This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Lucina Schell, editor of Reading in Translation. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
One Out of Two by Daniel Sada, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (Mexico, Graywolf Press)
One Out of Two is a philosophical fable disguised as spinster fiction. From the dream team behind Almost Never (Graywolf, 2012), giant of Latin American literature Daniel Sada and acclaimed translator Katherine Silver, this compact hundred-page book is tightly stitched with the same perfectionism as its twin heroines’ tailoring output. On the surface, it is a delightful romp to be devoured in one sitting, but linger longer with the text and it raises profound questions about the desire for union with another person versus personal independence. “Then: intimacy as an idea that unravels.”
The spinster plot concerns Constitución and Gloria Gamal, identical twins who have only grown increasingly alike with age. Rather than trying to distinguish themselves from one another, the twins delight in accentuating their similarities by wearing matching dresses, styling their hair in the same way, and mirroring each other’s mannerisms. The Gamal sisters are as interdependent as they are fiercely independent. Orphaned as children, they flee the aunt who raised them and her constant exhortations to “‘get married soon and have loads of children!’” as soon as they come of age, and use their inheritance to buy a house in a small desert town and start a tailoring business, which quickly thrives due to their strong work ethic.
Their aunt’s advice continues in the form of increasingly contradictory letters, “Get married, you silly girls, and be quick about it! But don’t flirt with the first young man you meet; you have to be coy, give yourselves airs, or you’ll regret it . . .” But the twins don’t much care, focusing their attention instead on their growing business, until one day they receive an invitation to a family wedding. Now 42, and without any prospects, this might be their last chance to snag husbands! Their aunt suggests they distinguish themselves by hair style, but the twins have spent too many years refining their similitude to have any hope of looking different now. Thus, only one will go to the wedding, and they decide which with a coin toss, the first of many perfectly chosen metaphors for their predicament. When Constitución Gamal returns with a suitor, the twins concoct an elaborate ruse to share the man, thus putting their years of studied imitation to the test, because, “what’s mine is yours.” (The repetition of this marital maxim throughout the novel reminds us that the twins are in a sort of marriage already.) The narrative voice, peppered with folksy interjections and perfectly matched idiomatic expressions, reads like an omniscient town gossip, never letting us forget the twins are being watched. Yet, we revel in their abandon as they decide “To wit: let people think whatever the hell they like.”
This all sounds like a fun farce, but we are in the hands of a master stylist. As Sada pushes every cliché to the breaking point, it springs back with deliciously surprising prose. We can feel the pleasure he takes in crafting the bodice-ripper landscape in which Gloria takes the budding romance to the next level on “Constitución’s” second date with Oscar, while her sister watches from a few feet away: “To the chagrin of the observer, this Johnny-come-lately was painting the walls of her own scenario with wild and passionate hues splashed across the distance, cloud pompoms dripping with ocher and deep red settling in between the hills.” Constitución contemplates hurling a stick at her imprudent sister, but worries it will only land in the nearby bush, releasing a cloud of butterflies. In every flight Sada takes, Silver hugs his sentences as tightly as the twins press against walls while spying on each other.
The novel shifts seamlessly between genres and low to high literary diction, as when the twins, each falling in love, evolve from “one out of two or two in one” to, “A triangle, to put it simply: three gnawed points and a conjugation: or to put it indirectly: two similar points and a third one far far away. Passion conjugated: repressed, obsessive, in full conformity with the rules of the game”. The unusual, yet consistent use of colons—at times many in a single cascading sentence—sets up constant equations or analogies, and creates a staccato rhythm that heightens the growing tension as the inevitable marriage proposal approaches. Meanwhile, frequent sentence fragments remind us that the twins are only whole together. On a syntactic level, the novel is refreshingly suspicious of virtuous individualism.
But Oscar, a rancher, is hardly an ideal match for either of the twins, and increasingly, they realize their infatuation with him is more fantasy than true love. Oscar’s greatest ambition is “to one day open, next to any road whatsoever, a huge restaurant for truckers only, serving carnes adobadas and fresh tortillas, where there would be a jukebox and a dance floor and some shabby sluts—who would double as grub-slingers—available for pickup.” As Oscar drones on about his current reality, raising pigs and goats, one of the twins “conjured up abstract images that consisted of small arrows being shot at sentences—we could call them precepts—of the most profound transcendence.”
We expect the proposal to end in tears, the story to end in tragedy, with Oscar rejecting the twins when he finds out the truth. But the subversive, even feminist, conclusion to this fairytale is one of its best features. The deal-breaker ends up being the prospect of losing their business, to join Oscar in his distasteful venture: “because it would be unbecoming for the so-called better halves to compete with each other”. Turning the coin toss on its head, the twins make “An about face!” Together they are better halves than either could ever be with another man.
One Out of Two is much more than two in one. In few pages it manages to cover and subvert various literary genres, virtuosically, hilariously, while leaving us to ponder paradoxes such as, can true independence only come from perfect union with another human?
After a couple weeks of touring and hosting events, I finally have time to get back to my “weekly” write-ups of new and forthcoming books. Last time I talked about a couple Indonesian titles one of which, Home by Leila Chudori, I’m greatly enjoying. I also complained about school starting before Labor Day, arguing that that should be illegal. Well, guess what? In Michigan it is! This is why the Midwest rules.
Before getting to the books themselves, I have to jump on the bandwagon of hating all the insufferable DraftKings and FanDuel commercials. I’ve been complaining about these for months, but with the start of the new football season we’ve now reached the pure saturation point. I’m not even sure there are other commercials or products out there anymore. Even when I check Twitter I’m greeted with a “sponsored post” about how “Parvez” won $100,000 and I could too!
That’s one of my big beefs with the ludicrous way these sites advertise themselves: the winners featured on these commercials are always moronic looking Patriots fans, piss drunk in a bar, wearing their baseball hat backwards, looking cross-eyed at the screen (sometimes not even at the right one), fist pumping the air and screaming like dumb New Englanders scream, then getting a massive oversized check. The overall message? You’re not as dumb as this fucking guy, are you? Just look at him. EVEN HE CAN WIN AT THIS. (Note: DraftKings is from Boston, which is a city that type-casts itself, and why it must be so easy for them to find stupid looking people to be in their crappy ads. Why waste your time casting someone who appeals to your target demographic when you can just hire the demographic!)
And it’s only going to get worse. The NCAA is freaking out since this isn’t considered gambling, therefore allowing people to play this “daily fantasy draft contest” with college football and basketball players. DraftKings signed a $250 million deal with ESPN that will lead to it being “integrated” into ESPN’s sites. They raised an additional $300 million in July. All because regular fantasy isn’t good enough anymore—we Americans need things to be more immediate and more oversized! WE WANT KING SIZED FANTASY!
What changes this from a dumb rant into something sadder is that all the money lost by the suckers trying to outwit “Jimmy from Watertown Mass” will benefit a corporation operating just barely on this side of shady. At least with the lottery, the poor are preyed upon to help fund schools and shit. It’s still awful, but at least the money doesn’t go to someone who says things like “Once they try it, they like it. It’s sticky.” Gross. Just gross.
So fuck their ads. I hope all of those oversized checks catch on fire and some Russian teenagers hack the shit out of their site.
Well, that, or that these “games of fantasy skill” get outlawed in every state. Either or.
Now, to the happy stuff!
One Out of Two by Daniel Sada. Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (Graywolf Press)
Sada made a lot of waves back in 2012 with Almost Never, a novel that’s basically 328 pages of foreplay. It’s a great novel, and I’m really excited that Graywolf is going on with him. (Although saddened by the fact that he died back in 2011. I would love to have brought him to Rochester.) This novel is about identical twins who do everything together, until a man enters the picture . . .
Sada’s writing style reminds me a bit of Alejandro Zambra’s—there’s something direct, anti-metaphorical linking the two in my mind—but is also quite unique, fun to fall into the rhythms of and, I assume, a beast to translate. (Which is why Katie Silver deserves such accolades—for this and all her works.)
Now, how to say it? One out of two, or two in one, or what? The Gamal sisters were identical. To say, as people do, “They were like two peas in a pod,” the same age, the same height, and wearing, by choice, the same hairdo. Moreover, they both must have weighed around 130 pounds—let’s move into the present—: that is, from a certain distance: which is which?
If none of that sells you on the book, maybe the Bolaño quote on the back will: “Of my generation I most admire Daniel Sada, whose writing project seems to me the most daring.” It’s amazing, and very admirable, how many people Bolaño helped out and wrote about. And it’s not a surprise that us publishers keep putting his quotes on all of our books, knowing that he’s probably the one Spanish-language author outside of Gabriel García Márquez who normal Americans might recognize. Which brings me to:
The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman. Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia. (Open Letter)
Front cover: “Good readers will find something that can be found only in great literature.”—Roberto Bolaño. Quotes from this statement of Bolaño’s—made when he was on the jury for the Herralde Prize, a statement included in Between Parentheses—are also on Andrés’s earlier books from FSG. It even kicks off this amazing Flavorwire feature on the book. And will be forever!
I actually asked him about this quote when we were in Chicago—and before we sang karaoke at the bar, which, by the way, Andrés is really good at, although he’s not as good of a singer as he is a ping-pong player—and he talked about how unfortunate it was that Bolaño didn’t get to live long enough to see if his proclamation came true. “Maybe he would’ve hated my later novels.” I can’t believe that would be true, but I understand the anxiety.
Andrés followed that up by telling a story about playing chess with Bolaño, who was super serious when it was his turn to play, then, after making his move, would jump around playing air guitar to the loud music of a Mexican punk band . . .
I really loved hanging out with Andrés and Naja Marie Aidt over the past two weeks, and, I have to say, even though it sounds cheesy and clichéd, that these visits sort of reinvigorated my interest in books and publishing. We all need a jolt sometimes, and coming in contact with literary geniuses is one great way to make that happen.
Target in the Night by Ricardo Piglia. Translated from the Spanish by Sergio Waisman. (Deep Vellum)
No Bolaño quote! But there is one from Robert Coover, which is really cool, and actually references Macedonio Fernandez.
The only Piglia I’ve read is The Absent City, which was inspired by Macedonio’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel), and which is brilliant and narratively complicated in an Onetti, Labbé sort of way.
Although it sounds like this book brings back some of the themes from his earlier novels—life in Argentina during the Dirty War—it also sounds like much more of a definable, noir novel. This is a book that Tom Roberge will be raving about at some point. And I probably will too—just check this bit from Sergio Waisman’s intro:
Experimenting with form, innovating with narrative, recounting gripping tales that revolve around a central plot, Target in the Night starts as a detective novel, and soon turns into much more than that. Piglia takes the genre of the detective story and transforms it into what can be called, using Piglia’s own term, “paranoid fiction.” Everyone in the novel is a suspect of a kind, everyone feel persecuted.
OK, as soon as I’m done with Home, I know what I’m going to pick up . . .
When I first read Almost Never by Daniel Sada, I thought it was a lock to be a finalist for the 2013 BTBA. It’s a strange book that’s basically 328 pages of foreplay ending with three pages of this:
Ecstasy-sex. Sinking-in-sex. Sex that shapes. Sex that sparkles.
Yes, once again I’ve decided to highlight a sex book that I thought would make the BTBA longlist.
I don’t have a lot of time to write all the things I’d like to say about this book, but I do want to point out my favorite part of the opening chapter:
Now comes a description of Demetrio’s job: his workday went from seven in the morning till five in the afternoon, sometimes six, more infrequently seven.
That’s it. Nothing about what he actually does (at this point), just the time he spends there. Which is so wonderfully telling for this particular character.
Quickly: Sada is considered by many to be one of the greatest contemporary writers to come out of Mexico, was praised by Bolaño, and his novel Porque Parece Mentira la Verdad Nunca se Sabe is considered to be untranslatable. (According to Rachel Nolan of the New York Times it really does sound pretty daunting, what with its “650 pages, 90 characters and use of archaic metric forms like alexandrines, hendecasyllables and octosyllables.”)
Katherine Silver actually received an NEA Translation Fellowship to work on more Sada, so hopefully there will be additional books of his to consider for future BTBA awards . . .
Sales rep superstar and international literature enthusiast George Carroll just posted a “destination guide” at NW Book Lovers that highlights a number of great presses, organizations, and books worth checking out.
Many of these—like Three Percent, New Directions, the Center for the Art of Translation—you’re probably already familiar with, but it’s always fun to see someone else talking about your books and/or the reasons for reading international literature in the first place.
There’s an opinion in publishing that literature in translation doesn’t sell— that the books are dense and unapproachable, and that Americans won’t read authors whose names we can’t pronounce. Norman Manea (The Lair, Yale Margellos) says books in translation are thought to be “too ‘complicated,’ which is another way of saying that literature should deal with simple issues in a simple way.”
Haruki Murakami once said, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” If that’s true, people who read international literature are true iconoclasts. Only about three percent of all books published in the United States are works in translation. In terms of literary fiction and poetry, that number drops below one percent. And mainstream reviewers ignore most of the books that make it through the translation process into print.
I also want to point out that his three recommendations—Satantango by Laszlo Krashnahorkai, Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin, and Almost Never by Daniel Sada—are three of my favorite books from 2012 . . .
Scott Esposito’s been on about Daniel Sada for a while now, and I’ve heard nothing but fantastic things about his work, especially the “Joycean,” “Rabelaisian,” novel Almost Never, which wont he prestigious Herralde Prize for Fiction, and which Graywolf is bringing in April in Katherine Silver’s translation. Yes, April. 2012.
Well, to my grand surprise, a galley arrived here this morning:
Here’s a description:
This Rabelaisian tale of lust and longing in the drier precincts of postwar Mexico introduces one of Latin America’s most admired writers to the English-speaking world.
Demetrio Sordo is an agronomist who passes his days in a dull but remunerative job at a ranch near Oaxaca. It is 1945, World War II has just ended, but those bloody events have had no impact on a country that is only on the cusp of industrializing. One day, more bored than usual, Demetrio visits a bordello in search of a libidinous solution to his malaise. There he begins an all-consuming and, all things considered, perfectly satisfying relationship with a prostitute named Mireya.
A letter from his mother interrupts Demetrio’s debauched idyll: she asks him to return home to northern Mexico to accompany her to a wedding in a small town on the edge of the desert. Much to his mother’s delight, he meets the beautiful and virginal Renata and quickly falls in love—a most proper kind of love.
Back in Oaxaca, Demetrio is torn, the poor cad. Naturally he tries to maintain both relationships, continuing to frolic with Mireya and beginning a chaste correspondence with Renata. But Mireya has problems of her own—boredom is not among them—and concocts a story that she hopes will help her escape from the bordello and compel Demetrio to marry her. Almost Never is a brilliant send-up of Latin American machismo that also evokes a Mexico on the verge of dramatic change.
But what’s really exciting about this—and the reason why I’m going to read this as soon as I’ve fulfilled all my other reading obligations—is the prose itself. Check the opening:
Sex, as an apt pretext for breaking the monotony; motor-sex; anxiety-sex; the habit of sex, as any glut that can well become a burden; colossal, headlong, frenzied, ambiguous sex, as a game that baffles then enlightens then baffles again; pretense-sex, see-through-sex. Pleasure, in the end, as praise that goes against the grain of life lived. Conjectures cut short during a walk on a pale afternoon. Block after block, ascending, then descending. A strain in the step as well as the mind. The subject was one Demetrio Sordo, tall and thin, almost thirty, fond of the countryside wehre he plied his trade with a modicum of pleasure, but for recreation: what thrills? Nightly games of dominoes in seedy dives, and those strolls—few and quite dull—of a mere mile or two; or a cup of coffee in the evening, always solitary and perfectly pointless; or the penning of letters to known but already ghostly beings. Hence a rut, and—what should he do?: think, already anticipating certainties and doubts: lots of naysaying, and more reshuffling, all of which helped him find the spark he’d been lacking without taxing his brain on that overcast afternoon. Sex was the most obvious option, but the trick would be to do it every twenty-four hours. If only! A worthy disbursement, indeed. So that very night the agronomist went looking for a brothel.
You can pre-order your copy now . . . Also worth noting that this is part of Graywolf’s Lannan Translation Series, a collection of books in translation sponsored by the Lannan Foundation. This series includes Per Petterson, Venus Khoury-Ghata, Bernardo Atxaga, and many others.
Included in this issue are articles on Juan Jose Millas’s El Mundo, on Sergio Chejfec’s Los incompletos y Mis dos mundos, and on Daniel Sada’s Casi nunca, which will be published by Graywolf.
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .
Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .
Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .