28 January 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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:


Goodreads Book Giveaway

Navidad & Matanza by Carlos Labbé

Navidad & Matanza

by Carlos Labbé

Giveaway ends February 10, 2014.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win


Contest closes on February 10th, so enter today!

28 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a book that I talk about on our yet-unpublished “2013 Preview Podcast.” Which hopefully will be up in a few days, once our podcasting computer is fixed. So when you hear me talk about Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, and published by FSG, you can temper my vocal enthusiasm with this review.

I’ve been a big Zambra fan since I read the first paragraph of Bonsai. His first two novels—one of which we published—are spectacular gems, best read in one sitting and reflected upon for days.

Which is why it’s a bit heartbreaking that Ways of Going Home is a bit of a disappointment. (To me at least.) I’ve been looking forward to this book since I read a sample way back when, and I’m really glad that FSG is behind it and will help get Zambra an even larger international audience than he currently has. But it would be intellectually dishonest to simply praise this book because Zambra’s one of our authors and a great guy, and Megan’s a friend and a great translator. Which is why I wrote this as seriously as I could.

Ways of Going Home, Alejandro Zambra’s third book to be published in English (and second translated by Megan McDowell), packs a lot of themes—historical memory, difficulties of love, honesty in art—into a brief 139 page novel set between the two great Chilean earthquakes in 1985 and 2010. It’s an ambitious project from one of Granta’s “Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists,” and one that is a bit of a mess.

Before getting into the reasons why I think this book doesn’t work, here’s a brief synopsis of the two intertwined storylines: In what I’ll call the “Claudia novel” storyline, the narrator is growing up in Chile in the mid-1980s, at the time when Pinochet was finally forced out. On the night of the 1985 earthquake, he meets Claudia, a pretty, slightly older girl who is somehow connected to the boy’s neighbor, Raúl, the only single man in the neighborhood. Two years after the earthquake, he sees Claudia again, and she asks him to spy on Raúl. That’s part one. Part two—of the Claudia novel narrative—takes place twenty years later, with the narrator decides to try and find out what’s going on with Claudia. Oh so coincidentally, she’s about to return home to deal with her father’s death, during which time, she hooks up with the narrator, explains her life story (bit more on that later), and then breaks things off with the narrator.

Interspersed between these two sections are two sections written by the “author” about writing his Claudia novel. The author and his wife have separated, he’s a bit lonely and nostalgic, and having a really hard time writing this novel. He wants Eme—his estranged wife—to read it and approve of it, and he surrounds his explication of this basic desire with a ton of quasi-intellectual observations about life and forgetting, parents and love, and everything else. He reunites with Eme briefly, but that doesn’t really work out. Then the 2010 earthquake takes place.

Two earthquakes, two failed love stories, two tellings of the same story involving his mother, Eme claiming Claudia’s story is just a retelling of hers, the end of Pinochet’s realm kicks off the book and Sebastian Pinera’s election ends it—there’s a lot of doubling in this book. Also the two narrators—one pretty obviously the novelized reflection of the other.

Overall, this set-up—which calls to mind tons of so-called metafictional works, such as Lost in the Funhouse and the vastly superior Mulligan Stew—is Zambra’s attempt to break out of the writing style that defined his first two novels. This is a very difficult situation for a young author. Those two books have a very specific style, one that’s emotionally affective, incredibly compelling to read, and instantly recognizable. The writing in those novels is very precise, almost poetic, and the stories are related from a restricted third-person point of view, allowing for certain “cheesy” moments to play more seriously than they might in a first-person voice.

Anyway. Ways of Going Home feels like a novelist trying to change his aesthetic, maturing from something simple and direct into something more complex and respectably “Literary.” Reading the representation of the author in this novel as Zambra himself, and the author’s relationship to the Claudia novel he’s writing as Zambra’s relationship to this book, it’s clear that there’s a lot of anxiety, an awareness that this book might not live up to heightened expectations. And one of the best tricks for evading that is to foreground it (it’s a book about an author who can’t write his next novel!) and then bury it in a false postmodern trick (the novel isn’t just a novel, but a novel about the difficulty of writing novels!). Everything about this rings false, and makes me feel sympathetic for Zambra—he doesn’t have to hide his talents. But then again, I have no idea what it’s like trying to create art after being anointed by just about everyone important in the world of letters.

You can read the entire review by clicking here.

28 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Ways of Going Home, Alejandro Zambra’s third book to be published in English (and second translated by Megan McDowell), packs a lot of themes—historical memory, difficulties of love, honesty in art—into a brief 139 page novel set between the two great Chilean earthquakes in 1985 and 2010. It’s an ambitious project from one of Granta’s “Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists,” and one that is a bit of a mess.

Before getting into the reasons why I think this book doesn’t work, here’s a brief synopsis of the two intertwined storylines: In what I’ll call the “Claudia novel” storyline, the narrator is growing up in Chile in the mid-1980s, at the time when Pinochet was finally forced out. On the night of the 1985 earthquake, he meets Claudia, a pretty, slightly older girl who is somehow connected to the boy’s neighbor, Raúl, the only single man in the neighborhood. Two years after the earthquake, he sees Claudia again, and she asks him to spy on Raúl. That’s part one. Part two—of the Claudia novel narrative—takes place twenty years later, when the narrator decides to try and find out what’s going on with Claudia. Oh so coincidentally, she’s about to return home to deal with her father’s death, during which time, she hooks up with the narrator, explains her life story (bit more on that later), and then breaks things off with the narrator.

Interspersed between these two sections are two sections written by the “author” about writing his Claudia novel. The author and his wife have separated, he’s a bit lonely and nostalgic, and having a really hard time writing this novel. He wants Eme—his estranged wife—to read it and approve of it, and he surrounds his explication of this basic desire with a ton of quasi-intellectual observations about life and forgetting, parents and love, and everything else. He reunites with Eme briefly, but that doesn’t really work out. Then the 2010 earthquake takes place.

Two earthquakes, two failed love stories, two tellings of the same story involving his mother, Eme claiming Claudia’s story is just a retelling of hers, the end of Pinochet’s realm kicks off the book and Sebastian Pinera’s election ends it—there’s a lot of doubling in this book. Also the two narrators—one pretty obviously the novelized reflection of the other.

Overall, this set-up—which calls to mind tons of so-called metafictional works, such as Lost in the Funhouse and the vastly superior Mulligan Stew—is Zambra’s attempt to break out of the writing style that defined his first two novels. This is a very difficult situation for a young author. Those two books have a very specific style, one that’s emotionally affective, incredibly compelling to read, and instantly recognizable. The writing in those novels is very precise, almost poetic, and the stories are related from a restricted third-person point of view, allowing for certain “cheesy” moments to play more seriously than they might in a first-person voice.

Anyway. Ways of Going Home feels like a novelist trying to change his aesthetic, maturing from something simple and direct into something more complex and respectably “Literary.” Reading the representation of the author in this novel as Zambra himself, and the author’s relationship to the Claudia novel he’s writing as Zambra’s relationship to this book, it’s clear that there’s a lot of anxiety, an awareness that this book might not live up to heightened expectations. And one of the best tricks for evading that is to foreground it (it’s a book about an author who can’t write his next novel!) and then bury it in a false postmodern trick (the novel isn’t just a novel, but a novel about the difficulty of writing novels!). Everything about this rings false, and makes me feel sympathetic for Zambra—he doesn’t have to hide his talents. But then again, I have no idea what it’s like trying to create art after being anointed by just about everyone important in the world of letters.

Put in that context—striving to evolve as a writer in a situation in which everyone expects huge things from you—makes the bad writing in this book nearly forgivable. But only nearly.

Claudia’s first memory of the stadium is also happy. In 1977 it was announced that Chespirito, the Mexican comedian, would bring the entire cast of his show to perform at the National Stadium. Claudia was four years old then; she watched Chespirito’s show and she liked it a lot.

Her parents refused to take her at first, but finally they gave in. The four of them went, and Claudia and Ximena had a great time. Many years later Claudia found out that for her parents that day had been torture. They had spent every moment thinking how absurd it was to see the stadium filled with laughing people. Throughout the entire show they had thought only, obsessively, about the dead.

This is a pretty trite set-piece, and one that comes off as über-manipulative and totally unbelievable. (I distrust all writing that hinges on memories of a child, since most of these memories are way more specific than any person would actually have.) It’s the sort of manipulative sequence you’d find in story from a mediocre creative writer. (See how it contrasts the naive happiness of the child with the sullen awareness of the parents? And how parents sacrifice for their children? Do you see what I did there?)

But it gets worse:

I’ll always remember the pain, one night, years ago: in the middle of an argument we started caressing each other and she got on top of me, but in the middle of penetration she couldn’t control her rage and she shut her vagina completely.

SHUT IT! SHUT THAT VAGINA!

A few days ago Eme left a box for me with the neighbors. Only today did I dare open it. There were two shirts, a scarf, my Kaurismäki and Wes Anderson movies, my Tom Waits and Wu-Tang Clan CDs, as well as some book I lent her these past months.

God, that is SO PRECIOUS. At this point in time, can you really do something like this in an unironic fashion? Your Wes Anderson movie? Oh, you, Mr. Narrator, are SO SMART AND SENSITIVE. (And have very questionable taste in directors.)

This isn’t the Zambra book I wanted to read. In part because one of the challenges Zambra’s trying to face—how to write about Pinochet and the violent history of Chile when that wasn’t something you experienced first hand—could have resulted in an absolutely fascinating book.

In the Claudia section of Ways of Going Home, the one that opens in 1985, just a few years before Pinochet is deposed, the narrator is 9 years old, fairly confused about the politics of the country, in part because his parents have remained on the sidelines during the Allende-Pinochet periods. He is a character forcibly disconnected from the past, living in a sort of constructed world:

We arrived, finally, at a neighborhood with only two streets: Neftalí Reyes Basoalto and Lucila Godoy Alcayaga. It sounds like a joke, but it’s true. A lot of the streets in Maipú had, and still have, those absurd names: my cousins, for example, lived on First Symphony Way, near Second and Third Symphony, perpendicular to Concert Street, and close to the passages Opus One, Opus Two, Opus Three, et cetera. Or the very street where I lived, Aladdin, between Odin and Ramayana and parallel to Lemuria; obviously, toward the end of the seventies some people had a lot of fun choosing names for the streets where the new families would later live—the families without history, who were willing or perhaps resigned to live in that fantasy world.

“I live in the neighborhood of real names,” said Claudia on the afternoon of our reencounter, looking seriously into my eyes.

In case you don’t catch the subtext—and it’s these sort of so-obvious-as-it’s-beaten-over-your-head allusions and metaphors that marks another flaw in this book—Claudia’s family is political, was part of Allende’s government, is reactionary.

I vote with a sense of sorrow, with very little faith. I know that Sebastián Piñera will win the first round I’m sure he will also win the second. It seems horrible. It’s obvious we’ve lost our memories. We will calmly, candidly, hand the country over to Piñera and to Opus Dei and the Legionaries of Christ.

It’s an interesting artistic conundrum: How to write about a childhood taking place during a very important time in history, but one that you, and a lot of your characters, weren’t directly impacted by. Tricky.

Which brings me to David Shields. If you read enough David Shields, your relationship to literature is irrevocably altered. The part of Shields that always sticks with me is the idea that the best works of art are those in which the creator’s consciousness as he/she creates is revealed in the course of the work of art. Frequently, these are hybrid works that aren’t exactly autobiographical or fictional—what Shields refers to as “lyric essays.”

There are hints in Ways of Going Home that this sort of “coming clean” is something that Zambra was aiming for:

It’s strange, it’s silly to attempt a genuine story about something, about someone, about anyone, about oneself. But it’s necessary as well.

Or, more explicitly (this book excels at stating things explicitly):

Today my friend Pablo called me so he could read me this phrase he found in a book by Tim O’Brien: “What sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning and no end.” I kept thinking about that and stayed awake all night. It’s true. We remember the sounds of the images. And sometimes, when we write, we wash everything clean, as if by doing so we could advance towards something. We ought to simply describe those sounds, those stains on memory. That arbitrary selection, nothing more. That’s why we lie so much, in the end. That’s why a book is always the opposite of another immense and strange book. An illegible and genuine book that we translate treacherously, that we betray with our habit of passable prose.

I think about the beautiful beginning of Family Sayings, Natalia Ginzburg’s novel: “The places, events, and people in this book are all real. I have invented nothing. Every time that I have found myself inventing something in accordance with my old habits as a novelist, I have felt impelled at once to destroy everything thus invented.”

The sort of honesty and directness that Zambra is talking about and aiming for is much more evident in his earlier works. See the opening of Bonsai:

In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was along some years before her death, Emilia’s death. Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called, and continues to be called Julio. Julio and Emilia. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature:

The unveiling of the creative process in Ways of Going Home is way more dishonest. Instead of seeing the real Zambra struggle with the above themes and his attempt to create a more “mature” style, we get two manipulative narrators, each as “novelistic” as the other. Going back to the doubling mentioned way back in the beginning of this review, instead of having two narratives—one fictional, one an autobiographical reflection on that—we get two fictional bits, which play off each other in a way that, unfortunately, isn’t very satisfying.

All that said, I eagerly await Zambra’s next book. He is one of the best young Latin American writers, and even this book, as disappointing as it might be to me, is better than a lot of books that will come out this year. He is still an author to watch.

14 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jeremy Garber on Roberto Bolaño’s The Secret of Evil, which is translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews and Natasha Wimmer, and was recently released by New Directions.

Jeremy Garber is a used book buyer for a large independent bookstore. (And a GoodReads friend, which is where I first came across his reviews.) His work has appeared in The Oregonian, the Oregon Historical Quarterly and on Powells.com. And continuing our baseball theme, it’s worth noting that Jeremy is an avid Philadelphia Phillies fan.

Here’s the opening of his review:

As the pool of Roberto Bolaño’s as yet untranslated (or unpublished) work draws ever shallower, fans of the late Chilean novelist and poet are left hungering for whatever wayward morsels still remain. While those eager to devour something as bountiful as The Savage Detectives or 2666 are likely to be left unsated, Bolaño’s residual writings nonetheless offer a complementary (if not integral) glimpse into his towering and singular body of work. So it is with The Secret of Evil, a collection of 19 mostly unfinished pieces found amongst the files on Bolaño’s computer following his 2003 death.

Ignacio Echevarría, Spanish critic and Bolaño’s literary executor, penned a preliminary note to The Secret of Evil that outlines the provenance of the book’s contents. Despite the undated nature of these orphaned pieces, it appears that Bolaño was working on them in the months preceding his death. Echevarría offers insight into the often problematic charge of determining which of Bolaño’s stories or items had, in fact, already been completed:

“. . . the inconclusive nature of Bolaño’s novels and stories makes it difficult to decide which of the unpublished narrative texts should be regarded as finished and which are simply sketches. The task is further complicated by Bolaño’s progressive radicalization of what I have called his poetics of inconclusiveness. And to make the distinction more difficult still, Bolaño rarely began to write a story without giving it a title and immediately establishing a definite tone and atmosphere; his writing, which is always captivating, virtually never stumbles or hesitates.”

Despite the arduousness of Echevarría’s attempts to clarify a particular piece’s state of completion, the writing in The Secret of Evil never reads as if it were hastily constructed, but rather, at times, simply unfinished.

Click here to read the entire review.

14 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As the pool of Roberto Bolaño’s as yet untranslated (or unpublished) work draws ever shallower, fans of the late Chilean novelist and poet are left hungering for whatever wayward morsels still remain. While those eager to devour something as bountiful as The Savage Detectives or 2666 are likely to be left unsated, Bolaño’s residual writings nonetheless offer a complementary (if not integral) glimpse into his towering and singular body of work. So it is with The Secret of Evil, a collection of 19 mostly unfinished pieces found amongst the files on Bolaño’s computer following his 2003 death.

Ignacio Echevarría, Spanish critic and Bolaño’s literary executor, penned a preliminary note to The Secret of Evil that outlines the provenance of the book’s contents. Despite the undated nature of these orphaned pieces, it appears that Bolaño was working on them in the months preceding his death. Echevarría offers insight into the often problematic charge of determining which of Bolaño’s stories or items had, in fact, already been completed:

. . . the inconclusive nature of Bolaño’s novels and stories makes it difficult to decide which of the unpublished narrative texts should be regarded as finished and which are simply sketches. The task is further complicated by Bolaño’s progressive radicalization of what I have called his poetics of inconclusiveness. And to make the distinction more difficult still, Bolaño rarely began to write a story without giving it a title and immediately establishing a definite tone and atmosphere; his writing, which is always captivating, virtually never stumbles or hesitates.

Despite the arduousness of Echevarría’s attempts to clarify a particular piece’s state of completion, the writing in The Secret of Evil never reads as if it were hastily constructed, but rather, at times, simply unfinished. Some of the included stories may well have an ambiguous ending, while others leave off in a way that seemingly indicates that they were abandoned pending resumption at a later date.

Of the nineteen pieces that compose The Secret of Evil, three have appeared previously in English translation.1 “Vagaries on the Literature of Doom” (a speech about the state of post-Borgesian Argentine literature), “Sevilla Kills Me” (an unfinished, if somewhat similarly themed address), and “Beach” (progenitor of the “Bolaño was once a heroin junkie” speculations since debunked by his wife, as well as by friend and fellow author, Enrique Vila-Matas) were all published in Between Parentheses. As with much of Bolaño’s writing, the line between fictional creation and autobiographical sketch blur easily, as is evident in “I Can’t Read,” a “story” about his son Lautaro’s humorous antics during Bolaño’s first return trip to his native Chile in nearly two and a half decades. “I Can’t Read” demonstrates a lighter, more playful (and ever self-effacing) Bolaño, and is one of the book’s stronger pieces, despite it remaining, sadly, forever unfinished.

Three of The Secret of Evil’s stories, “The Old Man of the Mountain,” “Death of Ulises,” and “The Days of Chaos” feature recurrent Bolaño character (and autobiographical alter ego) Arturo Belano, two of which portray him well beyond his heady, itinerant Savage Detectives years. Daniela de Montecristo (of Nazi Literature and 2666 fame) makes a brief appearance in her namesake story, “Daniela,” wherein she recalls the loss of her virginity at age thirteen. “Scholars of Sodom” (in two versions) imagines V.S. Naipaul upon a visit to Buenos Aires. “Labyrinth” is vaguely evocative of the first part of 2666, “The Part about the Critics.” “‘Muscles,’” Echevarría surmises, is “probably the beginning of an unfinished novel, perhaps an early version of Una Novelita Lumpen” (a 2002 novella yet to be rendered into English). The collection’s title story is amongst the best (despite its brevity) of those selected for inclusion, and offers a seedy, nocturnal milieu that Bolaño was so adept at creating. The most surprising of the stories is “The Colonel’s Son,” a nightmarish tale wherein the narrator recounts a chilling zombie movie he viewed on television the night before.

The Secret of Evil, quite obviously, will appeal most greatly to those already won over by Bolaño’s extraordinary body of work. Neophytes may well find this a difficult collection to make sense of, as the nature of the book lends itself to those long since familiar with the style and themes that characterize the Chilean’s masterful fiction. This is most certainly not the place for a newcomer to start, but for the devotee, a subterranean expanse of narrative possibilities and literary what-ifs await.

You’re not going to believe this, but last night, at about four a.m., I saw a movie on TV that could have been my biography or my autobiography or a summary of my days on this bitch of a planet. It scared me so fucking shitless that i tell you i just about fell of my chair.

1 The three previously published pieces that originally appeared in Between Parentheses were translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, and the sixteen new to this collection were rendered by Chris Andrews.

23 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a review by Jeremy Garber on Roberto Bolaño’s forthcoming collection of non-fiction pieces entitled Between Parentheses. This is translated by Natasha Wimmer, and will be available from New Directions in late May.

I’m 99.9% there’s no need to explain who Roberto Bolaño is to anyone reading this blog. We’ve been praising, reviewing, and commenting on his books since our very inception. I have to admit that I haven’t had a chance to read some of his latest titles (there are so many!), but I’m really looking forward to this one . . .

Jeremy Garber is a used book buyer for a large independent bookstore. (And a GoodReads friend, which is where I first saw his review of this book.) His work has appeared in The Oregonian, the Oregon Historical Quarterly and on Powells.com. He is an avid Philadelphia Phillies fan. (Opening day is only 8 days away and it is snowing in Rochester. Yes.)

Here’s the opening of Jeremy’s review:

That nearly all of Bolaño’s non-fictional and autobiographical writings fit into a single volume is bittersweet. Lucky we are that these works were collected and published (let alone translated by the fabulous Natasha Wimmer), so that neophyte and devotee alike may espy a glimpse of the author beyond his often apocryphal mystique. Unfortunate it remains, however, that these pages make up the sum of what otherwise could have been a much more voluminous collection (had a liver transplant come ready before that fateful 2003 summer).

Between Parentheses, edited by Bolaño’s friend and literary executor, Ignacio Echevarria, is divided into six mostly distinct parts. The third and largest of these, from which the book takes its name, is comprised of weekly columns bolaño wrote for Las Últimas Noticias, a Chilean newspaper. These writings concern themselves almost entirely with forgotten books, neglected and/or underappreciated authors, and the writerly lifestyle. The five other parts feature short pieces, essays (some left unfinished), speeches, and brief vignettes dealing mostly with literature, place, and the personal. Also present is a reprinting of the last interview he gave, to the mexican edition of Playboy, shortly before his death.

Click “here“http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=3143 to read the full piece.

23 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

That nearly all of Bolaño’s non-fictional and autobiographical writings fit into a single volume is bittersweet. Lucky we are that these works were collected and published (let alone translated by the fabulous Natasha Wimmer), so that neophyte and devotee alike may espy a glimpse of the author beyond his often apocryphal mystique. Unfortunate it remains, however, that these pages make up the sum of what otherwise could have been a much more voluminous collection (had a liver transplant come ready before that fateful 2003 summer).

Between Parentheses, edited by Bolaño’s friend and literary executor, Ignacio Echevarria, is divided into six mostly distinct parts. The third and largest of these, from which the book takes its name, is comprised of weekly columns bolaño wrote for Las Últimas Noticias, a Chilean newspaper. These writings concern themselves almost entirely with forgotten books, neglected and/or underappreciated authors, and the writerly lifestyle. The five other parts feature short pieces, essays (some left unfinished), speeches, and brief vignettes dealing mostly with literature, place, and the personal. Also present is a reprinting of the last interview he gave, to the mexican edition of Playboy, shortly before his death.

Between Parentheses, above all, demonstrates Bolaño’s love of books, seemingly more so as a reader of them than as their writer. He was known to have read widely, and this work offers his opinions (mostly favorable, yet sometimes acerbically critical) on a wide array of books, poets, and authors well-known and obscure. As from some of his other titles, one could cull quite the impressive reading list (spanning continents and centuries) from amongst its pages. Omnipresent is Bolaño’s trademark prose style, as his non-fiction reads with the same unique voice that brought so many ardent fans to his fiction. Bolaño seldom strays into the realm of the political, but his few forays are terse and powerful. Amidst his wide knowledge of all things bibliophilic is a singular sense of humor, one that is familiar to readers of both his novels and short stories.

While Bolaño presumably never intended these writings to stand in lieu of a more cohesive autobiographical work (which, given the sentiments contained within the book, is not something he was ever likely to have penned in any proper way), it is nonetheless all we as readers are left with to make sense of him as an individual and lover of great fiction. It seems the late Chilean writer was more than content to let his books stand upon their own merits, as he seemed to have a general disregard for awards, critics, and the like. Between Parentheses is an indispensable collection for those who count bolaño as a remarkable and important literary figure (one, too, perhaps even more essential for his naysayers, detractors, and other assorted maligners).

Behind this crowd, however, hides the one true patron. If you have patience enough to search, maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of what you’re looking for. And when you find it, you’ll probably be disappointed. It isn’t the devil. It isn’t the state. It isn’t a magical child. It’s the void.

11 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Eells on Roberto Bolano’s The Insufferable Gaucho, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews and available from New Directions.

Will is one of our “contributing editors” (which are sponsored by the New York State Council on the Arts) and a former Open Letter intern. He’s reviewed a number of titles for us, is very interested in Japanese literature, and is a translation student here at the University of Rochester.

Roberto Bolano is someone you’ve all heard of. New Directions has and is publishing approximately 1,000 of his books, four of which arrived in the mail today: Antwerp, Monsieur Pain, The Return, and The Insufferable Gaucho. I’m a huge fan, which doesn’t seem to be the case for Will . . .

Roberto Bolaño has recently become one of the new stars of Latin American fiction, which is made all the more tragic by his death in 2003. His mammoth novel 2666 was a posthumous smash hit in both North and South America, and although much of his work was available in translation, New Directions is now publishing what’s left of this formidable author’s work.

The Insufferable Gaucho is his latest collection of writings, compromised of five short stories and two essays. Each piece is remarkably different in both content and form: “Police Rat” is written from the point of view of a rat in the sewer. “Two Catholic Tales” is written as if verse from the Bible. And the essay “Literature + Illness = Illness” connects fragments of vaguely related ideas like the faulty cause-and-effect thinking of one in a fever dream. These are just a few examples in which Bolaño is willing to explore the myriad ways in which fiction can be constructed, and reading each piece shows how rewarding such an experience is. A story ostensibly about rats, when talking about death and “humanity” become much more powerful when told from the point of view of a rat than an actual human being:

“Rats are capable of killing rats. The sentence echoed in my cranial cavity until I woke. I knew that nothing would ever be the same again. I knew it was only a question of time. Our capacity to adapt to the environment, our hard-working nature, our long collective march toward a happiness that, deep down, we knew to be illusory, but which had served as a pretext, a setting, a backdrop for our daily acts of heroism, all these were condemned to disappear, which meant that we as a people, were condemned to disappear as well.”

Click here to read the full review.

11 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Roberto Bolaño has recently become one of the new stars of Latin American fiction, which is made all the more tragic by his death in 2003. His mammoth novel 2666 was a posthumous smash hit in both North and South America, and although much of his work was available in translation, New Directions is now publishing what’s left of this formidable author’s work.

The Insufferable Gaucho is his latest collection of writings, compromised of five short stories and two essays. Each piece is remarkably different in both content and form: “Police Rat” is written from the point of view of a rat in the sewer. “Two Catholic Tales” is written as if verse from the Bible. And the essay “Literature + Illness = Illness” connects fragments of vaguely related ideas like the faulty cause-and-effect thinking of one in a fever dream. These are just a few examples in which Bolaño is willing to explore the myriad ways in which fiction can be constructed, and reading each piece shows how rewarding such an experience is. A story ostensibly about rats, when talking about death and “humanity” become much more powerful when told from the point of view of a rat than an actual human being:

Rats are capable of killing rats. The sentence echoed in my cranial cavity until I woke. I knew that nothing would ever be the same again. I knew it was only a question of time. Our capacity to adapt to the environment, our hard-working nature, our long collective march toward a happiness that, deep down, we knew to be illusory, but which had served as a pretext, a setting, a backdrop for our daily acts of heroism, all these were condemned to disappear, which meant that we as a people, were condemned to disappear as well.

And what may be even more interesting is how the two essays in the back of the collection are written in a way that feels almost more like “fiction” than the actual short stories do. Too bad the actual subject matter at hand is not nearly as interesting as the way Bolaño writes it, once you sift through his bag of literary tricks.

Bolaño is certainly a talented writer, but he writes with the cynicism of someone who maybe knows a bit too much for his own good, so at times he comes off as kind of a smart-ass. I don’t think the reader would find the eponymous “insufferable gaucho” quite so insufferable otherwise, and Bolaño’s namedropping of his favorite (and least favorite) writers can grow tedious, if you forget that, like any writer, this is someone who really loves literature. On the bright side, award-winning Chris Andrews’ translation is practically seamless, and save for one in text translation of some song lyrics, the reader could go through the whole book without realizing they were reading a translation.

The Insufferable Gaucho is certainly an interesting set of pieces that show that Bolaño is capable of many different feats with his writing. When it works, it really works, and the stories “Jim,” “Police Rat,” and “Alvarro Rousselot’s Journey” show how good Bolaño can be. But overall I found the collection to be a mixed bag, and for someone who hasn’t already contracted Bolaño-mania, it just quite wasn’t enough for me to join his growing throngs of fans.

1 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 15 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.

Today’s featured author is Alejandro Zambra—a personal favorite and the first author from this list to be part of the Open Letter catalog.



Seeing that I’ve written about Zambra before (namely here and here) and that we publish The Private Lives of Trees, this seemed like an easy post to write. But it never is, is it?

So at the risk of repeating myself, I want to try and explain what it is about Zambra’s work that I really like.

I first heard about Zambra at the ALTA conference before Bonsai came out from Melville House. Megan McDowell read a bit of his work (if memory serves, she read from The Private Lives of Trees, which may have even been The Secret Lives of Trees at that time) as part of her ALTA fellowship. I’m usually pretty terrible at paying attention during readings (much prefer discussions, modulated voices, and off-the-cuff responses), but I remember being struck by the freshness and honesty of his prose.

When Bonsai came out, I read it from the perspective of a judge for the Best Translated Book Awards, and fell in love with this first paragraph:

In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was along some years before her death, Emilia’s death. Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called, and continues to be called Julio. Julio and Emilia. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature:

Yes! Yes, the rest is literature!

In some ways, this is a bit of a wink, a pulling back of the curtain, a metafictional moment that was popular years ago and has been written and rewritten every since. But at the same time, Zambra’s novella adopts this tone, this style, with an attitude more akin to truthfulness than game-playing. He may be young, but this youthfulness comes through less in the look-at-me-I’m-winking-back cuteness of some of his peers, and more in the I’m-young-and-believe-in-things sense. Stealing a bit of an argument Adam Thirlwell develops in The Delighted States, Zambra tries to get to a sense of reality through a style that feels alien. It’s so unadorned, it’s so non-American-realist that it feels much closer to “how things really are.” We die. The rest is literature.

I also like the way Zambra just tells things in a way that almost feels artless . . . or at least not as manipulative as some other novels (cough, Freedom, cough) can feel at times:

The first night they shared a bed was an accident. They had an exam in Spanish Syntax II, a subject neither of them had mastered, but since they were young and in theory willing to do anything, they were willing, also, to study Spanish Syntax II at the home of the Vergara twins. The study group turned out to be quite a bit larger than imagined: someone put on music, saying he was accustomed to studying to music, another brought vodka, insisting that it was difficult for her to concentrate without vodka, and a third went to buy oranges, because vodka without orange juice seemed unbearable. At three in the morning they were perfectly drunk, so they decided to go to sleep. Although Julio would have preferred to spend the night with one of the Vergara sisters, he quickly resigned himself to sharing the servants’ quarters with Emilia.

Julio didn’t like that Emilia asked so many questions in class, and Emilia disliked the fact that Julio passed his classes while hardly setting foot on campus, but that night they both discovered the emotional affinities that any couple is capable of discovering with only a little effort. Needless to say, they did terribly on the exam. A week later, for their second chance at the exam, they studied again with the Vergaras and slept together again, even though this second time it was not necessary for them to share a room, since the twins’ parents were on a trip to Buenos Aires.

(By the way, I’m pulling these passages from this issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, which included this entire novella. Not entirely sure what would happen if you tried to subscribe to VQR and access this issue, but it might be worth a try. Otherwise, you can buy the Melville House edition, which was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award.)

After Bonsai came out—to much praise and bookseller adoration—we had the opportunity to publish Zambra’s second novel, the aforementioned The Private Lives of Trees. Stylistically, this is a lateral step. It’s got the same sort of voice, the same unadorned prose:

Julián lulls the little girl to sleep with “The Private Lives of Trees,” an ongoing story he’s made up to tell her at bedtime. The protagonists are a poplar tree and a baobab tree, who, at night, when no one can see them, talk about photosynthesis, squirrels, or the many advantages of being trees and not people or animals or, as they say to each other, stupid hunks of cement.

Daniela is not his daughter, but it is hard for him not to think of her that way. Three years ago Julián joined the family. He came to them; Verónica and the little girl were already there. He married Verónica and in some ways, also, Daniela, who was hesitant at first but little by little began to accept her new life: “Julián is uglier than my dad, but he’s still nice,” she would say to her friends, who nodded with surprising seriousness, even solemnity, as if they somehow understood that Julián’s arrival was not an accident. As the months passed this stepfather even earned a place in the drawings Daniela made at school. There’s one in particular that Julián always keeps nearby: the three of them, at the beach, the little girl and Verónica are making cakes out of sand, and he is dressed in jeans and a shirt, reading and smoking under a perfectly round and yellow sun.

It’s a shorter, tighter book, depicting Julián’s long night waiting for Verónica to come home from art class. (She’s late. Really late.) This is really the only event of the novel’s plot. As the omniscient narrator puts it,

When she returns, the novel will end. But as long as she is not back, the book will continue. The book continues until she returns, or until Julián is sure that she won’t return.

The rest of the novella is a trip through Julián’s imagination.

Getting back to this issue of Granta though . . . The piece they chose to include is “Ways of Going Home,” an excerpt from his forthcoming novel. A novel that’s much longer (or so I’ve heard), and has a very different style from the others. The presence of a first-person narrator changes Zambra’s game entirely, although he’s still trying to tell us about life (or, life as literature) in as direct a way as possible. Here’s the opening:

Once, I got lost. I was six or seven. I got distracted, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see my parents any more. I was scared, but I immediately found the way home and got there before they did. They kept looking for me, desperate, but that afternoon I thought they were lost. I believed I knew how to get home and they didn’t.

‘You went a different way,’ my mother said later, angry, her eyes still swollen.

You were the one who went a different way, I thought, but I didn’t say it.

Papa watched placidly from the armchair. Sometimes I think he spent all his time just sitting there, thinking. But maybe he didn’t really think about anything. Maybe he just closed his eyes and received the present with calm and resignation. That night he spoke, though: ‘This is a good thing,’ he told me. ‘You overcame adversity.’ Mama looked at him suspiciously, but he kept on stringing together a confused speech about adversity. Back then, I had no idea what adversity could possibly mean.

I lay back on the chair across from him and pretended to be asleep. I heard them argue, always the same pattern. Mama would say five sentences and Papa would answer with a single word. Sometimes he would answer sharply: ‘No.’ Sometimes he would say, practically shouting: ‘Liar,’ or ‘False.’ Sometimes he would even say, like the police: ‘Negative.’

That night Mama carried me to bed and, perhaps knowing I was only pretending to sleep and was listening attentively, curiously, she told me: ‘Your father is right. Now we know you won’t get lost. That you know how to walk alone in the street. But you should concentrate more on the way. You should walk faster.’

I listened to her. From then on, I walked faster. In fact, a couple of years later, the first time I talked to Claudia, she asked me why I walked so fast. She had been following me for days, spying on me. We had met a short time before, on 3 March 1985 – the night of the earthquake – but we didn’t talk then.

And I’m pretty much 100% sure that this book will come out in English sometime soon . . . .

Don’t forget! Sign up now for a subscription to Granta and get this entire issue—featuring 22 Spanish-language novelists—absolutely free!

25 November 10 | Chad W. Post |

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.

18 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Raul Zurita’s collection Song for His Disappeared Love, which was translated from the Spanish by Daniel Borzutzky and published by Action Books.

I don’t read much poetry, so I wasn’t familiar with Zurita until Vincent Francone pitched us this review. (Although I love his Wikipedia entry: “Raúl Zurita Canessa (born 1950) is a Chilean poet and anthologist. He won the Chilean National Prize for Literature in 2000.” This is a street. There is a house.) Strangely—or maybe not so—one of the best overviews is available through the Blue Flower Arts agency and makes him sound pretty interesting:

Raul Zurita was born in Santiago, Chile in 1950. He started out studying engineering before turning to poetry. His early work is a ferocious response to Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 military coup. Like many other Chileans, Zurita was arrested and tortured. When he was released, he helped to form a radical artistic group CADA, and he became renowned for his provocative and intensely physical public performances. He has written what are perhaps the most massively scaled poems ever created. He has done this with earth-moving equipment and with smoke-trailing aircraft. In the early 1980s, Zurita famously sky-wrote passages from his poem, “The New Life,” over New York and later—still during the reign of Pinochet—he bulldozed the phrase “Ni Pena Ni Miedo” (“Without Pain Or Fear”) into the Atacama Desert which, for its length, can only be seen from the sky. An article in Jacket Magazine elucidates, “He says that in those days of brutality and distrust and terror . . . he began to imagine writing poems in the sky, on the faces of cliffs, in the desert. . . . He started to imagine that he might fight sadistic force with poems as insubstantial as contrails in the air over a city.” Zurita’s renowned poetic trilogy, composed over a span of 15 years, is considered one of the singular poetic achievements in Latin American poetry: Purgatory appeared in 1979, Anteparadise in 1982, and The New Life in 1993.

Anyway, here’s the opening of Vincent’s review of the new book:

To the betterment of our cultural landscape, a number of works by Raúl Zurita have been recently translated into English. Much of this work centers on the nightmare of Chile’s Pinochet era. While other writers have tackled this subject, mostly while in exile, Zurita remained in Chile, a direct witness to the terror that began on September 11, 1973 and remained beyond the seventeen years of Pinochet’s rule. Zurita, like so many, was captured and tortured. Unlike so many, he lived to tell the tale. His work exists in opposition to the dictatorship and, by extension, the long, terrible history of man’s inhumanity to man. The latest of his translated books, Song of His Disappeared Love (Action Books) is more than a reflection on the disappeared, tortured, and murdered; it is a direct confrontation. The reader is beset by the poem, forced to parse through the language and face the horror head on. His writing—often surreal and incantatory—rides the crest of the avant-garde without succumbing to empty abstractions, urging the reader to look directly into the abyss and yet, oddly, conveying a sense of hope. Within the elusive moments are punctuations of astonishing imagery. To this reader, the image that refuses to die is that of the disappeared thrown from helicopters into the sea and the mouths of volcanoes, unseen but impossible to ignore.

Click here to read the full piece.

18 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To the betterment of our cultural landscape, a number of works by Raúl Zurita have been recently translated into English. Much of this work centers on the nightmare of Chile’s Pinochet era. While other writers have tackled this subject, mostly while in exile, Zurita remained in Chile, a direct witness to the terror that began on September 11, 1973 and remained beyond the seventeen years of Pinochet’s rule. Zurita, like so many, was captured and tortured. Unlike so many, he lived to tell the tale. His work exists in opposition to the dictatorship and, by extension, the long, terrible history of man’s inhumanity to man. The latest of his translated books, Song of His Disappeared Love (Action Books) is more than a reflection on the disappeared, tortured, and murdered; it is a direct confrontation. The reader is beset by the poem, forced to parse through the language and face the horror head on. His writing—often surreal and incantatory—rides the crest of the avant-garde without succumbing to empty abstractions, urging the reader to look directly into the abyss and yet, oddly, conveying a sense of hope. Within the elusive moments are punctuations of astonishing imagery. To this reader, the image that refuses to die is that of the disappeared thrown from helicopters into the sea and the mouths of volcanoes, unseen but impossible to ignore.

Song of His Disappeared Love, written in 1985, first addressed this grisly practice of discarding the dead at a time when such actions were well known and never spoken of. Years after the Pinochet era, the truth was made officially known. By then, it might have felt like the news was far too late. Chile already knew. Zurita knew. His testament is his poem through which the discarded dead have a voice. Zurita made them the focus of INRI (recently published by Marick Press, translated by William Rowe), written after Ricardo Lagos made the news public in 2001. If his subject is made overt in INRI, whereas it is implied in Song of His Disappeared Love, one can forgive the latter (or former, depending on your taste). In a time when self-censorship is the natural result of governmental oppression, what is left to the poet but codes? Song of His Disappeared Love employs such coding, though it never feels dense or obscure. Zurita’s voice (expertly translated by Daniel Borzutzky) explodes off the page. The horror is direct and the interrogation is clear. Zurita is not a symbolist; he is a poet of accusation, testimony, and intensity rarely seen today. In the face of indescribable pain, the poet burns himself, as Zurita did in protest. He writes poems on the page, in the sky, and bulldozes them into the desert (all of which Zurita has done—the residents of the Atacama in Chile still preserve his words “Ni Pena Ni Miedo” in the sand). The poet creates more than poetry; he fashions a new language that best captures his subject. Song of His Disappeared Love is Zurita writing in that new tongue, seeking to give voice to more than the individual. The poem, while mourning the dead and confronting the living, unites other countries with Chile in a series of “niches” that smashes borders. In this sense, Zurita’s poem is, to paraphrase Roque Dalton, like bread: for everyone.

21 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece on Roberto Bolaño’s first novel to come out in 2010: Monsieur Pain, translated by Chris Andrews and published by New Directions.

This review is by Dan Vitale, a writer and editor who has written a number of pieces for Three Percent. And he definitely makes this sound like a strange, intriguing Bolaño novel:

According to Roberto Bolaño’s introductory note, the original title of Monsieur Pain was The Elephant Path—a term for those well-worn shortcuts that pedestrians tread, say, across a grassy area between two paved sidewalks, examples of the human tendency to blaze our own trails heedless of the city planners’ best calculations of where we ought to go.

This short, intriguing book, which Bolaño says in his note he had written in 1981 or 1982, appears to be one of his earliest attempts at a novel. In his introductory note he also hints that the genesis of the book came from the memoirs of the wife of the Peruvian poet César Vallejo.

The plot is rudimentary. In Paris, in the spring of 1938, our narrator Pierre Pain, a dabbler in acupuncture and mesmerism, is asked by his friend Madame Reynaud to attend at the hospital bedside of her friend Madame Vallejo’s husband. It is Madame Reynaud’s hope that, using the occult sciences, Pain may cure the patient’s chronic hiccups, a case that has confounded his doctors.

The bit about the “epilogue for voices” is particular interesting, and ties into some of the things I mentioned in the BTBA write-up about The Skating Rink . . . Anyway, click here for the full review.

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

According to Roberto Bolaño’s introductory note, the original title of Monsieur Pain was The Elephant Path—a term for those well-worn shortcuts that pedestrians tread, say, across a grassy area between two paved sidewalks, examples of the human tendency to blaze our own trails heedless of the city planners’ best calculations of where we ought to go.

This short, intriguing book, which Bolaño says in his note he had written in 1981 or 1982, appears to be one of his earliest attempts at a novel. In his introductory note he also hints that the genesis of the book came from the memoirs of the wife of the Peruvian poet César Vallejo.

The plot is rudimentary. In Paris, in the spring of 1938, our narrator Pierre Pain, a dabbler in acupuncture and mesmerism, is asked by his friend Madame Reynaud to attend at the hospital bedside of her friend Madame Vallejo’s husband. It is Madame Reynaud’s hope that, using the occult sciences, Pain may cure the patient’s chronic hiccups, a case that has confounded his doctors.

Monsieur Pain makes three attempts to see Vallejo. During the first, he is dismissed in favor of a renowned specialist who has just shown up and whose time is apparently much more valuable than Pain’s. Not long afterward, he is offered a bribe of two thousand francs by two mysterious Spaniards not to treat Vallejo; he takes the bribe but is later convinced by Madame Reynaud to return to the hospital.

During his second attempt, he succeeds at appraising the patient’s condition:

I went straight to Vallejo’s side. He turned over and opened his lips but was unable to articulate a word. Madame Reynaud raised one hand to her mouth, as if to stifle a cry. The silence in the room seemed to be full of holes.

I held my hand a foot above the head of the bed and prepared myself to wait. The patient’s angular face lay before me, exposed, displaying the strange disconsolate dignity shared by all those who have been confined in hospital for some time. The rest is vague: locks of black hair, the collar of the pajama top loose around his neck, healthy skin, no sign of sweat. His hiccups were the only sound in that quiet room. I know I could never describe Vallejo’s face, at least not as I saw it then, the only time we ever met; but the hiccups, the nature of the hiccups, which swallowed everything as soon as you listened carefully, that is, as soon as you really listened to them, confounded all description, and yet was accessible to everyone, like a sonic ectoplasm or a surrealist found object.

On his last attempt, during which he plans to treat Vallejo, he is blocked by an officious nurse and ordered from the premises. Plagued by melancholy and what may or may not be an overactive imagination, Pain begins to think there is a conspiracy afoot to assassinate Vallejo.

Bolaño uses this plot as a scaffold on which to hang several strange set pieces, including Pain’s overnight stay in a gloomy, forbidding warehouse (where he hears a voice imitating Vallejo’s hiccups) and his long conversation with a former acquaintance who has recently returned from the Spanish Civil War, where he is an intelligence officer working on the side of the fascists. The conversation takes place in a cinema during the showing of an experimental film that seems to anticipate the work of Resnais or Godard by several decades; in a bizarre tour de force of feverish narrative dislocation, Bolaño sets off the conversation with numerous detailed descriptions of the action on screen.

The significance of the novel’s events is left mostly obscure, but the pleasures of Monsieur Pain lie not so much in the storyline but rather in Bolaño’s gleeful but deadpan bouillabaisse of French surrealism, expressionism, and Kafkaesque unease. The hospital in particular could have come straight out of a German Expressionist film, with its nightmarish architecture and its hostile employees:

Then we followed Madame Vallejo down grey and white corridors, with a metallic, phosphorescent sheen, blemished here and there by unexpected black rectangles.

“It’s like a modern art gallery,” I heard Madame Reynaud murmur.

“The corridors are circular, in fact,” I said. “If they were longer, we could reach the top story without ever having noticed the climb.”

. . . I also noticed that the lighting in the corridors, contrived in a cunning but mysterious manner, since the illumination extended uniformly even into corners where the newcomer could see no trace of wiring or globes, was however varying in intensity; almost imperceptibly, at regular intervals, it dimmed.

Suddenly we came across a man in a white coat, the first we had seen in the course of our exploration, standing stock still in the middle of the corridor, and apparently plunged in deep cogitations. As we approached, he raised his eyes, sizing us up with his lips curved in a mocking grin, and crossed his arms. He gave an impression of coldness, or at least that is what I thought at the time. At any rate, it was evident from his expression that our sudden appearance had displeased him. Madame Vallejo slowed her pace noticeably, as if to delay the inevitable encounter with that man. Clearly they knew one another and she was afraid of him. But why?

We were formally introduced:

“Doctor Lejard, my husband’s GP.”

That we never find out exactly why Vallejo’s doctor is someone to be afraid of, yet continue to feel the unpleasant aftereffects of his glare, is typical of the novel’s disconcerting effect on the reader.

Monsieur Pain ends with a curious “epilogue for voices,” subtitled “The Elephant Track,” in which we get glimpses of a number of the book’s major and minor characters in the future, either through an omniscient authorial voice or another person’s firsthand testimony. I’m not sure how Bolaño intended the reference to an elephant path to fit the novel as a whole, but Monsieur Pain is definitely a book that blazes its own trail. It was also an early step on Bolaño’s own dazzling, idiosyncratic, career-long elephant path through the literature of Europe and the Americas: from France to Mexico to his native Chile, from Kafka to Borges, from the detective story (The Skating Rink) to the fictional encyclopedia (Nazi Literature in the Americas) to the road novel (The Savage Detectives) to the bildungsroman (part 5 of 2666). Despite the usually confining expectations of genre, style, influence, or national culture, Roberto Bolaño always went his own way.

21 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolaño. Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. (Chile, New Directions)

Well, 2009 wasn’t nearly the “Year of Bolaño” that 2008 was . . . Last year’s Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist included both 2666 and Nazi Literature in the Americas, which sparked various debates about whether Bolaño was overrated, whether his shorter prose was better than his overly ambitious, epically long novels, whether or not he actually needed the attention the award might bring, etc., etc.

In the end, 2666 was one of the three real finalists for the award (along with Senselessness and eventual winner Tranquility) and I think I spent more time explaining why it didn’t win than focusing on the awesomeness of Attila Bartis’s dark, creepy novel.

With three Bolaño books coming out in 2010, who knows what next year’s award might look like, but for now, we only have one Bolaño book to talk about: The Skating Rink. (Although I am going to make this a “Day of Bolaño” by also posting the review of Monsieur Pain that just arrived . . . ) The Skating Rink is an early novel of Bolaño’s, and one that put him on the literary map in part for his use of three narrators to tell the story and the unique way he constructs a detective novel that contains no actual detective . . .

In brief, this is a novel of three men living in the town of Z whose lives are intertwined: Remo Moran, a successful businessman; Gaspar Heredia, a former poet who works at Moran’s campground; and Enric Rosquelles, an overweight psychologist working in the town’s Social Services Department. And of course there are also a couple women: Caridad, a somewhat crazy woman that Gaspar falls in love with; and Nuria Marti, the gorgeous figure skater who’s involved with both Remo and Enric.

There’s also a murder. And some shady political dealings. A skating rink. And a twisted love story.

But similar to Noa Weber, what’s most amazing about this novel are the voices. Each chapter is narrated by one of the three male protagonists, and these monologues read almost like confessions, or responses to some line of questioning—yet as pointed out above, there is no detective in the pages of this mystery. Nevertheless, right from the start, the reader knows something has gone down and that Enric Rosquelles is the main suspect:

Until a few years ago I was a typical mild-mannered guy; ask my family, my friends, my junior colleagues, anyone who came into contact with me. They’ll all tell you I’m the last person you’d expect to be involved in a crime. My life is orderly and even rather austere. I don’t smoke or drink much; I hardly go out at night. I’m known as a hard worker: if I have to, I can work a sixteen-hour day without flagging. I was awarded my psychology degree at the age of twenty-two, and it would be false modesty not to mention that I was one of the top students in my class. At the moment I’m studying law; in fact, I should have finished the degree already, but I decided to take things easy. I’m in no hurry. To tell you the truth I often think it was a mistake to enroll in law school. Why am I putting myself through this? It’s more and more of a drag as the years go by. Which doesn’t mean I’m going to give up. I never give up. Sometimes I’m slow and sometimes I’m quick—part tortoise, part Achilles—but I never give up. It has to be admitted, however, that it’s not easy to work and study at the same time, and as I was saying, my job is generally intense and demanding. Of course it’s my own fault. I’m the one who set the pace. Which makes me wonder, if you’ll allow me a digression, why I took on so much in the first place. I don’t know. Sometimes things get away from me. Sometimes I think my behavior was inexcusable. But then, other times, I think: I was walking around in a daze, mostly. Lying awake all night, as I have done recently, hasn’t helped me find any answers. Nor have the abuse and insults to which I have, apparently, been subjected.

Granted, The Skating Rink has nowhere near the scope and ambition of 2666 or The Savage Detectives. It’s not game-changing in terms of the possibilities of literature. It’s not even Bolaño’s best short work. Still, it’s a captivating early novel, one that sets forth some typical Bolaño themes in a fun, genre-tweaking way that highlights his novelistic skills. Definitely worth reading, and who knows, maybe the tightness of this book will impress the fiction judges more than the explosive looseness of 2666 . . .

23 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Only seems appropriate that just before Christmas we should announce our summer list of titles . . . You can click here to download a pdf version of the new catalog (which contains excerpts from all the books), or, for those of you who are anti-pdf, the list below has the basic information for the next five Open Letter titles.

All of these titles will be available through better bookstores everywhere and through the Open Letter website. Additionally, you can subscribe and receive a year’s worth of books (10 in total) for $100 (free shipping!). Or get a six-month subscription (5 books) for only $60 (again, with free shipping).

Here are the titles from one of our best lists yet:

Gasoline by Quim Monzó (excerpt)
translated from the Catalan by Mary Ann Newman

For the first time in his life, Heribert Juliá is unable to paint. On the eve of an important gallery exhibition, for which he’s created nothing, he’s bored with life: he falls asleep while making love with his mistress, wanders from bar to bar, drinking whatever comes to his attention first, and meets the evidence of his wife Helena’s infidelity with complete indifference. Humbert Herrera, an up-and-coming artist who can’t stop creating, picks up the threads of Heribert’s life, taking his wife, replacing him at the gallery, and pursuing his former mistress. Heribert is finally undone by a massive sculpture, while Humbert is planning the sculpture to end sculpture, the poem to end poetry, and the film to end film, all while mounting three simultaneous shows.

A fun-house mirror through which he examines the creative process, the life and loves of artists, and the New York art scene, Gasoline confirms Quim Monzó as the foremost Catalan writer of his generation.

A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch (excerpt)
translated from the Polish by David Frick

A comic gem, Jerzy Pilch’s A Thousand Peaceful Cities takes place in 1963, in the latter days of the Polish post-Stalinist “thaw.” The narrator, Jerzyk (“little Jerzy”), is a teenager who is keenly interested in his father, a retired postal administrator, and his father’s closest friend, Mr. Traba, a failed Lutheran clergyman, alcoholic, would-be Polish insurrectionist, and one of the wildest literary characters since Laurence Sterne’s Uncle Toby. One drunken afternoon, Mr. Traba and the narrator’s nameless father decide to take charge of their lives and do one final good turn for humanity: travel to distant Warsaw and assassinate the de facto Polish head of state, First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, Władysław Gomułka—assassinating Mao Tse-tung, after all, would be impractical. And they decide to involve Jerzyk in their scheme . . .

The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra (excerpt)
translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

The Private Lives of Trees tells the story of a single night: a young professor of literature named Julián is reading to his step-daughter Daniela and nervously waiting for his wife Verónica to return from her art class. Each night, Julián has been improvising a story about trees to tell Daniela before she goes to sleep—and each Sunday he works on a novel about a man tending to his bonsai—but something about this night is different. As Julián becomes increasing concerned that Verónica won’t return, he reflects on their life together in minute detail, and imagines what Daniela—at twenty, at twenty-five, at thirty years old, without a mother—will think of his novel.

Perhaps even more daring and dizzying than Zambra’s magical Bonsai, The Private Lives of Trees demands to be read in a single sitting, and it casts a spell that will bring you back to it again and again.

Klausen by Andreas Maier (excerpt)
translated from the German by Kenneth Northcott

Nobody knows exactly what happened in the small town of Klausen, or rather, everyone knows: a bomb went off on the autobahn, or at a shack near the autobahn, or someone was shooting at the town from a bridge; it all stems from a fight over measuring noise pollution on the town square, or it was the work of eco-terrorists, or Italians. And while nobody knows who or what to blame—although they’re certainly uneasy about the Moroccan and Albanian immigrants who are squatting in an abandoned castle—they all suspect that Josef Gasser, who spent several years away from Klausen, in Berlin, is behind it all. Only one thing is clear: Klausen was now a crime scene.

In Klausen, Andreas Maier has taken Thomas Bernhard’s method—the nested indirect speech, the repetition, the endless paragraph—and pointed it at an entire town. A town where one confusion leads to the next, where everyone is living in a fog of rumor, but where everyone claims to know exactly what’s going on, even if they’ve changed their story several times.

To Hell with Cronjé by Ingrid Winterbach (excerpt)
translated from the Afrikaans by Elsa Silke

Two scientists, Reitz Steyn and Ben Maritz, find themselves in a “transit camp for those temporarily and permanently unfit for battle” during the Boer War. Captured on suspicion of desertion and treason—during a trek across an unchanging desert of bushes, rocks, and ant hills to help transport a fellow-soldier, who has suffered debilitating shell-shock, to his mother—they are forced to await the judgment of a General Bergh, unsure whether they are to be conscripted into Bergh’s commando, allowed to continue their mission, or executed for treason. As the weeks pass, and the men’s despair at ever returning to their families reaches its peak, they are sent on a bizarre mission . . .

A South African Heart of Darkness, Ingrid Winterbach’s To Hell with Cronjé is a poetic exploration of friendship and camaraderie, an eerie reflection on the futility of war, and a thought-provoking re-examination of the founding moments of the South African nation.

As a special preview, coming up in the fall 2010 are: Mathias Énard’s Zone, Juan José Saer’s Glosa, Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassadors, and a couple more titles we’re still working on. More information as soon as we have it . . .

3 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece that I wrote about Roberto Bolano’s The Skating Rink.

Bolano is a personal favorite, and I think this latest translation is very charming:

I’m as guilty as anyone for helping hype Roberto Bolaño’s two big books—“big” both in terms of reputation and size—that FSG released over the past two years. I loved both The Savage Detectives and 2666. I loved the heft, the ambition, the overreaching, and the risks he took.

But amid the Bolaño frenzy of the past couple years, his shorter books were somewhat overlooked. Which is a shame—in many ways, Bolaño is much better with these 150-200 page books than with his sprawling works.

Over the past six years, New Directions has done an amazing job of making all of these available to English readers. They brought out By Night in Chile to great reviews back in 2003. Then Distant Star came out shortly thereafter followed by Last Evenings on Earth, Nazi Literature in the Americas, Amulet, and a collection of his poetry entitled Romantic Dogs. The Skating Rink (translated by Chris Andrews, who has done all of the works of fiction New Directions has published) releases this month, and there are even more Bolaño books scheduled for the next couple years. (According to Wyatt Mason’s review in the New York Times and wikipedia there are two novels and two story collections coming out next year, and three more books in 2011.)

When The Skating Rink came out in 1993, it really put Bolaño on the literary map. And for good reason. Playing with the detective novel genre, Bolaño uses three narrators to tell a story of love, corruption, and murder in the Spanish town of Z.

Love + Corruption + Murder—what more could you ask for in a book? The full review can be found here.

3 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’m as guilty as anyone for helping hype Roberto Bolaño’s two big books—“big” both in terms of reputation and size—that FSG released over the past two years. I loved both The Savage Detectives and 2666. I loved the heft, the ambition, the overreaching, and the risks he took.

But amid the Bolaño frenzy of the past couple years, his shorter books were somewhat overlooked. Which is a shame—in many ways, Bolaño is much better with these 150-200 page books than with his sprawling works.

Over the past six years, New Directions has done an amazing job of making all of these available to English readers. They brought out By Night in Chile to great reviews back in 2003. Then Distant Star came out shortly thereafter followed by Last Evenings on Earth, Nazi Literature in the Americas, Amulet, and a collection of his poetry entitled Romantic Dogs. The Skating Rink (translated by Chris Andrews, who has done all of the works of fiction New Directions has published) releases this month, and there are even more Bolaño books scheduled for the next couple years. (According to Wyatt Mason’s review in the New York Times and wikipedia there are two novels and two story collections coming out next year, and three more books in 2011.)

When The Skating Rink came out in 1993, it really put Bolaño on the literary map. And for good reason. Playing with the detective novel genre, Bolaño uses three narrators to tell a story of love, corruption, and murder in the Spanish town of Z.

The three principle players in this dance are: Remo Moran, a successful businessman in Z; Gaspar Heredia, a former poet who works at Moran’s campground; and Enric Rosquelles, an overweight psychologist working in the town’s Social Services Department.

And of course there are also a couple women: Caridad, a somewhat crazy woman that Gaspar falls in love with; and Nuria Marti, the gorgeous figure skater who’s involved with both Remo and Enric.

All of these characters revolve around the skating rink that Enric builds for Nuria at the rundown Palacio Benvingut after she is kicked off of the national figure skating team. This is the place where Caridad leads Gaspar. It’s the same location where Remo finds a dead body.

Employing a somewhat Faulknerian technique, Bolaño lets all of the connections between these characters arise from the voices of the three male protagonists. Chapters alternate among the three, with each small bit reading almost like a confession, or a response to questioning about the murder. As other reviewers have remarked, although there’s no actual detective in the novel, it’s the mystery of who dies and who killed her that really drives the novel.

Novels in voices are a personal favorite, and it’s very interesting how authors create plot tensions and anticipation through the use of different narrators. In this case, Bolaño lets you know straight off that there’s something up. The opening section, narrated by Remo, refers to Jack the Ripper, makes an elusive reference to murder, and admits that yes, he knows Gaspar Heredia.

But Enric Rosquelles’s first speech is the most interesting in its allusions and defensive tone:

Until a few years ago I was a typical mild-mannered guy; ask my family, my friends, my junior colleagues, anyone who came into contact with me. They’ll all tell you I’m the last person you’d expect to be involved in a crime. [. . .] Of course it’s my own fault. I’m the one who set the pace. Which makes me wonder, if you’ll allow me a digression, why I took on so much in the first place. I don’t know. Sometimes things get away from me. Sometimes I think my behavior was inexcusable. But then, other times, I think: I was walking around in a daze, mostly. Lying awake all night, as I have done recently, hasn’t helped me find any answers. Nor have the abuse and insults to which I have, apparently, been subjected.

For a book that leaps ahead through three different perspectives, the pacing is pretty good. There are a few bits that drag a bit, but the payoff is well, well worth it. Granted, The Skating Rink isn’t loaded with big philosophical ideas about the twentieth century or artistic movements, but it operates according to its own rules, and does so in a way that’s incredibly enjoyable. Yet another example of why Bolaño is considered one of the finest world novelists of the past twenty years.

....
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