This is another one of those posts. One in which I wrote a long-ass essay/diatribe that I decided to delete so as to “focus on the positive.”
In this case, I was on a roll about how sick I am of the literary field anointing four-five international authors a year and writing endless articles/listicles about them at the expense of all other books. About how the field has become a bunch of yeasayers who would rather join a chorus of “this book is the best!” instead of reading adventurously and actually finding out about books that haven’t been ordained in this way. About how reviewers don’t seem to take many risks anymore, and would rather pander, cheerleading style, for more retweets and favorites. People don’t seem as curious anymore, as willing to go out and find their own little books to champion. Maybe it’s because social media has ramped up our social anxieties to an insane degree, but it feels like people just want to be nice and safe and all in accord. Dissent is death on Twitter.
Fuck all of that. And fuck me for wasting twenty minutes trying to flesh out the argument . . . Instead, I’ll tell you about one of those books that adventurous, non-conforming readers would absolutely love: Loquela by Carlos Labbé, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden.
I just reread this book in preparation for a conversation with him at Wild Detectives in Dallas, and was re-wowed by the multilayered linguistic world that he creates in his novels. This is a book that owes a lot to Juan Carlos Onetti’s work (especially A Brief Life) as well as to Julio Cortázar and other Latin American works that are set in universities. I’m not going to lie: It’s a complicated book, with multiple narrators, events that recur in new contexts providing the book with a certain instability (or, reversing that statement, granting it with a certain remix texture transforming scenes into motifs that Labbé picks up and plays with in increasingly interesting ways), novels within dreams within novels. It’s a book about how art is created and how it is transformative, and there’s basically nothing like it that’s being written today.1
Rather than do a “normal” sort of reading and conversation—with Carlos reading for 10 minutes, then answering some general questions—we tried to create a way to introduce everyone to the text by asking questions, then, at three different occasions, reading separate bits from the book. I can’t reproduce that here, but I do think that it was a really great introduction to how to approach the book and that everyone who attended will enjoy the novel that much more, and have a new appreciation for it. Which is maybe what literary events should be?
We started by talking about the first main thread of the book, the sections entitled “The Novel,” which occurs every other chapter and are always in italics. This thread is about “Carlos,” a young writer trying to write a detective novel about an albino girl who is being stalked and hires a detective to try and protect her. That doesn’t end well though . . . From the very first paragraph of Loquela:
Carlos looked at his notebook and reread the last page: anticipating that the killer—whoever it was—would defend himself, the man had retrieved the gun. His head pounded and his knees were shaking. There’s a dead girl lying inside, he thought. He’d never fired a gun. His vision clouded over, his whole body pulsed as the door opened slowly from inside. He decided to fire first. And he did. The albino girl let out a soft cry and fell at his feet. He was the killer.
The bulk of “The Novel” sections are about Carlos trying to make this manuscript work. He talks about it with Elisa, he tries to figure out the plot holes, he rewrites certain events (like when the car tries to run over the albino girl), and he receives a letter from Violeta Drago (more on her in a bit).
In writing the novel, Labbé (to distinguish him from the fictional Carlos) wanted to include some of the thoughts and ideas that went into writing such a novel, which led to the second set of sections: “The Recipient.” These sections take the form of a diary in which a student writes about the novel he’s writing about Carlos. This is some At Swim-Two-Birds shit right there. These bits are more theoretical, touching upon the way ideas and books (like Onetti’s A Brief Life) influence your way of structuring events and writing about them. Here’s an abridged excerpt from one of these parts.
Things are happening.
I’ve been imagining a detective story. It occurred to me that I could write a novel of innumerable pages about a girl who, frightened because a man is apparently following her, contacts a detective to help her. She and the detective become friends, they flirt. He ends up obsessed with her and follows her everywhere. I want to sit down every afternoon, take advantage of the dead hours of summer to write. On one of those afternoons the inspiration comes to me. [. . .] That story of the girl who gets stalked by the same guy she is paying to protect her has been coming back to me every since my cousin told it at our uncle and aunt’s country house last Sunday. [. . .] That Sunday my cousin Alicia and I talked almost all afternoon. I told her I wanted to live alone that next year and she invited me to come check out her home-studio on Calle Bustamente, she could rent me a room there. And that’s where I’m writing this now. She also told me about her friend Violeta. Bored of living in the cesspool of Santiago (my cousin’s words), she moved to another city—I can’t remember which one—for a couple of years. She met a guy there, a classmate at the university, with whom she went out and then broke up. The guy was unhinged and wouldn’t leave her alone, calling her on the phone every night, following her through the streets, buzzing the intercom at her apartment and not saying anything when she answered. One day, desperate, it occurred to her to ask a professor friend from the university for help, and he managed to get the guy expelled, but that was worse: one time the guy, furious, almost hit her with his car, and another time he almost pushed her into the city’s river. She loved where she was living, but in the end Violeta had to go back to Santiago. What she doesn’t know is if the guy followed her here or if she just had the terrible luck of encountering another psychopath. Alicia was very worried when she told me this, her friend is receiving letters that are making her paranoid, lately she thinks she sees that guy on every corner. There aren’t many girls like Violeta, according to Alicia, and that’s why men go crazy for her. This is a story I’d love to be able to write.
The third narrator/set of sections in the book is written by Violeta and is entitled “The Sender.” (If it isn’t clear yet, these sections rotate throughout, in this order: The Novel, The Recipient, The Novel, The Sender, The Novel, The Recipient . . . ) Violeta is an albino student who is troubled by He Who Is Writing a Novel, a fellow student who seems obsessed with her.
There are two things worth noting about Violeta. 1) in her youth, Violeta invents a magic land called Neutria. This shows up in all three sections, sometimes as a paradise, sometimes as a university, sometimes as a real location.
What comes next is the moment in which my childhood multiplies into details I’d love to recount and cannot. Most of them were lost the instant we played together, the rest are still there, in Neutria, and you can see them for yourself. Sometimes Neutria was the land of semi-divine emperors, of infinite cruelty or kindness, whose slothful and obese courtiers, in contrast, engaged in decadent melodramas. Other times it was a simple village where farmers, shepherds, and foreigners traded honey, cheese, bread, or fruit for a song or an entertaining story. Or it was the nexus of activity for stylized spies, convertibles, casinos, firearms, hotels, highways, and femme fatales. And in the middle of all those adult faces appears a boyish one, yours, insistently inquiring what it is that we’re playing, and coldly I reply that we’re playing the city of Neutria, not expecting you to make fun of us: you talk to yourself—my mother says people who talk to themselves are lunatics. Alicia gets up, says again that it isn’t make-believe, that Neutria exists; it’s a beautiful place, incredible, we travel there on long weekends with our parents. It’s so much fun that we like to recall everything that happened there. That’s what we’re doing, remembering all the wondrous things, not inventing them.
2) At the university, she’s involved with a professor who promotes “Corporalism,” a set of literary beliefs that are intentionally hazy, but generally involve doing extreme things with your body while a writer observes and writes your flesh into the text, and also involves some quasi-Barthesian rhetoric. From the “Corporalization Manifesto”:
The reader lives and the author has died, we’ll proclaim, though our goal will be to resuscitate him, to give him what he never had: body, flesh, presence. And what will die instead is the text, the artistic product that escapes from our hands and becomes merchandise: all the time we spent spilling our blood across the page is transformed into food for publishers, newspapers, critics. That’s why we’re anemic, that’s why we need to suck up the humors of others and end up dissolved in foreign books, that’s why we die every time we read, in handwriting that is not our own, a sentence that belongs to us.
So there’s that. The last part of Loquela starts to revolve around this group, their actions and beliefs, reflecting back on everything that came before. Like I said before, this is layered. It’s a book in which there are “rabbit hole moments,” when the spiral of narrative levels is simply dazzling. And there’s this thing that happens towards the end, where there’s basically a series of beginnings, a sort of loop of possible events. For me, it starts to read like the best of electronic music. (Or anything by Mark McGuire.)) Ideas and threads resurfacing in new contexts, textures that you can lose yourself in, spaces that seem utterly alien and exciting. (Not surprising that Labbé is a musician.)
For a book that opens with an ending, I guess it makes sense for me to wrap this up by going back to the title, Loquela. It’s a strange, slippery word first used by Ignatius de Loyola way back in the middle ages, and then adopted by Roland Barthes:
Loquela is a word that designates the flux of language through which the subject tirelessly rehashes the effects of a wound or the consequences of an action: an emphatic form of the lover’s discourse.
And that’s really what Loquela is: the flux of language around death and love. It’s a book I hope you buy and that I hope we can talk about. I don’t get it, but the experience of rereading it—in which every paragraph reframed the whole book, convinced me it was about something else—was exhilarating. It may never get it’s own hashtag trend, or be a best-seller, but great literature never really does.
1 Books like this—ones that present the new, the different—are ones that excite me and, I think, used to excite a large number of literary readers before the Twitter-agree-o-verse came into being. Now, instead of reading challenging, unique things that expand your ways of thinking, people wear “Art Should Comfort the Disturbed and Disturb the Comfortable” t-shirts and miss the irony.
If you happened to read Laird Hunt’s “great review of Carlos Labbe’s Loquela in the LA Times”:http://www.latimes.com/books/la-ca-jc-carlos-labbe-20151220-story.html you’ll probably be interested in meeting the man behind this wild and wonderful book. Well, if you live in Dallas, Portland, Oakland, Chicago, or New York, then you’ll have a chance!
Before getting into the specifics of his upcoming tour, here’s a few key quotes from Laird Hunt’s review:
And here is where Loquela distinguishes itself excitingly. This is because instead of using self-reference to move away from fiction, Labbé is set on plunging, clanging alarm clock in hand, straight down the fictional rabbit hole to see what fabulous creatures might be woken. Indeed, his use of his own first name is just the first stop on a trip into a light- and dark-matter prism, a world made up of distinct but overlapping layers of narrative reality—where the dead speak to the living and the living dream of imaginary worlds—that make straightforward plot summary difficult. [. . .]
That Carlos is writing a detective story—one we catch glimpses of throughout—adds additional fuel to the engine of genre that playfully powers the book. There is death and seeking and significant doses of existential angst set to spin in these pages. So that much like Cortázar’s great Hopscotch, or Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, or a recent work like The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, what we encounter in Loquela is a skillful unmaking — complete with diary excerpts, missives from beyond the grave and an invented barn-burning manifesto on a literary movement, “Corporalism,” which seeks to breathe life into the “corpse” of literature — that manages to offer new ways of thinking about what the novel can do.
This is not to say Loquela eschews more traditional literary pleasures. The book is full of active, interesting observation, which has been brought over from the Spanish into English with brio and precision by translator Will Vanderhyden.
That is some serious praise! And well deserved. I love what Labbé is up to in his writing—incredibly adventurous, cerebral, satisfying.
And he’s not just a writer. He’s also a musician (I think approaching Loquela as if it were an album is incredibly fruitful) and one of the forces behind Sangría Editora. (And he’s a helluva salsa dancer!)
Over the next few weeks he’ll be reading from Loquela and talking about his writing in general at the following events:
Wednesday, January 13th at 7:30pm
Reading and Conversation with Chad W. Post at The Wild Detectives
(314 W. Eighth St., Dallas, TX)
Thursday, January 14th at 7:30pm
Reading and Discussion at Powell’s on Hawthorne
(3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., Porland, OR)
Saturday, January 16th at 7pm
Reading and Conversation with Will Vanderhyden at Diesel: A Bookstore
(5433 College Avenue, Oakland, CA)
Tuesday, January 19th at 6pm
Reading and Conversation with Victoria Saramago at 57th Street Books
(1301 E. 57th Street, Chicago, IL)
Wednesday, February 3rd at 7:30pm
Reading and Conversation at Community Bookstore
(143 7th Ave., Brooklyn, NY)
Hopefully you can catch him at one of these events, and even if you can’t, you really should get a copy of the book.
Carlos Labbé, author of the excellent novels Navidad & Matanza (available now) and Loquela (forthcoming), sent me this information about a fundraising event he’s putting on this Saturday for Sangría Legibilities, a nonprofit publisher that he helped found. Since Sangría is the sort of press a lot of Three Percent readers are in to, and since everybody loves a party, I thought I’d post all the necessary info here:
4 Dangerous & Immigrant Books: A Fundraising Party
Saturday, July 11, 2015
Y gallery, 319 Grand St, 5th floor, NY 10002
The event is free.
Sangría Legibilities is a non-profit independent imprint that publishes books in translation. In June 2015 we started a crowdfunding campaign to print our first round of novels and short stories by Latin American writers. We are celebrating the end of our campaign with a party and a killer program.
Readings by Claudia Salazar (Peru), Carlos Labbé (Chile), Dinapiera Di Donato (Venezuela), Charly Vasquez (Puerto Rico), and Mónica Ríos (Chile).
Perfomances by Francisca Benítez (Chile), Iván Monalisa Ojeda (Chile), and Claudia Bitrán (Chile-US).
Also, there will be tarot readings! And a DJ! (I really wish I could go.)
And here’s some info about the press:
The story of Sangria Legibilities begins 7 years ago. In 2008, Chilean writers Carlos Labbé and Mónica Ríos taught literature and scriptwriting, they were proliferate researchers, experienced publishers, and on the road to publishing their first novels. They were hanging out in their kitchen, jobless and dissatisfied with the literary scene in Chile, when they decided to start their own publishing house to give circulation to all those novels that get lost in the history of Chilean literature because rich publishers won’t even look at books without a big fat check between their pages. Having beers with visual artist Joaquín Cociña, Sangría Editora was born.
Labbé and Ríos arrived in the United States in 2010, following a scholarship Ríos earned for a Ph.D. program in Spanish at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, right after publishing her first novel Segundos. That same year, Carlos Labbé was recognized as one of the best young Latin American writers by Granta Magazine, as he had just published his third novel in Spain. In 2013, they moved to New York City, where they became a part of a growing community of Latin American artists. They soon found themselves with a bunch of different and rare novels in their hands. Adding to the independent publishers and translators in the US, where Labbé had already published his novel Navidad & Matanza (Open Letter, 2013), these Chilean authors created a non-profit organization called Sangría Legibilities, convinced that Latin American writers are more than informants or representatives of a minority.
Sangría Legibilities has a similar spirit to its sister imprint in Chile: it functions as a collective—in addition to Ríos and Labbé, Legibilities is composed of feminist intellectual and translator Carolina Alonso Bejarano and comic book artist and designer Peter Quach––and has different collections focused on novels, short stories, and political texts with rare textualities. Sangría aims to show another face of Latin America: Sangría, as we know, is a drink, but is also the word used in Spanish to call the old and senseless therapy of bleeding out illnesses, the inside of an arm, and, yes, indentation.
In September, Sangría Legibilities will release its first books in translation: Chilean Iván Monalisa Ojeda’s short stories, La Misma Nota, Forever, on transvestite Latina sex workers in Manhattan, translated by Professor Marc Brudzinski; The Book of the Letter A, a Bronx santero manifesto by Portorrican writer Ángel Lozada; and They Fired Her Again, a short novel on an the hardships of living in New York City with no papers, by Claudia Hernández, from El Salvador, translated by Aarón Lacayo. Sangría Legibilities launched a crowdfunding campaign to finance the publication of these works, which will close with a party at Y gallery: three hours of intense readings and performances by Latin American writers, artists, and musicians, all in celebration of bringing these Latin American voices to a wider audience.
Go check it out!
The new issue of the Buenos Aires Review is now online, and features the following:
BAR#2 features new fiction by Liliana Colanzi (Bolivia) and Thibault de Montaigu (France), as well as poetry by PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award-winning Ishion Hutchinson (Jamaica). Reviews and essays by Sam Rutter, Ernesto Hernández Busto and Stanley Bill and a walk through the Bibliothèque nationale de France with Victoria Liendo.
The piece from this that jumped out at me is Samuel Rutter’s The Internet as Novel, which is about Open Letter author Carlos Labbe’s latest novel, Piezas secretas contra el mundo.
A recent interview in El País identified Carlos Labbé (Santiago de Chile, 1977) as a writer at the forefront of a generation returning to the complex relationship between avant-garde literature and political engagement. In keeping with this characterization, Labbé’s latest novel, Piezas secretas contra el mundo, published in March by Editorial Periférica is an ambitious declaration of principles for a new understanding of the novel in the twenty-first century.
Those familiar with Labbé’s growing and challenging body of work, beginning with the hypertext novel Pentagonal, will recognise in this latest novel some of the tropes the author continues to address. There is a particularly textual nature to the worlds Labbé creates, where the acts of reading and writing form an essential part of the fabric of reality in which his protagonists exist. The increasingly political edge to the author’s prose manifests itself in this novel through its ecological themes, which have come to include the status of indigenous cultures in Chile. Labbé’s prose, full of surprisingly juxtaposed registers and genres, matches its form to its content and embroils the reader in the fusion of these competing elements in order to construct a meaningful, overarching narrative.
Presented in the form of a “choose your own adventure” novel, it is the reader and not the author who actively constructs the narrative of Piezas secretas. There are obvious affinities here with Cortázar’s Rayuela, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year, but while Cortázar gave the reader a roadmap and left the ludic structure of his novel outside the narrative, Labbé’s work begins with a gnomic prologue that immediately involves the reader and layers the metafictional instructions inside the story, often providing the reader with several options for movement within its pages. As such, the experience of reading Piezas secretas is disruptive and alluring at the same time – as the reader constantly moves back and forth through the pages, it is impossible to know exactly how deep into the narrative one is at any given point. Considering the mechanics of Labbé’s prose is like pulling the case off a desktop computer and watching it tick—there is a constant hum of activity, with bulbs blinking in the darkness and a mass of plugs and wires leading in all directions, and just like the virtual memory of a computer, Labbé manages to give his narrative more scope than appears possible in a conventional 220 page novel.
Yes. Yes and more yes.
For those who can’t read Spanish, you should check out Labbe’s Navidad & Matanza And we’ll be bringing out another of his novels, Loquela, next fall.
Following on the post about Amanda Michalopoulou’s upcoming events, here’s a list of all three Reading the World Conversation Series events taking place this month.
Women in Translation
Thursday, April 10th, 6pm
Rush Rhees Library
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627
A conversation and reading with Bulgarian authors Albena Stambolova (Everything Happens as It Does) and Virginia Zaharieva (Nine Rabbits), and Danish author Iben Mondrup (Justine, forthcoming from Open Letter in 2016) and translator Kerri Pierce to discuss their writing and careers—both in their home countries and abroad.
Radical Politics and BFFs
Tuesday, April 15th, 6pm
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627
A conversation and reading with Greek author Amanda Michalopoulou and translator Karen Emmerich as they read and discuss Amanda’s Why I Killed My Best Friend.
“Flawlessly translated, Amanda Michalopoulou’s WIKMBF uses the backdrop of Greek politics, radical protests, and the art world to explore the dangers and joys that come with BFFs. Or, as the narrator puts it, ‘odiosamato,’ which translates roughly as ‘frienemies.’” –Gary Shteyngart
Latin American Literature Today
Tuesday, April 22nd, 6pm
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627
A conversation with two of the authors included in Granta Magazine’s “Best Young Spanish-language Novelists” issue—Andrés Neuman (Traveler of the Century, Talking to Ourselves) and Carlos Labbé (Navidad & Matanza, Loquela), and translator and University of Rochester alum Will Vanderhyden, on their latest words and current trends in Latin American Literature.
Every semester I tell my publishing students about the time I was walking around BEA with Jerome Kramer and he pointed out how the whole fair was “filled with failure.” Mostly I want to shock and break them—every good professor needs to upend his/her student’s expectations and their latent belief that they “know a lot of things”—but it’s also a statement that I stand by.
Pretend you’re a writer. Or rather, someone who wants to be a writer. You spend years working on your novel (or worse—collection of poems) and then spend three times that amount of time trying to find an agent willing to send this around to a bunch of editors who read approximately five pages (this is actually what happens, sorry) before deciding that your years of labor aren’t “good enough” (a.k.a. “potentially profit-making”) to be published. Even if you do find a publisher, unless you wrote the next Fifty Shades, you’ll end up selling less than 2,000 copies. Most likely, you’ll end up self-publishing your work through Amazon and 1/10 of your 400 Facebook friends will buy the $.99 ebook version. Congrats!
Or pretend you’re a publisher. You wade through hundreds of awful manuscripts every year and find 10-12 that you actually like. Along the way, you respond to approximately 1,000 emails from authors and agents harassing you for answers, questioning your judgement, making you wish that worked in a job that actually made money. Finally, the book you love, that you edited with all the best intentions, that you promoted to all your favorite Brooklyn tastemakers comes out . . . and no one talks about it. It sells 2,000 copies. Such a great book! And fuck, man . . .
Let’s say you’re a translator. You do samples on spec. You get someone to finally publish the book that you have always wanted to work on. You and your editor exchange five emails. The book comes out without your name on the cover. Reviewers praise the author’s style without mentioning you. The book sells 2,000. Because you only earn 1% of the list price on ever sale, you never earn back your $2,500 advance. (Which was what you received for a year of work.)
Booksellers don’t have it any better. You have to cater. You might have your own opinions on what books are great, and which ones you would rather not ever have to sell. But the customer is always right. Amazon killed your mojo. Ebooks are bitching up your profit margins. And instead of buying the extremely well-written, well-translated Dutch book you love, everyone is chuffing off with Freedom. The book you staff-picked and put in every customer’s hands sold 6 copies at your store. And you still earn just a smidgen above minimum wage.
I wouldn’t want to be a reviewer at a major publication. All the courting must make you want to puke. “No really, this is her breakout book. It’s got relatable characters, unexpected twists, and a midget! Can I buy you a drink?” And then you have to review the “big” books: Franzen, Eggers, etc., etc. Books that are fine, but which don’t make the world a better place. Life-changing, challenging books “aren’t of interest” to your demographics . . . So you pretend to give a shit about the latest debut author from Bushwick who “realistically” portrays her generation, knowing all the while that this whole thing is a fucking scam: that the only reason this book is being printed is because Ms. Bushwick used to write for the most-popular of popular blogs . . . And everyone hates you for not reviewing the much better book that only sold 2,000 copies . . .
There really is no logical reason to be in the book business. Kids would rather play with their iPhones than read a book, you’ll never earn as much as you’re worth, and even when you feel like you’re doing something good for the world, a minimum of 25 people are right there ready to complain and tell you how much you suck at life.
Case Study Number One. I have no idea why no one reviewed Dubravka Ugresic’s Europe in Sepia. Her last book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. I sent the new one to everyone. All the reviewers and booksellers were excited. It’s as good as Karaoke Culture and more timely. And yet? . . . Not enough. Every time I see that book on the shelf I feel like I let her down. I failed.
Case Study Number Two. We just finished editing one of our biggest books for the fall. As always, Kaija went through it, sent her edits to the translator (something that only a few presses do!), appreciated the translator’s kind response, inputted the changes, and proofed the book. Then, said translator emailed me to explain that, because Kaija switched three “as if I were” constructions to “like I was,” she was “concerned” and wondered if English was Kaija’s native language. (This translator also claimed Kaija wasn’t a “professional translator,” which is just untrue.) If I didn’t love the author, I would sabotage this book. Or just not publish it at all. Attacking my employees is crossing the line. Nevertheless, I feel like a failure because I can’t actually tell this person how pissed off I am—or how absolutely wrong they are—without seeming petty. Or anti-translator. And no matter how much I’ve done for translators over the past 15 years (just because I love international literature, I’m not a translator myself), I still get shit like this because I hired an editor who actually edits. FAILURE!
Case Study Number Three. The Best Translated Book Awards are up for the International Book Industry Excellence Awards presented by the London Book Fair and the UK Publishers Association. The other two finalists in the International Literary Translation Initiative category are Penguin India and Shanghai 99, two of the largest companies in the world. Two of the largest companies in India and China up against an idea originating from some guy who works in an office in the slowly imploding Rochester, NY . . . Guess who’s not going to be at the awards ceremony? The University of Rochester “doesn’t have $2,000” to send me to an awards ceremony with the publishing industry’s best and brightest. (Tuition plus room and board for the 2014-15 school year is $60,000.) Apparently, “they” don’t want to take advantage of the public relations opportunity or reward one of their employees for CREATING AN AWARD THAT’S A FINALIST FOR AN INTERNATIONAL AWARD. No money for failures?
It’s almost impossible to work in this industry and not feel like you’re being gamed on some cosmic level. The pay is moderate in comparison to other professions, and the hate mail way outnumbers the messages of appreciation. Great books never sell as well as they should. No one cares if you spent your weekend answering emails and reading hundreds of pages from a book that you don’t love, but want to promote in some way. (This is why all publishers are in New York. Not only because it’s the center of all media, but because if you work in books you can get invited to a bunch of scenester parties each weekend. And free booze and the company of other simpatico book people makes it all that much easier to swallow.)
I guess my point is as cheesy as it could be: Why don’t we all just calm the fuck down? It’s not like anyone’s intentionally trying to fuck anyone over—the game is just rigged. If the NPR reviewer doesn’t talk about how mindblowing your translation is, it’s not because he hates you; if an editor makes some suggestions to your book, it’s because they respect you and want your translation to be the best translation possible; if a bookstore can’t sell your book, it’s not because it’s bad, it’s because most people all want to read the same thing and that thing is banal; if Flavorwire won’t review your books, it’s because they receive . . . or, well, actually, that one’s because you, Chad W. Post, made fun of Jason Diamond on Twitter, and TWITTER NEVER FORGETS.
I didn’t have time to read shit this past month, so the April Previews are mostly of books I want to read, and I’ve highlighted them with stupid jokes. Enjoy my failures.
Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (FSG)
This is, hands down, the best book I’ve read this year. It’s depressing as fuck, but so well written with its three voices and three timelines. I can’t wait to talk to my students about this novel, and am even more excited that Andrés will be in Rochester on April 22nd for an event with Carlos Labbé (see below). That will likely be one of the best Reading the World Conversation Series events ever, and will be followed by an epic afterparty.
Navidad & Matanza by Carlos Labbé, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden (Open Letter)
If there’s one thing that the Internet has utterly ruined, it’s April Fools Day. Instead of spending months coming up with interesting, convoluted pranks to pull on family members and enemies, this “holiday” now consists of posting random lies online and seeing who’s willing to retweet it. Granted, NPR’s prank was pretty ingenious, but for every joke of this kind there’s a Flavorwire 10 Must-Read Books for April, which I didn’t even realize was an April Fools joke until I noticed that neither Talking to Ourselves nor Navidad & Matanza are on there. YOU GOT ME, FLAVORWIRE!
Nine Rabbits by Virginia Zaharieva, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Black Balloon)
This Tuesday is the second annual Bulgarian Fiction Event at 192 Books in Manhattan. Kaija Straumanis will be representing Open Letter and talking with Virginia Zaharieva and Albena Stambolova about Nine Rabbits and Everything Happens As it Does. These are the only two novels by Bulgarian women available in English translation. Everyone participating in #ReadWomen2014 should be there.
And anyone participating in #ReadWomen2014 might also be interested in knowing that on Thursday, April 10th, Viriginia and Albena will be up in Rochester and will join Danish author Iben Mondrup and translator Kerri Pierce for a panel on “Women in Translation.”
Viviane by Julia Deck, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (New Press)
Last night, trying to find some crappy TV to entertain me after Kentucky’s last-second win, I came across Amish Mafia. This is an absolutely terrible show—you must watch it!
Now, I’m sure this is common knowledge, but this “Pennsylvania German” language that the Amish speak is totally insane. It’s just a bunch of German words—pronounced as if you’re absolutely wasted—put into an English syntax. This is the least threatening language a “mafioso” could use.
And speaking of these “Amish mafiosos,” they sure do have a hankering for sledgehammers. In the episode I watched, anytime shit went wrong, one of the “toughs” would attack with a sledgehammer. I kept wanting this to devolve into the “Gun Fever” episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia featuring Mac trying to prove to Charlie that he could defeat a gunman with a samurai sword. “What if I zig-zagged like this?” BANG BANG BANG. Sledgehammers are stupid.
Finally, from what I could figure out, the “Amish Godfather” is a schlubby dude named Levi whose main criminal activity was SELLING BEER. Beer? That’s like the lemonade of mafia activities, buddy. Get yourself some hookers and a point-shaving scandal and we’ll talk.
Radio by Tõnu Õnnepalu, translated from the Estonian by Adam Cullen (Dalkey Archive)
Is that a concealed nipple on the cover of this book?
This summer, I’m going to be skipping BookExpo America this year to attend HeadRead, Estonia’s annual literary festival. I haven’t been to Talliinn in almost a decade, and this is a perfect opportunity to return, with Sjón, Ben Okri, John Banville, A.S. Byatt, Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, and many more authors on the docket. So if you’re looking for a reason to visit the Baltic States . . .
A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson, translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund (Other Press)
Recently, my ex-wife signed my kids up for a weekend “Kids CrossFit” class at someplace called “BoomTown.” I’m not a big fan of the crossfit cult (more on cults below!), but whatever, the kids love it because they get to run around and throw balls at walls and swing on hanging rings and pretend that they’re bad ass. So when I had them last weekend, I took them myself, and may well have stumbled upon some underground revolutionary party of Rochester.
The crossfit “gym” was just a small room tucked behind a half-abandoned strip mall. (I know, I know, what in Rochester isn’t half-abandoned?) If the tires waiting to be flipped weren’t enough to prove you were in the right place, there was a sales counter selling all sorts of gear with “CROSSFIT” written all over it. Because if you crossfit but don’t tell the world in every way possible that you’re a crossfitter, you’re just not doing it right.
All of the walls were scratched over with people’s names, as if this were one huge bathroom featuring the worst graffiti ever: “MUSCLE CLUB 2014! JENNI! ALEX! SHAUN!” I have the feeling that if you graduated from high school you’re not allowed to join.
The weirdest part had to be all of the kegs and beer for sale. Who crossfits and then does a keg stand?
Wait, no, check that, the weirdest part had to be this sign:
Yes, that is an axe and a AK-47. Thanks, but I’ll take my exercise without the advertisement for deadly weapons.
Pybrac by Pierre Louÿs, translated from the French by Geoffrey Longnecker (Wakefield Press)
A new translation from the author of The Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners! If by chance you haven’t see the Handbook, it’s the filthiest book I’ve ever read in my life. It’s not something you should give your niece. Ever.
And Pybrac, a collection of Louÿs’s poems, is equally as “erotic.” I just spent way too long trying to find a verse that I can quote on here that won’t get me in too much trouble, and this was the safest thing I came across:
I do not like to see the immortal mother
Jerk her son off in bed, get him stiff as a tree
Then encunt him and say: “Now fuck me, you duffer!
You don’t have to ask twice, just stick it to me.”
Wakefield Press is the most daring publisher of the present moment. And their books are amazing—not just for the sheer vulgarity, but for the quality, range, and uniqueness or all that they bring out. Kudos.
With My Dog-Eyes by Hilda Hilst, translated from the Portuguese by Adam Morris (Melville House)
I love Hilda Hilst, and feel like she’s the frontrunner for the 2015 BTBA. Multiple books, loved by everyone literary . . . this may be her year. Also, she was from Brazil and Brazil is hosting the World Cup this year. That’s a clear advantage.
Sankya by Zakhar Prilepin, translated from the Russian by Jeff Parker (DISQUIET)
We have a review of this book posting in the next few days. And any book that comes recommended from both Bromance Will and Jeff Parker HAS to be good.
So, this “Happy” song? It can fuck itself. Total propaganda. Most people, unfortunately, aren’t happy. Why? Incredible wealth disparity, the fact that douches like Sean Hannity hate anyone who can think, winter is never going away ever, it seems like earthquakes are about to rip apart half the hemisphere—a million reasons.
But this song is all about feeling good. Take a old timey musical arrangement—one our brains all recognize and feel is “safe”—add nonsensical lyrics and create a trend. That way you have a swarm of people ready to berate the handful of people who fail to get the message and aren’t quite sure if they should be clapping their hands because they “feel happy.” Also, what the fuck?
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
“If you feel like a room without a roof”? My seven-year-old son thinks this is a bullshit lyric. What does that even mean? A house has a roof, a room has a ceiling. “A room without a ceiling” makes more sense. And “If you feel like happiness is the truth”? These lyrics make no sense at all, and every time you sing along, a G.W. Bush supporter gets his wings.
Selected Stories by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil (Dalkey Archive)
I love Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, and Brazil, and football. Also, I met Rhett McNeil at Penn State before it became “Sandusky State” and for those reasons you should buy this book.
Last week I finished reading/listening to Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief, and I really hope this sold more than 2,000 copies. It’s an amazing book—I bought the audiobook of Wright’s Looming Tower because of how good this is—and something everyone should read. Not because Scientology is awful—it is, and man am I never watching a Tom Cruise movie again, because, asshole—but because this book lays out the way power structures work in a way that’s incredibly useful. Scientology is even weirder than the Amish. I mean, I get the Amish—just not their mafia—but Scientology? What’s the point? It’s clear that the “church” has a handful of hippie ideals, but the claim that this is bettering the planet is totally batshit given the preponderance of evidence in this book. Yet, Tommy Davis, the Church’s spokesperson, had this to say:
The real question is who would produce the kind of material we produce and do the kind of things we do, set up the organizational structure that we set up? [. . .] Or what kind of man, like L. Ron Hubbard, would spend an entire lifetime researching, putting together the kind of material, suffer all the trials and tribulations and go through all the things he went through in his life . . . or even with the things that we, as individuals, have to go through, as part of the new religion? Work seven days a week, three hundred sixty-five days a year, fourteen-, fifteen-, eighteen-hour days sometimes, out of sheer total complete dedication to our faith. And do it all, for what? As some sort of sham? Just to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes? [. . .] It’s ridiculous. Nobody works that hard to cheat people. Nobody gets that little sleep to screw over their fellow man.”
That comes after 348 carefully documented pages of abuses and should-be-illegal-if-they-aren’t-already behaviors. I mean, shit, the FBI was going to raid Scientology because of human trafficking violations involving slavery. That’s not good.
Also, the only published book I’ve ever burnt was Dianetics. It took forever. That book is way too thick to catch on fire. Should’ve used more lighter fluid. I suppose I failed.
Copies of Navidad & Matanza arrived in the office on Friday, so we’re finally able to give away 20 copies via GoodReads. All the information about the contest is below, but first, a bit about about the book itself, starting with the greatest blurb we’ve ever included on the front of one of our titles:
“Carlos Labbé’s [Navidad & Matanza] begins to fuck with your head from its very first word—moving through journalese, financial reporting, whodunit, Joseph Conrad, Raymond Chandler, Nabokov to David Lynch.”—Toby Litt
Even putting aside the very compelling statement that this book is going to “fuck with your head from its very first word,” that’s quite a line-up of influences . . . All of which are completely accurate.
This isn’t an easy book to describe—there are a few related storylines, one involving scientists making a drug of hate, and another about their attempt to play a “novel-game” in which they take turns creating a story (a game that Labbé actually played and that we’ll post more about later), which all ties into the disappearance of two children . . . Here’s my best attempt at formally describing this novel:
It’s the summer of 1999 when the two children of wealthy video game executive Jose Francisco Vivar, Alicia and Bruno, go missing in the beach town of Matanza. Long after their disappearance, the people of Matanza and the adjacent town of Navidad consistently report sightings of Bruno—on the beach, in bars, gambling—while reports on Alicia, however, are next to none. And every clue keeps circling back to a man named Boris Real . . .
At least that’s how the story—or one of many stories, rather—goes. All of them are told by a journalist narrator, who recounts the mysterious case of the Vivar family from an underground laboratory where he and six other “subjects” have taken up a novel-game, writing and exchanging chapters over email, all while waiting for the fear-inducing drug hadón to take its effect, and their uncertain fates.
A literary descendent of Roberto Bolaño and Andrés Neuman, Carlos Labbé’s Navidad & Matanza is a work of metafiction that not only challenges our perceptions of facts and observations, and of identity and reality, but also of basic human trust.
For the Spanish literature obsessed out there, you may recognize Carlos Labbé’s name from Granta’s special “Young Spanish-Language Novelists” issue from a couple years back. Not only was Labbé included, but an excerpt from this book was in there. (But in Natasha Wimmer’s translation.)
If you missed that issue, you can read an excerpt from the book on our site, where you can also just pre-order the book if you don’t want to fool around with this GoodReads contest stuff.
But if you are up for trying to win a free copy, here’s how you enter:
Contest closes on February 10th, so enter today!
Next year, Open Letter Books will published Chilean author Carlos Labbé’s Navidad and Matanza, which I guarantee will immediately become a favorite of Bolaño and Zambra and Chejfec and Saer fans everywhere. I think this book is going to blow everyone away (specifically looking at you, Scott Esposito) and very well could win that year’s Best Translated Book Award.
I’ll be plugging this more and more over the next few months, but in the meantime, Will Vanderhyden (aka Willsconsin), who is a translator in the University of Rochester’s translation program, just published one of Labbé’s (very) short stories at Alchemy. Here’s the opening:
Emerge, hate first myself and then the mechanical sound of the alarm clock. Be grateful, bury my face in the pillow, put first one foot and then another on the cold floor. Turn on the water heater, run naked to the shower, piss, touch my nipples, sing gringo songs from the radio that have the word God in them, turn off the hot water first so as to freeze, for an instant, my hairy hide. Plug in the electric razor, splash my face with cologne, dry each of my toes and suck my palm because it tastes like soap. Open a window, feel the nakedness of my back against the air coming in from the street, stretch socks over my calves, dress in yellow overalls, draw my damp hair back, pause and close my eyes. Eat oatmeal with milk. Murmur a name, press the elevator button, wave to the crying doorman, hear honking horns, take the colectivo, plead, want, fake, pay, slam the car door as hard as possible, go into the gas station, greet or not greet, put the marker on zero, squeeze the trigger of the nozzle, fill the tank, fill the tank, fill the tank, perspire, guess the color of the next vehicle, touch the crotch of the calendar model and feel that it is paper. Three o’clock, take off my hat, wash each finger of my hand, find the scissors and take them with me, put the tip of my index finger in my left eye, feel I have something and that something comes to life.
Click here to read the full piece.
As we mentioned last Friday, we’re going to spend the next 19 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.
As a Thanksgiving Day special, we’re featuring Chilean author Carlos Labbe, whose short story has one of the coolest titles: “The Girls Resembled Each Other in the Unfathomable,” which is translated by Natasha Wimmer.
To this day, investigators are still adding sightings of Bruno Vivar to the case file of the disappeared Navidad siblings. Every summer since the incident, a dozen witnesses from different parts of central Chile claim to have seen a young man fitting his description: striped T-shirt in various combinations of primary colours; shorts or bathing trunks; leather sandals; extremely thin hairless legs; dishevelled hair in a ragged cut, sometimes brown and other times dyed red. Over and over again, as if his parents’ last memory of him had been burned on the retinas of so many who never knew him (the press coverage was as intense as it was brief), they see Bruno Vivar lying in the sand, face down on a towel, staring out to sea, looking disdainfully through some photographs, or swimming in silence. Other testimonies, of course, add specific and equally disturbing details: Bruno drinking at hotel bars, beer in cans or double shots of whiskey that he pays for with a card issued in the United States, while with the other hand he fondles a die that he spins like a top on the lacquered surface of the bar; sitting on a terrace at noon, noisily eating French fries; reading, in the dining hall, a letter delivered to the hotel weeks before; tossing the die and then writing another letter never sent by the local mail.
These bits of information come from different sources: guards; waiters; store clerks; receptionists; cleaning people who at the time also yearned to assemble the missing pieces of the case but who only succeeded in helping the police to declare impossible a verdict of either homicide or kidnapping. It has been tacitly assumed that Bruno Vivar – a legal adult – simply abandoned his family all of a sudden, which isn’t a crime in Chile.
The unasked question is why the name of Alicia Vivar, the fourteen-year-old girl, appears only twice in the file. Especially after a detailed review of reports on the reappearances of her brother, Bruno. Because Bruno never once turns up alone. The various accounts agree that he arrives at hotel parking garages in different expensive cars always driven by a man whose smile also appears in police files, though in another section: Boris Real.
This is a great way to start an excerpt. The speculation, the intriguing clues, the incompleteness—all of which makes this compelling, makes you want to continue reading. Not going to give anything else away, but this is a tight, well-crafted, five-page story. Definitely one of my favorites (so far) in this issue of Granta, and I really hope this whole novel (entitled Navidad y Matanza) is eventually published in English.
In addition to his work, Labbe sounds like an interesting guy. He’s the author three novels (this one plus Libro de plumas and Locuela), and a collection of short stories (Caracteres blancos). He also co-wrote two screenplays (Malta con huevos [Malta with Eggs?] and Yo so Cagliostro), and is the author of the hypertext (?!) Pentagonal: includidos tu y yo, which is available here.
On top of all this, Labbe used to be a member of the bands Ex Fiesta and Tornasolidos. Seeing that this is Thanksgiving (which also markst the beginning of the Guadalajara Book Fair), and that there’s probably only about 5 of you actually reading this, in between turkey and pumpkin pie, looking for a momentary escape from your family (whom you love, but who can be a bit, you know, much to take at times), I thought that rather than bore you with literary analysis and endless accolades for this 33-year-old wunderkind, that I’d leave you with a song from one of Labbe’s bands. Unfortunately there’s no YouTube video of Tornasolidos rocking out (I know! I can’t believe it either), so I had to go all old-school and pull this song from MySpace (MySpace!). Enjoy!
And don’t forget, you can get this entire issue for free by subscribing to Granta.
Next up: Andres Neuman.
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .
Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .
Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .