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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