For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.
The Taker and Other Stories by Rubem Fonseca, translated from the Portuguese by Clifford Landers. (Brazil, Open Letter)
The Taker and Other Stories by Rubem Fonseca — the one Open Letter title to make the Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist — was one of the first titles that we signed on. (And just to clarify, no one affiliated with Open Letter voted for any OL titles, and won’t when it comes to the shortlist either.)
In the summer of 2007, a few years after receiving a National Endwoment for the Arts Translation Fellowship to work on a Fonseca story project, Clifford Landers e-mailed me the fully translated manuscript for what became The Taker and Other Stories. Ever since reading High Art and Vast Emotions & Imperfect Thoughts I had been interested in finding out more about Fonseca and his work.
It’s a bit tricky to find out more about Fonseca himself. He’s a notorious recluse (although he was very quick to respond to my initial e-mail about publishing his work), and is friends with Thomas Pynchon. (Which, I think, is how the Pynchon quote on the cover of our book came about. I found out about it when David Kipen, Director of Literature at the NEA and Pynchon fanatic, directed me to the Portuguese version on this site. Although I feel like I should bend the truth and tell everyone we got this from The Man Himself. Now the amazing Stewart O’Nan quote we did get . . . )
The work itself is a bit easier. Fonseca’s published eight novels, and is the author of numerous short stories (only some of which are included in this collection). He received the Juan Rulfo Award in 2003 (since renamed), and as mentioned above, a couple of his books were published in English back some years ago. His most famous literary creation is probably Mandrake, a cynical and amoral lawyer who is the basis of an HBO series of the same name.
This book was the first collection of Fonseca’s stories to be published in English. Which is somewhat surprising, since in his native Brazil, Fonseca’s short stories are what really made his reputation. (But as almost every editor in the U.S. and UK will tell you, “short stories don’t sell.” And the battle between sales and art rages on . . .)
The stories themselves are frequently violent. In the title story, a young man is pushed to grander and more destructive acts of violence thanks in part to his new girlfriend. “Night Drive,” the full text of which is available here, starts so peacefully, until the narrator goes out driving to unwind . . .
Fonseca’s depictions of the seedier side of Rio are amazing, but not all of his stories are filled with crimes. One of my personal favorites is “The Enemy,” a story about a middle-aged man thinking about the time he tried to reconnect with his high school friends to reminisce about when Roberto flew and Ulpiniano the Gentle was resurrected only to see how everyone had moved on, and remembered nothing of that mystical time. It’s a heartbreaking story, and one that made me decide that we really had to publish this collection.
“The Eleventh of May” is a funny and haunting story about an insurrection in a somewhat surreal nursing home, and “The Notebook” is a funny, and bit misogynistic, story about a man who keeps a notebook detailing all his “conquests.”
Overall, the stories in this collection are quite varied, and make up a great introduction to the fictional worlds of one of Brazil’s greatest writers.
Antonio Lobo Antunes’s books contain many of the things that are fantastic about contemporary literature; at the same time, these books exemplify a lot of the traits that scare people off from literature in translation.
This may sound stupid, but even his name is a problem. Where to shelve it in the bookstore—under “Lobo”? under “Antunes”? (Antunes is correct, although I’ve found his titles in both places in a countless number of stores.) But it’s the text itself that poses the most problems to American readers:
The sea of the Algarve is made of cardboard like theater scenery, and the English don’t realize it: they conscientiously spread their towels on the sawdust sand, protect themselves with dark glasses from the paper sun, stroll enthralled on the stage of Albufeira where public employees disguised as carnival barkers, squatting on the ground, inflict on them Moroccan necklaces secretly manufactured by the tourism board, and end the afternoon by anchoring in artificial esplanades, where they’re served make-believe drinks in nonexistent glasses that leave in the mouth the flavorless taste of the whiskey furnished the actors on television dramas. After the Alentejo [. . .]
The opening sentence is almost baiting . . . not only is it a pointed critique of English tourist constructed out of a seemingly endless series of clauses, on a more basic level the references to Algarve, Albufeira and Alentejo are immediately disorienting to most American (at least) readers. But place names are just the first layer of obstacles an average reader is faced with—next up are the references to the Angolan war. This war plays a huge role in many of Antunes’s books, due in part to the fact that Antunes himself was a veteran of this war, which really was a mess. After one gets their historical bearings (the Angola War of Independence lasted from 1961-74 ending after a leftist military coup took place in Lisbon) a reader still has to figure out what’s going on, since Antunes’s narrator (named Antonio Lobo Antunes) mashes together events from the Angolan war with his work as a psychiatrist at a Lisbon mental institution with the present moment of his drive back from the southern coast to Portugal’s capital city with very few linguistic indicators (at least at the beginning) as to where you are.
In other words, this isn’t the easiest of books to approach. Yet, a bit of patience and outside research opens up Antunes’s labyrinthine, carefully wrought sentences, which draw the reader into the shattered world of a man recovering from a broken marriage who has journeyed through “hell” (aka the mental institution) and is trying to get his shit together. For me, in the second chapter when all of this clicked into place, I immediately fell in love with the book, with its complicated structure and feverish rhythms.
Aside from Fado Alexandrino, I’ve read all the Antunes books translated into English, gotten readers reports on the rest, and helped acquire this while I was at Dalkey. (Although Clifford Landers’s exquisite translation didn’t arrive until after I’d left, so this is the first time I’ve read the book.) So to be honest, I’m predisposed to appreciate this novel.
This was Antunes’s third novel, part of an ill-defined psychiatric trilogy that also includes Memória de Elefante and Os Cus de Judas. It was originally written in 1980 (though most reviews are citing 1983—not sure where that came from) and is very raw. There’s a moment around page 100 where we get a glimpse of the books Antunes will come to write.
It’s during a flashback to the mental hospital times, when a young groom arrives begging to be admitted as insane. See, he’s run away from his wedding because he’s already married with children and terrified of the consequences from all various parties. Of course, the family of the bride figures this all out—his former marriage, his escape to the asylum—and the bride’s mother goes into a six-page monologue describing the situation in a wildly energetic, often hilarious fashion that’s almost impossible to excerpt seeing how tied into itself every line is.
“This is a disgrace, doctor. We’ve been waiting at the Sao Jorge castle since eleven o’clock, the bride’s family came all the way from Torres Novas for it, you know, even a major, even a judge are there, people of position, people of influence, and him calling every half hour from one place and another, Don’t worry, I’m on my way, I’ve been looking for the best man, the best man forgot his ID at home, the man at the Registry has diarrhea, he stopped for a beer and I’m here waiting, it’ll just be a minute, and us believing it in good faith, don’t you worry I’m on my way, and us in our innocence swallowing it all, some photographs were taken with the peacocks, you could see the river, people chatted [. . .] the bride’s brothers went looking for him, one of them was even going to be a priest and owns an appliance store and he went too in spite of his ulcer, he’s very sensitive and can’t get upset, any little thing and he starts spewing blood, they searched his room, found out he was married and living with a trollop and three children behind the slaughterhouse, an old building with kitchen access, the poor bride fainted, if she doesn’t go off her rocker from grief it’ll be a miracle ’cause I’ve seen it happen over less [. . .]
There are a group of writers Antunes is frequently compared to: Celine, Dos Passos, and most obvious (to me), Faulkner. But he’s all of these writers and then something else. He’s Faulkner secure in his humor. A jangly, frenetic Faulkner. A Celine who cares even more about people. And it is care that’s at the center of this novel. It is Antunes’s questioning of psychiatric practices that drives the “plot” and hallucinatory descriptions.
This burning, questioning hatred of psychiatry fuels this book, but is also one of the reasons that, unfortunately, this novel is second-tier Antunes. The fire is too consuming, too all-encompassing, and it’s as if the section quote above is the only time that Antunes took a breath. (That and the bits addressed to the narrator’s daughter Joanna.) This is a worthwhile book—it’s intense, it’s captivating, and very cinematic—but if you’ve never read Antunes, I’d recommend starting with Act of the Damned and circling around to this later.
Knowledge of Hell
by Antonio Lobo Antunes
298 pages, $13.95
Dalkey Archive Press
At Words Without Borders, Daniel Hahn and Clifford Landers discuss their two translations of Germano Almeida’s The Best Seller, which both appear on WWB as well:
Daniel Hahn: Let me start by asking you a question—or rather, two questions, one quite specific and one quite general. The first is effectively about the layout—it’s clear even before reading a word of your version, just from looking at it on the page, that you’ve made a decision different from mine, not to respect the original para breaks, to indent and isolate speech in a way the original doesn’t, but in a way more recognisable in English prose. So my specific question is: What was your reasoning behind that change?
They picked a good story. It’s about publishing and translation, and how there’s no money in either business.
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