2 August 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Chad W. Post on The Book of Emotions by João Almino, from Dalkey Archive Press.

Here’s the beginning of the review:

João Almino’s The Book of Emotions is the prototypical Dalkey Archive book. Not that all of Dalkey’s books are the same, but there is a certain set of criteria that a lot of their titles have—and which Almino’s novel has in spades:


  1. It’s a book about someone trying to write a book.

  2. bq. From Mulligan Stew to At Swim-Two-Birds to The Journalist, this is a set-up that runs through a lot of Dalkey’s titles. In this case, Cadu, a former photographer is constructing a memoir about his life in Brasília out of some of his old photos. The text alternates from his personal “current moment” experiences (which mostly revolve around trying to set up his goddaughter while sexually crushing on the girl helping him organize his photo files) and the text of his book, entitled “The Book of Emotions.”

  3. The main character’s life didn’t turn out the way he had hoped.

  4. bq. If you’ve never read the “Letters to the Editor” from the back of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, you really should. A good number of them are quite hysterical, generally featuring a decrepit old man whose life has unraveled. In the case of The Book of Emotions, the aforementioned photographer is still pining away for Joana, the woman he loved who left him for a corrupt politician. Not that our protagonist doesn’t have his share of women—it seems like he’s slept with everyone—but that never seems to work out either: the boy he fathered doesn’t know him and is in prison, the woman he marries dies tragically young, etc.

  5. The protagonist has mental or health issues.

  6. This is true of most every book in the world, but in keeping with the sad sack people who write into RCF with their problems, Cadu is blind and pretty much bed ridden. His best days are behind him, and he’s trapped with just the memories of his life, loves, and pictures. Which brings up the fourth key aspect to a “typical” Dalkey book . . .

For the rest of the review, go here

2 August 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

João Almino’s The Book of Emotions is the prototypical Dalkey Archive book. Not that all of Dalkey’s books are the same, but there is a certain set of criteria that a lot of their titles have—and which Almino’s novel has in spades:


  1. It’s a book about someone trying to write a book.
  2. From Mulligan Stew to At Swim-Two-Birds to The Journalist, this is a set-up that runs through a lot of Dalkey’s titles. In this case, Cadu, a former photographer is constructing a memoir about his life in Brasília out of some of his old photos. The text alternates from his personal “current moment” experiences (which mostly revolve around trying to set up his goddaughter while sexually crushing on the girl helping him organize his photo files) and the text of his book, entitled “The Book of Emotions.”

  3. The main character’s life didn’t turn out the way he had hoped.
  4. If you’ve never read the “Letters to the Editor” from the back of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, you really should. A good number of them are quite hysterical, generally featuring a decrepit old man whose life has unraveled. In the case of The Book of Emotions, the aforementioned photographer is still pining away for Joana, the woman he loved who left him for a corrupt politician. Not that our protagonist doesn’t have his share of women—it seems like he’s slept with everyone—but that never seems to work out either: the boy he fathered doesn’t know him and is in prison, the woman he marries dies tragically young, etc.

  5. The protagonist has mental or health issues.
  6. This is true of most every book in the world, but in keeping with the sad sack people who write into RCF with their problems, Cadu is blind and pretty much bed ridden. His best days are behind him, and he’s trapped with just the memories of his life, loves, and pictures. Which brings up the fourth key aspect to a “typical” Dalkey book . . .

  7. The narrative works by illustrating the strangenesses of the character’s way of thinking.
  8. A perfect example of this is Iceland by Jim Krusoe. Or any of the Toussaint books that Dalkey has published. Actually, to be honest, you could throw a dart at a wall of Dalkey titles and whatever you hit will likely feature a quirky narrator whose prose illuminates all the bizarreness of his mind. And The Book of Emotions falls into that general grouping, with the one difference that, although the entire text consists of Cadu’s thoughts and reactions to what goes on around him, the book doesn’t quite come together with the panache and humor that is evident in the examples above. There is something intriguing about The Book of Emotions, but unfortunately, it’s not the narrator’s voice.

    What I like about this book is its overall structure—the parallel times, the numbered sections each centered around a particular (unseen) photograph—and the fact that it’s set in 2022 in Brasília and is part of Almino’s “Brasília Quintet.” (Five Seasons of Love, which is available from Host Publications features one of the characters from this novel, and the forthcoming Free City is part of this series as well.) There are some moving moments in this book, but on the whole it’s a relatively sterile, exacting depiction of a man’s life and missed opportunities.

    Unfortunately, I feel like Almino’s prose in Elizabeth Jackson’s translation falls a bit flat. There’s something too precise or rote . . . too straightforward in a way that is lacking and fails to really replicate the inner workings of the narrator’s mind:

    When Joana and I discovered that we couldn’t have children, we didn’t undergo the tests to determine whose problem it was. That impossibility was a blessing: we didn’t want to have children. However, it was unlikely the infertility was mine because many years before in Brasília another woman had conceived my child.

    That “another woman had conceived my child” is just so stiff . . . One other example of where I think the voice in this book falls short from one of the sex scenes:

    We traded the most crude and vulgar exchanges, I used the foulest profanities I knew and yelled whatever else I could to shock her. Marcela wasn’t to be outdone. She dominated that rich vocabulary better than I did and she wasn’t intimidated, as if she’d had experience with phone sex.

    This isn’t to write off Almino—I think he’s one of the most interesting Brazilian writers working today, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his titles. (Especially Where to Spent the End of the World.) I just went into this with high hopes—see list above and my belief that this would be a very Dalkeyish Dalkey book—and came to see the prose as something I had to trudge through, more out of a sense of duty and abstract interest in the plot than because I really enjoyed it.

6 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Awakening to the Great Sleep War by Gert Jonke, translated from the French by Jean M. Snook, and published by Dalkey Archive Press

This piece is by writer, BTBA judge, and runner of Salonica World Lit, Monica Carter.

I will confess that I have a strong predilection for the works of the late Austrian writer Gert Jonke. The opportunity to wax on about his gifts in an open forum led me into dangerous territory: do I unabashedly demand that Awakening to the Great Sleep War win the Best Translated Book Award solely on my enthusiasm or do I try to pragmatically and logically lay out the novel’s superior strengths based on a unbiased literary perspective? I know I should do the latter. But the problem is that his gifts are so unique and particular that his work really defies logic. If you are the type of reader that can wholly surrender your logic and reason to the absurd and surreal fictional worlds Jonke creates, then you will end up loving him as I do and eschewing attempts at critical pragmatism and decorum. You, too, will rant like a literary lunatic when anyone questions his originality or place in the canon of world literature.

Awakening to the Great Sleep War does not have a traditional plot or narrative. None of Jonke’s works are known for their adherence to the basic tenets of story. He is no Robert McKee. In “normal” Jonke works, a character is introduced into an abstract world that can lead the reader in endless philosophical and metaphysical offshoots that give the reader pause to discover their own imagination. In this novel, Burgmüller is the character through which we experience the surreal experience of time, space, love and the city. An “acoustical decorator,” he begins the novel by trying to teach the telemones how to sleep since they have held up buildings for so long, surely they must be tired. As ridiculous as this may sound, Jonke somehow manages to impart a sense of empathy on the reader for an inanimate object and the job of architecture in general. When discovers that the building with the telemones is gone one day, Burgmüller considers the possibilities before he arrives the conclusion that his efforts could have been useful:

Or had they, in his absence, learned how to sleep after all-had they gotten tired at last, as sleepy as petrified darkness pulled in toward the center of the earth when the trap doors to the planet’s cellar began to open?

That’s a reason this novel should win in my opinion. How many authors can pull that off?

Never fear, traditionalists; there is a love story amongst the surreal renderings of our dear Jonke. There are two love stories of the classic sort—man loves woman, she leaves; man loves another woman, she too leaves. Then there is the lesser-known love story between a woman and a housefly named Elvira. But regardless of who loves whom, the love is as poetic and mournful as any other love story, as Jonke displays in Burgmüller’s girlfriend’s plea to love the housefly as she does:

But the most important thing at present, she continued, was to give Elvira a chance to rest, not to frighten her in any way, above all not to make an unnecessary noise, you know, people talk much too loudly, as she was now noticing, and if he would please just put himself in the position of the housefly; just imagine, she explained, if that huge building over there across the way suddenly started a conversation with the church tower behind it, can you imagine how loud their words would sound to you, you would thin the tall building or the church yelling at you, or that they were screaming at each other, do you understand what I mean, and when we talk with each other, it must seem about that loud to Elvira, in future we have to talk much more quietly, better yet, whisper, do you understand, nothing above a whisper!

Burgmüller loves this woman and feels he must love Elvira as much to prove his love for her. It’s one thing to explore the love relationship between a woman and a housefly, but to do it with a blend of humor and poignancy is rarely done in adult literature and done successfully. Through the rest of the novel, Jonke examines the vicissitudes of love with another doomed love affair. Burgmüller falls for a writer who views her typewriter as a “reality-producing projector.” Within one paragraph, the invisible line between reality and art as a reflection of reality is woven into her struggle as an artist to perfectly represent reality and how this struggle affects their relationship:

Unflustered, she crouched at her typewriter, into which she transmitted her tapped signals as usual long into the night, continuing to work on her world, in which her eyes now became a compass rose torn by its own magnetic needle, cut up by the letters of a white-hot cuneiform script, yes, a cuneiform script of the harbor cities that reproduced themselves incisively upon all the coasts with their power-saw boats, in the service of an endless alphabet, like a science without proofs, until the morning flickered like fire from the towers, all of which crossed her lips as usual, whispered in a low voice, while she was sitting at her typewriter as if at a steamship propelled by sewing machines, floating, drifting downstream in the room, midstream in her description, from which he could now hear something about cats with heads like ants, and palm trees with crayfish living in their branches, but that could also have had to do with an entirely different chapter of her story that had crushed on ahead, considering her work tempo he never know how far ahead of him she was at any given time.

Jonke tackles the philosophical questions of literature and art and how the artist struggles between the importance of the word and the importance of what the word represents. Can anyone ever really love in a reality like that? These are questions not often asked to the reader, but nonetheless are always present in the relationship between the writer and the reader. No other novel on the long list challenges us in this way.

A novice translator could easily have mishandled all of Jonke’s absurd, surreal concepts and themes, but Ms. Snook understands the nuance in Jonke’s text to convey the aims of his novel. With a traditional narrative and story structure, it is easier to be more loyal to the text and more literal. In this case, the translator must also understand the abstract concepts and how to put those conceptual ideas in play without sacrificing the wit of Jonke’s style. Thus, this seems one of the most challenging efforts as far as translation is concerned because the translation must carry through thematically as opposed to carrying the story through a conventional structure. Each word holds more weight so that the subtext is present. To have such intimate knowledge of the writer’s work as well as the language clearly makes this novel the strongest translation on the list.

Finally, there is the simple fact that Jonke’s lyrical language paired with his post-modern themes makes for a the most distinctive voice among the top twenty-five books. He was a novelist ahead of his time that created a body of work so magical, original and insightful it would be a disservice to not give the award to Awakening to the Great Sleep War. No other novel on the list is as creative. No other novel on the list offers itself as the masterpiece of the writer’s entire body of work nor solidly establishes that writer as a prominent voice in the history of their country’s literary heritage. Then again, I am in love with Jonke and always will be. And that is lOve with a capital O which is as close to Jonkean love as one can get.

3 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

With the Animals by Noëlle Revaz, translated from the French by W. Donald Wilson

I wrote this one. Initially out of necessity—no one else snatched this one up—and a desire to read this “Céline-esque” novel, since I need a little more mud and anger in my life.

1. W. Donald Wilson’s introduction. Well, not specifically his introduction, which is fine in and of itself, but his articulation of the core problem in translating With the Animals:

In the original French, Paul [the narrator and protagonist of the novel, an uneducated farmer who smacks his wife around and can’t remember the names of his kids] lives in no specific place, nor does he use any particular form of speech or dialect: his idiom is an invented one. Of course many of the idiosyncrasies of his French are unavailable in English, such as his mangling of the more complex French negatives, his ease in inventing reflexive forms of verbs and his placement of adjectives before rather than after nouns (and vice versa). Also unavailable was his constant use of the impersonal pronoun “on,” used to create a greater impression of detachment and depersonalization than is allowed by its closes available English equivalent, “you.” I was therefore concerned to develop a voice that, while delivering that “slap in the face,” would not show any strained attempt to write incorrectly or distort the English language unnaturally, but would flow instead from Paul’s character and situation. Lacking any example or conventional usage to follow, Paul would have to improvise his language, resulting in a certain stylistic awkwardness. His word-order would be unconventional, reflecting the spontaneous order of his thoughts (for instance in the placement of adverbs or in stating the topic or subject of sentences first, as in Georges, he said). His use of conjunctions would be weak. Object pronouns would sometimes be omitted, and the definite article would sometimes occur where no article is normal in English. He would be uncertain of grammatical categories, confusing nouns, adjectives, and verbs. His grasp of verb forms, especially the verb ‘to be’ (as in there is + plural, or you/we/they was), and of pronouns would be unsure (as in me for I and them for those). Yet he would not use common dialect forms such as ain’t, and only occasionally employ double negatives.

In basic English, Paul don’t speak right. Which is really difficult to replicate . . . Seriously. Try writing incorrectly, yet coherently, for a paragraph. Then a page. Then 233. And as much as translation takes its cues from the original text, this is a massive act of creation on the part of Wilson.

2. This gambit of Wilson’s works. Right from the start, Paul’s voice is unique, strange, grammatically distorted, and, most important, interesting to read:

Before when I go out in the morning I’ve knocked back a good brimmer already and things fall together like straw. Till then I’ve a face like night on me and a garlic mouth and I can’t stand anyone wants to be coddled like a snot-nosed pup. Head under the tap and already I’m getting the machines out. Vulva, she’s still dragging round, she scrubs down in a corner and dries off in the kitchen.

3. Use of the term “brimmer.” I love neologisms and reappropriated words and slang that isn’t really slang because only a dozen people use it and none of them are Gawker. So “brimmer” is my new term for a full glass of “plum.” Sure, it’s 10:22 right now, but I CAN NOT WAIT to get home and fill some brimmers and knock them back.

4. Holy shitsnacks is this book offensive. All the Dalkey copy compares Revaz to Louis-Ferdinand Céline, which, sure, I suppose so. Personally, I think that comparison is a bit broad—Céline wrote angry, narrator Paul is angry; Céline was insulting, narrator Paul refers to his wife as “Vulva”; Céline used a ton of ellipses, Revaz wrote in an untraditional way. That said, I think Revaz is up to something different—for one, her book isn’t written in a semi-autobiographical voice—and to reduce her to being “Céline-esque” feels reductive. But anyway, the hate and disgust Paul has for his wife and the world—not to mention the litany of insults and physical beatings he unleashes on “Vulva”—is pretty staggering. This isn’t a character you cuddle up next to and “relate to.” I like that. That’s a difficult thing to do well, to sustain for a whole book. Here’s an example from a point when Paul’s wife is in the hospital having a tumor removed:

What can you say to her, Vulva, when you never think of her? Me, in the end I’ve forgotten she exists, and what difference to me if she goes off to the hospital to have her belly sliced open or her varicose veins shrunk: I don’t give a rat’s fart, it doesn’t squeeze a single big tear out of me nor get the snot-rag out of my shirt pocket, so she can stay away there till the next century if that’s what she’d rather. At least it counts as much for me she’s not around no more to give her jeremiahs after us and go complaining at us every time we open a bottle or go on a wee binge.

5. Because Dalkey has yet to win the BTBA. Granted, this is a reason that goes beyond the text itself, but considering that Dalkey publishes more literature in translation than other publisher in the United States, they’re bound to strike gold at some point. And this book is both brilliant in and of itself, but also presents—and solves—a really fundamental translation challenge. For all these reasons, With the Animals by the Swiss author Noëlle Revaz should win this year’s Best Translated Book Award.

20 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Joseph Walser’s Machine by Gonçalo Tavares, translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil and published by Dalkey Archive Press

This piece is by avid reader of literature in translation Tiffany Nichols, who runs this Tumblr account.

Gonçalo M. Tavares continues to be the master of allegorical fiction. Here, in Joseph Walser’s Machine, the hands, machines, and the desire for normalcy within an unnamed city are the images of modernity in response to war.

Joseph Wasler, a generic machine operator, conducts his life with order and precision until one day his sleeve is caught in the machine he has been operating for years, resulting in the loss of his index finger. The first reaction to this event is the apparent betrayal by the machine that Wasler has grown to know more intimately than his wife. The last reaction is the importance of the index finger, which was lost in this fleeting moment of distraction, in controlling the weapons of war and human destruction—guns. As Wasler’s boss, whom has a greater intimacy with Wasler’s wife than Wasler himself, states:

It’s the finger that pulls the trigger, the finger that’s essential for shooting . . . [the machine] took from you your most useful finger, the one that shoots, the finger that performs a final contraction just before someone in front of you disappears. The machines were mocking you, my dear fellow. We should be wary of the machines, I’ve told that before. Their malice is far too precise. We’ll never be able to achieve anything like that, ourselves.

This conclusion shows the area of Tavares mastery in storytelling—irony which is only obvious after Tavares decides to reveal it to the reader. Tavares has the innate ability to provide the typical triumphal human response, but shows how it is epically flawed by the larger world. Here, when Walser lost his index finger, shortly thereafter, he found a metal ring to add to his collection of metal (or discarded machine parts). After careful measurements, “research,” and recordation, Wasler concluded that the metal ring was a part of a machine, precisely a gun, that would never be able to fire again because Wasler held an essential piece of its body. In this Wasler found his own resistance to the war occurring around him—disabling machines through collection of their essential parts. However, it is never confirmed whether the ring did in fact come from gun. All Wasler knows is its size and that a women found it in a doorway of her building.

It is not until the end that Tavares reminds us that the index finger is the most essential part of the human body in times of war, as it is the only appendage that can pull the trigger leading to a readily noticeable and permanent mark by an individual in the mist of the attempt maintain normalcy despite the random and often secretive causalities of war. It is here at the end of the tale, that Tavares breaks the reader’s concentration and focus on the machines, with their interchangeable parts able to continue on despite their operators being injured in the process of their operation—similar to war—and reminds us that humans instead house the most effective means to perpetuate or disable a war—our own index fingers.

This precise capture of the inter-workings of human behavior and thought and their interaction and undue attributed importance of machines will lead to conversations and discourse for years to come. Each Tavares novel encountered will create such a response.

11 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Autoportrait by Edouard Levé, translated from the French by Lorin Stein and published by Dalkey Archive Press

This piece is by bookseller and BTBA judge, Stephen Sparks.

Among the stellar books included in this year’s BTBA longlist is a slim volume by Edouard Levé called Autoportrait (Dalkey Archive Press). It’s an uncategorizable book: not a memoir in any traditional sense, not a novel either. Like the best books, it resists the straightjacket of genre, existing outside the bounds of easy classification. I think it’s the most unusual and daring piece of writing in the bunch.

Autoportrait is a collection of allusively connected declarative sentences, ranging from the mundane to the subtly profound, all reflecting the narrator’s (let’s call him Levé) physical and mental life. Levé’s tone never rises above a flat monotone, which is unnerving and oddly comforting.

I can open a page at random to provide a sampling of the method of composition:

I am afraid of ending up a bum. I am afraid of having my computer and negatives stolen. I cannot tell what, in me, is innate. I do not have a head for business. I have stepped on a rake and had the handle hit me in the face. I have gone to four psychiatrists, one psychologist, one psychotherapist, and five psychoanalysts. I look for the simple things I no longer see. I do not go to confession. Legs slightly open excite me more than legs wide open. I have trouble forbidding. I am not mature. When I look at a strawberry, I think of a tongue, when I lick one, of a kiss. I can see how drops of water could be torture. A burn on my tongue has a taste. My memories, good or bad, are sad the way dead things are sad.

Page after page of this may strike one as tedious, or interesting only insofar as the reader finds Levé interesting. There are no shocking revelations, no scandalous admissions, no salacious gossip. Instead, Levé takes a more daring risk: he confronts the unexciting self head-on, scrutinizing himself so closely that the resultant text verges on irrelevancy to anyone but its author.

Yet he manages to avoid tedium—the book inevitably lulls at times, but never bores—and somehow even heightens the stakes with a fine balance of facts and feelings. Despite its proliferation of I’s, Autoportrait paradoxically manages to be as much a book about us, each reader, as Levé. It sucks us into the whirlpool of another mind and spits us back out in our own, where we confront our own flat feet, our habitual failure to fill up ice cube trays, our discomfort in bathrooms next to kitchens. And while it may ultimately be egotistical to call a book that acts as a mirror one of the most memorable I’ve read this year, I think Autoportrait is a remarkable and unforgettable exploration of all that’s singular and universal in the self.

19 October 12 | JT Mahany | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece written by Camila Santos on The Book of Emotions, by João Almino, translated from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Jackson and published by Dalkey Archive Press.

The Book of Emotions is Almino’s second novel translated into English, the first being The Five Seasons of Love (also translated by Elizabeth Jackson), published by Host Publications.

Here is a bit of the review:

João Almino, the novelist and diplomat, is—like the narrator of The Book of Emotions—a photographer and an outsider to Brasília. He was born in Mossoró, in the Brazilian Northeast. This is a poor region that has, much like the American South, produced a long list of influential writers such as Jorge Amado, Graciliano Ramos, João Cabral de Melo Neto, and Guimarães Rosa. In the beginning of Almino’s career, one of his biggest dilemmas was whether to set his fiction in the Northeast or in Brasília, where he had lived for ten years. He decided on Brasília because it offered him the freedom to “trace a path that had not yet been followed, to try and create the sort of literature that had little to do with the picturesque, with clichés, with what was already so well know.” In an online interview for Saraiva Conteúdo, the portal for one of Brazil’s largest bookstore, he says, “Brasília is a place with an open, erratic, multiple identity that can assimilate what comes from the outside.”

To read the whole review, click here.

19 October 12 | JT Mahany |

At its inauguration in 1960, Brasília was baptized “The Capital of Hope.” It is a city that was carved out from scratch in the cerrado, a woodland savannah in the middle of Brazil, in just 41 months of construction. It is also a city completely planned out, a city born without any residents.

When Clarice Lispector, one of Brazil’s most famous writers, visited the new capital in the early seventies, she was struck by how large Brasília loomed over its residents, how its infinite spaces could conjure such unbearable loneliness, how everyone who lived there was from somewhere else. “Brasília,” she wrote “has no inhabitants as of yet who are typical of Brasília.” The oldest citizens born in Brasília are only fifty-two years old today.

João Almino, the novelist and diplomat, is—like the narrator of The Book of Emotions—a photographer and an outsider to Brasília. He was born in Mossoró, in the Brazilian Northeast. This is a poor region that has, much like the American South, produced a long list of influential writers such as Jorge Amado, Graciliano Ramos, João Cabral de Melo Neto, and Guimarães Rosa. In the beginning of Almino’s career, one of his biggest dilemmas was whether to set his fiction in the Northeast or in Brasília, where he had lived for ten years. He decided on Brasília because it offered him the freedom to “trace a path that had not yet been followed, to try and create the sort of literature that had little to do with the picturesque, with clichés, with what was already so well know.” In an online interview for Saraiva Conteúdo, the portal for one of Brazil’s largest bookstore, he says, “Brasília is a place with an open, erratic, multiple identity that can assimilate what comes from the outside.”

Almino has published several previous books, all of which have been set in Brasília, including The Five Seasons of Love (translated by Elizabeth Jackson and published by Host Publications in 2008), and the to date untranslated Idéias para Onde Passar o Fim do Mundo [Ideas for Where to Spend the End of the World], Samba-Enredo [Samba Story], and Cidade Livre [Free City]. The Book of Emotions, Almino’s second novel published in English, by Dalkey Archive Press was also translated by Elizabeth Jackson.

In The Book of Emotions, set in the year 2022, Almino depicts a Brasília that goes far beyond the Three Powers Square, the cluster of massive residential blocks known as superquadras, or the capital’s legendary sunsets. The city serves as a backdrop and also as a reflection of inner turmoil, failure, and loss. The book’s narrator, Cadu, is living alone in Brasília, blind and nearing the end of his life. One of his friends suggests that Cadu return to working on a photographic memoir he had kept in 2002, when he left Rio de Janeiro and moved to Brasília. Even though Cadu cannot see, he is able to reconstruct his photographic chronicles from memory with the help of a young assistant. “Those photographs reveal themselves in rich detail in my memory, even more than if it were possible to see them. They’re like Stieglitz clouds; each one equals an emotion. My blindness reveals their essence, for in the end, to best see a photograph, you have to close your eyes.”

The Book of Emotions is an attempt to follow the contours of memory. Almino sets up the novel as a memoir within a diary. The italicized diary entries describe Cadu’s day-to-day life in 2022. Interspersed with these entries is his memoir-in-progress, also entitled “The Book of Emotions.” Each entry from Cadu’s “The Book of Emotions” is based upon a photograph taken during his first years in Brasília, before he went blind. It is through this memoir that we learn of the important facts of Cadu’s life: his unemployment, the jailed son whom he has never met, an unsuccessful exhibit of his photographs, and his obsession with women, especially with his ex-lover, Joana. Through the fragments of his memories, Cadu tries to piece together his life, a life that for no apparent reason simply ruptured into a million pieces.

Memory is non-linear, sporadic, and self-selecting, and so are Cadu’s recollections of his past. The novel functions as a dialogue between an older Cadu and a younger Cadu, much as in the Borges story, The Other. “The idea for ‘The Book of Emotions,’” the narrator explains in one of his first entries, “is that the person speaking will not be me but rather another Cadu, someone twenty years younger who can see and who composes a photographic diary.”

Elizabeth Jackson’s translation clearly sets and strives to preserve the original flavor of the Portuguese throughout the novel. She is most successful in her translations of Cadu’s descriptions of Brasília, capturing Almino’s lush Portuguese beautifully:

The night covered us with its dense, long blankets and carried us to the bottom of its black precipices. We decided to stretch it between silent stars and gusts of truth, and we heard the applause of the angels at the end of time. We were bathed more in certainty than in hope.

A good translation takes its readers to a different world, one which they have not experienced first-hand. The only way for many of us to experience what it’s like to live in distant places is through words:

The efficiency of the waiters was measured by the speed with which they brought another draft beer as soon as the glass was empty. Mine emptied five or six times, and Mauricio began to play with the cork coasters printed in red with the beer logo that came with every glass.

There are moments, however, when Jackson’s translation becomes clumsy as she strains to capture the book’s Brazilian flavor. In a passage in which Cadu describes how he experiences Brasília, he refers to “the rot of the power dungeons, the spilt tears and laughs heard in the corridors of Congress.” The phrase “the rot of the power dungeons” fails to convey Almino’s reference to the constant corruption scandals, past and present, that Brasília has faced. A more elegant and accessible phrase might have referenced, say, power’s dirty underbelly.

There are in fact quite a few culturally specific references in Almino’s novel: religion, Brasília’s architecture, literary references, and nicknames. General explanations for the reader might have been offered unobtrusively on occasion. For instance, when Cadu and his girlfriend visit a religious temple whose followers believe in the healing power of spirits, the bishop gives them a blessing and a bottle of water that the bishop claims was magnetized by the temple’s spirits. This spiritually blessed water has been translated as “fluidized water,” a choice that might not make much sense for a reader who is not aware of the hybrid form of Catholicism, Evangelical cult and Spiritism practiced in Brazil. Simply describing the water as “water magnetized by the temple’s spirits, through its mediums” might have made more sense.

It is through photography that Cadu attempts to make peace with his ghosts: past lovers, family, past failures, the myth of Brasília, the beauty of youth. As he recalls each photograph, Cadu simultaneously recreates and shatters the image he had of himself. “I’m no longer sure that I’m the handsome Brasiliarian of Clarice’s [Lispector] stories, which I listened to again.” In this novel of sensations and desires, Almino’s narrative is like a photograph that mesmerizes his readers as Cadu filters his past through “the camera’s objective eye, an eye that sometimes surprises by seeing more than the human eye.”

17 July 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Even if Peter Bush hadn’t have sent along the copy of his essay that’s in this collection, I think I would’ve been interested in checking out Creative Constraints: Translation and Authorship, which just came out from Monash University Press in Australia.

The essays in this volume address one of the central issues in literary translation, namely the relationship between the creative freedom enjoyed by the translator and the multiplicity of constraints to which translation is necessarily subject. The links between an author’s translation work and his or her own writing are likewise explored.

Through a series of compelling case studies, this volume illustrates the parallel and overlapping discourses within the cognate areas of literary studies, creative writing and translation studies, which together propose a view of translation as (a form of) creative writing, and creative writing itself as being shaped by translation processes. The translations of selected contemporary French, Spanish and German texts offer readers some insights into how the translator’s work mirrors and complements that of the creative writer.

The U of R library has a copy of this on order, so I’ll probably write this up again after I have a chance to look it over, but for now, I wanted to share a part of the included Peter Bush essay that details his experience translating Juan Goytisolo’s Juan the Landless for Dalkey Archive Press.

First off, it’s worth putting Peter’s past editorial experiences with Dalkey into context:

Often one of the unknowns for a translator is the publisher’s eventual strategy for the editing of the translation. I have written about issues that arose in Dalkey’s edit of Quarantine in the Times Literary Supplement (Bush 1996). The editor claimed I was making Goytisolo more difficult than he was in the original and that by using words such as ‘knacker’s yard’ and ‘gentles’, being UK English or even, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, archaic UK English, my translation would not be understood by ‘the man in the street’. I pointed out that this mythical man was unlikely, unfortunately, to be buying Dalkey and reading Juan Goytisolo, and so my Shakespearian English finally passed muster – but not before offering another instance of a superficially plausible editorial criterion that in the end was simply superficial.

A few months before embarking on Juan the Landless, Dalkey Archive had also asked me to act as an arbitrator in a dispute they were having with a translator. I duly read a chapter or so of the original text, the original translation and the Dalkey edit. My report indicated weaknesses in the original translation – I felt it required a few more drafts, a little more time for reflection and rewriting, but that it was on the right track – and concluded that the edit was taking the translation into a more conventional mode. In other words, the translator was attempting to be equally adventurous as the original writer, and the edit was curbing the spirit of adventure in favour of conventionality, albeit of a highbrow variety. In the end, the translator’s final translation was severely edited and published on the basis of the ultimatum: Accept the edit, or your translation will never be published. Clearly, contractually publishers have the last word.

The incident reveals how fraught the editing of literary translations can sometimes be and illustrates what the translator must be prepared to handle.

There’s a lot that could be unpacked here about power struggles, translator rights, etc., but rather than get into all of that (which could come off as Dalkey bashing, which is not my intent), I want to hone in on one specific bit: the idea of the audience for a translation.

A lot of editors—usually at larger trade houses, but also at places like Dalkey—hold to the belief that a translation should be rendered in such a way that it will “appeal to the common man.” I’m not sure who a “common reader” really is, and want to echo Peter’s quip that the “average man on the street” is much more likely to be wacking it to Fifty Shades of Grey than reading a poetically experimental novel from a modern Spanish author, but, well, in theory this idea sounds appealing. The common line goes something like this: There are already enough obstacles to getting an American to read a work in translation (funny names with bunches of consonants, strange locations, unknown customs, not the “real” book, etc.), so why add any more difficulties in the prose itself? Make the translation as target reader-centric as possible, and eliminate anything too daunting or weird.

This is the sort of thinking that translators (and literary people in general) get pissed about—the idea that editors are “dumbing down” translations in hopes of reaching a wider, American audience. (See Larry Venuti’s Mémoires of Translation essay for an example of this.)

But I think this idea can be even more insidious . . . At some level, this isn’t just about eliminating terms that American readers aren’t familiar with, but working from the assumption that readers are stupid and have to have everything explained to them. For example, there’s a lot of offensive stuff in the edits of Mima Simic’s story but the thing that bothers me is the sort of flattening out of the prose to make sure that everyone understands. For example, this:

original:
She can tell the time by the smell of the stuff in the pan.

edit:
She can tell how long something’s been frying by the way it smells.

Edits like that alter the fundamental style of the text itself instead treating a work of fiction as if its main function is to “convey information,” like some sort of technical manual on life.

Peter has a few examples of edits to his Juan the Landless translation that follow this same line. For instance:

libradas de sus mazmorras y grillos, las palabras al fin, las traidoras, esquivas palabras, vibren, dancen, copulen, se encueren y cobren cuerpo (Juan Goytisolo original)

released from their chains and dungeons, words, treacherous elusive words, at last quiver dance copulate strip off and flesh out (Peter Bush)

released from their chains, their dungeons, those words, those treacherous elusive words, quiver at last and dance and copulate, removing their rags and clothing themselves in flesh (edited version)

What’s interesting to me, is how these sorts of “Explain Everything!” edits are out-of-sync with John O’Brien’s stated goal of what makes a “good” translation.

One of the things that Peter writes about a lot in his essay is this conversation between Jeremy Davies and John O’Brien about editing translations.

I have a lot of issues with this article (started from the very doubtful claim that it’s an “unedited conversation”), as does Peter Bush and a number of other translators I’ve talked with. I don’t want to quote it at length, or get into too many specifics, but here’s one lengthy section that relates to the examples above:

1) Translators see themselves as the protectors and advocates of a text. This is certainly noble and not entirely untrue. The problem here is that, as concerns contemporary literary fiction, a translator must also be the protector and advocate of an author—a collaborator after the fact, in other words. They must be the advocate of their author—whom we may presume is read and enjoyed and comprehended (however abstrusely) in his or her original tongue—and therefore the advocate of that author’s writing process, the advocate of his or her talent, the advocate of their particular procedure of turning intent into language. Not, then, a defender of what, in the world of translation, must be seen as the calcified remnants of this procedure: the original text. The bottom line is this: if the author reads as being brilliant in the original, then he or she must at the very least read as being pretty damn good in English. What kind of a favor are we doing the book or the author if we provide them with anything less?

Of course, most translators find their own syntax, idiom, and style to be perfectly readable representations of a text—but this is because they have access to something their readers do not: an understanding of the original; and, better, all the unspoken/unwritten assumptions that aid native speakers in reading any kind of fiction. But translators must be capable of developing that “third ear” which gives one at least a (partial, subjective) understanding of how a poor, monophone, but intelligent and fiction-savvy reader is going to see their prose: stripped now of its form and context both. The difference, finally, between translators and authors is that the latter (no matter what they say) do actually worry about being read, and about how they’re read, and if what they transmit (however difficult) can be received or appreciated. Thus, translators need to see themselves as more, not less, a part of the “art” of the novel (say) that they’ve taken on. Authors don’t fight over every sentence because they see their work as being in flux, and can’t really ignore the possibility that they might be doing their work a disservice. Translators need this same flexibility, this same ability to “care” about their texts (rather than just “protect” them): care not about fidelity, or not only fidelity, but about how they will be read.

The editor is, ideally, a stand-in for that “poor, monophone” fiction-reader. Not (or certainly not at Dalkey) a philistine with a machete who wants to dumb knotty prose down. If we can’t make head or tail of a sentence without going back to the French or Spanish or Dutch, something isn’t right—even if, and this is usually the case, the English version is “accurate.”

This is something that could be (and has been) (and will be) debated for hours and ages, and again hinges on how a publisher/editor views readers. In this case, Jeremy Davies describes the target audience as “‘poor, monophone’ fiction-readers.” (I’m not sure I get the “poor” part, or even what type of “poor” he’s referring to—too poor to buy books? too culturally poor to understand them?)

But check this paragraph from Peter’s essay:

John O’Brien continues the dialogue with two ideas that are frequently rehearsed in exchanges on literary translation and seem to me to belong to an immediately appealing, again superficially plausible, but at the same time critically flawed set of prescriptions. The first is that the translator’s goal must be to recreate the experience of the ‘original readers’. Does one track the latter down, questionnaire at the ready? Señora¬ señor what was it like for you reading Juan Goytisolo’s trilogy during the decline of the Generalísimo’s dictatorship? Were these readers in Madrid, Bilbao, Sevilla or Barcelona? Or were they indeed exiled like Goytisolo himself in Paris, or else in Mexico City or Lima or Havana? Or what if they were fascists? And thirty years later, what will they remember of what undeniably must have been a riotously disturbing and severely demanding, and even possibly clandestine, read? Of course, we could ask Spanish readers today but they couldn’t be categorised as ‘original’ readers. We might at most ascertain memories of general impressions, responses to certain passages, perhaps. But hey, perhaps I qualify as an original reader: I read the books when they were first published in Spanish! My reactions belong to the immediate reader as translator as well as the historically formed imagination of someone who has lived in and out of Spain during the dictatorship, transition to democracy and now in Barcelona for the past eight years.

So on the one hand, the goal of the translator is to “recreate the experience of the ‘original readers’” (a very suspect term), but only to recreate that experience in a way that “poor, monophone” readers can understand it. The assumptions about readers—both original and otherwise—that are made here are astoundingly bizarre, and, in my mind, quite problematic. And what concerns me even more is the way in which these beliefs tend to downplay the art of the text being translated in favor of better communicating something to a set of readers that isn’t really even being respected . . .

Anyway, if the other articles in this collection are even half as thought-provoking as Peter’s, this book will be completely amazing.

16 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jacob M. Appel on Louis Paul Boon’s My Little War, which is translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent and available from Dalkey Archive Press.

Jacob M. Appel is a physician in New York City and the author of more than two hundred published short stories. His prose has been short-listed for the Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Award on multiple occasions. Jacob’s paternal
grandfather, Leo Appel, came to the United States as a refugee from Antwerp, Belgium, in 1938, and Jacob remains deeply engaged in Dutch and Flemish culture. Click here for more information.

Dalkey’s published a few Louis Paul Boon books, including Chapel Road (which is AMAZING) and Summer in Termuren (more amazing). He’s tragically overlooked by American readers, which really sucks, since these two books are on par with pretty much all other mammoth classics of twentieth-century literature. (This sounds hyperbolic, BUT IT’S NOT.)

Here’s the opening of Jacob’s review of My Little War:

The period between Flemish author Louis Paul Boon’s birth in 1912 and the publication of his post-modern masterpiece Mijn kleine oorlog (My Little War) in 1947 saw Belgium ravaged by some of the worst wartime carnage that the European continent had experienced in centuries. Even as Hitler’s advancing wehrmacht sent 25% of the Belgian population fleeing over the French border, memories remained fresh of the brutal German occupation of 1914—including its defining atrocity, the sacking of Leuven, during which the city’s library of 300,000 medieval books was burned and the entire populace expelled. So to post-war Flemish readers, Boon’s peculiarly brilliant novel appeared in the wake of two large wars, challenging a literary orthodoxy that tried to make sense of these conflagrations.

Mijn kleine oorlog is decidedly not an anti-war novel—at least, not in the sense of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or Zweig’s The Case of Sergeant Grischa or Rolland’s Clérambault, the sort of predecessors to which Boon is likely referring to when he writes to question the archetypal “great writer” who rises up to present the world with “his Book About the Great War—with capital letters.” Instead, the volume might be described as an anti-anti-war novel . . . if it even is a novel at all. A better description yet might be an anti-anti-war sketchbook. For what Boon has done in thirty-three brief vignettes is collect snippets of overheard conversations, press reports, unsubstantiated rumors and “personal” experiences to generate a montage of the highly subjective experience of one ordinary laborer-turned-POW-turned-writer during the Second World War. Yet even the volume’s subjectively is overtly orchestrated; this is not Virginia Woolf or James Joyce trying to capture the subtle workings of the human mind, but rather an author reminding the reader that he is feigning to do so. In one noteworthy example, after referring to multiple characters as “what’s-his-name” and “what’s-her-name,” Boon suddenly pretends to have recalled one of their names: “What’s her name came too,” he writes. “What was her name again the one who was hit in the head with something the other day and died, who used to get so furious and denounce us as pro-German when we said the war would last five years . . . it was Mrs. Lammens!” Of course, the reader recognizes that Boon has not achieved this recollection in the moment. Rather, Boon uses this device to mock his modernist forebears and to remind the reader of his own pretenses.

Click here to read the complete essay.

16 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The period between Flemish author Louis Paul Boon’s birth in 1912 and the publication of his post-modern masterpiece Mijn kleine oorlog (My Little War) in 1947 saw Belgium ravaged by some of the worst wartime carnage that the European continent had experienced in centuries. Even as Hitler’s advancing wehrmacht sent 25% of the Belgian population fleeing over the French border, memories remained fresh of the brutal German occupation of 1914—including its defining atrocity, the sacking of Leuven, during which the city’s library of 300,000 medieval books was burned and the entire populace expelled. So to post-war Flemish readers, Boon’s peculiarly brilliant novel appeared in the wake of two large wars, challenging a literary orthodoxy that tried to make sense of these conflagrations.

Mijn kleine oorlog is decidedly not an anti-war novel—at least, not in the sense of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or Zweig’s The Case of Sergeant Grischa or Rolland’s Clérambault, the sort of predecessors to which Boon is likely referring to when he writes to question the archetypal “great writer” who rises up to present the world with “his Book About the Great War—with capital letters.” Instead, the volume might be described as an anti-anti-war novel . . . if it even is a novel at all. A better description yet might be an anti-anti-war sketchbook. For what Boon has done in thirty-three brief vignettes is collect snippets of overheard conversations, press reports, unsubstantiated rumors and “personal” experiences to generate a montage of the highly subjective experience of one ordinary laborer-turned-POW-turned-writer during the Second World War. Yet even the volume’s subjectively is overtly orchestrated; this is not Virginia Woolf or James Joyce trying to capture the subtle workings of the human mind, but rather an author reminding the reader that he is feigning to do so. In one noteworthy example, after referring to multiple characters as “what’s-his-name” and “what’s-her-name,” Boon suddenly pretends to have recalled one of their names: “What’s her name came too,” he writes. “What was her name again the one who was hit in the head with something the other day and died, who used to get so furious and denounce us as pro-German when we said the war would last five years . . . it was Mrs. Lammens!” Of course, the reader recognizes that Boon has not achieved this recollection in the moment. Rather, Boon uses this device to mock his modernist forebears and to remind the reader of his own pretenses.

In Boon’s fictional universe, which occupies only a few small streets in a Belgian village, everything is true because nothing is true. For instance, Boon describes a fellow soldier pausing during a retreat through an abandoned dairy, with German gunners close on his heels, to rescue a goldfish from an overturned bowl. When Boon questions this “what’s-his-name,” the infantryman replies, “Imagine you lived in that dairy, and got back after you’d run away, wouldn’t you be glad to see that your goldfish were still alive? Well?” Lest we read too much into this tale of minor heroism, several sentences later, Boon announces: “Actually, I made those goldfish up, that’s what stories are for.” He then begins his next vignette with the caveat: “But this isn’t made up . . .” Who can really say? For an author who writes, “there’s never any need to cook up any fantasy; the truth is fantastic enough,” no moment in Mijn kleine oorlog is ever definitively truth or definitively fantasy. Even the identification of the narrator, Boontje, with the author remains intentionally unclear. Boon writes that “If I’ve usually said ‘I’ in this book, it was just a way of presenting things, what I really meant was ‘you’—you, you poor man, exploited, scorned, spat upon, pacified with empty promises, who didn’t have the courage to stand up for yourself . . .” In the current age of Thomas Pynchon and “truthiness,” we may take this approach for granted. To Boon’s Flemish audience of 1947, blurring the lines between Truth and fiction in this speciously cavalier manner may have touched too close to home, and initial sales were disappointing. After all, as depicted by Boon, many Flemings played both sides during the occupation; distinguish the heroes of the Belgian Resistance from the collaborators and Black Shirts remains an unfinished process to this day.

Critic Annie van den Oever has catalogued Boon’s early influences, most notably Franz Kafka and the Femish poet and nationalist Paul van Ostaijen. According to van den Oever, Boon “saw himself as a link in a chain” of what she terms the “grotesque literary tradition”—those early twentieth century writers who broke open “the traditionally monologic novel.” Thanks to Anne Visser and the Dalkey Archive, we have a translation of Annie van den Oever’s seminal 2007 biography of Boon, Het leven zelf (Life Itself), which holds forth the promise of revealing this link to English-speaking audiences. Paul Vincent’s translation, which follows the more popular Dutch second edition, is as clear and funny and nuanced as the original, and does an impressive job of conveying many of the text’s linguistic jokes and puns into English.

Despite its complex literary agenda—or possibly on account of it—My Little War also stands out as a deeply moving, often unsettling work of fiction. Boon clearly recognizes that an author cannot challenge his readers’ ideas unless he also engages their emotions. His motley crew of what’s-his-names, including “the very good and very amusing and very ugly Albertine Spaens” and the cigar-smoking turncoat shoe manufacturer Swaem and the tragic Canadian girl with a harelip, are drawn with such precision that one feels one can recognize one’s own acquaintances in his depictions. In fact, Boon reflects near the end of the volume, “There are 36 people who think they’re What’s-his-name, and eleven gentlemen who give this particular writer angry looks whenever they walk by because they recognize themselves in Mr. Swaem—although he had only a symbolic Mr. Swaem in mind.” There lies the magic of Boon’s technique: His falsehoods are more convincing than the truths of traditional fiction.

In a section entitled “Self-Defense,” Boon muses: “I’d like to suggest to my publisher that he set up an ‘Everyone Write their Own Little War’ contest—“First prize a pipe!” (Note the allusion to Magritte’s La trahison des images.) To a significant degree, we now live in that world today: Anyone can—and many authors do—write their “own little war” narratives for the Internet. One can easily imagine Boon looking down upon us, smoking his own pipe and grinning.

27 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Heather Simon on Aglaja Veteranyi’s Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta, which is translated from the German by Vincent Kling and published by Dalkey Archive Press.

Heather Simon is another of Susan Bernofsky’s students who kindly offered to write a review for our website. And this is quite a review. It makes the book sound really interesting and strangely funny, but then, at the very end, the review takes a seriously dark turn.

Here’s the opening of her review:

Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi cartwheels through the childhood exploits of the unnamed daughter of circus performers: Romanian refugees caravanning through Europe with dreams of fame, fortune, and a big house with a swimming pool. Veteranyi’s (almost) memoir and literary debut is told from the point of view of an ungainly young girl who is constantly being shushed by authority. Her mother—who never lets anyone get a word in edgewise—makes a living dangling from her hair, and her father works as clown and amateur filmmaker, shooting home-style documentaries for the narrator to star in as a silent protagonist; her only line is ever “Help.”

Relaying events in the present tense, the first-person narrator carries the reader on her jagged journey through circus camps, crowded hotel rooms, a short stint at a Swiss boarding school, and finally the vaudeville stage—all before hitting puberty. The narrator has no say in the direction of her journey. She hates parading around with the circus, claiming, “The closing parade with fanfare music is almost as awful as when I had my appendix out. All the artistes stand in a row or a circle and wave. That’s so embarrassing.” To make matters worse, every day the narrator worries that her mother will die while performing. “I sleep late in the morning to shorten my fear, because if I get up early the fear will last until her performance begins,” she confesses.

But what can the narrator do to change her situation? Whom can she tell? She is forbidden from having friends—even speaking to someone without permission is “prohibited” because according to her mother other people might be dangerous or steal her family’s circus acts. On the rare occasion that the narrator does voice her opinion, she is either punished or ignored. Throughout the book, the narrator claims she wants to be an actress and make a lot of money. But when she gets an opportunity to perform on stage she laments, “I pictured happiness differently.” This is probably because her visions of being a glamorous actress didn’t involve nipple tassels. She also hadn’t considered that her modest earnings would spark an onslaught of monetary requests from distant aunts and ancient grandparents. What does the narrator really want? “. . . To be like the people out there. There they can all read and they know things; their souls are made of white flour.”

Click here to read the full review.

27 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi cartwheels through the childhood exploits of the unnamed daughter of circus performers: Romanian refugees caravanning through Europe with dreams of fame, fortune, and a big house with a swimming pool. Veteranyi’s (almost) memoir and literary debut is told from the point of view of an ungainly young girl who is constantly being shushed by authority. Her mother—who never lets anyone get a word in edgewise—makes a living dangling from her hair, and her father works as clown and amateur filmmaker, shooting home-style documentaries for the narrator to star in as a silent protagonist; her only line is ever “Help.”

Relaying events in the present tense, the first-person narrator carries the reader on her jagged journey through circus camps, crowded hotel rooms, a short stint at a Swiss boarding school, and finally the vaudeville stage—all before hitting puberty. The narrator has no say in the direction of her journey. She hates parading around with the circus, claiming, “The closing parade with fanfare music is almost as awful as when I had my appendix out. All the artistes stand in a row or a circle and wave. That’s so embarrassing.” To make matters worse, every day the narrator worries that her mother will die while performing. “I sleep late in the morning to shorten my fear, because if I get up early the fear will last until her performance begins,” she confesses.

But what can the narrator do to change her situation? Whom can she tell? She is forbidden from having friends—even speaking to someone without permission is “prohibited” because according to her mother other people might be dangerous or steal her family’s circus acts. On the rare occasion that the narrator does voice her opinion, she is either punished or ignored. Throughout the book, the narrator claims she wants to be an actress and make a lot of money. But when she gets an opportunity to perform on stage she laments, “I pictured happiness differently.” This is probably because her visions of being a glamorous actress didn’t involve nipple tassels. She also hadn’t considered that her modest earnings would spark an onslaught of monetary requests from distant aunts and ancient grandparents. What does the narrator really want? “. . . To be like the people out there. There they can all read and they know things; their souls are made of white flour.”

With days in constant motion, the only thing consistent in the narrator’s life are her fantasies about lounging poolside with Sophia Loren and the question she keeps asking about why an unknown child is cooking in the polenta. While the question of the child in the polenta is repeated throughout the book, her explanations evolve from darkly whimsical narratives, “When the grandmother’s outside, the polenta says to the child: I’m so alone, wouldn’t you like to play with me? And the child climbs into the pot,” to alarming capitalized outbursts like, “THE CHILD IS COOKING IN THE POLENTA BECAUSE ITS MOTHER JABBED SCISSORS INTO ITS FACE.”

The growing sense of despair in the narrator’s voice mirrors the increasingly hopeless state of her existence. Even when she has the opportunity to go to school briefly, between taunts from classmates and writing standards on a blackboard in the attic, all she comes out of it having learned is how different she is from everyone else. On the page the text physically appears as disconnected as she is. The first line of each paragraph is not indented; instead the lines that follow are. And paragraphs rarely ever exceed one or two sentences. Within this erratic layout, Veteranyi proliferates her world through a series of surreal reflections: “When the mother cries, there’s a flood in her belly, because the baby cries too.” Some pages consist of a single unexpected declaration like, “MY FATHER IS SHORT LIKE A CHAIR.” The empty space on the page leaves room for the reader to contemplate what has intentionally been left out. Other pages end abruptly on sudden notes of sadness: “If I get used to hell quickly, then maybe we can leave here pretty soon.” Veteranyi has endless ways to illustrate loneliness.

The narrator’s story largely correlates with actual events in Veteranyi’s life. Her writing is at times intentionally inaccessible, indicative of the child narrator whose wounds are too fresh to talk about. In this type of experimental literature, there is a fine line between genius and confusion. A line Vincent Kling, professor of German and contemporary literature at La Salle and seasoned translator, ignites as he fearlessly renders Veteranyi’s starry and sordid German in English. He preserves Veteranyi’s unsettling descriptions and outbursts, with statements like, “Backs grew all over my father’s body,” and “I want to be raped by two men at the same time,” both which serve to heighten the underlying presence of uncertainty and pain.

All in all Polenta displays the awkward beauty of a contortionist. In his afterword, “A Home in Language,” Kling connects the dots between Veteranyi’s life and her work, helping readers to make sense of her often obscure prose. He divulges that Veteranyi was multilingual yet remained illiterate until the age of seventeen. Glimpses like this help illuminate her disjointed style and eccentric use of language. According to Kling, there is little that distinguishes the narrator from Veteranyi. Perhaps the most significance difference is that the narrator gives up without fighting, whereas Veteranyi refused to accept defeat, arguing her way into acting school and defending the style of Polenta to dubious critics.

Polenta marks a personal triumph for the author. This success that makes it all the more heart wrenching to learn that in 2002, just a few years after publishing Polenta, Veteranyi took her own life. Proof, as Kling puts it that “literary expression is not always the reliably curative therapeutic act it is often considered.” Yet it was through the process of opening old wounds that Veterani was able to spin her tumultuous childhood into a single venomous cloud of cotton candy, making a home for herself in Swiss literature.

20 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In The Truth about Marie, Belgian writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint takes us on a journey from Paris to Tokyo, with a sensuous detour to the island of Elba. It’s a book that begins with a thunderstorm and ends in massive forest fires, a love story examined through the lens of a tumultuous breakup. When the novel opens, Marie is spending a night with her new lover, Jean-Christophe, in the apartment she and the unnamed narrator formerly shared. At the same moment, in his apartment a few blocks away, the narrator is making love to a woman about whom we learn only that she, too, is named Marie. A drama will unfold this evening, bringing the ex-lovers back together, if only long enough to move a dresser out of a bedroom.

Readers familiar with Toussaint’s œuvre will recognize these characters: though the book is not exactly a sequel, it is narratively linked to the 2005 novel Fuir (published in the U.S. in 2009 as Running Away, also translated by Matthew B. Smith). The earlier book focuses on the disintegration of the couple’s relationship during a trip to Japan, and The Truth about Marie begins months after their breakup proper. Toussaint beautifully renders that period—for some of us, indefinite—when a relationship has ended, but we continue to live in its atmosphere. The “truth” he describes has little to do with Marie herself; rather, it speaks to the idea that the only stability in love is instability. “I loved her, yes,” the narrator tells us, “It may be very imprecise to say I loved her, but nothing could be more precise.”

When the narrator does focus his attention on Marie herself, it’s often in frustration: “. . . Marie always left everything open,” he says, “windows, drawers—it was exasperating, she’d even leave books open, turning them over on her night table next to her when she was done reading.” He wants closure. Toussaint, on the other hand, seems more interested in narrative possibility. The novel follows its own associative logic, and the plot has less of an impact than the dream-state the language creates. On several occasions, the narrator imagines the most intimate details of Marie and Jean-Christophe’s relationship, describing entire scenes he could not possibly have witnessed. It is the tension between the thrilling immediacy of these scenes and the frequent reminders that they are all “made-up” that gives The Truth about Marie its haunting quality. The narrator—like so many people who love and dream—revels not only in his fantasy of the other, but also in the knowledge of his self-deception.

This might give the impression that he is insufferable, but fortunately, the narrator has a sense of humor about his own unreliability. As Beckett once wrote, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” and unhappiness is as familiar to this narrator as weather. It is the particular unhappiness of the scorned lover who clings to his version of events, often willingly obscuring reality. For example, about a third of the way through the novel, the narrator learns that Marie’s new lover’s name is actually Jean-Baptiste, but he continues to refer to the man as Jean-Christophe, providing a comically self-reflexive explanation:

I even suspect I’d done this intentionally so as not to deprive myself of the pleasure of getting his name wrong, not that Jean-Baptiste was a better name, or more elegant, than Jean-Christophe, but the latter simply wasn’t his name [. . . this] jab, however small, however simple, gave me great pleasure (had his name been Simon I’d have called him Pierre, I know myself).

In an interview with Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation, translator Matthew B. Smith discusses Toussaint’s use of humor:

This is one of the main reasons I wanted to translate his work. I think it’s also what sets him apart from other writers. Toussaint uses a certain type of situational humor whose operating principle is actually quite simple. It consists of relating a comic act or absurd situation [. . .]in a markedly flat or unassuming way. Although it sounds simple, I think to actually pull it off and make it funny takes a tremendous amount of skill. After reading and rereading Toussaint, it still remains somewhat of a mystery to me how he makes it seem so effortless.

If it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how Toussaint’s writing makes us laugh, it is even harder to render that humor, with all its nuances, into another language. Grammatically, Smith’s translation keeps the idiosyncrasies of Toussaint’s style intact. In Marie, the most prominent of Toussaint’s stylistic features is the long sentence. Like Proust’s, these sentences can run on for pages, and some translators might be tempted to “smooth out” certain passages by breaking them down. To do so, however, would be a disservice to readers; these sentences are often carefully constructed to mirror the cadences, the rises and falls, of the narrator’s inner voice. Consider one of my favorite passages, in which he describes Marie’s failure to locate her passport at a checkpoint near Tokyo’s Narita airport :

But Marie could never find her passport when she needed it, and, suddenly roused from her reverie, as if caught off guard, her face already betraying the tiresome futility of the search to come, she was overcome by a mad frenzy, that strange mix of panic and goodwill she displays when looking for something, desperately digging through her purse, turning and shaking it in every which way, taking out credit cards, letters, bills, her phone, dropping her sunglasses on the ground, trying to stand in the limousine and twisting around to check her skirt’s back pocket, the pockets of her leather coat, of her sweater, positive she had it with her, that damn passport, but not knowing in which pocket she’d put it, in which bag it could possibly be, twenty-three bags exactly (without counting the plastic sack with the fugu sashimi, in which she also glanced just to be sure)—all in vain, the passport was nowhere to be found.

The breathlessness within these clauses reproduces the narrator’s (and, ostensibly, Marie’s) mental state. We get the sense that, while the narrator is poking fun at Marie here, the franticness of the passage actually reveals his own instability at this moment, as he searches for Marie and is unable to find her. The length of the sentence allows us to experience the way in which sentiment can, without warning, throw a moment into terrible relief. The image of Marie glancing in the plastic bag containing her lunch is funny, but it’s also poignant. And perhaps this is what is most remarkable about Toussaint’s work: it is always driven by compassion and deadpan intelligence, but neither quality upstages the other. His prose is exacting and buoyant, and it never flags. I don’t know how he does it, either, but I do know that this story of love regained and lost is moving and utterly true.

20 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Katie Assef on Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Truth about Marie, translated from the French by Matthew B. Smith and available from Dalkey Archive Press.

Katie Assef is another of Susan Bernofsky’s students who very kindly offered to write reviews for Three Percent. Here’s the opening of her review:

In The Truth about Marie, Belgian writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint takes us on a journey from Paris to Tokyo, with a sensuous detour to the island of Elba. It’s a book that begins with a thunderstorm and ends in massive forest fires, a love story examined through the lens of a tumultuous breakup. When the novel opens, Marie is spending a night with her new lover, Jean-Christophe, in the apartment she and the unnamed narrator formerly shared. At the same moment, in his apartment a few blocks away, the narrator is making love to a woman about whom we learn only that she, too, is named Marie. A drama will unfold this evening, bringing the ex-lovers back together, if only long enough to move a dresser out of a bedroom.

Readers familiar with Toussaint’s œuvre will recognize these characters: though the book is not exactly a sequel, it is narratively linked to the 2005 novel Fuir (published in the U.S. in 2009 as Running Away, also translated by Matthew B. Smith). The earlier book focuses on the disintegration of the couple’s relationship during a trip to Japan, and The Truth about Marie begins months after their breakup proper. Toussaint beautifully renders that period—for some of us, indefinite—when a relationship has ended, but we continue to live in its atmosphere. The “truth” he describes has little to do with Marie herself; rather, it speaks to the idea that the only stability in love is instability. “I loved her, yes,” the narrator tells us, “It may be very imprecise to say I loved her, but nothing could be more precise.”

Click here to read the entire review.

18 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Andrej Stasiuk, one of Poland’s foremost contemporary authors and founder of Wydawnictwo Czarne press, has led a life as complex and colorful as his writing. He was born in Warsaw in 1960 but left his hometown at age 26 to reside in the secluded city of Czarne, where he discovered the provincial beauty of rural Poland—a beauty that would serve as a characteristic landscape for his poetry and prose. Stasiuk was a dedicated participant in the Polish pacifist movement. His ardent opposition to compulsory military service led to his arrest as an army deserter; the year and a half he spent in prison inspired a collection of short stories called The Walls of Hebron (1992). It was this collection that brought Stasiuk to the fore of the Polish literary scene. Since the publication of The Walls of Hebron, Stasiuk has touched every genre, gaining popularity as a travel writer, poet, and novelist. His writing has a distinctive lyrical style, describing modern Poland through impressionistic portrayals of its small towns and the people who inhabit them. Stasiuk’s White Raven (1995; translated by Wiesiek Powaga, Serpent’s Tail, 2001) won the Kultura and Koscielski prizes and has since been made into a film. In his 1997 novel Dukla, presented in English by award-winning translator Bill Johnston, Stasiuk guides the reader through Poland’s landscape with the deft observational savvy of a seasoned traveler and a richness of imagery that exemplifies his poetic voice.

In Dukla, Stasiuk speaks to his reader through the voice of an unnamed narrator whose eccentric descriptions of the world around him echo the author’s avowed mission to illuminate Eastern Europe in print. But while his miniature epic certainly paints a picture of the land and offers insight into the changes that have taken place through the twentieth century to the modern day, the quirky narrator of Dukla insists that he is only interested in talking about light.

Stasiuk’s stylized anti-narrative offers a series of episodes in which the narrator travels to Dukla—a small town in the Carpathian Mountains in southeast Poland—and then returns to his hometown, the name and location of which the reader never learns. The narrator usually travels alone, and when he breaks his habitual solitude he offers the reader no formal introduction to his companions. These secondary characters—we never learn if they are the speaker’s friends, family members, or lovers—exist on the road to Dukla only as first names or lonely initials. The narrator pays more attention to revealing Dukla’s inhabitants, a population inseparable from the landscape. Like a trick of the light, the narrator’s voice transforms commonplace events into a series of visceral, charged experiences:

In the dark shelter that resembled a ruined arcade there was a family sitting and waiting for their bus. No one was talking. The children copied the stoical gravity of their parents. The only thing moving were the little girl’s legs, which swung rhythmically above the ground in their white stockings and shiny red shoes with golden buckles. In the emptiness of the Sunday afternoon, in the stillness of the bus station, this motion brought to mind the helpless pendulum of a toy clock unable to cope with the burden of time. The girl had slipped her hands under her thighs and was sitting on them. The glistening red weights of her feet were rocking in an absolute vacuum. Nothing was added or taken away by the swinging. It was pure movement and ideal, purified space. Her mother was staring emptily ahead. A yellow frill bubbled under her dark blue top. The father was leaning forward, his arms resting on his spread knees, and he too was peering into the depths of the day, toward the meeting point of all human gazes that have encountered no resistance on their path. The woman straightened her hands where they lay in her lap and said, “Sit still.” The girl froze immediately. Now all of them were gazing into the navel of afternoon emptiness, and it was all I could do to tear myself from that motionless slumber.

The narrator never speaks explicitly about how he feels about what he sees. He does not overtly acknowledge the melancholy he evokes or note the powerful influence of nostalgia on his interpretation of the world around him. These moments—distilled to their essence—seem to move him physically, prompting his journeys to and from Dukla. And yet the narrator insists that he returns to Dukla simply “to observe it in different kinds of light and different seasons.” In spite of these assertions, his affected reminisces provide clues that the speaker is looking not for something that is happening but rather for something that happened a long time ago.

The road to Dukla is paved with details. The reader is challenged to move quickly from episode to episode, coming to her own conclusions about these highly descriptive but emotionally unqualified images. The straightforward reporting is punctuated by subtle manipulations of language: Repetition, unusual images, and shifts in tone hint at the feelings of a narrator who stubbornly resists self-expression. Bill Johnston’s skills shine as he helps the reader stay afloat on the narrative’s stream-of-consciousness. Johnston develops the narrative voice by tweaking common language, retaining the lovely oddities of Stasiuk’s metaphors without straining the clarity of the prose. For example, the scene at the bus station makes a refrain of the word “empty,” but pushes the word’s descriptive ability by applying it to an action: “Her mother was staring emptily ahead.” The book’s language insists on passivity; the girl isn’t swinging her legs; her legs are just swinging. The sense of emptiness is furthered as the description continues with, “Nothing was added or taken away by the swinging,” here Johnston utilizes uses the passive voice and makes “nothing” the very subject of the sentence. And yet in the midst of all this nothingness The novel provokes the mind’s eye with striking images that Johnston beautifully captures: A “helpless pendulum” and a family “gazing into the navel of afternoon emptiness.”

Dukla is a verbal representation not only of landscape and light but also of seasons and time. As the narrator travels, his mind wanders back and forth along the years in parallel journeys to the Dukla of the past and a Dukla that exists only in the realm of possibility. For example, as he sits on a crowded bus to Dukla the narrator envisions the train that “should” exist instead. He invokes specific objects and brand names that act as relics of Dukla’s past lives, adding his own idealism to conjure an image of a train so real that it begins to seem less a daydream than a possibility:

The cars would absolutely have to be dark green, faded, and old . . . Everything as it once used to be, like in a transparent dream where ribbons of time and memory are superimposed on one another like a consolation for a too-short life. Cigarettes with a mouthpiece instead of a filter, in hard cardboard boxes with a sphinx on the lid, or with no mouthpiece, but pressed flat, like the Hugarian Munkás brand. Pants had to be pressed and appropriately wide, while in the pocket of your jacket there should be a flat bottle with an inscription on its bottom reading: Baczewski Distillery of Vodkas and Spirits, Lwów. And a Panama hat. What else? Probably the line should end in Dukla. Right next to the place where there’s a bakery kiosk now; the rails come to a stop at a huge wooden buffer on iron girders. Beyond that there’s nothing.

The reader is transported from the “fact” of the narrator is sitting on a bus traversing an imaginary rendering of Dukla to the “real” Dukla in the present day. The passage closes with a single ambiguous statement all the more striking for its contrast to the delicate specificity that precedes it: “Beyond that there’s nothing.” Is Stasiuk telling us that there is nothing beyond the imaginary train station, or that there is nothing more to the narrator’s fantasy? Or that the bakery is at the city limits? The open-ended comment challenges the reader to engage with the text—given all that this town seems to represent for the narrator, what does it mean if there is nothing beyond Dukla?

Is Dukla, as the speaker insists again and again, a novel about light? Perhaps. A reader might be tempted to embrace light as a symbol, but if she approaches the novel with this intention she is in for a difficult task. Stasiuk forces the reader to see through the speaker’s eyes, moving from scene to scene—and year to year—as quickly as the light shifts over the market square in the heart of Dukla. The novel speaks to Stasiuk’s influences in Polish and international literature—an almost cynical realism that echoes Maciej Hłasko and a stream-of-consciousness denial of linear storytelling reminiscent of American beat poets. Dukla uses light and, just as importantly, the requisite darkness that is light’s inexorable consort, to create a character whose thoughts offer inclusive social commentary and a meditation on isolation, a fascination with change and a nostalgic mourning as the familiar is eradicated, and a outlook on his country that becomes a relentless seed of realism in the mind of a dreamer. According to the narrator—and perhaps Stasiuk himself—light is the only reality because it allows us to see.

18 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The lastest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Claire Van Winkle on Andrej Stasiuk’s Dukla, which is translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston and available from Dalkey Archive Press.

Claire is the first of three students (so far) of Susan Bernofsky’s who have written reviews for Three Percent. I’ll be running the others over the next few weeks, along with all the reviews I’ve been hoarding and need to get up here . . . So expect to be inundated with tons of reviews of interesting books.

Here’s the opening to Claire’s review of Dukla, the latest Stasiuk book to make its way into English (thanks to the amazing Bill Johnston):

Andrej Stasiuk, one of Poland’s foremost contemporary authors and founder of Wydawnictwo Czarne press, has led a life as complex and colorful as his writing. He was born in Warsaw in 1960 but left his hometown at age 26 to reside in the secluded city of Czarne, where he discovered the provincial beauty of rural Poland—a beauty that would serve as a characteristic landscape for his poetry and prose. Stasiuk was a dedicated participant in the Polish pacifist movement. His ardent opposition to compulsory military service led to his arrest as an army deserter; the year and a half he spent in prison inspired a collection of short stories called The Walls of Hebron (1992). It was this collection that brought Stasiuk to the fore of the Polish literary scene. Since the publication of The Walls of Hebron, Stasiuk has touched every genre, gaining popularity as a travel writer, poet, and novelist. His writing has a distinctive lyrical style, describing modern Poland through impressionistic portrayals of its small towns and the people who inhabit them. Stasiuk’s White Raven (1995; translated by Wiesiek Powaga, Serpent’s Tail, 2001) won the Kultura and Koscielski prizes and has since been made into a film. In his 1997 novel Dukla, presented in English by award-winning translator Bill Johnston, Stasiuk guides the reader through Poland’s landscape with the deft observational savvy of a seasoned traveler and a richness of imagery that exemplifies his poetic voice.

In Dukla, Stasiuk speaks to his reader through the voice of an unnamed narrator whose eccentric descriptions of the world around him echo the author’s avowed mission to illuminate Eastern Europe in print. But while his miniature epic certainly paints a picture of the land and offers insight into the changes that have taken place through the twentieth century to the modern day, the quirky narrator of Dukla insists that he is only interested in talking about light.

You can read the full review by clicking here.

23 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Demolishing Nisard by Eric Chevillard, translated by Jordan Stump

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press

Why this book should win: The pleasure-to-page-count ratio. Because Dalkey Archive is overdue. Because if this book doesn’t win, it’s a victory for Nisard.

Today’s piece is by Eric Lundgren, a graduate of the Writing Program at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of the chapbook The Bystanders (All Along Press).

Demolishing Nisard asks us to believe that a literary critic poses a grave threat to our world. It’s a rich premise. Who is Désiré Nisard? A notorious bore, pedant, and careerist, author of a fusty four-volume history of French literature, sporting muttonchop whiskers and an Academie Française robe. Oh yeah, and he has been dead for over a century. An unlikely enemy to say the least, but Eric Chevillard’s seductive narrator will quickly convert you to his cause.

I want to call this book something other than a novel. Chevillard uses the term “broadside,” which just about does justice to its sustained antagonism. There’s a plot of sorts (the narrator’s hunt for Nisard’s suppressed and saucy-sounding fiction A Milkmaid Succumbs) but Chevillard isn’t all that invested in conventional storytelling. This book is anchored in voice and style. It doesn’t so much develop as intensify, gathering complication and depth along the way. Fans of books that relentlessly pursue their subjects, like U and I or The Loser, will feel right at home here.

Instead of the careful embroidery of well-made fiction, Demolishing Nisard offers rough edges of trash talk raised to an art. It’s tempting to quote whole reams of Jordan Stump’s translation. Do I choose the part where the narrator laments Nisard’s facial hair, because it doesn’t cover enough of his face? The catalog of suggested assaults, which includes “spray herbicide on his golf course”? The beautiful passage in praise of birds, because they carry feathers (i.e. pen quills) away from Nisard? Chevillard is a master stylist and he writes coiled, serpentine sentences that unfold at just the right heat and pace. In English lit you have to reach back to Pope or Swift to find invective of this quality:

He is the slime at the bottom of every fountain. Irretrievably, there has been Nisard. How can we love benches, knowing that Nisard often pressed them into service? Gently stroking a cat’s silken fur, my hand inevitably reproduces a gesture once made by Nisard . . . Did Nisard ever make one move that we might want to follow or imitate? Did he ever incarnate anything other than the tedium of being Désiré Nisard, definitively, forever and ever?

Like the allergens and vermin to which he’s often compared, Nisard invades the book. His name appears in a series of contemporary newspaper columns quoted by the narrator. In these columns, Nisard morphs into a drunk driver, a shoplifter, a tennis player bested by Rafael Nadal at the Davis Cup, a defender of the war in Iraq, a politician promoting austerity, the captain of an errant oil rig . . . comic exaggeration, yes, but it’s also Chevillard showing the ways that Nisard’s brand of conservatism lives on. A former student’s memoir informs us that, while head of the École Normale, Nisard promoted the notion of the “two moralities,” a stricter code for the lower classes and a more permissive code for the elites, an idea that would not seem out of place in U.S. political culture today.

In quiet moments, the narrator dreams of a book without Nisard (“the reader would be first of all amazed by the light”) but his thoughts are always half-formed and tentative. The paradox is funny: there can be no radical without tradition. Eventually the narrator concludes:

In order to finally read the book without Nisard—possible only in a world without Nisard—we must first pass through this book chock-full of Nisard, depending on that overabundance to arouse the purgative reflex that will at long last expel Nisard from this world forever.

This gets at Chevillard’s double project, which is both a demolition and an exhumation. The animus driving the narrator is at times quite close to an obsessive love (“For three weeks I thought of nothing but his thighs”). As he scours research libraries for A Milkmaid Succumbs and ventures closer to Nisard’s hometown, he begins to fear his own “Nisardification.” This strange intimacy between writer and critic comes to the fore toward the end of the book. “What did I ever do to him,” the narrator wonders, “that he should assail me so relentlessly!”

For my part, I’m convinced. Nisard is out there somewhere, working on his column on the death of the novel. But Eric Chevillard has struck a blow against him on our behalf. This slim and delightful book casts doubt on Nisard’s theory that literature has been in irreversible decline since the end of the eighteenth century. In fact, Demolishing Nisard feels very twenty-first century, and it’s everything Nisard is not: original, imaginative, wild, and a lot of fun.

20 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Upstaged by Jacques Jouet, translated by Leland de la Durantaye (which sounds like an Oulipian pseduonym)

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press

Why This Book Should Win: Oulipians have the most fun.

Today’s post is written by John Smieska, MPAS PA-C, whom I met when working at Schuler Books & Music approximately 29 years ago.

When you read any text produced by a member of the Oulipo group, there is an invitation to read with an awareness of the construction, an alertness in the background of the experience. Oulipo is an exclusive challenge-society, a think-tank that seeks to generate narrative constraints; these constraints spur the private literary ambitions of its members, and subvert the aesthetic traditions of narrative and language. Some works of this group are front-loaded, with the constraint or device announced in tandem with the debut of the text—this allows the act of reading to be textured with an editorial or fact-checker’s spectatorship. In other works, like Upstaged, the constraint is not made explicit, which allows the act of reading to be infused with a cryptographic undercurrent, a puzzler’s inquiry.

Upstaged by Jacques Jouet, to my best reckoning, is about a theatre and its doubles. (Indeed, there is some vulnerability in publicly proposing a solution to any puzzle that may or may not be absolutely correct.) The narrative folds around pairs; it splits and replicates like a feral blastomere, or like a work of dialectic origami. The narrator is the director’s assistant (herself, the self described factotum/factota of the playwright/director) during a routine performance of a play that becomes unsuspectingly vitalized when an unknown performer, known as “the Usurper,” invades the zona pellucida of a principle actor’s dressing room, and in the tender moments before his entrance, binds him naked to a chair and proceeds to hijack his role. (This all occurs in the national theatre of a Republic that is a double of the real—as much as politics are fictions used to organize, compel, and interpret events.) The play is a political play about a leader who disguises himself in order to mingle with the citizens, but who, while soliciting prostitutes (the doubles of intimacy?), encounters his estranged brother who was once united in a common cause, but has now split to lead the rebel faction.

The Usurper disrupts the timing (the seconds?), the delivery and finally the plot—which forces improvisations and the continued splitting and shifting of roles. At the end of the second act (rescued from chaos by the improvisational skill of the second prostitute) the Principle actor is released from his bondage, and the Usurper has disappeared (along with the second prostitute who may or may not have been in her dressing room). The show must go on, and the troupe must coalesce, and take new roles, the director and assistant even take to the stage as actors, to salvage the third act. The resulting performance yields a unique, inspired and resonant plot, favorably reviewed as a new and burgeoning aesthetic by one of the two present critics.

To hold even this key (although it may be a false one), even in a very general retelling, the plot hums and pops, restrained from your knowledge, with new hidden doubles and splits, I restrict from you an active but private hive of details, a mania of inquiries we might well discuss and connect. (Are the teller and voyeur split? Is the voyeur split into the role as cameraman/camerawoman? Is the inverse of the riddle gametogenesis? Are we, as readers, part of the double structure? Are we the double of the rat pulled across the boards by invisible strings? Does speculating the value of the structure make us the double of the critic? Etc. etc. ) This is a plot where even the title bestowed to express one’s singularity and uniqueness is split into halpax or unicum depending on who crowns you with it.

I recommend this book as an adventure, an adventure whose calling intensifies in recollection as much as it does in reading. It is an adventure into the aesthetics of Oulipo and it is a treasure map into the theatre of its doubles.

13 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next four weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Suicide by Edouard Levé, translated by Jan Steyn

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press

Why This Book Should Win: The crazy intense backstory. The fact that Dalkey—one of the leading publishers of literature in translation—has yet to win a BTBA award.

Today’s post is written by Tom McCartan, who writes, works, and, lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He recently edited the collection Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview and Other Conversations for Melville House Publishing. His fiction has been published in Unsaid, the upcoming issue of which contains both Tom McCartan and Edouard Leve.

Despite my best efforts, it has proven somewhat impossible to discuss Edouard Levé’s Suicide without discussing Eduard Levé’s suicide. Let’s get it out of the way. Levé delivered Suicide to his editor ten days before taking his own life. This fact, as macabre as it is, is the house in which the novel lives and every review or blurb about Suicide from now to eternity will mention it. This is kind of a shame because Levé’s prose is good enough on its own. However, those inclined towards the postmodern are probably salivating over the idea, for it would be hard for a book to be more self-aware than Suicide. Some have even suggested that Suicide was Levé’s suicide note. I really hope that wasn’t the case, it would ruin the delicacy. Regardless, we’ll never know.

The novel does not have a plot, but rather its narrator (who could or could not be Levé) addresses a friend (wait, maybe the friend is Levé) who committed suicide twenty years ago. The result is homage in pointillist prose to a troubled soul explored in minute detail. It is a glimpse into the psychology of suicide. The narrator recounts the instances of his friend’s life in which he felt disassociated and addresses them back to his friend as if to absolve him of his suicide, although the narrator never claims to understand his friend’s pathos fully. We are only given the images and are left to wonder at reasons.

Suicide reads like a photo album. This is no surprise, considering that Levé was as much an accomplished photographer as he was anything else. The prose is clipped, almost terse; while each line can be seen to represent a single idea in just the same way a photo in an album represents one moment in time. These ideas, like collections of photos in an album, create events and distinct sections in a book where there are no chapters. Praise must be given to translator Jan Steyn who deftly maintained the integrity of each line/photograph while keeping the entire piece cohesive.

Suicide is at times beautiful, immensely sad at others, and in more moments than one might want to admit there is the potential in the text to be deeply relatable. I will not sit here and say, however, that Levé uses suicide as some sort of literary device for to teach us truth and/or beauty, because that is not what he does. Suicide is about suicide. Given that, however, there are still so many instances where a line, again like a favorite photograph in an album, so concisely articulates one of our more complex emotions or frames the nature of contemporary relationships.

Levé has written several books and put out a number of collections of photographs. The only other piece I’ve read, though, is “When I Look at a Strawberry, I Think of a Tongue” that was in the Paris Review last summer. I loved it.

27 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As noted on the Dalkey Archive website, Norwegian author Stig Sæterbakken took his own life this past Tuesday.

Sæterbakken was the author of the novels Incubus, The New Testament, Siamese, Self-Control, and Sauermugg (the latter three constituting the “S-trilogy”), and two collections of essays, Aesthetic Bliss and The Evil Eye.

Siamese was published by Dalkey a couple years back in Stokes Schwartz’s translation. It was reviewed in the New York Times by fellow Dalkey author Jim Krusoe (whose Iceland is most hysterical), who had this to say:

First published in 1997, “Siamese” is Saeterbakken’s third novel and the first of his “S” trilogy (because they all start with the letter S), and while the level of barrenness here is fairly stupendous, it seems also to be earned. Edwin, the co-narrator and the former director of an old-age home, has himself come to the end of his life. He is blind, paralyzed, incontinent, self-centered and stuffed with unpleasant opinions that he’s only too happy to share with us and with his wife, Sweetie, the other narrator.

Seated in a chair in a dark room of his apartment on an island of Orbit gum wrappers and dried gum (chewing Orbit is the one pleasure he has left other than torturing his wife), Edwin fulminates and decays. Sweetie comes and goes. There is rumored to be a servant. The building’s superintendent arrives at the start of the book to replace a fluorescent bulb (he also fixes the light in the fridge, gratis, and adjusts the freezer setting). He will return at the end to become a lodger. In between is the struggle between Edwin, fixed like a stone in his chair, and the fluid, ridiculously accommodating Sweetie. Each defines the other.

In other words, we are traveling here though the bleakest territory of Beckett, the haunted compulsions of Thomas Bernhard, the desperation of Saeterbakken’s countryman Knut Hamsun. But missing are Beckett’s closely reasoned wit, Bernhard’s rigor, even Hamsun’s frantic grasping. Instead, Saeterbakken holds up for our edification a nasty and petulant individual who never was all that much fun in the first place.

As it turns out, Kerri Pierce, a recent Rochester transplant and fellow Plübian who has translated five books for Dalkey, including Assisted Living by Nikanor Teratologen, which contains an afterword by Sæterbakken. Since Kerri was a friend of his, I asked her to write something up for us about his passing:

When I got the news that Stig Sæterbakken had committeed suicide, my first thought was—the world is a less interesting place. Although I never met Stig personally, I worked with him on a number of projects. He wrote the Foreword and Afterword to two works I had the joy of translating, Tor Ulvens Replacement and Nikanor Teratologen’s Assisted Living respectively. He was always ready to help if I had a question about a word or phrase and I, in turn, had occasion to help him when he needed someone to proofread a text in English. Over time, I came to consider him a colleague and a friend, as well as a brilliant writer in his own right. It’s strange to think that his last e-mail to me will be left unreturned.

For more information about Sæterbakken, check out this essay he wrote for Eurozone, this profile in Transcript, and this press release about his last book.

27 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of the precursors to the Oulipo, and cult-author extraordinaire, Raymond Roussel is one of those authors that everyone of a certain aesthetic leaning likes to rave about. He is the admiration of many a literary fan-boy, and if there was an international fiction cosplay festival, his hat, cane, and ‘stach would adorn many a nerd.

That said, his books still aren’t as widely read as they should be. Part of that is due to the fact that for the longest time Calder was the only publisher of Locus Solus and Impressions of Africa. Calder is a great home for both of these books (the quality of the Calder list taken as a whole will likely never be replicated), but there were various distribution and availability issues.

Thankfully, last summer Dalkey Archive issued Impressions of Africa in Mark Polizzotti’s new translation.

I haven’t read this version, but knowing the book, and knowing Mark, I’m 100% sure that it’s brilliant. And for those of you unfamiliar with this book, here’s the Dalkey description:

In a mythical African land, some shipwrecked and uniquely talented passengers stage a grand gala to entertain themselves and their captor, the great chieftain Talou. In performance after bizarre performance—starring, among others, a zither-playing worm, a marksman who can peel an egg at fifty yards, a railway car that rolls on calves’ lungs, and fabulous machines that paint, weave, and compose music—Raymond Roussel demonstrates why it is that André Breton termed him “the greatest mesmerizer of modern times.” But even more remarkable than the mindbending events Roussel details—as well as their outlandish, touching, or tawdry backstories—is the principle behind the novel’s genesis, a complex system of puns and double-entendres that anticipated (and helped inspire) such movements as Surrealism and Oulipo. Newly translated and with an introduction by Mark Polizzotti, this edition of Impressions of Africa vividly restores the humor, linguistic legerdemain, and conceptual wonder of Raymond Roussel’s magnum opus.

Anyway, the main point of this post is to gush on about Roussel in context of this fantastic essay by Alice Gregory that went up on the Poetry Foundation website earlier this week.

First of all, anything with the subtitle “the upside of crazy” is effing awesome in my book. But more importantly, this is a really interesting look at Roussel’s odd being and its relation to his very strange works. You really have to read the whole article, but here are a few bits:

“Whatever I wrote was surrounded by rays of light,” a young Raymond Roussel told his psychoanalyst, Pierre Janet. “I used to close the curtains, for I was afraid that the shining rays emanating from my pen might escape into the outside world through even the smallest chink; I wanted suddenly to throw back the screen and light up the world.” Roussel was speaking literally, and Janet, who would treat Roussel for years, was taking notes.

Though nobody knows for sure, it’s suspected that Roussel first started seeing Janet in the years just before World War I, almost a decade after that first ecstatic experience he described in their early sessions. The manic spell coincided with the editing of La Doublure, a novel in verse that took most of Roussel’s adolescence to complete and that he believed “would illuminate the entire universe” when it was published. When it finally was published in 1897, La Doublure was ignored by critics. The reception to his obsessively detailed and obviously unsalable work ushered in a lifelong series of public disappointments for Roussel, a writer whose work was met—in his own words—with “an almost totally hostile incomprehension.”

In later sessions with Janet, Roussel proved himself to be outlandishly hubristic and deluded about his chances at fame, predicting, for instance, that he would “enjoy greater glory than Victor Hugo or Napoleon.” Over dinner recently, I quoted this prophecy to a friend and roussellâtre (what one calls a Roussel enthusiast), and he laughed. “That’s what’s so insane about him,” my friend shouted over the restaurant’s ambient noise. “He actually thought that what he wrote was normal, that people would like it, that he deserved—and would find—a mainstream audience!” [. . .]

Roussel’s world is strange because it is so specific, and his imaginative audacity reminds me of nothing so much as anime. Like Hayao Miyazaki movies—in which buses look like cats, amphibious girls have mouths full of salubrious saliva, monsters vomit up bathhouse employees, and decapitated spirit heads cure leprosy—Roussel’s works are littered with inconceivable amalgams. But at least in anime, there are protagonists with motives, however simplistic—they avenge family members, fall in love with characters that look like themselves, and seek adventure in parallel worlds. Roussel’s characters, if they can even be called that, express almost nothing a reader could identify as emotions. Bearing witness to the products of Roussel’s imagination isn’t nearly so unnerving as the moment that comes—quite late, it seems—when you are finally struck by the severe lack of human feeling. Janet outlines what he understands to be some of Roussel’s aesthetic principles: “The work must contain nothing real,” he deduces, “no observations on the world or the mind, nothing but completely imaginary combinations.” [. . .]

Roussel’s eccentricities were sundry and systematic. His biographer, Mark Ford, generously identifies them as “attempt[s] to screen out or neutralize the anxieties of living.” He fasted for days, wore garments for only limited amounts of time (collars, once; neckties, three times; suspenders, 15 times), and started and stopped work always on the hour. Roussel’s love for his own mother bordered on the erotic, and when she died, he had a pane of glass inserted into the lid of her coffin so that he could look at her corpse just a bit longer. There are more impish examples too, like his habit of tearing pages from his favorite books so that nobody could see what he was reading and then devouring them in the back seat of a chauffeured car. Most telling of what was clearly a personality disorder was Roussel’s conduct at social events, where “he became so afraid of causing offence, or of himself being offended, that he would pre-empt all potentially upsetting topics by asking an endless series of factual questions.”

That last little bit is so amazing . . . I think I’m going to employ it next time I’m anxious at some social event . . .

But seriously, you should check out this article and then read the new translation of Impressions of Africa.

12 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Paul Vincent is one of the top Dutch-English translators working today, so it’s both deserved and unexpected that he won this year’s Vondel Translation Prize. From the press release:

The jury for the Vondel Translation Prize 2011 has awarded the prize to Paul Vincent for My Little War, his English translation of Louis Paul Boon’s Mijn kleine oorlog. The jury consisted of critic Paul Binding (Times Literary Supplement) and translators Ina Rilke and Sam Garrett. The runner-up is David Colmer for The Portrait, his translation of Specht en zoon by Willem Jan Otten.

My Little War was published in the United States in 2010 by Dalkey Archive Press, and is the first English translation of Louis Paul Boon’s 1947 novel. The translation was financially supported by the Flemish Literature Fund. [. . .]

The Vondel Translation Prize is a biennial award for the best book translation into British or American English of a Dutch-language work of literature or cultural history. The award was established by the Society of Authors and is funded by the Dutch Foundation for Literature and the Flemish Literature Fund. The winner receives a prize of € 5000.

I have yet to read My Little War, but Chapel Road and Summer in Termuren are two of my favorite books of all time. Both novels (which are connected) are linguistically wild, engaging, hilarious works. Visit his Dalkey Archive page now for more info and to buy them all . . .

3 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After an absurdly extended hiatus, Dalkey Archive Press’s tri-ennial quarterly occasional tabloid magazine, CONTEXT is back! For anyone familiar with it, this is great news . . . CONTEXT is consistently interesting, and one of the best ways to discover and learn about “experimental,” “strange,” “innovative” writing. (Quotes b/c all terms of this sort are slippery and inaccurate.) Dalkey Archive is one of the best publishers in the world, consistently bringing out some of the interesting works from around the world. (Which is why a number of their books are always on the BTBA longlist.)

CONTEXT started in the late 90s as a way of promoting a particular sort of aesthetic through longish introductory articles (“Reading AUTHOR X”), excerpts from influential works, short book reviews, articles about international literary scenes, and rants by a one “Anne Burke,” among other features. It’s totally worth spending a day a week browsing through the back issues.

Anyway, you can click here to access all the contents of the new issue in a handy PDF format by selecting each individual article and using the print option and reading them online. Here’s an overview of some of the pieces that caught my eye:

Warren Motte is brilliant, and his essays and books are always fun to read. Montalbetti is published by Dalkey Archive (click here for info on Western) and sounds interesting:

Christine Montalbetti’s books are innovative, compelling, and slyly enticing constructions that provide some of the finest readerly experiences that French fiction currently has to offer. They put on stage a wide variety of characters, situations, and events, yet each book testifies in similar ways to a profound reflection on narrative art, and each pays close attention to the critical dimension of contemporary writing. That this should be the case is logical enough, once one realizes that Montalbetti leads a double life. On the one hand, she is beginning to make her mark as one of the most intriguing young novelists in France; on the other hand, she is a professor of literature at the University of Paris, and the author of a number of important critical and theoretical works that have confirmed her as a scholar of narrative. Insofar as her fiction is concerned, its most salient trait is undoubtedly the manner in which it takes the reader into account. These are generous texts wherein the author invites her reader to inhabit textual space, and to participate in a meditation focusing both upon the book of the future and the future of the book. For my own part, I am persuaded that it is precisely in such texts that the contemporary French novel realizes its potential and seeks to renew itself. From their very first sentences, Montalbetti’s books call upon their readers relentlessly, inveigling us, flattering us, cajoling us, attempting to persuade us that we have a role to play in the process of storytelling.

Pahor’s Necropolis is published by Dalkey Archive (click here for details), and based on the opening of this interview, sounds pretty dark and intriguing:

For a member of the Slovenian minority in Trieste, Central Europe’s history of violence began decades before the Nazi concentration camps, and did not end with the defeat of Fascism in WWII. This is the message of Slovenian writer Boris Pahor, and perhaps this explains his enduring importance and popularity to his countrymen and fellow Europeans both. In his most acclaimed book, Necropolis, Pahor recounts his experience as a “red triangle,” a political prisoner shuttled between four concentrations camps in the last years under Nazi rule. Yet the book is not solely a recollection of his imprisonment; it is an opportunity for a master to meditate on the dramatic events of an entire lifetime, and on their meaning for the present, both personally and historically.

  • “Mere Words, Mere Art — Slovenian Literature: Ten (Plus) Novels”: by Erica Johnson Debeljak

This may be the highlight of the issue. I’m a sucker for lists, especially ones that can serve as a guided introduction to something I’m interesting in, but currently ignorant about.

Literature means different things to different people. For past generations of Slovenians, many of the books in the list below provided flesh to their growing minds and bodies during a time of scarcity and censorship. These novels were as essential to them as food. To the current generation of savvy, traveling, computer-literate Slovenians, and of course to foreign readers as well, these same books are not lifeblood: now they must succeed as mere words, as mere art.

The following is a list of ten Slovenian novels of the twentieth century. The selection, as always in such lists, is subjective. One slight departure is that item ten on the list is not one book but many, a brief sub-survey of significant works that have been published in the post-1991 period and may or may not acquire the towering stature of the others. Time will tell. But the post-independence era of Slovenia, with its new set of fears and neuroses and preoccupations, must be given its due.

What’s especially cool about this list is that a number of the books have been translated and published in English, including Vitomil Zupan’s Minuet for Guitar, which is available from Dalkey Archive, and Drago Jančar’s The Galley Slave, also available from Dalkey Archive.

Shklovsky is flat-out awesome, and anyone interested in writing or criticism or film or art or Russian Formalism or whatever should definitely read him. Dalkey Archive Press publishes a number of his books, including The Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot, which is brilliant.



  • “Reading Asaf Schurr’s Motti”: by Todd Hasak-Lowy

People read for the epic story, the one with all those wars fought over and against that possibly mystical two-thousand-year-old backdrop. Israeli writers can be critical, their stories can be ironic, tragic even, so long as they include The Story.

In this regard the book before you disappoints, or, more accurately, disobeys. Take Asaf Schurr’s Motti, change the names of the main characters, switch around another fifty words scattered here and there, and delete, by my count, a single three-sentence stretch (describing a dream of all things), and this novel could be set in any of a thousand cities around the world. Unless I’m way, way off here (or unless you’re one of those readers who thinks absolutely everything is an allegory), I’d say that this book, despite the language and country in which it was written, is not about Israel. It just isn’t. This in itself is noteworthy. The very absence of Israel in this Israeli novel does tell us something about contemporary Israeli culture, but contemplating the presence of this absence only takes us so far. To understand Motti, one must look elsewhere.

So what is Motti about? Plot summary won’t really explain it. There’s a man (Motti), a dog, a friend, an object of affection, an accident, and an extremely difficult (there’s that word again) decision. Even for a short novel, not that much really happens. As such, some readers will dismiss Motti for failing to tell a conventional story (if they didn’t already dismiss it for failing to tell The Story).

But this book most certainly should be understood as a novel, and a novel tapping into one of the genre’s central traditions. Motti is a novel riddled with self-consciousness. Asaf Schurr—or Asaf Schurr as implied author—is everywhere in this book, reflecting on the story being told, interrupting the story no longer being told, and drawing attention to the contrived nature of the project of novel writing as a whole.

Motti is available from Dalkey Archive Press.

  • “Reading Orly Castel-Bloom’s Dolly City”: by Karen Grumberg

Dolly City came out some years ago, and thankfully, Dalkey Archive Press recently reissued it. I haven’t had a chance to read this yet, but my friends who have tell me that it’s incredible.

One need not know Hebrew to get a sense of how revolutionary Dolly City is. The prose pummels the reader. Dolly, by turns apathetic and enraged, is articulate and perhaps overly perceptive. “Madness is a predator,” she observes. “Its food is the soul. It takes over the soul as rapidly as our forces occupied Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip in 1967. [. . .] And if a state like the State of Israel can’t control the Arabs in the territories, how can anybody expect me, a private individual, to control the occupied territories inside myself?” (95–96). She explicitly relates the chaos within her to the political mayhem that plagues her environment. Violence reigns in her city. And a strange city it is: dystopic, fantastic, phantasmagoric, nightmarish—Dolly City is unlike any other setting in Hebrew literature. At once Tel Aviv and every other city in the world, Dolly City recalls the alienating metropolis that is by now a familiar setting of modernist writing, at the same time adding terrifying new features to this landscape. It is a city whose inhabitants are not only lonely, anxious, and unfriendly, but also deeply depressed and murderously violent. Dolly’s own aggressive tendencies, which drive her to surreptitiously inject unwitting passersby with morphine, murder a host of German orphans, castrate her psychiatrist, and more, reflect the violence of her city and affect every aspect of her relationships with others, from strangers on the street to her own son. No recognizable ethical or moral code governs Dolly City, and nothing is too sacred to escape the blade of Castel-Bloom’s pen. This is a world where everything has lost its significance—Dachau in Dolly City is just a word on an old plank—so the reader must question everything.

  • “Reading Gerald Murnane”: by Nicholas Birns

I think Barley Patch is the first Australian book Dalkey Archive has published. And based on this description, it sounds 120% like a Dalkey book:

Barley Patch takes as its subject the reasons an author might abandon fiction—or so he thinks—forever. Using the form of an oblique self-interrogation, it begins with the Beckettian question “Must I write?” and proceeds to expand from this small, personal query to fill in the details of a landscape entirely unique in world letters, a chronicle of the images from life and fiction that have endured and mingled in the author’s mind, as well as the details (and details within details) that they contain. As interested, if not more so, in the characters from his books—finished or unfinished—as with the members of his family or his daily life, the narrator lays bare the act of writing and imagining, finally giving us a glimpse of the mythical place where the characters of fiction dwell before they come into existence in books. In the spirit of Italo Calvino and Georges Perec, Barley Patch is like no other fiction being written today.

The piece by Nicholas Birns really reinforces this idea:

But in other ways Murnane is the least Australian of writers. Homebody though he may be in real life, in his fiction he has traveled to Hungary and to Paraguay, to Romania and to the grasslands of South Dakota. He is an erudite writer who is massively well read though owing true debts only to a select body of peers: Proust, Emily Brontë, Hardy, Nabokov, Borges, Calvino, Halldor Laxness, and Gyula Illyés. Moreover, like many of these peers, the places mentioned in his fiction do not really correspond to reality, even though they sometimes have names we recognize. Repetition plays a key role in Murnane’s fiction, which is often very abstract and lacking the detailed descriptions and settings we have come to expect in not only traditional but much innovative fiction.

Aglaja Veteranyi (1962–2002) was born in Bucharest to a family of circus artists who toured Europe relentlessly until finally settling in Switzerland. She worked as an actress, performer, and artist as well as a writer, and only published one novel—the searing Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta—during her lifetime, though other books have appeared posthumously. She committed suicide in 2002. The following text was written by her friend, the critic Werner Morlang and spoken at the Neumarkt Theater on February 16, 2002 on the occasion of a memorial tribute.

No, this isn’t meant as an obituary. We always know better in hindsight. Anyone wanting to seize hold of what’s incomprehensible will never be at a loss for explanations and blueprints for analysis. Aglaja’s end seems to point back to a troubled beginning, lack of security, disorder, and early sorrow in abundance, childhood traumas held in check by this “work horse,” as she liked to call herself, making such extreme demands on her vital energy that her unhealed wounds finally burst open, with fatal results. We recall Aglaja’s dark statements about how life itself was just too much and how hard she found it to simply accept, let alone love herself. We recall that indecipherable, abruptly startled look that would show in her eyes now and then, and we reproach ourselves for having paid too little heed to such signs. And then there’s the real sign—her novel and her short prose pieces are everywhere pervaded with jagged passages; we took note of them, no doubt, but not of the actual disasters that generated them. Even in the story of the child stewing in the polenta we merely observed how a circus girl managed to banish one vision of horror through another, thus underestimating or overlooking the twice-experienced fear and the violence she was inflicting on herself through the play of her thoughts.

Dalkey Archive Press recently published Aglaja Veteranyi’s Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta in Vincent Kling’s translation.

The Dalkey Archive Press brought Isle of the Dead out recently.

Gerhard Meier was born in 1917 and spent most of his life in the small Swiss town of Niederbipp. He studied building construction for several semesters, but in 1938 went to work in a small lamp factory in Niederbipp, where he rose to the position of designer and manager. He had always wanted to be a writer, but for the next twenty years avoided literature entirely, out of fear it would absorb all his energy. But spending six months in a sanatorium for tuberculosis in 1956–57 made him decide to return to writing. He produced a steady stream of books of poetry and novels that attracted increasing attention and literary prizes, culminating in the Baur and Bindschädler tetralogy (1979–1990), of which Isle of the Dead is the first book. Meier died in 2008 at the age of 91.

This interview took place on July 29, 1993, and was originally published in German in Das dunkle Fest des Lebens: Amrainer Gespräche (Zytglogge, 2001).

WERNER MORLANG: In Isle of the Dead, it wasn’t the stroll through Olten, or the teaming up of Baur and Bindschädler that was the starting point—you were looking for a vehicle that could elevate the material you chose, weren’t you?

GERHARD MEIER: The important thing was this world of Amrain, which is populated, even by myself, and there of course I myself was a model to a considerable extent. Baur and Bindschädler are two invented figures who stroll through Olten, and in doing so bring Amrain to life. Through their conversation, through their talking, I could enter into the history of certain families from Amrain and also into the history of my own family, the history of my own life. And this human cosmos—for heaven’s sake, it sounds rather pretentious—which includes the natural world, the animal world, the plant world, and the world of things, all this I tried to capture through the conversation of the two old veterans.

  • And not to bring home the point too hard or anything, but following on the themes of death and suicide that lace this issue of CONTEXT, the final piece I want to point out is Roland Topor’s 100 Good Reasons to Kill Myself Right Now, (translated by TP favorite Edward Gauvin), which, to anyone who worked at or knows Dalkey Archive is such a perfect Dalkey Archive piece. Here’s a brief excerpt:

1) Best way to make sure I’m not dead already.

2) It’ll throw off the last census.

[. . .]

11) To get out of voting.

12) An infallible cure for baldness.

13) To make a fresh start!

14) Death ennobles: knighthood at last!

15) I’d feel less alone.

[. . .]

32) Euthanasia wasn’t made for dogs.

33) I’ll have the last word.

34) 67% of French people support the death penalty.

35) ’Cause it’s a good way to quit smoking.

[. . .]

90) Because weather forecasts let me down.

91) So others will follow my example.

92) To start a revolution.

[. . .]

100) Because I’ve got 1,000 good reasons to hate myself.

2 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Starting next week, we’ll be posting all of the content for our Read This Next title on Thursday. You’ll get the extended preview, the translator interview, and the review all at once, giving you plenty of material to read over the weekend . . .

We were planning on implementing this change this week, but, well, since I was responsible for most of it, we’re a day behind. (So typical, I know.)

Anyway, this week’s book is The Splendor of Portugal by Antonio Lobo Antunes, one of my personal favorite authors. Rhett McNeil translated this from the Portuguese, and Dalkey Archive Press is publishing it on September 20th.

This novel is one of Antunes’s best, and features four narrators: Carlos, Rui, and Clarisse, and their mom, Isilda. A once wealthy, prestigious family, everything fell apart for them in Angola during the War of Independence, and the three kids ended up returning to Portugal and leaving their mother behind. Most of the book takes place on Christmas Eve in 1995, as Carlos waits for his brother and sister to join him for dinner.

Click here to read an extended preview, which is from the middle of the book, and focuses on Rui, the challenged youngest son of this once well-to-do family. It’s a great section, and one that does a great job in illustrating Antunes’s unique style.

Also available is an interview with Rhett McNeil:

RM: I expected that the process of translating this book would be frustrating at times, given the complexity of the language, the constant repetitions with variation, the abrupt changes in narrative voice and story line, etc., but it was surprising to me how emotionally exhausting it was. As you say, this is an extremely dark book, in which hatred and regret and resentment permeate nearly every aspect of the characters’ lives, from the macro-level of the post-colonial political situation in war-torn Angola to the micro-level of the family and the individual psyche. For some reason, the act of bringing this stuff over into English, of saying these often hauntingly sad things for the first time in English, really took it out of me emotionally, even more than it had when I read the book. Perhaps grappling with the meaning and rhythm of each phrase (there aren’t really sentences in any proper sense in this book) and giving it some sort of tangible existence in English made me something of a co-conspirator with Antunes, giving linguistic reality to things that normally have only a vaguely defined, purposefully hidden existence in the dark recesses of consciousness. Certain phrases or images would stick with me for a few days as linguistic puzzles or experiments in literary form, as I tried to find the best way to express them in English; by the time I decided on a final form, the full import of the phrase, the aesthetic or emotional impact of a given image or line would hit home. The image of a child shot dead, collapsing into a “crumpled heap” on the ground, “like an overcoat slipping off the hook of a coat-stand,” for instance.

And finally, here is a link to a full review of the novel.

As I mention in the review, I actually just wrote a really long piece about Antunes for Quarterly Conversation—one that does a better job of discussion what’s most interesting about Antunes’s work. I’ll definitely post about that as soon as it’s published.

2 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Splendor of Portugal is the tenth book by Antonio Lobo Antunes to appear in English translation, and the seventh that I’ve reviewed. Which, in some ways, makes this difficult to write. Not to mention, I just wrote an epically long piece on Antunes for a forthcoming issue of Quarterly Conversation. It was one of those articles that I poured all my thoughts and ideas into.

But flipping through my marked up copy of Splendor of Portugal, which first came out in Portugal in 1997 and is coming out in Rhett McNeil’s caustic, accomplished English translation later this month, it’s pretty easy to get all excited and want to share the brilliance that is Antunes’s writing.

Of his more recent novels (and yes, I know that 1997 isn’t all that recent), Splendor of Portugal is one of the most accomplished and well-constructed. It’s got all components of a traditional Antunes book: vitriol against Portugal stemming from the Portuguese Colonial War, a solitary man too damaged to connect with his family and wife, a family that’s totally broken, all told in a polyvocal fashion that jumps around all over in time and place.

There are two primary plot lines grounding this novel. The first takes place on December 24, 1995 in Portugal, where Carlos—the oldest son of a once well-off family—waits for his brother and sister to join him for dinner. Of course, he hasn’t spoken to either them in fifteen years after having sent Rui, his emotionally challenged younger brother off to live in a home, and having chastising his sister for her taking of wealthy lover after wealthy lover. But, with his relationship with his wife all but dead, and a stash of unopened letters from his mom (the kids left her behind in Angola when they came back to Portugal), he decides to reach out to them.

Here’s a bit setting that up that also highlights the sort of “all at once” style Antunes uses throughout the book. Carlos is “talking” to his wife:

until the smoke dissipated, Lena reappeared little by little with her fingers outstretched toward the breadbasket

“You haven’t seen your siblings in fifteen years”

so that all of a sudden I was aware of the time that had passed since we arrived here from Africa, of the letters from my mother, first from the plantation and later from Marimba, four little huts on a hillside of mango trees

(I remember the regional administrator’s house, the store, the ruins of the barracks shipwrecked and sinking in the tall grass)

the envelopes that I kept in a drawer without showing anyone, without opening them, without reading them, dozens and dozens of dirty envelopes, covered with stamps and seals, telling me about things I didn’t want to hear, the plantation, Angola, her life [. . .]

His mother’s letters reflect the other main narrative thread, which recounts Isilda’s story in Angola after the kids leave, covering the period from July 24, 1978 through December 1995, when things go from bad to worse to even worse.

If this novel is about one thing, it’s about the complete falling apart of society, a family, one’s life. It is entropy written novel sized. It is bleak, occasionally funny in a sick way, and very poetic. As you can see in the quote above (or in the long excerpt at Read This Next) the punctuation is pretty damn unique, and the book just simply flows, pulling you into the heads of its various characters and throwing events from various points in time at you, along with phrases from other characters, minor forays into the consciousness of yet other characters, etc.

This sounds daunting, but as Rhett says in this week’s interview, it is a book that teaches you how to read it as you go along. Part of the fun of reading Antunes is being swept into his world, and puzzling things out as you go (like, who is Carlos’s real mom?).

The one drawback to this book—the same drawback to most of Antunes’s books—is that once he establishes his technique, it remains pretty much unchanged throughout the novel. Part of the brilliant of The Sound and the Fury is the range in tone and style between Benjy’s part and Jason’s. It’s like four completely different consciousnesses expressed on the page. In Antunes’s works, he frequently uses that general technique of having each character speak their piece, but they all do so in very similar ways. The content, the individual tragedies, are all unique, but the style of presentation doesn’t change from Carlos to Rui to Isilda to Clarisse. It’s an effective strategy, one that poetically paints the portrait of these four people, but it can come off as a limitation in a 500+ page book.

That all said, you should read this. And Fado Alexandrino, The Land at the End of the World, Act of the Damned, and The Inquisitors’ Manual. Antunes is one of the greatest living writers and it’s a fantastic situation that so many of his works are available in English.

19 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Lily Ye on this week’s Read This Next title, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique by Goncalo Tavares, which is translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn and forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press.

Here’s the opening of Lily’s review:

In the very first scene of this book, a young Lenz Buchmann is instructed by his father to “do” a young servant girl in front of him. The command is issued without qualification, and there is no recourse for Lenz except to follow it. From this incident onward the novel spins forth a philosophy of strength, of power, of competence, of morality, or the lack thereof, that is alienating to say the least.

Lenz is a skilled surgeon, who does not operate out of compassion or to save lives, but because he is good at being a surgeon, and it is simply a side effect of his competent practice that lives are saved. Lenz regularly invites beggars into his home, with the implied promise of food or money, and then drags out their stay, demeaning them in conversation and having sex with his wife in front of them. But at his brother’s funeral—the brother that is his opposite in many ways—Lenz witnesses the influence that public figures hold, a renown and regard that even as a celebrated surgeon he could never possess. And so begins his foray into politics.

As a character, Lenz is unsympathetic and sympathetic at the same time. In his treatment of his wife, in particular, he can be described as monstrous. In his determination to create a rational system of perception and action, in his complete subservience to the memory and ideology of his father, he is understandable. Perhaps the most incomprehensible character however is his wife, Maria Buchmann. It is hard to understand who would marry a man like Lenz, or why even he would want to marry. But she does not play a very large role in the book, and dies about halfway through, to the benefit of Lenz’s political career.

Click here for the complete review, and click here to read an extended preview of the book.

19 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In the very first scene of this book, a young Lenz Buchmann is instructed by his father to “do” a young servant girl in front of him. The command is issued without qualification, and there is no recourse for Lenz except to follow it. From this incident onward the novel spins forth a philosophy of strength, of power, of competence, of morality, or the lack thereof, that is alienating to say the least.

Lenz is a skilled surgeon, who does not operate out of compassion or to save lives, but because he is good at being a surgeon, and it is simply a side effect of his competent practice that lives are saved. Lenz regularly invites beggars into his home, with the implied promise of food or money, and then drags out their stay, demeaning them in conversation and having sex with his wife in front of them. But at his brother’s funeral—the brother that is his opposite in many ways—Lenz witnesses the influence that public figures hold, a renown and regard that even as a celebrated surgeon he could never possess. And so begins his foray into politics.

As a character, Lenz is unsympathetic and sympathetic at the same time. In his treatment of his wife, in particular, he can be described as monstrous. In his determination to create a rational system of perception and action, in his complete subservience to the memory and ideology of his father, he is understandable. Perhaps the most incomprehensible character however is his wife, Maria Buchmann. It is hard to understand who would marry a man like Lenz, or why even he would want to marry. But she does not play a very large role in the book, and dies about halfway through, to the benefit of Lenz’s political career.

Tavares does not mince words in this novel. His style is severe and technical. It appears to mirror the mental processes of Lenz himself, ruthlessly rational, but as the book progresses, the style seems to convey more of a sense of scrutiny. It is a mockery of itself, a meta-commentary on its own insufficiency, as we simultaneously see Buchmann himself degenerate from illness.

To elaborate, take first that Lenz often likens himself to a hunter, who remains calm and collected while instilling a hysterical fear in his prey:

A good hunter proceeds in this way, and with just two or three of his well-placed steps in the middle of the forest he will be able to instill the second year in the fleeing hare, the decisive fear. And it will be out of this par that the hare will really begin to hurry, to race off at full speed, but a speed without order or objective, recalling those little mice locked in cages that run inside of wheels, turning them with their feet; movements that are very quick indeed, but in a category of motion that might be described as the speed of someone just trying to keep going, so different from the speed of someone who wants to advance.

It was only when—in his role as hunter—he realized that he could strike this second fear into the hare that Lenz Buchmann became completely convinced that the animal would not escape him. His many years’ hunting had taught him that this second terror—unlike the first—has only detrimental effects for the quarry: it is illogical, almost suicidal. The first fear, being instinctive, makes the quarry flee in a direction away from the hunter—any intelligent living creature would do that. The second fear, however, once it invades the organism being pursued, completely disorders the strategic system that all living creatures have, and can bring the quarry around in a circular route ending up—stupidly—five meters from the hunter’s weapon.

For Lenz, a technician, prey is marked by illogicality, which is a stupidity. As he comes down with cancer, and slowly his faculties begin to go, until all he is able to do is hold a piece of paper on which his father’s name is written and read it over and over again, Tavares does not loosen his prose. We see it clearly when spittle drips down Lenz’s face. He cannot kill himself because he has let himself get too far gone, and Tavares’ prose stands strong as a reminder of the irrational hyper-rationality that fueled Lenz’s ambition, his frightened flight from insignificance, which brings about his demise.

19 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To support this week’s “Read This Next”: title, we just posted an interview with Daniel Hahn about his translation of Goncalo Tavares’s Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique:

Lily Ye: In Learning to Pray, the tone of the book seemed to me to be very severe, perhaps in reflection of the personality of the protagonist, Lenz Buchmann. Would you agree with this assessment, both in your translation and in the original, and how did it affect the process of translation? That is, how did you find translating this particular style of writing?

Daniel Hahn: Yes, it’s severe—it’s very chilly and cynical, and generally I think a pretty bleak place to be. There’s one sense in which this made it a difficult translation job (though not in the sense meant by your question, I think)—when you translate a book you live in it much more intensely, and naturally for a much longer period, than if you’re simply strolling through it once as a reader, and when a book is sown through with views as toxic as those found here, it doesn’t make it an altogether pleasant place to be living. That said, he’s a brilliant writer, and translating brilliant writing is always more enjoyable than translating mediocre writing, unsurprisingly.

Your question I guess is more to do with style, though, and that was certainly difficult to get right. It’s one of the hardest books I’ve worked on in terms of making sense of the structure of complicated sentences, sometimes very imprecise and sometimes very sharp-focus; this also meant that it benefited from a pretty significant edit once I was done, from a rigorous editor who approached it simply as an English-language reader—the result, I think, might be pulling away from my draft and producing something a little smoother for English-language readers.

You can read the entire interview here.

17 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next featured selection is Goncalo Tavare’s Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn, and available from Dalkey Archive Press at the end of the month.

E.J. wrote about Tavares a couple years back when he won the Portugal Telecom Prize for Jerusalem. He included this bit about the “Neighborhood” books, which really should be available to English readers:

We found out about Tavares at Frankfurt and got our hands on a few of his “Neighborhood” books—some of which have been translated into English by TransBooks in India (What kind of audience is there is in India for Portuguese translations . . . into English?). Each book in the series is a small collection of short stories inspired by literary and artistic figures. The ones we have in English are Mister Brecht, Mister Valéry, Mister Henri, and Mister Juarroz. It appears that the neighborhood—represented in an illustration on the back of the books by a sketch of a set of buildings with arrows telling you which building, and which window, each person lives in—is ever expanding, but so far includes, among others, Calvino, Kafka, Walser, and Woolf.

They’re incredible little books, and the stories remind me a lot of Augosto Monterroso’s. For the most part the stories are very short—some are only a few lines long—and fable-like, and some of the stories feature the writer/artist as main characters.

Jerusalem came out from Dalkey in the fall of 2009 in Anna Kushner’s translation to a lot of great attention. It’s great that they’re also doing Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, which, as mentioned above is translated by Daniel Hahn.

Daniel is a great translator who I had the chance to meet at the Salzburg Global Seminar on translation a few years ago. He’s most well-known as a translator for his work on Jose Agualusa, and is currently an interim co-director (with fellow Salzburg alum Kate Griffin) of the British Centre for Literary Translation in East Anglia.

Later this week we’ll be posting an interview with Daniel, but for now, you can read an extended preview of Learning to Pray, which is described below:

In a city not quite of any particular era, a distant and calculating man named Lenz Buchmann works as a surgeon, treating his patients as little more than equations to be solved: life and death no more than results to be worked through without the least compassion. Soon, however, Buchmann’s ambition is no longer content with medicine, and he finds himself rising through the ranks of his country’s ruling party . . . until a diagnosis transforms this likely future president from a leading player into just another victim. In language that is at once precise, clinical, and oddly childlike, Gonçalo M. Tavares—the Portuguese novelist hailed by José Saramago as the greatest of his generation—here brings us another chilling investigation into the limits of human experience, mapping the creation and then disintegration of a man we might call “evil,” and showing us how he must learn to adapt in a world he can no longer dominate.

20 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Earlier this week, the Goethe Institut in Chicago announced that Jean Snook was this year’s winner of the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize for her translation of Austrian writer Gert Jonke’s The Distant Sound, which was published by Dalkey Archive Press.

Here’s what the jury had to say:

The jury for the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize is pleased to award the prize for 2010 to Jean Snook for her translation of Gert Jonke’s The Distant Sound, published by Dalkey Archive Press. The Austrian novelist, poet, and playwright Gert Jonke (1946-2009) wrote a German rich in descriptive detail and evocative sound effects that Snook has rendered with consummate skill into an English as poetic, funny, and crazy as the original. In long, spooling sentences and synaesthetic images, she gives English-speaking readers access to a writer who deserves a place next to better-known contemporaries such as Thomas Bernhard and Arno Schmidt. Jean Snook makes the tightrope act of translating Jonke’s exploration of language as a means of capturing the ineffable look effortless.

This is the fourth book of Jonke’s Dalkey has published. The last—Homage to Czerny, also translated by Snook—was longlisted for the 2008 BTBA. And while we’re talking about Jonke, it’s worth revisiting the obituary Vincent Kling wrote about him when he passed away.

In terms of Jean M. Snook, she

lives with her husband on the easternmost tip of North America, the Avalon Peninsula on the island of Newfoundland, where she has taught German language and literature at Memorial University since 1984. She has translated Else Lasker-Schüler’s Concert and Luise Rinser’s Abelard’s Love for the University of Nebraska Press; Evelyn Grill’s Winter Quarters for Ariadne Press; Hans Eichner’s Kahn & Engelmann for Biblioasis; and, thanks to a reference from translator Renate Latimer, Gert Jonke’s Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique for Dalkey Archive Press, where she received very welcome editorial assistance from Jeremy Davies. Continuing with Dalkey Archive Press, she began translating Jonke’s The Distant Sound during a stay at the Europäisches Übersetzerkollegium in Straelen, Germany, in 2007, and finished the translation in 2009, when it won the inaugural Austrian Cultural Forum Translation Prize. Her translation of the third book in Jonke’s trilogy, Awakening to the Great Sleep War, is due to appear later in 2011. She is now translating a book by the Swiss author Paul Nizon.

Congrats! And the official ceremony will take place on June 13th, right before the start of the annual Helen and Kurt Wolff Symposium.

18 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jessica LeTourneur on Sandra Kalniete’s With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows, translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis and available from Dalkey Archive Press.

This book is part of Dalkey’s “Baltic Literature Series,” and is one of the rare nonfiction hardcovers that they’ve published. It’s also one of maybe three works translated from Latvian and published in the U.S. over the past few years.

Jessica LeTourneur is one of our frequent reviewers, despite being a Cubs fan. She studied literature, history, and journalism at the University of Missouri, and attended New York University’s Publishing Institute in 2005. In the past, Jessica has worked as a journalist, as well as at The Missouri Review, the University of Missouri Press, and W. W. Norton & Company. Currently, Jessica is the copyeditor for the journal Southern California Quarterly, and is finishing up her Master’s degree in History and Scholarly Publishing at Arizona State University.

Here’s the opening of her review:

With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows is an ambitious and uniquely constructed work of literary nonfiction. Published as a part of the Baltic Literature Series by Dalkey Archive Press, this moving and eloquent book tells the story of author Sandra Kalniete’s Latvian family, and the harrowing hardships they endured over the course of fifty years and three occupations—longer than any other European nation experienced in the twentieth century. In telling her family’s story, Kalniete also tells the story of Latvia’s twentieth-century history, illuminating an often-neglected, largely ignored, nation’s struggles with the twin plagues infecting Europe in the twentieth century: communism and fascism. At first glance a family memoir, With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows is so much more than a personal memoir. It is a literary and historical tour de force whose searing indictment of Nazi Germany’s and the Soviet Union’s policies of terror and oppression teaches readers that while these policies may have broken human bodies, it could not break the bonds of family.

Sandra Kalniete was born in 1952 to Latvian parents who had been permanently exiled to Siberia. In 1957 she and her family were finally allowed to return to their home country, four long years after Stalin’s death in 1953. Kalniete’s bold prose and artistic narrative style convey the impression that she makes her living by her pen, and not her politics. In the 1980s and ‘90s Kalniete served as the Latvian Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, France, and even to UNESCO. She became Latvia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2002, and has since served as the first Latvian Commissioner of the European Union. Latvia’s present and future may reside in Kalniete’s professional life, but in her personal life, it is her country’s past which she takes to task, exploring the deepest recesses of her and her family’s memory in search of historical truths.

Click here to read the entire review.

18 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows is an ambitious and uniquely constructed work of literary nonfiction. Published as a part of the Baltic Literature Series by Dalkey Archive Press, this moving and eloquent book tells the story of author Sandra Kalniete’s Latvian family, and the harrowing hardships they endured over the course of fifty years and three occupations—longer than any other European nation experienced in the twentieth century. In telling her family’s story, Kalniete also tells the story of Latvia’s twentieth-century history, illuminating an often-neglected, largely ignored, nation’s struggles with the twin plagues infecting Europe in the twentieth century: communism and fascism. At first glance a family memoir, With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows is so much more than a personal memoir. It is a literary and historical tour de force whose searing indictment of Nazi Germany’s and the Soviet Union’s policies of terror and oppression teaches readers that while these policies may have broken human bodies, it could not break the bonds of family.

Sandra Kalniete was born in 1952 to Latvian parents who had been permanently exiled to Siberia. In 1957 she and her family were finally allowed to return to their home country, four long years after Stalin’s death in 1953. Kalniete’s bold prose and artistic narrative style convey the impression that she makes her living by her pen, and not her politics. In the 1980s and ‘90s Kalniete served as the Latvian Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, France, and even to UNESCO. She became Latvia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2002, and has since served as the first Latvian Commissioner of the European Union. Latvia’s present and future may reside in Kalniete’s professional life, but in her personal life, it is her country’s past which she takes to task, exploring the deepest recesses of her and her family’s memory in search of historical truths.

In my childhood, the past was only mentioned in connection with household incidents and family events, but almost never in its political or historic significance. I grew up under the influence of Soviet propaganda, knowing almost nothing about the real history of Latvia. The latter was totally buried in silence.

Seamlessly constructing a nation’s history out of a family story is a delicate narrative prospect, but Kalniete carries it off like a duck on a pond; we know the effort being carried out beneath the water’s surface, but all we see on the surface is a seemingly-effortless calm. Kalniete leads readers Dante-like through the memory of the unmitigated horrors and tragedies that befell her family with bold language that propels the reader through the labyrinth of memory. This was no easy task for Kalniete; Latvian historians are still not permitted access to USSR archival collections that could provide complete insight into the documents pertaining to the planning and execution of Latvia’s occupation by Soviet forces in June 1940. Not coincidentally, the date of occupation was purposely chosen as the same date of the German takeover of France—June 17, 1940. “What did the fate of the small Baltic States matter in comparison to this drama, which staggered Europe and the world? Thus we were left alone with our despair.” Limited archival access aside, Kalniete reaches into the deepest recesses of her memory, and asks her family to do the same, in order to narratively construct and accurately portray events which befell Latvia and its people in the mid-twentieth century. “’Constructing memory’ could very well be the subtitle of this book,” says Valters Nollendorfs in his foreword. Kalniete is forthright with her emotional reactions to what she learns, resulting in an emotionally moving passages that elicit a visceral reaction.

When I talked to my mother about the Bilina and Petropavlovka period during the preparatory phase for this book, I did not allow myself to feel. My objective was not to interrupt the thread of recollections and to question dispassionately in order to learn as much as possible how starvation emaciates a human body and alters the spirit. When I later listened to the taped conversations, their calm flow seemed unbearable to me, so abnormal was their content. The sad story told in my mother’s everyday voice singed me with sudden waves of pain. My body shook and I had to hang onto my desk to contain my uncontrollable sobs. I could not listen to my practical voice, repeating a question about how a rat tastes or wondering how my mother had not died from eating a horse cadaver.

Kalniete’s use of clipped, fast-paced language powerfully conveys the sense of fear and confusion that reigned during the early days of Soviet occupation. The urgency, the unknown that permeated Latvian families is imparted in passages such as these:

The uncertainty that ruled in society in those June days was staggering. The most unlikely rumors were circulating. Almost nothing of what was happening with the political elite was known, since the press and the radio were totally under the control of the occupiers . . . with each new day, the feeling of humiliation grew stronger. The sharp pain could not be silenced.

Kalniete’s sparing use of overly descriptive language and eloquently constructed metaphors creates a stark world which enhances the narrative success of With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows. By utilizing linguistic simplicity, Kalniete allows emotions and emotional reactions to resonate within the reader. Far from being “cold,” you feel as though you are standing behind Kalniete’s shoulder in instances such as this:

When I have recovered from my contact with the barbarity of the prison camp death machine, I once again turn to the first page of the case file and start to read systematically and carefully. I don’t allow myself to feel emotional. However, on the fourth page a new emotional shock is in store for me. On the prisoner’s form, besides his signature, is my grandfather’s fingerprint. I dissolve into tears. I put my hand on my grandfather’s fingerprint and allow myself the illusion that our hands touch . . .”

There are times throughout the book when events are so boldly and graphically described it is almost painful to endure, such as when Kalniete describes, in painful detail, her grandfather’s death. “From that moment onward, with a distanced indifference, he watched as from his mouth, bit by bit, his lungs were spit out—in porous, pale and bloody lumps . . . Thus, drowning in blood, my grandfather Alekdandrs Kalnietis’ life ended.” Beautifully written and astonishingly simple in the emotion it conveys, passages such as this permeate With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows. Following thematic, rather than a linear chronological organization, With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows reads more like a novel than a true memoir or piece of history, although it is both. Such a narrative organization contributes to the book’s ultimate success.

Following Latvian deportees’ “gradual descent into hell” is an expressively harrowing experience that impressed itself upon the reader’s psyche long after the past page has been turned. Elegant in its simplicity of language and bold in its emotional vulnerability, With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows is ultimately a beautifully told story of a family and country’s resilience, survival, and revival.

16 March 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.

On Elegance While Sleeping by Viscount Lascano Tegui, translated by Idra Novey

Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina
Publisher: Dalkey Archive
Pages: 172

Why This Book Should Win: Because it hasn’t won any other awards, and it deserves at least one. On Elegance While Sleeping is our first opportunity to read a complete work by Tegui in English. Also, where else can we find heterosexuality, homosexuality, pedophilia, prostitution, and bestiality all wrapped into the experiences of one character.

Today’s entry is from Gwen Dawson, who runs the always excellent Literary License blog. And who will be joining the BTBA judging panel for 2012.

Emilio Lascano Tegui (1887-1966) was, at various times during his eventful life, an Argentinean, a Parisian, a self-labeled viscount, a translator, a journalist, a curator, a painter, a decorator, a diplomat, a mechanic, an orator, a dentist, and, fortunately for us, a writer. Tegui’s 1925 novel On Elegance While Sleeping, a cult classic in Argentina, Tegui’s home country, is now available for the first time to an English-speaking audience (thanks to Dalkey Archive Press and translator Idra Novey). This genre-defying novel is framed as a four-year series of chronologically-ordered diary entries composed by an unnamed French infantryman in the late 1800s. Like its author, this novel’s narrator concerns himself with a bit of everything, including the proverbial kitchen sink (or, should I say, the cultivation of carrots). The entries touch on the themes of life, illness (specifically, syphilis), death, sex, gender, memory, crime, and literature, to name just a few. Seamlessly shifting among present reflections, past recollections, and stories within stories, the entries examine the mundane (one begins “Cotton mittens bother me when they’re dyed black.”) as well as the sublime (“Nothing spreads sadness like popularity.”) and range in length from just two sentences to almost seven pages. The result is a work of art that’s impossible to categorize. Is it autobiography? Allegory? A crime novel? An experiment in form? In a word, yes.

Just before we lose our bearings wandering among this heady collection of seemingly aimless thoughts—that is, at the perfect moment—On Elegance While Sleeping changes registers. The novel adopts a foreboding tone as the diary entries slowly coalesce into the thoughts of a man intent on committing murder. Driven by a Raskolnikov-like need “[t]o unburden humanity of an imperfect being: a weakness,” the diarist lays out his motivations in chilling and poetic prose:

I’ve sketched out my plans and am ready. I have a new strength in me, taken from the secret core of my life, driving me on, controlling me. It’s health, youth, and optimism combined. Until yesterday, my tentative novel (“The Syphilis of Don Juan”) served as a haven for my imagination. Today, it doesn’t satisfy my thirst—or, better said, can no longer stem the anguish that gnaws at me on the eve of an act that is now quite inevitable. I’m halfway between a comedy and a strange sort of drama, and feel an overbearing need to lower the curtain. No simple curtain: the front curtain of the stage, the grand drape, the great iron and asbestos curtain that drops like a zinc plate from the sixth floor and creaks as it falls. Something like that, flamboyant, coarse, unexpected—something that will impose its tyranny over my life without question. I’m going to kill someone.

Tegui’s prose is a seductive mix of hard edges and soft contours, flowing musings and sharp declarations. Translator Idra Novey maintains this delicate balance, juxtaposing “a haven for my imagination” with “the anguish that gnaws” and following a complex and elegant three-sentence metaphor with the startling declaration, “I’m going to kill someone.” Tegui’s compelling style relies as much on rhythm and sound as it does on content, and Novey masterfully recreates this effect in English.

At its core, On Elegance While Sleeping gives us access to the soul of a man who is desperately seeking. Whether it’s love, sex, happiness, connection with his fellow man, an imaginative outlet, or simply a good story, the problem is the same: to find what he lacks. He asks, “Could it be that the thing I’m missing is courage?” Does our diarist have the fortitude to follow through with his murderous plan? To discover the answer, you’ll have to read the book.

10 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’ll post about this again as the time grows closer, but I wanted to announce that on Monday, May 2nd, Herve Le Tellier, Amelie Nothomb, and Carsten Jensen will be here in Rochester for our annual PEN World Voices event. For this year’s event, we’ve partnered with the admirable Writers & Books who will both host and help promote the events.

I’m particularly excited about this, since I’ve heard nothing but great things about Carsten Jensen (see this WSJ review), Amelie Nothomb’s latest is on the BTBA fiction longlist, and Herve Le Tellier is an author I’m very excited to start reading.

Last time we posted about Herve Le Tellier it was in reaction to the high prices of a couple of his books. To update this: Yesterday a fellow Dalkey-fan pointed out that both of Le Tellier’s Dalkey titles (A Thousand Pearls (For a Thousand Pennies) and The Sextine Chapel, both translated by Ian Monk) are now listed at $14.95.

Which is absolutely fantastic, since Le Tellier sounds like an amazing writer of the Harry Mathews variety, see this description of The Sextine Chapel (emphasis on the “sex” in “sextine”):

The delightful and daring entertainment by French author Hervé Le Tellier is a series of short, intimately interconnected stories making up a lively user’s manual to pleasure, relating the various liaisons of couples from Anna and Ben to Yolande and Zach (taking in Chloe and Xavier along the way, as well as twenty others, as you may have guessed), until the crisscrossing of their lives and partners makes up a pattern as intricate as the fresco on the ceiling of a chapel . . . Harkening back to another playful book on an intimate subject— Harry Mathews’s Singular Pleasures1—Hervé Le Tellier’s The Sextine Chapel celebrates the wonderful, often random, often excruciating possibilities of sexual intimacy, with something here for just about everyone—and their wife, husband, lover, or passing fancy.

Unfortunately, these two titles aren’t available until the summer, but Other Press recently released to Le Tellier books: Enough about Love and The Intervention of a Good Man

Going back to the Mathews comparison, if The Sextine Chapel is like Singular Pleasures, Enough about Love brings to mind (without having read it) Mathews’s Cigarettes. (Which is one of the greatest books ever written.) Full review forthcoming . . .

The Intervention of a Good Man happens to be the first ebook I’ve ever purchased and plan on reading. It’s a 50 page novella that’s only available as an ebook—and only costs $0.99. Bit of an experiment on Other Press’s part (I don’t think they’ve done anything quite like this before), and will hopefully expose Le Tellier to a wider range of readers . . .

With four books coming out in the next twelve months, it seems reasonably possible that we’ll be talking about Le Tellier next year at this time in relation to the 2012 BTBA . . .

1 For years, I’ve believed that Singular Pleasures—a book of short pieces all about masturbation—was the perfect Valentine’s Day book.

4 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Dumitru Tsepeneag’s Hotel Europa, which was recently published by Dalkey Archive Press in Patrick Camiller’s translation from the Romanian.

Dalkey has published several Tsepeneag novels, including the wonderfully complex Vain Art of the Fugue, and the less than amazing Pigeon Post and The Necessary Marriage. It’s nice to see Dalkey keeping on with Tsepeneag (as with a lot of the authors that are part of their “canon”—more on that in a later post), although based on Monica’s review, it doesn’t sound like this is one of Tsepeneag’s best works.

Before getting to the review, I should mention that Monica is a contributing reviewer for us (special thanks to the New York State Council on the Arts for supporting this program) as well as a member of the Best Translated Book Award fiction committee. She also runs Salonica, a “virtual salon dedicated to promoting international literature.”

Here’s the opening of her take on Hotel Europa:

After reading any of Dumitru Tsepeneag’s works, the one foregone conclusion that a reader understands is that he is undoubtedly a writer of remarkable innovation and skill. This is evident in his work Vain Art of the Fugue and Pigeon Post, both highly original yet very different. In Hotel Europa, his latest novel, we are overcome by both, fooled by both, lulled by both and ultimately fatigued by both. It’s as if he’s fighting with his own originality and nobody wins. With Hotel Europa Tsepeneag returns to the theme of Pigeon Post in which the character is the author who is trying to write a novel. At turns comic, Pigeon Post flitted between two fictional worlds that the author presents to the reader. In Hotel Europa, the combining of the author and narrator creates a two-headed literary monster. It is impossible to choose between the two because they castrate each other, leaving the reader frustrated that there was no winner. The novel is laced with autobiographical elements and also a surreal intertextuality: he tells a story, tells his own story, comments on both and knots both together so it is impossible at times to tell whose story it is. And there may be legitimacy to the claim that “life in a Communist country does much to mask the individual.” Although this is not solely a historical novel, the historical events are handled in a realistic and direct manner, infused with a keen sensitivity.

So here we are presented with the story of a Romanian writer working a novel about Romanian students adapting to life after the collapse of the Ceausescu regime. This seems fertile ground for Tsepeneag because in 1975, Tsepeneag, who was living in France at the time, had his citizenship revoked by Ceausescu. After being exiled, Tsepeneag chose to remain in France and soon began writing in both French and Romanian. The Communist regime clearly impacted the author who infuses the whole novel, successfully, with blatant paranoia. This may also be why France figures prominently and is presented with a bit more benevolence than Romania. In the novel, his wife, Marianne is a Francaise who challenges him and also worries about him. Then the author-narrator escapes to Brittany so that he can work on his novel uninterrupted as if France provides a nurturing matriarchal presence.

Click here to read the full piece.

4 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After reading any of Dumitru Tsepeneag’s works, the one foregone conclusion that a reader understands is that he is undoubtedly a writer of remarkable innovation and skill. This is evident in his work Vain Art of the Fugue and Pigeon Post, both highly original yet very different. In Hotel Europa, his latest novel, we are overcome by both, fooled by both, lulled by both and ultimately fatigued by both. It’s as if he’s fighting with his own originality and nobody wins. With Hotel Europa Tsepeneag returns to the theme of Pigeon Post in which the character is the author who is trying to write a novel. At turns comic, Pigeon Post flitted between two fictional worlds that the author presents to the reader. In Hotel Europa, the combining of the author and narrator creates a two-headed literary monster. It is impossible to choose between the two because they castrate each other, leaving the reader frustrated that there was no winner. The novel is laced with autobiographical elements and also a surreal intertextuality: he tells a story, tells his own story, comments on both and knots both together so it is impossible at times to tell whose story it is. And there may be legitimacy to the claim that “life in a Communist country does much to mask the individual.” Although this is not solely a historical novel, the historical events are handled in a realistic and direct manner, infused with a keen sensitivity.

So here we are presented with the story of a Romanian writer working a novel about Romanian students adapting to life after the collapse of the Ceausescu regime. This seems fertile ground for Tsepeneag because in 1975, Tsepeneag, who was living in France at the time, had his citizenship revoked by Ceausescu. After being exiled, Tsepeneag chose to remain in France and soon began writing in both French and Romanian. The Communist regime clearly impacted the author who infuses the whole novel, successfully, with blatant paranoia. This may also be why France figures prominently and is presented with a bit more benevolence than Romania. In the novel, his wife, Marianne is a Francaise who challenges him and also worries about him. Then the author-narrator escapes to Brittany so that he can work on his novel uninterrupted as if France provides a nurturing matriarchal presence.

The novel that the author is writing focuses primarily on Ion and his various friends. Ion is a Romanian student living and reacting to the turmoil that Romania undergoes in the late eighties who, naturally, questions the world around him with all the mistrust youth can muster:

Ion knew there were all kinds of rumors about the events in Timisoara, but he was not very trusting by nature he told himself that general alarmism and excitement of those days did not yet justify speaking of what might, pompously, be called a “revolution.” “A heap of mashed potato doesn’t just explode all of a sudden!” he like to repeat to anyone who would listen.

. . . Maybe Mihai is already there, in one of the groups discussing Timisoara and the tens of thousands killed.

This is immediately followed by Tsepeneag’s intrusive narrator who comments on what he just wrote:

Even the Paris papers, and especially French television, were quite alarmist: they quoted figures that now seem off the wall, but at the time, in the heat of the moment, we’d all lost our critical faculties. Logical thinking only served to make the horrors more plausible. The climax came when the TV news showed pictures of bodies dug up in Timisoara: the abnormally pale infant on its mother’s sallow belly, the corpses, all sewn up with wire, or so it seemed to me . . . Really harrowing.

It’s true that Marianne, more Cartesian than the general run of the French journalists, was skeptical from the beginning.

But the conceit of author as intrusive narrator doesn’t quite work here. As soon as the reader becomes involved in any way with the story of Ion, he is pulled out by the real life events of the author. This could be done to pitch-perfect effect if there was more delineation between the fiction of that the author is creating and the fiction that the narrator is creating. It becomes bothersome because there is nowhere for the reader to ground herself, except by planting one foot in each world hoping that one will prove solid and real, the story in which she should be invested. One could surely draw parallels between this disjointed dream/nightmare effect of the narrative with the political upheaval in Romania and much of Eastern Europe during that era. But it doesn’t come through clearly enough and that struggle gets lost in the overpowering oscillation between author and narrator. And although this may be the point, at some point the reader has to be indulged, not merely the writer’s creativity.

When Tsepeneag allows the narrator to become philosophical about the story he is writing, it is in one way a relief to the reader because we glimpse a bit of what he is trying to do, but simultaneously distracting and wishing the book were either a novel or a writing guide, not both:

Maybe I should give Ion a little lecture about the function of the narrator, the mysterious intermediary between myself and him, between him and the reader, that voice which fills (or whose task it is to fill) the acoustic space of the novel, and without which you might think that nothing could exist. No, he’s not the author. The author is like the Holy Spirit: full of ideas but invisible, inaudible. He pulls all the strings, it’s true, but whose strings? I mean, he needs characters even if they are miserable puppets . . . And all those creatures, who aren’t human beings—that’s why they’re called characters!—need a voice in order to exist, in order to express themselves. That’s what the narrator is: a voice! A voice that seeps through all the interstices of an unstable, evanescent construction built out of words and meanings. As in a dream, the narrator’s voice cannot be located; it gives the feeling that it can burst out anywhere—unreal and ubiquitous. Of course, from time to time we seem to hear the voice of the characters. But that’s an illusion. In reality, it’s just the narrator: he dubs in all parts, not only their speech but also their thoughts. Concealed somewhere among the props, he’s the one who thinks aloud.

This provides an explanation to what he is doing, but unfortunately, it takes almost five hundred pages to let this idea play out. And aren’t readers of fiction cognizant of this fact going in it? I respect the idea of presenting both worlds created by the writer as being funneled through the narrator who is undeniably, the writer. The reality is that this novel is too splintered and although we may get his point, we don’t enjoy it. It becomes a convoluted fiction of what a writer is. At times, I was enamored with his prose and his everyman meets highbrow style is accessible. At other times, I was so frustrated with his melding of worlds and his obsession with delivering this to the reader with realizing that it was working against itself. Sometimes a writer has to abandon his own creative designs for the sake of the work, not in spite of it.

6 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Matthew Weiss on Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Self-Portrait Abroad, which is translated from the French by John Lambert and was published by Dalkey Archive Press earlier this year.

On a random note, assuming I finish writing my review of Patrik Ourednik’s Case Closed by Friday, we’ll have reviewed three Dalkey books in two weeks . . .

Anyway, most all of Toussaint’s books (in English) are available from Dalkey and I’d highly recommend The Bathroom and Television.

Matthew Weiss is a new reviewer for us and will hopefully be writing more in the near future. Here’s the opening of his review:

“Every time I travel I feel a very slight feeling of dread at the moment of departure, a dread sometimes shaded with a soft shiver of elation. Because I know that any trip brings with it the possibility of death—or of sex (both highly improbable of course, yet not to be excluded altogether).”

Before the story even begins, Self-Portrait Abroad presents us, for better or worse, with a statement of themes. Departures, arrivals, mingled dread and elation, death, sex, and a modest tone of bemusement, distance, and irony all constitute Toussaint’s mode of apprehending his existence in the world. Place-names give Toussaint his chapter headings: Tokyo, Kyoto, Cap Corse, Tunisia. Our narrator travels from airport to airport; cars drive him from place to place; conference organizers present him with things: flowers, telephones, wine . . . He wanders through a festival in Japan; he plays petanque in Corsica; he has sex in a train in the Czech Republic; he is aroused in a humid car in Tunisia; he sits back in a rickshaw in Hanoi . . . Places exist in this novel only insofar as they give rise to Toussaint’s thoughts on himself. He arrives in Tokyo by plane: “Seen from above, at four thousand feet, there isn’t much difference between the Pacific and the Mediterranean.” Indeed, from the elevation of Toussaint’s head, there is little difference between the sweat of Hanoi traffic or the amusements of lazing petanque competitors in Cap Corse.

As an author, Jean-Philippe Toussaint is known for the just-so observation; he attempts to sustain this style throughout this latest work, albeit with considerable difficulty. Words which surprise, it seems, have left him: “Taking off our coats we walked side by side in Tokyo under the island sun before stopping at a modern, insipid, and impersonal café.” Even in this single sentence lie clues to the author’s deeper problems. Toussaint tries, in Self-Portrait Abroad, to find meaning in the impersonality of cosmopolitanism by diverting all far-flung experience into his own personal fountain of self-illumination. In doing so, however, he reduces his writing—as opposed to his life—to an even greater insipidness than can be found in any modern café. And yet, Toussaint is not a poor writer; rather, his difficulty in Self-Portrait Abroad, presents itself slowly and, ultimately, reveals itself as the difficulty of a man writing, who has lost, by the end, his need to write.

Click here to read the full review.

6 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“Every time I travel I feel a very slight feeling of dread at the moment of departure, a dread sometimes shaded with a soft shiver of elation. Because I know that any trip brings with it the possibility of death—or of sex (both highly improbable of course, yet not to be excluded altogether).”

Before the story even begins, Self-Portrait Abroad presents us, for better or worse, with a statement of themes. Departures, arrivals, mingled dread and elation, death, sex, and a modest tone of bemusement, distance, and irony all constitute Toussaint’s mode of apprehending his existence in the world. Place-names give Toussaint his chapter headings: Tokyo, Kyoto, Cap Corse, Tunisia. Our narrator travels from airport to airport; cars drive him from place to place; conference organizers present him with things: flowers, telephones, wine . . . He wanders through a festival in Japan; he plays petanque in Corsica; he has sex in a train in the Czech Republic; he is aroused in a humid car in Tunisia; he sits back in a rickshaw in Hanoi . . . Places exist in this novel only insofar as they give rise to Toussaint’s thoughts on himself. He arrives in Tokyo by plane: “Seen from above, at four thousand feet, there isn’t much difference between the Pacific and the Mediterranean.” Indeed, from the elevation of Toussaint’s head, there is little difference between the sweat of Hanoi traffic or the amusements of lazing petanque competitors in Cap Corse.

As an author, Jean-Philippe Toussaint is known for the just-so observation; he attempts to sustain this style throughout this latest work, albeit with considerable difficulty. Words which surprise, it seems, have left him: “Taking off our coats we walked side by side in Tokyo under the island sun before stopping at a modern, insipid, and impersonal café.” Even in this single sentence lie clues to the author’s deeper problems. Toussaint tries, in Self-Portrait Abroad, to find meaning in the impersonality of cosmopolitanism by diverting all far-flung experience into his own personal fountain of self-illumination. In doing so, however, he reduces his writing—as opposed to his life—to an even greater insipidness than can be found in any modern café. And yet, Toussaint is not a poor writer; rather, his difficulty in Self-Portrait Abroad, presents itself slowly and, ultimately, reveals itself as the difficulty of a man writing, who has lost, by the end, his need to write.

The author finds himself in Hanoi where “the traffic . . . is like life itself, generous inexhaustible, dynamic, in permanent motion, constant imbalance and slipping into its midst and become one with the chaos gives you an intense feeling of being alive.” He tells us that, “very often, seated in the back of a cycle rickshaw, I let myself be carried along the streets of Hanoi for hours at a time, abandoning myself to the random succession of crossroads and avenues.” Toussaint drags himself everywhere, but never sees the people and places that make up the world; rather, he is concerned only with painting his self-portrait, so to speak. Thus, the novel’s scenes are jarring: the author, of course, can afford to abandon himself, to let himself go with the flow of traffic in which he sees life. The rickshaw driver, however, whom Toussaint barely perceives, cannot abandon himself so easily: the driver can see what he likes in the flow of traffic, but unlike our author, he has no choice whether to flow or not. If the traffic in Hanoi is chaos, it is only because Toussaint refuses to distinguish, to give name and understanding to the logic of the crossroads and avenues, to the undiscovered logic of the human lives around him. Instead, Toussaint sits stunned by a realization of his own inner logic.

Sitting in his little rickshaw, Toussaint comes to grips with time and death; the traffic is like water in a torrential riverbed, never meeting any obstacles, always avoiding them, sweeping them around and continuing on its way, ever curving, always find new directions and advancing without resisting or forcing anything, imposing on nothing and nevertheless irresistible, imperious, with the force of the wind, the necessity of the tides.

The description, as it starts, could easily describe Toussaint himself: avoiding all hardship, never resisting, only taking advantage of his own freedom for some momentary pleasure, never confronting the world as it is. Toussaint apologizes, in a sense, for this state of affairs: his non-committal bystanderism is as irresistible as the tides. And yet, although even great art cannot solve crises, art can nevertheless bind us together by its own force; it can reveal new truths about the world and the self which can lay the foundation for existence in the world. Toussaint, however, perverts this aspect of art by stealing the possibility of revelation, through travel, for himself—his travels don’t illuminate us or the world, but rather only provide a weak glow, as from a space-heater, that he can purr beside, without ever opening his eyes.

At times, Toussaint’s writing retains its former charm:

I suddenly became aware looking out the window that it was neither day or night outside, but simultaneously day and night, and that to the right of the plane I could see the moon, shining in the sky in-line with the wing, as well as the sun, far out in front of us, which for the moment was still just a blurred pink and orange glow similar to the cottony contours of a Rothko, lighting up the horizon of the immense sky divided evenly into day and night, into Europe and Asia.

The rest of the passengers in Toussaint’s plane are asleep; the buzz of globalization cannot conquer the hum of a peaceful sleep. Toussaint’s grappling with this paradox of time and place in the face of globalization, however, never comes to fruition. Toussaint ignores the essential paradox of globalization, that while one group of people have become stupendously mobile, losing their ties to time and place, scouring the globe for the least sign of self-discovery, another, larger, group of people have become even more immobile, tied to poverty, to whom Toussaint’s self-portrait would present a laughable enigma. Toussaint retreats further into himself rather than confront the mingling of Europe and Asia; the sky suggests a Rothko, but only insofar as Toussaint can delude himself into an appreciation of nature, one not informed by a willing opening up of the self to new experience, but to the channeling of novel experience into long eroded paths.

So what are we to make of this series of half-funny impressions, muted realizations, and cut-off narratives?

By the end of the novel, Toussaint reveals that in his past, writing had indeed been a way of resisting time, a way of making scratch marks on the river-bed. But that time, he tells us, is over. Now, he realizes how fully powerless he is against time; he is as impotent to slow his progress downstream as his writing is impotent to move us. For a novel cannot allow itself to be carried forward, the novel is that which carries us forward. The tragedy of Toussaint is that he has convinced himself that writing, in the face of death, can only be brief amusement and dry anecdotes, questioning, to the point of self-destruction, its own importance. He has lost in the river of time the knowledge that all writers must possess to continue on, that writing is not important in itself but that writing grants its own importance, by the breadth of its scope, by the abysses it reveals, the pleasures it denies, the joy it hints to, by the moving secrets that echo in the throat of the author and in the stomach of the reader. Writing which doesn’t believe in itself is always insipid.

Yet the failure of Toussaint the novelist is a victory for Toussaint the human being. His novel is a record—for those who read it—of the self-discovery that Toussaint does not need writing to live; that the appreciation of life is enough for him. In that sense, Self-Portrait Abroad, is, at times, moving, but only in the way a conversation with a man finally content with himself might be, not in the way of great art. Its value lies in staging the tension, which all artists must deal with, between life and art. Indeed, although the writer is dead, the man lives on.

29 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is Tim Nassau’s piece on Pierre Siniac’s The Collaborators, which is translated from the French by Jordan Stump and came out earlier this year from Dalkey Archive Press.

This is kicking off a few weeks of Dalkey reviews . . . We already have a piece on Toussaint’s Self-Portrait Abroad ready to post on Tuesday, and a review of Patrik Ourednik’s Case Closed in the works for next week . . .

But anyway. Tim — who you may remember from last summer, when he interned for Open Letter and wrote a few reviews and other pieces — does a great job summing up this complicated book, which, even though his review isn’t 100% positive, sounds pretty fun and intriguing. Here’s the opening of Tim’s piece:

The Collaborators is a novel about a novel. The book in question is called Dancing the Brown Java, volume one of a sprawling epic set in Resistance-era France, and perhaps the greatest French work since Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage to the End of the Night. The reader doesn’t learn too much about the content of this new masterpiece over the course of Pierre Siniac’s book—certain episodes of the plot are sketched out, a sentence or two is read by some character, critics praise the “little music” of its prose—for it is the events that swarm around it, the violent and even absurd machinations Dancing the Brown Java sets in motion, that constitute the almost 500 pages of this work.

It becomes clear early on that Dancing the Brown Java is an atypical book, not in some metaphysical or metafictional sense (like Borges’s “The Book of Sand”), but perhaps more as a MacGuffin, a mysterious force driving the action and leaving dead bodies in its wake. The Collaborators opens with an episode of Book Culture, a TV show dedicated to the literary arts. Jean-Rémi Dochin and Charles Gastinel are the stars of the evening, brought on to discuss Dancing the Brown Java, their critical and commercial hit. The two are an unlikely pair to have spawned a great work of literature: Dochin spent his life as an unemployed drifter, while Gastinel worked as a puppeteer until he became so fat his stage burst one day as he was performing beneath it. And as for being collaborators? They are decades apart in age and hardly seem to like one another . . .

Well they don’t and they aren’t. We learn very early on that Dochin wrote the book alone. Somehow, Gastinel involved Dochin in a murder and is now using this as blackmail so that he may live his dream of being a famous and esteemed author; imagine the Devil so admiring Faust’s intellect that he forced a deal on the poor scholar just to get a byline. And this is not the only time Dancing is tainted with blood. After it is published, any critic that plans on giving it a bad review quickly finds himself permanently incapacitated before a bad word about the novel can appear in print.

Click “here”: for the full review.

29 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Collaborators is a novel about a novel. The book in question is called Dancing the Brown Java, volume one of a sprawling epic set in Resistance-era France, and perhaps the greatest French work since Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage to the End of the Night.1 The reader doesn’t learn too much about the content of this new masterpiece over the course of Pierre Siniac’s book—certain episodes of the plot are sketched out, a sentence or two is read by some character, critics praise the “little music” of its prose—for it is the events that swarm around it, the violent and even absurd machinations Dancing the Brown Java sets in motion, that constitute the almost 500 pages of this work.

It becomes clear early on that Dancing the Brown Java is an atypical book, not in some metaphysical or metafictional sense (like Borges’s “The Book of Sand”), but perhaps more as a MacGuffin, a mysterious force driving the action and leaving dead bodies in its wake. The Collaborators opens with an episode of Book Culture, a TV show dedicated to the literary arts.2 Jean-Rémi Dochin and Charles Gastinel are the stars of the evening, brought on to discuss Dancing the Brown Java, their critical and commercial hit. The two are an unlikely pair to have spawned a great work of literature: Dochin spent his life as an unemployed drifter, while Gastinel worked as a puppeteer until he became so fat his stage burst one day as he was performing beneath it. And as for being collaborators? They are decades apart in age and hardly seem to like one another . . .

Well they don’t and they aren’t. We learn very early on that Dochin wrote the book alone. Somehow, Gastinel involved Dochin in a murder and is now using this as blackmail so that he may live his dream of being a famous and esteemed author; imagine the Devil so admiring Faust’s intellect that he forced a deal on the poor scholar just to get a byline. And this is not the only time Dancing is tainted with blood. After it is published, any critic that plans on giving it a bad review quickly finds himself3 permanently incapacitated before a bad word about the novel can appear in print.

And if these weren’t mysteries enough, there is one more overarching head scratcher: how could anyone even write a good word about Dancing the Brown Java? The majority of the novel follows Dochin as he works on his magnum opus, and his opinion of his own prose is consistently low:

“I picked up one of my books, opened it, and once again discovered my pointless prose, my thick-headed wordplay, my malformed sentences trudging painfully over the page, my shallow, police-report behaviorism, my inane descriptions, my lovely syntactical screw-ups poking out here and there like weeds, my dialogue straight out of a dimestore novel or a TV series . . . Line after miserable line . . . I paged through the book, a strange weariness coming over me. The flatness of the thing hit me square in the face, just like a cream pie, only some joker had replaced the custard with cement. Talk about empty intellectual calories! I was already sure of it, and now the book in my hands made it clear as day: this was the best I could hope for, I’d never do better, never rise above this ocean of blather, this mountain of commonplaces, this forest of clichés.”

Why would someone with such a low opinion of his writing even try to get it published? The answer is Ferdinaud Céline, owner of an inn where Dochin ends up living for several years while he works on his book, and progenitor of the French title of this novel.4 A former bookstore owner, she becomes Dochin’s lover, mother, and the most avid fan of his work, maniacally pushing him to finish his book as she prepares a typed manuscript for the publishers. She has Proust on her bookshelves, so obviously she can recognize good writing, right?

Of course people, like works of literature, are never quite what they seem, and as facades begin to fall away at the end of The Collaborators, Siniac shows how deception can operate on both a literary and a real level. But I should qualify this: The Collaborators is itself a work of deception, but of the simplest kind: it is a thriller, a mystery novel. At the pure level of plot things are not as they seem, and we as readers get caught up in this and relish being led along to a surprising, twisting, and unexpected conclusion. Yet there is little more.

Siniac lampoons the literary community in his novel. He presents the silly politicking of publishing a book, of making it a success; critics savor their ability to destroy a new writer simply for its own sake, to feel important and relevant in a world where they are mere leeches. The bullshit of academese that plagues literature is hilariously mocked as a panel praises Dancing the Brown Java on Book Culture:

“So captivating, so blistering, so masterful in its descriptions, it’s terrific!, it’s tremendous!, so utterly new in its suggestivity, so irresistibly piquant in its paroxysmal sub-quintessenciation of the unsaid and the sub-experienced, in the neo-Brechtian parody of the context and the underlying depths of style.”

Unfortunately, this is easily the best line in The Collaborators, and it comes about twenty pages in . . . Again, this is a book about deception: Dochin is deceived about his ability to write and about the motivations of his friends. On another level, there are the deceptions of the publishing world. The public is deceived into thinking Dancing the Brown Java has two authors, but there are broader and more structural book culture deception as well: authors given paltry advances by publishing companies, critical jargoneers swarming around literature like piranhas at the smell of blood . . . Yet the world of publishing and all the apparatuses that feed off of it are impermanent. Written culture has evolved over thousands of years and will continue to do so with the advent of e-books and online distribution. And as in any hierarchical power structure people will be tricked, swindled, and abused. But this does not touch on the deceptive essence of literature, on its power to make you think that it is important, that the people you read about are in some way real, that it has some inherent meaning. This is essential to literature as an art, but it is the non-essentials clustered around this art that Siniac touches on. And he does so in a highly enjoyable fashion. Look no further for a brainy thriller about a topic rarely scratched by the genre . . . but if you recognize that life is more than a series of plot twists, stick with a real Céline; you’ll be satisfied with something more like Dancing the Brown Java than The Collaborators.

1 Available from New Directions. Siniac’s act of describing the greatest new French novel rather than writing it himself reminds me of the song “Tribute” by Tenacious D.

2 Can you imagine such a thing being popular here in the U.S.?

3 According to this book, there are no important French literary critics that aren’t men.

4 Ferdinaud Céline

10 May 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Jessica LeTourneur on the reissue of Suzanne Jill Levine’s classic The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction.

This book has had a huge impact on translators ever since it was first published, and there was even a huge celebration of Jill at the last ALTA conference to honor the republication of her book.

I totally love Jill and am a huge fan of all of her translations, especially the Puig books and Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers. And I also love what she’s done for Penguin Classics with the special five-volume Borges set. (Which we will review at some point—I promise.) Additionally, the Reading the World podcast Erica Mena and I did with her was one of the best to date. (You can subscribe to the RTW Podcast via iTunes, or listen to it at the link above.)

Jessica has become one of our regular reviewers. As a bit of background info, she studied literature, history, and journalism at the University of Missouri, and attended New York University’s Publishing Institute in 2005. In the past, Jessica has worked as a journalist, as well as at The Missouri Review and W. W. Norton & Company. Jessica currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona and is pursuing a Master’s degree in History and Scholarly Publishing at Arizona State University.

Here’s the beginning of her review:

For far too long now, the translator has been relegated to the rear-facing backseat of the literary world; the ever-so-smaller “translated by” name towards the bottom of the title page that few people (save those of us passionate about literature in translation) give more than a cursory glance to. But in Suzanne Jill Levine’s book, The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction, the translator’s role is at last given full and detailed attention in a vibrant and unique way. Levine’s goal with her book is to:

“Make the translator’s presence (traditionally invisible) visible and comprehensible…Far from the traditional view of translators as servile, nameless scribes, the literary translator can be considered a subversive scribe. Something is destroyed—the form of the original—but meaning is reproduced through another form.”

At its heart, The Subversive Scribe is about the creative collaboration between writers and how writers perceive their own processes of writing. Levine takes the reader on a compelling journey in which she lyrically describes her personal journey as a translator, and details how she fell in love with Latin American literature. Part memoir, part literary criticism, and wholly fascinating, The Subversive Scribe offers an inimitable insider’s perspective into the vital role translators play in world literature today. Although Levine has experience with a myriad of distinguished and prolific Latin American writers, she focuses The Subversive Scribe’s narrative upon three writers who were all Latin Americans in exile (“each in his own way was a subversive, and not only as a literary artist”): Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Severo Sarduy, and Manuel Puig. Ultimately, she argues that above all, the translator, just as the author, must be a writer in order to succeed.

Click here to read the full piece.

10 May 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For far too long now, the translator has been relegated to the rear-facing backseat of the literary world; the ever-so-smaller “translated by” name towards the bottom of the title page that few people (save those of us passionate about literature in translation) give more than a cursory glance to. But in Suzanne Jill Levine’s book, The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction, the translator’s role is at last given full and detailed attention in a vibrant and unique way. Levine’s goal with her book is to:

Make the translator’s presence (traditionally invisible) visible and comprehensible…Far from the traditional view of translators as servile, nameless scribes, the literary translator can be considered a subversive scribe. Something is destroyed—the form of the original—but meaning is reproduced through another form.

At its heart, The Subversive Scribe is about the creative collaboration between writers and how writers perceive their own processes of writing. Levine takes the reader on a compelling journey in which she lyrically describes her personal journey as a translator, and details how she fell in love with Latin American literature. Part memoir, part literary criticism, and wholly fascinating, The Subversive Scribe offers an inimitable insider’s perspective into the vital role translators play in world literature today. Although Levine has experience with a myriad of distinguished and prolific Latin American writers, she focuses The Subversive Scribe’s narrative upon three writers who were all Latin Americans in exile (“each in his own way was a subversive, and not only as a literary artist”): Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Severo Sarduy, and Manuel Puig. Ultimately, she argues that above all, the translator, just as the author, must be a writer in order to succeed.

The author, Suzanne Jill Levine, is a Spanish professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, as well as a renowned translator of Latin American fiction’s powerhouses such as Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and Manuel Puig. In addition to The Subversive Scribe and several scholarly publications, she’s also published a biography: Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions.

When lovingly outlining just how she transferred her passion for the Spanish language into a lifelong odyssey as a translator, specifically of Latin American (male) authors, she says:

Scientists could come up with new inventions; astronauts could set foot on new planets; the only frontier adventure available to the translator seemed to be the crossing of language and cultural barriers, stepping through the Looking Glass to see what a presumably untranslatable Spanish text would look like on the other side, in English. I was challenged thus (and perhaps doomed to the fate of Borges’s pathetic Pierre Menard or Flaubert’s bumbling Bouvard and Pecuchet) by these Latin American fictions.

To most, the word “subversive” has political connotations, and draws readers a mental image along the lines of Solzhenitsyn toiling away in the gulag. Yet in the case of Levine’s narrative, she poetically states that the act of translation is in itself a subversive act:

A translation will never be the text it imitates, which was written in another language, but it can be a version lying dormant and, like Frankenstein (to use an Infantesque metaphor), animated by a mad translator, a text illuminated and motivated by the original, realized in its next life, in translation.

Levine’s illuminating and crisp prose is at its height when describing her philosophical approaches to translation, and when sharing her personal experiences with Latin America’s literary crème de la crème. However, the narrative flow becomes a bit bogged down when the author launches into the more specific nuances of Spanish grammar and linguistics. Organized in four parts, The Subversive Scribe outlines the linguistic trials and tribulations of titles, names, and even specific cultural sexual innuendos for a greater part of the book than I personally would have preferred. Because I’m not fluent in a second language and haven’t translated literature myself (and lack much experience with Latin American literature), much of these sections that were heavy on literary criticism and linguistics were lost on me. The Subversive Scribe sings out when Levine focuses more on her personal relationship with authors and her experiences translating, but merely hums when she delves deep into the grammatical grit. That said, I get the sense that The Subversive Scribe would be perfect for someone who is fluent in a second language, and possesses their own firsthand experience translating literature.

Ultimately, The Subversive Scribe “is meant to jolt the reader out of a comfortable (or uncomfortable) view of translation as secondary, as faint shadows of primary, vivid but lost, originals . . . to dramatize this I have purposely focused on writers and writing that speak explicitly of the original’s self-betrayal . . .Readers also need to understand how Latin American writing is transmitted to them, and how differences and similarities between cultures and languages affect what is finally transmitted. Knowing the other and how we receive or hear the other is a fundamental step toward knowing ourselves.” Indeed it is.

20 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Dan Vitale on Andrzej Stasiuk’s Fado, which was translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston and published by Dalkey Archive Press.

The book’s gotten a lot of nice attention already, and Stasiuk is considered one of the most interesting contemporary Polish writers. (And his wife runs a really fantastic publishing house. I actually met her in Germany a couple months ago at a special hearing on translations.) Stasiuk has a few books available in English, including Nine, which came out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt a couple years ago. (Although I can’t find a listing for a paperback edition, which is weird and shitty.)

Dan Vitale is one of our contributing reviewers, and has written reviews for us of books by Peter Handke, Roberto Bolano, and Amos Oz, among others.

Here’s the opening of his piece on Fado:

The Polish novelist and essayist Andrzej Stasiuk owns a century-old travel map of Austro-Hungary. Aside from its fragility, he writes, its most notable feature is its level of detail: “[E]very village of half a dozen cottages, every godforsaken backwater where the train stops—even only the slow train, even only once a week—all those places are marked and labeled, all are preserved and their names can be read with a magnifying glass, just as if you were reading the past itself, or discovering the origins of a legend.”

Throughout this captivating collection of essays, Stasiuk does much the same job of preservation for contemporary Central Europe—in particular, the region of the Carpathian Mountains of southern Poland where he lives, just over the border from Slovakia, and the surrounding countries within driving distance of his home. He visits a World War I military cemetery; he encounters Gypsies who have “survived the perils of extermination and the lure of assimilation”; and he provides pithy descriptions of the cultural traits of many other Central European national and ethnic groups in this region that he calls (borrowing the term from Hannah Arendt) the “zone of mixed populations.”

Fado is named for a style of Portuguese folk song noted for its melancholy. But while a melancholic tone occasionally creeps into Stasiuk’s prose, he is no wistful nostalgist. His clear-eyed observations of the present are every bit as engaging as his reclamations of the past.

Click here to read the full review.

20 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Polish novelist and essayist Andrzej Stasiuk owns a century-old travel map of Austro-Hungary. Aside from its fragility, he writes, its most notable feature is its level of detail: “[E]very village of half a dozen cottages, every godforsaken backwater where the train stops—even only the slow train, even only once a week—all those places are marked and labeled, all are preserved and their names can be read with a magnifying glass, just as if you were reading the past itself, or discovering the origins of a legend.”

Throughout this captivating collection of essays, Stasiuk does much the same job of preservation for contemporary Central Europe—in particular, the region of the Carpathian Mountains of southern Poland where he lives, just over the border from Slovakia, and the surrounding countries within driving distance of his home. He visits a World War I military cemetery; he encounters Gypsies who have “survived the perils of extermination and the lure of assimilation”; and he provides pithy descriptions of the cultural traits of many other Central European national and ethnic groups in this region that he calls (borrowing the term from Hannah Arendt) the “zone of mixed populations.”

Fado is named for a style of Portuguese folk song noted for its melancholy. But while a melancholic tone occasionally creeps into Stasiuk’s prose, he is no wistful nostalgist. His clear-eyed observations of the present are every bit as engaging as his reclamations of the past. Here he is describing a gathering of youths in the main town of his home county:

You can hear shouts, curses, sometimes the sound of breaking glass. Occasionally a police car appears and for a moment there’s calm. Then the police drive off and the party starts up again. Someone throws up, someone cuddles someone else, someone goes into the store for another can of beer. Groups move from one car to another. It’s a little like a caravan encampment where cars play the roles of both horses and tents. From time to time someone drives off and a short while later returns. Because these young people have cars, but they don’t have anywhere to travel to in them. Or perhaps it just doesn’t occur to them that they could actually go somewhere.

As good as he is on such details, Stasiuk is equally at home in the realm of the analytical and the abstract. For example, contrasting the lives of Central and Eastern Europeans under communism with those of Western Europeans, he writes of the former:

[W]e practiced something that might be called pathological cosmopolitanism. We lived in our cities and countries in appearance only, because for us they were fictitious entities. They did not exist in and of themselves. Real life happened elsewhere, in the West. Our world was unreal. We had to make it so, because otherwise we would have had to despise it. Attempts to render our world more real resulted in sorry expeditions into an idealized past, or a hazy millenarianism that proclaimed the imminent arrival of a miraculous hybrid—the three-headed dragon of social equality, universal prosperity, and absolute freedom.

Stasiuk also takes occasional detours into the personal, including an essay on his daughter’s growth from childhood into adolescence and another on his own childhood trips to his grandparents’ farm (where, incidentally, tools and household utensils were used and repaired as long as humanly possible, so perhaps Stasiuk comes by his respect for remnants of the past genetically). And in a further departure, he gives us an essay on the importance of Pope John Paul II in the lives of his Polish compatriots, which contains a remarkable meditation on the Pope’s impending death:

In this idiotic world where old age has become outlawed, where sickness and weakness border on the criminal, where anyone who lacks the strength to produce and consume becomes an outcast, where failure and destitution are acceptable only in television reports from distant lands, he had the courage to die with millions watching; he had the courage to show us his wasted body, his face constricted with suffering, his dragging feet, his death throes. This was his last lesson, at a time when he could no longer speak.

The overarching subject of Fado is the encroachment of the present upon the past, and the past’s mighty struggle to hold its own in the face of the modernizing forces that threaten to obliterate it. And yet, despite—or perhaps in keeping with—his loving acts of preservation, Stasiuk voices pessimism about the ability of past ways of life to survive:

Perhaps this is what the future will look like. Our homelands, our countries, will vanish, as mental or cultural points of reference. Poland will disappear, Italy will disappear, France will disappear. Why not? More and more things are disappearing and more and more new ones are emerging in their stead. What will remain is Fiat, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Nike, and Johnny Walker. Then Fiat and Ford will disappear too, even Nokia will disappear, and their more perfect future incarnations will arrive, to which we will pray in turn for consolation and hope.

It’s entirely likely that in such a way the West will finally join with the East. The homelessness of all the mental emigrants will in the end become our common home.

Even if so, this book is an important contribution to shoring up the fragments of Central Europe’s past against their eventual ruin.

8 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece Larissa Kyzer wrote on Stig Sæterbakken’s Siamese, translated from the Norwegian by Stokes Schwartz and published earlier this year by Dalkey Archive Press.

Larissa Kyzer is one of our regular reviewers, in part because of her great interest in Scandinavian lit. (Click her name above for a list of all her reviews.)

Siamese sounds pretty intriguing. And I wonder if the rest of the so-called “S-Trilogy” will make its way into English . . . (BTW, what is is with Norwegians and trilogies?)

Since his literary debut at the age of 18, Norwegian author Stig Sæterbakken has made a name for himself by challenging convention. At times, this challenge has manifested as an interrogation of the Norwegian nation’s sense of identity and its relationship to Europe. At others, it has revealed itself more questionably, such as during the 2009 Norwegian Literary Festival on “Truth,” when Sæterbakken, the festival’s artistic director, invited universally reviled Holocaust denier David Irving to be a speaker at the event. (In his New York Times review of Siamese, author Jim Krusoe suggests that Sæterbakken might have been reasonably motivated in this instance, inviting Irving in order to “see what would happen when an agreed-upon truth was forced to confront a pernicious, stubborn falsity.”)

More than simply igniting controversy, however, Sæterbakken has established himself as an accomplished poet, essayist, translator, and fiction writer with more than a dozen publications to his credit. His novella Siamese, which was translated into English earlier this year, is the first installment in Sæterbakken’s “S-Trilogy” (so-called because all three titles begin with the letter ‘s’). Sparsely narrated in unadorned, clipped prose, Siamese tells the story of Edwin and Erna, an elderly couple whose relationship embodies a sort of degenerating symbiosis, a mutually antagonistic and passively spiteful codependency from which neither can escape.

Edwin, the former administrator at a retirement home, is now almost completely blind and living in self-imposed isolation in his and Erna’s apartment bathroom. Subsisting almost entirely on gum and flat cola, Edwin has forced his body into the most fetid deterioration, a squalor sustained—and in some respects, supported—by his hapless, nearly deaf wife whom he harangues and berates as a matter of sport. Isolated as he is—dependent on Erna for everything from changing his catheter to spoon-feeding him the occasional meatball—Edwin takes every opportunity to exert the substantial control he has over Erna, and by extension, his waning life. “It’s my world in here,” he states proudly.

8 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Since his literary debut at the age of 18, Norwegian author Stig Sæterbakken has made a name for himself by challenging convention. At times, this challenge has manifested as an interrogation of the Norwegian nation’s sense of identity and its relationship to Europe. At others, it has revealed itself more questionably, such as during the 2009 Norwegian Literary Festival on “Truth,” when Sæterbakken, the festival’s artistic director, invited universally reviled Holocaust denier David Irving to be a speaker at the event. (In his New York Times review of Siamese, author Jim Krusoe suggests that Sæterbakken might have been reasonably motivated in this instance, inviting Irving in order to “see what would happen when an agreed-upon truth was forced to confront a pernicious, stubborn falsity.”)

More than simply igniting controversy, however, Sæterbakken has established himself as an accomplished poet, essayist, translator, and fiction writer with more than a dozen publications to his credit. His novella Siamese, which was translated into English earlier this year, is the first installment in Sæterbakken’s “S-Trilogy” (so-called because all three titles begin with the letter ‘s’). Sparsely narrated in unadorned, clipped prose, Siamese tells the story of Edwin and Erna, an elderly couple whose relationship embodies a sort of degenerating symbiosis, a mutually antagonistic and passively spiteful codependency from which neither can escape.

Edwin, the former administrator at a retirement home, is now almost completely blind and living in self-imposed isolation in his and Erna’s apartment bathroom. Subsisting almost entirely on gum and flat cola, Edwin has forced his body into the most fetid deterioration, a squalor sustained—and in some respects, supported—by his hapless, nearly deaf wife whom he harangues and berates as a matter of sport. Isolated as he is—dependent on Erna for everything from changing his catheter to spoon-feeding him the occasional meatball—Edwin takes every opportunity to exert the substantial control he has over Erna, and by extension, his waning life. “It’s my world in here,” he states proudly.

Here, my word is law. I know this room like the back of my hand. It’s as though I have a map of the room in my mind, and I’m intimately familiar with all its sounds, I hear even the slightest movement…It’s true, nothing that anyone does in here escapes my attention. I need to know their positions and what they’re doing at every moment. And whenever anyone else is here, anyone aside from Sweetie, that is, I immediately have the upper hand, immediately score a decisive victory over nature, over what nature’s taken away from me, now wholly at ease, empowered. It’s me who dominates the situation.

Despite all her slavishness, Erna too finds ways of exerting her dominance over Edwin. While her husband opts for more obvious aggression and emotional abuse, Erna’s manipulations and quiet acts of defiance remain almost entirely undetected by her husband. For instance, Edna’s deceit about Edwin’s trusted physician, Dr. Amonsen. Although the doctor has long since moved away, Erna continues to pass along medical advice to Edwin under Amonsen’s authority. “He’s always seen Dr. Amonsen as his savior. His faithful defender.” she explains.

. . . I’ve always lied to Edwin when he asked about Amonsen. I didn’t know what else I could do . . . When Edwin asks me to ask Dr. Amonsen about something, I always let a few days go by before I tell him what Amonsen’s reply was. And as long as I say it was Amonsen who told me this or that, Edwin accepts it immediately.

In the course of tracing Edwin and Erna’s increasingly confrontational power struggle, Siamese explores the truly elemental fears and desires that motivate all of us—the fear of death or inadequacy, the frailty of the body, the need to feel in control, the desire for power. The couple’s relationship is one that also has the potential to be read as a larger, historical allegory. Consider a speech called “My Heart Belongs to Europe. Therefore It is Broken,” that Sæterbakken gave in 2005, during which he discussed the former Norwegian alliance with Denmark. “Our union with Denmark lasted over 400 hundred years,” he said. “The Danish rule is often referred to as the ‘400-year-night,’ an expression taken from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt”:

Recent research, however, has cast doubt over our conception of this long lasting oppression that we, obviously being the weaker half of the Siamese twin Denmark-Norway, experienced during the union…[A] considerable part of the culture we think of as being fundamentally Norwegian, as symbols of Norway as a nation, has been given us by foreigners, Danes mainly, the influence from Danish culture, especially through trading, goes much further back in time than those 400 years of Danish reign.

Without delving too far into Sæterbakken’s assertions about Norwegian cultural history, one can still appreciate the symbolism that he seems to allude to here, and apply it to Edwin and Erna’s relationship in Siamese. The metaphor of two mutually dependent and mutually destructive countries can perhaps expand the scope of this hermetic novel and give it more resonance for readers familiar with Scandinavian history. No matter how it is interpreted, however, Sæterbakken’s novel presents a challenging and frequently disturbing portrait of the balance of power and wages of control in any codependent relationship.

18 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I feel like it’s been ages since I last posted anything new here . . . In my defense, it’s kind of tricky finding the time to come up with good material during a ten-day trip to Abu Dhabi, two panels (including the 2010 BTBA announcement), and an extended trip to New York. Two-and-a-half weeks of traveling is mentally exhausting.

I’m back in Rochester though, feeling more and more energized every sunny day that I can ride my bike to work, and ready to get back into all of this. Well, sort of. With the NCAA tournament starting in two hours, and a million-and-one things to catch up on, I think I need another day or so to get sorted. So instead of a number of thoughtful, well-put-together posts (as if that ever happens anyway), here’s a smattering of things:

  • The Australian Association for Literary Translation just launched the AALITRA Review, to publish translations with commentary and essays on the art&craft of translation. You can download the entire first issue (in pdf format) by clicking the link above. Number of interesting pieces in here, including a translation by Peter Hodges of “Don’t Trust the Band” by Boris Vian.
  • PEN America’s 2010 In Translation feature is now available online, and, as expected, is fricking loaded with material. Just look at the list of conversations: Anthea Bell & Doris Orgel (e-mail exchange), Nahid Mozaffari and Sara Khalili (audio), Gregory Rabassa, Edith Grossman, and Michael F. Moore (!!!!!!!). There’s also a number of good excerpts, including a piece from Robert Walser’s Microscripts, a few prologues from Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (everyone should read this), and a bit from Alejandro Zambra’s The Private Lives of Trees. And that’s just scratching the surface . . .
  • Next week we’re going to giveaway copies of Macedonio’s book to our Facebook fans, so if you’re not already one, you need to be. Clicking here to become a fan and have a chance to win.
  • Recently I had heard from a bunch of translators about a crazy new program that Dalkey/U of I had launched through which translators can pay $5,000 to get their first full-length book translation published. Which everyone I heard from thought this was a total scam. In Dalkey’s defense, there is a lot a translator could learn from working closely with an editor on a particular manuscript . . . but to be honest, the publication aspect changes this—in my mind, and all the translators who forwarded this announcement to me complete with their witty remarks (thanks!)—from a low-residency MFA sort of set-up, to something more vanity and seedy. (But seriously, wtf is going on here? It’s like being punched in the brain! Or a way induce seizures in kids? Although there are a billion things to make fun of here—like the fact that it may well be the most unreadable website ever—I’m not going to do it. Or at least I’m going to stop right now. Right. Now.)

In addition to a series of posts about the always interesting Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, we also have a few reviews coming up, including pieces on the new Peter Handke and Dubravka Ugresic titles.

10 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



News from the Empire by Fernando del Paso. Translated from the Spanish by Alfonso Gonzalez and Stella T. Clark. (Mexico, Dalkey Archive)

I can’t do half the job summing up this mammoth book that Paul Doyle did for Quarterly Conversation. So rather than even try, I’m going to give all props to Paul and use his review to profile this particular BTBA title:

If there wasn’t so much fiction in News from the Empire, it could be called a work of history. In fact, the focus of this broad work is history itself, as well as the many unrecorded lives and events that history has forgotten from this strange era in Mexico’s early nationhood. Using Emperor Maximilian and his wife, Carlota, as a starting point, Fernando Del Paso both considers what Mexico is and the country’s place in the larger narrative of world history. The book spans the palaces of Europe and the villages of Mexico, yet despite its broad focus News is a book rich in characters and details, a work that opens up this era of Mexican history to readers without specialized knowledge.

Maximilian and Carlota are the focus of the book, and even if they are not explicitly on every page, they are always in the background somewhere, providing the humanizing contradictions that fill it. Maximilian I, who ruled Mexico from 1864 to 1867, was a member of the Hapsburg-Lorraine family that reigned over the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and was placed on the Mexican throne by the French Emperor Louis Napoleon. Although Maximilian thought he was bringing stability to Mexico and restoring some power to the Catholic Church, Napoleon was attempting to take advantage of political instability in Mexico to expand French influence into the Americas. Del Paso draws a complicated picture of two naïve people placed in a situation they could not manage and a country they did not understand. This innocence is especially inexplicable in the case of Maximilian, who, as brother of Austria’s Emperor Franz Josef, should have known something about ruling but is completely unable to govern. He’d rather spend time in Cuernavaca collecting specimens or planning the protocol for a state visit. He means well but he just doesn’t know how to be an effective ruler.

This is largely due to his incredible ignorance of the country he was to govern. Del Paso gives the impression that Maximilian thought Mexico was European in the sense that he would preside over a well-established state apparatus: all he would have to do is show up and take over. This is obviously delusional, yet as Del Paso sympathetically points out “the divine right to govern nations, inculcated indelibly in the minds of many of these European princes, and then the political necessities imposed by the matrimonial alliances . . . cause many of those princes to grow up with the conviction that they had the capacity to govern and duty to love any foreign people they happened to be placed over.” [. . .]

History as one of the larger preoccupations of the book leads to a secondary question: What it is to be a Mexican? And how does one put Mexico in a wider historical frame? For Del Paso, Mexico is a country made up of many little pieces that history has forgotten, but Maximilian and Carlota, too, are Mexican because they gave up so much and, therefore, became Mexican and part of Mexico’s history. Even though they were forced upon the country, Del Paso argues that it wasn’t so much the fact of their imposition that defined Maximilian and Carlota’s role but their horrible timing. He quotes Octavio Paz: “[to] set up a barrier to the expansion of the Yankee republic wasn’t really such a bad idea in 1820, but it was anachronistic by 1860.” Anachronistic, perhaps, but paradoxically it was this intermingling of Maximilian and Carlota with Mexico that put the country into a wider global frame, releasing this era of Mexican history from a parochial interpretation that kept Mexico as a side show to Europe.

Ultimately, the fragmentary chapters lead away from a universal history, making News from the Empire a work that is both particular and personal. Nothing in the book is complete; there is always a gap in the story, whether it be the story of Maximilian’s death or Carlota’s madness. Del Paso’s goal is not to present the verdict of history, “because the insanity of History didn’t end with Carlota’s, but also because rather than a true, impossible, and . . . undesirable ‘Universal History,’ we only have many little histories, personal and under constant revision, according to the perspectives of the times and places in which they are ‘written’.” News from the Empire succeeds in this sense.

This is a much different novel from Palinuro of Mexico, the other del Paso book that’s made its way into English. (And is also published by Dalkey Archive.) Both are incredibly ambitious, with Palinuro being more manically hilarious and drunk on lists.

That’s not to say News from the Empire isn’t remarkable—it’s an amazing achievement, and the writing is beautiful, even when the central focus is historical positioning and events. It’s a tough book to quote from, but here’s the opening bit of the first “historical section” (in contrast to the “Carlota sections,” which are all set in 1927 at the end of her life).

In the year of our Lord 1861, a sallow Indian named Benito Juarez governed Mexico. He had been orphaned at three, and at eleven had become a shepherd who climbed the trees by the Enchanted Lagoon to play his reed flute and talk to the birds and beasts in Zapotec, the only language he knew.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Napoleon III reigned in France. Some had given him the nickname “Mustachoo” because of his long, full, black, and pointed mustache, which he treated with Hungarian ointments; others called him the Little Napoleon to distinguish him from his famous uncle, Napoleon the Great—that is, Napoleon Bonaparte.

One day, Benito Pablo left the relatives who had taken him in. He abandoned his sheep, and the town of his birth, Guelatao—a word meaning “deep dark night” in his language—and walked twenty-six leagues to the city of Oaxaca, where he could find work as a servant in a wealthy home like his older sister had done; and most of all where he could get an education. Oaxaca, the capital of the state of the same name, was a city that could be described as “ultra-montane,” not only because it was located beyond the mountains, but also because of its sanctimoniousness and its submissiveness to Rome. There, Juarez learned Spanish, arithmetic and algebra, Latin, theology, and law. In time, not only in Oaxaca, but also in other cities, undergoing other exiles—whether he was stubbornly pursuing a goal or fulfilling a destiny sent by Heaven—he also learned to be a representative, then governor of his State, Minister of Justice, Secretary of the Interior, and, finally, President of the Republic.

Little Napoleon didn’t manage to become Emperor of France until his third attempt. Nothing seemed to help: not Napoleon and Josephine’s wedding ring, which people say, he had used as a talisman during his first attempt; not the strip of bacon some say he fastened to his hat during his second attempt—so that an eaglet, a bird he had bought for a pound sterling at Gravesend soon after embarking down the Thames on the Edinburgh Castle—would always follow him and hover around him. No, none of these ploys helped Little Napoleon gain the power he sought on his arrival in France.

This is a dense book that takes some time to read, but in the end, it’s definitely worth it.

3 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



Anonymous Celebrity by Ignacio de Loyola Brandao. Translated from the Portuguese by Nelson H. Vieira. (Brazil, Dalkey Archive)

When I picked up Anonymous Celebrity over the summer, I fell in love from the first page. I was already a huge fan of Brandao’s from the time when I was at Dalkey and we reprinted Zero, but I think this might be an even better book.

Centered around an unreliable narrator obsessed with the idea of becoming famous, Anonymous Celebrity reads more like a scrapbook than a novel, teaming with information and jokes, switching tone on every page, forcing the reader to come to terms with the manic, slightly unhinged mind behind it all. And by “slightly unhinged,” I mean willing to murder the “Lead Actor”—who supposedly looks just like our narrator—so that he can take over all of L.A.‘s roles.

All the various sections, such as the “Rescuing the Anonymous” bits to draw attention to the nearly-famous (like Marli Renfro, who served as Janet Leigh’s body double in Psycho, or the unknown friends present in a photograph of Hemingway) are brilliant. The manuals for how to be famous and the gallery of characters extremely fun. But it’s obvious as you move through this book that there’s something going on underneath to decipher. The entire narrative is steeped in lies and delusions, constructing a wonderful game for the reader to puzzle through. All is clarified by the end (maybe a bit overclarified), but along the way the writing is brilliant, the posturing and the bittersweet appeal of celebrity is palpable. Rather than go on and on, I suggest reading the full review I wrote earlier this summer and checking out this long quote that captures the energy of the book:

GODDAMMITT! 24 HOURS WITH A FAN?

The network forces all its stars to go on TV and promote all sorts of crap on women’s talk shows if we have a free morning. Those shows don’t really attract big audiences, but they sell dozens of new products every day—nobody even knows where they all come from. Vitamins, impotence cures, salves for herniated disks, hemorrhoids, and bursitis, remedies for high blood pressure, depression, gastritis, muscle pains, obesity, anorexia, bad breath, gas, sinusitis, mycosis, inflammation of the testicles, yeast infections, hangnails, ingrown toenails, parasites, rheumatism, indigestion, erysipelas, impetigo, shingles. Being a shill earns me next to nothing, but the network rakes it in.

This week, however, my duty is to spend twenty-four hours with a fan who won a day with me thanks to a contest that was held for the studio audience of one of these talk shows—bussed in to applaud our cheerful celebrity endorsements.

I have no choice. It’s part of my contract.

She’s going to be positioned in my home so as to best witness my waking up, stretching, pretending to smoke my first cigarette (everyone thinks I’m so unhealthy, so contemptuous of health trends, and I have to keep the myth alive), getting up, brushing my teeth, taking a shit, having breakfast, going to the studio, memorizing my lines, putting on my make-up. Maybe she’ll even watch me having a quickie behind the scenery with some needy starlet, make-up artists, or costumer—once I even had a cleaning lady; there are some really hot lower-class girls around if you know where to look. I hope she likes the idea. That would be exciting.

She’ll stand there with her mouth wide open watching me perform, taking a little break, yelling at some fellow actor who’s not setting the right comedic or dramatic tone, yelling at the lighting people, slamming the door in some reporter’s face.

She’s going to watch me running to the bar, having a shot of scotch, then a dark beer, then some grappa, port wine, a few shots of the Havana firewater (the sugarcane booze from Minas that costs around seventy-five dollars per bottle). Then I’m going to bring her to my dressing room: Room 101. Two contiguous rooms, as the building plans say, well-appointed (All Sig Bergamin or Chico Gouvea designs).

She won’t forget this day in a hurry.

I’ll be a cherished memory until she dies.

24 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [4]

One of the best unexpected results of putting together the translation databases is being able to put together an awesome reading list of forthcoming translations. (Or, to put it in a slightly more negative light: to know about way more interesting books than I’ll ever have time to read.)

The spring is a perfect example. As the reading for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award is winding down, I’m getting jacked about 2011 . . . Just look at this list of titles coming out in January – March 2010. (Don’t even get me started on April – June . . . my “to read” bookshelf is already overflowing.) Links below go to the Idlewild Books catalog, since Idlewild is our Indie Store of the Month. (And by “month” I mean the rest of December and all of January.)

January

Georg Letham, Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss (excerpt)
translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg
published by Archipelago Books

Archipelago books tend to deliver, and this sounds really intriguing. Thomas Mann gave this a killer blurb: “easily one of the most interesting books I have come across in years.” It’s the story of a scientist-hero who has killed his wife and is deported to a remote island where he “seeks redemption in science.” It was written around the same time as The Man without Qualities and The Sleepwalkers and has that same sort of middle-European, ambitious vibe.

My Little War by Louis Paul Boon
translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent
published by Dalkey Archive Press

I’m a huge Boon fan, especially of Chapel Road and Summer in Termuren, and it’s great to see more of his work making it into English. This was a first novel, an account of World War II told through “overheard conversations, newspaper articles, manifestos, and other sights and noises of daily life.” Boon had an amazing gift for language, for capturing the dirty reality and comic charms of daily life and creating something bigger and more meaningful. It’ll be very interesting to see what he created out of these materials.

Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolano
translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
published by New Directions

This next year promises to be yet another big year for Roberto Bolano with three books of his coming out from New Directions: Monseiur Pain, Antwerp and The Return. This novel—which we’ll be reviewing in the very near future—is about Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, a mesmerist, two mysterious gentlemen, a bribe, and guilt. With Bolano you can rest assured that it’s at least worth the price of admission.

February

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic
translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Celia Hawkesworth, and Mark Thompson
published by Grove

Dubravka’s one of my all-time favorite writers (which is one of the reasons why her collection of essays, Nobody’s Home, was the first book published by Open Letter) and this looks like an awesome follow-up to her last work of fiction, The Ministry of Pain. This novel is part of the “Myths” series, retelling the story of Baba Yaga who, according to Russian myth, “is a witch who lives in a house built on chicken legs and kidnaps small children.” We posted about this book a while back and included a bit of the opening chapter. This may well be the book that I’m most excited about for 2010 . . .

Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marias
translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen
published by New Directions

I know next to nothing about this book aside from the fact that a) it’s published by New Directions (definite plus), b) it’s by Javier Marias (another plus), and c) it’s translated by Esther Allen (three pluses and I’m sold?). That and this description, which is the very definition of “selling copy”: “In this classic Marias story, Elvis and his entourage abandon their translator in a seedy cantina full of enraged criminals.”

The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel) by Macedonio Fernandez (excerpt)
translated from the Spanish by Margaret Schwartz
published by Open Letter

Yeah, OK, I’m including one of our own books on this list—but seriously, I waiting almost five years to be able to read this and truly believe it’s one of the great books of the twentieth century. It opens with over fifty prologues! It’s in the meta-vein of At Swim-Two-Birds! It’s written by Borges’s mentor! It’s subtitled “The First Good Novel”! (And was a companion to Macedonio’s Adriana Buenos Aires (The Last Bad Novel)!) What more do you need to know?

March

Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga
translated from the Basque by Margaret Jull Costa
published by Graywolf Press

Atxaga’s The Accordionist’s Son came out from Graywolf earlier this year and got some good attention. Obabakoak is a collection of stories centered around the village of Obaba, and sounds really intriguing: “A tinge of darkness mingles with moments of wry humor in this dazzling collage of fables, town gossip, diary excerpts, and literary theory, all held together by Bernardo Atxaga’s distinctive and tenderly ironic voice.” Here’s a link to an audio file from PEN America of Atxaga reading Three Pieces about the Basque Language.

Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe
translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm
published by Grove

Kudos to Grove for having such a great winter/spring line-up—and for publishing two of the books I’m most looking forward to in 2010. We already have a review of this novel on hand, but with the pub date so far in the future, we’re going to hold onto it for at least a few weeks before posting. The review is very positive, and this story of a man traveling from Japan to Berlin to try to understand what drove his brother-in-law to commit suicide sounds incredibly intriguing.

Wolf among Wolves by Hans Fallada
translated from the German by Philip Owens
published by Melville House

This comes on the heels of Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which did very well for Melville House. Another massive book (736 pages!), it sounds great: “a sprawling saga of the collapse of a culture—its economy and government—and the common man’s struggle to survive it all. Set in Weimar Germany soon after Germany’s catastrophic loss of World War I, the story follows a young gambler who loses all in Berlin, then flees the chaotic city, where worthless money and shortages are causing pandemonium. Once in the countryside, however, he finds a defeated German army that has deamped there to foment insurrection. Somehow, amidst it all, he finds romance—it’s The Year of Living Dangerously in a European setting.”

That’s it for now . . . More recommendations to come in a few months.

3 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece that I wrote on Ignacio de Loyola Brandao’s Anonymous Celebrity. It’s a great book—one of my favorites of 2009 (so far)—and worth reading (especially if you liked Zero . . . all four hundred of you out there who bought it, that is).

Here’s the beginning of the review:

Ignacio de Loyola Brandao’s fourth book to appear in English, Anonymous Celebrity is most definitely the novel of his most concerned with contemporary issues, and may well be his funniest and richest novel to date. I say this as a big fan of Brandao’s writing (and not just because it’s fun to pronounce his name), in particular Zero, which was my introduction to his odd, unsettled world and was a book that we reprinted during my time at Dalkey Archive Press.

Zero is a complex, dangerous book that tells of the life of its main character through myriad of techniques, styles, typographies, and (occasionally contradictory) storylines. All infused with a great, sick sense of humor, and enough political shit to result in the book being banned by the Brazilian government when it was first published.

Brandao’s fragmented technique (and especially his penchant for dropping crazy over-sized fonts into his text) is employed in both Teeth under the Sun (also Dalkey) and And Still the Earth (currently out-of-print), but not nearly to the same symphonic effect as it is in Zero and now Anonymous Celebrity.

Anonymous Celebrity was first published in Brazil in 2002, and in contrast to his earlier books, Brandao has replaced his concerns about living under an extreme political regime with the idea of how to live in an age of media saturation and an overwhelming obsession with celebrity.

Even prior to the ending (which sort of is a rug pulling bit that would’ve been more effective—in my opinion—if it was a bit more concise and even more devastating), this is a tricksy sort of book narrated by a totally unreliable narrator. Check that: he’s not necessarily “unreliable,” rather, he’s someone obsessed with image, with celebrity, with being famous, being known, and knows that celebrity is based in falsehood, half-truths and contrived settings.

Click here for the full review.

3 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Ignacio de Loyola Brandao’s fourth book to appear in English, Anonymous Celebrity is most definitely the novel of his most concerned with contemporary issues, and may well be his funniest and richest novel to date. I say this as a big fan of Brandao’s writing (and not just because it’s fun to pronounce his name), in particular Zero, which was my introduction to his odd, unsettled world and was a book that we reprinted during my time at Dalkey Archive Press.

Zero is a complex, dangerous book that tells of the life of its main character through myriad of techniques, styles, typographies, and (occasionally contradictory) storylines. All infused with a great, sick sense of humor, and enough political shit to result in the book being banned by the Brazilian government when it was first published.

Brandao’s fragmented technique (and especially his penchant for dropping crazy over-sized fonts into his text) is employed in both Teeth under the Sun (also Dalkey) and And Still the Earth (currently out-of-print), but not nearly to the same symphonic effect as it is in Zero and now Anonymous Celebrity.

Anonymous Celebrity was first published in Brazil in 2002, and in contrast to his earlier books, Brandao has replaced his concerns about living under an extreme political regime with the idea of how to live in an age of media saturation and an overwhelming obsession with celebrity.

Even prior to the ending (which sort of is a rug pulling bit that would’ve been more effective—in my opinion—if it was a bit more concise and even more devastating), this is a tricksy sort of book narrated by a totally unreliable narrator. Check that: he’s not necessarily “unreliable,” rather, he’s someone obsessed with image, with celebrity, with being famous, being known, and knows that celebrity is based in falsehood, half-truths and contrived settings. For instance, here’s a short bit from the section “List of Essential Consultants to the Famous,” which starts off reasonably enough (Secretary, Agent, Lawyer), then becomes more fun:

Consultant on Lying. Specifically about my life. Someone who composes lies about me to be divulged to the media. Completely different than a press agent. For instance: I was a street kid and only learned to read when I was sixteen. At eighteen, at night, I performed at intersections doing acrobatics with lit torches, collecting money from interested or sympathetic drivers. One night, hungry and hurt by her refusal, I shoved one of my torches into a whore’s face. My father never acknowledged my paternity. They say the great Portuguese novelist Eca de Querios—whose novel The Maias was turned into a miniseries—was a bastard too. Comparing me to Eca is a great idea! A literary giant. I should probably read one of his books.

And then Drivers. I’m going to need three, working in shifts, given the intensity of my life. The night driver will suffer the most—he’ll have to carry me when I fall down dead drunk or faint from mixing Red Bull and ecstasy—I’m less and less in control. Though I quit the heavy drugs a long time ago. I’m clean.

Clean, on ecstasy, a street kid, and willing to accept any sponsorship—whatever it takes to be famous. Some of the great humor of the book comes from the narrator’s advice on how to become a celebrity, usually related in Rabelaisian-like lists that wax manic, starting from a recognizable place before slipping into the absurd.

Amid these lists upon lists of things to say to the press, ways to get yourself in photographs, how to be sponsored every day of the month, etc., there is a fairly compelling storyline involving the narrator’s desire to off “Lead Actor,” aka LA, aka the actor who looks almost identical to our (un)trustworthy narrator and is the reason our narrator isn’t as famous as he could be. But if the LA was dead, then our narrator could easily slip into all of his roles and achieve an even greater celebrity . . .

This plot doubles back on itself, slides in and out of reality (like almost everything else in the book), and is upended entirely in the end, but it does serve as a sort of MacGuffin on which to hang all the various threads that comprise this book, one of the best of which is the “Rescuing the Anonymous” sections that recognize those who brushed up against a moment of celebrity, but didn’t get to take full advantage. Like Marli Renfro, who served as Janet Leigh’s body double in Psycho, or the unknown friends present in a photograph of Hemingway.

In many ways, Anonymous Celebrity reads like a looseleaf collection of fragments from the mind of a potentially insane, definitely obsessed man. The prose is snappy (thanks in part to Nelson Vieira’s translation) and buzzes, with each section revealing a different facet of his obsession/insanity. And taken in bits, this is an incredibly fun, incredibly varied read. And out of the layered piles of ideas and lists, conspiracies and obsessions, something pretty amazing emerges. Definitely worth checking out.

26 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece on Juan Filloy’s Op Oloop, which was translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman and is forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press.

Pretty interesting book from a very interesting author:

The first time I heard of Juan Filloy was during an editorial trip to Germany, organized by the German Book Office and including a day of “speed dating” with other publishers. It was at one of my first “dates” that I met the very hip editors from Tropen Verlag who, after finding out that I worked at Dalkey Archive, the publisher of David Markson’s best works, suggested that instead of doing any of the German authors they might recommend, the one author that Dalkey absolutely had to publish was the Argentine writer Juan Filloy, especially his Op Oloop.

Before even getting to his actual novels, there’s a lot Filloy had going for him:

  • He lived in three centuries—born in the nineteenth, and passing away in 2000 at the age of 106;

  • Julio Cortazar loved him, references his Caterva in chapter 108 of Hopscotch;

  • Freud was a fan of Op Oloop, which led to a personal correspondence between the two;

  • Filloy was a lover of palindromes and wrote over 6,000;

  • and, not to be overlooked, almost all fifty-plus of his novels and collections of poems have seven-letter titles. (Op Oloop, Caterva, Vil y Vil, so on and so forth.)

Who wouldn’t want to publish someone like this? And thankfully, six years later, Op Oloop is finally available to English readers.

Click here for the rest of the review.

8 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.

Camera by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, translated from the French by Matthew B. Smith. (France, Dalkey Archive Press)

Camera is one of three Dalkey Archive Press titles that made the Best Translated Book of 2008 list (along with I’d Like and Homage to Czerny), and one of four Jean-Philippe Toussaint books that Dalkey currently has in print (the others are The Bathroom, Television, and Monsieur, with Running Away due out in 2010).

Toussaint is a strange, affecting writer. Nothing really happens in any of his books, or at least no “exciting” events like you find in a lot of plot-heavy books—in this one, a self-obsessed man falls in love with the woman from a driver’s ed office, they fall in love, they go on vacation, he finds a camera on a ship—but that’s sort of the point. The focus of his novels is more on the inner workings of the protagonist’s mind (workings which are usually a bit off, in a captivating, humorous sort of way), rather than external events that befall him.

In the afterword included in Camera, Toussaint describes this novel as “the description of a condition, the condition of someone’s place in the world. The book progressively shifts from the ‘struggle of living’ to the ‘despair of being.’ “ Sticking with the theoretical (sic) for a moment, Toussaint then goes on to explain the underlying program of this novel:

Yes, you’re right, it’s a manifesto, a program. I don’t know how aware of this I was. But still, it took me over a month to write the first paragraph. [. . .] It’s a very impertinent opening. I’m responding very offhandedly to Kafka’s famous aphorism: “In the fight between you and the world, back the world,” with “In the fight between you and reality, be discouraging.” So yes, it’s a manifesto, but it isn’t a theoretical essay or piece; it’s there, in the book itself, int he opening paragraph of the book, as a theory in action. Underlying my novel is, although it isn’t express theoretically, an idea of literature focused on the insignificant, on the banal, on the mundane, the “not interesting,” the “not edifying,” on lulls in time, on marginal events, which are usually excluded from literature and are not dealt with in books.

Don’t let this emphasis on the “uninteresting” dissuade you though—Camera, like all of Toussaint’s books, is a very funny, very charming novel. That first paragraph that Toussaint alludes to is a great example:

It was about at the same time in my life, a calm life in which ordinarily nothing happened, that in my immediate horizon two events came about, events that, taken separately, were of hardly any interest, and that, considered together, were unfortunately not connected in any way. As it happens I had just decided to learn how to drive, and I had barely begun to get used to this idea when some news reached me by mail: a long-lost friend, in a letter composed with a typewriter, a rather old typewriter, had informed me he was getting married. Now, personally, if there’s one thing that terrifies me, it’s long-lost friends.

Over at The Front Table, editor Martin Riker explains his view of Toussaint and why Dalkey brought out three books by Toussaint this year:

There’s something very exciting about publishing several of an author’s books together. Instead of putting a single work out into the world, you’re putting into the world a whole way of seeing. You’re saying: This is not just about a book. Here’s a writer who is doing something beyond mere temporary curiosity. This is the real thing, an actual innovation, literature finding a new way to relate to life.

This is why, in the jacket copy for Camera, I refer to Toussaint as a “comic Camus for the twenty-first century.” It isn’t because Toussaint’s writing reminds me of Camus’s stylistically, but because Toussaint offers something that Camus once offered: a new way to think about the experience of being. Though both comic and compelling, Toussaint’s “being” is also quite strange, and at times disorienting. Something often seems to be missing, and indeed something often is.

....
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 >

The Last Days
The Last Days by Laurent Seksik
Reviewed by Peter Biellp

Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.

It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then. . .

Read More >

Selected Stories
Selected Stories by Kjell Askildsen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

To call Kjell Askildsen’s style sparse or terse would be to understate just how far he pushes his prose. Almost nothing is explained, elaborated on. In simple sentences, events occur, words are exchanged, narrators have brief thoughts. As often as. . .

Read More >

Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories
Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes. . .

Read More >

Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage
Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Reviewed by Will Eells

Floating around the internet amid the hoopla of a new Haruki Murakami release, you may have come across a certain Murakami Bingo courtesy of Grant Snider. It is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s funny because it’s true,. . .

Read More >

The Matiushin Case
The Matiushin Case by Oleg Pavlov
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

The publisher’s blurb for Oleg Pavlov’s The Matiushin Case promises the prospective reader “a Crime and Punishment for today,” the sort of comparison that is almost always guaranteed to do a disservice to both the legendary dead and the ambitious. . .

Read More >