7 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Daniela Hurezanu about Alex Epstein’s Lunar Savings Time, which is translated from the Hebrew by Becka Mara McKay and available from Clockroot Books.

Daniela Hurezanu has reviewed for us several times in the past, and here’s her official bio, courtesy of Words Without Borders:

Daniela Hurezanu has a Ph.D. in Romance languages and literatures and taught French for ten years at several universities in the United States. She has authored a book of literary criticism and scholarly articles in magazines such as The Romanic Review, Post-Scriptum.ORG, Orbis Litterarum, and Phréatique. She has published translations in Metamorphoses, Manoa, Field, Exquisite Corpse, New Orleans Review, and Circumference, and her original work has appeared or is forthcoming in LittéRéalité, Pacific Review and Prairie Schooner. In 2004 she received a Francophone award for short stories.

Even if we weren’t interested in Alex Epstein’s work (we are!), we’d review this based solely on our respect and admiration for Clockroot Books (stellar press) and Becka McKay (one of the friendliest and funniest and most talented of all contemporary translators). Here’s the opening of Daniela’s review:

Becka Mara McKay is slowly becoming one of our most reliable translators from the Hebrew. Her most recent translation, Lunar Savings Time (2011) comes as a counterpart to Blue Has no South (2010), both by Alex Epstein, and available from Clockroot Books. The two books complement each other not only physically, but also because they could be part of the same book. Published as “stories,” they would be probably categorized as prose poem or flash fiction collections by most American readers and writers.

The fact that, as in his previous book, the pieces in Epstein’s Lunar Savings Time are framed as “stories” is not unimportant because the framing forces the reader to adopt a certain position by focusing on the narrative thread. Indeed, with very few exceptions, all the pieces in this collection, no matter how short, “tell a story.” Even the exceptions could be called, technically speaking, “stories,” because there is something happening in them: “The last man in the world wrote the last haiku in the world;” or: “The ghost was still breastfeeding.”

There are two major influences that are obvious in this collection: Borges and Kafka. The references to Borges are indirect, and can be detected in a structure many of the pieces have, in which a story and its main protagonist become a tangent to another story with another protagonist, so that each story appears as the fragment of another, bigger story. On the other hand, Kafka’s name appears many times, as well as those of other famous real people, such as Heidegger, Stephen Hawking, Yuri Gagarin, Emily Dickinson, or mythological Greek heroes, which are appropriated in made-up contexts.

Click here to read the entire review.

7 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Becka Mara McKay is slowly becoming one of our most reliable translators from the Hebrew. Her most recent translation, Lunar Savings Time (2011) comes as a counterpart to Blue Has no South (2010), both by Alex Epstein, and available from Clockroot Books. The two books complement each other not only physically, but also because they could be part of the same book. Published as “stories,” they would be probably categorized as prose poem or flash fiction collections by most American readers and writers.

The fact that, as in his previous book, the pieces in Epstein’s Lunar Savings Time are framed as “stories” is not unimportant because the framing forces the reader to adopt a certain position by focusing on the narrative thread. Indeed, with very few exceptions, all the pieces in this collection, no matter how short, “tell a story.” Even the exceptions could be called, technically speaking, “stories,” because there is something happening in them: “The last man in the world wrote the last haiku in the world;” or: “The ghost was still breastfeeding.”

There are two major influences that are obvious in this collection: Borges and Kafka. The references to Borges are indirect, and can be detected in a structure many of the pieces have, in which a story and its main protagonist become a tangent to another story with another protagonist, so that each story appears as the fragment of another, bigger story. On the other hand, Kafka’s name appears many times, as well as those of other famous real people, such as Heidegger, Stephen Hawking, Yuri Gagarin, Emily Dickinson, or mythological Greek heroes, which are appropriated in made-up contexts. For instance, the narrator’s grandmother, Rosa, “kissed Yuri Gagarin in 1961 in an elevator in Moscow.” The narrator’s grandparents are a recurrent presence, usually in the company of some famous characters, or else in a well-known historical context (the Holocaust), so one has the feeling of participating in the mythologized remaking of a life story. Like Borges, Epstein reinvents the truth, the real, and even history, by fictionalizing them (which is not to say that his stories don’t include many real facts).

A technique Epstein often uses is the parody of the logic of legends. Thus, “On the Metamorphosis” begins with “Once upon a time there was a tree who [. . .] fell in love with a woman who passed through the forest,” but a few lines into the story, the logic changes. The narrator steps out of the frame, and the fiction turns into meta-fiction, giving us only “one of the versions of this legend.” Then, the story goes back to its previous logic—“the tree returns to the forest of his birth“—only to serve us a hilarious tongue-in-cheek ending—“where he hangs himself.”

One of my favorite stories is “Franz Kafka, the Lost Years. A Draft of an Impossible Novel,” in which Epstein imagines an alternative life for Kafka, which is both very funny and sad—and quite . . . plausible. Kafka marries Dora; they make plans to emigrate to America, but then she becomes pregnant. In 1941 the two of them and their daughter are sent to a concentration camp, where Kafka’s small consolation is “the weather report of one of the camp newspapers, which, every day, accurately predicts most of the expected weather in [. . .] London, Tokyo and New York.” His wife and daughter die, and in 1944 Kafka is sent to Auschwitz. He survives and sails to Palestine, where he Hebraizes his name to Ephraim Kaspi and gets a job at Bank Mizrahi. Years later, he has an encounter with Max Brod, who has kept some of his stories, but Kafka doesn’t care. Says Brod: “You ungrateful bastard. It’s too bad that the Nazis didn’t kill you.” In his last years, Kafka spends his time going to the beach and the cinema, buys a camera and a record player. He travels to Jerusalem, which he finds “more beautiful than a postcard.” Eventually, and predictably, he dies.

15 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

Click here for all past and future posts.

Touch by Adania Shibli, translated by Paula Haydar

Language: Arabic
Country: Palestine
Publisher: Clockroot
Pages: 72

Why This Book Should Win: Only book translated from the Arabic on the list; Clockroot Books deserves more attention and praise; she is “The Most-Talked-About Writer on the West Bank.”

Today we finally get another publisher involved, as Hilary Plum of Clockroot wrote this post.

In 2008 when Pam and I were starting Clockroot—a new imprint of Interlink Publishing for literature in translation—we readied ourselves for questions such as: how do you decide what translations to publish? What works to translate? I don’t know if we expected anyone out in the world to ask us this, or whether we were really asking ourselves. In any case, we had our answer prepared, having stolen it from Adania Shibli, who when asked by the Guardian what Arabic writers should be translated into English replied:

I remember a story from four years ago in Ramallah. One night the Israeli army stormed a building in which somebody I knew lived. Everyone was told to get out. After a few hours, the army announced it wanted to blow up the building and gave the inhabitants 20 minutes to go up to their rooms and retrieve what they could. When my friend went up he didn’t know what to take; he had all of his life there, he was totally lost. He finally went to the washing machine, emptied it and went out with the washing, leaving everything else behind to be blown up a few minutes later.

In the same way, I could never say which text to have translated from Arabic into English; if I did, it might be the least important.

It’s the better story to say that on reading this we decided that the texts we should translate should be Adania Shibli’s. In some way this must be true—we signed on both of Adania’s novels without being able to either in full, relying on tantalizing pieces that had been published in translation in magazines, and a stunning essay translated and introduced by Anton Shammas in the 2007 Words Without Borders anthology.

As publishers, we have to do what we can for our books, let our hands get dirtied in “the market,” or maybe we should just call it the world. A few years ago Ahdaf Soueif wrote an article in which she hailed Adania as “the most talked-about writer in the West Bank”—a phrase we of course used in publicity, and which several reviews noted as ultimately maybe regrettable hype. Of course it’s hype, we replied, but we would like people to read her books—actually, of course, we didn’t reply, how could we? Which is no doubt why I am doing so here. The point is, on behalf of our authors sometimes we must deny ourselves the freedom and rigor of expression that we value in our authors. (In a recent interview, when asked “Do you feel that you represent the new generation of Palestinian authors?” Adania answered, “No. (In fact I hardly represent myself and most often fail to do so.)” and proceeded to discuss exile in the internet age, the late work of Darwish, Palestinian literature as “the literature of the last breath that never ends.”)

All publishers know: when the world calls for hype, you hype. But how do we get the taste of all this hype out of our mouths, how do we get to talk again about literature, about falling in love? And—because, after all, our own feelings should not be that important—how do we shield our writers from all this hype, all this world? How do we hold a space open for Adania and her writing in English translation, under the weight of such labels as “the new generation of Palestinian writers,” a “Palestinian woman writer” (picture here all the tired stereotypes of “Muslim women speaking out,” that sort of thing—these will be lingering in the shadows, in the US of 2011 we can’t be free of them, they’re there). Let’s try to answer all these questions at once, for Touch. Because the answer isn’t so hard—_Touch_ holds open its own space, and luminously:

Everyone managed to find black outfits to wear, except the little girl. The search for a black outfit for her, followed by an attempt to improvise one, nearly made the family forget their grief, so it was decided that this task should be left to her.

The closet door was always half open, because no one fixed it or showed any interest in fixing it.

The girl removed all the clothes from the closet and placed them in the small space between the closet on one side and the beds on the other. The pile of clothes remained multicolored, despite what the constantly angry art teacher said, that all colors mixed together would make white.

A pair of dark blue velvet pants and a wool sweater that had in addition to the dark blue other little colors won the almost-black outfit contest. After she put them on, she found a hole in the pants near the left knee.

On the way to the mosque, she bought a bottle of cola with a red ribbon on it. The liquid inside it was black, or closer to black than to any other color around her. She continued on her way, holding the bottle in her right hand and hiding the hole in her pants with her left.

She was the last to arrive at the square of the mosque. When she got there, she found that the mother had fainted and had been taken to an ambulance parked out back, so she headed in that direction.

The back door of the ambulance was open, but she could not get to it, because a huge crowd of women in black created an immense wall between her and the door. She could not even get a glimpse of the mother’s shoes. As the crowd of women in black got bigger and bigger, she, in her dark blue clothes, got pushed further and further back, unable to resist. Her right hand was holding the bottle and her left was covering the hole. She could not remove her hand, or everyone would see the hole.

The pushing became harder and harsher, and each time it would force her hand away from the hole, so she would press on it harder and harder, using all her strength, including that in her right hand. That hand now had weakened its hold on the bottle, and a little black liquid leaked out with each step she was pushed backward.

At the end of the square, the wall of the mosque rose behind the girl, keeping her from getting pushed back any further. She stood there looking toward the ambulance, which had no white left, after the black drape of women wrapped it. But above, on top of the ambulance, the red light kept spinning inside itself, not veiled by anything, switching regularly from dark red to light red. She waited for its regular return to dark red, so that it would look like the red label on the empty bottle in her hand.

Translated from the Arabic by Paula Haydar

In years of reading literature in translation, of reading Arabic fiction—really just in years of reading—Pam and I had never read anything quite like Touch. Its spare, idiosyncratic beauty, the slow pace of the girl’s encounter with the world, so slow as to be merciless, to break your heart, but no, you must go on steadily, as she does. When I think of the novel, I don’t remember particular phrases so much as a feeling, something like: the side of a fist rubbing away the breath fogged within a car windshield—outside, it’s just night. Can I say that this is a book like that? And then add that, also, it’s not—if as publishers we can only offer so much, it’s nice to remember that at least we’ve offered each book the chance to go out and speak for itself.

12 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

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



Landscape with Dog and Other Stories by Ersi Sotiropoulos. Translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich. (Greece, Clockroot Books)

Below is a guest post from Monica Carter, a member of the BTBA fiction committee, bookseller at Skylight, and curator of Salonica. Thanks again for all your help covering the longlist titles!

Ersi Sotiropoulos, a virtuoso of postmodern Greek fiction, masters the short story in her collection, Landscape with Dog and Other Stories. Sotiropoulos, whose 2000 novel Zigzag through the Bitter-Orange Trees, won both the national Greek book award and the book critics award, continues to use her deft sense of psychological insight and poetic language to give us portraits of the intimate and the abstract.

From the very first story, there is a familiarity that draws the reader in, that reminds of something comforting. But Sotiropoulos layers on top of that security a sense of foreboding. There is an ambiguity to her scenes and to her characters so that we are left to question our own instincts. She infuses the narrative of each story with a controlled terror that makes characters relationship seem like they could snap at any moment. Yet, she never gives us that release or makes it that easy for the reader, that definitive. The beginnings, middles and ends are blurry and we are left to decide where the story began and ended. This is not to say that the stories in this collection are not definitive, they are. They present the moments in life that fall into the grey area, that at one point may look white and then years later, pitch black. This requires a very deliberate prose, a deep understanding of narrative tension and skilled working knowledge of human behavior. Even more impressive is that Karen Emmerich’s translation let’s all of Sortiropoulos’ style and depth showcase itself in a sparse fluidity. The best way to understand what Sortiropoulos has to offer is to read this excerpt from “Christmas with Leo,” which is an woman addressing her dog after she tells him a story, but somehow it feels as if she is addressing the reader:

He isn’t satisfied with the denouement. He wants something more, I know. A happy ending or some big drama. But there’s nothing I can do. That something doesn’t exist. And I don’t want to lie to him. For a while we eye one another, tense as a dog and cat. Then he lays his head on my shoulder and sighs deeply. We sit there side by side, motionless, watching the lights on the tree.

And that’s how we feel as we read engaging story after engaging story, we come to terms with what she gives us, with what life gives us. Big things happen, but it’s in the moments, hours, days, and years later that we parse it out emotionally. She lets us see those moments when we know something is about to happen and illuminates in them the fear of the inevitable. All of this is done with an agile poetic hand that turns away from the lyrical but hits head on the dense and minimal, as shown in the story “The Woman” where she describes a couple making love upstairs, “their headboard hitting the wall rhythmically, monotonously. Tock, tock. An epilectic’s morse.” Details like that rise out of the narrative with a subtle and thunderous boom and it’s difficult to escape the oppressive quality of these stories.

Finding a convenient way out of her stories is difficult and that makes her challenging and simultaneously satisfying. Sotiropoulos gives us no directives. She leads us down a path but we never end up where we think we are going. The reader is expecting doom and is on edge waiting for it, like in “An Almost Guinea Fowl,” where a couple, Maro and Telis, invite over another couple to enjoy the guinea fowl that they bought which turns out to not to be guinea fowl, but some cheaper substitute. As the evening progresses, Telis threatens to tell the guests while they are in the nursery, tending to their crying infant:

“Tell them,” he said listlessly. “Tell them, if it’ll make you feel better.”

Maro started to cry, little sobs that kept getting louder. Her tears fell on the baby, who woke up and wriggled around in the crib. She picked him up and pressed his forehead to her wet cheeks. He was warm and very soft, almost spineless, and every so often his little body would give an irritated jerk as if shot through by an electric current. Suddenly he let out a loud shriek and hit her face with his head.

“I’m going back,” Telis said.

She stood there in the half darkness, with her back against the door and the baby in her arms. They were both crying, pressed up against each other, and the sound of their breathing, fitful and erratic, pierced the milky light of the room.

Scenes like this pull us along in search of a resolution. The couple in trouble, the dysfunctional mother and son, the depressed writer become fertile emotional landscapes that Sotiropoulos mines for fissures that happen long before the final break happens. It’s her acuity of the small breaks in relationships that drive this collection and make it fraught with an anxiety that is enervating and invigorating. Landscape with Dog and Other Stories lets us see what a consummate writer she is who has the power to capture the tiny moments of discomfort and doesn’t dare to give us answers, but to let us find our own way.

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