30 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

Leeches by David Albahari, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac

Language: Serbian

Country: Serbia
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Why This Book Should Win: For seven reasons.

Today’s post is by Vincent Francone, a regular contributor to Three Percent, and an author, reviewer, and reader for TriQuarterly Online.

My original intention was to write 25 reasons why Leeches by David Albahari should win the Best Translated Book Award. Though it is a damn good book, I could not think of 25 reasons. Numerology plays a part in the strange, gripping story, so I decided to take 2 and 5 and combine them into 7. So I give you 7 reasons why Leeches by David Albahari should win the Best Translated book Award:

1. Because everyone loves a 309 page paragraph.

(Seriously, despite the absence of paragraph breaks, the prose is fluid, breathless, and engaging. Albahari’s story flows from event to event not turning back onto itself, as in the novels of Bernhard, but pushing forward and moving the story of one man’s descent into the surreal underworld of anti-Semitism and conspiracy further away from reality, taking the reader along the many twists and turns.)

2. Because Ryan Gosling made anti-Semitism sexy.

(As mentioned above, the plot of Leeches revolves around anti-Semitism. The narrator witnesses a seemingly random event—a woman getting slapped—and from that moment becomes embroiled in conspiracies both real and imagined, largely dealing with the opposition to Serbia’s Jews, all while the neighboring cities swell with the nationalism that would erode Yugoslavia. By focusing on a different aspect of ethic, um, pride other than the Serbian campaign of the 1990s, Albahari creates a story that seems larger than the war itself. I am not one to look at the author’s biography as a means of understanding a work of fiction, but knowing that Albahari is of Jewish descent allows one to analyze Leeches, and its focus on anti-Semitism, as a synecdoche for the horror of ultra-nationalist politics.

As for the Ryan Gosling reference, well . . . he’s everywhere these days, and very much one of the top Googled public figures. So maybe his performance in The Believer will somehow rub off on Albahari’s novel, garnering the book some additional attention. [And while I’m at it, I’d like a billion dollars.])

3. Because Dan Brown proved conspiracies = $.

(The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons got people reading. I have not read these books [the movies sufficed] but I assume the reason for their popularity rests in the conspiracies Brown weaves over the course of several pages. Assuming I am correct, Leeches ought to make bank. There are many conspiracies and interconnections that boggle both the narrator and the reader. And, like that damn Da Vinci book, there are strange symbols. Well, one really—a triangle and some circles. When the narrator tracks down an old friend to assist with the decoding, the answers are not the illuminating sort, but rather answers that only raise more questions. Sorry to keep harping on poor Dan Brown, but unlike his pot boilers, the conspiracies, Kabbalist mysteries, numerological and symbolist deconstructions do not shed much light. The technique is less about immediate rewards and more about creating a tone of uncertainty and fear.)

4. Because a Serb has not won in some time.

(They’re due.)

5. Because there’s dope.

(The narrator of Leeches smokes a lot of hash and marijuana, leading readers to wonder about his reliability. The idea of the unreliable narrator is nothing new, but Albahari’s narrator begins to appear particularly unreliable as he sees signs everywhere, often after consuming a large amount of weed. The reader cannot help but wonder about the state of the narrator’s mind. Sure, there are validations of his increasing paranoia, but even these very chilling events are tinged with a sort of skepticism that comes from other characters [the narrator’s best friend appears rather blasé about it all] as well as the story itself, which is rather outrageous. Maybe the paranoia is justified? Sure, there are very real reasons why the narrator ought to fear for his well-being [threatening graffiti, angry letters, a late night beating] but as the reader walks in his shoes one can’t help but ask: is some of this just drug-induced paranoia?)

6. Because the violent break-up of Yugoslavia has not gotten enough fictional representation.

(This can be debated, of course, but to this reader the events of the 1990s Yugoslav Wars don’t get enough attention. Or, I should say, they may get plenty of attention—I am sure there are scores of novels and poems on this subject that I do not know of—but these books don’t seem to land on the BTBA list. Nothing against the great writers of the French language, but don’t we think it’s time to look at another side of Europe?

Anyway, this book, as stated above, is not the In the Land of Blood and Honey realist portrait of life during wartime that one might expect. Rather, the fractured reality that consumes the narrator seems to best mirror the reality of such unimaginable atrocities. The events of Leeches take place one town over from the real war, yet the characters don’t seem concerned—they are too busy getting high and falling into Kabbalist rabbit holes. From this skewed [lack of?] vantage point, Albahari constructs his compelling story, one that may not directly focus on Serb aggression and nationalism but, nonetheless, is informed by the events of the 1990s.)

7. Because I say so.

(Nothing more to add. Just give Leeches the award.)

17 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our “Reviews Section”: is a piece by contributing reviewer Monica Carter on David Albahari’s Leeches, which came out last year from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt1 in Ellen Elias-Bursac’s translation.

Monica Carter is a regular reviewer for Three Percent. She also runs Salonica World Lit and, as part of her participation in the Mark Program, has been blogging for PEN Center USA.

David Albahari ia one of the lucky few Serbian writers who has had a number of his books translated into English. I first discovered him through Northwestern University Press some years back, after they had published Bait and Words Are Something Else. Götz and Meyer is a masterpiece, and a book I wish I could’ve published, and Leeches, as you’ll see in Monica’s review, is an ambitious, complicated, interesting work.

Here’s the opening to Monica’s review:

For his follow-up to Götz and Meyer, Serbian David Albahari plunges forward in time to Belgrade, 1998. Another war is going on, although the nameless narrator is not directly involved, he becomes increasingly aware of the proximity of the Serbian-Yugoslavian war. Yet, instead of writing about those events, he chooses to write incendiary pieces about Anti-Semitism in a weekly column for local paper, Minut. This obsession with Anti-Semitism begins with an incident along the Danube: he witnesses a woman being slapped by a man.

He is drawn to follow her, but doesn’t find her. He continues his search day after day, until he responds to a message in the personals section that he believes was written by the mysterious woman. Instead, he is given manuscript of a book, The Well, by an old man in the same spot where the woman was slapped. After taking the envelope, he waits to read until later that evening. The first sentence reads, “A dream uninterpreted is like a letter unread.” From there, it leap frogs from historical narrative to a history of dreams to a variety of Kabbalistic exercises. He then digresses into a life devoted to finding the woman as well as figuring out the message of The Well.

He eventually finds the woman, Margareta, and becomes involved in some type of mystical relationship with her. His preoccupation with Anti-Semitism grows from its mention in the manuscript. He realizes, after searching the city for the circles and triangles and their symbolism in connection with mathematics and Kabbalah, with each time he that opens the manuscript, it changes. Throughout his process of figuring out the manuscript, he meets several people who are key characters to the novel as well as solving his mystery put forth by The Well. Meanwhile, as his essays become more provocative about Anti-Semitism, he receives threats, has human feces left at his doorstep and is kidnapped. Ultimately, he equates the struggle for identity of Jews with his own struggle for identity as a Serb.

To read the full review, simply click here.

1 Yes, it’s time for the routine “Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s website sucks” post. I feel like I’ve already screeded all the screed I can screed about this screedy-ass site. So instead, I’m just going to post a question to HMH’s higher ups or anyone who works on their website. Starting here, at the main home page, can you walk me through all the clicks needed to find the book page for Leeches? Explain in full in the comments section below. (As an added incentive, the first person to accomplish this wins a free Open Letter book. Ok . . . go!)

17 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“Memory is the greatest liar.” – Leeches, David Albahari

For his follow-up to Götz and Meyer, Serbian David Albahari plunges forward in time to Belgrade, 1998. Another war is going on, although the nameless narrator is not directly involved, he becomes increasingly aware of the proximity of the Serbian-Yugoslavian war. Yet, instead of writing about those events, he chooses to write incendiary pieces about Anti-Semitism in a weekly column for local paper, Minut. This obsession with Anti-Semitism begins with an incident along the Danube: he witnesses a woman being slapped by a man.

He is drawn to follow her, but doesn’t find her. He continues his search day after day, until he responds to a message in the personals section that he believes was written by the mysterious woman. Instead, he is given manuscript of a book, The Well, by an old man in the same spot where the woman was slapped. After taking the envelope, he waits to read until later that evening. The first sentence reads, “A dream uninterpreted is like a letter unread.” From there, it leap frogs from historical narrative to a history of dreams to a variety of Kabbalistic exercises. He then digresses into a life devoted to finding the woman as well as figuring out the message of The Well.

He eventually finds the woman, Margareta, and becomes involved in some type of mystical relationship with her. His preoccupation with Anti-Semitism grows from its mention in the manuscript. He realizes, after searching the city for the circles and triangles and their symbolism in connection with mathematics and Kabbalah, with each time he that opens the manuscript, it changes. Throughout his process of figuring out the manuscript, he meets several people who are key characters to the novel as well as solving his mystery put forth by The Well. Meanwhile, as his essays become more provocative about Anti-Semitism, he receives threats, has human feces left at his doorstep and is kidnapped. Ultimately, he equates the struggle for identity of Jews with his own struggle for identity as a Serb.

In terms of symbolism, there is so much going on it is difficult to dismiss any of the symbols. The apple makes several appearances, along with the color yellow, the eponymous leeches, numbers, shapes, and even words and language:

Sometimes so many words are on the floor that I have to lift my feet high as I cross this sparsely furnished room from end to end. One of these days, it occurred to me, I might slip on a squashed word, fall, and lie there, buried under the detritus of language, an no one would find me until we started to decompose, the words and I, one corpse next to the others.

Not to mention the exploration of Kabbalah and Judaism. Along with the interpretation of symbols, are the ideas and images presented in his dreams, which illicit even more thought because it is delivered to him in a surreal consciousness of his dream state.

What makes all this seem less daunting is Albahari’s narrative style and the conversations he has about the incidents with his friend, Marko. Because the story is told in a conversational, quotidian style, the fact that it is a 300-page paragraph actually enhances the continuity of the tale. The pot-fueled discussions with his friend Marko add humor and a stability that serves as a touchstone for the narrator and also the reader.

Despite the focus on the Kabbalah, Judaism, numbers, shapes, words and conspiracy theories, the novel is about the loyalty to identity when another force attempts to erase it from history, the malleable use of memory and to the ever-changing aspect of language, as illustrated here:

The Belgrade Hebrew scholar Eugen Verber first elaborated on the notion of the manuscript as a living organism, which, as I just said, said Margareta, the interpreters and translators had already ascertained. According to Verber, the author of the manuscript had based the text on the Kabbalistic techinique of bringing to live nonliving matter, hence creating a golem, which had been modified in such a way that the text itself came alive, was designed to be self-sustaining but not also physically mobile. In other words, the manuscript was not a bizarre ambulatory creature, but it did possess the capability of refashioning itself, as if it were searching for the most apt structure for its meaning.

Although there are some parts of the novel that could seem too technical or informational about mathematics or the Kabbalah, Albahari manages by the ardent nature of his style to keep us locked into the story. Albahari is an inventive and exhaustive writer, not only looking at the story but what lies pulsing beneath the symbolism of the words used to tell the story. His analysis of images and signposts doesn’t scratch the surface, but scrapes the floor, walls and corners until there is nothing left for us to imagine. A read of originality, Leeches triumphs in helping the reader to see that what we know and how we know can change at any moment. And then again.

23 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [4]

Over the years, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s website has been a go-to for jokes about the disconnect between the publishing industry and how the Internet works. I really don’t think I can come up with enough insults about the total disfunction of HMH’s website. Basically, it looks like something an MBA put together after waking up from a wet dream about working for Deloitte.

So, I was shocked—_shocked_—to learn about the HMH Literature in Translation site where some mysterious, smart, savvy, informed, and engaged person(s) are posting interesting links to literature in translation stories/events/works/etc. Granted, a number of posts are semi-self-promotional, but not all, and given the overall corporate smackdown you get visiting the HMH’s primary site, this self-promotion is more than tolerable.

Although of course, I chose the day to write about this in which the lead post is a list of 9 “books for voracious readers,” which are all HMH titles, and only one of which is in translation . . . but . . . well . . . yeah . . . at least the list doesn’t include Freedom?

Aside from the interesting posts, one of the best features of this blog are the links to HMH’s forthcoming Literature in Translation titles, such as this one for spring 2011. (And I’ll triple-dog dare you to find this list on the main site in less than 10 minutes. OK, go! . . . I win.)

Which actually brings me to my second point of praise: I can’t wait to read Leeches by David Albahari, translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursac. I was at Dalkey hen Random UK brought out his Gotz and Meyer, and tried to make an offer on it. Unfortunately, Harcourt (this was the pre-HMH days) beat us to it with alacrity and cash and has taken over as his U.S. publisher. Which is great (his books are available everywhere) and not-so-great (not to be an asshole, but HMH doesn’t do great publicity work for it’s translations—Piece of Evidence #1, the lack of promotion for the 50th Anniversary retranslation of Grass’s The Tin Drum).

Regardless, this book sounds fantastic (especially if you skip the Foucault’s Pendulum reference):

The place is Serbia, the time is the late 1990s. Our protagonist, a single man, writes a regular op-ed column for a Belgrade newspaper and spends the rest of his time with his best friend, smoking pot and talking about sex, politics, and life in general. One day on the shore of the Danube he spots a man slapping a beautiful woman. Intrigued, he follows the woman into the tangled streets of the city until he loses sight of her. A few days later he receives a mysterious manuscript whose contents seem to mutate each time he opens it. To decipher the manuscript—a collection of fragments on the Kabbalah and the history of the Jews of Zemun and Belgrade—he contacts an old schoolmate, now an eccentric mathematician, and a group of men from the Jewish community.

As the narrator delves deeper into arcane topics, he begins to see signs of anti-Semitism, past and present, throughout the city and he feels impelled to denounce it. But his increasingly passionate columns erupt in a scandal culminating in murder. Following in the footsteps of Foucault’s Pendulum, Leeches is a cerebral adventure into the underground worlds of secret societies and conspiracy theories.

Unless I’m missing something in my skimming, this is a one-paragraph book, which makes me giddy (and scares the crap out of Dan Brownophiles). Here’s the opening:

Now, six years after the fact, I realize things might have gone differently, but back then, on Sunday, March 8, 1998, when it all began, it was impossible to imagine any other way for events to unfold. Also perhaps I made no effort to imagine something different, believed I had no choice, no choice at all, but was instead looking at the inevitable, which I could not have influenced even if I had wanted to. It no longer matters, because what was happening, whether I chose it or not, became destiny, which nothing will ever be able to change. The apple drops from the tree, red and firm, and is nearly hidden in the dense grass, but the ants, snails, and wasps find their way to it, and in the end nothing is left of the apple; the grass will right itself in time. I must be mentioning an apple now because that Sunday, six years ago, I left the house holding an apple, not a red one, true, but yellow, which I later ate, all of it, even the seeds and the stem. To be fair, I didn’t actually eat the stem, I held it between my teeth for a time, mashing and nibbling at it slowly, until it finally came apart. I always took a walk on Sundays along the Danube, no matter what the weather, in rain or the blustering Kosava winds. Not even the snow stopped me. It wasn’t snowing that day though, nor was there much of a wind blowing: the clouds tumbled across the sky, the sun gleamed from time to time, then slipped again behind a cloud; all in all, it was an ordinary, though chilly, March day.

Sadly, this isn’t available until April 28, 2011 (thank god and Sal for sending me an advance reading copy), but word on the street has it that Albahari might be at the PEN World Voices Festival, which would be a perfect tie in.

And going back to the LiT Blog and it’s recommendations, the one translation on this list is _The Collected Novels of Jose Saramago, a $36 ebook bringing together all 12 Saramago novels (and one novella) HMH has published so far.

I’m not as big of a fan of Saramago as I am a fan of Antonio Lobo Antunes (which I’m grouping together because of the Portuguese thing—they’re actually pretty distant in terms of style and subject), but this is a pretty awesome bargain. Which brings up two points:

1) These sort of collected works omnibuses work a lot better as ebooks than as print editions. I capital-L Love B.S. Johnson, but I’ve never cracked open the omnibus I own of his work. Nor the variety of other “collected works” titles I own. OK, so two happen to be Jane Austen and E.M. Forster, but even if these were of authors I really liked, I still can’t envision myself lugging something like that around. Sure, I’d love to collect more Library of America books, but that’s mostly for collecting, and less for reading. But with e-omnibuses, some of the obvious problems go away. For example, it doesn’t matter how big the book is, you just have to click on a link in the Table of Contents to go directly to that particular title. This could be a cool side-effect of the e-readingrevolution (e-readolution?) and a great way to reintroduce authors with huge backlists. Which brings me to point two:

2) According to the conventional wisdom of most commercial publishers, this price point it totally insane. Going back to Library of America for a minute, they’ve done three Philip K. Dick collections, each containing four PKD novels. Individually these retail for $35. Together you can buy them for $110. Sure, LoA’s quality is pretty nice, and the company isn’t really underwritten by bookish-like-objects that sell but hardly qualify as literature. (And barely as books.) But I suspect that other major publishers would be tempted to break up the Saramago collection into 2-3 multi-novel sets for $36 a piece. But 12 novels for $36? Even in terms of e-book savings, this is a bit crazy . . . at first glance.

Thanks to the pricing class I just finished (and a conversation with a friend at HMH), I think I get why this is what it is. For all the Nobel Prize winningness of Saramago, he has a relatively small devoted audience who buys every book, and a insane number of general readers who buy Blindness and maybe one other title, which turns out to be a bit less reader-friendly than Blindness and features references to a poet invented by Fernando Pessoa or contains blasphemous statements about Jesus Christ’s childhood. So, you have a core of fans buying everything, and a larger set spending $30 on two titles. (Or $16 if they shop Amazon.) So if you can get this massive group of Blindness lovers to both use ebooks (doesn’t everyone? /sigh) and buy into this 12-book package, you make an additional $6 (plus all the non-printing, storing, distribution costs associated with selling a print version). And then maybe they read The Stone Raft and buy a copy as a gift, and so on and forth.

Anyway, go HMH. Keep on publishing good books, and welcome to the online world of the 21st Century.

20 November 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In my post yesterday about Ellen Elias-Bursac, I mentioned the new David Albahari book that she’s translating.

I found out yesterday that the title of this book is Leeches, that Harcourt is planning on bringing it out in Fall 2010 (so long to wait!), and that the book is amazing.

19 November 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In his latest World Books podcast, Bill Marx — who runs PRI’s The World’s very impressive World Books website — talks with translator Ellen Elias-Bursac, the translator of Dubravka Ugresic’s Nobody’s Home and several books by David Albahari, including the brillian Gotz and Meyer for which she won the 2006 American Literary Translators Association award.

Arts Fuse has a nice introduction to the interview and references a new, long, critically acclaimed Albahari novel that Elias-Bursac is currently working on. (I assume Harcourt will be bringing this out, but I’ll try and get the pud date and other details and post an update later.)

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