For the handful of people who read these posts every month (I hope there are at least three of you), unfortunately, this one is going to be pretty short. I’m really strapped for time right now, with four trips (to New York, Bennington, Toronto, Seattle-Portland) and at least seven different events scheduled for the next month. And then, after than, AWP followed by two Jón Gnarr events. Summer “break” can’t come quick enough.
That said, yesterday was such a great day. Time jumped ahead and suddenly it was light outside after six pm. Not only that, but the “Real Feel ™” for Rochester was actually ABOVE zero. Really! Snow melted, children smiled, people took off their gloves. I actually thought (although only thought) about washing my car. The start of the baseball season (which kicks off with my beloved Cardinals playing the hated Cubs) is only twenty-six days away, and Selection Sunday for the Greatest Tournament on Earth is only six.
This horrendous winter is almost over.
So, in the spirit of all great Spring Cleanings, I’m going to pitch out all the things that I’m over, that have been annoying me, weighing me down. And then, I’ll brighten the corners with a handful of interesting books in translation. First up, all the crap that I’m just done with, in list form:
Grimy snow; seasonally enhanced depression; not being able to ride my bike; winter weight gain; the soundtrack at L.A. Fitness, which is equivalent to torture with its off-version remixes of every terrible pop song ever; the Kardashians; Time Warner’s On Demand being perennially out of date, probably because Time Warner hates its customers; getting frustrated when Open Letter titles are left off of hipster website lists; “Uptown Funk”; Kate Upton ads for iPhone games I will never play; pretentious coffee shops; Dick Vitale, Stephen A. Smith, and basically all sports pundits; Rochesterians who haven’t watched The Subterranean Stadium short; grading papers; readers who want books and TV shows to be “fun” and feature “likable characters”; bracket-based tournament competitions that are not about college basketball and instead feature things like cupcakes and fast food chains; all the awards ceremonies like the Grammys and the Oscars; and the guilt that comes from not keeping up with email.
And with that all cleaned out, here are some interesting things about a handful of interesting books:
The Dirty Dust by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, translated from the Irish by Alan Titley (Yale University Press)
Interesting Facts: 1) Ó Cadhain is considered to be the master of modern Irish prose writing, but has never been translated into English; 2) Dalkey is publishing another book of his, The Key later this year; and last, but most interesting, 3) from the press release, “Yale University Press will publish another translation of this novel, Graveyard Clay: Creé na Cille, translated by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson, also as part of the Margellos World Republic of Letters series, in a special annotate edition in 2016.”
God’s Dog by Diego Marani, translated from the Italian by Judith Landry (Dedalus Books)
I wish Diego Marani still wrote in Europanto.
I was just texting with my friend Brian Jay (not his real name!) about the Iona-Manhattan basketball game, and decided that Iona sounds like a college where you can major in “School.” (I’m sure it’s a fine institution.)
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (And Other Stories)
“Yuri Herrera must be a thousand years old. He must have travelled to hell, and heaven, and back again. He must have once been a girl, an animal, a rock, a boy, and a woman. Nothing else explains the vastness of his understanding.”—Valeria Luiselli
The Musical Brain and Other Stories by Cesar Aira, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (New Directions)
The cover of this story collection—Aira’s first story collection to appear in English—changes depending on what angle you look at it. (Lenticular printing? Something like that? You know it when you see it.)
Also, Aira is actually coming to the U.S. for this book, and will be doing an event with Open Letter author Sergio Chejfec on Monday, March 23rd at the Cervantes Institute in NY.
The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Peron by Carlos Gamerro, translated from the Spanish by Ian Barnett (And Other Stories)
In 2008, we published a significant speech by Carlos Gamerro about Argentine literature. This was before And Other Stories started bringing out his interesting, unconventional fictions.
The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (FSG)
Vargas Llosa, who has something like twenty-four books available in English already, has two titles coming out this year—this new novel and Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society. (Which, with its focus on the “death of the intellectual,” is right up my alley.)
Oh, Salaam! by Najwa Barakat, translated from the Arabic by Luke Leafgren (Interlink)
Interlink is the leading U.S.-based publisher of Arabic literature, and the fact that their books aren’t more regularly reviewed or included on lists like this is criminal. Also, it’s a great selling point when the jacket copy states that the book is “the story of three friends—an explosives expert, a sniper, and a torturer.”
The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions)
Way back in the day, I interviewed Horacio as part of our Reading the World Conversation Series:
The Four Books by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (Grove)
This is the fourth Yan Lianke book to make its way into English, which, according to our Translation Database, makes him the second most-translated Chinese author of the past seven years. Only Mo Yan has had more titles published in English during that time (five). There are a few authors who have had three books translated, including my personal favorite, Can Xue.
As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three 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.
New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani, translated by Judith Landry
Why This Book Should Win: Because Marani invented Europanto, a “mock international auxiliary language.”
Today’s post is written by the amazing Daniel Hahn, who is both a writer and translator AND a program director at the British Centre for Literary Translation. Once upon a time, we spent a week together at a palace in Salzburg, Austria.
It’s September 1943. A man is found close to death on the quayside at Trieste. He’s wearing a sailor’s jacket, tagged with the name Sampo Karjalainen. He is brought on-board a German hospital ship, the Tubingen, and revived by a kindly doctor. Dr Friari is a Finn, and recognises Sampo Karjalainen as a Finnish name; the man he is treating must, he assumes, be a compatriot. But when Sampo wakes up, he remembers nothing of who he is, and not a word of any language. Dr Friari arranges for him to be sent to Helsinki, where immersion in his land and his language might raise some spark that will help him recover whoever he used to be.
Marani’s book paints a picture of one man’s struggle against the isolation that comes from having no past, and having no language. Though he is made quite welcome by the people he meets, the Helsinki that Sampo comes to inhabit is a city in the midst of a war, under increasing attack from the Soviets. He has a few acquaintances but only one real friend, Olof Koskela, a radical, charismatic pastor who helps him learn the language and shares with him great tales from the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic, among them the tale of the creation of the magical artefact called the “Sampo.” But the book’s only warmth comes from Irma, a nurse. She takes him to her “memory tree,” a tree where she takes everyone who’s important to her, so that the place might be infused with happy memories that she can call upon whenever she needs them. Irma believes her friendship can help him; he, meanwhile, is repelled by the very idea of intimacy, and when she is posted away to Viipuri (Vyborg) he receives and studies her letters but never manages a reply.
The heart of Sampo’s experience, and everything that’s distinctive about the book, is found in his attempts to master his (new) native language—or, at least, to develop his own version of it. It’s a language with four infinitive forms, with fifteen cases (including the abessive, a case denoting absence), a language, says the Pastor, “which should only be sung”; which Sampo uses in his own way, with no sense of register, mixing Biblical language with vocabulary he has picked up in the bar. That thread of intense language acquisition, more than anything, is the unlikely genius of this book, and in particular Judith Landry’s translation; in the carefully tidied-up voice of a language-less first-person, it weaves syntactical reflections through one man’s most basic experience of trying to create an identity. The language is his only possibility of establishing connections to the outside world, seen always through a veil of half-understanding, bits of information to be picked at, turned around, examined exhaustingly until they make sense.
From his lessons with Pastor Koskela, his letters from Irma, his exposure to the world around him as he wanders the Helsinki streets in the uneasy daylight of a northern summer night-time, Sampo does in time construct a Finnish that allows him to communicate. Yes, mastery of language is at the root of power, that’s clear, and yet it is not enough, without an identity, without roots, without the certainty even of his own name. There is nothing easy and nothing obvious about New Finnish Grammar, a translated book about language, a story narrated by a man without an identity or a voice—a tremendously difficult thing to achieve, and here pulled off admirably.
“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“And this—what. . .
Many authors are compared to Roberto Bolaño. However, very few authors have the privilege of having a Roberto Bolaño quote on the cover of their work; and at that, one which states, “Good readers will find something that can be. . .
In Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life, a man harangues his friend about literature while walking through Barcelona at night:
When a novel states a fact that ties into another fact and another and another, as the chain goes on. . .
César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .