21 October 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Yesterday we ran Part I of an interview between author Mylene Fernández Pintado and translator Dick Cluster. Part I left off with Mylene going over a little background information on their work together on A Corner of the World to be. This here is Part II of that interview.

Mylene Fernández Pintado has been writing and publishing in Cuba, winning prizes and readers, since 1994. Her latest novel, La esquina del mundo, has just been published by City Lights as A Corner of the World, translated by Dick Cluster. Cluster’s other new Cuban translation is Pedro de Jesús’s Vital Signs, released this month by Diálogos Press in New Orleans. During Mylene’s recent visit to San Francisco, author and translator put together the following mutual interview about her work, their translation process, and more. Mylene’s responses, which were in Spanish, are translated by Dick.

MF: But of course the main thing we are discussing here is the translation. Could you describe some of the choices you had to make—and we had to make—in this book?

DC: First let me make some observations about the general issue of “translating Cuba” for U.S. readers. Sometimes the translator will need to subtly “un-teach” U.S. readers what they think they know about Cuba, un-teach notions that can get in the way of their understanding of what the writer means to say. Sometimes the translator will need to help clue in the U.S. reader to subtleties (or not-so-subtleties) that the Cuban reader understands but the one here will not. In A Corner of the World, with its many small touches of Havana life and context, it was mostly the latter. Some of these have to do with economics and social structure and customs, some with the Cuban language itself.

One of my favorite examples in terms of Cuban language also presents the eternal challenge facing translators when we have to deal with puns. Here’s what the translation says: “When I was a kid, and I read The Arabian Nights for the first time, that’s where I discovered the word peddler. Ever since, I’ve associated it with bicycles, because I imagined it must be a guy pedaling along while hawking his wares. Later I found out what the word actually meant. So simple, but now, I don’t know. I don’t want to give up on the guy who bikes through Baghdad with a basketful of plantains and boniatos teetering on top of his turban.” In the original, the pun is not “peddle” and “pedal,” but “viandante” and “vianda.” A viandante is someone who goes by on a road, a passerby. Viandas in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world are any kind of foodstuffs, but in Cuba they are specifically tropical root vegetables (such as yuca, boniato, malanga) and plantains. So it’s a play on words, but at the same time it shows how Cubans cubanize things, and I wanted to maintain both aspects. I hope it works.
A related problem of language and culture has to do with the Malecón, Havana’s curving seaside drive which you’ve already talked about, which really becomes one of the characters in your novel. But the word denotes not just the drive or boulevard—it’s also the seawall that protects the shore, and the wide sidewalk in between the wall and the drive, and more metaphorically it’s the place where the sea and land meet, which in Cuba is always tied up—again this issue—with the sense of being an island. All of this comes into play in a paragraph toward the end of the book, where the female protagonist and narrator, Marian, goes out to the Malecón, thinking about the male protagonist, Daniel. The translation reads:

London is gruff and has no seacoast. I looked at Havana, bordered by miles of ocean, but for the first time I felt the water was besieging us. What we have is a wall where sea meets land, not a beach that one can walk from end to end, setting foot simultaneously in city and sea. What we can do is to look out over the waves, which exist as a promise of the rest of the world. But the promise is unreliable. Like Daniel’s return.

That’s probably the place where, after besieging you with questions about the passage, I added the most words—words that were implied but not explicit in the original. If I hadn’t, the middle two sentences would have said only: “. . . felt the water was besieging us. The Malecón is not a beach, we can’t walk it. Only look at it from here. It exists as a promise. . .” That would have made some sense, but not much, and I think the poignancy and contradictions would have been lost.

In terms of the “un-teaching” I mentioned before, there’s a passage about how Cubans requesting visas to go abroad are met by suspicion in the embassies of the most-requested countries, embassies whose staff are:

. . . fed up with Cubans, people who were not from the First World yet not from the Third, who were neither citizens nor immigrants. People who traveled out of their own country so as to tell everyone where they went about the great charms of their home. Who lectured anyone who would listen and some who would not, drawing on their endless storehouses of nostalgia, taking full advantage of their new surroundings but always with disdainful expressions of melancholic superiority.”

The meaning there is a hundred percent clear, the words are straightforward, and getting from the Spanish to the English was not hard. But I worried that to American readers it would make no sense, or would provoke some vague feeling of disbelief, since as far as we are concerned the most-requested country is ours, Cubans here are deemed political refugees by mere virtue of being Cuban, and they are always described as having “fled,” and never quoted about any charms of their homeland or its superiorities to the U.S. So I proposed the addition of, “The embassies of the most-requested countries, in many parts of Europe, for instance. . .” which is indeed the embassies the passage was about, as Cuban readers know without this being stated. You agreed about “in many parts of Europe” and said no to “for instance” as being unnecessarily didactic, so that’s what we did.

MF: Often when it comes to explaining something that’s unknown to the foreign reader, there’s the problem of how to clarify this while maintaining the literary level, explaining without getting at all didactic and damaging any of the lyricism in the prose. In this case, and in others, you found a way of not leaving the North Americans “in China” (as we say in Cuba), nor making them feel they are reading footnotes or endnotes—the things that readers in any case avoid because they don’t want to lose the thread of the story. That’s another of the merits of this translation, the way the necessary clarifications for the reader are always done in a literary manner, as if I’d written them in the original too.

Similarly I think the translations of what in Spanish we call guiños, winks, are also very well done. These are allusions to other works whether literary or artworks but without citing them explicitly. So I like the way in which you handled these “winks” originally directed at Spanish-speaking readers, sometimes replacing them with others closer to the Anglo reader, so you keep the book’s spirit intact without confronting the Anglo reader with things that are unnecessarily unfamiliar.

DC: I remember there was one where you had an allusion to a Lorca poem that I couldn’t figure out any way to handle, but a page later, when Marian says “no hay nada más,” I asked you, what about dropping in a substitute by having her say “Only that and nothing more,” which is the kind of thing she would do. And you wrote back, “Poe is great, I’m so happy you’ve managed to give him a place in the novel, it’s perfect for winding up the internal monologue there.”

There are also some moments of Cuban history. There’s a flashback about the parents of Marian’s ex-mother-in-law’s mother, who thought they would be exempt from the social revolution of the early ’60s, because they “knew people in the new government and had even bought some bonds to finance a plan for university autonomy.” The part about the bonds was likely to say nothing to U.S. readers. So, in the translation, they “knew some people in the new government, and had even once bought some underground bonds, during the previous one, to finance a plan for university autonomy.”

When Marian gives an exam to her university students, she thinks about “las mil brujerías que habían hecho” (the thousands of pieces of witchcraft they’d undertaken), “en que mi nombre estaba en todos los congeladores o en tazas llena de miel” (with my name in every freezer or glass full of honey), and that “muchos tendrían ropa interior roja” (many must be wearing red underwear). Again without saying so much as to hit a false note for Marian’s voice, it seemed possible to help out by naming the belief systems involved, of which U.S. readers might have heard, and to specify at least the purpose of the red: “. . . the thousand charms of spiritism and Santería that must be at work, with my name inside every freezer or every cupful of honey they employed. I tried to guess how many were wearing red underwear in honor of Changó.”

MF: Religion is always a problem to deal with in translations or simply in languages that are tied to doctrines different from our own. In the book all the tone is ironic, Marian’s professor-narrator voice is skeptical, but she’s talking about beliefs or superstitions that are common in Cuba. So the honey and the freezer have to do with charms that are supposed to sweeten someone’s disposition or paralyze their evil intentions, and for the red underwear you need to know something about our religious syncretism and how Cubans have a much more informal and less ceremonious relationship with the African figures who are linked to Catholic ones. Cubans talk to them, get mad at them, it’s like when the Greek gods in the Iliad have their preferred mortals whom they defend and talk to. So in doing the translation you had to make use of your years of Havana daily life and knowledge of popular beliefs, and your feeling for how we can be believers in many things, many mixtures, which for Cubans does not imply any contradiction.

DC: I’ll end with the way the way two different characters address Marian, which presented the problem of finding American English equivalents for the terms and what they imply. Her department chair calls her “Marian querida,” while her ex-mother-in-law calls her “Marian bonita.” This presented dilemmas I batted around both with my literary translators’ workshop group and with you. “Marian querida” might be either “honey” or “sweetie.” After some discussion we agreed that “Marian, honey,” would sound more like the Cuban “Marian, mi amor,” which (in both countries and languages) a waitress might use to address a customer, or in similar situations where the people don’t know each other and where the language is less rarified than in a university. “Marian, sweetie” was more the ticket for this. “Marian, bonita,” on the hand, was—in Cuba—something completely affected and out of place. It was peninsular Spanish, and the mother-in-law was putting on airs based on once having lived there as a diplomat’s wife. We settled on “Marian, my lovely,” for that.

MF: This was an interesting point—because “bonita” in the daily Spanish of Cubans means “pretty,” but in Spain, and especially in Madrid, it’s an adjective placed after a proper name as a signifier of trust, though it can also be used when calling a spade a spade as in “Sorry, bonita, that’s not the way it is.” But in Cuba this usage simply does not exist, and I only know it because I lived in Madrid for two years. Whereas “Marian querida” is used in a maternal way by her department head. I thought it was fantastic when you told me about the debate in your translators’ group around choosing the best word for that. I thought how fantastic it must be to work in that kind of collective way, which reminded me of the days when I worked in ICAIC and we wrote articles about film and had these heated discussion that were very productive both intellectually and socially.

Anyway, all the examples you’ve given reinforce what I always say, which is that translating a book is rewriting it in new words while keeping even the subtlest of its “soul breaths” intact.

And right now, while I’m giving these responses, sitting on your back deck in Oakland which I imagine is for you like my sea-view balcony, I think about the whole chain of coincidences that have brought us here. Maybe we do have a corner of the world on that Calle 17 we both feel is the “most charming and saddest street”—which, if you follow it to its end, takes you to the Malecón, which I call the anteroom of the rest of the world. So, thanks to you for your faith like Quijote’s in this book of ours, and to City Lights for its confidence in us, and to everyone who has inspired it, and to the Havana I always carry with me.

20 October 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Mylene Fernández Pintado has been writing and publishing in Cuba, winning prizes and readers, since 1994. Her latest novel, La esquina del mundo, has just been published by City Lights as A Corner of the World, translated by Dick Cluster. Cluster’s other new Cuban translation is Pedro de Jesús’s Vital Signs, released this month by Diálogos Press in New Orleans. During Mylene’s recent visit to San Francisco, author and translator put together the following mutual interview about her work, their translation process, and more. Mylene’s responses, which were in Spanish, are translated by Dick.

Dick Cluster: Your first published story was also, coincidentally, one of the first I ever translated. It contained a sentence which I might render now as: “Here I was, standing on Calle 17 which is for me the most charming and the saddest street in Vedado, under a sun shedding its rays with a verticality completely devoid of imagination, trying to make my way through a petrified city.” That same street was full of associations for me, because I used to bicycle it on my way home from working with Cuban professors of English and from various aspects of a complicated social life in Havana. I associated it with startlingly beautiful flowering trees, the petals they cast off onto its pavement and sidewalks, the heat as described, and the blackouts that plunged long stretches into evening and midnight darkness and silence. Though you and I didn’t yet know each other or even have email contact, it already seemed that we had something in common.

Mylene Fernandez: “Anhedonia” was not only my first published story, but the first I ever wrote. I wrote it because I was home almost all day with my new baby—who, in another coincidence, is now studying English in the same university where you worked in Havana—and I heard about a short story contest. When “Anhedonia” won an honorable mention in that contest, for which I had a lot of respect, that said to me that maybe this was what I should be devoting myself to, even though I never studied writing and had never written anything, not even the poems usually written by teenagers in love.

In terms of career, I started out as an architecture major, but gave that up after a year because I didn’t like drawing. Still that one year gave me many tools of observation. Then I studied law, which taught me ways of reading and writing with great care, because in the law even punctuation marks, subordinate clauses, enumerations or ellipses all matter. It also taught me to see all the different points of view on a given situation, all the attenuating or aggravating circumstances, the attendant or consequent ones, the why’s and wherefores of everything. This is of great help in creating characters: the sum of subjective truths in every apparently objective event or action. That’s why one of my favorite films is Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, for its magnificent and always disturbing exploration of the truth.

In 1994, I was working in the Cuban Film Institute [the Cuban movie production company responsible for most Cuban films] as a legal advisor, and my relationship to literature was as a voracious reader. Then that first story changed my life. This may sound like an exaggeration but it isn’t. Many years later and with a literary career that I would call a fortunate one, I’m still “the author of Anhedonia,” which has been republished and anthologized, turned into a TV special in Mexico, and there’s also a screenplay for a theatrical film out there. The story was born the same year as my son and it eventually put you and me in contact, confronting us with words and sentences that described places we had shared without knowing it.

DC: So, our first collaboration was “Anhedonia,” for Cubana, an anthology of Cuban women’s writing from the 1980s and ’90s (edited by Mirta Yáñez, co-translated with Cindy Schuster). The story is about two women, old friends who haven’t seen each other for a long time, who happen to meet on Calle 17. I’m often asked about what it’s like, as a man, to translate women’s voices. My answer tends to be to quote Marge Piercy who once said that one of the joys of writing fiction is “to explore lives that are not my own.” I have found this to be true both in writing fiction and in translating it. Sometimes those lives are far outside our experience, and the challenge for either writer or translator is to adentrarse, to get inside the experience by way of research, interviews, conversation—in short, by way of words. In translation, of course, it’s the author’s words that provide the main tool or path, but not the only one. At an opposite extreme from your writing set in Havana, I once translated a story by a Chilean writer about walking a dirt road through the Atacama desert, a place I have never been in a country where I’ve never been, but I’ve walked and hitchhiked through hot, dry, flat, and lonely places, and that gave me something to go along with the author’s words.

But in the case of your work, I do think there’s a special connection, because much of it is intensely about Havana, a place I’ve so thoroughly investigated, while living there and in many visits since, by looking and asking questions. This began in the 1990s when bicycles were the main means of transportation, and I would frequently begin English classes by asking for explanations of things I had seen on my ride. Those years also led me to take up translation, because they were years of constant alternation between languages. I loved doing that, and, since I was already a writer in English, literary translation offered a way to keep it up even when I was not in Cuba any more. And finally, that experience led me to understanding the complexity and contradictoriness of Cuba, so different from the clichés about that country so prevalent here, which also led me to want to share what Cuban writers on the island were writing with audiences on this side of that deep divide. The next story of yours that I translated—for another anthology of Cuban women’s writing, Open Your Eyes and Soar, edited by Mary Berg—contained a description of Havana as a place where “the unforeseen is the best synonym for plans and where chance is always better organized than anything else.” That story also has a lot to do with the divide between Cuba as Cubans see it and as foreigners do, though in this case the foreigners are Spaniards. Maybe you could say something about “Mare Atlanticum” and our process of translating it, from your point of view?

MF: “Mare Atlanticum” is the story of a Cuban woman living in Madrid with her Spanish boyfriend. They’re truly in love, both are cultured and sensitive people, with many things they share and many others that separate them. And the story is based on this, on the “island they’ve built of the things that bring them closer, that they’ve built but can’t inhabit.” Its catalyst is a concert given in Madrid by the famous Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez. By the time you and I worked on “Mare Atlanticum,” I was alternating between living in Havana Switzerland, because I had recently married a Swiss citizen. You and I still hadn’t met, but now we had email contact. And through the emails I learned that you also knew Silvio’s work and had seen him in concert, and we each had stories about our relationships with his songs, stories we told each other over email while working on the text. What was most impressive to me was the way that you, to translate a text which mentioned only the titles of a few songs, searched out those songs, listened to them and read the lyrics with so much care. During our sessions of work-by-email between Lugano and Boston, in which we tried to plumb the most intimate meanings of a story about Havana as seen from Madrid, I grew fascinated by your way of understanding something as complex and distant as a Cuban living not in the U.S. but in Europe. It was a marvelous work process, and so was the resulting translation. A little while ago I sent you something written by a U.S. student who did her academic thesis about this story, using your English version, which provided proof of what I knew from the time I first read the translation—that this was my story, exactly as I’d conceived it, yet there it was in English, all the nuances and subtlety, irony, puns, melancholy, this interior island whose contours and details are conjured by evocations.

I’ve had other experiences with translations into other languages, and sometimes I’ve had trouble seeing my words in those translations, sometimes even after the translators asked me things and I tried to clarify the meanings. In those cases, when I’ve felt alienated from my own story because of a translation that did not re-create it, I’ve remembered the saying about “traduttore, traditore.” Translation is telling a story by capturing the spirit behind it without tying oneself to the words in a literal way. In our case this means keeping the values intact while making the Cuban reality accessible to someone who has never been in Cuba, despite its complexities that so often escape our attempt to trap them in adjectives or catalogues. That’s why I’ve so highly valued your manner of writing Cuban literature for readers in English. You’re extremely careful with tenses, tones, and specific details. Your questions and reflections have made our work sessions into an analysis of the story in which we both become involved on a personal level.

In addition to how well you know Havana and its vagaries, the fact that you’re also a writer makes you re-compose the language from a point of view in which the most important thing is to communicate to the English reader the sensation, the thinking, the dilemma, whatever it is. This is often very creative work for the translator, seeking a way to express—in the literal meaning of “express,” to squeeze out—such sentiments. Sometimes you’ll send me several alternative phrases or sentences in English so I can choose the one that best expresses the soul of the sentence. I find that this makes me rethink my characters, makes me ask myself new questions, as if I were re-discovering and re-evaluating what I’ve written in Spanish. The process is like when one tells a friend about a problem and knows that out of this conversation will come a solution because that friend both understands the situation and has enough distance to evaluate it, what in Spanish we call “distancia media,” not so close as to blind you nor so far as to blur your vision.

DC: We’ll go into some details about specific choices and issues involved in “translating Cuba” when we get to A Corner of the World, but I do recall one small example from “Mare Atlanticum.” There’s a moment when the Spaniards are eating Japanese food with chopsticks and the Cuban narrator/protagonist resorts to a fork and thinks “maybe they were suffering my same difficulties, only for them these constituted a delicious Western awkwardness whereas in me they testified to a terrible isolation from the world.” The original said, “un terrible falta del mundo,” which word for word is something like “a terrible lack of world,” which could rendered in many ways, but for Cubans has a lot to do not just with First World/Third World things but with living on an island, so the word “isolate” (etymologically, “to make into an island”) helps to capture that.

Finally, after our work on that story and another for the same anthology (a teenage girl coming of age kind of story), we got to meet in person when I was visiting Havana and you invited me for lunch. That was when I found out—when we both found out—that we’d been living only two blocks apart in the ’90s.

MF: It’s very striking to meet in person someone with whom you’ve shared such intimate details of your texts, with whom you’ve worked to uncover their deepest meanings and the why’s of your words. I don’t know whether you remember that you were wearing a T-shirt with a drawing from Alice in Wonderland and a sentence from the book. That seemed so perceptive on your part because it was a mark of our unspoken understanding, since my first novel opens each chapter with quotes from Lewis Carroll’s book. Then we talked about your years living in Cuba, the building where you lived so close by, and you saw the square meters that are my apartment in Havana where I write and that somehow or other are always my center and that of my texts. The way you are both sensitive and implacable with words and their inflections sometimes reminds me of the character in Alice who talks about putting the verbs and adjectives to work as if they were hired employees, one of my favorite parts of the book.

DC: Yes, Humpty Dumpty. I don’t remember that I was wearing that shirt but I do remember that the quote from Alice on it is translated into Italian! And yes, that day you gave me a copy of the novel, Otras plegarias atendidas, and also I got to take in the sea-view from your balcony, which of course I recognized when I got to the delicious scene where a character in the novel rents out chairs on her balcony to foreigners to watch the sunset for a dollar a pop, without their having to actually rub elbows with Cubans in the street. Can you tell a bit about that novel, before we move on to the new one?

MC: During several trips to the U.S. in the late 1990s for Latina writers’ events in New York, I also spent considerable time in Miami. Those experiences—unforgettable and intense in every sense—led to Otras plegarias atendidas (Other Answered Prayers), which was published in 2003.

That title is a nearly unconscious homage to Truman Capote, because without knowing that we shared the Santa Teresa de Ávila quote that says “more tears are shed for answered prayers than for unrealized desires,” that was the sentence with which I began writing the novel. Later I discovered that Capote too had chosen the phrase for his unfinished novel Answered Prayers. My novel was well received by both critics and the reading public. In Cuba it won the Italo Calvino prize and the Premio de la Crítica, and was published in Italy, in translation, by Marco Tropea Editore. It’s divided into two parts, one in Havana and the other in Miami. A reason for its success, I think, was that Cubans living in Cuba wanted to know about the life of the Cuban in Miami, and Europeans were very interested in the passages depicting life in Havana. You worked on translating some samples of the novel but we didn’t succeed in finding a publisher in English. If one day we do manage to publish it, I’m sure we’ll go back over those and discuss them all over again and doubtless make some changes. In the books of short stories that followed, I’ve continued with the theme of exile and with other more intimate and personal ones: love and its successes and failures, personal relationships and the environments that condition or nuance them.

La esquina del mundo is a fusion of all of that. A love story in today’s Havana—changing, chaotic, the relationship of a couple torn by the daily dilemma facing so many of us in Cuba, that of staying or leaving. It’s also—really I’d say it’s above all—an homage to Havana, which becomes not just the setting but a character, sometimes an accomplice and sometimes a silent observer of the others in the story. It’s everyday Havana, told with humor, melancholy, irony, in the voices and actions of its residents, very human characters with their doubts and questions, their dreams, their daily struggle in the gap between what one wants and what one can do. Although no neighborhood is specifically mentioned, the novel is set in the same area as “Anhedonia,” on the same streets where you and I were neighbors without knowing it—the streets which end at the seawall where many of us go to gaze at the sea while we think and we dream. So, again, it’s a place in which you know what it feels like to walk or bike those streets, you’ve experienced that sensation of darkness or silence in the midst of bustle and din, you’ve seen how the sea curves around the city like a belt, showing us the rest of world and isolating us as well. I often say that the Malecón is the sedative most popular among Havanans, to which we have recourse when we’re seeking serenity or unburdening or solutions. There’s a kind of therapy that consists of sitting on that Wall and watching, whether the sea on one side or the city on the other. Maybe we should talk about our re-encounter on the day of the presentation of the book in Havana.

DC: Well, U.S. publishers’ interest in Cuban writing done on the island had flagged once again, the rash of anthologies had ended, we hadn’t found a publisher for Otras plegarias, and so we kind of fell out of touch. Then I happened to be in Havana just after New Year’s of 2012 and someone said to me, “Do you know there’s going to be a presentation of a new novel by Mylene Hernández, who you translated?”, and I said “You mean Fernández?” and they said yes. So I went with that friend to the presentation and, as it happened, I grabbed us the last two copies off the sales table, which was besieged by a crowd as tends to happen in Cuba where the press runs are short and the interest is high. I waited out the crush to get it signed, re-introduced myself to you in person, and was surprised and pleased when you inscribed my copy to “el major traductor que he conocido” (the best translator I’ve met). And then I loved the book. Besides its many other qualities, it’s once again Havana I recognize—the worries, joys, and dilemmas of so many friends and acquaintances, the question of staying or leaving that weighs on the minds of so many, especially the young. I like the way the book is nuanced, its light touch, so unlike so much written about Cuba—but rarely from Cuba—that Americans see. So I proposed we should give it a shot, and this time I’d translate the whole book, not just samples.

MF: Somewhere I have a photo, it must be on my computer in Switzerland or else the one in Havana, I’ll send it to you, which shows my surprise at seeing you in front me at the presentation. The novel’s release had been really very successful in Cuba, I was feeling a little fearful of all the praise, all the critics who wrote so much about the book and readers who identified so much with the story, readers of all ages and tendencies, people who lived in Havana in very different situations, Cubans who lived abroad, and even Spaniards. My son’s teenage friends, old people, people who live and think in very different ways, people who want to leave or stay, those who love Havana and those who are bored with it. People who are happy, are depressed, are happily in love or shipwrecked by it. While I was very agreeably surprised by the book’s reception, I was almost afraid of so much attention. But when you proposed translating it on your own hook, without any offer from a publisher, I was delighted, partly because it made me happy that you saw it as something worth taking on such an uncertain voyage as the attempt to publish it in English, in a language and country so different from mine.

So we got to work, enthusiastically. I was convinced from the get-go that you understood it all, the life and thinking of the main and secondary characters, the daily lives, the dilemmas, the moral values in conflict. Still, you held up for my consideration every passage which you thought needed any clarification on my part. That was really exciting work, work that made us both happy, that we enjoyed very much without knowing where it would lead.

Then came the stage of looking for publishers—all your responsibility—and sometimes they would appear and show interest and then vanish. The finally, at the same moment, both City Lights and another publisher appeared, and we decided on City Lights, with whom you had worked well before and whom I knew from the Beat Generation writers and from sharing so many values. I’m very happy with this book, from the cover photo to the last sentence, and I want to thank everyone from City Lights who joined in with your effort . . .

Check back in tomorrow for the continuation of the interview.

13 August 13 | Chad W. Post |

This week’s podcast is a special combo version featuring two separate conversations: one between Chad, Stephen Sparks (BTBA judge, Green Apple bookseller, and excellent reviewers), and George Carroll; and one between Chad and Paul Yamazaki (legendary City Lights bookseller). Topics range from soccer to Karl Pohrt to Javier Marias to Jonathan Lethem to other books we’re reading this summer. It’s always great to hear from booksellers about what they’re reading—they’re more in touch with what’s coming out than basically anyone. Additionally, it’s always fun to give a bit more love to these two epically great bookstores.

Read More...

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

When I was in New York last week for sales calls and publicity meetings (which is why the blog has been so slow . . . But I’m back! And excited about life, the BTBAs, books, and everything, so expect an onslaught of material for the next few days . . . ), everyone was all abuzz about the fact that the New Yorker ran an enormous article on Arabic literature in translation. (Of course, they also used the ages-old “Found/Lost in Translation” title for which there NEEDS TO BE A MORATORIUM, but so be it.)

Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote this piece, which is basically a run down of recently published works of Arab literature. She doesn’t mention The Zafarani Files, which is a personal favorite and is on the BTBA longlist, but the titles she cites all sound rather interesting. I highly recommend reading the whole article, but in shorthand, blog-world fashion, here’s a rundown of the titles covered, with short quotes and links to buy the books at Idlewild:

  • Saddam City by Mahmoud Saeed, translated by Ahmad Sadri (Saqi Books)

For all the horror it details, this is a startlingly warm and humane book. Saeed, despite the incitements of his subject, does not aspire to the Kafkaesque—Kafka, it must be admitted, is among the most impossible of authors to emulate, along with García Márquez—but maintains a specificity of place and history (this happened in Basra, that happened in Mosul) and of the individuals who inhabit them. Set mostly in the run-up to the Iran-Iraq War, in the late nineteen-seventies, this slender novel tells of a mild-mannered Basra schoolteacher who, although cautiously apolitical, is whisked off one day for “a simple interrogation.” His subsequent experience in six levels of hell—six prisons in all—is exactingly described, but the long ordeal is mitigated, both for him and for the reader, by a dose of bitter humor, a share of personal good will, and the mutual trust that he discovers among the prisoners, a trust long since forfeited in the larger prison of the informer-ridden society outside.

  • I’jaam by Sinan Antoon, translated by the author and Rebecca C. Johnson (City Lights)

The title refers to the practice of adding dots—diacritical marks—to various letters of the Arabic alphabet, some of which are indistinguishable without these marks in place. An undotted sequence of letters may signify a number of different words; the correct translation can be determined only by context. The story’s intriguing premise is that a handwritten, undotted manuscript has been found in a file in Baghdad’s Interior Ministry, and a functionary assigned to add the necessary dots and make a transcription: the resulting manuscript forms the body of the book. The text turns out to be the work of a university student whose gift for political mockery got him sent to prison, where he wrote the manuscript—leaving out the dots to avoid further incrimination. Its uncertain readings cause the scribe to offer footnotes to such perplexing references as “the Ministry of Rupture and Inflammation” (“Could this be the Ministry of Culture and Information?”) and to such obvious errors as occur in the well-known song lyric that details how the nation’s leader moves from house to house and “fucks us into bed.” (“Note: the original lyrics read ‘tucks.’ ”)

  • Men in the Sun by Ghassan Kanafani, translated by Hilary Kilpatrick (Lynne Rienner)

“Men in the Sun” is, on the simplest level, a gripping tale that unfolds with Hitchcockian suspense as the reader is reduced to fearfully counting the minutes on the smuggler’s wristwatch. The prose is lean, swift, and—in Hilary Kilpatrick’s translation—filled with phrases of startling rightness: “The lorry, a small world, black as night, made its way across the desert like a heavy drop of oil on a burning sheet of tin”; or, even better, “The speedometer leapt forward like a white dog tied to a tent peg.” The realistic intensity of Kanafani’s world tends to conceal his stylistic ambitions: the intricacy with which he weaves together past and present, fact and delusion, and the alternating voices of his characters, each of whom is drawn with the rapid assurance of a charcoal sketch. But on a deeper level Kanafani’s work is about the desperation that drove these men to such lengths to regain work and dignity; it is about the longing—just emerging in the Palestinian public voice—for the moist earth and the olive trees of the villages left behind in 1948. Most painfully, it is about the awakening of self-recrimination for acquiescence in the loss, as in the thoughts of an old man who has been living “like a beggar” and decides to risk the journey.

  • Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury, translated by Humphrey Davies (Archipelago/Picador)

A tremendously ambitious work, covering half a century of Palestinian history, it begins with maps of the region dotted with the names of old Palestinian villages, the way big Russian novels begin with family trees: here, through all the narrative advance and obliteration, is what you must keep steady in your mind. Set in a dilapidated hospital in the Shatila refugee camp, in Beirut, in the mid-nineties, the book’s many winding stories are told by a male Scheherazade, a fortyish Palestinian medic whose unceasing talk is intended to rouse a comatose old man, a resistance hero who spent decades sneaking over the Lebanese border into Israel, to carry out attacks that earned him the title the Wolf of Galilee. We do not see much of the attacks; instead, we see the warrior as a lover—not as the Wolf but simply as a man—paying secret visits to his wife, left behind on what has become Israeli land. As a result of these conjugal visits, the hero plants his children in Galilee, before going away again to fight to liberate them.

So great to see a piece like this. Getting info about any international lit in translation can be hard, but finding out about Arabic literature tends to be especially tricky. Hopefully I can write a lot more about the Arab publishing scene—and interesting untranslated titles—next month during the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair . . .

5 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Just received this message from City Lights about a contest they’re running to tie-in with the release of Mario Bellatin’s wonderful Beauty Salon:

In a recent interview with PRI’s World Books, Beauty Salon author Mario Bellatin described a writing technique called the “No Method”: “For years I tried to create for myself a method of writing that would be my own. I called it the No Method, not because it was influenced by the Japanese theatrical form of that name, but rather because it was about appending a ‘no’ to all the elements that supposedly make up literary texts. No adjectives, no dialogue, no space, no time, no omniscience, no names, and so on and so forth, until I had compiled a long list of noes. It was in that way, restricted all the way down to the most minimal aspects, that I began to see that, in a certain sense, things could be named anew.”

Our challenge to you: use Bellatin’s No Method—no adjectives, no dialogue, no space, no time, no omniscience, no names—to write a short piece of fiction (under 200 words), and send your entry to contest [at] citylights [dot] com under the subject line “No Contest.” The person with the best entry will receive a free copy of Beauty Salon and a choice of four other books from our City Lights Publishers Literature in Translation list. Submissions are due no later than October 15, 2009.

The winner will be announced in our November newsletter.

14 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Mario Bellatin’s Beauty Salon.

Bellatin’s a pretty interesting author (see this post about the recent NY Times profile) and hopefully a bunch more of his books (especially Flores) will come out in the near future.

Larissa—who’s reviewed a number of books for us—also reviews for L Magazine and is working towards her Master’s in Library Science, while also studying Danish. Recently, she wrote a very interesting piece on Scandinavian crime fiction that you can find here.

Here’s the opening of her review:

Although still an unknown in much of the English-reading world, experimental Mexican author Mario Bellatín is undoubtedly poised for a Le Clézio-esque breakthrough. A Guggenheim recipient, Bellatín is the author of nearly twenty novellas and short works, and has garnered so much success in the international market that he’s recently been courted by the preeminent French publishing house Gallimard to release several forthcoming novels in French translation prior to their publication in his native Spanish. Beauty Salon is only Bellatín’s second publication in English (Chinese Checkers, a compendium of three of his other novellas, was published in 2008).

The novella finds a lonely, unnamed hair stylist caring for the dying victims of an unidentified plague (strongly recalling the AIDS virus) in his converted beauty salon. Where once the salon was plush and dazzling—with elaborate aquariums and exotic fish lining the walls—now it is “simply the Terminal,” refitted with the bare essentials to care for victims of the disease who “. . . are strangers who have nowhere else to die. If it weren’t for the Terminal their only option would be to perish in the street.”

Click here for the full review.

14 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Although still an unknown in much of the English-reading world, experimental Mexican author Mario Bellatín is undoubtedly poised for a Le Clézio-esque breakthrough. A Guggenheim recipient, Bellatín is the author of nearly twenty novellas and short works, and has garnered so much success in the international market that he’s recently been courted by the preeminent French publishing house Gallimard to release several forthcoming novels in French translation prior to their publication in his native Spanish. Beauty Salon is only Bellatín’s second publication in English (Chinese Checkers, a compendium of three of his other novellas, was published in 2008).

The novella finds a lonely, unnamed hair stylist caring for the dying victims of an unidentified plague (strongly recalling the AIDS virus) in his converted beauty salon. Where once the salon was plush and dazzling—with elaborate aquariums and exotic fish lining the walls—now it is “simply the Terminal,” refitted with the bare essentials to care for victims of the disease who “. . . are strangers who have nowhere else to die. If it weren’t for the Terminal their only option would be to perish in the street.”

Though dedicated to the care of his “guests,” however, the narrator remains distant, resigned to the suffering that surrounds him. (“I had witnessed so many deaths already that I came to understand that I couldn’t take on myself the responsibility for all sick people,” he explains succinctly.) Only men in the last, most desperate stages of the disease are admitted to the Terminal, and once accepted, they are allowed neither visits from the family and friends who have refused to take them in, nor “false hopes” of recovery, nor “religious images or prayers of any kind.” Guests are allowed to receive “money, clothes and candy. Everything else is forbidden.”

Bellatín’s prose is sparse and to the point, and yet, his narrator is frequently evasive—only hinting at memories either so painful or so joyful that he seems unable to fully articulate them in the midst of his current isolation. The reader is then left to fill in the blanks between the tidbits that he shares, the memories that he casually intersperses between explanations of his daily routine. “Before it was converted into a communal place to die,” the narrator explains in one passage, “the beauty salon would close up shop at eight o’clock.”

There were three of us working in the salon. A couple of nights a week we would get all dressed up after closing time, pack up a small suitcase and head off to the center of the city. We couldn’t travel dressed as women for we had already gotten dangerous situations more than once. Which is why we packed up our dresses and our make-up and carried them with us. Before standing on a busy street corner dressed as transvestites we would hide the suitcase at the base of statues of national heros . . . Our trips to the center of the city lasted until the early hours of the morning, at which time we would get our suitcases and head back to the beauty salon to sleep . . . We all slept together in one bed.

The memory trails off shortly after into other recollections before returning once again, pages later:

bq. My fellow workers, the ones I worked with in hairstyling and cosmetics, died long ago. Now I’m the only one living in the shed. The bed we all used to sleep in now seems too large for me alone. I miss them. They are the only friends I’ve ever had.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the porousness of the narrator’s revelations, Beauty Salon succeeds in suggesting whole worlds just outside of its pages. The effect is distinctly cinematic: a montage of images which catch the reader’s eye and expand the reality of this anonymous man, anonymous disease, and anonymous city far beyond the story itself. Black tetras and angelfish, Amazon piranhas and golden carp. A friend, dressed for the evening in high ‘European’ style, trimmed with feathers and long gloves. A dying man, wrapped in cardboard “to ease his trembling.” A steaming public bath, “exclusively for men,” with a “wooden counter in the lobby with multicolored fish and red dragons carved into it.” A bowl of thin chicken soup, served to the guests each day. A common grave.

Frank, haunting, and darkly evocative, the disparate imagery (perhaps more than the story) of Beauty Salon will linger in the readers’ minds long after the brief narrative has come to a close.

14 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is a few days old now, but it was great to see Larry Rohter of the New York Times do a special feature on Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin. Bellatin—and his books—are really interesting. Even the opening story in the piece is awesome:

A few years ago the Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin attended one of those literary conferences here where writers are asked to talk about their own favorites. Unwilling to make a choice, he invented a Japanese author named Shiki Nagaoka and spoke with apparent conviction about how deeply Nagaoka had influenced him, fully expecting the prank to be unmasked during the question-and-answer period.

Instead the audience peppered him for more information about Nagaoka, who was said to have a nose so immense that it impeded his ability to eat. So Mr. Bellatin (pronounced Bay-yah-TEEN) decided to extend the joke and promptly wrote a fake biography — complete with excerpts, photographs and bibliography — called “Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction.”

And if this sort of intellectual game-playing wasn’t already intriguing enough, he also fools around with his body:

Mr. Bellatin himself is missing much of his right arm, the result of a birth defect that he says he “plays with, takes advantage of and acknowledges” in his work by “writing with my whole body.” He jokes about “my left hand knoweth not what my right hand doeth,” and depending on his mood, he sometimes appears in public wearing a prosthesis with an attachment, chosen from his collection of more than a dozen, that gives him the appearance of Captain Hook.

“People often say, with a lot of truth to it, that all good fiction writing comes from some wound, out of some distance that needs to be breached between a writer and normalcy,” said the novelist and critic Francisco Goldman, a friend of Mr. Bellatin. “In Mario’s sense, the wound is literal and comes with all kinds of psychological nuance and pain, and seems related to sexuality and desire, the desire for a whole body. One of my favorite aspects of him is this sense that he is writing for all the freaks — either literally freaks or privately and metaphorically, that he really touches us.”

Beauty Salon came out from City Lights this week (see “our review”: by Larissa Kyzer) and has been nominated for this year’s Best Translated Book Award. Definitely worth checking out, and hopefully City Lights will be bringing out more of Bellatin’s works in the near future.

....
Writers
Writers by Antoine Volodine
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .

Read More >

My Brilliant Friend
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Reviewed by Acacia O'Connor

It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .

Read More >

Stealth
Stealth by Sonallah Ibrahim
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .

Read More >

Miruna, a Tale
Miruna, a Tale by Bogdan Suceavă
Reviewed by Alta Ifland

Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .

Read More >

Kamal Jann
Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .

Read More >

I Called Him Necktie
I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.

Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see. . .

Read More >

Return to Killybegs
Return to Killybegs by Sorj Chalandon
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .

Read More >