17 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Eells on Dany LaFerrière’s I Am a Japanese Writer, which is translated from the French by David Hormel and available from Douglas & MacIntyre.

Will—who got a certificate in literary translation from the U of R and focuses on Japanese lit—is one of our contributing reviewers. You can read all of his pieces by clicking here.

Dany LaFerrière is an author I’ve been interested in checking out for a while, in part because his book titles are so strange and provocative. (The last novel of his to be translated was How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired.) May be way off base here, but based on the descriptions, his work brings to mind the novels of Percival Everett. All the novels sound fun, playful, interested in identity and race and nationality, etc.

Anyway, for more info on LaFerrière, be sure to check out this interview that just went up at Words Without Borders. And here’s the opening of Will’s review:

As we progress further into the 21st century, it is almost baffling that human beings still put so much stock into race and/or nationality. Because it is getting confusing.

Perhaps 200 years ago, when the only human beings you had a chance of producing offspring with lived in a fifty-mile radius, it made sense to identify with people of a certain place or look. I am from here, these are my people; those are the others. But these days, trying to identify in such terms often leads only to bewilderment and oversimplifications. I had this one friend in high school. He was half-Thai and half-Bulgarian, but he was born in Japan and grew up there until he went to high school and college in America. What does he consider himself? What do others consider him? How does he see himself? Where is he from? Does it even matter to him? When the answers are this complicated, do the questions themselves mean anything anymore?

These are some of the issues that Dany LaFerrière addresses in I Am a Japanese Writer, his latest novel to be translated into English. I Am a Japanese Writer is about a black writer in Montreal who sells his latest book to his publisher based on the title alone—I Am a Japanese Writer. So does it mean anything to the reader to know that Dany LaFerrière is, in fact, a black writer living in Montreal who has written a book called I Am a Japanese Writer?

What we have here is not a memoir, of course, but a meta-fictional vehicle in which to explore issues of racial and national identity.

Click here to check out the whole thing.

17 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As we progress further into the 21st century, it is almost baffling that human beings still put so much stock into race and/or nationality. Because it is getting confusing.

Perhaps 200 years ago, when the only human beings you had a chance of producing offspring with lived in a fifty-mile radius, it made sense to identify with people of a certain place or look. I am from here, these are my people; those are the others. But these days, trying to identify in such terms often leads only to bewilderment and oversimplifications. I had this one friend in high school. He was half-Thai and half-Bulgarian, but he was born in Japan and grew up there until he went to high school and college in America. What does he consider himself? What do others consider him? How does he see himself? Where is he from? Does it even matter to him? When the answers are this complicated, do the questions themselves mean anything anymore?

These are some of the issues that Dany LaFerrière addresses in I Am a Japanese Writer, his latest novel to be translated into English. I Am a Japanese Writer is about a black writer in Montreal who sells his latest book to his publisher based on the title alone—I Am a Japanese Writer. So does it mean anything to the reader to know that Dany LaFerrière is, in fact, a black writer living in Montreal who has written a book called I Am a Japanese Writer?

What we have here is not a memoir, of course, but a meta-fictional vehicle in which to explore issues of racial and national identity. The novel begins with the unnamed narrator getting a call from his publisher looking for the next book in the narrator’s contract. The narrator has no such next book, and looking at all the junk littering his editor’s desk, he pulls a title out of his head: I Am a Japanese Writer. His publisher loves it, but to the narrator it’s nothing special at all, telling the reader: “It was pretty banal, actually—except for the word ‘Japanese.’ And that was no joke: I really do consider myself a Japanese writer.” He starts telling people randomly on the street about how he is a Japanese writer:

On my way out, just to gauge his reaction, I tell him, “I am a Japanese writer.”

His eyes cut back to me.

“How’s that? You changed nationality?”

“No. That’s the title of my new book.”

A worried glance at his assistant, a young man busy wrapping fish. My fishman never looks at the person he’s speaking to.

“Do you have the right?”

“To write the book?”

“No. To say you’re Japanese.”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you going to change your nationality?”

“No way . . . I already did that once, that’s enough.”

“We should find out about that.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know, at the Japanese embassy . . . Can you imagine me waking up one morning and telling my customers I’m a Polish butcher?”

“I’d think you’d be a Polish fishman, since you’re in fish.”

“Anything but a Polish fishman,” he answers, turning back to the next customer.

The rest of the novel follows the narrator doing everything except writing the book. He constantly is reading the Japanese poet Basho or evading his landlord. He befriends a Japanese musician named Midori and her entourage, even getting mixed up in one of their suicides. But even so, word spreads of his latest book until it causes an uproar in Japan. Members of the Japanese embassy start visiting him to help him go to Japan, learn about it, so as to better write his book, but as the fervor for his book grows more and more intense, the narrator becomes increasingly desperate to escape the attention.

I Am a Japanese Writer is written almost like a noir—the tone is dark, and the plot almost Kafkaesque in its gritty lunacy. David Homel deserves credit for his excellent translation in keeping the tone of the work consistent and for rendering various cultural nuances and artifacts clear and recognizable in American English. But the novel is at the same time incredibly fun to read, with an absurdism that makes the novel both incredibly funny and at the same time nightmarish. What else is there to do but utter a bewildered laugh when a character named Haruki Murakami, the same name as the most popular and famous Japanese writer in recent memory, is a black, gay New Yorker?

It is a recurring element throughout the novel: nearly every Japanese person in the book, regardless of who they are or what they do, is named after a famous Japanese writer or cultural figure. In fact, all cultures and peoples in the novel are portrayed using the most obvious clichés and stereotypes. For as the narrator himself tells us, “the problem with being a foreigner is that you’re not allowed to play anything but folklore.”

By using these deliberately clichéd elements, I Am a Japanese Writer offers an amusing and very readable analysis on the flimsiness of racial identity, and illustrates the power literature has to transcend ideas of race. The ideas would work well without them, but the meta-fictional games LaFerrière uses bring a whole new depth and clarity to his arguments. As the narrator describes reading Mishima as a teenager:

I dove into the universe set before me the way I dove into the little river not far from my house. I hardly even noticed his name, and it wasn’t until long afterward that I realized he was Japanese. At the time, I firmly believed that writers formed a lost tribe and spent their lives wandering the world and telling stories in all languages. That was their sentence for some unnamable crime . . .

I don’t understand all the attention paid to a writer’s origins. Because, for me, Mishima was my neighbor. Very naturally, I repatriated the writers I read at the time. All of them. Flaubert, Goethe, Whitman, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Cervantes, Kipling, Senghor, Cesaire, Roumain, Amado, Diderot—they all lived in my village. Otherwise, what were they doing in my room? Years later, when I became a writer and people asked me, “are you a Haitian writer, a Caribbean writer or a French-language writer? I answered without hesitation: I take on my reader’s nationality. Which means that when a Japanese person reads me, I immediately become a Japanese writer.

23 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece that I wrote on Jacques Poulin’s Translation Is a Love Affair, which was recently published by Archipelago Books. (A Three Percent favorite.)

I wasn’t overwhelmed by the novel itself, but translator Sheila Fischman deserves a ton of credit for all she’s done:

One of the most interesting facets of Translation Is a Love Affair is the brief bio on Sheila Fischman:

Sheila Fischman has published more than 125 translations of contemporary French-Canadian novels including works by Jacques Poulin, Francois Gravel, Anne Hebert, Marie-Claire Blais, Michel Tremblay, and Gaetan Soucy. In 2002, Fischman was named to the Order of Canada in recognition of the quality of her translations and unparalleled contribution to Canadian culture.

One hundred and twenty-five translations!?!? I knew she was an important Canadian translator, but this is Herculean. And tying this into our Making the Translator Visible series, not only is Fischman relatively invisible, but outside of Canada, Quebecois literature tends to be pretty invisible as well. I’ll go out on a limb here and state that very few people reading this have read works by more that two of the authors named in her bio.

Which is unfortunate for all sorts of reasons—like the fact that Quebec borders the U.S. and has a rich cultural history and yet is essentially ignored by U.S. publishers—but not really the point of this review.

What’s is the point of this review is the role that translation plays in this not entirely successful novel. In terms of the plot itself, translation is key: this novel is narrated by Marine, a young female translator who is close friends with Monsieur Waterman, a famous author whose work she translates. Although the title might suggest some sort of coupling between them, this isn’t really that sort of book. Instead, the two get involved in a quasi-mystery involving a young girl, a older woman, and a stray black cat with an S.O.S. message affixed to his collar.

Click here to read the full review.

23 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

One of the most interesting facets of Translation Is a Love Affair is the brief bio on Sheila Fischman:

Sheila Fischman has published more than 125 translations of contemporary French-Canadian novels including works by Jacques Poulin, Francois Gravel, Anne Hebert, Marie-Claire Blais, Michel Tremblay, and Gaetan Soucy. In 2002, Fischman was named to the Order of Canada in recognition of the quality of her translations and unparalleled contribution to Canadian culture.

One hundred and twenty-five translations!?!? I knew she was an important Canadian translator, but this is Herculean. And tying this into our Making the Translator Visible series, not only is Fischman relatively invisible, but outside of Canada, Quebecois literature tends to be pretty invisible as well. I’ll go out on a limb here and state that very few people reading this have read works by more that two of the authors named in her bio.

Which is unfortunate for all sorts of reasons—like the fact that Quebec borders the U.S. and has a rich cultural history and yet is essentially ignored by U.S. publishers—but that’s not really the point of this review.

What is the point of this review is the role that translation plays in this not entirely successful novel. In terms of the plot itself, translation is key: this novel is narrated by Marine, a young female translator who is close friends with Monsieur Waterman, a famous author whose work she translates. Although the title might suggest some sort of coupling between them, this isn’t really that sort of book. Instead, the two get involved in a quasi-mystery involving a young girl, a older woman, and a stray black cat with an S.O.S. message affixed to his collar.

The plot is slight, the pacing uneven, and the narrators voice a bit cloying, but nevertheless, there are some interesting facets to this book, if not necessarily for literary value, but to bring up translation craft related questions. For instance, there’s this bit from a conversation between Marine and her young neighbor:

“Why do you pull out the weeds?”

“Because the water is sticky, poisseuse.

“Does that mean there’s too many fish, poissons?”

I gave her a sidelong glance to see if she was joking, but she wasn’t.

Poisseuse means that the water is a little sticky. I could have said collante. Do you see what I mean?’

Well, maybe. How to translate wordplay like this is an eternal ALTA panel, and in this case, the only way to retain any of the verbal confusion is to keep the French for “sticky” and “fish” in French. The explanation—simply providing a French synonym for “sticky”—falls a bit flat, and is indicative of this novel as a whole.

But for people interested in translation, this book does have its minor joys. There’s a bit in which Marine (who is described obliquely, but in a very sensual, male-fantasy of the hot young female translator sort of way that’s both awesome and a bit creepy) puts on her favorite T-shirt

the one with this declaration by Armand Gatti printed on it in red: “Mastering words is subversive and insolent.”

And more to the translation point, there’s a scene about a translation of an Anne Hebert poem:

Monsieur Waterman asked if I had paid attention to the end of the poem: I read it aloud:

D’ou vient donc que cet oiseau fremit
Et tourne vers le matin
Ses prunelles crevees?

“Now, look at the translation,” he said.

F.R. Scott had translated the last line as Its perforated eyes. The translation was faithful and I thought it was appropriate. He had written a second version that was more or less identical. And then a third, very surprising, which ended with the words blinded eyes. The bird, symbol of the heart, no longer had punctured or gouged or perforated eyes: it was quite simply blind. And even if we agree that the meaning of blinded is weaker than that of blind, we might think that the bird was only blinded in a temporary way . . .

It seemed to me that the translator had softened considerably the image that Anne Hebert had used. I was rather shocked.

“He corrected the author,” I said.

“You might say that. But look a little farther . . .”

Reading on, I soon found the explanation: in the tradition of falconry, the hunter does not put out the falcon’s eyes, but merely drops a hood over its head until the moment when he let it fly away to catch its prey. Could he have thought that Anne Hebert didn’t know that detail . . .

And then, we go back into the old man-young woman dynamic when Waterman explains his hypothesis on what F.R. Scott was trying to do:

“In addition to being a poet, Frank Scott was a professor of law. And he was a good fifteen years older than she was. So I imagine him, an old gent with a white beard, taking the beautiful Anne Hebert by the hand and explaining to her that love isn’t dangerous, that she has no reason to be afraid, that her heart is free and unfettered.”

The focus on language, on words and sounds, that runs throughout the book is palpable, but doesn’t really seem to build to much. And occasionally dips down into the patently obvious. Like then ending to this emotionally poignant scene in which Marine relates a moment from her childhood in which her uncle from Connecticut tries to molest her:

The next morning the uncle and his wife left for Connecticut. The name of that state always reminds me of the clattering of a pair of scissors. Because of the last syllable.

I really wanted to be charmed by this novel, but instead it fell far short. The female voice isn’t all that believable (except in a half-fetishized sort of way) and the overall creation isn’t that compelling as a plotted story or as an atmospheric piece. It definitely has its moments, and it’s a very quick, very smooth read . . .

So I’ll end where I began, and restate how important Sheila Fischman has been to the promotion of Quebec literature.

24 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Hans Eichner’s first novel (and last—he passed away earlier this year), originally published in 2000 in Austria, was released in English last month, directly after the eminent German scholar’s death. Kahn & Engelmann opens with a joke: a traveling joke and a Jewish joke.

In the summer of 1938, a Jewish refugee is going for a walk on Carmel Beach . . . Twenty metres out from shore, a man is fighting against the waves and yelling for help in Hebrew. The refugee stops to listen, takes his jacket off, folds it neatly (one should never act too hastily); and while taking off his tie and shoes as well, before jumping into the sea to help the yelling man, he exclaims indignantly: “What a fool! Hebrew he has learned. Swimming he should have learned!”

Though jokes are used throughout the novel, the placement of this particular joke emphasizes the centrality of travel (often forced travel) to the Jewish identity—a theme expanded throughout the novel, in the story of Peter Engelmann’s own life (he lives, at various times, in Vienna, Hungary, Belgium, England, Australia, Canada, and Israel) and that of the Austro-Hungarian Jews from whom he is descended. The question Peter poses at the beginning of the novel of “How did I get here?” is especially relevant to anyone of Jewish heritage and leads Peter to trace the experiences, and travels, of the Austro-Hungarian Jews through the last hundred years.

In the course of the novel, he tells three basic stories: the first is of his own life and recent experiences living in Haifa, Israel in the late-twentieth century; another starts in 1880 and tells his family story starting with his great-grandmother Sidonie; and the third tells the broader history of Austro-Hungarian Jews.

The novel primarily follows Peter’s family as his great-grandparents Sidonie and Josef Kahn move from rural Hungary to Vienna in order to improve their children’s opportunities, but also includes the stories of the Kahn children and grandchildren, their business enterprises and their interactions with one another. One of the central storylines is the series of battles (which end tragically) between Jëno Kahn and Peter’s father, Sándor Engelmann, over their clothing firm Kahn & Engelmann (for which the novel is named).

Peter’s narrative jumps around in time, allowing him to tell whatever story he feels is necessary to explain something, or to move on when he simply gets bored with the current topic. While this stream of consciousness style is very authentic, it makes the reading experience choppy and confusing at times, especially with so many characters, years, and plotlines in the novel.

This novel struggles to be both an accurate, historical account of the Austro-Hungarian Jews and a compelling novel. It succeeds at the former attempt, but isn’t quite as successful in the latter. Eichner paints a clear picture both of the rural Jewish life, and of that in Vienna around the turn of the century. The broad scale on which the story is told, both in terms of time span and quantity of characters, adds to the richness of the novel as a story of Jewish history. In addition to the story of the Kahn family, a great deal of historical explanation is given to the various struggles which befall the Kahn family along with the greater Jewish community. These additions are very informative but occasionally bog down the flow of the novel.

The appeal the novel holds in regards to the Kahns’ specific story is more limited. Partly because of the broad scale of the novel, many of the stories become repetitive or tiresome, such the detailed description of the family’s complicated business dealings. As part of this storyline, Peter copies a large number of letters—and detailed financial transactions—written between his father and Jëno during their long battle. If the intention were to present a complete family history, this kind of detail might be more relevant, but in the context of this particular novel, these prolonged discussions are tiring. Other parts of the novel are frankly, quite bizarre and disposable. In particular, Peter’s stories about his later life and his brief marriage add nothing and seem out of character with the rest of the novel.

This said, some aspects of the family history (such as the family’s arrival to and initial struggle in Vienna) are extremely compelling. Also noteworthy are Peter’s reflections on his involvement in World War II. He is sent to an internment camp in Australia for the majority of the war, where he receives an excellent education. At one point, he is presented with the opportunity to fight in the war on the side of the Allies and declines. This decision haunts him throughout the rest of his life. This apathy is the result of what he describes as his “autism”: his inattentiveness to important issues and current events. He later decides to repent for this apathy by moving to Israel and becoming a part of the Jewish struggle there.

Perhaps the highlight of the novel for me is the many jokes and legends from the Jewish community, which Eichner uses as an introduction to a story about the Kahns or to illustrate an aspect of Jewish culture.

“You all know that ani lo jodea means “I don’t know.” Once upon a time there was a shetl in Russia where the Jews lived well, and one day the governor came and said: “The Tsar has decreed that you all have to leave.” But since the governor was a learned man who also knew a lot about Jewish things and was proud of this knowledge, the rabbi was able to persuade him to let it depend on the outcome of a competition: the governor and a representative of the shetl would ask each other questions. The first who couldn’t answer the question has his head cut off. If it was the Jew, then the Jews had to leave; if it was the governor, he got his head cut off, and the Jews could stay. Fair enough—but who was supposed to risk his life by going up against the learned man? . . . Only the shammes said he was willing to try . . . On the agreed upon day, the governor came to the market square . . . When the governor saw that his opponent was the shammes, he laughed and said: “In that case, you may ask the first question.” “Governor,” said the shammes, “what does ani lo jodea mean?” “I don’t know,” said the governor, and the executioner cut his head off.”

Not only are these jokes entertaining, but they truly do provide a window into the experiences and attitudes of the Jewish people. As the novel demonstrates, these stories are repeated around the dinner table to spread both history and values. Eichner’s novel is particularly successful at collecting a number of these stories and illustrating their centrality in the culture.

Although Kahn & Engelmann is not clearly intended to be autobiographical, a large number of events in Eichner’s early life seem to match up with those of Peter Engelmann, from their birth in Vienna, to their internment in Australia, and finally to their professorship in Canada. Eichner was recognized throughout his life as a prominent German scholar, and the novel confirms that. Kahn & Engelmann is a remarkable achievement in recreating a vibrant Jewish community lost to the past. As someone unfamiliar with the Austro-Hungarian Jews, the perspectives given are fascinating and informative. Unfortunately, Hans Eichner’s ambitions exceed his abilities, resulting in an intriguing, yet flawed, novel.

19 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

(This post could be subtitled, “The Beginning of a Canadian Bender . . .” but more on that over the next couple days.)

One of the most exciting Canadian presses that I’ve come across in recent times is Biblioasis, in part because of their International Translation series, and in part because of Joshua Glenn and Mark Kingwell’s The Idler’s Glossary.

The third book in the Biblioasis International Translation series is Hans Eichner’s Kahn & Engelmann, which is releasing this week and has been getting some good advance press, including this great review from Library Journal:

Narrated by Peter Engelmann, a middle-aged veterinarian working in Haifa, this work is at once the story of a family and a memorial to Viennese Jews. The narrative, the stream-of-consciousness recollections of a man caught between the need to remember and the desire to forget, opens in both 1980 and 1880 and chronicles the Kahn family’s move from rural Hungary to Vienna, the narrator’s 1938 flight to Belgium and eventual settlement in Israel, and all the family drama in between. The result is a moving book full of humor and humanity.

Eichner led a pretty interesting life, fleeing Austria at the start of WWII, being shipped off to Australia where he studied mathematics, Latin, and English literature, and eventually settling in Canada, where he was the chair of German Studies at the University of Toronto. Unfortunately, he passed away last month at the age of 87. Kahn & Engelmann is his first novel, and it was published in Germany in 2000 and translated into English by Jean M. Snook (who also translated Gert Jonke’s Homage to Czerny: Studies for a Virtuoso Technique).

And the opening of his novel is pretty entertaining:

In the summer of 1938, a Jewish refugee is going for a walk on Carmel Beach (Is he from Cologne? from Berlin? from Vienna? It doesn’t matter). Twenty metres out from shore, a man is fighting against the waves and yelling for help in Hebrew. The refugees stops to listen, takes his jacket off, folds it neatly (one should never act too hastily); and while taking off his tie and shoes as well, before jumping into the sea to help the yelling man, he exclaims indignantly: “What a fool! Hebrew he has learned. Swimming he should have learned!”

That’s a travelling joke. It was told much the same way in 1789 in Mainz, when the first emigres arrived there and went for walks along the Rhine in their elegant clothes. But precisely because it is a travelling joke, it is also a Jewish joke; for who has travelled (or, as is mostly the case, has fled) more often than the Jews?

We’re planning on running a full review of this title in the not-too-distant future, and it might be a German Book Office “book of the month” at some point as well. In the meantime, here’s a longer excerpt from the book and here’s a book trailer.

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

Omnivoracious has a nice write-up about the 5 Best Books Out of Canada This Year. Sure, these aren’t necessarily translations, but they are international . . . and if there’s any English-speaking country whose literature receives less attention in the U.S. than books in translation, it’s Canada. (I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I don’t think I’ve read a book by a Canadian author this year.)

Of the books listed — which include Blackstrap Hawco by Kenneth J. Harvey, The Origin of Species by Nino Ricci, Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden, and Dark Days by Kerry Pither — the one that sounds most interesting to me is Cockroach:

Cockroach: Lebanese immigrant Rawi Hage brings his Montreal community of outsiders to life through the tales of a thief—the self-described “cockroach” who lives off the scraps of the privileged—forced in to therapy after a public suicide attempt.

....
The Skin
The Skin by Curzio Malaparte
Reviewed by Peter Biello

“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .

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Love Sonnets & Elegies
Love Sonnets & Elegies by Louise Labé
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .

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Conversations
Conversations by César Aira
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a. . .

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Nothing Ever Happens
Nothing Ever Happens by José Ovejero
Reviewed by Juan Carlos Postigo

You are not ashamed of what you do, but of what they see you do. Without realizing it, life can be an accumulation of secrets that permeates every last minute of our routine . . .

The narrative history of. . .

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The Pendragon Legend
The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Literature in translation often comes with a certain pedigree. In this little corner of the world, with so few books making it into this comforting nook, it is often those of the highest quality that cross through, and attention is. . .

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Mr. Gwyn
Mr. Gwyn by Alessandro Baricco
Reviewed by Paul Doyle

Alessandro Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn is a set of two loosely interlinked novellas that play with narrative and the construction of character. Ably translated by Ann Goldstein, Mr. Gwyn plays some subtle metafictional games as Baricco delves into what it means. . .

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Bombay Stories
Bombay Stories by Saadat Hasan Manto
Reviewed by Will Eells

I must admit upfront that I went into reading Saadat Hasan Manto’s Bombay Stories almost entirely blind. I have not read Salman Rushdie. I have read, perhaps, two short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. I might shamefully add that I really. . .

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