13 September 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This fall, two Open Letter authors will be on tour: Josefine Klougart (whose tour we announced a few weeks ago) will be going cross-country starting next week to promote One of Us Is Sleeping. And then, just as her tour is wrapping up, Bae Suah will be arriving in San Francisco (along with her translator, Man Booker Prize winning Deborah Smith) to visit a few different cities and talk about A Greater Music.



Both Suah and Deborah will be doing events at this year’s American Literary Translators Conference, but since those aren’t open to the public, I haven’t listed them below. For any and everyone else, you can see Suah and Deborah in action at these events:

Thursday, October 6th, 7:00 pm
Literary Death Match
Shadow Ultra Lounge (341 13th St., Oakland, CA 94612)

Friday, October 7th, 7:30 pm
Green Apple Books on the Park (506 Clement St., San Francisco, CA 94118)

Monday, October 10th, 7:30 pm
Powell’s Books on Hawthorne (3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd, Portland, OR 97214)

Tuesday, October 11th, 7:00 pm
Elliott Bay Book Company (1521 10th Ave., Seattle, WA 98122)

Wednesday, October 12th, 7:00 pm
Volumes Bookcafe (1474 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60622)

Thursday, October 13th, 7:00 pm
Brazos Bookstore (2421 Bissonnet Street, Houston, TX 77005)

Friday, October 14th, 7:00 pm
Crow Collection of Asian Art (2010 Flora St., Dallas, TX 75201)

Hopefully you can catch her at one or more of those events!

31 March 16 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by J. C. Sutcliffe on Han Kang’s Human Acts, published by Portobello Books.

Here’s the beginning of the review:

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 author’s first translation into English, yet Han’s surreal story and the skillful politicization of the characters and events, combined with 2015 BTBA poetry judge Deborah Smith’s excellently smooth and poetic translation, meant that the gamble paid off. Human Acts, Han’s second novel to appear in English, is a very different book in terms of content, yet equally composed and controlled.

In May 1980, shortly after the instatement of dictator Chun Doo-hwan after nearly two decades of Park Chung-hee, the Gwangju uprising began—students’ and workers’ protests against Chun Doo-hwan’s restrictive regime. The uprising was brutally suppressed by the police and the military, and the way the dead were treated, allowed to pile up, unclaimed, was particularly horrific.

But this novel does not tell a chronological story of the events of the uprising, in the way that Sunil Yapa’s new novel, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, follows the first day of the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Both have a cast of characters with different perspectives on the event, but it’s significant that Yapa’s novel includes police—who are presented as fully human—while Han’s does not.

In the way it reports on the bleak brutality of the police, the army and the government—a brutality that becomes simultaneously both more cruel and more banal as the novel progresses—_Human Acts_ has more in common with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s writings about the gulag and the semi-random, quota-filling prisoner-taking methods of the Soviets. There’s the same inevitability, the same horrifying repetition of treatment of people, each with their own remarkably individual stories.

For the rest of the review, go here.

31 March 16 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

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 author’s first translation into English, yet Han’s surreal story and the skillful politicization of the characters and events, combined with 2015 BTBA poetry judge Deborah Smith’s excellently smooth and poetic translation, meant that the gamble paid off. Human Acts, Han’s second novel to appear in English, is a very different book in terms of content, yet equally composed and controlled.

In May 1980, shortly after the instatement of dictator Chun Doo-hwan after nearly two decades of Park Chung-hee, the Gwangju uprising began—students’ and workers’ protests against Chun Doo-hwan’s restrictive regime. The uprising was brutally suppressed by the police and the military, and the way the dead were treated, allowed to pile up, unclaimed, was particularly horrific.

But this novel does not tell a chronological story of the events of the uprising, in the way that Sunil Yapa’s new novel, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, follows the first day of the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Both have a cast of characters with different perspectives on the event, but it’s significant that Yapa’s novel includes police—who are presented as fully human—while Han’s does not.

In the way it reports on the bleak brutality of the police, the army and the government—a brutality that becomes simultaneously both more cruel and more banal as the novel progresses—_Human Acts_ has more in common with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s writings about the gulag and the semi-random, quota-filling prisoner-taking methods of the Soviets. There’s the same inevitability, the same horrifying repetition of treatment of people, each with their own remarkably individual stories.

The novel opens with Dong-ho, a fifteen-year-old schoolboy. He has become caught up in the uprising more or less by accident and has been searching for his missing friend. He ends up helping out in a makeshift morgue in a school gym—the main morgue being full—as he and a group of students attempt to keep the piled up bodies from decaying too fast before they can be claimed and properly buried. He has the opportunity to study wounds, to wonder how such a thing can be happening in his formerly quiet, predictable life of school and home.

The next section is told from the point of view of his missing friend, who, we quickly learn, is dead. The possibilities a dead narrator offers for tweeness and cutesy emotional manipulation make me nervous, but Jeong-dae’s section, which includes his search for his sister who has also been killed, is genuinely heart breaking. His happy memories of when he was alive are interspersed with the brutal reality of the decaying bodies all around him—flesh that he comes to hate. His chapter ends with a terrible revelation that shifts the ground of the novel around the reader.

Then we move ahead to 1985, to Kim Eun-sook, who has been beaten up because of her publisher’s involvement in publishing a dissident, and then to a prisoner who recalls both the torture and starvation experienced in prison as well as the events of the uprising, remembered very differently from the official accounts used to justify the heavy-handed response.

Characters from one story appear in others, and we return to learn what happened to the students who worked alongside Dong-ho caring for the dead bodies. Nobody is able to forget this traumatic event; it has scarred them for the rest of their lives, which they frequently end themselves as a direct result of their suffering.

The final section, from 2013, is an epilogue written from the author’s perspective and explaining her personal motivation for writing this particular book. Nine years old at the time of the uprising, Han gradually learns that one of her father’s students—a boy who had moved into their old house when they moved away from Gwangju—was killed. As an adult Han devotes a great deal of time to researching the events and interviewing people involved. As her research progresses, she finds it increasingly difficult to take part in normal life and socialize with other people.

Human Acts is a disturbing and upsetting book, but the way its characters react to the official brutality reminds readers that people are capable of committing barbaric acts anywhere, any time, even when civilization seems secure. Like Sumia Sukkar’s underappreciated The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted the War, Human Acts is a book that does not permit a complacent, that-could-never-happen-here attitude; readers are not simply allowed to smugly edutain themselves with a literary form of atrocity tourism. Instead, the focus is on people, on the human body itself, and on trying to make some kind of sense out of the senseless.

8 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As previously announced, the fiction book we’re reading for this month’s Reading the World Book Club is The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith. Since I already read this one—taught it in my class last year, more on that below—I thought I’d start out this month’s discussions with a bit of an overview.

The Book

I remember having a conversation with Deborah Smith about how she hoped that Crown would use the same cover that Portobello did when they brought out this book. Well, instead of using the collage of meat and body parts (that tongue in the lower right is still unsettling to me), Crown decided to go with the striking red background and a silhouette of a woman who seems to be trying to either escape the ground, or grow out of it. (Both interpretations of which make sense, given the plot.)

Speaking of the plot, here’s the U.S. jacket copy:

A beautiful, unsettling novel about rebellion and taboo, violence and eroticism, and the twisting metamorphosis of a soul

Before the nightmares began, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary, controlled life. But the dreams—invasive images of blood and brutality—torture her, driving Yeong-hye to purge her mind and renounce eating meat altogether. It’s a small act of independence, but it interrupts her marriage and sets into motion an increasingly grotesque chain of events at home. As her husband, her brother-in-law and sister each fight to reassert their control, Yeong-hye obsessively defends the choice that’s become sacred to her. Soon their attempts turn desperate, subjecting first her mind, and then her body, to ever more intrusive and perverse violations, sending Yeong-hye spiraling into a dangerous, bizarre estrangement, not only from those closest to her, but also from herself.

The novel is broken up into three distinct sections, each of which is about Yeong-hye, but narrated by someone else: first her husband, then her brother-in-law, and finally her sister, all of whom are pretty shitty people. Through these three movements—which were initially published as separate short stories in Korea—the reader is witness to Yeong-hye complete dissolution from an average housewife to (SPOILER ALERT) a woman confined to a mental institution believing that she is a tree.

Portobello brought this book out last year and got quite a bit of attention for it. Here in the States it was actually selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the Most Anticipated Books of Spring 2016. Gabe Habash gave it a starred review in PW:

There is much to admire in Han’s novel. Its three-part structure is brilliant, gradually digging deeper and deeper into darker and darker places; the writing is spare and haunting; but perhaps most memorable is its crushing climax, a phantasmagoric yet emotionally true moment that’s surely one of the year’s most powerful. This is an ingenious, upsetting, and unforgettable novel.

It even received a glowing review from Porochista Khakpour in the New York Times:

All the trigger warnings on earth cannot prepare a reader for the traumas of this Korean author’s translated debut in the Anglophone world. At first, you might eye the title and scan the first innocuous sentence — “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way” — and think that the biggest risk here might be converting to vegetarianism. (I myself converted, again; we’ll see if it lasts.) But there is no end to the horrors that rattle in and out of this ferocious, magnificently death-affirming novel.

The book seems to be doing quite well, which is great, since Han Kang and Deborah Smith deserve it, and because it hopefully marks the beginning of a moment for South Korean literature.

South Korean Literature

Not to dwell on that statement too much, but there does seem to be a growing interest in Korean writing. It sort of started with Dalkey Archive’s Library of Korean Literature, which Ed Park wrote about for the New Yorker.

Speaking of the New Yorker, in January, Mythili Rao published a piece there entitled Can a Big Government Push Bring the Nobel Prize in Literature to South Korea? In this article, she talks about the efforts of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea to help promote the publication and promotion of Korean literature. These efforts range from funding complete translations of literary works (even before they have a publisher), to promotional grants (which is why Bae Suah and Deborah Smith will be touring the U.S. later this year), to travel grants for editors (which is how Ross Ufberg, Will Evans, and I ended up in Seoul last year1).

There’s even this unexpected Vanity Fair list of Korean books to read now. (Unexpected in the sense that these sort of lists are so BuzzFeed and LitHub, not what I usually associate with Vanity Fair.)

With three Bae Suah titles on the horizon—A Greater Music, The Owls’ Absence, and Recitation—a couple Jung Young-Moon titles coming out from Dalkey and Deep Vellum, and The Vegetarian doing so well, we could be approaching critical mass . . . And the more that North Korea is in the news, the more attention people will be paying to this part of the world . . .

An Excerpt

You can read a decent-sized extract from this novel over at Words Without Borders. Here are the first few paragraphs.

Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her. Middling height; bobbed hair neither long nor short; jaundiced, sickly-looking skin; somewhat prominent cheekbones; her timid, sallow aspect told me all I needed to know. As she came up to the table where I was waiting, I couldn’t help but notice her shoes—the plainest black shoes imaginable. And that walk of hers—neither fast nor slow, striding nor mincing.

However, if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married. The passive personality of this woman in whom I could detect neither freshness nor charm, or anything especially refined, suited me down to the ground. There was no need to affect intellectual leanings in order to win her over, or to worry that she might be comparing me to the preening men who pose in fashion catalogues, and she didn’t get worked up if I happened to be late for one of our meetings. The paunch that started appearing in my mid-twenties, my skinny legs and forearms that steadfastly refused to bulk up in spite of my best efforts, the inferiority complex I used to have about the size of my penis—I could rest assured that I wouldn’t have to fret about such things on her account.

I’ve always inclined towards the middle course in life. At school I chose to boss around those who were two or three years my junior, and with whom I could act the ringleader, rather than take my chances with those my own age, and later I chose which college to apply to based on my chances of obtaining a scholarship large enough for my needs. Ultimately, I settled for a job where I would be provided with a decent monthly salary in return for diligently carrying out my allotted tasks, at a company whose small size meant they would value my unremarkable skills.

And so it was only natural that I would marry the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world.

The Author

Han Kang has made quite a name for herself over the past number of years. She’s published at least nine books—including Human Acts, which just came out in the UK—and won a couple big awards—the Yi Sang Literary Award and Today’s Young Artist Award. According to this article on _list, J.M.G. Le Clézio considers her to be a future Nobel Prize winner. (Not sure what that’s worth, but it’s interesting to note.)

LitHub recently ran an interview with her, which includes a lot about The Vegetarian, including this bit:

Bethanne Patrick: The events and themes in your novel are extremely potent: Physical and sexual abuse, abandonment, self-harm, eroticism, much more. Have any reader or critic reactions surprised you? Have they, for instance, fixed on one aspect of the story and missed another?

Han Kang: I think this novel has some layers: questioning human violence and the (im)possibility of innocence; defining sanity and madness; the (im)possibility of understanding others, body as the last refuge or the last determination, and some more. It will be inevitable that different aspects are more focused on by different readers and cultural backgrounds. If I could say one thing, this novel isn’t a singular indictment of the Korean patriarchy. I wanted to deal with my long-lasting questions about the possibility/impossibility of innocence in this world, which is mingled with such violence and beauty. These were universal questions that occupied me as I wrote it.

If you’re curious, there’s also this feature in BookPage.

The Translator

Deborah Smith (on the left in the picture above) is crazy talented. She’s a fantastic translator, which is why she recently won the Art Foundation Literary Translation Award. She’s finishing her Ph.D. at SOAS in London, and she’s launching Tilted Axis, a new publisher dedicated to bringing out works from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

She was recently interviewed for The Quietus by Jen Calleja about all of these things.

How is it that you came to translate Han Kang? What’s your relationship with her like?

DS: I read The Vegetarian and fell in love with it. A year later, I was invited to go and speak at the London Book Fair (which I’d never even heard of before), as they were gearing up for Korea being the market focus country in 2014. I met Max Porter there, Kang’s editor at Portobello, sent him my sample, and the rest is history.

Possibly the best thing about the whole experience is that Kang and I are now really good friends. It’s as much of a pleasure and privilege to know her as a person as it is to translate her work. She’s been over for two UK publicity tours, which means lots of time to chat on trains etc., and she was hear all last summer for a writer’s residency in Norwich, where I got to meet her son too.

Whenever I visit Korea she buys me lunch and takes me to a gallery. As if all this wasn’t enough, she has incredible respect for translation as a creative, artistic practice – she insists that each English version is ‘our book’, offered to share her fees with me when she found out I wasn’t getting paid for translating her publicity stuff, always asks the editor to credit me, and does so herself whenever she’s interviewed. Too good to be true.

What are your next translation projects?

DS: Alongside Han Kang, there’s only one other author I’ve chosen to translate so far – Bae Suah. Her work is radical both stylistically and politically, influenced by her own translation practice (she’s translated the likes of Kafka, Pessoa, and Sadeq Hedayat into Korean). Her language is simply extraordinary. I first came across her when I read some elderly male critic castigating her for ‘doing violence to the Korean language’, which of course was catnip to me, especially as I’d recently discovered Lispector doing pretty much the same to Portuguese.

Hopefully we’ll be able to get Deborah on the podcast this month . . .

My Class

One last thing. Every year, I make my spring class on World Lit & Translation read eight recent works in translation. (Generally from eight different countries and eight different presses. This is probably the only class these students will ever take in which they read books originally written in more than one language. Which is sort of sad.) After talking about the book, we talk to the translator, and then argue about which book deserves to be the “Best Translated Book of Our Class.” This is mostly a way of getting the students to talk about how they evaluate books—the readability, the difficulty of the translation—and the politics of awarding prizes—should we look for authors from areas that are usually overlooked, should we award the “best” book or the one that’s going to get the most readers, etc.

Anyway, last year, The Vegetarian won the class’s award. They were all enamored with the book, with it’s politics, and with Deborah. It was up against The Physics of Sorrow, Modiano, Jon Gnarr, and several other worthy titles. But there’s something about this particular book that struck a nerve with all of them, and hopefully will with everyone participating in the RTWBC as well!

So go get a copy and feel free to post any and all comments, thoughts, questions, objections, criticisms, or whatever down below, on Twitter using #RTWBC, or at the Facebook Group.

Tomorrow or Thursday I’ll get up some information about the other RTWBC book this month: Diorama by Rocío Céron.

1 And which led to this part of Mythili’s article:

Chad Post made a similar L.T.I.-sponsored trip to Seoul, with Will Evans, the publisher of Deep Vellum, and Ross Ufberg, of New Vessel Press, last winter. “They paid for the whole thing and were incredibly generous in every way,” Post said. “We stayed in this amazing hotel with the best toilet I’ve ever seen in my life. The whole thing was wonderful.”

Yes. The toilet was that amazing. Trust me.

8 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Yesterday afternoon, Tom and I recorded a new podcast about the February Reading the World Book Club books—On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa, and Monospace by Anne Parian, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan. Since we didn’t get that many comments or questions (which is too bad, since that’s one of the things that made the podcast with Adrian Nathan West so fun), we spent a lot of time talking about what we liked in the Chirbes, and then fumbled around trying to sound smart while talking about Monospace. This should be up in the next couple days so that you can laugh at us . . .

We also previewed the March titles a bit, which led to a major complication . . . the poetry book that I had previously announced has been delayed, which is problematic. So, instead, what we thought we’d do is slot in Rocío Cerón’s Diorama, which won the 2015 Best Translated Book Award and is translated from the Spanish by Anna Rosenwong and is readily available from Phoneme Media in a bilingual edition.

Diorama will join Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, which will serve as this month’s work of fiction. The Vegetarian is translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith and available from Crown in the U.S., Portobello in the UK.

I’m working up introductory posts about both of these books, and will have those up by Thursday, but in the meantime, feel free to post your thoughts or comments below, using #RTWBC on Twitter, or at the Facebook Group.

Later this week, I’ll also post an update with info on RTWBC books for April, May, and June, so that participants can plan ahead.

8 January 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This past weekend, my kids and I finally watched The Incredible Hulk—the final Marvel Cinematic Universe movie that we had to see to be all caught up before Avengers 2 comes out in May.

After the ultimately disappointing Hulk ended, my son wanted to binge on the new season of Doctor Who, which is available through our Time Warner On Demand service. This pissed his sister off in all the ways, since she’s generally offended when she’s not in charge of the situation, and especially when it involve the Doctor. (She says it a snotty British accent every time.)

Fast-forward through ten minutes of “But you ALWAYS get to choose” and “Stop being a brat,” “You’re the one who’s annoying. ALWAYS.” “Please, you two, it’s just T—” “DAD! HE punched me!” “But you just slapped his face.” “Because he was being annoying.” “AAARRRRGGGGHHHH!” And we finally agreed upon Spider-Man 3 because Aidan remembered loving the Sandman, and Chloë likes movies in which primary characters die.

So I went to Netflix. No Spider-Man 3. Amazon Prime Instant Video Extravaganza? Nope, not there. Time Warner’s Movies On Demand didn’t have it either. None of the systems that I subscribe to had this available for streaming.

Keep in mind that this is the shittiest of all Spider-Man movies, recent reboot included. It’s a total disaster with too many villains, a way too heavy reliance on random coincidences, and Peter Parker dancing all sinister-like after the black venom suit poisons his soul. (If you don’t believe me about how bad this movie sucks, listen to this episode of How Did This Get Made? or read Sam Raimi’s admission that he cocked this movie up.) This is not a Godard film, this is not art, this is barely entertainment, this isn’t something—given all the various media things I subscribe to and pay for—that I should have to really search for.

Which brings me to my old-man-yelling-at-the-trees point: If one of the significant outcomes of streaming services like Spotify, Netflix, etc., is a precipitous decline in pirated media, then studios and labels should make everything available there. This isn’t to criticize Four Tet or others who pull their stuff from Spotify on moral-financial grounds—I have issues with them, but this isn’t the article for that—but rather the creators who are already part of the system.

It used to be so much easier when you could just go to Blockbuster . . . Or when the local libraries were open every single weekend . . . It just seems ridiculous to me that my latest laptop doesn’t even have a built-in DVD player, that I pay $100 a month for cable and Netflix and Spotify and whatever, and that I resort to trolling bittorrent sites looking for a pile of crap that will finally shut down the argument my kids are having.

Oh, and thankyousoverymuch Swedish government for shutting down The Pirate Bay and making it more difficult for me to fill in the large gaps in all the services I pay for.

That’s what I became fixated on this past weekend while waiting 14,000 agonizing minutes for Spider-Man 3 to download: I used to use torrent sites and Napster and whatever just to get whatever new piece of media I was interested in. Album review sounds interesting? Swipe the album from Demonoid. I never watched a single show on actual TV, but instead downloaded all the episodes—with commercials trimmed out, naturally—and binge watched them all at the end of the season.

Part of the philosophy behind à la carte schemes and streaming services is premised upon the belief that, given a reasonably-priced, convenient option, people will pay for things that they would otherwise download illegally. (One could make the argument that cheap ebooks are helping curb some book piracy, although there are probably a billion people who don’t steal digital books because reading just isn’t part of their life.) For the most part, that has played out in my life. I watch TV via On Demand, which I assume is better for networks and their advertisers than if I just download the torrent. I listen to Spotify non-stop, and only ever download something if it’s not available there for an extended period of time. (I’m not opposed to bands holding out a couple weeks before making it available via streaming services.)

I’m more than willing to play this subscription sort of game instead of Napstering my library, so, please, Big Studios, make your awful (and good!) movies available on these services. My kids and my migraines will thank you for it.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (Portobello)

I didn’t think about it until this very moment, but this book fits in perfectly with the situation described above . . . First of all, as you may already know from listening to the Three Percent podcast, my reading resolution for 2015 is to read more books from non-European, non-American (North and South) countries. Of the 80 books I read last year, only 8 were from African/Asian/Middle Eastern countries. That’s appalling, And my ratio of female to male authors was . . . well, embarrassing. (Only 25% of the books I read were by women.) But now I can read The Vegetarian, which fits both categories! And it’s translated by one of my favorite people, Deborah Smith. (Who will hopefully become your favorite translator when Open Letter kicks off its Korean literature series.)

Furthermore, this book—which sounds absolutely wild, with a woman deciding to become a vegetarian (essentially impossible to do in Korea), causing a rift with her husband, and eventually transforming her into a tree (?)—would fit in perfectly with my spring “World Literature & Translation” class. (I’ll post the syllabus at some point—it’s a pretty amazing list of books the students will be reading and translators they’ll be talking with.) As is destined to be, Portobello has sold the U.S. rights to The Vegetarian to Crown, so although they had the book listed on Amazon for preorders, it’s now only available in used editions. And Crown doesn’t list the book at all, so I can’t imagine it’s going to be formally launched here for some time.

Which means that my students will have to be ingenious in acquiring this. UK-based friends who can ship it over, or finding an e-version on the darknet. Or buying a used copy, bribing the library to get more than one in stock, borrowing mine. We’ll definitely figure it out—I’m determined to use this book—but it could all be so much easier . . .

The Guard by Peter Terrin, translated from the Flemish by David Colmer (MacLehose Press)

Speaking of things that took a while, I just double-checked, and we made an offer on The Guard in 2010. Then again in 2012, after MacLehose won world rights and was looking for a U.S. publisher. Once he started distributing in the States that offer no longer made sense, and a few years later the book is finally going to be available to all of you! Publishing is so slow and frustrating sometimes. Back in 2012 my enthusiasm about this book would’ve converted ten thousand readers!

This really is a brilliant piece of strange fiction. The opening section has a lot of strong Godot tones to it, what with two guards patrolling the parking structure of a possibly abandoned building. They never leave, since there may be a war going on outside, or perhaps the world has already been destroyed, so instead they stay loyal, doing their jobs diligently. Until . . .

I think fans of Volodine and contemporary quasi-sci-fi in that vein will really enjoy this. And hopefully some other reviewers will jump on this. (I haven’t received a galley, but I assume they’re out there somewhere.)

One other thing: The cover up there on the left is for the UK version, the one on the right for the U.S. Seriously. What the shit? I think maybe they were trying to sell U.S. readers on this by making it look like it’s been made into a movie? Too bad it just looks like the cover you’d see on any number of self-published “thrillers.”

Blood-Drenched Beard by Daniel Galera, translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin (Penguin Press)

Galera was one of the most interesting writers featured in Granta’s special issue on “Best Young Brazilian Novelists,” so it’s great to have one of his books fully translated into English.

In addition to that, I’m excited to read this book because a) Galera has translated David Mitchell into Portuguese, and b) the main character, seeking information about how his grandfather really died, has a neurological condition that prevents him from recognizing faces. I know a girl with mild prosopagnosia and I think it’s kind of fascinating. You could make a terrible _50 First Dates_-esque movie out of this condition, or something way, way cooler . . .

Tesla: A Portrait with Masks by Vladimir Pistalo, translated from the Serbian by Bogdan Rakic (Graywolf Press)

Similar to my love for Philip K. Dick, I don’t think I’ll ever tire of reading about Tesla and his life. His life and mind are fascinating, and have inspired a few great books, including Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else and Jean Echenoz’s Lightning. It will be interesting to see how Pistalo’s portrait of Tesla fits in with the others.

And, in case you aren’t convinced of the awesomeness of Tesla, I give you this:



Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo, translated from the Spanish by Daniel Balderston; Select Poems by Silvina Ocampo, translated from the Spanish by Jason Weiss (NYRB)

Silvina Ocampo is one of those authors who a lot of Latin American literary enthusiasts have heard of, but probably never read. I mean, her stories have been published, but my sense is that she’s always been overshadowed by her sister Victoria (founder of the journal Sur and publisher of Borges and that generation of Argentine writers), by her husband Adolfo Bioy Casares, and by other (primarily male) Argentina writers of the mid-twentieth century. Which sucks, and is thankfully being somewhat rectified by NYRBs two publications: a comprehensive selection of her short fiction, pulling stories from her seven collections; and the first volume of her poetry to ever appear in English. This is huge, this is classic, this is worth getting your hands on.

If you’re not yet convinced, here’s a selling line from Jorge Luis Borges’s preface to Thus Were Their Faces: “In Silvina Ocampo’s stories there is something I have never understood: her strange taste for a certain kind of innocent and oblique cruelty.”

Frog by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (Viking)

This is the first book Mo Yan has published since winning the Nobel Prize, and I’m very interested in seeing how the critics and readers react to it. In contrast with Pow! this seems to be more of a critique of China, focusing on a midwife who proves her loyalty to the Communist Party by performing late-term abortions and making everyone in her village adhere to the one-child policy. I haven’t read much of Mo Yan’s work, but what I have read is much more literary, stylized, playful, and interesting than a straightforward social critique. Regardless, he is a prose-master, and this book seems like as good a place as any to getting in to his oeuvre.

God Loves Haiti by Dimitry Elias Léger (HarperCollins)

I read a chunk of this way back when, at a time when Dimitry sent this to us on submission. He compared it to José Saramago with a plot more in the Graham Greene mold. In terms of the prose, “it’s English mixed with French and hip-hop slang, befitting my Haitian-Brooklyn and former rap music editor roots.” And damn, it really is a great book. But at the time—and still, I suppose—we were focusing on translations, whereas this was written in English, and didn’t feel like we could adequately promote a book like this with our existing reputation.

Dimitry and I stayed friends though (in part through our joint love of Arsenal—GO GUNNERS!), and I have to admit, after seeing on Facebook all the promotions he’s doing for this—NY launch parties, events with Francisco Goldman, interviews on NPR, blurbs from Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat, a review in the New York Times—I’m really glad we passed on this. Obviously HarperCollins can do more for a book than Open Letter, and it makes me smile to see all the great things that are happening for God Loves Haiti and Dimitry.

This is the sort of book that I think I could get our Rochester book club to read, and one that I will be personally reviewing on Three Percent—fulfilling a promise I made to Dimitry some years ago.

The Alphabet of Birds by SJ Naudé, translated from the Afrikaans by the author (And Other Stories)

And Other Stories continues to impress, book after book, and this story collection from this new voice in South African fiction is no exception. Here’s a bit from Damon Galgut’s introduction that both explains the title and gets at what makes Naudé’s writing interesting:

It’s ironic that a writer like Naudé, who uses words with elegant exactness, should find them so obstructive, but he does. “You’ve talked enough,” one character is told. “Talking is over.” What will replace speech, in this instance, is violence, but in other stories the implications are gentler: “You should learn to do without words,” a character says. “There are better things.” He means dance, which is another sort of language. Or maybe music will lead to the truth. And if that doesn’t work, even harmony can be broken down: a noise machine, which speaks with hisses and roars and bands—maybe that will do the trick.

But how can there be an answer, if we don’t even know the question? Like their central characters, the stories seem to begin and end in mid-air. Who will finish writing them for us? The birds, Naudeé tells us. A bird trapped in a house eventually flies out, leaving shit “on the interior walls, like crooked letters. Like Eastern calligraphy. Maybe that is an ending.”

Maybe it is. But in order to understand, you would have to speak in impossible symbols. It is this missing resolution, cryptic letters written in bird-shit, that embodies the mystery at the heart of these narratives. Cool and intelligent, unsettling and deeply felt, Naudé’s voice is something new in South African writing.

Minute-Operas by Frédéric Forte, translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom, and Jean-Jacques Poucel (Burning Deck)

I do an awful job of including poetry on these monthly preview write-ups, partially because I feel way out of the loop in terms of contemporary international poetry, and partly because I never know what to say about these books. (Not that I never go on tangents or rants or anything . . .) I’m going to do a better job of including poetry, especially when it looks like this:



And is described like this:

Frédéric Forte’s Minute-Operas are poems “staged” on the page. A simple vertical line of 3 inches separates what Forte calls the stage and the wings. The poet explores the potential of this form with multiple typographic games, calling on different registers of the language, different poetic techniques and, in the second part of the book, by “fixating as minute-operas” 55 existing poetic forms (come out of various poetic traditions or more recently invented by Oulipo, the famous French “Workshop for Potential Literature.”)

The Dark Ship by Sherko Fatah, translated from the German by Martin Chalmers (Seagull Books)

This is probably the heaviest book I could’ve chosen to end this month’s column . . . A young Kurdish boy growing up Sadaam Hussain’s Iraq, witness to the atrocities that defined that era, a boy who is then captured by jihadists and ends up joining them before narrowly escaping to Germany . . . Not exactly a laugh a minute, but then again, not all art that you experience should be, at least in my opinion.

Speaking of, Nick Horby kicked the proverbial hornet’s nest with his recent statements, no?

Nick Hornby, the bestselling novelist, has argued readers should put down difficult books immediately if they are not enjoying them.

Battling through them, he said, would only condition people to believe reading is a chore, leaving a “sense of duty” about something you “should do”.

Instead, Hornby argued, reading should be seen more like television or the cinema, and only undertaken as something people “want to do”. [. . .]

“My real campaign is to get everybody – adult, kids, everybody – to read something that they’re loving.

“And if they’re not loving it, stop reading it.”

He added: “Every time we pick up a book for a sense of duty and we find that we’re struggling to get through it, we’re reinforcing the notion that reading is something you should do but telly is something you want to do.

“It shouldn’t be like that. Novels should be like TV. It shouldn’t be hard work and we should do ourselves a favour.

“It doesn’t mean you have to read easy books, because you can have very complicated connections to very difficult books, but as long as you’re racing through it, that’s the thing.”

This is definitely something I think Tom and I should talk about on the podcast. In one sense, I agree with Hornby—being forced to read something you hate isn’t going to make you want to read more, and at the same time, a lot of readers will quite enjoy books that are “difficult” and find “easy” ones to be the ones that are a chore to get through. (Not to mention, my like for superhero movies and shows is pretty well-established, so it’s not like I do nothing but read Important, Challenging Texts all the time.)

On the other hand though, there’s a fine line between “enjoyment” and “uncomfortableness,” and I suspect a ton of readers hearing his advice will conflate the two and stop reading any and every book that has a character they “can’t relate to.” There is a path leading from his statement to a cotton candy world in which you only read things that reinforce your prejudices, and that sort of scares me.

Also, the comparison with TV is a bit strained, since your brain on TV is different than your brain on books, which is a part of the reason why watching TV is so “easy.” Even when a TV show is a slog, or “difficult,” you can passively let the boring parts drift by, and suddenly it’s over. The way TV and books are consumed is different, in my opinion. I guess I have a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to flippant comments like this because I’ve seen the way readers feel intimidated by even the most straightforward of books, and enabling them to constantly avoid anything that might seem like “work” to them could lead to an even more vapid culture. “Fuck The Catcher in the Rye! This isn’t as fun as the Kardashians! TV RULES!”

27 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

Basti by Intizar Husain, translated from the Urdu by Frances W. Pritchett and published by NYRB Classics

This piece is by Korean translator Deborah Smith. You can follow her on Twitter at @londonkoreanist.

Intizar Husain, despite being widely regarded as the most significant living writer of Urdu fiction, is likely to have flown under the radar for most English-language readers prior to his recent nomination for the Man Booker International Prize. It’s particularly fortuitous, then, that the redoubtable team at NYRB Classics chose to issue Basti earlier this year, the only one of Husain’s five novels to have been published in English translation.

The novel opens with the narrator-protagonist Zakir as a child in the fictional town of Rupnagar, a place of harmony whose existence is predicated upon its timelessness and isolation from the outside world. As he grows up, Zakir forms an ambiguous yet touching attachment to his cousin Sabirah, from whom he is later separated when she chooses to remain behind in India post-partition. Zakir, now living in Lahore with his parents, is nominally a teacher of history but spends the majority of his time bickering with his friends in coffee houses as, outside, political slogans resound as the country descends into the madness of war. As Zakir’s narration comes to a close, the frequently-promised moment of revelation remains, as ever, tantalisingly just out of reach.

The fundamental disjunction between a semi-mythical past of harmonious tolerance and the all-too-present realities of political violence and the horrors of Partition is represented both structurally and linguistically in Basti, and refracted through the increasingly insular consciousness of its protagonist (particularly towards the latter stages of the novel, in which interior monologue plays an increasing role, blended with passages from what we are told is Zakir’s diary). Husain makes use of his vast knowledge of Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist traditions by quoting from their texts and alluding to their histories both classical and modern, weaving a shimmering tapestry of tone and register by turns lyrical, dreamy, prophetic, and fervid.

Frances W. Pritchett’s translation grapples admirably with a novel bursting with ambitious linguistic effects. The frequent repetition of the vocative yar, which Pritchett has chosen to retain, while initially jarring, becomes over the course of the novel an invaluable evocation of place for the reader, who is also, thanks to the sensitivity of the translator, not shut out from the subtle ways in which the characters’ various relationships are constructed and indicated in the original. That this visionary, modernist masterpiece is now made available in a translation which matches the ambition of the original is a truly impressive achievement.

15 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, translated from the Persian by Tom Patterdale and published by Melville House Books

This piece is by Korean translator Deborah Smith. You can follow her on Twitter at @londonkoreanist.

Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, one of the foremost Iranian authors of his generation, has so far been unrepresented in English translation due to the political nature of his works—all credit, then, to both Haus Publishing (and Melville House Books) and English PEN for their support in making The Colonel available. Credit must also be given to translator Tom Patterdale, whose avoidance of Latinate English vocabulary in preference for words with Anglo-Saxon roots is a valiant attempt to reproduce some of the convention-shattering effects of what he describes as Dowlatabadi’s “rough and ready” Persian.

The action unfolds over the course of one rainy night in a small Iranian town, a few years into the violent aftermath of the 1979 revolution, though Dowlatabadi reaches even further back into the recent history of his country, for example to the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh, to demonstrate the ways in which the past constantly impinges upon the present. At the very start of the book is the eponymous Colonel, an officer in the shah’s army, receives a knock at the door

Every knock at the door broke the caressing silence of the rain. There was nothing but the sound of unremitting rain drumming on the rusty tin roof, so unceasing that it amounted to silence.

They have come to inform him of the death of his youngest daughter, Parwaneh, who has died while being tortured by the regime. The rest of the book concerns the Colonel’s increasingly desperate attempts to retrieve Parwaneh’s body and ensure that she is buried, with at least some sense of propriety, before the night is over.

It is ironic that while the story concerns the attempts at burial, what actually results over the course of the book is a great deal of unearthing, specifically of the Colonel’s guilt over past mistakes, both private and professional, and of the various fates of his five children, none of which have escaped unscathed from the violence and political upheaval. While in the main body of the text, the Colonel is allowed the luxury of reminiscing over his younger, stronger days, his italicized thoughts, with their burden of past guilt, constantly threaten to destabilise the narrative which the Colonel has constructed to quell his conscience.

The Colonel is undoubtedly a dark read, with not much in the way of hope to alleviate the bleakness. Nevertheless, its ‘alternative history’ of the revolution is passionately, powerfully nightmarish, a great literary achievement in addition to being a brave and important window onto a world of which English-readers are still all too ignorant.

14 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

The Planets by Sergio Chejfec, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary and published by Open Letter Books

This piece is by Korean translator Deborah Smith. You can follow her on Twitter at @londonkoreanist.

Among the spate of excellent writing coming out of Argentina in recent years, Sergio Chejfec stands out. My Two Worlds, the first of his full-length works to be published in English translation (Open Letter), gave us a masterful match-up of digressive style with peripatetic narrator/flâneur which seemed a fitting heir to the Sebaldian tradition. The Planets, also published by Open Letter, and translated by Heather Cleary, whose sensitivity to the specific effects which Chejfec is hoping to achieve through his singular style is happily matched by her skill at rendering this in English, is in many ways a continuation of this aesthetic. In other words, it’s another slim yet weighty work straddling the border between the novel and memoir, all with a healthy dose of philosophical mediation.

Yet there is nothing dry or sterile about The Planets, shot through as it is with both the narrator’s understated grief over the “disappearance” of his childhood friend M in early 1970s Buenos Aires, and the dark undercurrents of tension and uncertainty which define that period of Argentine history. Written from the point of view of the narrator looking back on his childhood with M after he believes that the latter has been killed in an explosion, his attempts to bring the past (and thus his friend) back to life are held in check by the distancing effects of time on the intimacy of friendship.

The narrator’s many meditative digressions are in fact such an integral component to the movement of the narrative that to call them digressions seems a disservice, though this movement is more akin to the orbits of the titular planets than to the traditional forward march of a more plot-driven book. And the centre of gravity is M, an emotional centre from which the narrator’s mind jumps off into the philosophical, but to which these passages always swing back before becoming esoteric:

The real illusion that is space, or, more accurately, the confined, familiar city in which our reciprocal identity manifested itself, disappeared in M’s absence. There was no sense trying to recapture it through intermittent, inevitably anonymous, and more or less melancholy visits to his neighbourhood or the places we used to go because, unlike objects—which, like photos, can at any moment become talismans or relics—space has its own ephemeral hierarchy.

For me, it is precisely this abstract quality which somewhat paradoxically serves to strengthen the emotional force of the narrator’s childhold memories, whilst at the same time ensuring that these never descend into sentimental nostalgia. Reading the final few pages, I actually got pretty emotional. Without a doubt, The Planets would be a worthy winner—and I can’t wait to see what Chejfec will do next.

....
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