal language of refugees who may or may not be fleeing violence and persecution in their home villages.

And to personally editorialize, to add an element of competition to why Maidenhair in particular deserves to win this year’s BTBA rather than any of the other extremely well-qualified works of translation: I can say in all honesty that Maidenhair is the best Russian novel to come out in English since Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita exploded into the world’s consciousness in the mid-1960s.

Like many others before me, I have suffered an unvanquishable love of Rusisan literature ever since I took a Nineteenth Century Russian Literature course my freshman year at university. And I love it all now, all Russian literature: the grand Russian novels of ideas, the linguistic and stylistic revolutionaries of avant-garde poetry, the mystical philosopher-authors exploring the outer reaches of human existence, the brilliant and brave souls who dared to describe the absurdity of totalitarianism, be it tsarist, Soviet, capitalist . . . but I had been feeling at times like I’d reached the end of the Russian rope, that I’d made my way through all the great Russian works, and all I had left to content myself with were forgotten little gems that slipped between the cracks of the great Masters; but all the while I kept hoping beyond hope that somehow, someway, a contemporary Russian author would emerge to re-engage me with the history of Russian literature, to give hope to the written word in ways I thought I’d never feel again, not since I was introduced to that towering genius of twentieth century Russian letters, Bulgakov (and how wonderful and how tragic it is to be introduced to true works of creative genius like Master and Margarita, wonderful to know greatness on such a level, tragic in the knowledge that such works of genius stand alone, once you meet them, you have drastically winnowed down the number of life-changing novels remaining to be discovered, and nothing can replace the joy of discovery, of opening a novel for the first time not knowing by the end that it would completely change your life, that you would become a different, more fulfilled human being by the time you closed that novel. And yes, you can re-read, revisit, re-engage with these classics, these works of creative genius, and you can develop a deeper relationship between the text and the characters and the author behind it all, but you cannot replace the joy that comes from that first reading, the joy of discovery).

Maidenhair is the novel I have been waiting for; a powerful, moving novel that combines everything I love about literature in general, the beauty of language, the power of ideas, the love of characters, the genius of the Author as Master. I believe in the ability of the written word to change and transform physical reality outside of the textual vessel. I know I am not alone in these loves, these beliefs, and I know now that Russian literature is alive and well in so many ways, for there is an author who can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the greatest of Russian writers in history, who can craft the most beautifully-woven novels of ideas, because I have read Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair, and I was able to feel it all again, the pure, unadulterated joy of discovery, of a truly great work of literary fiction, as if for the first time.

It is no exaggeration to describe Mikhail Shiskin as the greatest living Russian writer. Shishkin is already renowned in Russia as the first author to win all three of the big literary awards there: the Russian Booker, the Big Book, and the National Bestseller. I read and fell in love with Maidenhair before Shishkin withdrew from the official Russian delegation to the 2013 Book Expo America, in effect making him a dissident author. And if there is one thing history has shown, it is that the West loves dissident Russian literature. Think of the Russians who have won the Nobel Prize: Ivan Bunin (the most underrated of the great Russian authors, won the Nobel in 1933), Boris Pasternak (1958), Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1970), Joseph Brodsky (1987)—all officially dissidents, yet all deserving for the quality of their writing, the eternal nature of their ideas. Even before his recent political stance, Mikhail Shishkin was a worthy candidate for future Nobel laureate, and the appearance of Maidenhair in English translation started generating Nobel buzz immediately. Some say it takes a few works in English to catapult an author to global status worthy of Nobel recognition: Maidenhair is Shishkin’s first novel to appear in English, published by Open Letter Books, while his second English novel, The Light and the Dark, will be published by Quercus in November 2013. Shishkin’s Nobel future is unknown, his present candidacy for BTBA is more clear. He deserves to win, Maidenhair is a book of uncommon, exceptional genius, and its win would reserve its rightful place as the best translated book of 2012.

If this piece doesn’t convince you that Maidenhair should win the 2013 Best Translated Book Award, or if you can’t be bothered to read a 900-word love letter to Maidenhair, take the advice of the brilliant booksellers at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, they say what I am trying to say in far fewer words, with their own style of poetic genius:

19 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Mama Leone by Miljenko Jergović, translated from the Croatian by David Williams and published by Archipelago Books

This piece is by Québec translator Peter McCambridge, who also runs a blog about translating literature from Québec.

When Mama Leone wins the Best Translated Book Award, it will be a triumph of storytelling and atmosphere-building, a victory for stories well told (and well translated) everywhere. The writing is on the face of it simple at times, but just enough off kilter that it still manages to suck us in and take our breath away.

Take the first few paragraphs of the first story, You’re the angel:

When I was born a dog started barking in the hall of the maternity ward. Dr. Srecko ripped the mask from his face, tore out of the delivery suite, and said to hell with the country where kids are born at the pound! I still didn’t understand at that point, so I filled my lungs with a deep breath and for the first time in my life confronted a paradox: though I didn’t have others to compare it to, the world where I’d appeared was terrifying, but something forced me to breathe, to bind myself to it in a way I never managed to bind myself to any woman.

And breathe. Wow. There we are, sucked right into the story, right into this terrifying new world, bound tightly to it from the get-go, and somehow forced to breathe and accept it, swept along by the narrative. It’s so simple, and yet somehow magnificent.

Mama Leone is a collection of stories in two parts. The first half is about childhood and told in a voice so original and so authentic that it’s hard to resist. Don’t stare, Miljenko is told. Quit eavesdropping. Life’s not a circus. And yet we explore his world with our eyes wide open, with our ears pricked. Everything is huge, larger than life. Sarajevo is “a gigantic city, the most gigantic in the world,” his loneliness is “the biggest in the world,” a character laughs “like a giant out of a fairy tale.” Bedtime, trips to the potty, plans to run away from home, eating sardines, all become dramas of epic proportions (“cities silently crumbled in my pounding heart”).

The effect is grandiose. Scenes from a childhood, more realistic than abstract, but high on poetry all the same, add up to a beautiful tableau that somehow seems all the more real for its helter-skelter, kaleidoscopic vision of the world.

The language is exhilarating. Sentences career along between commas, the vocabulary a tremendous mix of slang, poetry, and more than the odd memorable one-liner.

The result is stunning and beautiful and real, all with an undercurrent of death and war and increasing sadness.

And then suddenly our perspective shifts to the third person. It is a grown-up’s world, the world of Deda, Boris, Marina, Nana, and the others. A world of love, longing, and loss, of darkness and war and damage. There are still angels but now they are drunken. Words that in the first section “flowed in cascades, gushing over the edges of the world being born” now “disappear into dark spaces.” People “become destroyed cities to each other,” although there are still the occasional roses in the sky in place of stars.

The words that so enchanted us in the first part are now “sometimes uglier than what they mean.” But, as with all the best stories, there is beauty in the loss and the missed opportunities. And no end of beauty in the writing.

18 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq, translated from the French by Gavin Bowd and published by Knopf

This piece is by New Directions publicity and Three Percent podcaster, Tom Roberge.

When dealing with any book by French author Michel Houellebecq, it’s almost impossible to discuss the book itself, by itself, so we might as well address this whole thing right now. Yes, he seems (how can we really know, after all; his writerly persona might be precisely that: a persona) to be a bit of a, to put it nicely, antisocial curmudgeon. He seems to have little patience for the literary world and the window-dressing sort of appearances and interviews that coincide with the publication of any novel by a well-known (if not exact well-loved) author. This is, after all, a man whose mother wrote some rather disparaging things about him in her own memoir. And these are all frequent topics of discussion because his narrators, too, possess many of these characteristics. They’re often selfish, apathetic, skeptical, and downright miserable. But, and I’ve been pleading this case for years now, I believe that underneath the surface-level nihilism and general ennui of his novels is an author who truly believes in love, in human beings’ ability to make each other profoundly happy. The ability, he suggests, is within all of us, if only we’d stop worrying about the rest of the crap that defines our modern world.

Which brings us to The Map and the Territory. I’ve read and reread all of Houellebecq’s novels, and though I think The Elementary Particles is brilliant and that Platform is insanely fun, I also think this is his best book, the most accomplished in terms of pacing and plotting, the most stylistically riveting on a page-by-page basis, and the most sophisticated in terms of its themes. And boy oh boy are there a lot of them packed in here, twisted into each other, fighting for control and attacking the reader with their combined power.

Artist Jed Martin is the novel’s central conduit for Houellebecq’s exploration of these themes, and the first section of the book focuses on a series of Martin’s digital prints that are fantastic enlargements of Michelin road maps, with quite a few creative embellishments. The prints critique something that a lot of Americans living in big cities will also recognize: the middle and upper-class romanticization of rural life, of farming, of living off the land, of what they imagine is “a simpler life.” All bullshit, obviously, and not exactly news, but Houellebecq dissects the trend beautifully, mimicking and mocking the obtuse language of the art world at the same time.

But then Martin stops working. Altogether. For years. And when he re-emerges, he decides to become a portrait painter, and yet again he takes dead aim at the prevailing trends of the middle- and upper-class consumers of “intellectual” products, be they works of art or gadgets or something in between. By which I mean he paints portraits of people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but puts them in an imaginary scene in which they “Discuss the Future of Information Technology,” their expressions greedy and all-knowing, larger-than-life, terrifying. He also—and this brings me back to the opening paragraph, to the notion of Houellebecq as the antisocial curmudgeon—travels to Ireland to paint a novelist, Michel Houellebecq, who has agreed, after much trepidation, to write the catalog copy for an exhibition of the portraits in exchange for a portrait of himself. This is, and excuse the pun, a stroke of genius. It allows Houellebecq (the writer of the book, as opposed to the writer/character in the book) to confront the personal attacks on his character head-on, to bring the discussion of the prevailing themes that recur in his books into this book, to offer a subtle rebuttal to everything that’s been said about him and his work in the book, rather than having to appear on television to be mocked by a pretentious journalist, or having to endure an endless interview session. “Here,” he seems to be saying, “you want to know what I think about everything that’s been said about me? This is what I think, and this is why I’ve fled to Ireland, to get the hell away from your miserable games.”

There’s also one more theme and plot element that’s thoroughly amazing, but I really don’t want to spoil anything about this book for anyone who might be compelled to read it. Let me just say that it’s both typically Houellebecq-esque and wholly surprising and, of course, provocative. And who doesn’t love being provoked?

15 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, translated from the Persian by Tom Patterdale and published by Melville House Books

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

Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, one of the foremost Iranian authors of his generation, has so far been unrepresented in English translation due to the political nature of his works—all credit, then, to both Haus Publishing (and Melville House Books) and English PEN for their support in making The Colonel available. Credit must also be given to translator Tom Patterdale, whose avoidance of Latinate English vocabulary in preference for words with Anglo-Saxon roots is a valiant attempt to reproduce some of the convention-shattering effects of what he describes as Dowlatabadi’s “rough and ready” Persian.

The action unfolds over the course of one rainy night in a small Iranian town, a few years into the violent aftermath of the 1979 revolution, though Dowlatabadi reaches even further back into the recent history of his country, for example to the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh, to demonstrate the ways in which the past constantly impinges upon the present. At the very start of the book is the eponymous Colonel, an officer in the shah’s army, receives a knock at the door

Every knock at the door broke the caressing silence of the rain. There was nothing but the sound of unremitting rain drumming on the rusty tin roof, so unceasing that it amounted to silence.

They have come to inform him of the death of his youngest daughter, Parwaneh, who has died while being tortured by the regime. The rest of the book concerns the Colonel’s increasingly desperate attempts to retrieve Parwaneh’s body and ensure that she is buried, with at least some sense of propriety, before the night is over.

It is ironic that while the story concerns the attempts at burial, what actually results over the course of the book is a great deal of unearthing, specifically of the Colonel’s guilt over past mistakes, both private and professional, and of the various fates of his five children, none of which have escaped unscathed from the violence and political upheaval. While in the main body of the text, the Colonel is allowed the luxury of reminiscing over his younger, stronger days, his italicized thoughts, with their burden of past guilt, constantly threaten to destabilise the narrative which the Colonel has constructed to quell his conscience.

The Colonel is undoubtedly a dark read, with not much in the way of hope to alleviate the bleakness. Nevertheless, its ‘alternative history’ of the revolution is passionately, powerfully nightmarish, a great literary achievement in addition to being a brave and important window onto a world of which English-readers are still all too ignorant.

14 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

My Struggle: Book One by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and published by Archipelago Books

This post is written by Trevor Berrett who blogs at The Mookse and the Gripes, where readers from around the world are discussing all of the books from this year’s longlist in this forum. Definitely the best place to share your thoughts on this year’s longlist.

With My Struggle: Book One, Karl Ove Knausgaard began a six-volume (3,600 page) novel/autobiography in an attempt to exhaust everything at the age of forty. He knew it had to be long. He also knew he’d have to write it fast. So, at a rate of 5 to 20 pages per day, Knausgaard wrote these books over the course of about five years, moving at a headlong pace that purposefully outran any ideas of censorship or style. What makes such a long and seemingly self-indulgent experimental book worth reading and why should it win the Best Translated Book Award? Well, despite the fact that Knausgaard wrote at a breakneck pace, or perhaps because of this, the book is beautiful and direct as it weaves together thoughts and surroundings from various times in Knausgaard’s first four decades, all with immediacy. We get a strong sense of his urgency and are taken away. Knausgaard is working out his struggle, he’s opened it up for us to see, and by bringing us up close he allows us to feel the heat and energy or to stare in silence.

In the United Kingdom, the book was published as A Death in the Family, and indeed throughout the book we delve into death again and again. But it is about more than death. It’s about this life, about relationships, about the passage of time, about trying to find some kind of meaning in it all, about trying to be happy when everything seems to be going well but you still feel sad.

It does this by going through seemingly ordinary days in great detail. Often, the details and memories are banal. But even the banality of it all fits and is necessary for the book to have the effect it does. We do not see that which we see all the time, Knausgaard suggests. And most of the time it is in the banal that our lives are played out. That’s where we work out our feelings. This is shown well in the last 200 pages, around 70 of which are spent cleaning a home in preparation for the wake of Knausgaard’s despised father. How do we work through all of these conflicted feelings (he wanted his dad to die, “so why all these tears?”)? The answer: in the hours in which we clean, letting the thoughts come and go as they will.

In the end, this is a tremendously powerful and personal work of art. Yes, it is long and at times even tedious. Some of the detail is excessive and could be taken out. But I wouldn’t want it that way. To remove anything might disturb the balance, might make remove it even just a fraction of an inch. This is raw, and the struggle is beautiful. The tedium is meaningful—it may hold the most meaning of all: “Why should you live in a world without feeling its weight? Were we just images?”

12 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Prehistoric Times by Eric Chevillard, translated from the French by Alyson Waters and published by Archipelago Books

This piece is by translator, critic, and BTBA judge, Tess Lewis.

For sheer narrative inventiveness and luxuriant delight in the seductive power of fiction, you can do no better than pick up a book by Eric Chevillard. Chevillard is one of France’s most mercurial and impish contemporary writers. He has written more than twenty idiosyncratic books that push Big Questions to absurd extremes and his Prehistoric Times is an intellectual roller coaster and fun house mirror gallery in one.

The unnamed narrator, an archeologist by training, was “derailed” by a fall while excavating a cave with dozens of Paleolithic paintings. He has been demoted to guardian and guide in the site, a position he is as unsuited to fill as the uniform that goes with it, his predecessor having been much shorter and fatter. In his meandering monologue, the narrator justifies his delay in taking up his duties despite increasingly menacing threats of dismissal.

The narrator’s reflections swing from the abstract to the concrete and back again. Sometimes his progress is logical, sometimes associative, but the connective tissue, Chevillard’s antic, slightly off-kilter, acrobatic prose, virtuosically rendered into English by Alyson Waters, makes the web of his thoughts seem inevitable and coherent even at its most absurd.

The size of his uniform’s cap leads the narrator to meditate on the genesis of thought and to formulate a series of hypotheses about how the shape of the skull might affect the quality of the thinking done in it. Would thoughts develop more freely in a dome-shaped brainpan or would they get lost or confused? Alternatively, would a turnip-shaped skull engender sharper, more focused thoughts or simply constrict them? Then he segues to recollections of his childhood, to wondering whether Homo Sapiens had usurped the place of more intelligent ancestors, Homo Sapiens Sapiens, to man’s need for rituals, to speculation on the aesthetic ideas of troglodyte painters and how imagination changes man’s relation to world. He zigzags over a great deal of territory, assuring the reader that he is not wasting time, though by now the reader feels as if he has been led by the nose in random circles and U-turns.

There is indeed a method to his meandering. His ruminations have all been preparation for his grand ambition, to create a work of art that will endure, like his beloved cave paintings, outside of recorded history. In Chevillard’s hands, the novel of ideas is as exhilarating as a metaphysical fairground. Strap yourselves in and enjoy the ride.

11 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Autoportrait by Edouard Levé, translated from the French by Lorin Stein and published by Dalkey Archive Press

This piece is by bookseller and BTBA judge, Stephen Sparks.

Among the stellar books included in this year’s BTBA longlist is a slim volume by Edouard Levé called Autoportrait (Dalkey Archive Press). It’s an uncategorizable book: not a memoir in any traditional sense, not a novel either. Like the best books, it resists the straightjacket of genre, existing outside the bounds of easy classification. I think it’s the most unusual and daring piece of writing in the bunch.

Autoportrait is a collection of allusively connected declarative sentences, ranging from the mundane to the subtly profound, all reflecting the narrator’s (let’s call him Levé) physical and mental life. Levé’s tone never rises above a flat monotone, which is unnerving and oddly comforting.

I can open a page at random to provide a sampling of the method of composition:

I am afraid of ending up a bum. I am afraid of having my computer and negatives stolen. I cannot tell what, in me, is innate. I do not have a head for business. I have stepped on a rake and had the handle hit me in the face. I have gone to four psychiatrists, one psychologist, one psychotherapist, and five psychoanalysts. I look for the simple things I no longer see. I do not go to confession. Legs slightly open excite me more than legs wide open. I have trouble forbidding. I am not mature. When I look at a strawberry, I think of a tongue, when I lick one, of a kiss. I can see how drops of water could be torture. A burn on my tongue has a taste. My memories, good or bad, are sad the way dead things are sad.

Page after page of this may strike one as tedious, or interesting only insofar as the reader finds Levé interesting. There are no shocking revelations, no scandalous admissions, no salacious gossip. Instead, Levé takes a more daring risk: he confronts the unexciting self head-on, scrutinizing himself so closely that the resultant text verges on irrelevancy to anyone but its author.

Yet he manages to avoid tedium—the book inevitably lulls at times, but never bores—and somehow even heightens the stakes with a fine balance of facts and feelings. Despite its proliferation of I’s, Autoportrait paradoxically manages to be as much a book about us, each reader, as Levé. It sucks us into the whirlpool of another mind and spits us back out in our own, where we confront our own flat feet, our habitual failure to fill up ice cube trays, our discomfort in bathrooms next to kitchens. And while it may ultimately be egotistical to call a book that acts as a mirror one of the most memorable I’ve read this year, I think Autoportrait is a remarkable and unforgettable exploration of all that’s singular and universal in the self.

6 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

The Lair by Norman Manea, translated from the Romanian by Oana Sanziana Marian and published by Yale University Press

This piece is by translator, critic, and BTBA judge, Tess Lewis.

“Next time I kill you, I promise. The labyrinth made of a single straight line which is invisible and everlasting. Yours truly, D. This Borgesian death threat, assembled from words cut out of the newspaper and sent to Peter Gaspar, an exiled Romanian professor in upstate New York, opens up the labyrinthine plot of Norman Manea’s novel, The Lair. In this elaborate, mysterious portrait of three exiles struggling to adapt to their adopted countries, nothing is what it seems and no lines are straight. The most serious threats are the unstated ones.

Augustin Gora was the first to leave Romania. Granted asylum while in the United States on a Fulbright, Gora was able to establish himself in academia with the help of an older eminent Romanian émigré, Cosmin Dima, a literary stand-in for Mircea Eliade. But Gora has withdrawn completely to his lair of books, his “cell of papyrus” where “the past is present and the present is an echo of the past.” To Gora’s surprise, his ravishing, inscrutable wife Lu had refused to leave Romania with him. When she does show up in America years later, after Ceacescu’s fall, it is with Gaspar, now her lover.

The three form an uneasy love triangle that is soon overshadowed by the cryptic threat. Against his better judgment, Gaspar reviewed Dima’s memoirs and exposed the “Old Man’s” fascist sympathies and support for the Iron Guard in the 1930s, a red rag to Romanian nationalists at home and abroad. Not long after, a fellow émigré and former disciple of Dima’s is shot dead and the threatening postcard arrives in Gaspar’s mail. Gaspar begins calling Gora obsessively, mulling over the possible significance of minute details. Former students are drawn into the investigation—perhaps suspects, perhaps innocent bystanders—as is campus security, the state police, and the FBI.

The Lair is by turns hypnotic, baffling, and intoxicating. It is a fascinating novel of ideas whose characters are on unsteady ground, having lost their footing in the Old World and not yet found an intellectual hold in the New.

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Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .

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The Four Corners of Palermo by Giuseppe Di Piazza
Reviewed by Patience Haggin

The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this,. . .

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

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

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

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

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Stealth
Stealth by Sonallah Ibrahim
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

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

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

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

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Kamal Jann
Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

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

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