11 June 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Florian Duijsens, a senior editor at Asymptote, fiction editor at SAND Journal, and teacher at Bard College Berlin. You can follow him on Twitter at @neonres.

For more information on the Women’s World Cup of Literature, click here or here. Also, be sure to follow our Twitter account and like our Facebook page. And check back here daily!

Today’s match pits two trophy winners against each other; in 2013, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries snagged both the Man Booker Prize and Canada’s Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction. Can Xue’s The Last Lover and its translator Annalise Finnegan Wasmoen, meanwhile, captured the hotly contested Best Translated Book Award Cup just last month. As for your referee today, I read Catton’s book when it came out, eager to lose myself in the brick-sized book after its buzz made it all the way over to Berlin from New Zealand. Before being assigned this match-up, I’d not read Can Xue’s work, though Dylan Suher’s wonderful interview with her (sample quote, from Can Xue herself: “China has more than a few Can Xue fans, but overall, Can Xue’s era still hasn’t arrived, because her works are too ahead of the curve, and don’t conform to commonplace, habitual aesthetics.”), and the recent BTBA honor certainly made me stoked to read her “radiantly original” novel.

The singular voice Can Xue and her translator chose for The Last Lover is radically different from most fiction I encounter: the sentences are pointedly gawky, the dialogue stilted, and emotions change as quickly as chameleons lost in a book of paisley wallpaper samples. This is entirely intentional (and remarkably consistent), as I learned from Daniel Medin’s interview with Annelise Finegan Wasmoen:

Since it was important to follow [Can Xue’s] associative logic that relates certain words or images to each other, I chose a translation style that kept as much consistency as possible, retaining correlations instead of attempting to achieve a natural flow [. . .] translate everything; explain nothing.

All this also means that synopsizing The Last Lover is entirely beside the point: generically named characters live in an unnamed and barely detailed Western country. They obsess over their boss, employee, wife, husband, son, or lover, each of them equally volatile in their emotional and geographical states, popping up now here, then there, now crying, then shouting. The book makes a point of all of them being on a “long march,” a somewhat allegorical reference to the Long March of the 1930s that here seems to translate to our unending journey of self-discovery and, not least, our acceptance of others’ similarly unending travails of the soul.

Joe, the novel’s quasi-protagonist, may work at a clothing manufacturing company, but he really is a professional reader at heart, constantly dipping in and out of books hidden among his papers at work and in the higgledy-piggledy library cum bedroom he keeps for himself at home. Joe’s way of reading is how I can best interpret the way Can Xue would like her books to be read. “Wrongly,” that is: Joe is constantly mixing up the stories in different books (Kafka’s stories seem particularly ripe for his plundering) or performing more radical readings by tackling them in pitch dark or by putting his ear to their covers. Books are as untrustworthy and inconstant as memory, we are told, and we should not expect them to make any more sense.

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The Luminaries, to address the massive tome on the other side of the field today, is an entirely different kettle of verbs and nouns: a historical murder mystery that would not seem outré to readers of either Henry James or Wilkie Collins. Imagine TV’s Deadwood, but scripted and directed by Jane Campion and her astrologer AD. Over the course of its 800+ pages, Catton slowly reveals how a suicidal prostitute, a dead prospector, a villainous captain, and a fortune sown into a dress are all connected to, and intertwined with, the lives and fates of a varied troupe of characters in a New Zealand town during the 1860s Otago Gold Rush. Precisely plotted and charted to the movement of the stars, each chapter perches on a cliffhanger, with the reader helplessly leaping ever onward until the whole thing comes twisting back together. (I couldn’t help but wonder what the critics’ response would have been had the name on the cover been that of a man—would Catton have been showered in yet more awards, not to mention shouts of “Genius”?)

True, I was exhausted when I was done, and the book is so long and intricately structured that it includes (and practically requires) its own recap in the middle, but the language is enchanting, evocative in its conjuring of time and place, and vivid in its depiction of villains and heroes alike. Although its astronomical underpinnings largely went over my head on my first reading (each of the characters is associated with a heavenly body, coming together and apart with the orbits of the stars; the chapters slowly wane with the moon), it makes for a gripping experience that is as much about plot as it is about who killed the prospecting Crosbie Wells, perhaps more so.

***

Back in 2008, film critic Roger Ebert called out the critics who remained unmoved by Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, noting that having a woman move into a house that is perennially on fire is not “unrealistic” at all: “Don’t unhappy homes always seem like that? Aren’t people always trying to ignore it?” (In fact, Wikipedia tells me Tennessee Williams said something similar: “We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.”)

I wonder if critics would have embraced Kaufman’s masterpiece more had it come from Italy or Iran, as we tend to give outsiders in world cinema (or literature, for that matter) a touch more leeway; if the names are big enough (or the country of origin exotic enough), we are more likely to waive the otherwise required elements of plot, character, and dialogue. Often this is an entirely good thing: how else to first approach the works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Tsai Ming-liang? Of Elfriede Jelinek or even James Joyce? Yet this can become a rusty reflex too, recommending books because they won a bunch of awards or because Susan Sontag (no stranger to enjoying difficulty for difficulty’s sake) once said she liked them, so they must be good, right?

In The Last Lover, Joe’s boss, Vincent, at some point ends up at the house of his in-laws, who can’t stop talking to their parrot:

Vincent couldn’t understand their conversation. It seemed they were debating the question of putting power lines on the stone mountains. It also seemed like they were analyzing methods of tracking down criminals on the run. No matter what the old couple said, the old parrot always said, “Very good! Very good! A work of genius! A work of genius!”

In today’s verdict, I cannot parrot the esteemed critics and friends who’ve already praised Can Xue. Reading The Last Lover was non-stop torture for me. Not a page went by that I wasn’t entirely lost at sea, that didn’t make me want to violently toss the book out of whichever room or vehicle I was in, whereas Catton’s was a wonderful slog that I now—almost two years later—fell right back into with equal measures of delight and intrigue.

Of course people flit between emotions like demented hummingbirds, faces can change quicker than a paragraph can break, and places suddenly can feel farther or closer apart. Can Xue is right: life in no way functions like the celestial clockwork of The Luminaries. Yet, to me, the best books do. However precise or pointillist their construction, my favorite books pay tribute to the intricate designs the human mind is capable of, and is capable of conveying to others through the medium of the book. I know reality is a complex muddle of emotion, politics, etc. but I hope books can somehow convince me otherwise, or—in absence of such syntactic solace—comfort me instead: with their skill, their beauty, their truth.

***

We all live in a house on fire, so best buy yourself a stack of the biggest, smartest books you can find and build yourself a bonfire. New Zealand for the win.

New Zealand: 4
China: 1

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Next up, New Zealand’s The Luminaries will face off against either Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (Canada) or The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic (Netherlands) on Monday, June 22nd.

Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Rachel Crawford, and features Australia’s Burial Rites by Hannah Kent against Sweden’s The Stranger by Camilla Läckberg.

1 June 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last summer, to coincide with the Real Life World Cup, we hosted the World Cup of Literature, an incredible competition featuring 32 books from 32 countries, and ending with Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile (Chile) triumphing over Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd (Mexico). It was glorious.

Since the Women’s World Cup is kicking off in Canada next week, it’s time to do this all over again. Except that this time, only living female authors are allowed to participate. (And, as much as possible, the books included were published within the last ten years.)

Before announcing the participating titles, I have to announce that we’re still looking for judges. And, unlike last year, we want at least two-thirds of the eighteen judges to be females. So, if you’re interested—as a judge you read two books, write up the result of that “match” complete with soccer-esque score, then chime in on the final—just email me at chad.post[at]rochester.edu. You’ll have to do this fast though. The competition launches next week . . .

Tomorrow (or later today) we’ll post the new graphics and bracket so that you can see the first round competitions and debate which book has the easiest path to the final four, but for now, here’s a listing of all the titles that we’re including. (These are alphabetical in order of the country each is representing.)

Australia: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Brazil: Crow Blue by Adriana Lisboa, translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin

Cameroon: Dark Heart of the Night by Léonora Miano, translated from the French by Tamsin Black

Canada: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

China: The Last Lover by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen

Colombia: Delirium by Laura Restrepo, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

Costa Rica: Assault on Paradise by Tatiana Lobo, translated from the Spanish by Asa Zatz

Cote d’Ivoire: Queen Pokou by Veronique Tadjo, translated from the French by Amy Baram Reid

Ecuador: Beyond the Islands by Alicia Yánez Cossío, translated from the Spanish by Amalia Gladhart

England: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

France: Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Sîan Reynolds

Germany: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky, translated from the German by Tim Mohr

Japan: Revenge by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

Mexico: Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa, translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee

Netherlands: The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic, translated from the Croatian by Michael Henry Heim

New Zealand: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Nigeria: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Norway: The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland

South Korea: Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell

Spain: The Happy City by Elvira Navarro, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey

Sweden: The Stranger by Camilla Läckberg, translated from the Swedish by Steven Murray

Switzerland: With the Animals by Noëlle Revas, translated from the French by W. Donald Wilson

Thailand: The Happiness of Kati by Ngarmpun (Jane) Vejjajiva, translated from the Thai by Prudence Borthwick

USA: Home by Toni Morrison

27 May 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The eighth annual Best Translated Book Awards were announced at BookExpo America this afternoon, with Can Xue’s The Last Lover, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, taking home the award for fiction, and Rocío Cerón’s Diorama, translated from the Spanish by Anna Rosenwong, winning in poetry.

Thanks again to the support of Amazon.com’s giving programs, the winning authors and translators will each receive $5,000.

“I’m so excited,” Can Xue said when she was reached for a comment, “I think it’s the most beautiful thing that has happened in my whole life. I always think of the BTBA as a very prestigious prize rewarding writers who have the great courage to achieve their literary ambitions.”

According to the jury, Can Xue’s (“tsan shway”) The Last Lover (published by Yale University Press) was the most radical and uncompromising of this year’s finalists, pushing the novel form into bold new territory. Journeying through a dreamworld as strange yet disquietingly familiar as Kafka’s Amerika, The Last Lover proves radiantly original. If Orientalists describe an East that exists only in the Western imagination, Can Xue describes its shadow, offering a beguiling dream of a Chinese West. Annelise Finegan Wasmoen’s translation succeeds in crafting a powerful English voice for a writer of singular imagination and insight.

The judges also named three runners-up in fiction: Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Stacey Knecht and published by Archipelago Books, for the wonderful lyricism of its winding sentences; Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney and published by Coffee House Press, for the exceptional promise it demonstrates as a debut novel; and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein and published by Europa Editions, for its vibrant characters and sweeping narrative power.

On the poetry side of things, David Shook, the co-founder and editorial director of Phoneme Media “congratulates translator Anna Rosenwong for her masterful translation of Rocío Cerón’s Diorama, our first book of poetry and one of the most fascinating and important books to have been published in Mexico this century. Phoneme Media is incredibly grateful for the support of the BTBA’s judges and organizers, to Three Percent and its indefatigable director Chad Post, to our fellow shortlisted publishing houses, translators, and authors, and to our readers around the world. Congratulations, Anna and Rocío, on receiving this much deserved award!”

Past winners of the fiction award include: Seiobo There Below and Satantango, both by László Krasznahorkai (recent recipient of the Man Booker International Prize) and translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes respectively; Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston; and, The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal. (Jansson and Teal are the only author and translator on this year’s fiction shortlist who have previously won the award.)

In terms of the poetry award, past winners include: The Guest in the Wood by Elisa Biagini, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky; Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stănescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter; and Spectacle & Pigsty by Kiwao Nomura, translated from the Japanese by Kyoko Yoshida and Forrest Gander.

This year’s fiction jury is made up of: George Carroll, North-North-West and Shelf Awareness; Monica Carter, Salonica; James Crossley, Island Books; Scott Esposito, Conversational Reading and Center for the Art of Translation; Jeremy Garber, Powell’s Books; Katrine Øgaard Jensen, Asymptote; Madeleine LaRue, Music & Literature; Daniel Medin, American University of Paris, Cahiers Series, Quarterly Conversation, and the White Review; and Michael Orthofer, Complete Review.

The poetry jury includes: Biswamit Dwibedy, poet; Bill Martin, translator, critic, organizer of The Bridge; Dawn Lundy Martin, poet; Erica Mena, poet and translator; and Stefan Tobler, And Other Stories and translator.

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For more information, visit the official Best Translated Book Award site and the official BTBA Facebook page, and follow the award on Twitter.

27 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

Annelise Finegan Wasmoen is an editor and a literary translator. She is pursuing a PhD in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis.

Daniel Medin teaches at the American University of Paris, where he helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators and is Associate Series Editor of The Cahiers Series.



The Last Lover – Can Xue, Translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, China
Yale University Press

1. How did you discover Can Xue’s fiction? What led you to want to translate this book?

Prosaically enough, I discovered Can Xue’s writing in the same place that so many others have, in a classroom. I doubt there’s a survey of modern Chinese literature that doesn’t include her short story “Hut on the Mountain.” It was immediately clear she was working at a level of experimentation that was on a different plane than her contemporaries, pushing the boundaries of fiction toward something else entirely.

With The Last Lover, it was less a matter of being led to translate the book than leaping at the opportunity to do so. I met Can Xue through Jonathan Brent, then editorial director of Yale University Press, where I worked as an assistant editor in 2007–08; he shared a sample chapter of my translation with the author and the rest went smoothly enough. What kept me translating was the incredible intricacy of the text: the novel yields new insights even after a dozen readings.

2. Anything that a new reader of Can Xue should know before diving in?

When you asked me to speak with your Contemporary World Literature class earlier this spring, one of the students asked the perfect question: is it better to try to make sense of The Last Lover while reading it, or to wait until the end? Wait to the end, if you can. Can Xue’s style of writing tends to resist immediate attempts at sense-making, but to read her fiction carefully, especially in the longer form of a novel, is to realize that there are intricate patterns and motifs woven through the text.

To the extent that there is an overarching narrative, The Last Lover begins in the West and by its end several characters have journeyed to the East, whether in dreams or in person. The primary setting is an unspecified Country A, which some readers have taken to indicate a generalized Occident, and others to be an image of America. But it’s America in the sense of Kafka’s Amerika, where the Statue of Liberty holds a sword. You can see how this might be a sort of commentary. The characters have names drawn from many different languages and cultures, with reversals of first and last names as well. The novel features three central couples—Joe and Maria (who have a son, Daniel), Vincent and Lisa, Reagan and Ida—with each chapter focusing on one of these figures.

A self-reflexive theme of reading follows the character Joe, who fails to separate the world of fiction from the world that surrounds him. Here’s a passage from the book about Joe’s reading:

The next day Joe took off from work. He began reading a book with only one page. The book was clothbound, with a drawing of a tall pine tree on the cover. Inside there was a single thick sheet of paper. This sheet could be unfolded to the length of the desk. The picture on the cover appeared to be of an anthill. The periphery of the anthill was densely written over with a miniature text, visible only under a magnifying glass. And once Joe looked with the glass, he discovered that he didn’t recognize a single word.

Then the book starts flapping around the room, then the room starts shaking, then there is an invasion of doves, etc.

The theme of love, too, pervades the novel, although in many ways The Last Lover explores how people are constantly moving away from each other through space and time, both real and imagined. As the distance between the book’s central couples increases, their communication deepens. These forms of communication from afar seem to echo the novel’s central parable about reading.

Finally, there is an interpolation of national history, namely the recurring reference to the 1930s Long March. Although technically the Long March was a very long tactical retreat, it allowed for the consolidation of the Communist Party at Yan’an; it began as a historical event and became a myth of national origins. Within the novel, several of the characters undergo an inner long march, which takes place in the middle of the night, in a not-quite-dream-state, and is associated with the characters Lisa and Maria. Luding Bridge, the site of a central battle during the Long March, also appears at several key moments.

Of course it’s up to the reader to parse and process these various elements—the journey from West to East, the theme of love and communication at a distance, the personal long march—but I hope that outlining them in this way might give hope to someone approaching Can Xue’s fiction for the first time.

For a reader who prefers a naturalizing or domesticating style, the translation might be difficult. Can Xue refers to her writing as having an inner mechanism, which sounds mysterious, but there is an associative logic that runs through all of her fiction. Since it was important to follow this associative logic that relates certain words or images to each other, I chose a translation style that kept as much consistency as possible, retaining correlations instead of attempting to achieve a natural flow. This was in the service of leaving the reader in English with the same interpretative leeway as the reader of the original, which is a risky sort of thing. This was the first novel I translated, and in other translations I’ve gone in the other direction, but this specific text seemed to call for an extreme level of fidelity: translate everything; explain nothing.

For example, in the fourth chapter, there is a “so-called greenhouse,” a large empty room with small windows and dim lighting. There are earthen bowls arrayed on the ground with coarse sand and seeds in them. The gardener holds a seed and says, “Look, it’s already burst open, but the shoots inside can’t get out. All the seeds here are in the same condition. The flowers open inside of dreams. … the seeds still keep this shape, neither sprouting nor decaying.” The flowers that bloom from these seeds appear at other places in the novel: the character Lisa looks at a tapestry and “there floated up in her mind the red sun of an early morning in the gambling city, where sprouting seeds, exhausted from a long night of breaking through, struggled out.” There is a family whose rosebushes bloom year-round, become electrified, and are uprooted by the son, whom his father has dreamed of as a body with a rose for its head. These examples are scattered across the book, available for excavation, but might be lost in the translation if any of the individual elements were disrupted: the bowls, the seeds, the flowers.

3. The Last Lover is the second novel by Can Xue to appear in English. Unlike Five Spice Street, which appeared in English in 2009 but actually dates to 1988, it’s a fairly recent work (2005). How would you distinguish her recent books from the earlier ones? In what ways has her writing changed over the course of her career?

Can Xue is perhaps best known for her mastery of the short story: condensed meditations on a single theme, an expanded metaphor, an unnerving turn of events, a strange interaction. In recent years she has been undertaking more novel-length projects, which, remarkably, maintain the same sort of intensity but at an exponential degree of complexity. To me, it seems that the experiments with longer forms mark a key development in her approach to writing.

4. Could you point out one of your favorite passages in The Last Lover, and tell us what you like about (translating) it?

Definitely the last chapter. Toward the end of the novel (spoilers), the character Joe disappears into the world of his stories and his wife discovers this world embodied in a forest of books. As I mentioned before, much of the novel treats of separation. Here, there is a moment of joy in rediscovering family bonds, worked across the literalized metaphor of the forest of books.

That night Maria went to the study because she couldn’t sleep. Although she hadn’t turned on the light, she could see that Joe’s bookcases had turned into a dark forest of books. The books had grown large, one book set next to another vertically on the floor, the pages of the books opening and closing.

[…]

Maria touched the enormous book pages with a shaking finger. She touched one after another of the letters protruding from the pages, and those letters jumped slightly, giving off electricity. Suddenly she comprehended the book’s meaning. The book told of an ancient, deserted beach. Someone climbed onto the bank from the sea. Sea birds cried ominously in the air. “That man is Joe,” Maria spoke quietly. Then her finger touched the word “Joe.” “Joe, is it you?” she asked.

[…]

Over several decades of uninterrupted reading, her Joe had created this forest. And he hadn’t removed her from it. Once she entered, she blended into this place. In the su su rustling sound made by the pages, a world of writing appeared in her mind. She realized that for many years everything she’d woven was this writing. So familiar, so pleasing—was this happiness? She began to walk from one book to another. Dry leaves made noise under her feet; her feet touched a few small stones; she even heard the song of a nightingale. It was inside the pages of the largest book, singing and then pausing.

There was a dim light in the forest of books, but when Maria looked up she couldn’t see the sky. Was there even a sky? There were grass, stones, a path, and she heard water flowing from a spring. But the air was filled with the fine smell of old books. This was Joe’s story. This story belonged to her, forever. Maria’s heart was full of gratitude. She pricked her ears, awaiting the nightingale’s singing again.

She waited till it sang, but it wasn’t one call, it was many, many calls. One rising as another fell.

The very close of the novel turns quite dark again, ending on an intensely powerful image.

29 October 14 | Monica Carter | Comments

Daniel Medin teaches at the American University of Paris, where he helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators and is Associate Series Editor of The Cahiers Series.

Can Xue: The Last Lover, trans. from Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Yale/Margellos

The strangest and by far most original work I read this summer was Can Xue’s The Last Lover. How refreshing it is to encounter fiction that so resolutely disregards conventions of character and plot! The protagonists of this book do not develop—they transform, as do their relationships to one another, from one scene to the next. And they do so unpredictably, in ways that surprise and delight. As in much of Can Xue’s fiction, the prose is comic and disturbing at one and the same time. John Darnielle had Vertical Motion in mind when he pointed to the “grammar of dreams” that underpins that volume of stories: “situations in which a general meowing sound throughout a hospital provokes not the question ‘what’s going on?’ but instead ‘where are the catmen hiding?’” A similar grammar is present in The Last Lover, her most ambitious—and perhaps most radical—novel to date.

Faris al-Shidyaq: Leg over Leg volume 3, trans. from Arabic by Humphrey Davies, NYU

I wrote about the charms of this novel last winter, when the first two volumes were eligible for the prize. It should come as no surprise that the other two are now contenders as well. This chapter from volume three appeared in the 2014 translation issue of London’s The White Review. It’s preceded by a concise introduction by Humphrey Davies, whose translation of Shidyaq remains among the most gymnastic and resourceful amongst this year’s competition.

Elena Ferrante: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, trans. from Italian by Ann Goldstein, Europa

There’s no denying the force of Ferrante’s writing. I discovered volume 2 of the Neapolitan Novels last spring when it made our longlist. (Such are the privileges of judging for BTBA; you have to read the 25 titles selected to this list, and thereby profit directly from the enthusiasms of others.) I devoured it whole, then did the same to The Story of a New Name. Ferrante inspires that rare thing, rarer still among contemporary writers: the compulsion to read everything she’s ever published. Like its predecessors, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay bristles with intelligence and is executed with startling clarity. And like the other books in this series, it is all-absorbing. Here’s Ariel Starling in a recent review for The Quarterly Conversation: “Subtle as the plot may be, it would do the work a grave disservice not to note that Ferrante is, in her own way, a master of suspense. Reading these novels, one becomes so immersed in the world of the characters that even an offhand comment from a minor acquaintance can (and often does) carry the force of revelation—the books are nearly impossible to put down.”

Hilda Hilst: With My Dog Eyes, trans. from Portuguese by Adam Morris, Melville House

I’ve already posted on Letters from a Seducer which had been scheduled for 2013 release but entered the world on the wrong side of January 1. Goes without saying that this title and its extraordinary translation by John Keene has not weakened in the slightest since my initial encounter. Hilst deserves to be in the mix when winter arrives and we begin to draft lists. The question then is likely to be: which horse to back? The answer’s not immediately obvious, to the great credit of Hilst’s translators and editors. With My Dog Eyes was as exhilarating to read as the Letter and The Obscene Madame D. Hilst has been blessed with a generation of astute translators who are now introducing her work to an Anglophone readership. With My Dog Eyes struck me as the most aphoristic of the three novels. It begins unforgettably: “God? A surface of ice anchored to laughter.” Adam Levy wrote a canny essay for Music & Literature about this year’s eligible Hilst titles; read it here.

I’ve little doubt concerning the importance of the above works for their respective languages. Those without Chinese or Italian or Portuguese have Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Ann Goldstein, and Adam Morris to thank for ensuring that their greatness has been preserved in the face of formidable challenges. I’d like to mention briefly the names of a few more translators whose work has impressed over these first few months of reading. They succeed at communicating the vitality of the voices translated, but also for their accomplished prose in English. They are, in no particular order, Jason Grunebaum from the Hindi of The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash; Daniel Hahn from the Portuguese (Brazil) of Nowhere People by Paolo Scott; Chris Andrews from the Spanish (Guatemala) of Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa; and Karen Emmerich from the Greek of Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou, whose passages about the bewilderments of adolescent sexuality rank—alongside volume three of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard—among the funniest things I’ve encountered so far.

22 September 14 | Monica Carter | Comments

Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.

My strategy for BTBA reading is very simple and very biased: I read the books by women first, and if there are no books by women, then I read the shortest ones first. I start with the women because there are fewer of them, and with the short books because they make me feel accomplished.

One of the first books I read was Can Xue’s The Last Lover (translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen), a novel by one of China’s best and strangest contemporary writers. I had been enchanted a few years ago by her short story collection Vertical Motion, which is populated by all sorts of Kafkaesque sons and animals.

Can Xue’s work is dreamlike, but not in the hazy, poetic way that that word usually implies. Rather, her stories follow the logic of dreams, particularly in The Last Lover: locations shift abruptly, characters’ reactions are unexpected or irrational, elements from previous scenes are suddenly re-assembled in new configurations. The Last Lover, a story of three couples, is perhaps best understood as taking place in a largely or entirely imaginary space. The lovers are wandering not through the world, but through each other’s dreams, which nevertheless resemble some version of the world. The book is baffling at times, and after reading it I often stood up slightly dizzy. But something about it is tenacious. Like Kafka (whom she greatly admires), Can Xue is able to create metaphors that are understood deeply and intuitively even while they elude intellectual comprehension.

The Last Lover surfaced in my thoughts again recently when I found another book by a modern-day sister of Kafka’s.

Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water (translated from Estonian by Ilmar Lehtpere) is a slim book (only eighty pages) of surreal fairy tales. In one, a woman bites the arms off three successive husbands, all named Jaan. In another, a skeleton called Lena tells of her life on an island that has “torn itself free from the ocean floor.” A third woman has written a grammar of bird language and collects apricots from her “six former husbands” (her enumeration of their respective qualities recalls Kafka’s story “Eleven Sons”).

Some of the stories are noticeably weaker than others, but in the best of them there is a certain freedom found in all good fables, including Kafka’s: the freedom to be read both literally and figuratively. Kristiina Ehin’s stories are metaphors for emotional events, usually ordinary ones like falling in or out of love, but they are sometimes very original metaphors, interesting as fiction in their own right. Like Can Xue, Kristiina Ehin encourages us to interpret her work while simultaneously hinting that interpretation is not important.

Whether or not either of these titles ends up on this year’s longlist, they deserve to be read, not only on their own merits, but as representatives of marginalized literatures. We know that only 3% of the English-language book market is devoted to works in translation; how much smaller is that percentage when we count only books by women, let alone books by women from China or Estonia? Indeed, it has taken me depressingly little time to get through all the BTBA submissions by women that I’ve received up to now. I hope that more are on the way, and that more (especially from under-represented countries) are slated by publishers for the coming years.

In the meantime, as I continue to read wonderful things by writers of all genders, I can’t help but noticing that these two, The Last Lover and Walker on Water, have a curious capacity to linger in my mind, even as technically “better” books fade from memory.

8 August 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the past few days, a few great reviews for Open Letter authors popped up online, all of which are worth sharing and reading.

First up is P.T. Smith’s review for Full Stop of Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson’s The Last Days of My Mother, translated from the Icelandic by Helga Soffía Einarsdóttir:

As a book of drinking, endless binges of drinking, and of constant comedy, The Last Days of My Mother is a perfect book to drink to, reminding you of the shame that follows the pleasure, but comfortably letting you know that you aren’t drowning like the protagonists. In the opening pages, Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson’s two protagonists, Mother/Eva and son/Trooper, do not have the same self-censorship that most of us have, and their adventure is all the better for it. Neither seems to manage happiness, but with Eva dying, Trooper sets himself the goal “to make Mother happy during the last days of her life.” [. . .]

Their efforts only resemble plans because for the vast majority of the novel, they are in varying stages of drinking, drunk, very drunk, stoned, and planning their next drink. Throughout it all, there is dark, brutal comedy, hysterically playful comedy, and immediate switches to the serious, the poignant, without pain from whiplash. The emotional, the ongoing sadness of loss, of dead hopes, isn’t a contradiction to humor; instead they exist together, and the closer they come, the less Eve and Trooper struggle. Comedy, with all its nuances, is sometimes impossible to communicate between two people who speak the same language, so translator Helga Soffía Einarsdóttir keeping it so alive proves great skill. Last Days is a book funny enough that my housemates laughed at my laughter while otherwise quietly reading, without reading a word.

Drinking novels are familiar, death of a family member novels are familiar, dark comedies, familiar, but Last Days brings something new: a mother and son with absolutely zero boundaries between each other.

Sticking with Full Stop, Larissa Pham has an interesting piece there about Can Xue’s latest novel, The Last Lover, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen:

The Last Lover is not an easy read. But it is incandescent and engrossing if you are okay with losing your sense of self for a few hours. Here is how I experienced it.

Hour one: I sit in a coffee shop with a paperback copy and a cup of ginger tea. The prose is dense, peculiar. The characters are given to sudden declarations.

Hour two: I am astonished to realize that I have only read less than fifty pages.

Hour three: My head hurts. I feel like I have been translating. I have stopped tweeting.

Hour four: I succumb to the book. I let it carry me. My cup is empty. I do not question anything that happens in the novel: wolfish faces; floating couples; inexplicable transformations; the motif of heads separating from bodies and hovering there, as if still connected. Nor do I question the characters’ reactions, who take all of these surreal developments gamely, as they must, as we accept the eerie faces we sometimes see in the periphery of our vision.

Hour five: I sit up and feel as though I have emerged from dreaming. I look around myself surreptitiously, suspicious that the world has flipped over while I was reading. It seems impossible that I could crawl so deep within this novel and have everything remain the same. I feel betrayed. There is a scene in The Last Lover in which the characters enter a gambling city, which is both under- and aboveground. The tunnels underground are full of smoke, which all the residents of the gambling city are used to breathing. Where is my smoke? Where are my slot machines?

And over at “Numero Cinq,“http://numerocinqmagazine.com/2014/08/04/the-decomposition-of-continuous-movement-review-of-juan-jose-saers-la-grande-richard-farrell/ Richard Farell writes up Juan José Saer’s La Grande, translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph:

Consider hospitality. Imagine, say, a cookout, on a Sunday afternoon, with old friends gathered around a pool deck. Meat sizzles on the grill. It is autumn, but a last gasp of summer heats the day and warms the water. The party’s host, Willi Gutiérrez—a screenwriter, a sophisticated man of letters—has been living abroad in Europe for the last thirty years and has recently returned to his native Argentina. Decades have passed since many of the guests assembled here have broken bread together. The convivial atmosphere of the party crackles with laughter, with clanging wine glasses, and with stories. But just beneath that welcoming surface hides a mystery, swirling down like a river, faster and deeper as the party courses above. This mystery is one of ontology, of the deep, mystical, convoluted experience that is life, with all its secrets, its intrigue, its tragedies and its triumphs. At the very bottom, on the murky river floor where memory resides, where so much has been lost to time—betrayals, desires, the forgotten war, love, passions—here we find the source material for Juan José Saer’s La Grande. Saer reassembles the fragments. He reconstructs experience through memory, where nothing is ever quite what it appears, and yet where everything that appears is luminescent, like gold flakes panned from the silt, polished, crafted and forged into a ring.

In La Grande, Saer masterfully creates a fictional world at once brimming with life, detail, and imagery. Recursive themes appear, connect, and eventually assemble into a story. For nearly 500 pages, La Grande patterns many different but deeply connected narratives across those thirty years, two continents and dozens of characters. The novel opens as Gutierréz leads Nula on a walk along the Parana River, toward a café in the countryside. Saer always evokes place through movement and memory, and as they walk, the young wine merchant becomes mesmerized by his older friend, who has reentered this world—abandoned for thirty years—as if no time has passed at all. Nula wants to understand Gutiérrez. Who is he? Why did he leave? Why has he returned? Saer may not directly answer these questions, but they constitute the main impulse of the novel. [. . .]

Flannery O’Connor once remarked that a good story resists paraphrase. La Grande isn’t about parties, wine sales, sex or even ultimately about Argentine history. And yet it contains all of these and so much more. The experience, the joy, of reading this book comes from an appreciation of Saer’s ability to keep these various pieces in motion. Saer-as-maestro teases apart story lines, only to carefully reconnect them hundreds of pages later, so that, by novel’s end, when the various actors have gathered at the party in Gutiérrez’s home, “even the things that are familiar to us are unfamiliar, if only because we’ve allowed ourselves to forget the mysterious things about them.” The mundane becomes strange, significant, filled with meaning, so that each story, each character, each plot step even, appears consequential. Nothing is ever wasted.

6 January 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of The White Review is incredibly stacked. There’s an interview with Vladimir Sorokin. A piece by Enrique Vila-Matas. Poems by Gerður Kristný. Art by Mark Mulroney (we used to drink together and go to Rochester Red Wings games!).

But if that’s not enough, or, if you’re too cheap to spend the £14.99 (UK) / £18.99 (Rest of World) (which, to be honest, is pretty steep given the awful exchange rate . . . I could buy a hundred sandwiches for the cost of a subscription), you should definitely check out all the free online content.

Here are a few highlights:

  • Vertical Motion by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping (You can buy the entire collection here.);
  • To Kill a Dog by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Brendan Lanctot;
  • The Dispossessed by Szilárd Borbély, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet;
  • The Black Lake by Hella S. Haasse, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke;
  • Textile by Orly Castel-Bloom, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu;
  • Leg over Leg by Ahmad Fāris al-Shidyāq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies.

I don’t need Bookish’s algorithm to state that if you check out all of those samples, you’ll find at least one book that you’ll want to read.

25 September 13 | Chad W. Post |

Last week I had the opportunity to interview Can Xue as part of the Reykjavik International Literary Festival. We ended up writing out our interview ahead of time, so I thought I would share it here. Enjoy!

Born in China, where her parents were persecuted as being “ultra-rightists” by the Anti-rightest Movement of 1957. As a result, her father was jailed, her mother and two brothers were sent to the countryside for “re-education.” Can Xue was raised by her grandmother, suffered from tuberculosis, and faced a series of hardships.

In 1983, she began writing, and here first short story was published in 1985. After that, there’s been no looking back, and, according to Wikipedia, as of 2009 she’s written three novels, fifty novellas, 120 short stories, and six book-length commentaries. Of these, six books have appeared in English translation—Dialogues in Paradise, Old Floating Cloud, The Enbroidered Shoes, Blue Light in the Sky and Other Stories, Five Spice Street, and Vertical Motion—with Yale University Press publishing another novel next year, and a critical piece on Kafka.

Can Xue’s prose has attracted a lot of attention from writers and critics, including such great American writers as Robert Coover and Bradford Morrow, the editor of Conjunctions magazine, which has published a number of Can Xue’s stories—the first two people to mention Can Xue’s work to me. Her reputation has continued to grow, recently attracting high praise from The Mountain Goats frontman, John Darnielle, and being the featured author in the forthcoming issue of Music and Literature.

Frequently characterized as “avant-garde,” Can Xue’s writing operates under its own logic, a unique overlapping of images that explode “conventional” storytelling approaches, instead creating a sort of shifting landscape that forces the reader to engage closely with the text.

For example, here’s a bit from “Vertical Motion,” the title story of the collection that we published:

We are little critters who live in the black earth beneath the desert. The people on Mother Earth can’t imagine such a large expanse of fertile humus lying dozens of meters beneath the boundless desert. Our race has lived here for generations. We have neither eyes nor any olfactory sense. In this large nursery, such apparatus is useless. Our lives are simple, for we merely use our long beaks to dig the earth, eat the nutritious soil, and then excrete it. We live in happiness and harmony because we have abundant resources in our hometown. Thus, we can all eat our fill without a dispute arising. At any rate, I’ve never heard of one.

The mixture of Can Xue’s beautifully strange prose with such complex structures is the main reason so many writers and critics are intrigued, and frequently obsessed with, her works.

Chad W. Post: I want to talk more about Can Xue’s aesthetic beliefs in a bit, but for now I thought I’d start off with a few simple, scene-setting questions. First off, what made you decide to become a writer?

Can Xue:I decided to become a writer when I was thirty years old. But I think before that I had been preparing for this, actually, since I was three years old. I still remember those things which happened when I was three and four years old. At that time I always made stories up in my heart about people, about animals, about plants around me—simple stories, happy stories, exciting stories, even horrible stories. But all these stories had good ending. Sometimes these stories lasted several days, even longer. And in all these stories, I was a leading role. I loved to make up my own stories. But I didn’t get any chance to publish any thing until I was thirty, when my preparation was complete. After the situation in China changed, all the literary things happened to me naturally. I have been like an erupting volcano ever since.

Another factor made me decide to become a writer, I think, was because of the circumstances in China. I was born in fifties, that was an idealistic time—people in China were very poor then, almost no one could pursue material wealth. My parents were firm communists, their hearts were very pure. So, in my family, the only thing that children could pursue were spiritual things. I remember the most enjoyable thing in my life was reading. I read and read, never stopping until today.

CWP: I could make some pretty good guesses about this, but what authors to do see as influences on your work?

CX: In my younger years (from thirteen to twenty-five), I loved Chinese writer Lu Xun and Red Chamber, the ancient novel. And I also loved Russian writers—Gogol, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and so on. In the late seventies, I got ahold of some western classics, and I was so deeply engrossed by them! I think the authors I loved most are these: Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Kafka, Goethe, Borges, Calvino, Bruno Schulz, and Rilke’s poetry.

CWP: Over the past thirty years you’ve generated quite a number of pieces, ranging from critical essays to novels to novellas to short stories—how are you able to produce so much? Or, more to the point, what is your writing process like? (I read the interview in Asymptote, and the bit about not editing your work, and your amazing output, reminds me of Cesar Aira.)

CX: Maybe my writing process is unique. Everyday I write a page. I just get my pen and a notebook, sit down and write for an hour. Then I leave it as it is. I never have a structure in my mind beforehand, and I never revise my fictions—both short ones and long ones. This is how I write my fiction. For thirty years, I write almost every day, even during festivals. I had never been to a festival. That’s why I have produced so many works.

CWP: For a lot of readers your works can seem “challenging,” at least at first glance. Do you have advice for readers who are first approaching your work?

CX: Yes, I always give advice for readers when I publish my works. In my mind, my ideal readers are these: those who have read some works by the modernist writers, and who love metaphysical thinking and material thinking—both capabilities are needed for the reading of Can Xue.

CWP: Before getting more deeply into your aesthetic beliefs, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the literary scene in China. From an American perspective, it’s always been a bit difficult to get a handle on what’s going on in contemporary literature, although with Mo Yan being awarded the Nobel Prize, and websites like Paper-Republic starting up, that’s starting to change. Nevertheless, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered another Chinese writer writing anything like you do. What is the writing scene like in China these days? How has it changed over the past thirty years?

CX: A good question. I also think that the Chinese know much more about America and the West than you know about China. In China, in the early eighties, a group of young writers studied western literature quite deeply, and these western classics opened their field of vision. They produced quite a number of good works. Can Xue was one among them. The group are all born in fifties or sixties—a very idealistic group. That was a literary era full of hope. But since the nineties, almost everybody in this group has changed their mind. They felt that they had had enough the West, and now want to return to their own tradition, which is much greater than the Western tradition. So their works, except a very few writers, have become more and more traditional, more and more readable. People welcomed this great regression. But I think this returning is the death of a language and a soul. Because our own cultural tradition has not got enough strength to support a new writing, the only way to develop it is by blood transfusion. I think as a Chinese writer, I should criticize my culture severely, only having done so, I get the possibility to develop it.

As for my own writing, the readers in China think that I’m very difficult but unique among Chinese writers. I dare say, no fiction writers in China has studied the Western literature and Western philosophy so exhaustively like Can Xue.

CWP: Although there are a lot of pieces of yours that have yet to be translated into English, you are one of the most translated Chinese writers, with books published by Northwestern, New Directions, Yale University Press, and Open Letter. How did you first get translated, and what has this process been like for you?

CX: That’s a long story. In 1986 in Shanghai, a student gave two of Can Xue’s stories to Ron Jansson, my earliest translator. He read the stories and decided immediately to translate them into English. He did the work with a Chinese colleague, Zhang Jian, and got more stories and two novellas published—three books altogether.

In the mid 1990s, Ron Jansson got very ill, so my English versions weren’t published in the United States continuously. Then Karen Gernant found Can Xue and she got in touch with me. Karen, along with Chen Zeping, have done a lot of work—also three books, including Vertical Motion from Open Letter and Five Spice Street, a novel published by Yale Press. Also a libretto for an opera performed in Germany, and some essays. They are continuing their translating now. I think Karen is a talented translator, and she and I have a lot common topics in literature.

Recently, Yale Press has found a new translator for Can Xue—Annelise, a young woman. She’s translating my new novel—The Last Lover. I’m very happy to get these precious friends in the United States!

CWP: Do you work closely with your translators? I believe that your forthcoming Yale book is being translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, a young, extremely talented translator—how did she end up working with you?

CX: Yes, I work closely with Karen, Chen Zeping, and now, Annelise, I read their translations, and give my comments. Yes, I also think Annelise has a high talent for languages. Sometimes her English translation is better than my Chinese original!

CWP: OK, this a very long intro into a slightly different part of the conversation, so bear with me. I want to first read a bit from your afterword to Blue Light in the Sky and Other Stories:

The particular characteristics of my stories have now been acknowledged. Nevertheless, when someone asks me directly, “What is really going on in your stories? How do you write them?,” I’m profoundly afraid of being misunderstood, so all I can say is, “I don’t know.” From any earthly perspective, in truth I do not know. When I write, I intentionally erase any knowledge from my mind.
I believe in the grandness of the original power. The only thing I can do is to devoutly, bring it into play in a manmade, blind atmosphere. Thus, I can break loose from the fetters of platitudes and conventions, and allow the mighty logos to melt into the omnipresent suggestions that inspire and urge me to keep going ahead. I don’t know what I will write tomorrow, or even in the next few minutes. Nor do I know what is most related to the “inspiration” that has produced my works in an unending stream for more than two decades. But I know one thing with certainty: no matter what hardships I face, I must preserve the spiritual quality of my life. For if I were to lose it, I would lose my entire foundation. [. . .]

Some people say that my stories aren’t useful: they can’t change anything, nor do people understand them. As time goes by, I’ve become increasingly confident about this. First, the production of twenty years’ worth of stories has changed me to the core. I’ve spoken of this above. Next, from my reading experience, this kind of story, which indeed isn’t very “useful,” that not all people can read—for those few very sensitive readers, there is a decisive impact. Perhaps this wasn’t at all the writer’s original intent. I think what this kind of story must change is the soul instead of something superficial. There will always be some readers who will respond—those readers who are especially interested in the strengthening force of art and exploring the soul. With its unusual style, this kind of story will communicate with those readers, stimulating them and calling to them, spurring them on to join in the exploration of the soul.

Since writing this, has your approach, or thinking about your aesthetic changed at all?

CX: Basically, my stance, my way, and my thinking is always the same. But I’ve developed a lot since that time. My new thinking is that my experimental fictions have the same core as Western Philosophy. And in a sense, these kind of works are a new development to Classical Philosophy. Now I’m trying hard to open up a road for Western Philosophy, which has come to a standstill for many years.

CWP: In reading the recent Asymptote magazine interview a few things struck me, namely that when you talk about your aesthetic or the reasons you write the way you write, or the way that readers can only properly “understand” your stories is by struggling to understand them, your focus seems to be mostly on the process of creating and the creative process of reading. For me, this ties in with a comment you made about your fiction being “a performance.” In what way do you see your fiction as a performance? How does this relate to your view of yourself as an “experimental” writer?

CX: Yes, I think that you are absolutely right! You understand Can Xue very well. In the nineties when I studied Western literature, I found a metaphysical structure in these writers’ works: Borges, Kafka, Dante, Cervantes, Goethe, Calvino, and so on, even in the Bible. According to this structure, you can read their works as the process of creating and reading. Very few writers have this talent. Meanwhile, I found that Can Xue’s works had the same structure as these writers. And I felt that it was not painstaking, it’s an natural thing like giving birth. But why do all these first-rate writers have a same structure? After a hard and long period of studying, I have understood that the structure is just the structure of Great Nature, of course, it is also the structure of humanity. I expect that for great times to come to us, we artists should give performances, waking up people’s souls, I feel it’s a very urgent thing to do. This kind of literature actually means that one stands out, acting one’s own being. That’s why I said it was a performance.

19 July 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of Asymptote is now available, and GOD DAMN is it loaded. Just read this intro note from the editors:

Every translation is a conversation, each translator in dialogue with the original author, each language speaking to another. Asymptote’s Summer issue is full of such conversations, perhaps most notably our exclusive interview with best-selling author turned translator David Mitchell, who together with his wife, K.A. Yoshida, translated a memoir of autism by the 13-year-old Naoki Higashida. We also got to speak to Tan Twan Eng, the first Malaysian Man Asian Literary Prize-winner, and avant-gardist Can Xue, whom Susan Sontag singled out as the one Chinese writer worthy of the Nobel Prize. Ottilie Mulzet finds her conversation partners translating Hungarian masters László Krasznahorkai and Szilárd Borbély. Q&As with playwrights Maria Cassi and Chantal Bilodeau, meanwhile, shine their light on this issue’s Special Feature: Self-Translation in Drama; or, when a translator is faced with her worst enemy: herself!

Writing doesn’t always have to be straightforward or even legible, as the asemic writing of Michael Jacobson shows. 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize winner Fady Joudah’s elliptical essay on translation challenges the reader, just as Rachel Shihor’s parabolic fiction does (and you can learn more about contemporary Israeli fiction in Yardenne Greenspan’s overview). Our Fiction section has crystallized around the theme of departure; whether in László Krasznahorkai’s tantalizing short piece, Wu Ming-Yi’s tale about the cast-out second sons of Wayo Wayo Island, or Melanie Taylor Herrera’s “The Voyage,” set in 17th century Panama, all these stories address just what happens when we leave all that we have and are behind. The lyrical black-and-white photographs of Guillaume Gilbert, our guest artist, extend this theme throughout this issue, capturing frozen moments just before.

Beginning with an ekphrastic and closing with a meditation on sculpture, the poetry in this edition is profoundly concerned with the elemental: the basic structures of our physical and metaphysical worlds. Pierre Peuchmaurd’s eye observes and unflinchingly records, Kim Kyung Ju’s inner world is overwhelmed by its contact with the outside world; Ihor Pavlyuk, our first Ukrainian author, like a mussel, senses “the whisper/ Of distant tides.” The attitude is one of “feeling the whole hunger,” of attempting to express something large via the small and the sensual. Each poet is presented with an audio recording in the original language, sometimes, as with Ulrike Almut Sandig and Enrique Winter, with astonishing musical accompaniment.

Again: godDAMN.

Of most interest to me is the interview with Can Xue,= whose Vertical Motion we published a couple years back.

You’re a remarkably prolific writer, having written over a hundred short stories and dozens of novellas and critical essays. Yet only a fraction of those works have been translated into English. Are there any works of yours that have not been translated that you would like to see translated?

At present, two of my full-length novels have already been translated. And it was recently announced that the latest [translation] of my novella The Last Lover, which is currently still being edited, will be published by Yale University Press in the spring of 2014. Dozens of medium-length and shorter works have been translated into English. I estimate that some 13 million Chinese characters of my works have been translated—is that really a small amount? My output is very consistent, and that’s very difficult for a writer to do. My wildest dream is to get all of my works published in the United States.

With regard to your writing process, you’ve said in interviews that your writing comes from your subconscious, and that a good writer should not know what he or she is writing. What do you think of when you begin a story?

The subconscious by itself is actually not the deciding factor; every individual has a subconscious. The key lies in whether you can unleash it to create. Here there is a complicated mechanism, and I can only explain it from the vantage point of philosophy and art. In five or six years, I plan to write a book, Philosophy of Art. In that book, I’ll elaborate my thoughts on these issues based on my experience practicing art and the fruits of my intensive research into Western philosophy. I’ve already been writing for over thirty years, and the writing method I use is precisely the creative method of modern art: Reason monitors from afar. Emotions are completely unleashed. I turn towards the dark abyss of consciousness and plunge in, and in the tension between those two forces, I build the fantastic, idealist plots of my stories. I think that people who are able to write in the way I write must possess an immense primitive energy and a strongly logical spirit. Only in this way can they maintain total creativity amid a divided consciousness. In China, I have not seen a writer who is capable of sustaining that kind of creativity for many years.

The structure in your work can be so difficult to discern—both in terms of narrative structure and in the way the images connect to one another—that it’s hard to imagine just how you shape your stories. How do you edit a Can Xue story?

I never edit my stories. I just grab a pen and write, and every day I write a paragraph. For more than thirty years, it’s always been like this. I believe that I am surrounded by a powerful “aura,” and that’s the secret of my success. Successful artists are all able to manipulate the “balance of forces“—they’re that kind of extraordinarily talented people.

In addition to the piece by László Krasznahorkai,= the other piece that got me excited is this interview= with David Mitchell

In a way, [Mitchell’s] last two books beautifully set the stage for The Reason I Jump, a memoir by then 13-year-old Naoki Higashida and now translated from the Japanese by Mitchell and his wife, K.A. Yoshida. This is their first translation. As a portrait of a boy whose ‘disability’ inhibits his communication with the outside world, this slim work is unparalleled, and though its aims may be humble and small in scale (to help explain the reasons why Higashida, and by extension other, similarly autistic people, do the things they do), the revelation of a previously illegible mind suddenly legible on the page is not.

Like Reif Larsen, you’ve already had to answer many questions posed by translators about your work, but did you yourself have any experience as a translator before this book? And what do you now think of translation as a creative activity?

This is my debut as a translator. The exercise has confirmed my long-held suspicion that my translators are three times cleverer than me, with a better command of English as well as the ‘into-language,’ plus a knowledge of the mysterious art and science that is translation itself. As a writer I can be bad, but I can’t be wrong. A translator can be good, but can never be right. Translators are jugglers, diplomats, nuance-ticklers, magistrates, word-nerds, self-testing lie detectors, and poets. Translators rock.

Someone once said that all writing is translating—if only translating the language of thought onto paper. Similarly, fiction, in some ways, is about bringing characters to life through ventriloquism; do you find it productive to also see translation as an act of ventriloquism, and in this case a double act of ventriloquism (both of culture and of an outsider’s psychological space)?

The theory of translation is fertile and deep, but I’m too much of a beginner to go weighing in here, especially considering that Asymptote’s readership must include some of the best translators on Earth. All I tried to do was render The Reason I Jump into a book that Naoki would have written had he been born in the UK and not Japan. That intention was my guiding principle and my Sir Alan Sugar who dealt with my hesitancies and second-guessings and prevarications accordingly: You, my friend, are fired.

9 October 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Amid all the ALTA excitement (I’ll post some sort of roundup later today—I’m still recovering), this post about what John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats went up on Fader, and contains a ton of really great statements about Open Letter and international lit in general:

Before that, I read Can Xue’s Vertical Motion from Open Letter Books—they’re a translation house in Rochester. Over half of what I read is literature in translation; it’s a real passion for me. The Can Xue book is incredible—short stories that I’d call “surrealist,” but it’s a kind of clear-eyed surrealism, as if dreams had invaded the physical world. The stories slip from simple descriptions or accounts of life into strange scenes of unreality that nobody in the stories is really surprised by. Except for the title story, which is a beautiful narrative about creatures who live under the earth and find the surface. [. . .]

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Merce Rodoreda, who I got turned onto by Open Letter a few years ago when they published Death in Spring. It was amazing, so I read the collected short stories, which were good but not as good; and then I read A Broken Mirror, which is just a shatteringly great book about the brief rise and slow decay of a family. One of the best books I’ve ever read. It is a total mystery to me why she isn’t widely worshipped; along with Willa Cather, she’s on my list of authors whose works I intend to have read all of before I die. Tremendous, tremendous writer.

I second ALL OF THIS. Especially the bit about A Broken Mirror—that book is the one that turned me onto Rodoreda and led to our publishing Death in Spring and the stories.

It’s pretty awesome to see someone of John Darnielle’s stature praise us, and although it doesn’t mean nearly as much, I HIGHLY recommend the new Mountain Goats album, Transcendental Youth. Maybe we’ll use a clip from this on the next podcast . . .

5 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is Lily Ye’s review of Vertical Motion, this week’s Read This Next title. Vertical Motion is coming out next month from Open Letter, and is translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping.

For an “experimental” Chinese writer, Can Xue has received a good deal of attention in the U.S. She’s had books published by New Directions, Northwestern, Yale University Press, and Henry Holt. Additionally, her stories appear in Conjunctions on a regular basis.

Here’s the opening of Lily’s enthusiastic review of her latest collection:

The word that continues to come to mind as I read Can Xue’s short stories in Vertical Motion is uncanny. Her stories summon the feeling of the familiar as unfamiliar, of the known as unknown. The uncanny, Freud’s unheimlisch, is often described as having to do with a return, a repetition of the known which reveals an unknown element. Oftentimes, uncanny objects are those which return from childhood, and indeed in Xue’s stories we find familiar elements from childhood stories, such as intelligent cats, children exploring a secret garden, and a couple with a mysterious plant, as in Rapunzel. But Xue does not tell bedtime stories—the reader is never allowed to get settle in and get comfortable.

Xue’s style has a counterintuitive effect: it creates unease by being simple and straightforward. In Alain Robbe-Grillet’s writings, his technique of exhaustive description is applied with the intended end of eliminating all external significations for the objects in his work, to create a system of internal signification in which narrative is formed through the transformations and mutations of these objects. But Xue accomplishes this, very successfully, through a completely opposite tactic, by offering just enough information to allow the reader’s imagination to start working, but never enough to complete the picture we so desire. We become trapped in a world of her making because we are determined to understand it, because we feel as if we should understand it.

Click here to read the entire review. And click here to read three of the stories.

5 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The word that continues to come to mind as I read Can Xue’s short stories in Vertical Motion is uncanny. Her stories summon the feeling of the familiar as unfamiliar, of the known as unknown. The uncanny, Freud’s unheimlisch, is often described as having to do with a return, a repetition of the known which reveals an unknown element. Oftentimes, uncanny objects are those which return from childhood, and indeed in Xue’s stories we find familiar elements from childhood stories, such as intelligent cats, children exploring a secret garden, and a couple with a mysterious plant, as in Rapunzel. But Xue does not tell bedtime stories—the reader is never allowed to get settle in and get comfortable.

Xue’s style has a counterintuitive effect: it creates unease by being simple and straightforward. In Alain Robbe-Grillet’s writings, his technique of exhaustive description is applied with the intended end of eliminating all external significations for the objects in his work, to create a system of internal signification in which narrative is formed through the transformations and mutations of these objects. But Xue accomplishes this, very successfully, through a completely opposite tactic, by offering just enough information to allow the reader’s imagination to start working, but never enough to complete the picture we so desire. We become trapped in a world of her making because we are determined to understand it, because we feel as if we should understand it.

In her story “A Village in the Big City,” the protagonist is visiting an old neighbor, Uncle Lou. During his visit, he finds that Uncle Lou’s floor (the 24th) has suspended itself in midair while Uncle Lou’s cousin who is “so ugly that he can’t associate with others” waits outside the apartment:

The person was on the stairs, which is to say he was in midair. Judging by his voice, he must be hanging in midair. I couldn’t bear to shout again, because I was afraid he would fall. Maybe the one facing danger wasn’t he, but I. Was he saying that I was in danger? I didn’t dare shout again. This was Uncle Lou’s home. Eventually he would have to return. Perhaps he had simply gone downstairs to buy groceries. It was a nice day. The sun was out, so it was a little hot in the room. So what? I shouldn’t start making a fuss because of this. When I recalled that someone outside was hanging in midair, I started sweating even more profusely. My clothes stuck to my body; this was hard to endure.

As can be seen here, Xue’s protagonists, who are often the narrator as well, are oftentimes just as perplexed as her readers may be, only heightening the sensation of unease. Even the narrator is unsure what is happening around them, though this is the very world that they inhabit, and there is a feeling that there is something they should know about this world that everyone around them takes for granted (Uncle Lou is not at all disturbed by the floating building) but they are unable to come to grips with. Another example, from “The Brilliant Purple China Rose,” in a fairly conventional seeming set-up, a couple, Jin and Mei, live next door to Ayi, a busybody neighbor:

When Mei turned around to close the door, what she saw in the room startled her: a rat was sneaking back and forth under the tablecloth on the dining table. There had seldom been rats in their home. Was it really a rat? [. . .] Shaken, Meid stood in the room and said, “Rat.”

Jin’s gaze left his book and he glanced at her. Then he returned to the book and said:

“The rat is Ayi. You needn’t worry too much.”

Jin is completely unperturbed. No explanation is given for how or why Ayi has turned into a rat, and the reverse transformation back from being a rat is never addressed in the slightest. I wavered reading this story, wondering if I had missed something obvious: Was this metaphorical or literal? And most of all, how does Jin know, why doesn’t he care, and why does Mei simply accept this explanation?

This is Xue’s incredible success in obstructing external signification through the transformation of familiar elements into unfamiliar. We have seen humans turn into animals, but not like this—we cannot successfully connect her fiction to known narratives. Xue destabilizes the very idea of familiarity, upends what the reader believes is knowable, by stripping away the expository that we have come to expect. The reader becomes like one of the “little critters” in the titular story “Vertical Motion.” These creatures can neither see nor smell and can feel only through their skin. Twisting and turning, they dig through the earth, remaining always underground. Gravity lets them know which way is up, but they never know how close or far they are from the surface.

5 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As part of this week’s Read This Next activities, we just published an interview with Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping about their translation of Can Xue’s Vertical Motion.

Here’s an excerpt:

Read This Next: You’ve been working with Can Xue for a while now. How did you first discover her work?

Chen Zeping: We had read some of her short stories along with some by other avant-garde writers. After translating one story for Manoa and one for Conjunctions, we continued translating stories by Can Xue whenever either she or editors invited us to do so.

Karen Gernant: Another translator, Herbert Batt, was serving as guest editor for an issue of Manoa that was published in 2003. He asked us if we would like to translate some stories by the avant-garde writer Can Xue. We translated five, of which Manoa’s editor Frank Stewart selected one. Can Xue evidently liked our work, for when Conjunctions editors Brad Morrow and Martine Bellen solicited a story from her for an issue that also appeared in 2003, she turned to us to translate the story.

RTN: Can Xue’s writing is simultaneously straightforward—it’s not complicated to read from sentence to sentence—and complex—the straightforwardness masks a great deal of narrative depth. As translators, does this style pose any special challenges?

CZP: I understand that the translators’ job is to transfer the works into another language in such a way as to convey the original. We avoid adding any interpretation if we do not have to. In most cases, CX’s stories have their own surface logic so that sentences are also logically connected.

KG: As Chen Zeping suggests, we translate what we see on the page, allowing readers to interpret these words as they choose. We think that readers must enter into Can Xue’s stories in order to understand them. But we do not think it’s our job as translators to lead readers toward that understanding.

Click here to read the whole interview.

2 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is Vertical Motion, a new collection of stories by Can Xue, which is translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping and coming out from Open Letter in mid-September.

Super-intern Lily Ye explains why we selected this book for RTN:

This week we’ve chosen Can Xue’s Vertical Motion, a collection of truly fantastic short stories. We chose this book for many reasons. To start off, we haven’t been featuring any Asian writers so far, and since we say we’re committed to promoting literature the world over, we’d like to start correcting this oversight. Read This Next followers can also look forward to an advanced preview of a collection of short stories by celebrated Taiwanese author Huang Fan coming this September.

Can Xue (actually a pseudonym meaning “dirty snow, leftover snow” for Deng Xiaohua) has received praise from Robert Coover and Susan Sontag, has been likened to Kafka multiple times, and has been hailed as an innovative writer to be admired not just within the bounds of Chinese literature, but in world literature. Growing up in the Cultural Revolution during which her parents were sent to the countryside, Xue only received a formal education up through elementary school. She learned English on her own and has written books on Dante, Borges and Shakespeare.

Translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping in collaboration, Vertical Motion features stories that do not complicate their language, but draw complicated worlds nonetheless. Readers will be dropped into settings and times which seem almost familiar, almost recognizable. Plants that grow underground, blind beaked underground creatures, cotton candy that can be summoned from thin air—all of Xue’s stories challenge what you think you know, what you think you should know, and what you think you can know. Read the title story and two more in the advanced preview to start exploring.

Click here to read “Vertical Motion,” “Red Leaves,” and “Elena.” And check back later in the week for an interview with the translators and a full review of the collection.

21 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

OK, so I didn’t get to writing up all the things I wanted to this week, but before taking off for Amsterdam and the Non-Fiction Conference (see next post), I thought I’d share our Summer 2011 catalog.

With a little luck, I’ll highlight each of these next week, with excerpts and the like, but for now, here’s a list of all five titles along with links to their Open Letter pages, where you can find cover images, jacket copy, links to excerpts, author bios, etc., etc.

  • Quim Monzo’s Guadalajara, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush

Excellent collection of Monzo’s stories, and the second book of his that we’re publishing. Next up: 1000 Morons.

  • Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Carson, with an introduction by Enrique Vila-Matas

This is the first of three Chejfec titles we’re publishing, the other two being The Dark and The Planets. First came across Chejfec in a post by Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading linking to a recommendation at Hermano Cerdo written by Enrique Vila-Matas about how totally awesome this book is. (Or some similar Spanish phrasing.) We then went on to buy the rights to all three books thanks to a brilliant excerpt that was in BOMB magazine.

  • Ludvik Vaculik’s The Guinea Pigs, translated from the Czech by Kača Poláčková

This is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. And the second Open Letter book in which guinea pigs are subjected to uncool things. I get the strangest reaction from friends when I try and describe just how funny the narrator’s guinea pig “experiments” are. Like the one with the record player. Or the stove. Or the bathtub. . . . Um, yeah. But seriously, it’s hysterical—mainly because of the voice of the befuddled, clueless narrator. And we have some awesome promotions in mind for this . . . none of which involve the harming of physical, living guinea pigs. Promise.

This new collection by Can Xue (who has also been published by New Directions, Northwestern, Yale, and Conjunctions) is the first Chinese title to come out from Open Letter. She’s a very interesting, unique writer who reminds me a bit of Rikki Ducornet. The stories are a bit surreal, surprising, and, at time, disorienting in a very pleasurable way.

We published Winterbach’s To Hell with Cronje last fall to some good attention. She’s a stark, interesting South African writer, and in the end, I think Book of Happenstance is an even better book than Cronje . . .

More all next week . . .

11 March 09 | Chad W. Post |

Recently, I happened to be on the same flight as super-translator Michael Henry Heim (who literally speaks more than a dozen languages). We got to talking about books (naturally) and about what we were currently reading, and as it turns out, we had both brought along Can Xue titles for our trip. He was reading Blue Light in the Sky & Other Stories (from New Directions) and I was reading Five Spice Street (just out from Yale University Press).

What Michael noticed when I gave him my copy of the book and press release (the reason I’m mentioning him at all in this review), is that the quote on the press release was an unedited version of the opening paragraph of the novel.

Since there are very few reviews that focus on the translation (other than to say it was “smooth” or “occasionally clunky”), I thought I’d take a moment to point out the great editing job Yale did on this opening paragraph and what a difference this can make.

So, from the unedited version on the press release:

When it comes to Madam X’s age, here on Five Spice Street opinions differ: there’s no way to decide who’s right. There must be at least twenty-eight points of view, because at the oldest, she’s about fifty (for now, let’s fix it at fifty); at the youngest, she’s twenty-two.

There are a few instances in this paragraph in which the reader is forced to reorder the sentence in order to understand it. Like with the placement of “opinions differ” in the first sentence, and “because at the oldest” (what’s the oldest? the points of view?) in the second. Fixing these sorts of knotty sentences is what one does when editing a translation—even if you don’t know the source language.

Here’s the first paragraph as it appears in the finished book:

When it comes to Madam X’s age, opinions differ here on Five Spice Street. One person’s guess is as good as another’s. There are at least twenty-eight points of view. At one extreme, she’s about fifty (for now, let’s fix it at fifty); at the other, she’s twenty-two.

For a book like this—essentially a surrealistic romp that obeys its own internal logic—it’s important that the writing is clear and direct. In short, the “plot” of Five Spice Street is that Madame X and Mr. Q have had an affair, and everyone on Five Spice Street has their own opinions about it. About how old Madame X, about whether Mr. Q is attractive, about whether Madame X is conducting strange rituals in her bedroom at night, about how the affair started, etc. It’s a novel of voices that constantly contradict one another and that—instead of advancing a linear plot—sort of over-stuff the book with details and speculations and unrelated anecdotes.

This is a very chaotic novel, which isn’t to say that it’s not interesting. Can Xue has a way with images, and the occasionally dashes of humor are great. Five Spice Street is a truly unique novel—in the style in which it’s written and in its overall aesthetic.

It’s also a novel that’s best approached in small doses. Taken as a series of individual scenes, or mini-tales, it’s a pretty compelling read. But with the constant shifting of events, of details, of every possible “fact” presented in the novel (everything seems possible, nothing seems true) creates a sense of constant flux that may or may not really add up to anything in the end.

Blue Light in the Sky & Other Stories contains an afterword in which Can Xue explains—kind of—what she’s up to in her writing. And although this was specifically written for Blue Light, I think it applies rather nicely to Five Spice Street as well:

The particular characterists of my stories have now been acknowledged. Nevertheless, when someone asks me directly, “What is really going on in your stories? How do you write them?,” I’m profoundly afraid of being misunderstood, so all I can say is, “I don’t know.” From any earthly perspective, in truth I do not know. When I write, I intentionally erase any knowledge from my mind.

I believe in the grandness of the original power. The only thing I can do is to devoutly, bring it into play in a manmade, blind atmosphere. Thus, I can break loose from the fetters of platitudes and conventionas, and allow the mighty logos to melt into the omnipresent suggestions that inspire and urge me to keep going ahead. I don’t know what I will write tomorrow, or even in the next few minutes. Nor do I know what is most related to the “inspiration” that has produced my works in an unending stream for more than two decades. But I know one thing with certainty: no matter what hardships I face, I must preserve the spiritual quality of my life. For if I were to lose it, I would lose my entire foundation. [. . .]

Some people say that my stories aren’t useful: they can’t change anything, nor do people understand them. As time goes by, I’ve become increasingly confident about this. First, the production of twenty years’ worth of stories has changed me to the core. I’ve spoken of this above. Next, from my reading experience, this kind of story, which indeed isn’t very “useful,” that not all people can read—for those few very sensitive readers, there is a decisive impact. Perhaps this wasn’t at all the writer’s original intent. I think what this kind of story must change is the soul instead of something superficial. There will always be some readers who will respond—those readers who are especially interested in the strengthening force of art and exploring the soul. With its unusual style, this kind of story will communicate with those readers, stimulating them and calling to them, spurring them on to join in the exploration of the soul.

Kudos to Yale University Press for launching the Margellos World Republic of Letters Series and for including in it such a wonderfully strange, unconventional novel. This bodes really well for the series as a whole.

Order from Harvard Book Store.

11 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Can Xue’s Five Spice Street (click here to order from Harvard Book Store; click here for the review), which was recently released by Yale University Press as part of the Margellos World Republic of Letters Series.

Before getting into the review itself, I want to mention that Can Xue and Isabel Allende are appearing together at the 92nd St. Y on April 13th at 9:00pm. And that this might be the most unlikely pairing of authors I’ve ever seen. (If you read my review, you’ll probably know what I mean.)

Here’s the opening to the review:

Recently, I happened to be on the same flight as super-translator Michael Henry Heim (who literally speaks more than a dozen languages). We got to talking about books (naturally) and about what we were currently reading, and as it turns out, we had both brought along Can Xue titles for our trip. He was reading Blue Light in the Sky & Other Stories (from New Directions) and I was reading Five Spice Street (just out from Yale University Press).

What Michael noticed when I gave him my copy of the book and press release (the reason I’m mentioning him at all in this review), is that the quote on the press release was an unedited version of the opening paragraph of the novel.

Since there are very few reviews that focus on the translation (other than to say it was “smooth” or “occasionally clunky”), I thought I’d take a moment to point out the great editing job Yale did on this opening paragraph and what a difference this can make.

So, from the unedited version on the press release:

“When it comes to Madam X’s age, here on Five Spice Street opinions differ: there’s no way to decide who’s right. There must be at least twenty-eight points of view, because at the oldest, she’s about fifty (for now, let’s fix it at fifty); at the youngest, she’s twenty-two.”

(For the rest—including the edited version of that paragraph—click here.)

2 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

It’s no surprise that more and more Chinese literature is making its way into English (there were 11 original works of fiction and poetry that came out in the U.S. in 2008, and through the first half of 2009, I’ve already identified 9), but this spring has a number of titles that look really fantastic, and that we hope to review in full in the not too distant future.

I started reading Five Spice Street by Can Xue on my trip to New York, and am amazed at how bizarre it is. On the surface things seem somewhat normal . . . well, maybe. Any book with a half-dozen containing a half-dozen page argument (one that involves 28 people) about a character’s age is pretty cool. Can Xue’s been published by Northwestern and New Directions in the past, and as one of the first books in Yale’s Margellos World Republic of Letters series it should get some pretty decent attention.

While in NY, I also picked up a copy of Yu Hua’s Brothers an enormous novel that was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Asian Prize. Yu Hua was profiled in the Times Magazine, and I’m sure this is just the start of the review coverage. (The crap line “The novel, which will be published in an English translation later this month, may also prove to be China’s first successful export of literary fiction” will inevitably catch the eye of a lot of reviewers . . . That, and the size of this book—it’ll break your wrist!—and the fact that Random House is bringing it out.) Here’s the rest of the Times Magazine description:

Certainly, foreign readers will find in its sprawling, rambunctious narrative some of China’s most frenetic transformations and garish contradictions. “Brothers” strikes its characteristic tone with the very first scene, as Li Guang, a business tycoon, sits on his gold-plated toilet, dreaming of space travel even as he mourns the loss of all earthly relations. Li made his money from various entrepreneurial ventures, including hosting a beauty pageant for virgins and selling scrap metal and knockoff designer suits. A quick flashback to his small-town childhood shows him ogling the bottoms of women defecating in a public toilet. Similarly grotesque images proliferate over the next 600 pages as Yu describes, first, the extended trauma of the Cultural Revolution, during which Li and his stepbrother Song Gang witness Red Guards torturing Song Gang’s father to death, and then the moral wasteland of capitalist China, in which Song Gang is forced to surgically enlarge one of his breasts in order to sell breast-enlargement gels.

Following up on the post last week about Columbia University Press, this May they’re bringing out the fantastically titled There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think of You Late at Night by Naiqian Cao. I’ll read any Asian titles Columbia brings out, but this sounds particularly interesting:

In this genre-defying book, the author’s affection for vivid personalities and unflinching realism comes through in a stark portrait of adultery, bestiality, incest, and vice in rural China. Set near the border of Inner Mongolia, among a cluster of cave dwellings in Shanxi province, these intense vignettes describe the base desires and dark longings of a life lived in virtual isolation.

Finally, coming out from Penguin in April is English by Wang Gang, which, according to the Penguin site, is about a twelve-year-old boy learning English in the stifling atmosphere of Xinjiang in China’s remote northwest during the time of the Cultural Revolution. Editor John Siciliano highly recommended this to me, and I’m planning on reviewing it once we receive a galley . . .

(Paper Republic. is by far the best place online to get information about Chinese literature both translated and untranslated. Definitely worth checking out.)

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