3 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Tom Roberge. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the updated bracket.

I genuinely love the World Cup. And yet every four years I’m reminded why I haven’t picked an English Premier League team to support, why in the end I’m glad it’s over, why I have no trouble understanding some of the more salient arguments put forth by the trolls. It has nothing to do with the game itself, with the low scoring or the simplicity, but rather with the game’s on-the-field stewards: the referees. I’m sure I’ll get plenty of counter arguments suggesting that NFL and NBA refs alter games just as much as soccer refs do (looking at you, 2007 NBA Finals refs who gave the title to Wade and the Heat), but I hate that soccer officials have so much control over the outcomes of the matches. They call offsides and disallow goals. They call penalties in the box that result in PK goals that are practically foregone conclusions. They issues red cards and handicap teams. Or they miss biting incidents (there were teeth marks!) that should have, at the very least, resulted in a red card that might have given Italy the advantage it needed. Maybe I’m biased on that one.

I concede that most of the time these calls are accurate. But sometimes they aren’t, and it gets ugly. Really ugly and frustrating. Instead of the athleticism and strategy and sheer drama of the players and coaches and the action itself being front and center stage, these bad and/or pivotal calls put too much attention on the refs, and entire matches end up hinging on their decisions, which is just awful. I want the referees to fade into the background, to do their (difficult and perennially unappreciated) jobs in anonymity. I don’t want to know what they look like, or have any reason to remember their names.

Which is a way of explaining why I’m ditching the straw man I originally planned on setting up here, namely the notion that this match would be a tough one for me to judge given my employment by the publisher of César Aira and, on the other hand, my slavish devotion to the work of Michel Houellebecq. I’m ditching it because that would force you all to focus on my situation, my context, my imposed narrative. And just like it’s wrong for refs to steal the spotlight from the players, I also think it’s wrong for reviewers to (try to) steal the spotlight from writers and their books. So I’m stepping aside as much as I can and letting the books speak for themselves. It’s a bit difficult because, like in sports, a few highlights in condensed format utterly fail to convey the context in which the highlights occurred, but it’s the best I can do without outright demanding that instead of reading the notes and short selections below, you stop what you’re doing, go find a copy of the books in your local store, and read them without stopping. Wait, that’s a great idea. Go!

Still here? Alright, let’s go straight to the highlights.

* * *

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter

A book about, well, a 19th century landscape painter named Johann Moritz Rugendas. Rugendas was real, as was his trip to Argentina, but what Aira describes—Rugendas being struck by lightning in the Pampas—is completely fictional.

We have to begin with a description of Rugendas’s approach to the art of landscape painting:

The artistic geographer had to capture the “physiognomy” of the landscape . . . by picking out its characteristic “physiognomic” traits . . . The precise arrangement of physiognomic elements in the picture would speak volumes to the observer’s sensibility, conveying information not in the form of isolated features but features systematically interrelated so as to be intuitively grasped: climate, history, customs, economy, race, fauna, flora, rainfall, prevailing winds . . .

Got it? It turns out to be the underlying point of the entire book, that something as seemingly benign as a landscape portrait actually speaks volumes about the history of the world and civilization.

Later on in the quasi-defense of sending a German painter to South America to document what he sees in painting, we get a taste of Aira’s tendency towards quirky scene-setting:

Travel and painting were entwined like fibers in a rope. One by one, the dangers and difficulties of a route that was torturous and terrifying at the best of times were transformed and left behind. And it was truly terrifying: it was hard to believe that this was a route used virtually throughout the year by travelers, mule drivers and merchants. Anyone in their right mind would have regarded it as a means of suicide. Near the watershed, at an altitude of two thousand meters, amid peaks disappearing into the clouds, rather than a way of getting from point A to point B, the path seemed to have become quite simply a away of departing from all points at once. Jagged lines, impossible angles, trees growing downwards from ceilings of rock, sheer slopes plunging into mantles of snow under a scorching sun. And shafts of rain into little yellow clouds, agates enveloped in moss, pink hawthorn. The puma, the hare and snake made up a mountain aristocracy. The horses panted, began to stumble, and it was time to stop for a rest; the mules were perpetually grumpy.

Rugendas dwelling on the value of art as compared to the rigors of historical accuracy:

The purpose of storytelling could be better fulfilled by handing down, instead of a set of “tools,” which would enable mankind to reinvent what had happened in the past, with the innocent spontaneity of action. Humanity’s finest accomplishments, everything that deserved to happen again. And the tools would be stylistic. Accord to this theory, then, art was more useful than discourse.

Aira is also fond of mood juxtaposition. To wit: this sentence that appears just before the lengthy, detailed description of the lightning strike:

“At least it will cool off,” he said to himself, and those trivial words marked the end of a phase in his life; with them he formulated the last coherent thought of his youth.

And here he blatantly echoes the lightning strike when describing Rugendas’s condition. I’m not what you’d call a fan of this technique:

Rugendas, who was going through a particularly critical phase, had attacks of vertigo and cerebral short-circuiting all night; he could only withstand them by taking an excessive dose of morphine, and dawn found him sleepwalking, covered in sweat, his face a jig of lightning tics, his pupils shrunk to pinpoints as if her were at the center of the sun.

A dose of quirk combined with mood juxtaposition. This is top-notch Aira:

The morning was truly glorious, perfect for a raid.

Lastly, a prolonged analogy (for, yet again, the art of storytelling) that I think might represent the best passage in the book.

There is analogy that, although far from perfect, may shed some light on the process of reconstruction. Imagine a brilliant police detective summarizing his investigations for the husband of the victim, the widower. Thanks to his subtle deductions he has been able to “reconstruct” how the murder was committed; he does not know the identity of murderer, but he has managed to work out everything else with an almost magical precision, as if he had seen it happen. And his interlocutor, the widower, who is, in fact, the murderer, has to admit that the detective is a genius, because it really did happen exactly as he says; yet at the same time, although of course he actually saw it happen and is the only living eyewitness as well as the culprit, he cannot match what happened with what the policeman is telling him, not because there are errors, large or small, in the account, or details out of place, but because the match is inconceivable, there is such an abyss between one story and the other, or between a story and the lack of a story, between the lived experience and the reconstruction (even when the reconstruction has been executed to perfection) that widower simply cannot see a relation between them; which leads him to conclude that he is innocent, that he did not kill his wife.

* * *

The Map and the Territory

Another book about a painter, the completely fictional Jed Martin. In act one of his career he photographs Michelin maps and then manipulates them dramatically, earning high praise. Several years later, in act two, he paints portraits of celebrities (see below). In an interesting plot element, Michel Houellebecq is a character in his own book; he is asked (and agrees) to write the catalog essay for Martin’s biggest show.

From part one, a description—with quotes—of the critical response of Jed’s very first vernissages. Satirically pretentious and hyperbolic? As if you had to ask:

From the very first lines, he likened the point of view of the map—or of the satellite image—to that of God. ‘With that profound tranquility of the great revolutionaries,’ he wrote, ‘the artist—a man of tender age—moves away, starting with the inaugural piece by which he makes us enter his world, from that naturalist and neo-pagan vision by which our contemporaries exhaust themselves in an attempt to retrieve the image of the Absent One. Not without gallant audacity, he adopts the point of view of a god co-participating, alongside man, in the (re)construction of the world.’

Followed soon thereafter by a potential reason for the works’ popularity, also equally dismissive of a vast swath of French culture:

The growing popularity, across all of France, of cookery classes, the recent appearance of local competitions rewarding new creations in charcuterie or cheese-making, the massive and inexorable spread of hiking . . . combined to bring about this new sociological fact: for the first time in France since Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the countryside had become trendy again . . . And the Michelin map, an utterly unnoticed utilitarian object, became in the space of those very weeks the privileged vehicle for initiation into what Libération was to shamelessly call the ‘magic of the terroir.’

Did you think this one was lacking in Houellebecq’s typical despair? Come on. Here you go:

Over the cheese course, Jed’s father got slightly animated and asked him about his projects. Unfortunately, this time it was Jed who risked spoiling the atmosphere, because since his last painting, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market, he no longer felt much about art. He was going nowhere. There was a sort of force that carried him for a year or two but was now dissipating, crumbling, but what was the point of saying all that to his father, who could do nothing about it. To tell the truth no one could; when faced with such a confession, people could only be slightly sad. They really don’t amount to much, anyway, human relationships.

Houellebecq, a few pages after materializing in his own novel, discussing his life in Shannon, Ireland with Jed. And it’s everything you expect in the best possible way:

“The sunsets are endless and magnificent, it’s like some kind of fucking opera, there are constantly new colors, new flashes of light. I once tried to stay here the whole spring and summer and thought I would die. Every evening, I was on the brink of suicide, with this night that never fell. Since then, at the beginning of April, I go to Thailand and stay there until the end of August. Day starts at six and ends at six, it’s simpler, equatorial and administrative. It’s unbearable hot but the air conditioning works eel and it’s the dead season for tourists. The brothels are empty but they’re still open and that suits me fine; the service remains excellent or very good.”

“Now I have the slight impression you’re playing your own role . . .”

After the overwhelmingly positive (i.e. lucrative) response to Jed’s vernissage featuring the portraits, with the essay by Houellebecq, a discussion between Jed and his gallerist that succinctly, subtly, and perfectly describes the current state of the art market.

“In your view,” Franz went on, “In your view, which painting should’ve got the best offer?”

Jed reflected for a moment. “Maybe Bill Gates and Steve Jobs,” he finally suggested.

“Exactly. It’s gone up to one and a half million euros. From an American broker, who apparently works for Jobs himself.”

“For a long time,” he continued, his voice tense, one the brink of exasperation, “For a long time, the art market has been dominated by the richest businessmen on the planet. And now, for the first time, as well as buying what is most avant-garde in the aesthetic domain, they have the opportunity to buy a painting that portrays themselves. I can’t tell you the number of proposals I’ve received, from businessmen or industrialists, who would like you to paint their portrait. We’ve returned to the time of the Ancien Régime court painting.”

Like all of Houellebecq’s novels, there is violence in The Map and the Territory. It arrives late in the book, but has an incredible impact on both the plot and tone. A description of the crime scene:

The head of the victim was intact, cut off cleanly and placed on one of the armchairs in front of the fireplace. A small pool of blood had formed on the dark green velvet. Facing him on the sofa, the head of a big black dog had also been cleanly cut off. The rest was a massacre, a senseless carnage of strips of flesh scattered across the floor. However, neither the head of the man nor that of the dog were frozen in an expression of horror, but rather one of incredulity and anger.

A passage I have to include because it left me (and, I assume, many others) exhausted and depressed. A rare instance when the context doesn’t matter:

Olga was nice, she was nice and loving, Olga loved him, he repeated to himself with a growing sadness as he also realized that nothing would ever happen between them again; life sometimes offers you a chance, he thought, but when you are too cowardly or too indecisive to seize it life takes the cards away; there is a moment for doing things and entering a possible happiness, and this moment lasts a few days, sometimes a few weeks or even a few months, but it only happens once and one time only, and if you want to return to it later it’s quite simply impossible. There’s no more place for enthusiasm, belief and faith, and there remains just gentle resignation, a sad and reciprocal pity, the useless but correct sensation that something could have happened, that you just simply showed yourself unworthy of this gift you had been offered. He made another coffee, which definitively dispelled the mists of sleep, then thought of leaving Olga a note. “We must think,” he wrote, before crossing that out and scribbling: “You deserve better than me.” He crossed out that sentence again, and wrote, “My father is dying,” then realized that he’d never mentioned his father to Olga, and scrunched up the paper before throwing it in the bin.

And I’ll end with this, which I think represents as much of an artist’s statement as Houellebecq is ever likely to give. Bear in mind that this is a man who loves Balzac and Dickens and Tolstoy:

The question of beauty is secondary in painting: the great painters of the past were considered such when they had developed a world view that was both coherent and innovative, which means that they always painted in the same way, using the same methods and operating procedures to transform the objects of the world into pictorial ones, in a matter that was specific to them and had never been used before.

* * *

My analysis, comparing the two novels, side by side? It seems to me that in this particularly novel, Aira is writing about writing by writing about another art form, painting. He takes a good look at a specific kind of painting, at one specific painter, and at one specific incident in his life in order to spell out his extended metaphor and, ideally, see if anything else can be gleaned from the material. It’s a haphazard approach (he famously writes without aims, and doesn’t edit), and one that can be fun and occasionally transcendently beautiful, but I’m afraid it feels like what it is: narrow in scope.

Houellebecq, on the other hand, takes on big, fundamental questions about life and happiness and our fundamental need for companionship, empathy, and simple understanding. He explores the primal urge to create, and the (often horrific) affects of modern capitalism on the creators and their creations. He doesn’t peddle in metaphors; he strips events down to reveal their piercing emotional power, and, in the process, leaves the reader in that curious state of mind that the best works of art enable: the sneaking suspicion that although it seems like you’ve learned something new about humanity and yourself, you’ve also been reminded that you’ll never truly understand the world, but that asking the questions is nonetheless essential.

Final score, no contest: France 4 – Argentina 1.

——

Tom Roberge works at New Directions and loves Arjen Robben.

——

Did The Map Deserve to Make it to the Quarterfinals?

Yes
No


19 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Lance Edmonds. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

This is where it ends: 1-0 because in the end Argentina scores and Nigeria plays very very well. That one doesn’t work. It happens like this: I find myself underlining and rereading and remembering to tell about An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. The beginning is tied to the ending, steeped in extremes the pampas come alive with warriors and lightning and only the company of a horse. I lay here and look up at those exact stars of the southern hemisphere; my foot caught in the stirrup. I wonder about the geographical line of my life and walking back the path that brought me here.

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is bigger than the pampas and Graceland is not bigger than Lagos. Graceland ​is only about a place in a time; a documentary in a literature contest.

They both play on the storytelling level which is almost always enough but An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter earns the win with language; a timeless grasp on us quietly living in pampas all over.

——

Lance Edmonds is a Bookseller at Posman Books in Chelsea Market. He lives in New York City.

——

Did An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter Deserve to Win

Yes
No


5 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

June started a few days ago, which means that my rambling monthly overview of forthcoming translations is overdue. It also means that World Cup 2014 is about to start, which means that for the next month my brain will be as filled with soccer tactics and outcomes as literary ideas . . .

But sticking with the now: For the past two weeks, I’ve been on editorial trips to Estonia and Latvia. So rather than write up a post about forthcoming translations and a separate one about all the interesting stuff I’ve learned about in the Baltics, I thought I would “skin two bears with one trap” (from what I understand, this is the Estonian equivalent of “kill two birds with one stone,” but a bit larger and darker . . . ) and merge my monthly overview with a bunch of observations and comments.

Since Estonia’s HeadRead Literary Festival and the Estonian Literature Centre were the main impetus behind this trip—they arranged for my flight over and back, all the accommodations, tons of great meetings with authors and other literary figures, etc.—I want to take a paragraph and just give some random shout-outs.

First off, Ilvi Liive and Kerti Tergem are two of the best people you could hire as representatives for your country’s literature. Always professional, super smart, incredibly helpful . . . Estonian literature wouldn’t be where it is today without those two. (And don’t laugh—I can name a half-dozen books that would win a couple rounds in the World Cup of Literature . . . if only Estonia’s actual football team wasn’t such shit.)

Also, the two translators who joined us—Matthew Hyde and Adam Cullen—are bloody brilliant and another reason I think we’re going to have access to more Estonian lit over the next few years. Adam recently translated Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Radio for Dalkey Archive, and is currently working on a mammoth book by Mihkel Mutt that should be out in late 2015.

Adam deserves another special shout-out for hanging out so much. He’s a great guy, with fantastic stories, and I really appreciated all the time he took showing me around, explaining things, drinking maybe too much with me at the amazing NoKu . . .

Same goes for Kaisa Kaer, who is probably best well known as the Estonian translator of the Harry Potter books. (See this entry in the Estonian Wikipedia.) She was there for the late nights at NoKu, but also showed me the part of Tallinn where Stalker was filmed. (Which is especially surreal during this white night period when it gets light way, way too early in the morning.)

Finally: All the other publishers on the trip—Gesche from Pushkin Press, Philip Gwyn Jones from Scribe, Frédéric Martin from Tripode, Artur from Piper, and Job from Prometheus—were all fantastic. I could write paragraphs about all the great things about each editors and his/her respective press . . .

I’ll get into some actual Estonian literature below, but for now, I just wanted to thank everyone who made this possible. OK, onto the books and the random shit.

La Grande by Juan José Saer, translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph (Open Letter Books)

This is the third Saer book that we’re bringing out—we already have two more signed on though, so don’t worry—and it may well be the best. It is “grande,” yet a perfect introduction to Saer’s world, with characters from other books making an appearance, all the normal Saer themes being explored, and a shitload of wine being sold and consumed. It also was his final novel and feels a bit like a summing up. Great summer beach read!

For it’s size, Tallinn surely is a grand city. (See what I did there? Sorry, but after hearing foreign, unintelligible—to me at least—languages for the past couple weeks, my brain is responding with terrible puns [the other day I got into an elevator made by “Schindler” which quickly became “Schindler’s Lift”] and cheesy segues.) The Old City is such an interesting collection of very old buildings that are pretty well preserved . . . If ever there’s a city that deserves to be referred to as looking like a “fairy tale,” this one is it.

And while we were there, it was bustling with activity—the aforementioned HeadRead festival with its dozens of authors, a mini-festival of jazz music (which played very loudly over the opening ceremony of the HeadRead), and Olde Towne Days (I assume the “e“s are all supposed to be there), which was mostly people dressing up in Olde-Timey garb and doing crazy shit at the Town Hall, like playing horns out the windows and yelling “VIVA! VIVA!”



Leg over Leg, Volume 3 & 4 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (NYU Library of Arabic Literature)

One of the funniest parts of the Tallinn trip had to be our meals at Pegasus. Pegasus is a huge, beautiful restaurant that’s part of the Estonian Writers’ Union building. It’s a really great place, and one that was always completely empty when our group arrived for lunch. Without fail, the waitress would come up to the table and explain that due to “how busy the kitchen was” they had a limited menu today, and instead of the twenty or so delicious-sounding things on their menu, we’d have to choose between two starters, two entrees, and one dessert, and we must order everything right away, up front. None of this made any sense, but it made for a fun guessing game . . . “Do you think we’ll be able to get the chicken soup today?” “Nope, just the raw salad and the cheese plate.” “OH, ESTONIA!!!!!!”

The Iceland by Sakutaro Hagiwara, translated from the Japanese by Hiroaki Sato (New Directions)

This was my first experience with the “White Nights” that impact most of Northern Europe. (And places like Iceland, which this book has fuck-all to do with.) That, mixed with the jet lag I’ve started to suffer in my oldering age, is really messing me up. It’s just disorienting to have the sun “set” at 10:30-11:00 at night, after which it will be “dark” for approximately two hours before the pre-dawn and official 4 am sunrise. Instead of curing my seasonal affective disorder (fuck you, winter!), it’s sort of driving me insane. I’ve been waking up most nights at 4:30 and having a hell of a time falling back asleep. But beyond that, my internal evening clock—where you can tell that you’ve been drinking long enough, it’s probably right around midnight given that the sun set a couple hours ago—is totally useless. I love these countries, but I don’t think I could live here . . . Not only would I never sleep in the summer, but the winters of no light would wreck my soul. You are all a strong people, which brings me to my next random observation . . .

Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki, translated from the Portuguese by Stephen Henighan (Biblioasis)

Here in Riga, Latvia (which, contrary to Upstate New York beliefs is pronounced “Ree-ga,” not “RYE-ga”), we’re staying at a place on Lāčplēša iela (street). “Lāčplēsis” is the name of the most famous Latvian hero, a “bear-slayer” who “kills a bear by ripping its jaws apart with his hands.” According to Kaija—our resident Latvian and expert on bear slaying—a better translation of “Lāčplēsis” is “bear-ripper,” “the one who rips bears.” Although that didn’t work out so well against the Big Bear of Mother Russia, it’s best not to fuck with Latvians . . .

Plus, the bags Biblioasis gave out at BEA say “Ten Years of Fucking Amazing Books.” For that reason alone you should buy and read this.

Thirst by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, translated from the Persian by Martin E. Weir (Melville House Books)

This entry is a three-parter: First off, I really loved Dowlatabadi’s Missing Soluch. And although I was less into The Colonel, which got a ton of critical acclaim, I can’t wait to get my hands on this novel about the Iran-Iraq conflict and a journalist asked to fabricate a story to demoralize Iranian soldiers. One interesting note: Dowlatabadi has also written a 10-volume, 3,000-page saga about a Kurdish family. Melville should do this and bill him as the Iranian Knausgaard.

Speaking of thirst (again, apologize for my awful segues), the topic of alcoholism came up a number of times in our meetings with Estonian writers. It was most bluntly—and bleakly—presented in the talk with Peeter Sauter. He was reluctant to talk directly about the novel his was “pitching,” so instead he told us a bunch of stories about his life, other writers, Estonia in general. But then things took a turn . . . “When I got divorced, I got mad. I went around town attacking women . . . drunk. I knew this was a bad thing.” Amid the boozing and depression, he met a woman, and they started a relationship. Around that time, Peeter’s twenty-something son came to live with him. Then, suddenly, soul-crushingly, died of a heart attack. Peeter’s new book is about that.

And speaking of alcoholism, if you haven’t been watching Legit, the Jim Jeffries vehicle on FXX, you must. Not only is it a very funny show—a lot of it is laugh till you hurt funny in that way that mixes situational comedy with the sharp perceptions of a stand-up comedian at the top of his game—but over the course of its two seasons, it’s gotten real. It always had an undercurrent of emotional intensity—one of the main characters has MD and is paralyzed—but the second season is a heart-wrenching (to the point I can barely watch) depiction of alcoholism and how much it can ruin your life. Calling something “dark” is totally cliched, but that’s the best word for Legit. It’s a show that hurts in all of the best ways and way more people should be watching it.

Conversations by Cesar Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions)

Although I’m only halfway through it, I’m pretty sure I’ve talked more about Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Radio with people than any other book I’ve read in the past couple years. Part of it is due to the fact that I’m reading it at the exact perfect time—it’s all about Estonia and Livonian history and culture, and I keep running into things referenced in the book—but there’s something to the narrator’s voice that makes this an incredibly easy book to get into and inhabit. Basically, it’s one man’s recounting of his relationship with a famous Estonian singer. Not necessarily a sexual relationship—he’s gay, she’s married—but there is a sort of sorting out on his behalf of how a woman like this, one from humble Estonian origins but converted into an East European diva, is wedded to his own self-perceptions, especially as an Estonian who’s been living in the great metropolis of Paris. It’s a brilliant book and a great entryway to Baltic literature.

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker, translated from the French by Sam Taylor (Penguin)

Given the fact that this novel has received some truly mixed reviews, and sounds to me like a pop book constructed of well-worn elements of a different age, this seems like the perfect place to talk about music in Eastern Europe. One of my long-running jokes is that Bon Jovi (and Guns ‘n’ Roses) exist only for Eastern European radio stations. This is a harsh truth: traditionally, the pop stations in this part of the world play some really trashy American crap. The 80s never left the Soviet Bloc!

I’ve been pleasantly surprised in our visits to the local cafes here in Riga. For the most part they all have been playing indie rock circa 2012—Foster the People, Grimes, Dirty Projectors—which is both a relief and a disappointment. (We’ve heard some Latvian rock, but mostly stuff that’s more classic.) That said, on the drive home from Open Letter author Inga Ābele’s gorgeous estate we heard “Two Princes” by the Spin Doctors. That’s more like it, Latvija!

(Of course, the Spin Doctors played the largest festival in Rochester last year . . . Because Rochester, NY is basically Eastern Europe—always twenty years behind the time. BOOM.)

Tonight we are going to Ala, a great bar with amazing live culture beer, to listen to folk songs and karaoke. I already know how this ends.

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Random House)

Inga Ābele lives in one of the most relaxing, amazing estates I’ve ever been privileged to visit. I say “estate,” because there’s a very gorgeous modern house surrounded by three other barns and guest houses, including one that was built like a thousand years ago or something. Plus, they have a sauna next to a little pond and are only a short walk through the woods to a spring with pure, cool water. There are ostriches nearby. And peacocks. And a billion mosquitos.

While walking to the springs I stopped to read a bunch of the little signposts printed in English. Most all of them were about local flora and fauna—including some very rare ants that creeped me out—and were written in janky almost-English. “It is for the sprouting times!” Also, every single one ended with the phrase “PLANT IS SOMEWHAT POISONOUS!” in ALL-CAPS and bold.

I have so many questions about this . . . First off, the pictures on these signs made exactly none of these plant recognizable, and based on where the signs were posted, you may well have been trekking through the “SOMEWHAT POISONOUS” plant just to read about how it may poison you. Also, “somewhat”? The hell does that indicate? Like rashy poisonous or eat-it-and-die poisonous? And poisonous to what and/or whom? Birds? People? SO MANY QUESTIONS, LATVIAN SIGN WRITER!

The Antiquarian by Gustavo Faveron Patriau, translated from the Spanish by Joseph Mulligan (Black Cat)

I talked about this book on an upcoming podcast and it really might be the summer title that I’m most looking forward to. It’s also an appropriate title under which to include the story of the Riga Cat House.

The real story of this cat can be found on Wikipedia with a simple search, but I want to relay Kaija’s slightly embellished version (further embellished by me).

Way back in the middle ages of Latvia—aka the early 1900s—two businessmen got in a huge fight. One lied to the other, the other corrupted the first one’s daughter, there were more lawsuits more complicated than those found in Bleak House, both businessmen wanted the other totally destroyed—it was like a cold war of the merchant class. As a final effort to irritate Businessman A, the other businessman, knowing how much Businessman A hated the “filthy” cats that populate the Old Town of Riga, put a statue of a pissed off, about to poop cat on top of one of his turrets and aimed the cat’s asshole right at the other businessman’s window. This was like nails scratching on a chalkboard. Businessman A went totally insane, petitioning the city council to make Businessman B turn the asshole away from his window . . . “It’s just a cat!” “It’s a cat that wants to poop on me and suck out my soul! Filthy cats!” Eventually, Businessman A’s house burnt down, he died, and, out of a crippling karmic fear, Businessman B turned the cat around so it could shit on his own house, then he went and hid in the countryside and was never heard from again.

Now they sell shirts and coffee mugs and reproductions of the pooping cat. And as legend has it, if you drink Black Balsam (a regional herbal liquor that’s both kind of gross and kind of amazing, and which loosely translates as “Witches Brew”) under a full moon out of a pooping cat shot glass, you can control the mind of the Russian nearest to you. So, that. Rock on, Livonia!

That’s it for now. Enjoy June with all its sun, soccer, and books!

4 November 13 | Chad W. Post |

Before getting into this month’s list of recommended translations—which is kind of long, mostly because I couldn’t decide on which titles to cut—I want to follow-up a bit on last month’s post about our trip to the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Actually, to be more specific, I want to talk about Germans singing karaoke. The book fair itself was fantastic. We met with dozens and dozens of people, found at least a half-dozen books we want to publish, and ate a year’s worth of currywurst. (I also drank all of Surhkamp’s wine at their swanky party. And heard a lot of details about the current court imbroglio, most of which I can’t write about here.)

As it turned out, the St. Louis Cardinals were playing the L.A. Dodgers on the final night that we were in Frankfurt. Most everyone reading this knows about my love for the Cardinals (and my heart-wrenching disappointment that they lost to the fucking Red Sox), and seeing this was the playoffs, I had to find a way to see the game. Luckily, right next door to our hotel was O’Reilly’s, an Irish Sports pub that also specializes in karaoke.

Although our waitress referred to it as “that singing shit,” I was sort of excited about the mixture of baseball and karaoke. Karaoke is one of those great moments when you get to publicly witness people overvaluing their skills. People generally think of themselves as the exception to the rule—ask all the stock traders in the world if they’re above average or below average and 75% of them will claim to be “above,” something that’s statistically bullshit—but rarely put that out of such obvious display.

Of course, this being Germany, I was expecting ALL the Bon Jovi and Guns n’ Roses, and possibly the ‘Hoff. But NO. NOT EVEN ANY ABBA. We were treated to exactly none of that. Instead, we got a totally different array of shitty music: multiple Billy Joel songs, a Dolly Parton finale (sung by a tone deaf guy who was a regular), and even NICKELBACK.

What was even more interesting than the bizarre song choices (“9 to 5”?? Has this ever been sung at another karaoke bar?) was the way in which German karaokers over-annuciate all the lyrics. There was no slurring or mumbling when the one dude belted out “WOAH-OH-HO-OH. FOH ZE LON-GEST TIME.” It’s as if they were adding in syllables to make sure that each word was fully articulated.

No where was this more apparent, and disturbing, than in the rendition of “How You Remind Me.” Listen to the “video” to remind yourself of a) how fucking terrible this song is, b) that the chorus to this song is “Yeah, yeah, yeah, no, no / Yeah, yeah, yeah, no, no,” and c) how Mr. Linkin Park trips from vowel to vowel with a bit of fierce in his voice.

That was not at all how it was sung that night in Germany. Instead of the sort of growl that’s a Nickelback trademark (cough), everything was as clean and orderly as possible (cough, Germans). So we got something like this:

It’s not like you to say so-HREE
I vas VAYting on a dee-fer-RENT sto-HREE
Zis time I’m me-STAY-ken
Foh hending you a haht vurt brea-KING
And I’ve been VRONG, I’ve been down,
Been to ze bot-TOM ov EH-VE-REE bottle
Zeez faif VURDS in my head
Scream “ah vee ha-VING fun yet?”

And this guy didn’t just sing one time and then give it up. He went up there TWICE. Oh, karaoke.

Red Grass by Boris Vian. Translated from the French by Paul Knobloch. (Tam Tam Books, $15.95)

Boris Vian was amazing. It’s a true shame that he died at such a young age (39), in such a tragic way (supposedly, he snuck into a premiere of the movie version of I Spit on Your Grave, stood up, yelled, “Those are supposed to be Americans? My ass!,” and died of a heart attack). It’s hard to imagine how many great works he would’ve produced had he lived to the ripe old age of Philip Roth.

Tam Tam Books—which is run by Tosh Berman, former buyer at Book Soup, and is dedicated to making Vian’s works available to English readers—is in a perfect position for a Vian resurgence, what with a new movie version of Mood Indigo coming out this year, and this newly translated novel sounds spectacular:

Red Grass tells the story of Wolf, an engineer like Vian himself, who, with the help of Saphir Lazuli, a mechanic, has devised a bizarre “machine” with which he hopes to annihilate old inhibiting memories.

More exciting than the plot is the Vian language which,

undergoes unexpected subversions, as new concepts, sports or occupations are invented, such as “rednecking,” “bloodsport,” and “thigh climber.”

Thigh climber!

Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell. Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell. (Two Lines Press, $14.95)

Two Lines, which comes out of the Center for the Art of Translation, is one of the best, and longest-running, journals for literature in translation. When they announced last year that they were going to expand into doing books, this seemed like a natural, and exciting, evolution.

This collection is pretty intriguing. Littell, whose Kindly Ones was a huge deal in France, but not so well received in most other countries, followed up his gigantic novel with four short books he wrote for the Montpellier publisher Fata Morgana. Exploring “sex, love, and memory,” this 178-page book provides a nice entry to Littell’s prose.

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura. Translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter. (Other Press, $29.95)

This book is beautifully produced. Two perfect paperbacks in a slick slipcase—this is one of the best designed volumes I’ve received all year.

Hannah Vose wrote a fantastic review of this book for us, so be sure and check that out for more info on the book itself. (She’s very convincing about how worthwhile this book is.)

Sticking with book design for a second: Have any of you seen S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst? HOLY SHIT. I knew this was going to be a multi-media sort of experience, but the product itself is pretty stunning—just look:

And, in typical Lost fashion, there are lots of real-world “clues” that tie into the book, including this website, and these radio broadcasts.

I’m totally getting sucked in . . . It’s like Lost all over again . . . Such a sucker for these sorts of games . . .

Black Stars by Ngo Tu Lap. Translated from the Vietnamese by Martha Collins. (Milkweed Editions, $16.00)

LAP! As is noted in the bio page to this collection, Ngo Tu Lap got his Ph.D. from Illinois State University where he interned at Dalkey Archive Press. Both Nate and I were there during that time, and remember a number of Lap stories. (And the fact that he totally knows how to rock a black leather vest.) My favorite was when he cooked us all a traditional Vietnamese dinner, then implied that it contained dog . . . It didn’t, but shit, for a second there I think most of us bought it . . .

The Mongolian Conspiracy by Rafael Bernal. Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver. (New Directions, $14.95)

Tom and I talked about this book on one our recent podcasts, including the fact that Tom got the estate to chance the reference to the “FBI agent” to a “CIA agent,” which makes a lot more sense in the context of the plot.

We also talked about the word “fucking.” There are more “fuckings” in this book than in any other book I’ve read recently. Although there are a lot of times that this is used to illuminate the way the protagonist’s mind works, I’m sure it’ll be a bit overwhelming to some readers.

That said, I really appreciated Francisco Goldman’s blurb stating that this is, “The best fucking novel ever written about Mexico City.” Reminds me a bit of Toby Litt’s blurb for Carlos Labbé’s Navidad & Matanza, which he refers to as “headfuck fiction.” More blurbs need to include the word “fuck.”

Shantytown by Cesar Aira. Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. (New Directions, $13.95)

Sticking with ND’s November releases for a minute, Shantytown is the ninth book by Aira that they’ve published. I haven’t had a chance to read this one—Will Vanderhyden is working up a review for us and took the only galley that arrived—but I love using his books in my World Literature class. They’re all readable, enjoyable, and work in a similar way: At some point early on, Aira gets to believe in one unbelievable thing (in Ghosts it’s the existence of ghosts, in The Literary Conference, it’s the impossible to render description of the treasure and how it’s found) and then is free to do basically anything in the text. (Such as having huge silkworms come out of the hills.) This is a great set-up for talking about what translations have to accomplish . . .

The Combover by Adrián Bravi. Translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon. (Frisch & Co., $7.28)

Including this here both because Frisch & Co. deserves some praise, but also because of this line:

A hilariously dark tale in the tradition of César Aira, The Combover confirms Bravi’s unique status among Italian contemporary writers.

So, if you love the nine Aira books New Directions has put out, you should definitely check this out.

Also, it involves Lapland. LAPLAND.

Everything Happens as It Does by Albena Stambolova. Translated from the Bulgarian by Olga Nikolova. (Open Letter Books, $12.95)

Thanks to the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, Olga Nikolova spent a few weeks in Rochester working on this translation and learning about the American publishing scene. As part of her education, on her last day here, we decided to take her to Taylor’s, a “cougar club” which just so happens to be managed by Cuban author José Manuel Prieto’s brother. So, a literary cougar club? Anyway, as it turned out, Olga’s last night in town corresponded with the “What Women Want Weekend”—a frightening thing that involved hundreds of middle-aged women descending on Taylor’s to meet the University of Rochester’s a cappella group, the Yellowjackets. (Who appeared on NBC’s The Sing-Off.) Those kids barely made it out alive . . . But man, what a shit show! All the awkward dancing, the walk-by ass grabs, the make-up and hair! It was a thing that can only be experienced, never described. And Olga absolutely loved it. The way I remember, she almost “accidentally” left her passport behind so that she would be stranded in Rochester, frequenting the Taylor’s every weekend . . .

Dalkey Archive’s Library of Korean Literature, the first ten releases.

A few years back, Dalkey Archive announced that they had received a massive grant from the Literary Translation Institute of Korea to publish 25 Korean books. The first 10 come out this month, with the remaining 15 due in 2014.

I recently served as a judge for South Korea’s biennial translation contest, and ended up reading all 11 books published in English translation in the past two years. There’s more to say about those books and that contest, but for now, it’s worth noting that Dalkey, in one day, almost exceeded the total number of Korean books published over the previous two years. That’s what funding and determination can do!

Of the ten books that are coming out now, the four that caught my eye are: A Most Ambiguous Sunday, and Other Stories by Jung Young-moon, translated by Yewon Jung, Inrae You Vinciguerra, and Louis Vinciguerra; One Spoon on This Earth by Hyun Ki-young, translated by Jennifer M. Lee; When Adam Opens His Eyes by Jang Jung-il, translated by Hwang Sun-ae and Horace Jeffery Hodges; and At Least We Can Apologize by Lee Ki-ho, translated by Christopher Joseph Dykas.

If you’re interested in learning more about the series, and these ten books, you should really download this PDF sampler, which includes excerpts from all of the books.

The Maya Pill by German Sadulaev. Translated from the Russian by Carol Apollonio. (Dalkey Archive Press, $15.00)

Sticking with Dalkey for a minute, this book sounds wonderful:

A bitingly funny twenty-first century satire, The Maya Pill tells the story of a mid-level manager at a frozen-food import company who comes upon a box of psychotropic pills that’s accidentally been slipped into a shipment. He takes one, and disappears down the rabbit hole: entering the mind of a Chinese colleague; dreaming that he is one of the rulers of an ancient kingdom; even believing he is in negotiations with the devil. A mind-expanding companion to the great Russian classics, The Maya Pill is strange, savage, bizarre, and uproarious.

I’m also intrigued by this title knowing that Carol Apollonio was one of Bromance Will’s professors at Duke. (And speaking of Bromance, it’s not too many more months before I can start including Deep Vellum titles on this list.)

Eucalyptus by Mauricio Segura. Translated from the French by Donald Winkler. (Biblioasis, $18.95)

Number one reason to read this book? Stephen Sparks of Green Apple and the BTBA blurbed it:

Well-executed, with a cinematic quality and keen visual sense . . . Segura locates the political through the personal in a way that is uncommon.

That’s it for now . . .

15 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Emily Davis on The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, the most recent Aira book to come out from New Directions, and which is translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver.

Emily is a graduate of the University of Rochester’s Master of Arts in Literary Translation, and for her thesis she translated Damián Tabarovsky’s Medical Autobiography, which we hopefully will be publishing in the not-too-distant future.

I can’t imagine anyone reading this blog isn’t already familiar with César Aira. New Directions has published seven of his books, including Ghosts, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, The Literary Conference, and How I Became a Nun. And this is just a fraction of Aira’s incredible output—he’s published more than 50 works, including 2-4 every year since 1993. (According to Wikipedia, the World’s Finest Information Source.)

Here’s the opening of Emily’s review:

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who lately, and I’m therefore liable to see everything through science-fiction-colored glasses. But when the pages of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira refer to “the totality of the present and of eternity” and the narrator drops phrases like “all possible worlds,” can you blame me for reading this book as a sort of exercise in shaping a reality that’s beyond what we would normally consider reality?

Let me back up, and let me be fair. A book that claims to be about miracles is not going to be fully grounded in reality. Or rather, it might be grounded in reality, but sooner or later it’s going to move beyond, above, outside of, maybe even to someplace that’s simply adjacent to reality. At the same time, those who are already familiar with César Aira’s books know that even the most normal, most mundane circumstances are likely to be interrupted by fantastical creatures or seemingly impossible events.

The Miracle Cures is a bit different, though. It’s subtler than the blue worms of The Literary Conference, or the armadillo-car of The Seamstress and the Wind. It’s more a meditation on what’s possible and, perhaps more importantly, what makes certain things possible. The Miracle Cures focuses more on the abstract.

Aira is no stranger to abstraction in his writing: his narratives often wander into abstract musings that can be frustrating or enlightening (or both), depending on how much mental energy you’re willing to devote to them (or how coherent he’s made them in the first place). Here, however, far more than I’ve seen before, Aira calls himself out on it. Dr. Aira, the protagonist of The Miracle Cures, is, as it turns out, an aspiring author. He plans to write and publish a series of books about the Miracle Cures. In writing these books, the narrator tells us Dr. Aira refuses to write in the standard, expected way: that is, using specific examples to illustrate his points. He prefers to remain in the abstract realm. Not only that, but even Dr. Aira’s drawings, which can be found in his many notebooks alongside his written notes about the Cures, always turn out abstract. Very rarely and only by accident do they ever represent something recognizable.

Click here to read the review in its entirety.

15 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who lately, and I’m therefore liable to see everything through science-fiction-colored glasses. But when the pages of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira refer to “the totality of the present and of eternity” and the narrator drops phrases like “all possible worlds,” can you blame me for reading this book as a sort of exercise in shaping a reality that’s beyond what we would normally consider reality?

Let me back up, and let me be fair. A book that claims to be about miracles is not going to be fully grounded in reality. Or rather, it might be grounded in reality, but sooner or later it’s going to move beyond, above, outside of, maybe even to someplace that’s simply adjacent to reality. At the same time, those who are already familiar with César Aira’s books know that even the most normal, most mundane circumstances are likely to be interrupted by fantastical creatures or seemingly impossible events.

The Miracle Cures is a bit different, though. It’s subtler than the blue worms of The Literary Conference, or the armadillo-car of The Seamstress and the Wind. It’s more a meditation on what’s possible and, perhaps more importantly, what makes certain things possible. The Miracle Cures focuses more on the abstract.

Aira is no stranger to abstraction in his writing: his narratives often wander into abstract musings that can be frustrating or enlightening (or both), depending on how much mental energy you’re willing to devote to them (or how coherent he’s made them in the first place). Here, however, far more than I’ve seen before, Aira calls himself out on it. Dr. Aira, the protagonist of The Miracle Cures, is, as it turns out, an aspiring author. He plans to write and publish a series of books about the Miracle Cures. In writing these books, the narrator tells us Dr. Aira refuses to write in the standard, expected way: that is, using specific examples to illustrate his points. He prefers to remain in the abstract realm. Not only that, but even Dr. Aira’s drawings, which can be found in his many notebooks alongside his written notes about the Cures, always turn out abstract. Very rarely and only by accident do they ever represent something recognizable.

The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira is hard to summarize. The most I can do is set it up: Dr. Aira has the power to perform miracle cures, and everyone knows it. His power is legendary. The hospital chief is constantly developing elaborate traps designed to trick Dr. Aira into performing a miracle cure on command, and Dr. Aira tries his best to avoid these tricks. Dr. Aira is also a sleepwalker, or rather, to use the words of the novel itself:

He suffered from a type of somnambulism, and it wasn’t all that unusual for him to wake up on unknown streets, which he actually knew quite well because all of them were the same.

On one such morning, Dr. Aira finds himself talking to a Lebanon cedar, delivering a rather deep philosophical monologue about humanity and its position on the planet and its relationship to Nature, when suddenly he pauses and adds:

Of course I am personalizing this quite perversely, reifying and externalizing forces that exist within us, but it doesn’t matter because I understand myself.

This is not only a comment that might make a frequent Aira reader laugh (“you might not have a clue what I’m trying to say here, but rest assured that at least I get it”), it’s also an indicator of one aspect of Aira’s writing style. Here, and in his books in general, Aira is a master of using high-register vocabulary in a matter-of-fact way. Why mention sleepwalking when he can easily fold in somnambulism instead? That his character is talking to a tree, like a madman? Why not seamlessly incorporate a word like reifying?

Of course, we ought to remember that Aira writes in Spanish, and this sort of styling—in particular, a stylistic trait that depends on certain vocabularies—does not simply transfer from one language to another on its own. That’s the work of a skilled translator, and here as ever, Katherine Silver does not disappoint. I can only imagine the feat it must be to translate Aira; nonetheless, The Miracle Cures is remarkably smooth while remaining anything but flat.

The final scene of The Miracle Cures is the most lively, most visually interesting, most mentally engaging of the entire book. Unfortunately, the ending itself is disappointing. Without giving it away—here I am going into abstractions myself—the ending does make the opening scene make a little more sense, but it doesn’t quite connect enough of the dots. I don’t expect all the dots to be connected—Aira usually leaves a few disconnects—but I just get the feeling he could have done more with this one. It just falls, and not enough in the “oh, this makes a lot of Aira-sense” direction. There seems to be a little too much truth to the narrator’s comment as Dr. Aira is wrapping up his actions in the final scene:

As often happens with difficult jobs, a point came when the only thing that mattered was to finish. He almost lost interest in the results, because the result that included all the others was to finish what he had started.

18 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at The Argentina Independent, Joey Rubin has an article about five “exciting new Argentine novels” that have recently been translated into English.

As a huge fan of Southern Cone literature, the fact that there’s quality contemporary works coming out of that area isn’t that surprising, but it is almost shocking to realize just how many great Argentine books are being published in the States . . . Here are the five titles that Joey focused on, with short clips from his descriptions:

Friends of Mine by Ángela Pradelli: Called ‘Friends of Mine’, and also translated by [Andrea] Labinger, the novel tells the story of a group of women living in the Buenos Aires province, who meet once a year on 30th December to eat dinner, celebrate the New Year, and reflect on the strange, difficult and wonderful passage of time. Structured in short, lucid fragments, the novel reads like a coming-of-age tale for a group of friends, a neighborhood, and an era of life in middle-class Argentina that has as much resonance today (and outside of Spanish) as it did when it was first published in 2002 and was awarded the Premio Emecé. [. . .]

The Islands by Carlos Gamerro: Like the spiralling narrator of ‘Bad Burgers,’ the protagonist of ‘The Islands’ chases his own trauma down a rabbit hole when he discovers that, despite the passage of ten years, the Falklands/Malvinas War is still raging — a reality he’s not quite ready to confront. [. . .]

Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman: Neuman, who has written poetry (‘No sé por qué’), short story (‘Alumbramiento’) and travelogue (‘Cómo viajar sin ver’), created in ‘Traveller of the Century’ a novel that is at once contemporary and historical: set in Restoration-era Germany, it discusses sexual mores and intellectual disputes in a distinctly modern way. Praise from writers like Roberto Bolaño long ago boosted his reputation in the Spanish-speaking world, but more than acclaim or ambition, it’s the clarity and grace of Neuman’s prose that has earned him high standing among fans. [. . .]

The Planets by Sergio Chejfec: First published in Spanish in 1999, ‘The Planets’ was written during the fifteen-year period when Chejfec lived in Venezuela, a temporal and cultural dislocation important to the text. As ‘My Two Worlds’ used ambulatory reflection, ‘The Planets’ uses the act of remembering to elevate a simple story into an elegant register. It’s a mode of literature difficult to master, but worthy of celebration when done right. [. . .]

Varamo by César Aira: A novel kind of about a Peruvian man who takes up the homemade art of fish embalming, and also kind of about a very slow city-wide car race, and also kind of about the makings of a classic Central American poem, and yet somehow also not about these things at all. ‘Varamo’ is as strange, and as compelling, as Aira’s best work. In fact, it may be Aira’s best work. Or his worst. You’ll have to read all his books to know for certain.

3 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

All posts in this series can be found here. Today we look at the lastest from Cesar Aira—an annual BTBA author—in a piece written by an extrapolation of my 15-year-old self.

The Literary Conference by Cesar Aira, translated by Katherine Silver

Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 90

Why It Should Win: Cesar Aira is due (last year’s Ghosts was a finalist); Katherine Silver is due (two years ago, her translation of Senselessness was a finalist); Spanish language is due (in the past three years, nine Spanish titles have been finalists, but none have won); mad scientists are “in”

When I was a kid, I loved comic books. X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman, whatever. I still have two huge boxes of comics that represent every dime (and then some) that I earned during my summer jobs, working on golf courses and being pelted by balls from uppity country club members who were better at investments and hostile takeovers than actually golfing. And every time, while digging a sandtrap, a ball narrowly missed me, I wished I had superhero powers so that I could eradicate whatever polo-wearing d-bag just “forgot” to yell “FORE!” I wanted to go all Psylocke on them. Or web them to a tree. Something juvenile, and something more akin to the motivations of the supervillains found in comics than the upstanding, moral superheroes. Cause the bad guys are always more fun.

In addition to the cult of collecting (also loved baseball cards, but that’s a different post), one of the things I loved about comics was the nature of the storytelling. Obviously, none of the comics I read (save maybe The Invisibles) was anywhere near literary, but there was something intriguing and compelling about how the serial storytelling had to work . . . Every reader already knew the comic formula, especially in the 1980s—bad guy tries to take over world, good guy nearly loses, good guy prevails—and it was the goal of the comic writer to vary this in a way that made you want to pick up the next month’s issue. (It was almost Oulipian in its constraints.) There had to be cliffhangers, the planting of seeds of future storylines, etc., etc.

But to be honest—in a maybe dark sort of self-punishing way—what I kept reading for was the idea that one time the bad guy would win. The mad scientist maybe wouldn’t take over the world, but would off at least one minor superhero. If nothing was at stake, if nothing terrible could happen to a character in this imaginary world, than everything I had wasted money and hours on meant exactly nothing.

Which is why The Literary Conference is so cool: it’s about a literary translator turned mad scientist

So, once upon a time . . . an Argentinean scientist conducted experiments in the cloning of cells, organs, and limbs, and achieved the ability to reproduce, at will, whole individuals in indefinite quantities. First, he worked with insects, then higher animals, and finally human beings. His success did not vary, though as he approached human beings the nature of the clones subtly changes; they became non-similar clones. He overcame his disappointment with this variation by telling himself that in the final analysis the perception of similarity is quite subjective and always questionable. He had no doubt, however, that his clones were genuine, legions of the Ones whose numbers he could multiply as often as he wished.

At this point he reached an impasse and found himself unable to proceed toward his final goal, which was nothing less than world domination. In this respect he was the typical Mad Scientist of the comic books. He was incapable of setting a more modest goal for himself; at his level, it simply wouldn’t have been worth his while.

And how is the narrator/translator/mad scientist going to take over the world? By cloning Carlos Fuentes.

So yeah, on one level The Literary Conference is an absurd book, one that ends with huge blue worms descending from the mountains, and our mad scientist turned hero being put in a position to possibly save the day and get the girl.

But to draw out this out a bit more . . . The way Aira builds to this point is so mesmerizing that it’s as if he does have superpowers. His narrator’s tone and way of explaining his goals and ideas (the bit about a person’s uniqueness being constructed from the specific books one has read is brilliant, as is the section on “cerebral hyperactivity”) is spectacular, and Katie did a marvelous job rendering these rhythms and peculiar word choices in English.

In constructing this strange world of clones and world domination, there are hints of something larger, of this all being a crafty metaphor. The main character is named Cesar, who is also a writer of strange, metaphorical works. The idea of clones, of cloning Fuentes, of Aira’s insane literary production (he’s written more than 50 books), of writing unique books, of taking over the world . . . Reading this, I felt there was something more going beneath the comic book surface. That there was a sort of secret plot at the center of this book on secret plots. Or maybe that’s my comic book loving 15-year-old self getting the better of me.

15 June 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Last week I was on the Wisconsin Public Radio show Here On Earth to make some international literature summer reading recommendations. We weren’t able to cover the full list of books I came up with, so I thought I’d post about them one-by-one over the next couple weeks with additional info, why these titles sound appealing to me, etc., etc. Click here for the complete list of posts.

“The Literary Conference”:http://www.ndpublishing.com/books/AiraLiteraryConference.html by Cesar Aira. Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver. (Argentina, New Directions)

Another post, another project to catch up on . . .

Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten a copy of this book yet, so this is truly a “looking forward to reading this summer” sort of preview post. I have read all of Aira’s other books to make their way into English, generally liking each new title even more than the last. And based on what I’ve heard about The Literary Conference, I have pretty high expectations, especially after Ghosts, which New Directions brought out last year, and which quickly became a cult favorite and was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award. (To be honest, it was a couple of votes away from winning . . .)

The Literary Conference is the fifth Aira book to make its way into English, and may be the most anticipated by everyone—not just me. The plot synopsis is absolutely wild: a translator who has fallen on hard times solves a puzzle, finds a pirate treasure, and decides to use his new found wealth to take over the world by cloning Carlos Fuentes.

As expected, Michael Orthofer has already reviewed this at the Complete Review, giving it a B+ (solid!) and having this to say:

What’s particularly striking about The Literary Conference is the relatively matter-of-fact tone and straightforward narration. César’s account is precise and conventional, the events he describes often downright mundane. Yet the novella is full of the fantastical, inserting the very unusual (that Fuentes-cloning experiment goes really, really wrong, for one thing) in the very everyday.

The Literary Conference constantly keeps the reader guessing: Aira leads down one path, only to radically upset his premises and change route (or, arguably, to take things to their logical conclusion — though it’s not a readily recognizable and familiar logic . . .), while almost all the while maintaining his straightforward tone.

The Literary Conference is one of those books that truly is unlike anything most readers are likely to have encountered (even if they’ve read a few other works by Aira). César makes a point of emphasizing uniqueness; The Literary Conference certainly stands out among most works of fiction, its mix of convention and peculiarity particularly striking.

Another interesting review — from another member of the 2011 BTBA fiction committee — is this one by Scott Esposito in which he elaborates on one of the key passages in Ghosts to try and articulate Aira’s unique aesthetic:

At the very centre of Ghosts is one of Aira’s customary philosophical digressions, a 10-pager that ranges from architecture to the indigenous rite of gift-giving known as “potlatch” to the space of imagination in dreams. The point of this digression seems to be to examine the thought at the core of the book — how art can be both “made” and “unmade” at once — and at one point Aira laments that with most arts there is an insurmountable gulf between the idea and the artefact. However, Aira points out one important exception: “And yet it is possible to imagine an art in which the limitations of reality would be minimised, in which the made and the unmade would be indistinct, an art that would be instantaneously real, without ghosts. And perhaps that art exists, under the name of literature.”

Without attempting a rigorous reading of Ghosts, it seems fair to say that here Aira is elaborating his own theory of literature, as well as suggesting why he keeps his stories perpetually on the threshold of signification, forever forestalling an actual conclusion. He strives to embody that point in between the made and the unmade — to go back and revise would be to risk pulling his writing from this amorphous phase of creation. Instead he constantly runs forward, leaving behind works still burning with their formative fires.

Aira is one of the most interesting, unique Argentine authors writing today, and all of his books are definitely worth checking out.

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Seems ironically fitting to follow the first Making the Translator Visible post with this bit from Conversational Reading about a recent interview with Cesar Aira (whose Ghosts is—to steal a line from a New York Times article—so good it’s in need of adjectives yet invented that would be written in italics and all caps) in Letras Libres and Aira’s feeling about translators:

A una corrección sobre todo. Pero yo siempre a la traducción la tomé como un oficio del que viví. Ahí sí lo vi con todo pragmatismo, hasta tal punto que me especialicé en literatura mala. Porque los editores pagan lo mismo por la mala que por la buena, y la buena es mucho más difícil de traducir. Entonces terminé especializándome, bah, más bien tomando estos bestsellers norteamericanos, que son facilísimos de traducir porque están escritos en una prosa estereotipada.

Essentially: any pragmatic translator would prefer to translate bestsellers, because they sell more and the prose is so bad that they’re much easier to translate.

Here’s to hoping literary translators always remain quirky and as unpragmatic as wealthy independent publishers.

27 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The entire plot of Ghosts, Cesar Aira’s third novel to be translated into English and published by New Directions, is encapsulated in this story told over New Year’s Eve dinner:

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

The teenager Patri shares this story shortly before midnight, and shortly before having to decide whether she should follow in the footsteps of the princess, or stay in this world and resist the temptation of the ghosts inhabiting the building where she lives.

Taking place over the course of New Year’s Eve, this novel is set in an unfinished, soon-to-be swanky high-rise in Buenos Aires, where a number of Chilean construction workers (including Patri’s family) both work and live. The novel opens beautifully, taking the reader through a variety of perspectives, from the earlier morning visits of the future inhabitants to check in on how things are going, to the mind of the architect, to Patri’s cousin who gets all the workers their lunch, to Patri’s mom, before settling in on Patri herself. This extended intro is almost like a supernatural flight, a way of passing through all the layers of the building and the class divisions of the people involved with it. And beyond setting up the plot and players, it also gives Aira a chance to show off his skills.

Aira—who is immensely popular in his home Argentina, and is the author of dozens of novels cherished by thousands of portenos who just don’t get why he hasn’t exactly taken off in the States yet—is a remarkably skilled and varied writer. How I Became a Nun, which ND published in 2007, is rather surreal, angular, and disjointed. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter came out in English in 2006 and is more historical and detached than either of the other two titles. The scope of Aira’s imagination and skills are quite incredible—if unlabled, it would be rather difficult to surmise that these three books were written by the same person.

That said, the one intangible constant across the three is Aira’s complete control and mastery of language. His writing is always graceful, especially when setting a particular scene, be it the Argentine pampas, as in An Episode, or a oppressively hot day on a construction site in Buenos Aires.

A construction site that is an interesting nexus of both construction workers and ghosts—ghosts that peek in on the family around siesta time, silently, not disturbing anyone. These are rather playful ghosts (rather than sinister), which are taken for granted and casually discussed by the living inhabitants.

That said, there is something sinister about the ghosts—at least in the opinion of Patri’s mother who quips about the princess’s imminent disappointment when she arrives at the afterlife only to find out that all “ghosts are gay.” A comment that builds on Elisa’s earlier conversation with her adolescent daughter about the “ ‘real men’ who were destined to make them happy” and points to a deeper reading of this charming ghost story as a twisted sort of sexual coming-of-age narrative. One that hinges on Patri’s potentially deadly decision—either she chooses a “real man,” or a neutered death.

Not that this novel can be reduced so simply. The numerous architectural references (including a long dream sequence about building and the unbuilt) are more theoretical and reflect back on novel-making as a craft, and how these “word-structures” can convey meaning:

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

Of Aira’s novels to make their way into English, this is the one with the best chance of finding its audience. The tone of this novel perfectly melds with the plot and underlying ambitions, and it’s an incredibly enjoyable book that can be read during a nice summer afternoon. All of Aira’s books are pretty short, but this is deceptive—there’s a lot of joy and thought packed into this slender volume. I’m not sure Americans will ever appreciate the diversity of his books or the precision of his prose as much as Argentinean readers do (Roberto Bolano: “Once you have started to read Aira, you don’t want to stop”), but this is a novel with a lot of appeal, which will hopefully expand his overall English readership.

21 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Thanks to the Complete Review for pointing out that the new issue of the Boston Review is now available online.

Number of interesting articles in this issue, in particular the late Aura Estrada has a fantastic piece on Cesar Aira and Roberto Bolano.

Thanks to Susan Sontag, FSG, and great writing, Roberto Bolano has received a good deal of well-deserved exposure over the past few months. Unfortunately, Aira—whose books are much more bizarre, slight, and completely different from one another—has been more overlooked.

Having read both of the books New Directions has published, I think Aira’s a great talent whose stature will grow over the next few years. And how could he not?:

Slim, cerebral, witty, fanciful, and idiosyncratic, Aira’s novels draw strength and meaning from many traditions, including Eastern and Central European existentialism: from the Polish Witold Gombrowicz, the French Raymond Russell, the Russian Mikhail Bulgakov, the Czech Bohumil Hrabal, and even the Austrian Thomas Bernhard—without the anti-nationalist anger.

Estrada’s review of Amulet is equally engaging and thoughtful, further illustrating what a great talent we recently lost.

Also in this issue are articles by Roger Boylan on Nabokov’s Gife and Scott Saul on Brazil’s Dreamer: Chico Buarque.

28 June 07 | Chad W. Post |

Ben Lytal—who is blessed with constantly getting only the best books to review—has a piece in the New York Sun about two Latin American authors from New Directions: Jorge Luis Borges and Enrique Vila-Matas.

The article is mostly about the recent reissue of Labyrinths complete with new preface by William Gibson, which is a fantastic thing for the world. There’s no one like Borges, and as Lytal points out, his influence spans generations and genres.

“The Garden of the Forking Paths,” “The Library of Babel,” “The Aleph,” some of the best stories of the twentieth century . . .

It’s surprising to see Lytal say that Vila-Matas is his least favorite ND Latin American author, but I think he means this as praise for ND as a whole. Bolano, Aira, Borges, are pretty good company to keep, and tough to compete with.

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