24 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Dan Vitale on Amos Oz’s Between Friends, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and which incidentally comes out today.

Dan is a contributing reviewer of ours who is making his first appearance in a while on Three Percent—and with a piece on an author I understand to be one of his favorites. Dan also wrote for us about Amos Oz’s Scenes from Village Life.

Here’s an excerpt from Dan’s review:

hroughout his career—in fact from his very first book, Where the Jackals Howl (1965)—the renowned Israeli writer Amos Oz has set much of his fiction on the kibbutz, collective communities he portrays as bastions of social cohesion and stultifying conformity in equal measure. In his latest book, which like Where the Jackals Howl is a collection of eight short stories, the scales feel tipped toward the latter: to judge from Between Friends, if you set out to create a society plagued by gossip and spite, you could hardly do better than to establish a kibbutz.

Most of the protagonists of these linked stories about the fictitious, roughly 1950s-era Kibbutz Yekhat are in one way or another victims of peer pressure or ideological rigidity: Zvi and Luna, quiet, middle-aged platonic friends, are the subject of leering talk in the dining hall; Moshe, 16, a kind of foster member of the kibbutz, is treated harshly for wanting to visit his father, who is hospitalized off site; Martin, a shoemaker with emphysema, is pressured by the kibbutz leadership to quit his job because of his poor health.

For the rest of the review, go here.

24 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Throughout his career—in fact from his very first book, Where the Jackals Howl (1965)—the renowned Israeli writer Amos Oz has set much of his fiction on the kibbutz, collective communities he portrays as bastions of social cohesion and stultifying conformity in equal measure. In his latest book, which like Where the Jackals Howl is a collection of eight short stories, the scales feel tipped toward the latter: to judge from Between Friends, if you set out to create a society plagued by gossip and spite, you could hardly do better than to establish a kibbutz.

Most of the protagonists of these linked stories about the fictitious, roughly 1950s-era Kibbutz Yekhat are in one way or another victims of peer pressure or ideological rigidity: Zvi and Luna, quiet, middle-aged platonic friends, are the subject of leering talk in the dining hall; Moshe, 16, a kind of foster member of the kibbutz, is treated harshly for wanting to visit his father, who is hospitalized off site; Martin, a shoemaker with emphysema, is pressured by the kibbutz leadership to quit his job because of his poor health. Nina, another character plagued by rumors (she has recently left her husband), explains the community’s intolerance this way:

In ten or twenty years. . . . the kibbutz will be a much more relaxed place. Now, all the springs are tightly coiled and the entire machine is still shaking from the strain. The old-timers are actually religious people who left their old religion for a new one that’s just as full of sins and transgressions, prohibitions and strict rules. They haven’t stopped being true believers; they’ve simply exchanged one belief system for another. Marx is their Talmud. The general meeting is the synagogue and David Dagan is their rabbi.

Dagan, about 50, a history teacher at the kibbutz school and one of the community’s founders, figures as a villain of sorts throughout the book, most pointedly in the title story. The fiercest of the Marxists, he is also self-serving and a notorious womanizer. In “Between Friends” he is living with a former student, 17-year-old Edna, daughter of one of his oldest acquaintances. He acts not the slightest bit concerned about how this situation is affecting his old “friend.”

As the irony of that word suggests, Oz appears to be arguing that, whatever communal spirit a kibbutz fosters, it is usually unlikely ever to privilege emotional connections over societal ones. One character reflects: “[M]ost people seem to need more warmth and affection than others are capable of giving, and none of the kibbutz committees will ever be able to cover that deficit between supply and demand.”

Within these strictures, Oz’s characters live “lives of quiet desperation” (to borrow Thoreau’s memorable formulation). The stories frequently end on notes of irresolution, paralysis, or failure, with protagonists hesitating on the verge of accepting, without further complaint, their own inability to improve their circumstances. Nowhere is this truer than in “At Night,” the most understated and emotionally powerful of the stories, in which Yoav, the kibbutz secretary, nurses an inexpressible passion for Nina. Alone before dawn and on guard duty, Yoav contemplates a bleak future, “feeling that something was almost becoming clear to him, but what that something was, he didn’t know.”

Accordingly, the book’s style, like that of another of Oz’s linked collections, Scenes from Village Life (2011), is extremely spare, at times approaching the simplicity and clarity of Chekhov. At other times, this spareness can seem more an oversight than a deliberate effect, undercutting a story’s strength. But these weaker moments are rare.
The story that most richly depicts the conflict between kibbutz life and individual freedom is “Deir Ajloun.” Yotam and his widowed mother, Henia, are awaiting a vote by the kibbutz leadership on Yotam’s wish to travel to Italy, ostensibly to start college early, although Yotam himself wants mainly to escape the suffocation he feels in the kibbutz. Early in the story, after a run-in over the upcoming vote with a jealous coworker in the kibbutz kitchen, Henia thinks:

People don’t love each other anymore. At first, when the kibbutz was founded, we were all a family. True, even then there were rifts, but we were close. Every evening we’d get together and sing rousing songs and nostalgic ballads till the small hours. Afterward, we went to sleep in tents, and if anyone talked in their sleep, we all heard them. These days, everyone lives in a separate apartment and we’re at each other’s throats. On the kibbutz today, if you’re standing on your feet, everyone is just waiting for you to fall, and if you fall . . . they all rush to help you up.

There is something both chilling and heartening about that final clause, suggesting as it does both hypocrisy and a modicum of compassion. Oz doesn’t hint at whether he intends it as blame or praise; of course, it’s both.

14 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Dan Vitale on Aharon Appelfeld’s Until the Dawn’s Light, which is translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green, and available from Schocken Books.

Dan is one of our contributing reviewers, and has written a ton of great pieces for us. Most recently, he wrote about Amos Oz’s Scenes from Village Life. You can read all of his past reviews by clicking here.

And here’s the opening of his Appelfeld piece:

The violence in the fiction of Aharon Appelfeld—often anti-Semitic, frequently represented by the Holocaust itself—usually occurs after, or prior to, his novels’ main action. Thus the novels typically occupy one of two psychic spaces: the period of rising tension in the months or years before Hitler’s advent and the Final Solution, or the lawless aftermath of World War II, in which concentration-camp survivors wander devastated landscapes in search of a new life. Rarely, then, do the events presented in an Appelfeld novel contain as much raw brutality as we encounter in Until the Dawn’s Light, and rarely is it presented in as private a context: the violence inflicted upon a Jewish wife by her gentile husband.

When we first meet Blanca Guttmann in about 1912, she is twenty-three and fleeing across Austria by train with her four-year-old son Otto. They stop and rent a small house by a river, where Blanca begins writing an account of her life for Otto to read when he is old enough. Most of Until the Dawn’s Light is taken up with Appelfeld’s (not always chronological) summary of what Blanca writes, beginning with her upbringing as the cherished daughter of a moderately successful if unhappy businessman and his sickly wife. Blanca is talented at mathematics and has an opportunity to study in Vienna on a scholarship once she finishes high school. But, seemingly on a whim, she abandons this path in favor of a blossoming friendship with a dull-witted classmate, Adolf, who is threatened with expulsion by the very same teachers who dote on Blanca. Adolf, a gentile, blames the teachers’ animosity on their Jewishness, an opinion that meek Blanca, in sympathy with Adolf’s academic struggles, does little to counter, considering that she is Jewish herself. After high school, she marries Adolf, converts to Christianity, and her life of torment begins.

Click here to read the full piece.

14 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The violence in the fiction of Aharon Appelfeld—often anti-Semitic, frequently represented by the Holocaust itself—usually occurs after, or prior to, his novels’ main action. Thus the novels typically occupy one of two psychic spaces: the period of rising tension in the months or years before Hitler’s advent and the Final Solution, or the lawless aftermath of World War II, in which concentration-camp survivors wander devastated landscapes in search of a new life. Rarely, then, do the events presented in an Appelfeld novel contain as much raw brutality as we encounter in Until the Dawn’s Light, and rarely is it presented in as private a context: the violence inflicted upon a Jewish wife by her gentile husband.

When we first meet Blanca Guttmann in about 1912, she is twenty-three and fleeing across Austria by train with her four-year-old son Otto. They stop and rent a small house by a river, where Blanca begins writing an account of her life for Otto to read when he is old enough. Most of Until the Dawn’s Light is taken up with Appelfeld’s (not always chronological) summary of what Blanca writes, beginning with her upbringing as the cherished daughter of a moderately successful if unhappy businessman and his sickly wife. Blanca is talented at mathematics and has an opportunity to study in Vienna on a scholarship once she finishes high school. But, seemingly on a whim, she abandons this path in favor of a blossoming friendship with a dull-witted classmate, Adolf, who is threatened with expulsion by the very same teachers who dote on Blanca. Adolf, a gentile, blames the teachers’ animosity on their Jewishness, an opinion that meek Blanca, in sympathy with Adolf’s academic struggles, does little to counter, considering that she is Jewish herself. After high school, she marries Adolf, converts to Christianity, and her life of torment begins.

Appelfeld presents Adolf’s episodes of domestic abuse in a manner that is quietly matter-of-fact yet also unrelenting. Here, for example, is how Adolf treats Blanca during the mourning period following the death of her mother, after Blanca has come back home one evening from a day spent sitting with her bereaved father:

Adolf would return late at night and whip her with his belt. Now he didn’t hit her in anger, but with the intention of hurting her. “We have to uproot all your weaknesses from you and all the bad qualities you inherited from your parents. A woman has to be a woman and not a weakling.” . . .

She would cry, and her weeping drove him crazy. He would throw a tantrum and curse her and her ancestors, who didn’t know how to live right, bound up with money and flawed in character.

On Sundays his brothers and friends would fill the house, guzzle and gobble and finally sing and dance in the yard until late at night. The next day she would get up early to make Adolf his morning coffee. After he left the house dizziness would assail her, and she would sink to the floor, ravaged.

When Otto is born and Adolf decides (to Blanca’s secret satisfaction) that Blanca now needs to work outside the home to help support the family, she takes a job at an old age home where, just as matter-of-factly as Adolf abuses her, she discreetly begins to steal and resell the residents’ valuables, telling herself that she is doing so in order to save up money to live on when she eventually works up the courage to take Otto away from Adolf. Her vague plan is to flee east, to the Carpathian Mountains where her ancestors, observant Jews, were born, and for whose simple, loving piety she longs while reading the romantic Hasidic tales of Martin Buber.

Because we feel deeply for Blanca—and continue to do so even after she commits a gruesome act of violence herself and, later, turns to still other forms of crime to prevent herself from being captured by the authorities—a disturbing moral quandary arises. Appelfeld seems to acknowledge ruefully that violence such as Adolf’s only begets more violence (the psychological damage done to Blanca as well as the violence she herself is driven to commit). But he also seems to believe that Blanca’s crimes are defensible because they are committed in reaction to these prior acts of violence. Further, by framing this scenario explicitly in an anti-Semitic context, Appelfeld risks suggesting that crimes committed in defense of the survival of Jewish culture are justified for that additional reason as well.

That Appelfeld never makes clear whether he in fact believes this adds depth and resonance to the dilemmas he depicts and is a tribute to his skill as a novelist. The questions he raises haunt the reader even though both Adolf’s and Blanca’s crimes are eventually punished in one way or another, in purely worldly terms if not moral or theological ones. For this reason, the darker undercurrents of Blanca’s already sad story linger in the mind no less vividly than the relentlessly inhumane acts Appelfeld describes.

24 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our “Book Reviews” section is a piece by Dan Vitale on Amos Oz’s Scenes from Village Life, which is translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange and just came out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Dan Vitale is one of our contributing reviewers, and as such, has written a number of great reviews for us.

Amos Oz has a number of books available in English translation, including Rhyming Life & Death, which came out just a couple years ago. He’s won tons of prizes, including the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Israel Prize, the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature, and the Goethe Prize, among others. He’s very involved in politics, and for all these reasons, is an annual favorite for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Here’s the opening of Dan’s review:

Seven of the eight pieces—one hesitates to call them stories—in Amos Oz’s Scenes from Village Life take place in the fictional Israeli village of Tel Ilan. More than a century old, the village began by supporting farms, orchards, and vineyards but has now become something of an upscale tourist attraction:

“Many of the inhabitants still farmed, with the help of foreign laborers who lived in huts in the farmyards. But some had leased out their land and made a living by letting rooms, by running art galleries or fashion boutiques or by working outside the village. Two gourmet restaurants had opened in the middle of the village, and there was also the winery and a shop selling tropical fish. One local entrepreneur had started manufacturing reproduction antique furniture. On weekends, of course, the village filled with visitors who came to eat or to hunt for a bargain. But every Friday afternoon its streets emptied as the residents rested behind closed shutters.”

The book presents glimpses into the small and insignificant lives being led behind those shutters. In keeping with the Chekhovian echo of the book’s title, Oz tends to focus on the mundane passions that occasionally flare up and, more often, flicker out in the hearts of the village residents.

Click here to read the entire piece.

24 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Seven of the eight pieces—one hesitates to call them stories—in Amos Oz’s Scenes from Village Life take place in the fictional Israeli village of Tel Ilan. More than a century old, the village began by supporting farms, orchards, and vineyards but has now become something of an upscale tourist attraction:

“Many of the inhabitants still farmed, with the help of foreign laborers who lived in huts in the farmyards. But some had leased out their land and made a living by letting rooms, by running art galleries or fashion boutiques or by working outside the village. Two gourmet restaurants had opened in the middle of the village, and there was also the winery and a shop selling tropical fish. One local entrepreneur had started manufacturing reproduction antique furniture. On weekends, of course, the village filled with visitors who came to eat or to hunt for a bargain. But every Friday afternoon its streets emptied as the residents rested behind closed shutters.”

The book presents glimpses into the small and insignificant lives being led behind those shutters. In keeping with the Chekhovian echo of the book’s title, Oz tends to focus on the mundane passions that occasionally flare up and, more often, flicker out in the hearts of the village residents. There is, for example, Gili Steiner, a childless doctor who pines for a visit from her nephew; or Pesach Kedem, a bitter, aged former Knesset member who lives with his widowed daughter and their Arab student boarder, and who imagines he hears digging under the house at night. There is Yossi Sasson, the real estate agent who plans to buy, raze, and replace with a pricy villa the ramshackle house of a dead Holocaust novelist, but who falls for the temptations of the novelist’s granddaughter; and teenaged Kobi Ezra, son of the village grocer, who conceives what he believes to be an unrequited love for Ada Dvash, the 30-year-old divorcée who runs both the village’s often empty post office and its small lending library.

Oz begins each piece straightforwardly, but rather than—as in the typical short story—concluding it with the satisfying sense of a mystery solved or a musical composition that ends on just the right note, he more often introduces a sudden twist that jolts the piece in an unexpected direction and suggests that the deepest mysteries are those that exist within human beings, ones that can rarely if ever be truly understood, let alone resolved.

Take “Heirs,” the book’s opening piece, in which Arieh Zelnik is interrupted at home by Wolff Maftsir, a lawyer who claims an obscure kinship with the Zelnik family and offers, conspiratorially, to assist Arieh in getting his elderly mother to relinquish ownership of the house Arieh shares with her. Although repeatedly rebuffed by Arieh, Maftsir nevertheless gains access to the bedroom where the mother is napping, and the piece ends with this curious bit of business:

[Maftsir] bent over and kissed her twice, a long kiss on either cheek, and then kissed her again on the forehead. The old lady opened her cloudy eyes, drew a skeletal hand from under the blanket and stroked Wolff Maftsir’s head, murmuring something or other and pulling his head toward her with both hands. In response, he bent closer, took off his shoes, kissed her toothless mouth and lay down at her side, pulling at the blanket to cover them both. . . .

Arieh Zelnik hesitated for a moment or two, and looked out of the open window at a tumbledown farm shed and a dusty cypress tree up which an orange bougainvillea climbed with flaming fingers. Walking around the double bed, he closed the shutters and the window and drew the curtains, and as he did so he unbuttoned his shirt, then undid his belt, removed his shoes, undressed and got into bed next to his old mother.

This could be taken as a hallucinatory portrayal of the irresistible predatoriness of lawyers, but instead it seems more pleasurable to take it at face value in all its bizarrerie. Not every piece in Scenes from Village Life is quite this strange, but the general rule still holds: Oz convinces us to accept his characters just as they are, not asking us to fathom their depths but simply to marvel at their complexity. Even when the eighth and final piece wrenches us suddenly from Tel Ilan into a scene set in a primitive, possibly post-apocalyptic society—a shift that arguably makes the entire book replicate the quirky structure of most of the individual pieces within it—Oz’s respect for human mystery stays with us and richly rewards our attention.

22 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is Good Offices by Evelio Rosero, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean and Anna Milsom, and coming out from New Directions next week.

Good Offices is the second novel by Evelio Rosero (after The Armies, 2009) to be published by New Directions. It’s also the first to be translated by Anne McLean in collaboration with Anna Milsom.

In Good Offices, we are released into the world of Tancredo, a hunchback who has a deep fear of becoming an animal. Tancredo, the sexton’s goddaughter (Sabina Cruz) and the three witchlike widows work for a corrupt priest providing charity meals for the local poor. Their endless labor has drained them of their humanity. Their daily routines are soon to be broken, however, with the arrival of a new priest: Father Matamoros, a drunkard with a beautiful voice whose sung mass is spellbinding to all. Under the magical and disillusioning presence of Father Matamoros, the women and Tancredo spill their confessions and turbulent stories.

Click here to read an extended preview, which has a pretty striking opening:

He has a terrible fear of being an animal, especially on Thursdays, at lunchtime. “I have this fear,” he says to himself, and glimpses his hump reflected in the window. His eyes wander over his eyes: he does not recognize himself. What an other! He thinks. What an other! And examines his face. “On Thursdays,” and then, “this Thursday, especially, when it’s the old people’s turn.” Tuesdays for the blind, Mondays for the whores, Fridays for families, Wednesdays for the street kids, Saturdays and Sundays for God, or so says the priest.

Additionally, we posted an interview between Dan Vitale and Anna Milsom, which is definitely worth reading in full:

DV: How did you discover the book?

AM: Well, I met Anne at the BCLT summer school too—it must be a decade or so ago. We had a lot of fun and have stayed in touch since. Two years ago I was running a literary translation evening class at London Metropolitan University where I now teach and I invited Anne to come in as a guest speaker. She had Los almuerzos in her bag and suggested we might see about doing the translation collaboratively—I leapt at the chance, as you may imagine. Anne had already translated Rosero’s The Armies and together they had won the UK’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, so it felt pretty amazing to be discussing the possibility of working with such a formidable team. I got hold of the book as quickly as I could and the first thing I did was fall for the swooping rush of the prose. The second thing was to wonder how on earth to render it in English. Or perhaps I did those two things simultaneously. Translators read in a very special and peculiar way, I think, taking in the words as both readers and writers at the same time. It becomes hard not to do this, even when you’re reading purely for pleasure.

Finally, here’s Dan’s review of the novel, which opens:

Evelio Rosero’s first novel to be translated into English since his award-winning The Armies takes place on a much smaller scale than that hallucinatory story about the damaging effects of civil war in Colombia. Good Offices, lighter in tone and slighter than The Armies, documents the events of a single day in a single location: a Catholic church in Bogotá. The tale is told through the eyes of Tancredo, a young man with a hunchback, who assists the priest of the church, Father Almida, as an occasional acolyte but mainly by running the daily free lunches the church offers to the city’s neediest residents: “Tuesdays for the blind, Mondays for the whores, Fridays for families, Wednesdays for the street kids, Saturdays and Sundays for God, or so says the priest.”

Click here to access all of these features and to find links where you can buy a copy of the book.

22 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Evelio Rosero’s first novel to be translated into English since his award-winning The Armies takes place on a much smaller scale than that hallucinatory story about the damaging effects of civil war in Colombia. Good Offices, lighter in tone and slighter than The Armies, documents the events of a single day in a single location: a Catholic church in Bogotá. The tale is told through the eyes of Tancredo, a young man with a hunchback, who assists the priest of the church, Father Almida, as an occasional acolyte but mainly by running the daily free lunches the church offers to the city’s neediest residents: “Tuesdays for the blind, Mondays for the whores, Fridays for families, Wednesdays for the street kids, Saturdays and Sundays for God, or so says the priest.”

Tancredo and Father Almida not only work at the church but live in its presbytery, along with Machado, the sacristan; Sabina, Machado’s goddaughter; and “the three Lilias,” a clutch of women who run the household and who have come to resemble one another so closely that they go by the same name. The novel opens on a Thursday afternoon, “when it’s the old people’s turn” to be served lunch, and Tancredo has just finished kicking out the last of the diners. The anger he feels at their insistence on remaining in the church hall long past the end of the meal stirs in him “a terrible fear of being an animal,” although he is for the most part a mild-mannered, studious, and obedient servant of the church.

Beyond its opening pages, however, this short novel barely concerns Tancredo’s primary job. We witness a meeting at which Father Almida informs Tancredo that, starting Monday, the sacristan of the church will begin assisting Tancredo with the lunches, but after this scene nothing more about the meals is mentioned, which is a disappointment—and an oddity, considering that the Spanish title of Good Offices is Los almuerzos (“the lunches”).

Sabina, who lusts after Tancredo and has been waiting for a chance to be alone with him, is excited when Father Almida and her godfather are called away Thursday evening on a mysterious errand to dissuade Don Justiniano, the church’s main financial benefactor, from withdrawing his largesse on the basis of unspecified “lies” purportedly being spread by other priests in the city about the church’s use of Don Justiniano’s funds. But ultimately it is the three Lilias, not Sabina, who take the most pleasure from what transpires in the two men’s absence.

The book’s plot turns out to be built on an archetype: the arrival of a charismatic stranger who forever changes the life of a small, well-ordered community. Father Matamoros appears during a rainstorm to fill in for Father Almida at seven o’clock Mass. In contrast to Almida’s plainspoken efficaciousness, Matamoros is dreamy and poetic (and fond of drink—he swigs aguardiente during the service). But what most endears him to the evening parishioners is that he sings the Mass rather than speaks it, in a voice of great beauty and devotion:

Beneath the cold vaulted reaches, his voice seemed to come from heaven. He repeated his invitation to repent, singing: Beloved brethren, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us call to mind our sins. It was as if the organ were sounding. Tancredo lifted his gaze to the marble dome as if escaping and saw the host of painted angels flying among the clouds; he saw them return his gaze and still did not know whether to feel terrified or moved. How long it had been, he thought, since Mass had been sung. The purity of the voice was the air they breathed.

After this miracle of a Mass, the Lilias immediately and passionately ingratiate themselves with Matamoros, making him comfortable, bringing him food and drink and fawning over his talents. But the Mass of Father Matamoros also unleashes something disturbingly otherworldly in them, inspiring them (among other unusual behaviors) to conduct a bizarre and violent ritual in the church garden. Through the night and into the early hours of Friday, their power and ferocity grow to such an extent that not even Father Almida and Machado, when they return from their errand the next morning, are safe from it.

As difficult as it is to describe exactly what has happened to the Lilias, it is even more difficult to speculate about the significance Rosero ascribes to it. New Directions’ fall catalog states that Good Offices is a “beautifully poetic and vivid satire of the hypocrisies of the Catholic Church,” but the stability that Matamoros and the Lilias upset seems composed of far murkier and much more poorly explained elements than mere religious hypocrisy. Or perhaps it is the fervor of the Lilias themselves that is being satirized, but again, if so, Rosero is being far vaguer about his targets than true satire demands.

Further, at the end of the novel Rosero seems to be taking pains to cast Tancredo and Sabina as some kind of modern Adam and Eve, but over what new paradise (or hell?) they are to supposed to reign Rosero does not specify. We finish the book feeling we have experienced something unsettling, but unsure what, and still wondering what is to become of those daily free lunches we read about at the start.

24 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Dan Vitale on Bohumil Hrabal’s Vita Nuova, which is translated from the Czech by Tony Liman and available from Northwestern University Press.

Dan Vitale is a regular contributor to Three Percent—a program sponsored in party through a grant from NYSCA—and has written a number of thoughtful, interesting reviews for us.

Bohumil Hrabal is one of the all-time great writers. Closely Watched Trains, I Served the King of England, Too Loud a Solitude, all absolutely spectacular. It’s great that Northwestern has been publishing this “autobiographical trilogy,” which sounds both playful and captivating. The lack of commas and periods in this volume brings to mind the one-sentence Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, which is effing brilliant and will soon be available from NYRB.

Anyway, here’s a bit about Vita Nuova:

Vita Nuova is the second volume in a trilogy of autobiographical novels based on Bohumil Hrabal’s courtship of and marriage to Eliška Plevová (nicknamed Pipsi) and the first decade or so of his fame as one of Czechoslovakia’s most beloved writers. Originally published in samizdat in Prague in 1986, not long before Plevová’s death, and then in Toronto by Josef Škvorecký’s Czech-language 68 Publishers, the trilogy plays fast and loose with the concepts of both autobiography and the novel, reflecting each in a kind of narrative funhouse mirror: the books are narrated not by Hrabal nor a fictional stand-in but by Pipsi. That is, they are an act of creative ventriloquism by a novelist imagining that his wife had written three memoirs about their life together.

The first volume, In-House Weddings (translated, like Vita Nuova, by Tony Liman and available from Northwestern), is set during the late 1950s in the Prague district of Libeň, and covers the relatively short period between the couple’s first meeting in the courtyard of the building where Hrabal lives alone in a small flat, and their eventual wedding celebration in the same courtyard. Vita Nuova, which covers the first several years of the marriage, picks up the story shortly thereafter but with a sudden, startling change in Pipsi’s narrative voice, perhaps to reflect the “new life” indicated by the novel’s title. (The Italian is an homage to La Vita Nuova, Dante’s collection of annotated poems about courtly love, but the content of Hrabal’s book seems otherwise unconnected to Dante’s.) The relatively conventional paragraphs of In-House Weddings, though frequently made up of long and sometimes comma-spliced sentences, have given way to a series of pages-long paragraphs whose sentences, oddly, lack commas and periods but not initial capitals (although questions and exclamations are properly end-punctuated). A preface to the book acknowledges a stylistic debt to Molly Bloom’s stream-of-consciousness soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses, but (at least in translation) Hrabal’s prose is less disciplined and poetic than Joyce’s. After a chapter or two, the reader learns to rely on the capitals as the primary sign that one sentence has ended and another has begun, and the absence of periods becomes only the memory of an odd quirk that is never fully justified by the narrative.

Marriage has seemingly changed not just Pipsi’s writing style but her personality. In the first volume, she is strong but also forgiving and somewhat naïve. Ethnically German, hailing from a well-to-do family in the Czech region of Moravia, a survivor of racially-motivated persecution and forced labor during World War II, and most recently having been abandoned by an unfaithful fiancé, Pipsi is enamored of Hrabal and mostly indulgent toward his vices of procrastination and drink (though also quietly dismayed by them). In Vita Nuova she has suddenly become much flintier and more opinionated, much more open in her displeasures and dissatisfactions; as with the change in prose style, it is difficult to tell if Hrabal intends the contrast deliberately or has not exercised enough care in presenting the complexities of Pipsi’s character. At times we seem meant to pity her; at others she seems as extravagantly fuming a witness to her husband’s hapless misadventures as Margaret Dumont’s characters were to Groucho Marx’s shenanigans.

Click here to read the full review.

24 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Vita Nuova is the second volume in a trilogy of autobiographical novels based on Bohumil Hrabal’s courtship of and marriage to Eliška Plevová (nicknamed Pipsi) and the first decade or so of his fame as one of Czechoslovakia’s most beloved writers. Originally published in samizdat in Prague in 1986, not long before Plevová’s death, and then in Toronto by Josef Škvorecký’s Czech-language 68 Publishers, the trilogy plays fast and loose with the concepts of both autobiography and the novel, reflecting each in a kind of narrative funhouse mirror: the books are narrated not by Hrabal nor a fictional stand-in but by Pipsi. That is, they are an act of creative ventriloquism by a novelist imagining that his wife had written three memoirs about their life together.

The first volume, In-House Weddings (translated, like Vita Nuova, by Tony Liman and available from Northwestern), is set during the late 1950s in the Prague district of Libeň, and covers the relatively short period between the couple’s first meeting in the courtyard of the building where Hrabal lives alone in a small flat, and their eventual wedding celebration in the same courtyard. Vita Nuova, which covers the first several years of the marriage, picks up the story shortly thereafter but with a sudden, startling change in Pipsi’s narrative voice, perhaps to reflect the “new life” indicated by the novel’s title. (The Italian is an homage to La Vita Nuova, Dante’s collection of annotated poems about courtly love, but the content of Hrabal’s book seems otherwise unconnected to Dante’s.) The relatively conventional paragraphs of In-House Weddings, though frequently made up of long and sometimes comma-spliced sentences, have given way to a series of pages-long paragraphs whose sentences, oddly, lack commas and periods but not initial capitals (although questions and exclamations are properly end-punctuated). A preface to the book acknowledges a stylistic debt to Molly Bloom’s stream-of-consciousness soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses, but (at least in translation) Hrabal’s prose is less disciplined and poetic than Joyce’s. After a chapter or two, the reader learns to rely on the capitals as the primary sign that one sentence has ended and another has begun, and the absence of periods becomes only the memory of an odd quirk that is never fully justified by the narrative.

Marriage has seemingly changed not just Pipsi’s writing style but her personality. In the first volume, she is strong but also forgiving and somewhat naïve. Ethnically German, hailing from a well-to-do family in the Czech region of Moravia, a survivor of racially-motivated persecution and forced labor during World War II, and most recently having been abandoned by an unfaithful fiancé, Pipsi is enamored of Hrabal and mostly indulgent toward his vices of procrastination and drink (though also quietly dismayed by them). In Vita Nuova she has suddenly become much flintier and more opinionated, much more open in her displeasures and dissatisfactions; as with the change in prose style, it is difficult to tell if Hrabal intends the contrast deliberately or has not exercised enough care in presenting the complexities of Pipsi’s character. At times we seem meant to pity her; at others she seems as extravagantly fuming a witness to her husband’s hapless misadventures as Margaret Dumont’s characters were to Groucho Marx’s shenanigans.

There are many misadventures here, most of them of a domestic nature. The most entertaining involve Hrabal’s attempts at home improvement, aided by his diminutive friend Pepíček Sviatek. Even seen through Pipsi’s judgmental eyes, a slapstick scene in which Hrabal and Pepíček take apart and clean a soot-clogged stovepipe is a match for anything in a Laurel and Hardy short.

But sometimes Pipsi cannot contain herself, and lets fly with an outburst that would have been unimaginable coming from her in volume 1:

And now [Hrabal’s love-struck artist friend] Vladimir took the near-empty buckets and spun them in the air and whisked the last of the tar against the wall and then he cried out and collapsed in a heap and just lay there moaning like he’d fallen off a cliff And [Vladimir’s lover] Tekla leaned over him and clasped her hands and covered her eyes and my husband took a long draft from the pitcher and then passed it to Jirka and as they drank their eyes never left Vladimir who now sat up and raised that beautiful head of his and then he got to his feet and ran straight at the tar-wet wall onto which he’d poured out his very soul and he struck it headfirst but that wasn’t enough for him so he began to head-butt the wall like a ram and rivulets of blood flowed down around his eyes and Vladimir stood there and drove his head into the wall again and again and Tekla ran into the hallway and into the kitchen in tears implored Jirka and my husband to help and when they ran in Vladimir was already collapsed at the foot of the wall [. . .] unconscious and Jirka and my husband lifted his limp body and carried it into the hallway and Jirka brought a pail of water and knelt down and gently washed Vladimir’s face and his forehead . . . And that was all I could stand and I screamed at Tekla at the top of my lungs . . . Are you crazy you’re all out of your minds! For God’s sake what kind of crap are you trying to pull? And I turned on my husband and yelled in his face And you! How can you stand by and watch your friend like this!

For the most part, however, Pipsi takes a sympathetic view of her husband and his travails, especially when it comes to his writing. (Hrabal at this time had published only a book of poems, and was working intermittently on the stories that would later appear in the collection Pearls of the Deep.) She offers on more than one occasion to support them both on the income from her job as a server in a hotel restaurant so that he can quit his own job at a paper-recycling plant and concentrate full-time on his writing, but he consistently refuses. Still, even at her most generous, Pipsi is forced to treat the childlike Hrabal with something like tough love, though leavened with genuine concern and affection for his idler’s ways:

In vain I told my husband to drop everything to forget about going to work to concentrate on his writing in vain I told him to let me worry about the money but I guess my husband wasn’t quite ready yet for the solitude for the grit required to confront himself every day and work on his own writing [. . .] my husband got into this habit of settling down to write just before I got home from work he hammered away at the [typewriter] and when I came home he pretended to just be hitting his stride but oh well he’d have to pack it in now that I was home and pack it in he did because I had just about enough already I was sick of the standard excuse that he couldn’t write when I was at home [. . .] it was the same old tired excuse that I always countered with . . . Forget the job I’ll look after you . . . And my husband always pretended not to hear and when I laughed and stared him down he always averted his eyes and for the rest of the night wouldn’t utter a word [. . .] but with those oft-repeated words of mine I forced him to withstand that look to withstand and comprehend the full import of those words . . . Forget the job I’ll look after you . . . and somehow those words gave me strength I looked at my own reflection in the mirror and what I saw was a woman a waitress a cashier a fair woman who’d been brought back from the brink by her husband and now that I offered to look after him he was terrified that perhaps I was right perhaps he didn’t have the stuff to be alone to get down to writing all those things he went on about to others . . .

Although the Hrabal portrayed in Vita Nuova bears very little hint of his future status in Czech literature (this transformation will likely be described in the third volume of the trilogy, Vacant Lots, due out later this year from Northwestern in Liman’s translation), Hrabal the author of Pipsi’s “memoirs,” looking back on himself from the vantage of a quarter-century, has masterminded a ferocious and fascinating tangle of narrative perspectives. Toward the end of the book, we get this from Pipsi:

he was scared of mirrors he never wanted to look into a mirror but ultimately he always convinced himself that perhaps his face had improved that maybe he wasn’t as badly off as what he just saw in the mirror And then he looked at himself again at first just a guilty little glance and then he zeroed in and stared and as usual was alarmed by what he saw . . . How did he see himself?

It’s a good question: just whose opinions of Hrabal are we getting here? Hrabal the character’s? Hrabal the author’s? Or Pipsi the narrator’s? It’s impossible to know for sure. Whatever the answer, Vita Nuova gives us the opportunity to peer into Hrabal’s funhouse mirror, deep within which, without a doubt, is a grateful tribute to a long-suffering but loving spouse.

12 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Austrian actress, writer, and painter Mela Hartwig (1893–1967) published relatively little during her lifetime: a collection of stories, a novel, a novella, and a book of poems. She did most of this work between 1921, when she married and retired from acting, and 1938, when she and her husband moved to London to escape the Nazi occupation and annexation of Austria. Am I a Redundant Human Being?, written in 1931, was one of three completed novel manuscripts found (along with a fourth, incomplete novel) among her papers after her death. Unpublished until 2001, when it fueled a renewed interest in Hartwig’s work in her home country, the novel has now been translated by Kerri A. Pierce and published by Dalkey Archive Press—the first appearance of any of Hartwig’s books in English.

Am I a Redundant Human Being? is the monologue of Aloisia (known as Luise) Schmidt, a secretary at a Vienna construction firm. Luise narrates the events of her life from her early childhood at the turn of the twentieth century until about the age of 30. Judging from the intensely psychological focus of the book, it is clear that Hartwig’s Vienna is also very much the Vienna of Sigmund Freud; the narrative has the feel of a case study in low self-esteem. After an undistinguished school career, Luise’s life has been a mostly unbroken series of unfulfilling low-skilled clerical jobs and difficult relationships: tentative friendships with women, whom she tends to idolize and imitate excessively; and unstable romances with men, whom she tends to obsess over and who ultimately reject her over her neediness and her weakness of personality.

The bulk of the novel is taken up with the two most recent of these slavish involvements: first with Elizabeth, a narcissistic, melodramatic acting student, and then with Elizabeth’s arrogant ex-lover, the businessman Egon Z. (Note the quasi-Freudian use of initials to abbreviate surnames for the sake of anonymity, which Luise applies to all the men with whom she has been involved.) Although they come last in the story and take up almost half the book’s length, these two encounters underscore the essentially repetitive nature of Luise’s story, since they do not differ much in kind or significance from the earlier ones.

Further emphasizing this sense of repetition, Luise’s method throughout is to alternate descriptions of events from her life with moments of frank, poignant self-laceration that for the most part outshine in interest and originality the events that give rise to them. Here is one example from late in the novel:

I can’t remember what finally made me turn against this life, and the weak, pliable person I’d become, content with dreams—but I’ll never forget the disgust that filled me when I realized I was satisfied rather than desperate. I preferred escaping into dreams to confronting the real world. I was content with a phantom lover. I had become capable of deluding myself, precisely so that I wouldn’t have to see my life was hopeless. But no, I hadn’t “become” anything—I had always been like this. I had always fled from every deep, every painful emotion. Such sloth, such cowardice—I was simply repugnant. It seemed I wasn’t even capable of well-earned despair. Again I told myself that I’d never be able to experience true feeling, that I would only ever know its shadow. My whole life I’d lived off the one wretched ambition that still possessed me: to be more than I was; to reject and despise everything that was in my reach and to set goals I was incapable of reaching; to chase after emotions I was incapable of feeling; to seek out adventures I couldn’t live up to; to have a friendship that was no friendship, a love that was no love; ambitions yoked to a weak will, a will stuck in the mire of unfulfilled desire.

And another, from just six pages later:

What’s the point of a person like me, what? A person who will never amount to anything because she doesn’t believe in herself, who doesn’t believe in herself because she doesn’t amount to anything, a completely redundant human being? Who would miss me, who would mourn for me? My parents perhaps, but who else? I saw my mother before me, a vague image that only lasted a moment; I could hear her voice whisper in my ear, warning, imploring: “All you ever think about is yourself.”

How often had I heard “All you ever think about is yourself” from her? She’d said so at every opportunity, and yet I’d never understood or wanted to understand her. Now I flung her accusation back at myself: “All you ever think about is yourself.” It’s true, I admitted. All I ever think about is myself. My life might actually have something like a goal, a real purpose, if only I could forget myself, if only I could lose myself in the crowd, if only I could sacrifice myself to some higher purpose. But I had more fear of this sacrifice than of life itself. . . . Even if I knew I’d get back a thousand times what I’d given, I simply couldn’t let go of the tiny, despised bit of self that I still possessed, despite everything. Besides, what was I good for, really? The menial tasks that no one ever noticed? Simply becoming the tiniest cog in a huge machine wasn’t worth the sacrifice. I couldn’t afford to forget myself because everyone else forgot me anyway. Yes, I was self-absorbed all right, because otherwise I was nothing at all. Another repulsive revelation.

This degree of painfully heightened self-awareness both gives the book its Freudian flavor of psychoanalytic case study and, while fascinating, renders it static as a work of fiction. For although by the end of her monologue Luise has gained a slightly more mature perspective on her experiences, she has also not changed very much—except perhaps in the intensity of her resignation to her perceived character flaws. In this sense her narrative is if anything anti-psychoanalytic, since after describing her life Luise seems not to have learned how to cope with it any better. Instead, it seems as if her only point in her reminiscences is to remind us again and again of her deficiencies, and the constant repetition tends to undermine the reader’s desire to sympathize with her plight.

Despite the frustrations of the material, however, praise must be given to Pierce’s fluid and highly readable translation, whose momentum never flags throughout a work that is not broken into chapters and contains not even a single scene break. Nevertheless, in a few spots the text would have benefited from the attentions of a careful editor: a “leeching” instead of a “leaching,” two instances of “hand and hand” for “hand in hand,” a mistaken reference to a typewriter’s shift lock as the “caps lock,” and a document in which Luise is referred to with the specifically English or British (and somewhat anachronistic) title “Ms.” in place of “Fräulein.” These minor complaints aside, Pierce’s translation is a pleasure to follow from start to finish, even while Hartwig’s fiction itself seems to run in place.

12 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Dan Vitale on Mela Hartwig’s Am I a Redundant Human Being?, which was translated from the German by Kerri A. Pierce and published earlier this year by Dalkey Archive Press.

I remember first hearing about this book while on an editorial trip with John O’Brien to Austria. It sounded really interesting at the time—I think they pitched her as a Austrian Virginia Woolf—and I’m really glad this finally made its way into English. (Though I’m not entirely sold on the title . . . Feels so stiff, robotic.)

Anyway, Dan Vitale — who is a contributing reviewer — wrote this piece, and really seemed to like the book. (Typos and all.) Here’s the opening of his review:

The Austrian actress, writer, and painter Mela Hartwig (1893–1967) published relatively little during her lifetime: a collection of stories, a novel, a novella, and a book of poems. She did most of this work between 1921, when she married and retired from acting, and 1938, when she and her husband moved to London to escape the Nazi occupation and annexation of Austria. Am I a Redundant Human Being?, written in 1931, was one of three completed novel manuscripts found (along with a fourth, incomplete novel) among her papers after her death. Unpublished until 2001, when it fueled a renewed interest in Hartwig’s work in her home country, the novel has now been translated by Kerri A. Pierce and published by Dalkey Archive Press—the first appearance of any of Hartwig’s books in English.

Am I a Redundant Human Being? is the monologue of Aloisia (known as Luise) Schmidt, a secretary at a Vienna construction firm. Luise narrates the events of her life from her early childhood at the turn of the twentieth century until about the age of 30. Judging from the intensely psychological focus of the book, it is clear that Hartwig’s Vienna is also very much the Vienna of Sigmund Freud; the narrative has the feel of a case study in low self-esteem. After an undistinguished school career, Luise’s life has been a mostly unbroken series of unfulfilling low-skilled clerical jobs and difficult relationships: tentative friendships with women, whom she tends to idolize and imitate excessively; and unstable romances with men, whom she tends to obsess over and who ultimately reject her over her neediness and her weakness of personality.

Click here to read the full review.

24 May 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A. H. Tammsaare was the pseudonym of Anton Hansen, considered by many to be Estonia’s greatest writer. Born in 1878 (on a farm called Tammsaare, or “Oak Island”), Hansen did not graduate from secondary school until age 25, because his family’s sporadic income necessitated long hiatuses in his education. However, he was a talented student, and began publishing his first fiction at about that same age. His magnum opus, the five-volume Truth and Justice, was published between 1926 and 1933. Epic in scope, it covers a long period of Estonian history, portraying characters from a range of social classes in both rural and urban settings.

The Misadventures of the New Satan (1939) was Tammsaare’s last novel (he died the following year). This edition is a revision, by Christopher Moseley, of an English translation by Olga Shartze published in Moscow in 1978, the hundredth anniversary of Tammsaare’s birth. In contrast to the ambition and breadth of Truth and Justice, it has the deceptive simplicity of a folktale.

On its surface, the novel’s plot is extremely mundane. Jürka, a brawny, simpleminded peasant farmer, struggles for economic survival against the elements and the whims of his double-dealing, double-talking neighbor (and later landlord), known locally as Cunning Ants. Life on Jürka’s farm, the Pit, is difficult and harsh: in the course of his long life Jürka buries two wives and also a few of his children, who are so numerous that Tammsaare never bothers to mention them all. Predictably, Ants takes advantage of Jürka’s labor, his good nature, and his almost total lack of business sense, until at the end of the story, when Ants threatens everything Jürka has worked so hard for, Jürka commits a violent and foolhardy act of revenge.

What saves the book from being little more than a rustic melodrama is the supernatural twist Tammsaare has given it: Jürka is Satan in human form. In a prologue, we witness a conversation between Satan and St. Peter in which we learn that the continued existence of hell is threatened by God’s suspicion that human beings are incapable of salvation and should therefore not be eternally punished for failing at something that was never within their power to achieve. To protect his fiefdom, Satan agrees to be subjected to earthly incarnation so as to win salvation and thereby prove God wrong. If he succeeds, then God will let hell—and humankind—continue to exist.

This premise makes for moments of social comedy as, for example, both Ants and the self-serving village pastor marvel at Jürka’s strong desire for redemption, which dwarfs their own more practically motivated religious faith. (Tammsaare has Ants think of himself as “[not] too devout, of course, but he had the wits to give the matter serious thought shortly before the end. What counted was whether you believed or not just before you died.”) Although Jürka insists to each of them that he is actually the Devil and craves salvation only as a means of keeping hell going, they either consider this a sign of mental instability or, even if they accept it as true, believe it to be of no real bearing in a world where arranging a comfortable life on Earth takes priority over planning for the future of one’s soul.

Tammsaare is adept at deadpan humor, especially in the dialogues between Jürka and Ants, whose self-interest defies logic and yet makes a twisted sense of its own, almost as if he were a precursor of the unabashed profiteer Milo Minderbinder in Catch-22:

‘Concerning that house which we built on my crossroads with your loan. You see, Jürka, this house is, so to say, part of the Pit, in as much as it was built with that land-improvement money, and during the time you were the owner of the Pit. And now it’s I who am the owner of the Pit, while you have become the tenant as before. But when you were merely the tenant you wouldn’t have received the loan, and you only got it when you became a property owner. I don’t know what you think about it, but the way I see it is like this: if you’re only a tenant and not the owner could the house which is part of the Pit belong to you? To make my meaning clear, here’s an example: suppose you have an axe and you sell it, would you say that the handle belongs to you after the deal has been made and the money for the axe has been paid you?’

‘I guess not.’

‘The handle, therefore, belongs to the chap who bought the axe, doesn’t it?’

‘I guess so.’

‘We’ve got it all clear then. The Pit is the axe, and the house on the crossroads is the handle, and since I’ve bought the Pit—the axe, in other words, the handle that came with it, meaning the house at the crossroads, also belongs to me.’

‘I see. The Pit was there before the house, of course.’

‘That’s what I say too,’ Ants said in agreement. ‘There was the Pit and then the house appeared—no Pit, no house, because what good is a handle if there’s no axe? . . .’

At the same time, Tammsaare is capable of real poignancy, as when Jürka mourns the accidental death of one of his young children:

Tears welled from his eyes when he lowered the little coffin into the grave, and when the clods of earth fell with a hollow thud on the lid. Jürka’s tears were the talk of the village, for it was a sight no one ever expected to see—imagine that huge bear of a man weeping! . . .

There was one thing that Jürka knew very clearly now—one’s own children meant something entirely different from the calves and lambs one had, from baby birds in the nest, from new, tender shoots on a tree, from grass sprouting in the woods and rye in the fields. None of this had ever brought tears to his eyes.

Ultimately The Misadventures of the New Satan is both a sly satire on human greed and a passionate indictment of human injustice. The humor and the sadness of Tammsaare’s worldview might best be summed up in this early exchange between Ants and Jürka:

‘Well, that’s how it goes in the world,’ Ants said instructively. ‘A small man slaves for a big man, a weak one for a strong one, a fool for a clever man. It’s God Himself who arranged it like that. And whoever goes against this order, goes against God, and anyone who goes against God shall perish. Remember this well, Jürka, and teach this truth to your children. And then you shall build your house on rock, and your herds shall graze in rich pastures.’

Jürka heard him out and said to himself: ‘You keep running up against God everywhere, and He’s always on the side of whoever’s stronger and smarter.’

24 May 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Dan Vitale on A. H. Tammsaare’s The Misadventures of the New Satan, which was translated by Olga Shartze, revised by Christopher Moseley and published by Norvik/Dufour.

Although the title would be well suited to a mediocre sit-com, this novel sounds pretty interesting:

The Misadventures of the New Satan (1939) was Tammsaare’s last novel (he died the following year). This edition is a revision, by Christopher Moseley, of an English translation by Olga Shartze published in Moscow in 1978, the hundredth anniversary of Tammsaare’s birth. In contrast to the ambition and breadth of Truth and Justice, it has the deceptive simplicity of a folktale.

On its surface, the novel’s plot is extremely mundane. Jürka, a brawny, simpleminded peasant farmer, struggles for economic survival against the elements and the whims of his double-dealing, double-talking neighbor (and later landlord), known locally as Cunning Ants. Life on Jürka’s farm, the Pit, is difficult and harsh: in the course of his long life Jürka buries two wives and also a few of his children, who are so numerous that Tammsaare never bothers to mention them all. Predictably, Ants takes advantage of Jürka’s labor, his good nature, and his almost total lack of business sense, until at the end of the story, when Ants threatens everything Jürka has worked so hard for, Jürka commits a violent and foolhardy act of revenge.

What saves the book from being little more than a rustic melodrama is the supernatural twist Tammsaare has given it: Jürka is Satan in human form. In a prologue, we witness a conversation between Satan and St. Peter in which we learn that the continued existence of hell is threatened by God’s suspicion that human beings are incapable of salvation and should therefore not be eternally punished for failing at something that was never within their power to achieve. To protect his fiefdom, Satan agrees to be subjected to earthly incarnation so as to win salvation and thereby prove God wrong. If he succeeds, then God will let hell—and humankind—continue to exist.

Dan’s one of our longtime reviewers (see his other pieces here) and you can read his full review of The Misadventures of the New Satan by clicking here.

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.

24 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Peter Handke’s latest novella to be published in English translation is narrated by a chef who operates and lives in an inn in the Île-de-France region outside Paris, near the ruins of the Port-Royal-des-Champs convent. Experiencing a period of solitude due to lack of business (all his neighbors — his potential customers — have moved away), he occupies his time reading. Thus, he is an ideal audience for a visiting storyteller who suddenly and fancifully appears in his garden: a visitor from another century and out of the pages of literature — the legendary lover Don Juan.

Handke, in addition to being a brilliant, occasionally controversial playwright and essayist, has for four decades written numerous brief, brilliant, piercing novellas (and two longer works of fiction, including his masterpiece My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay). These works have carried forward the tradition of intensely psychological German-language modernism (Handke is Austrian) and at the same time taken it in new, breathtaking, highly self-conscious directions. A simple recital of some of his titles — The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick; A Sorrow Beyond Dreams; A Moment of True Feeling; and the collection of journal entries The Weight of the World — is enough to capture the dual atmosphere of mournful angst and tender beauty in which his entire oeuvre is steeped.

So, the entrance of the title character in Don Juan: His Own Version is, for Handke, uncharacteristically lighthearted, even farcical:

. . . Don Juan came hurtling head over heels onto my property. He had been preceded by a sort of spear, or lance, that whizzed through the air in an arc and dug itself into the earth right at my feet. The cat, which was lying next to that spot on the grass, blinked a few times, then went right back to sleep, and a sparrow — what other bird could have pulled this off? — landed on the still quivering shaft, which then continued to quiver. In actuality the lance was just a hazel branch, slightly pointed at the tip, such as you could cut for yourself anywhere in the forests around Port-Royal.

The novella’s subtitle, which translates literally as something closer to “As Told by Himself,” is misleading for a few reasons, most obviously that Don Juan isn’t actually the narrator. We do not hear Don Juan directly describe his exploits — not even in quoted dialogue — but instead are told everything secondhand, by the chef. Additionally, the novella is not a retelling of the famous Don Juan legend depicted in the well-known play by Molière or the libretto of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Instead, Don Juan’s narrative spans the previous week, a period marked by encounters with several women. We get fewer details of each encounter than of the one before, ostensibly because they are significant to Don Juan only in the ways that they differ from each other. Also, we might suspect, Handke feels that each encounter is basically the same as the others. All that seems to interest him is the archetype.

The first of the week’s encounters is with a young bride in a village near Tblisi, Georgia, and the last is one about which we receive no details whatsoever. The intermediate encounters take place in far-flung cities — Damascus, Ceuta (North Africa), Bergen (Norway), and an unnamed city in Holland — due to Don Juan’s supernatural ability to travel quickly from one part of the world to another, in the company of his servant, the driver who initially met him at the Tblisi airport.

In order to characterize these encounters, the word “seduction” is studiously avoided. This is because, according to Don Juan himself (via the chef), he “was no seducer.” The chef explains:

He had never seduced a woman. He had certainly run into some who had accused him of doing so. But these women had either been lying or no longer knew what they were thinking, and had actually intended to express something altogether different. And conversely, Don Juan had never been seduced by a woman. Perhaps now and then he had let one of these would-be seductresses have their way, or whatever it was, only to make it clear to her in the twinkling of an eye that there was no seduction involved and that he, the man, was neither the seducee nor the opposite. He had a kind of power. But his power was of a different sort.

Perhaps his power is linked to the fact that this “version” of Don Juan is propelled not by lust or the urge to conquest, but by a profound sadness:

Don Juan was orphaned, and not in any figurative sense. Years earlier he had lost the person closest to him, not his father or his mother, but his child, his only child, or at least so it seemed to me. So one could also become an orphan when one’s child died, and how. Or maybe his woman had died, the only one he loved?

. . . What drove him was nothing but his inconsolability and his sorrow. To transport his sorrow to the world and transmit it to the world. Don Juan lived off his sorrow as a source of strength. It was bigger than he was and transcended him. Armored in it, so to speak, and not merely so to speak, he knew that although he was not immortal he was invulnerable. Sorrow was something that made him impetuous, and, in an opposite and equal reaction (or rather action by action), completely permeable and open to whatever might happen, while at the same time invisible when necessary. His sorrow furnished provisions for his journey. It nourished him in every respect. As a result he had no major needs. Such needs did not even rear their heads. . . . His sorrowing, fundamental rather than episodic, was an activity.

Indeed, Handke’s Don Juan is hardly the romancer and swashbuckler of legend but more of a tempered and introspective figure, much like the protagonists in many of Handke’s works since Slow Homecoming (1984). These characters are personified as wanderers — sojourners often suffering from unspecified psychological trauma, whose psychic survival seems to depend on their capacity to apprehend every last detail of their physical surroundings. This is why so much of Handke’s fiction is both mentally claustrophobic and expansively celebratory of nature, why it can feel at the same time so suffocatingly pessimistic about humanity and yet unguardedly optimistic that the soul may nevertheless flourish in a world that contains so much splendor. Toward the end of the novella, the chef captures some of this natural beauty:

In the hill forests around Port-Royal the edible chestnuts had just come into bloom, and the cream-colored strings of blossoms hung down among the dark oaks like crowns of foam atop waves, seething on all sides in the area surrounding the ruins, and from the silent surf rose, at the very top, back on the Île-de-France plateau, the pale red roof of the former cloister stables of Port-Royal, a roof with a tile landscape more beautiful and strange and yet dreamily familiar, as part of a barely discovered planet, than anything I had seen before, and the swallows swooping above it into the last sunlight moved twice as fast, as if propelled by the light.

Don Juan: His Own Version is an intriguing and frequently thought-provoking exercise. Although not on par with Handke’s earlier work, it contains many examples of his acutely self-aware and at times exquisitely gorgeous prose. Even, as here, when displayed only occasionally to its best advantage, Handke’s voice is strong and nearly unparalleled in contemporary world literature.

24 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece on Peter Handke’s latest novella, Don Juan: His Own Version, which is translated from the German by Krishna Winston and published by FSG.

Dan Vitale—one of our new “contributing reviewers,” which is sponsored by a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts—wrote this review. He’s a big Handke fan, and although this may not be Handke’s absolute best, it sounds pretty interesting:

Peter Handke’s latest novella to be published in English translation is narrated by a chef who operates and lives in an inn in the Île-de-France region outside Paris, near the ruins of the Port-Royal-des-Champs convent. Experiencing a period of solitude due to lack of business (all his neighbors — his potential customers — have moved away), he occupies his time reading. Thus, he is an ideal audience for a visiting storyteller who suddenly and fancifully appears in his garden: a visitor from another century and out of the pages of literature — the legendary lover Don Juan.

Handke, in addition to being a brilliant, occasionally controversial playwright and essayist, has for four decades written numerous brief, brilliant, piercing novellas (and two longer works of fiction, including his masterpiece My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay). These works have carried forward the tradition of intensely psychological German-language modernism (Handke is Austrian) and at the same time taken it in new, breathtaking, highly self-conscious directions. A simple recital of some of his titles — The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick; A Sorrow Beyond Dreams; A Moment of True Feeling; and the collection of journal entries The Weight of the World — is enough to capture the dual atmosphere of mournful angst and tender beauty in which his entire oeuvre is steeped.

So, the entrance of the title character in Don Juan: His Own Version is, for Handke, uncharacteristically lighthearted, even farcical.

Click here to read the full review.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We were formally introduced:

“Doctor Lejard, my husband’s GP.”

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

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

9 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re really not trying to kick Amos Oz while he’s down, but in addition to not winning the Nobel Prize for Literature yesterday (there had been rampant speculation, and he was the odds-on favorite for a while), it sounds like his new novel is as messy as the new Houghton Mifflin Harcourt website1 . . . At least according to our reviewer Dan Vitale whose piece on Rhyming Life & Death is the latest addition to our Review section.

Here’s the opening:

The short novel is a form in which writers typically exercise great control over their material, accepting the abbreviated length as a kind of challenge, working within that limitation to craft a tight, jewel-like story in which all the elements of the piece—plot, tone, imagery—work together to create a unified artistic effect similar to that of a short story. (Think Heart of Darkness, Death in Venice, The Metamorphosis, or The Old Man and the Sea.) This is decidedly not the case with Rhyming Life and Death, Amos Oz’s latest work of fiction to be published in the U.S. in translation.

There is no doubt that Oz, one of Israel’s most prominent writers, is a master. For four decades he has been producing powerful and moving novels such as Elsewhere, Perhaps (1966; translated 1973) and Fima (1993); he is also the author of A Tale of Love and Darkness (2002; translated 2004), an extraordinarily beautiful memoir of his childhood in Jerusalem. But Rhyming Life & Death is quite simply a mess. For such a brief work it is annoyingly loose and undisciplined, and its overall artistic effect borders on incoherence.

Click here for the rest.

1 There are so many cool people I know at HMH that I feel bad always ragging on their web shenanigans. But damn, someone there must have a clue as to how the Internets function. I’ll walk you step-by-step through my most recent experience. For this review, I wanted to include a link to HMH’s page about Rhyming Life & Death. This is something we always do in order to give publishers some attention and provide readers with another source of information. And why not? Every publisher has a website nowadays, right? So I type “Houghton Mifflin Harcourt” into Google and am lead here. WTF am I supposed to do now? My obvious choices are: “At Home,” “At School,” “Around the World,” “Recent News” . . . behind which one of these will I find info about Amos Oz? Since I’m sort of kind of “at home,” I click there and find this, which, at first glance, is about a) Best Sellers (not the Oz book), b) Reference & Professional (shouldn’t this be in “At School” or maybe “At Work”?), and c) Learn @ Home (which really merges that whole “Home” vs. “School” divide on the main menu). Info on all the HMH trade titles for sale in your local bookstore? . . . Well, if you read carefully enough, you’ll find the link beneath “Best Sellers,” which is fucking illogical and pretty deceitful. What’s particularly aggravating about this is the fact that this is at least the fourth different HMH site I’ve tried to use in the past two years and every version has been pure suck. Look, I know you’re bankrupt and all, but please, pay a teenager $50 to show you how people actually use websites. Or just get off the Web.

9 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The short novel is a form in which writers typically exercise great control over their material, accepting the abbreviated length as a kind of challenge, working within that limitation to craft a tight, jewel-like story in which all the elements of the piece—plot, tone, imagery—work together to create a unified artistic effect similar to that of a short story. (Think Heart of Darkness, Death in Venice, The Metamorphosis, or The Old Man and the Sea.) This is decidedly not the case with Rhyming Life & Death, Amos Oz’s latest work of fiction to be published in the U.S. in translation.

There is no doubt that Oz, one of Israel’s most prominent writers, is a master. For four decades he has been producing powerful and moving novels such as Elsewhere, Perhaps (1966; translated 1973) and Fima (1993); he is also the author of A Tale of Love and Darkness (2002; translated 2004), an extraordinarily beautiful memoir of his childhood in Jerusalem. But Rhyming Life & Death is quite simply a mess. For such a brief work it is annoyingly loose and undisciplined, and its overall artistic effect borders on incoherence.

The story takes place in Tel Aviv in the early 1980s. A famous Israeli writer in his forties—referred to only as the Author—has been invited to a cultural center to participate in a literary evening devoted to his work. His question-and-answer session with the audience is the last part of the program, preceded by a critic’s lecture and a professional reader’s recital of excerpts from one of the Author’s books.

Before arriving at the cultural center, the Author stops at a café, and we get our first chance to see his creative mind in action. He has barely communicated his order to the waitress before he has begun to speculate about her, and has soon mentally concocted an entire fictional history of her life. Far from this being an idle fancy of his, it turns out to be the Author’s primary way of seeing the world. Almost immediately we get similar speculative portraits of two other café customers, and then, at the cultural center, additional portraits of several audience members as well as the critic and the center’s director. In each case, the Author assigns the person a fictional name, even when it would be reasonable to expect (as with the critic and the director) that the Author would know the person’s real name.

After the program, the Author initiates a conversation with the professional reader, whose (apparently real) name is Rochele Reznik. He escorts her home, then wanders the streets in the company of his various thoughts and imaginings; later he returns to Rochele’s apartment and attempts to seduce her. Afterward, he wanders the streets again, thinking more thoughts, imagining more scenarios about the lives of the people he has met this evening. And that’s essentially it.

Which would be fine if the Author’s speculations, memories, and aesthetic theories were unique or compelling. But for the most part they seem banal, as when, for example, he imagines one of the audience members (whom he names Arnold Bartok) meditating on the supposedly symbiotic relationship between life and death:

One might say, he argues, that life and death came into the world together, as a dialectical pair whose members are indissolubly interdependent: say life and you’ve said death as well. And vice versa. The day life appeared on Earth, death appeared with it.

But this is a completely false supposition, Arnold Bartok reasons. For millions of years trillions of organisms flourished on Earth without any of them ever experiencing death. . . . Only in the present age, when a different form of reproduction, sexual reproduction, appeared, did ageing and death occur.

In only one instance do the Author’s thoughts rise above the predictable to take on a haunting, touching quality, when the Author debates with himself about the ultimate value of the fiction writer’s task:

He is covered in shame and confusion because he observes [his subjects] all from a distance, from the wings, as if they all exist only for him to make use of in his books. And with the shame comes a profound sadness that he is always an outsider, unable to touch or be touched . . . .

To write about things that exist, to try to capture a color or smell or sound in words, is a little like playing Schubert when Schubert is sitting in the hall, and perhaps sniggering in the darkness.

Even so, one can’t help feeling that these sentences would be more at home in an essay (such as those that appear in Oz’s wonderful 1999 collection of literary criticism, The Story Begins).

But the deeper problem with Rhyming Life & Death is illustrated by Oz’s handling of the Author’s return to Rochele’s apartment. At the start of this sequence, each new step in the narrative is introduced with words like “maybe,” “perhaps,” or “but there is another possibility”—as if the sequence were not really unfolding in time but were only another of the Author’s speculations. Nevertheless, actual narrative choices are being made: Oz inexplicably drops the qualifiers as suddenly as he’d introduced them; the sequence does after all unfold in a definitive manner; it contains actions and reactions; certain things transpire while others do not. Oz is trying to have it both ways, but the rules of fiction virtually forbid this. Because if the sequence is speculative, then nothing would prevent the entire novel from being speculative: not just everything the Author imagines about the lives of those around him but the visits to the café and the cultural center—the initial events from which the rest of the novel springs—and even the existence of the Author himself.

Of course, nothing in fiction is “real,” but in order to make any sense fiction has to posit itself as real or else call explicit attention to its artifice. But Rhyming Life & Death does neither. Instead, the text just hangs in a void, leaving no firm ground on which to engage with it. Rather than being an artist’s exploration of the “shame and confusion” of indulging in idle fancy, the work itself becomes an idle fancy. Even a narrative about the basic falseness of narrative could be made to feel true in the hands of a careful writer, but in this short, self-canceling novel Oz has abdicated the artist’s responsibility of shaping his text and making it signify something. Art doesn’t get much more incoherent.

8 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the past few years, New Directions has put together what is arguably the best collection of contemporary Latin American literature available from any single publisher. Sure, there’s the heaps of Bolano titles. But there’s also Cesar Aira. And Horacio Castellanos Moya. There’s Guillermo Rosales’s The Halfway House. Ernesto Cardenal’s poetry collection. The two Luis Fernando Verissimo books. Felisberto Hernández and Julio Cortazar’s Final Exam. The reissues of the Borges titles. One could do a lot worse than spend a few months with the Latin American section of the ND catalog . . .

And now comes Evelio Rosero’s The Armies, the translation of which—as Dan mentions in his review—won Anne McLean her second Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier this year.

Dan Vitale—reviewer, writer, and editor—has a lot of great things to say about The Armies and its translation in his review:

Anne McLean’s translation of Colombian novelist Evelio Rosero’s The Armies is the winner of this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, given by Great Britain’s Independent newspaper to honor excellence in translated works of fiction published in the UK. (It’s McLean’s second nod from the The Independent in five years: she also won the prize in 2004 for her translation of Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas.)

New Directions has now released The Armies in the U.S. The novel—to my knowledge, the first by Rosero to be translated into English—is a deceptively calm, at times even placid look at a staggeringly violent subject: the perpetual atrocities being committed against human life and dignity by the combatants in the seemingly endless civil war in Colombia. Rosero’s ability to write so plainly about such horrors gives the book an unearthly aspect, as if its setting, the town of San José, were as bleak and forbidding as the post-apocalyptic landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or the unnamed city in José Saramago’s Blindness whose inhabitants all lose their sight. The residents of San José, too, will become crippled, although by forces entirely human and familiar: the murderous bands of warring forces referred to throughout the novel only as “soldiers,” “guerrillas,” or “paramilitaries.”

Rosero’s narrator, Ismael Pasos, is a retired schoolteacher married to Otilia, also retired from teaching. Two years before the present action of the novel begins, the church in San José is dynamited, leaving fourteen dead and sixty-four wounded. As the novel opens, the town is again relatively quiet, but the small compass of Ismael and Otilia’s world soon starts to be affected by random violence: the mutilated corpse of a newborn has been discovered in a rubbish dump. Shortly afterward, Ismael and Otilia’s next-door neighbor Eusebio is kidnapped. The next day, while out for a walk, Ismael is detained by soldiers, and when he returns home, Otilia is gone. Ismael sets off to find her.

Click here for the full review.

8 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Anne McLean’s translation of Colombian novelist Evelio Rosero’s The Armies is the winner of this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, given by Great Britain’s Independent newspaper to honor excellence in translated works of fiction published in the UK. (It’s McLean’s second nod from the The Independent in five years: she also won the prize in 2004 for her translation of Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas.)

New Directions has now released The Armies in the U.S. The novel—to my knowledge, the first by Rosero to be translated into English—is a deceptively calm, at times even placid look at a staggeringly violent subject: the perpetual atrocities being committed against human life and dignity by the combatants in the seemingly endless civil war in Colombia. Rosero’s ability to write so plainly about such horrors gives the book an unearthly aspect, as if its setting, the town of San José, were as bleak and forbidding as the post-apocalyptic landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or the unnamed city in José Saramago’s Blindness whose inhabitants all lose their sight. The residents of San José, too, will become crippled, although by forces entirely human and familiar: the murderous bands of warring forces referred to throughout the novel only as “soldiers,” “guerrillas,” or “paramilitaries.”

Rosero’s narrator, Ismael Pasos, is a retired schoolteacher married to Otilia, also retired from teaching. Two years before the present action of the novel begins, the church in San José is dynamited, leaving fourteen dead and sixty-four wounded. As the novel opens, the town is again relatively quiet, but the small compass of Ismael and Otilia’s world soon starts to be affected by random violence: the mutilated corpse of a newborn has been discovered in a rubbish dump. Shortly afterward, Ismael and Otilia’s next-door neighbor Eusebio is kidnapped. The next day, while out for a walk, Ismael is detained by soldiers, and when he returns home, Otilia is gone. Ismael sets off to find her.

In the course of his wanderings in search of Otilia, Ismael faces one trauma after another. He learns that Eusebio’s twelve-year-old son Eusebito has also been taken away, as has the girl, also twelve, that Eusebio and his wife Geraldina took in after her parents were killed in the church explosion. He encounters wayward gunfire from a frustrated army captain and survives a grenade attack on his home. He discovers that several of his friends have been murdered, including two who were victims of a massacre at a hospital. He receives letters from his married daughter Maria in Popayán, who implores her parents to leave San José before things get worse—letters he is helpless to answer in part because he cannot bring himself to tell Maria that Otilia is missing. He commiserates with Chepe, the café owner whose pregnant wife is kidnapped, and stands his ground to await Otilia’s increasingly unlikely return, even as many of the other surviving townspeople begin an exodus out of San José.

The glimpses of the lives of the people of San José that Rosero weaves into Ismael’s narrative are as varied and engaging as those in Gabriel García Márquez’s In Evil Hour, another enduring work about political violence in a small Colombian town. For example, in a startling flash-forward, we are with Geraldina three months after the hospital massacre, when Eusebito is suddenly returned to her:

Now all her preoccupation is focused entirely on her son so reserved he almost seems dead; in vain she attempts to wake him from the nightmare he is in: she hovers around him every minute of the day, hanging on his every gesture, and falls back desperately on a kind of game of deluded songs, in which she uselessly tries to convince herself that he participates, he, a child who seems mummified, stuck in an urn.

The breathlessness of Ismael’s long sentences in this section add even more weight to the heaviness of Geraldina’s grief, as if on top of everything else she were being starved for air.

By the end of the novel, as Ismael loses track of the days and weeks, Geraldina becomes virtually his only connection to normal life. The book’s final sections are stunning: unnerving in their suspense, tragic in their clear-eyed depiction of the apparently infinite capacity of some human beings—legitimated only by the authority of brute force—to perform acts of supreme degradation upon others.

During it all, as he suffers one indignity after another, and despite the repeated pummeling his spirit takes with each new piece of ghastly news he hears, Ismael remains our diligent witness to unspeakable acts, his instinct for self-preservation not so much a heroic aspect of the human spirit as the stubborn persistence of a wounded animal. Near the end of the book Ismael rouses himself, with one last burst of strength, to continue on, in a passage so beautiful it deserves to be quoted in full:

From the trees a cluster of birds takes flight, after a series of bursts of gunfire, still distant. Far away, another group of stragglers, men and women, rush along the road: it looks as if they are fleeing on tiptoe, trying not to make any noise, with voluntary, disproportionate stealth. Some of the women point to me, terrified, as if commenting to each other on the presence of a ghost. I have sat down on a flat, white rock, under a fragrant magnolia tree; I do not remember this rock either, or this magnolia, when did they appear? With every reason I do not know this street, these corners, things, I have lost my memory, just as if I were sinking and I began to walk one by one down steps which lead to the most unknown, this town, I shall stay alone, I suppose, but in some way I shall make this town my home, and I shall stroll through you, town, until Otilia comes for me.

I shall eat what they have left in their kitchens, I shall sleep in all their beds, I shall recognize their stories by their vestiges, guessing at their lives from the clothes they left behind, my time shall be another time, I shall amuse myself, I am not blind, I shall cure my knee, I shall walk up to the high plateau as a stroll and then return, my cats will continue to feed me, if weeping is all that is left, let it be out of happiness; am I going to cry? No, just burst out laughing with all the unpredictable laughter I have been holding back all this time, and I am going to laugh because I have just seen my daughter, beside me, you have sat down on this rock, I tell her, I hope you understand all the horror that I am, inside, ‘or all the love’—this last I say out loud, laughing—I hope you are drawing near in sympathy with me, that you forgive the only one guilty of the disappearance of your mother, because I left her on her own.

As rendered by Anne McLean, these lines—and many others like them in this remarkable, haunting novel—surely warrant the accolade this translation received in Britain. Now that The Armies has been published here, U.S. readers can readily experience its immense power for themselves.

26 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Dan Vitale on A. B. Yehoshua’s Friendly Fire.

In addition to reviewing for Three Percent (he recently reviewed Aharon Appelfeld’s Laish for us), Dan is a writer, editor, and book reviewer.

Yehoshua is considered to be one of the greatest Israeli writers of his generation, and over the past couple decades, Harcourt has made a number of his books available in English translation, including Mr. Mani, Five Seasons, Open Heart, and A Woman in Jerusalem.

Here’s the opening of Dan’s review of Friendly Fire:

The subtitle of A. B. Yehoshua’s Friendly Fire is A Duet, but its most distinguishing characteristic is the dissonance between its two voices. In the novel’s series of brief alternating sections we are shuttled between the perspectives of a gently controlling husband, Amotz Ya’ari, an engineer; and his increasingly distracted wife Daniela, a schoolteacher. On the morning after the first night of Hanukkah, Amotz takes Daniela to the Tel Aviv airport to board a flight to Nairobi, the layover stop on her way to Morogoro, Tanzania, to visit her brother-in-law Yirmiyahu, the widowed husband of her sister Shuli, who died a year before.

bq Instead of returning to Israel after Shuli’s death and the more recent termination of his job as chargé d’affaires of the Israeli economic mission in Dar es Salaam, Yirmiyahu has fled to an area southwest of Morogoro for a new job with an anthropological research team. Disgusted with his home country, Yirmiyahu is still bitterly mourning another death: that of his son Eyal, an Israeli soldier killed on the West Bank seven years before by friendly fire, just before the start of the second intifada.

Click here for the full review.

26 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The subtitle of A. B. Yehoshua’s Friendly Fire is A Duet, but its most distinguishing characteristic is the dissonance between its two voices. In the novel’s series of brief alternating sections we are shuttled between the perspectives of a gently controlling husband, Amotz Ya’ari, an engineer; and his increasingly distracted wife Daniela, a schoolteacher. On the morning after the first night of Hanukkah, Amotz takes Daniela to the Tel Aviv airport to board a flight to Nairobi, the layover stop on her way to Morogoro, Tanzania, to visit her brother-in-law Yirmiyahu, the widowed husband of her sister Shuli, who died a year before.

Instead of returning to Israel after Shuli’s death and the more recent termination of his job as chargé d’affaires of the Israeli economic mission in Dar es Salaam, Yirmiyahu has fled to an area southwest of Morogoro for a new job with an anthropological research team. Disgusted with his home country, Yirmiyahu is still bitterly mourning another death: that of his son Eyal, an Israeli soldier killed on the West Bank seven years before by friendly fire, just before the start of the second intifada.

The purpose of Daniela’s unprecedented solo journey (she is rarely separated from Amotz and relies on him to handle most of the day-to-day details of life) is to rekindle, with Yirmiyahu’s help, her mourning of Shuli, the gradual fading of which, she believes, is the cause of her recent absentmindedness:

it’s not consolation she wants. On the contrary, she is looking for precise words, forgotten facts—or maybe new ones—that will inflame her pain and grief . . . and crack open the crust of forgetfulness that has begun to envelop her.

Amotz, who has stayed behind so as not to intrude on his wife’s mission, has business of his own to conduct: as the head of an elevator-design firm, he must discover the source of a flaw in a newly constructed apartment building that on windy days is causing the elevator shaft to wail and howl, emitting “a growl of stifled fury that at certain floors shifts into mournful sobbing.” Throughout the novel’s seven chapters—one for each of the remaining nights of Hanukkah—Amotz will attempt to solve this problem while also contending with the numerous grievances and emergencies of his family: his ailing father, founder of the firm; his estranged daughter; his son Moran, currently in military custody for shirking reserve duty; his temperamental daughter-in-law Efrat; and Efrat and Moran’s two anxious, high-strung young children.

Meanwhile, Daniela is quickly seduced by the quiet rhythms and bleak beauty of life in her brother-in-law’s new home at the anthropologists’ base camp. She spends relatively little time with Yirmiyahu, befriending the elderly groundskeeper, several members of the anthropological team, and, most affectingly, Sijjin Kuang, the stately Sudanese infirmary nurse who also works as Yirmiyahu’s driver and is thus frequently called upon to convey Daniela to and from various locations. Sijjin Kuang, who has survived the unspeakably violent civil war of the southern Sudan, is an animist who worships (in Daniela’s words) “spirits” and “winds”; she becomes a source of quiet strength and comfort to Daniela in the face of Yirmiyahu’s fierce disdain for his fellow Israelis, which he is sometimes not above taking out on his sister-in-law.

The novel operates in two parallel registers with little in common: ironic comedy in Israel, solemn melancholy in Tanzania. Yehoshua expertly captures and subtly contrasts the richness of Amotz’s busy week in Tel Aviv with the stark poetry of the landscape around Morogoro. What’s more, he is a genius at conjuring living, breathing characters out of just a few lines of dialogue and a brief physical description. And there is plenty of room in each half of the narrative for short, memorable digressions. In Israel, for example, we get a tour of the military training camp in Karkur where Moran has been placed under detention; in Tanzania, through the thoughts and observations of Daniela and Yirmiyahu, we are treated to an analysis of some instructive linguistic contrasts between the Hebrew and King James versions of the Old Testament.

But as Friendly Fire progresses and then begins to wind down, the drawbacks of its dual structure become more apparent. While it takes most of the novel’s length for Amotz to eventually confront and subdue the “uninvited spirits” trapped in the elevator shaft, Daniela’s longed-for epiphany about her dead sister arrives too abruptly, and too early in her portion of the story, to make much of an impact on the reader. Instead, she becomes a nearly passive sounding board for Yirmiyahu’s rage toward the Israeli government’s prosecution of its continual war with the Palestinians, and the lengthy (if fascinating) objections he raises against the Biblical book of his namesake, the angry prophet Jeremiah.

(Incidentally, it’s unusual to fault a Yehoshua novel for poor design. Among his many other works in English translation, each one vibrant and rewarding in unique ways, are several distinguished by their structural elegance, including the genuine 20th-century masterpiece Mr. Mani, a book so architecturally daring and intricate that it defies quick summary here.)

Most disappointing of all, when Amotz and Daniela come back together at novel’s end, their reunion feels hurried and strained. Neither seems to show much real interest in the other’s adventures, despite the fact that each has had tender thoughts about the other during the week-long separation. Nor has the significance of the novel’s setting during Hanukkah ever really been established or elaborated upon. Instead, as husband and wife prepare to light the candles on the final night of the holiday, we are left with a feeling of regret over too many possibilities unexplored, too many potential echoes unexpressed, two intriguing, interwoven melodies adding up to less than the sum of their parts.

7 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our book review section is Dan Vitale’s piece on Aharon Appelfeld’s Laish, which was translated from the Hebrew by Aloma Halter and published by Shocken Books earlier this year.

Appelfeld has had a number of titles translated into English, including Badenheim 1939 and The Story of a Life.

In addition to being a long-time reader of Three Percent, Dan Vitale is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. And here’s the opening of his review:

The opening sentences of Laish, the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld’s fourteenth novel to be published in English translation, are deceptively like those of a typical first-person confessional story:

“My name is Laish, and those who like me call me Laishu. I have yet to run into anyone with such a strange name. . . . I’ve heard that the name comes from Hungary. Who knows?—my parents died young. A few years ago, I could still see them in a blurred way. Now I’m fifteen, and their features have been effaced from my memory.”

The boy’s engaging, conversational voice, his tragic orphanhood, the focus on his interior life: none prepares us for the novel as a whole. It turns out that Laish will be the faithfully observant narrator of a collective experience, to the point where his personality is virtually relegated to the periphery of the story. But this shift is characteristic of Appelfeld’s method throughout the book, which is to constantly upend the reader’s expectations in favor of striking and uniquely unexpected gestures.

Click here to read the entire piece.

(And looking ahead to next week we’ll have reviews of Bolano’s The Skating Rink and Tanguy Viel’s Beyond Suspicion.)

7 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The opening sentences of Laish, the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld’s fourteenth novel to be published in English translation, are deceptively like those of a typical first-person confessional story:

“My name is Laish, and those who like me call me Laishu. I have yet to run into anyone with such a strange name. . . . I’ve heard that the name comes from Hungary. Who knows?—my parents died young. A few years ago, I could still see them in a blurred way. Now I’m fifteen, and their features have been effaced from my memory.”

The boy’s engaging, conversational voice, his tragic orphanhood, the focus on his interior life: none prepares us for the novel as a whole. It turns out that Laish will be the faithfully observant narrator of a collective experience, to the point where his personality is virtually relegated to the periphery of the story. But this shift is characteristic of Appelfeld’s method throughout the book, which is to constantly upend the reader’s expectations in favor of striking and uniquely unexpected gestures.

Another such gesture is Appelfeld’s unwillingness to identify the period in which the novel is set (most likely sometime between the world wars). Laish is a member of a convoy of Jewish pilgrims making their way south along the river Prut, through what is now the borderland between eastern Romania and western Moldova. The convoy’s destination is Jerusalem, to which the pilgrims have been bidden to emigrate by Shimon the Righteous, the holy man who once led them. After Shimon’s death, their progress is continually thwarted by conflicts between the group of religious old men who nominally still direct the convoy and the temperamental wagon drivers and corrupt dealers who insist on making lengthy stops at every village, town, or city the convoy passes, to carouse or to conduct trade.

Appelfeld emphasizes this sense of a perpetually postponed goal by having his narrator Laish shift incessantly away from the present tense to relate events that occurred at differing and frequently unspecified times in the past, so that we are sometimes unsure exactly where we are chronologically: although the present action of the novel spans about six months, the narrative encompasses many years. As Laish puts it, “I feel that these years have been solidly planted within me, and that I’ll be with the convoy for the rest of my life.”

One way we know we are making progress through time is the succession of characters to whom Laish is bound as a kind of indentured servant: first Fingerhut, a bitterly angry dealer; then Ploosh, a violent wagon driver; and finally Sruel, also a wagon driver, a convicted murderer who now spends much of his days communing with the falcon with whom he has developed a mystical rapport. Of the three, only Sruel is kind to Laish while at the same time putting him to work; in this combination of traits he resembles another man with a strong influence over the boy: Old Avraham, Laish’s gentle but demanding religion teacher.

As the convoy moves southward throughout the summer and into the fall, from just north of Czernowitz to the port city of Galacz, it encounters one obstacle after another: thieves, flooding, a typhoid epidemic and—casting a pall over everything else—a steady loss of morale and resolve. The number of pilgrims dwindles, from death or defection, until by the time it limps into Galacz, where passage by ship to Jerusalem must be booked, the convoy is less than half the size it was during the summer. But still Laish’s narrative (in the language of Aloma Halter’s measured, often beautiful translation from the Hebrew) maintains its calm, detached observation of hardship: “That night, our wagons were beset by creatures of the darkness who took the form of aggressive beggars, the bitterly disabled, and, most painful of all, child-demons who would thrust their frail hands into our wagons, snatching whatever they could.”

In Galacz, a new challenge awaits: the urgent need to acquire the money necessary to purchase enough tickets for the pilgrims to board the ship to Jerusalem. The convoy begins to sell off its equipment and provisions, and some of the wagon drivers also sell merchandise they have stolen from the city’s stores and warehouses. Sruel seems transformed under the pressure, and commits a desperate, uncharitable act against a defenseless member of the convoy that confirms, by negative example, the truth of one of Old Avraham’s earlier warnings to Laish: “He was sure that if we were strict about saying our prayers, we would leave [Galacz] as new people. One needed only to purify oneself and refine one’s thoughts. The main thing was not to despair, because despair was rooted in impurity.” Here, as elsewhere in Laish, Appelfeld may be intending to impart a lesson about the need to hold to one’s spiritual ideals in the face of competition from the baser human instincts, but if so the lesson is muted, gently implied but never stated outright.

Finally, on the eve of the convoy’s departure from Galacz, Appelfeld ends the novel not with details of the business of setting sail for Jerusalem but with a shocking, discordant, and highly poetic image: the stricken face of Sruel’s unfortunate victim. It’s an indelible moment, and one more example of Appelfeld’s ability to deftly overturn the reader’s expectations. He also leaves unspoken a plain yet disturbing fact: after the arduous 200-mile journey from Czernowitz to Galacz, Jerusalem—the holy place even Sruel once spoke of as the future site of a “different and purified life” for all the convoy’s pilgrims—is still more than a thousand miles away.

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