14 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on Ten White Geese by Gerbrand Bakker, translated by David Colmer, and out from Penguin Books.

Chris is a writer, copy editor, and proofreader from Methuen, MA; he also runs the Good Coffee Book Blog. Here’s an excerpt from his review:

Before escaping to Wales, Emilie was a translation studies instructor who has been working on a thesis on American poet Emily Dickinson. She was fired after it was revealed that she’d had an affair with a student. She confessed the affair to her husband (most of the characters’ names are not revealed until the climax) but then fled, leaving her cell phone on the ferry. Once she arrived in Wales, she decided to rent the farm for the last two months of the year. The only things she brought with her were a mattress, some books, a portrait of Dickinson, and some painkillers.

The farm has a field with ten white geese. Despite the field being surrounded by barbed wire, the geese begin to disappear. Emilie suspects that a fox might be eating them and feels guilty about it; also, she’s only “renting” them, so when there are only six left, she builds them a shelter that they end up spurning. “They ran off the wrong way in a column or scattered, as if understanding that it was hard to choose between six separate birds. . . . Panting, she scooped up a few pebbles and threw them at the geese. ‘Ungrateful, dirty, filthy, stinking, pig-headed creatures!’ she shouted. ‘I’m trying to bloody save you!’”

Ironically, Emilie, who smokes and takes her painkillers with alcohol, seems to be the one who needs saving. Early in the novel, she’s attacked by a badger after resting on its stone circle near the house. Nobody believes that the bite on her foot came from a creature commonly perceived as peaceful. “That’s impossible,” more than one person tells her. However, this “badger story,” as it comes to be known, is not just a running gag used during the story’s lighter moments.

For the rest of the review, go here.

14 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

A few weeks after moving into a farm house in the Welsh countryside, Emilie, an expatriate from the Netherlands, starts to think about her uncle. This uncle tried to drown himself in a pond in front of the hotel where he worked. Even though he stuffed his pockets with heavy objects from the hotel, the pond was too shallow, and the water only reached his waist. At one time, Emilie was close to her uncle growing up, but she hasn’t thought of him in a long time.

Perhaps she did now, in this foreign country, because it was November here too or because she sensed how vulnerable people are when they have no idea what to do next, how to move forward or back. That a shallow hotel pond can feel like a standstill, like marking time with the bank—no start or end, a circle—as the past, present and unlimited future. And because of that, she also thought she understood him just standing there and not trying to get his head underwater. A standstill. . . . She inhabited the house the way he’d stood in the pond.

This episode haunts Emilie throughout Ten White Geese, the second novel by Gerbrand Bakker to be translated into English, as she tries to figure out how to move forward. However, in her attempts at a new life, she not only experiences cultural and language barriers, but she eventually faces the threat of going back to everything (and everyone) she abandoned.

Before escaping to Wales, Emilie was a translation studies instructor who has been working on a thesis on American poet Emily Dickinson. She was fired after it was revealed that she’d had an affair with a student. She confessed the affair to her husband (most of the characters’ names are not revealed until the climax) but then fled, leaving her cell phone on the ferry. Once she arrived in Wales, she decided to rent the farm for the last two months of the year. The only things she brought with her were a mattress, some books, a portrait of Dickinson, and some painkillers.

The farm has a field with ten white geese. Despite the field being surrounded by barbed wire, the geese begin to disappear. Emilie suspects that a fox might be eating them and feels guilty about it; also, she’s only “renting” them, so when there are only six left, she builds them a shelter that they end up spurning. “They ran off the wrong way in a column or scattered, as if understanding that it was hard to choose between six separate birds. . . . Panting, she scooped up a few pebbles and threw them at the geese. ‘Ungrateful, dirty, filthy, stinking, pig-headed creatures!’ she shouted. ‘I’m trying to bloody save you!’”

Ironically, Emilie, who smokes and takes her painkillers with alcohol, seems to be the one who needs saving. Early in the novel, she’s attacked by a badger after resting on its stone circle near the house. Nobody believes that the bite on her foot came from a creature commonly perceived as peaceful. “That’s impossible,” more than one person tells her. However, this “badger story,” as it comes to be known, is not just a running gag used during the story’s lighter moments.

In a strange way, the badger, the geese, and even that mysterious creature eating the geese are trying to tell her that she doesn’t belong in Wales. They’re not the only ones: some of the locals, including a snarky doctor and an intolerant hairdresser, treat her more like a tourist than a new resident. Even the friendly wife of a baker makes her feel that she cannot survive here on her own.

Furthermore, a couple of characters also try to assert their authority over Emilie: the repulsive “caricature of a Welshman” named Rhys Jones and the mysterious university dropout Bradwen. Jones doesn’t own the land that she’s renting, but acts as a messenger from the real-estate agent who does. Also, because of an arrangement made in the past, he lets his sheep graze on the farm without asking her permission and comes and goes whenever he pleases; at one point, he even makes an unwanted advance toward her.

Her relationship with Bradwen is more complicated. While establishing a long distance route that would include a path through her farm, he falls and hurts himself. She offers to let him and his dog Sam stay the night. They leave the next morning but return that afternoon. Since Bradwen doesn’t want to return to his father, she lets him stay; in exchange, he performs various chores and errands for her. She also agrees to help him establish the route.

Initially, it appears that Bradwen is trying to help her move forward, literally and figuratively. As the novel progresses, they become more intimate, even though she sometimes struggles to communicate with him. In one interesting scene, Emilie, who is fluent in English, finds herself having trouble understanding a simple word like “kite,” which Bradwen uses to describe a bird. “She couldn’t work it out. She knew that it meant something else, this word that the boy had said twice now, but she could only picture a red diamond on a string with a tail of knotted rags. Somewhere in her head, something needed to happen. His English needed to become her English, so that she could simply understand him.”

However, even when language is not a problem, they do not always understand each other. For example, on more than one occasion, when Emilie commands Bradwen to leave the house, he refuses. He acts as if she needs him for the errands and chores, but the reader senses that he has another motive. Sometimes, he assumes things about her; at another point, when she’s asking him questions, he shuts her down completely.

While Emilie and Bradwen are trying to work out their relationship, her husband, like Emilie’s uncle, doesn’t know whether to “move forward” or “move back”; eventually, he chooses the latter. After he is released from jail for attempting to burn down the university, he seeks help from his in-laws; however, every time he does, a communication breakdown occurs. In one scene, while the Dutch version of American Idol is distracting them, Emilie’s parents trail in and out of conversation with her husband. The in-laws do not help much, but the husband ends up finding an unlikely ally: the police officer who arrested him. When the husband accidentally learns that his wife may have some kind of serious illness, the officer helps track her down.

While Ten White Geese is not a thriller, it does have the pacing of one. Bakker gives the reader some great plot twists, which balance well with the minimalist descriptions of life in the country and the disjointed dialogue, competently translated by David Colmer. However, even though readers will be absorbed in the plot, they will also be compelled by the characters and their struggles to break through the barriers that keep them from moving forward.

18 December 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Michael Orthofer runs the Complete Review – a book review site with a focus on international fiction – and its Literary Saloon weblog.

One of the many interesting things about judging the Best Translated Book Award is the sense it gives you of what (and how much) is actually being translated into English (and published/distributed in the US). Thanks largely to Dalkey Archive Press’ Library of Korean Literature, for example, we’re suddenly exposed to about a dozen Korean titles this year (without the Dalkey publications, it would be more like … one). The statistics can be revealing – and disappointing. Sure, we get … well, if not quite any number so at least a whole lot of French titles – but Chinese ? Isn’t Chinese literature hot right now ? Last time the database we rely on was updated (i.e. there might still be some unaccounted for) I counted all of three eligible titles.

Numbers-wise, among the literatures which seems to consistently punch above its population-weight, along with Icelandic and Hebrew, is Dutch (meaning: Dutch and Flemish), and while we have (at last count) quote-unquote only six works of fiction to consider … well, damn, it is an impressive selection (and the Vondel Prize-folks — who have to consider two years’ worth of publications — have their work cut out for them).

I haven’t seen one of these yet — The Square of Revenge, ‘An Inspector Van In novel’ by Pieter Aspe – and I suspect that its being part of a mystery series makes it a longshot to get longlisted, but I note that Aspe has apparently sold millions and that this book did get reviewed in The New York Times Book Review (only as part of Marilyn Stasio‘s ‘Crime’-round-up, but still). [As it turns out, there’s a double-bill of Inspector Van In novels eligible – a second one, The Midas Murders, having also appeared in the eligible period (but failing to make it onto the database for now – an omission Chad will rectify shortly. So that’s seven – and counting … – Dutch titles in the running.]

Even if they are great mysteries, the Aspes will be hard-pressed to compete with the other Dutch titles elbowing for spots on the longlist. First off, there’s Hella S. Haasse’s The Black Lake , in Ina Rilke’s translation — which fellow-judge Daniel Medin has already delighted in in a previous Three Percent/BTBA post. Haasse — who died just two years ago, at a very ripe old age – wrote this back in 1948. While quite a bit of the work by this grand old lady of Dutch literature has been published in translation, it’s great to see this important, powerful little novel about colonial Indonesia finally also available in English.

There’s another, even older work in the running, Jan Jacob Slauerhoff’s 1932 novel, The Forbidden Kingdom. This unusual time-bridging narrative features Portuguese traveler and poet, Luís de Camões, as well as a modern-day (well, early 20th-century) events, and is a wonderful (and wonderfully surprising) more-than-just-adventure novel.

Then there’s Gerbrand Bakker’s Ten White Geese — which you might also recognize from the title it was published in the UK under, The Detour , since it, in David Colmer’s translation, already won the biggest translation-into-English prize on the other side of the Atlantic, the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, With Bakker’s previous novel, The Twin, already making the 2010 BTBA shortlist it’s clear he’s an author – and this a book – that has to be taken pretty seriously.

Finally, there are the two Sam Garrett-translated titles – notable not just because they share a translator (Anthea Bell has him beat there, hands down, with five translations in the BTBA-running) but because they’re in many ways quite similar works – and both were incredibly successful in the Netherlands. One is Tirza, by Arnon Grunberg, the other The Dinner by Herman Koch. Amazingly, both were reviewed in the not-known-as-very-open-to-fiction-in-translation New York Times Book Reviewhere and here – and The Dinner even got the Janet Maslin treatment in the daily Times (she loathed it).

One seems to have done much, much better sales-wise than the other — The Dinner, which actually can boast of being a New York Times bestseller (indeed, it spent quite a few weeks on the bestseller lists). Yet Tirza is the clearly superior work; as Claire Messud concluded in her NYTBR review of The Dinner, that novel, while “absorbing and highly readable, proves in the end strangely shallow”. Tirza, on the other hand, is both entertaining and, ultimately, profound.

Both novels have a horrific twist. In the case of The Dinner it is one that’s, at least in its outlines, fairly obvious early on – but just keeps getting more twisted and horrific as the novel progresses (an admittedly very nice and disturbing touch). Tirza seems to follow a simpler arc of personal dissolution before taking its more surprising final turn into the abyss.

The Dinner uses a meal at a fancy restaurant as its foundation, taking readers through the many courses while incongruously (that’s the intent, anyway) increasingly disturbing revelations are made. With one of the characters running for high political office (prime minister, in fact), The Dinner is a cruel satire of contemporary Dutch movers and shakers (and any notion of civilized behavior in general). By turns shocking as well as occasionally funny, it does have considerable shock-value-appeal – but there’s not that much more to it. Koch does reasonably well, but not quite well enough with what is also ultimately a very ugly tale that – as Messud noted – doesn’t really have much depth to it.

Tirza also involves an almost unspeakable act, but Grunberg is the far superior craftsman in leading readers there, the shock, when it comes, all the more affecting. It’s a remarkably convincing portrait of a man falling apart. Like Koch’s novel, it’s uncomfortable to read, in part, but whereas Koch’s exaggerated satire can also be shrugged off – good for cocktail-party chatter, but hardly to be taken seriously as an in any way a profound critique of society – Grunberg’s novel sits much deeper.

I can see the easy appeal of The Dinner – part of which is surely also that it can be shrugged off fairly easily, as over-the-top satire often can. Tirza, much more personal than public (no one running for the highest office in the land here …), may not be a novel whose protagonist readers want to identify with either, but it’s a completely convincing portrait of (a) contemporary man and contemporary society.

This BTBA selection process, of narrowing down the three or four hundred eligible books, first to a longlist, is challenging. I’ve just gone over the Dutch titles here, and I think there’s a strong case to be made for four of them to at least reach the final-25 stage. Whatever the outcome – I am only of nine judges, after all, and I can’t be sure how my fellow judges feel about these (and the many other worthy) titles – I’d be surprised if Tirza didn’t make the cut, and if The Dinner did.

25 July 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Hannah Chute on Amsterdam Stories by Nescio, from New York Review Books.

Hannah is one of two Hannahs interning at Open Letter this summer. We’re still working on a good nickname for her—for now, depending on the situation, we (read: I) have been referring to the Hannahs as “Hannah” and “Other Hannah.” (If yet another of our interns, Reagan, was also a Hannah, things would get messy. Other Other Hannah?)

Anyway, this relatively small volume of stories by Nescio sounds pretty cool, particularly the chronology of style behind it, and falls into the category of compact volumes from NYRB that I personally can’t wait to dive into—a fairly long list that (in no particular order) includes Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories.

Here’s the beginning of Hannah’s review:

Nescio, Koekebakker, J.H.F. Grönloh. Writing only in his spare time, he was known to most of the world as a respectable and prominent businessman, the director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company: exactly the kind of man whom his early protagonists would scorn, and at whom his later protagonists would smile grimly, knowing that “respectability” is society’s code-word for “half-stifled misery.” Producing only a few short stories, he went largely unnoticed during his lifetime, only posthumously gaining a place in the canon of Dutch literature. Now, his poignant and subtly humorous Amsterdam Stories have finally been brought to an English-speaking audience by Damion Searls, an award-winning translator who works with German, Norwegian, French, and Dutch texts.

The nine stories and novellas of this collection, arranged in chronological order of their writing, come together to form a composite portrait of a single life — quite transparently a version of Nescio’s own. In his early stories, such as “The Freeloader” and “Young Titans,” the narrator is Koekebakker, who is idealistic, poor, and (mostly) happy, confident as he is “going to do _something_” with his life. A vague, beautiful something that animates him and his group of four like-minded friends. The narrator looks back on this youth with jaded wistfulness: “We were kids — but good kids . . . We’re much smarter now, so smart it’s pathetic.” But in spite of this cynicism, it is surprisingly easy to get caught up in the half-baked ideas and humorous antics of Koekebakker & Co. . . .

For the rest of the review, go here.

25 July 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Nescio, Koekebakker, J.H.F. Grönloh. Writing only in his spare time, he was known to most of the world as a respectable and prominent businessman, the director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company: exactly the kind of man whom his early protagonists would scorn, and at whom his later protagonists would smile grimly, knowing that “respectability” is society’s code-word for “half-stifled misery.” Producing only a few short stories, he went largely unnoticed during his lifetime, only posthumously gaining a place in the canon of Dutch literature. Now, his poignant and subtly humorous Amsterdam Stories have finally been brought to an English-speaking audience by Damion Searls, an award-winning translator who works with German, Norwegian, French, and Dutch texts.

The nine stories and novellas of this collection, arranged in chronological order of their writing, come together to form a composite portrait of a single life — quite transparently a version of Nescio’s own. In his early stories, such as “The Freeloader” and “Young Titans,” the narrator is Koekebakker, who is idealistic, poor, and (mostly) happy, confident as he is “going to do something_” with his life. A vague, beautiful something that animates him and his group of four like-minded friends. The narrator looks back on this youth with jaded wistfulness: “We were kids — but good kids . . . We’re much smarter now, so smart it’s pathetic.” But in spite of this cynicism, it is surprisingly easy to get caught up in the half-baked ideas and humorous antics of Koekebakker & Co. They are a bit ridiculous, especially seen from the narrator’s half-bitter, half-indulgent viewpoint, but they are sincere, delightful, and recognizably _real. The exception of course is Japi, the exasperating but fascinating “freeloader” of the collection’s first story, who is more allegory than man. He observes, he sits, he walks. He borrows money, smokes other people’s cigars, and takes his friend’s cloak when they are walking in the rain. And, when the world catches up with him and tries to pin him down into a job, he quietly and almost cheerfully steps off a bridge. A simple (even silly) story, but Nescio pulls it off with grace and warmth.

By “Little Poet,” written when Nescio was thirty-five, the narrator begins to lose his wistful nature and takes a more openly mocking stance toward his protagonist, and possibly against poetry in general. He leaves Koekebakker and his group behind, moving on to a nameless, doomed young poet, whom he pokes fun at mercilessly. One of the conduits of this fun-poking is the God of the Netherlands, who can’t seem to understand why he bothers to keep creating poets, particularly the meek, boyish breed like the Little Poet in question:

Twice the God of the Netherlands shook his venerable head and twice his long venerable muttonchops slid back and forth across his vest.
bq. It didn’t add up. There must be a mistake somewhere. A poet with no hair, that was very strange. The God of the Netherlands hadn’t cared much for poets for thirty years. You could no longer tell what to make of them. Respectable or disrespectable? Impossible to say . . .

God sighed. He’d have to talk it over with a real poet tomorrow. Maybe Potgieter . . .

Look, there goes the little poet. A handsome young man, you have to admit: thin, with a nicely shaved boyish face except for a pair of flying buttresses in front of his years, and so suntanned. He greets someone, tilting his straw hat a fraction about his close-cut hair.

Bizarre—so little hair—but it definitely was a little poet because God couldn’t figure him out, or Potgieter either. And Professor Volmer wanted nothing to do with him.

At one point, the Little Poet is walking down the street when he sees a group of women sitting outside a cafe and prays silently, “Oh God . . . what if you performed a miracle now, what if all their clothes suddenly fell off?” The narrator hedges this oh-so-scandalous thought playfully, writing in an aside: “You and I, dear reader, never think such things. And my dear lady readers . . . Mercy me, perish the thought.”
In his later stories, his writing begins to take on a different character. By “Insula Dei,” written twenty-five years and two World Wars later, his tone is bitter, though not unsentimental: Nescio has become an old man who cannot understand how his life — the shining promise he saw in his youth — has blinked past him. His nostalgia is more morbid now, colored as it is by war, hunger, and age. Reminiscing with the narrator about their youth, his friend Flip laments: “Back then we died of consumption, not tuberculosis.” Nescio’s skill lies in his ability to make even this macabre thought a thing of beauty.

As the title suggests, this is, in a sense, also a “city book” after the fashion of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale (New York) and Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (St. Petersburg). These authors live and breathe their cities, and these works draw their readers onto the streets, into their cafes and parks and back alleys. Nescio accomplishes this with beautiful subtleness; Amsterdam is never the focus of his tales, but remains an unobtrusive but constant and compelling presence.

All in all, Nescio’s stories — often tragic but always beautiful — linger in the mind. They do not seem to have been composed; rather, they unfold with the grace of inevitability. Their melancholy weight means that they are best consumed slowly, leaving time between the stories to allow them to settle and be absorbed. At only 155 pages, this slim volume has a quiet power to match that of the most sweeping of Great Novels.

16 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jacob M. Appel on Louis Paul Boon’s My Little War, which is translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent and available from Dalkey Archive Press.

Jacob M. Appel is a physician in New York City and the author of more than two hundred published short stories. His prose has been short-listed for the Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Award on multiple occasions. Jacob’s paternal
grandfather, Leo Appel, came to the United States as a refugee from Antwerp, Belgium, in 1938, and Jacob remains deeply engaged in Dutch and Flemish culture. Click here for more information.

Dalkey’s published a few Louis Paul Boon books, including Chapel Road (which is AMAZING) and Summer in Termuren (more amazing). He’s tragically overlooked by American readers, which really sucks, since these two books are on par with pretty much all other mammoth classics of twentieth-century literature. (This sounds hyperbolic, BUT IT’S NOT.)

Here’s the opening of Jacob’s review of My Little War:

The period between Flemish author Louis Paul Boon’s birth in 1912 and the publication of his post-modern masterpiece Mijn kleine oorlog (My Little War) in 1947 saw Belgium ravaged by some of the worst wartime carnage that the European continent had experienced in centuries. Even as Hitler’s advancing wehrmacht sent 25% of the Belgian population fleeing over the French border, memories remained fresh of the brutal German occupation of 1914—including its defining atrocity, the sacking of Leuven, during which the city’s library of 300,000 medieval books was burned and the entire populace expelled. So to post-war Flemish readers, Boon’s peculiarly brilliant novel appeared in the wake of two large wars, challenging a literary orthodoxy that tried to make sense of these conflagrations.

Mijn kleine oorlog is decidedly not an anti-war novel—at least, not in the sense of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or Zweig’s The Case of Sergeant Grischa or Rolland’s Clérambault, the sort of predecessors to which Boon is likely referring to when he writes to question the archetypal “great writer” who rises up to present the world with “his Book About the Great War—with capital letters.” Instead, the volume might be described as an anti-anti-war novel . . . if it even is a novel at all. A better description yet might be an anti-anti-war sketchbook. For what Boon has done in thirty-three brief vignettes is collect snippets of overheard conversations, press reports, unsubstantiated rumors and “personal” experiences to generate a montage of the highly subjective experience of one ordinary laborer-turned-POW-turned-writer during the Second World War. Yet even the volume’s subjectively is overtly orchestrated; this is not Virginia Woolf or James Joyce trying to capture the subtle workings of the human mind, but rather an author reminding the reader that he is feigning to do so. In one noteworthy example, after referring to multiple characters as “what’s-his-name” and “what’s-her-name,” Boon suddenly pretends to have recalled one of their names: “What’s her name came too,” he writes. “What was her name again the one who was hit in the head with something the other day and died, who used to get so furious and denounce us as pro-German when we said the war would last five years . . . it was Mrs. Lammens!” Of course, the reader recognizes that Boon has not achieved this recollection in the moment. Rather, Boon uses this device to mock his modernist forebears and to remind the reader of his own pretenses.

Click here to read the complete essay.

16 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The period between Flemish author Louis Paul Boon’s birth in 1912 and the publication of his post-modern masterpiece Mijn kleine oorlog (My Little War) in 1947 saw Belgium ravaged by some of the worst wartime carnage that the European continent had experienced in centuries. Even as Hitler’s advancing wehrmacht sent 25% of the Belgian population fleeing over the French border, memories remained fresh of the brutal German occupation of 1914—including its defining atrocity, the sacking of Leuven, during which the city’s library of 300,000 medieval books was burned and the entire populace expelled. So to post-war Flemish readers, Boon’s peculiarly brilliant novel appeared in the wake of two large wars, challenging a literary orthodoxy that tried to make sense of these conflagrations.

Mijn kleine oorlog is decidedly not an anti-war novel—at least, not in the sense of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or Zweig’s The Case of Sergeant Grischa or Rolland’s Clérambault, the sort of predecessors to which Boon is likely referring to when he writes to question the archetypal “great writer” who rises up to present the world with “his Book About the Great War—with capital letters.” Instead, the volume might be described as an anti-anti-war novel . . . if it even is a novel at all. A better description yet might be an anti-anti-war sketchbook. For what Boon has done in thirty-three brief vignettes is collect snippets of overheard conversations, press reports, unsubstantiated rumors and “personal” experiences to generate a montage of the highly subjective experience of one ordinary laborer-turned-POW-turned-writer during the Second World War. Yet even the volume’s subjectively is overtly orchestrated; this is not Virginia Woolf or James Joyce trying to capture the subtle workings of the human mind, but rather an author reminding the reader that he is feigning to do so. In one noteworthy example, after referring to multiple characters as “what’s-his-name” and “what’s-her-name,” Boon suddenly pretends to have recalled one of their names: “What’s her name came too,” he writes. “What was her name again the one who was hit in the head with something the other day and died, who used to get so furious and denounce us as pro-German when we said the war would last five years . . . it was Mrs. Lammens!” Of course, the reader recognizes that Boon has not achieved this recollection in the moment. Rather, Boon uses this device to mock his modernist forebears and to remind the reader of his own pretenses.

In Boon’s fictional universe, which occupies only a few small streets in a Belgian village, everything is true because nothing is true. For instance, Boon describes a fellow soldier pausing during a retreat through an abandoned dairy, with German gunners close on his heels, to rescue a goldfish from an overturned bowl. When Boon questions this “what’s-his-name,” the infantryman replies, “Imagine you lived in that dairy, and got back after you’d run away, wouldn’t you be glad to see that your goldfish were still alive? Well?” Lest we read too much into this tale of minor heroism, several sentences later, Boon announces: “Actually, I made those goldfish up, that’s what stories are for.” He then begins his next vignette with the caveat: “But this isn’t made up . . .” Who can really say? For an author who writes, “there’s never any need to cook up any fantasy; the truth is fantastic enough,” no moment in Mijn kleine oorlog is ever definitively truth or definitively fantasy. Even the identification of the narrator, Boontje, with the author remains intentionally unclear. Boon writes that “If I’ve usually said ‘I’ in this book, it was just a way of presenting things, what I really meant was ‘you’—you, you poor man, exploited, scorned, spat upon, pacified with empty promises, who didn’t have the courage to stand up for yourself . . .” In the current age of Thomas Pynchon and “truthiness,” we may take this approach for granted. To Boon’s Flemish audience of 1947, blurring the lines between Truth and fiction in this speciously cavalier manner may have touched too close to home, and initial sales were disappointing. After all, as depicted by Boon, many Flemings played both sides during the occupation; distinguish the heroes of the Belgian Resistance from the collaborators and Black Shirts remains an unfinished process to this day.

Critic Annie van den Oever has catalogued Boon’s early influences, most notably Franz Kafka and the Femish poet and nationalist Paul van Ostaijen. According to van den Oever, Boon “saw himself as a link in a chain” of what she terms the “grotesque literary tradition”—those early twentieth century writers who broke open “the traditionally monologic novel.” Thanks to Anne Visser and the Dalkey Archive, we have a translation of Annie van den Oever’s seminal 2007 biography of Boon, Het leven zelf (Life Itself), which holds forth the promise of revealing this link to English-speaking audiences. Paul Vincent’s translation, which follows the more popular Dutch second edition, is as clear and funny and nuanced as the original, and does an impressive job of conveying many of the text’s linguistic jokes and puns into English.

Despite its complex literary agenda—or possibly on account of it—My Little War also stands out as a deeply moving, often unsettling work of fiction. Boon clearly recognizes that an author cannot challenge his readers’ ideas unless he also engages their emotions. His motley crew of what’s-his-names, including “the very good and very amusing and very ugly Albertine Spaens” and the cigar-smoking turncoat shoe manufacturer Swaem and the tragic Canadian girl with a harelip, are drawn with such precision that one feels one can recognize one’s own acquaintances in his depictions. In fact, Boon reflects near the end of the volume, “There are 36 people who think they’re What’s-his-name, and eleven gentlemen who give this particular writer angry looks whenever they walk by because they recognize themselves in Mr. Swaem—although he had only a symbolic Mr. Swaem in mind.” There lies the magic of Boon’s technique: His falsehoods are more convincing than the truths of traditional fiction.

In a section entitled “Self-Defense,” Boon muses: “I’d like to suggest to my publisher that he set up an ‘Everyone Write their Own Little War’ contest—“First prize a pipe!” (Note the allusion to Magritte’s La trahison des images.) To a significant degree, we now live in that world today: Anyone can—and many authors do—write their “own little war” narratives for the Internet. One can easily imagine Boon looking down upon us, smoking his own pipe and grinning.

29 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Beijing Book Fair kicks off this week, and The Netherlands is this year’s Country of Honor. In order to celebrate this, the always industrious Dutch have put together Open Landscape-Open Book a pretty sizable program to promote Dutch literature.

Although the Netherlands is the guest of honour this year, we have always felt most welcome in China. In the past few years, a great many Dutch titles have been translated into Chinese. Vice versa, attention for China and Chinese literature is growing in the Netherlands. The fact that we can present ourselves as the host country this year is largely due to the good relations that have been built up in recent times. The numerous contacts have made us aware of what is important, valuable and beautiful in the view of Chinese people.

The programme we present is rich and diverse, and embraces disciplines such as literature (which is self-evident), visual art, design, architecture and comic strips. A major part of the authors’ programme will take place in the auditorium of the Dutch Pavilion. On Fair days, a continuous programme of book presentations, discussions, workshops, meetings with school classes, interviews and lectures will take place. Encounters between Dutch and Chinese writers will form a central feature of the programme. All the Dutch authors attending have recently had work translated into Chinese. [. . .]

Simultaneously with the Fair in Beijing, we shall also devote attention to Chinese literature at one of the most important literary events in the Netherlands, Manuscripta. In this context, Chinese writers will be invited to the Netherlands and a part of our programme in Beijing will also be shown live in the Netherlands.

The Open Landscape-Open Book website is pretty interesting, even if you don’t read Dutch and aren’t at the Beijing Book Fair. For instance, there’s this list of Dutch titles recommended for translation and a series of blog posts from Dutch Foundation for Literature representatives, participating authors, and rights agents, such as Michele Hutchison (who also translated Rupert into English):

The Chinese publishers I have met during the course of my career, the few who have made it to London, Frankfurt or Amsterdam, have all come across as pleasant, shy and polite people. They have invariably brought gifts: chopstick sets, handmade paper notebooks, fans, good luck hangers. At the end of the meeting they take your picture. There is a good chance you’ll never see them today.

Thinking back to those the chopstick sets yesterday afternoon, it occurred to me a copy of our rights guide (albeit in Chinese) wouldn’t really cut it as a gift. But what would? [. . .]

In terms of concrete stuff, I’m not sure what the Netherlands has to offer China that isn’t illegal to import, foodstuff and bulbs, sexy magnets, bongs or clogs. Meanwhile China is responsible for more than half of the world’s clothing and shoe production, immense quantities of paper, and zillions of plastic toys. And that’s what everyone I’ve talked to about China these past weeks has mentioned: scale. The population of Beijing is 30 million. A two-week tourist trip to the city doesn’t even make a dent on what there is to see there.

The Chinese publishers I met in the past seemed to think more in terms of Europe – European science, European thought, European literature – than being specifically interested in the Netherlands (or England, or Germany…). The titles they have bought from us have reflected this: witness the hotly fought contest for Bram Kemper’s Painting, Power & Patronage, a book on the Italian Renaissance published in English in 1992. Three publishers offered!

Putting together the rights guide involved setting aside everything learned in Frankfurt. Forget hype, rights sales, bestsellerdom, forget typically Dutch landscapes. Think academic authority, science, culture, think knowledge base, content and classical literature. While we have nothing concrete to offer the Chinese, our thought and traditions have some value. This value is not necessarily financial though. My experience of selling books to the Chinese has taught me that to expect advances from 500 to 1,000 euros, print runs of a couple of thousand copies and no royalties or royalty statements. This puts it on a par with countries like the Czech Republic. At present we’re talking author management not profit.

Probably just me, but I think it’s interesting to witness this sort of cultural exchange—one that doesn’t involve English . . .

21 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jessica LeTourneur on Geert Mak’s In Europe, which came out a few years back in Sam Garrett’s translation from the Dutch.

In Europe is a book that’s been on my “to read” pile since 2007 or so. As Jessica mentions, it’s a huge book, but one that (based on the first 40 pages and her review) is incredibly engrossing. I know this got some decent attention when the hardcover came out, but I feel like it’s a book that deserves even more than that . . . Especially now that it’s available in paperback1.

Jessica LeTourneur studied literature, history, and journalism at the University of Missouri, and attended New York University’s Publishing Institute in 2005. In the past, Jessica has worked as a journalist, as well as at The Missouri Review, the University of Missouri Press, and W. W. Norton & Company. Currently, Jessica is the copyeditor for the journal Southern California Quarterly, and is finishing up her Master’s degree in History and Scholarly Publishing at Arizona State University.

Here’s the opening of her review:

In Europe is a heart wrenching, historically priceless, and utterly fascinating work of nonfiction. Part travelogue, part historical narrative, and part autobiography, it chronicles Dutch journalist Geert Mak’s year-long sojourn from January 1999–December 1999 around the European continent as a sort of “final inspection”. Far beyond simply recounting facts and dates, Mak beautifully individualizes and humanizes the often staggeringly horrific events that marred twentieth-century Europe. Mak’s seamless integration of historical factoids, firsthand interviews, and present-day impressions garnered throughout his journey make for a refreshingly original piece whose language and lessons continue to pervade the reader’s psyche long after the last page has been turned.

Commissioned by his employer, the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, to tackle this daunting, monumental project, Mak’s articles appeared daily on the paper’s front page. Within In Europe, Mak flushes out of these articles into longer narrative pieces that fit into a cohesive work of nonfiction. Its narrative is framed as a historical journey, and as far as possible, Mak follows the chronological course of twentieth-century European history, “in search of the traces it has left behind.” Beginning in Paris in 1900 and ending in Sarajevo in 1999, Mak journeys throughout Europe’s major cities and countries with a frequently and deftness rivaling Jason Bourne. The essential question Mak seeks to answer throughout his travels and research is “what shape is the continent in, at the conclusion of the twentieth century?” Concluding his prologue, Mak reflects:

“Traveling across Europe, all those months, had been like peeling off layers of old paint. More than ever I realized how, generation upon generation, a shell of distance and alienation had developed between Eastern and Western Europeans.”

Click here to read the full review.

1 And yes, I know the cover image we’re using is from the hardcover, but the paperback version totally sucks.

21 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In Europe is a heart wrenching, historically priceless, and utterly fascinating work of nonfiction. Part travelogue, part historical narrative, and part autobiography, it chronicles Dutch journalist Geert Mak’s year-long sojourn from January 1999–December 1999 around the European continent as a sort of “final inspection”. Far beyond simply recounting facts and dates, Mak beautifully individualizes and humanizes the often staggeringly horrific events that marred twentieth-century Europe. Mak’s seamless integration of historical factoids, firsthand interviews, and present-day impressions garnered throughout his journey make for a refreshingly original piece whose language and lessons continue to pervade the reader’s psyche long after the last page has been turned.

Commissioned by his employer, the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, to tackle this daunting, monumental project, Mak’s articles appeared daily on the paper’s front page. Within In Europe, Mak flushes out of these articles into longer narrative pieces that fit into a cohesive work of nonfiction. Its narrative is framed as a historical journey, and as far as possible, Mak follows the chronological course of twentieth-century European history, “in search of the traces it has left behind.” Beginning in Paris in 1900 and ending in Sarajevo in 1999, Mak journeys throughout Europe’s major cities and countries with a frequently and deftness rivaling Jason Bourne. The essential question Mak seeks to answer throughout his travels and research is “what shape is the continent in, at the conclusion of the twentieth century?” Concluding his prologue, Mak reflects:

Traveling across Europe, all those months, had been like peeling off layers of old paint. More than ever I realized how, generation upon generation, a shell of distance and alienation had developed between Eastern and Western Europeans.

The dense, brick-like nature of this 834 page tome might appear intimidating to potential readers, but they would be mistaken to associate length with an overburdened, dense, and potentially dull narrative. In Europe possesses a unique structure that strengthens its readability. Each chapter finds Mak in a new European city, at a different point in European history. He finds himself in Versailles in 1919, on Normandy’s beaches in 1942, in Berlin in 1945, in Chernobyl in 1986. In each city Mak’s historical journey elucidate readers in the finer points of German mythology, the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Paris’s architecture, and poverty in London. Mak’s shrewd impressions and historical lessons are drawn from first person interviews with people whom “history left behind,” and shies not away from pasts that the powers that be would rather the world forget. Each country or city’s relationship and attitude towards its too-often insalubrious not-so-distant history is a theme that is consistently explored throughout the sinuous narrative. The dead bear no markers, and history is swept off the front stoop.

Every country and every political movement prefers to write a history that makes it feel comfortable, a portrait in soft pastels, a story that does no violence to the self-image. The losers are usually unable to paint any portrait whatsoever. They simply fade away, and their story is eradicated along with them . . . the dead have been hidden away beneath the soil, without a single marker. ‘Forget’ is the motto here. No one wants to rake up the past.

A laundry list of the insurmountable horrors permeating Europe in the first half of the twentieth century in the form of World Wars I and II, communism, and Stalinism comprise nearly two-thirds of the narrative. Far from being off-putting and too much for the reader to bear, Mak’s skillful narrative pacing and storytelling acumen lends In Europe a warmth and sympathy that belies the barbarity which haunted Europe in its darkest days. Mak’s vivid, descriptive language saturates and stimulates one’s senses. From Bielefeld, Germany—Anne Frank’s birthplace—Mak describes the sleepy German village as he found it in springtime:

Half-timbered villages smelling of fresh buns and newly ironed aprons. They are still there, unchanged, the rocks upon which Germany stands. The forests have their first light-green haze, the fields are brown, farmers are out ploughing everywhere, on the village square the little soldiers in the bell tower creak the hours away.

Mak’s eloquent language is no less stirring when he turns his attention towards the scars Europe’s two world wars and struggles against communism left upon the people and the land; he individualizes and puts a human face on the collective suffering of millions of people, such as he does with the Holocaust’s most famous victim, Anne Frank. The result is a poignant reminder that out of the millions dead, were individuals, families.

The Frank family home at Ganghofstrasse 24, is still standing, marked by a massive stone monument dedicated to the city’s young people—‘Her life and death, our duty’—and the same trees around it, now thick and old.

Following the end of the Second World War, Mak turns his attentions towards Russia and the Eastern Bloc, adroitly exploring the nuances of East versus West. Describing the aftershocks that befell Eastern Europe following the end of communism, from Gdansk and Moscow, he explores an almost-taboo subject: the quality of life has significantly decreased for Eastern European citizens since 1989. Slowly, the myth of the West is replaced by the reality of the West.

The collapse of the wall did not bring prosperity to huge numbers of Eastern European families, but rather shortage: at home, in the schools and hospitals, in every area . . . this clearly was not the ‘transitional period’ spoken of so widely in the West, but a decline in almost everything essential to daily life: salaries, benefits, food supplies, health care, education, government services and public safety.

As Mak cruises though Europe, though history, and out of the twentieth century—literally, on a ship christened the Marla—he ruminates on the impending European Union and all that unification implies and entails, on its shores and across the pond. Stating that “Europe’s weakness, its diversity, is also its greatest strength,” he reminds readers, lest they become complacent in Europe’s recent economic successes, that “Europe only has one chance to succeed.”

While at first glance, In Europe seems a daunting literary undertaking, it ultimately succeeds in documenting Europe’s tumultuous twentieth century with a sensitivity, deftness, and artfully engaging narrative that propels readers forward, through the years. With Mak as their guide, readers are privy to an unparalleled insight into the hearts, minds, and stories that defined a continent for a hundred years.

22 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

Eline Vere by Louis Couperus, translated by Ina Rikle

Language: Dutch
Country: Netherlands
Publisher: Archipelago
Pages: 523

Why This Book Should Win: Couperus is the Dutch Zola/Flaubert/Tolstoy, but pretty much no one in America reads him; this is a truly classic novel, one that was first published in 1889; probably the only “Novel of the Hague” published last year.

The best introduction you can get to Couperus and Eline Vere is the bit from the Leonard Lopate show attached below and featuring Ina Rilke and Paul Binding:

(Kind of funny that right off the bat, Rilke talks about how Eline Vere isn’t really Couperus’s best work.)

Another great entryway to Couperus—one of the Netherlands great authors—is Paul Binding’s very informative and interesting afterword. Here’s a bit:

Louis Couperus was only twenty-six when Eline Vere came out, and had previously published only unsatisfactory and derivative poems (in 1883 and 1884). Though it is a literary artefact of precocious sophistication and accomplishment, the novel is also palpably the creation of a young man whose years were a great advantage to him in its composition. For Couperus is still very much of the milieu he is re-creating, aware though he is of its limitations and faults, and he clearly was intimately familiar, as a member himself of youthful Hague society, of the very pleasures, expectations and hopes he ascribes to his large cast of characters, almost all of them his contemporaries. Their gossip and banter, their flirtations, their little tiffs and misunderstandings and reconciliations, their plans for and doubts about the nature of their future adult lives convince us (and never more so than in Ina Rilke’s spirited and linguistically sensitive English) because they are done essentially from the inside. A young man like Etienne van Erlevoort, lazy and industrious, facetious and affectionate by turns, springs to life off the pages—on which he performs no absolutely essential dramatic act—as though a relation of the author’s own, slyly observed over many years, were being presented to us. [. . .]

And a bit about the book itself:

Almost halfway through Eline Vere we find its eponymous heroine in a state of conscious happiness. Eline, whose life has hitherto centered round the entertainments of high society in The Hague, is staying at De Horze in Gelderland, the country property of the family into which she has agreed to marry. The more she sees of her betrothed, Otto van Erlevoort, the more she appreciates his kindly, virtuous character. Herself highly strung and only too frequently dissatisfied, she has found deep contentment in surrendering to the slow rhythms of the rural summer. These have enabled her to get on with members of the large Van Erlevoort family so well that they are now obviously fond of her—even Otto’s sister Frederique, who has never much cared for her. Eline is quite aware that she has significantly changed:

“During moments of solitary reflection on her new selfhood, tears welled up in her eyes in gratitude for all the goodness that she had received, and her only wish was that time would not fly, but stand still instead, so that the present would last for ever. Beyond that she desired nothing, and a sense of infinite rest and blissful, blue tranquility emanated from her being.”

Yet the God to whom she prays for this stasis does not answer her prayer, for time by its very nature cannot stand still. And moving and even sympathetic though we may find Eline’s thoughts here, we can also detect in them signs of the pernicious weakness that will destroy her. Her hopes are unrealistic, and fear plays too great a part in them; indeed, they amount to a desperate desire to have subtracted from existence anything demanding or painful. They are also self-centered; in this respect Eline’s “new selfhood” differs little, if at all, from her former one. Does her fiance have his rightful part in these wishes of hers for the future to be cancelled?

Another great rediscovery from Archipelago . . .

OK, two books left to cover, and then on Thursday we’ll be announcing the finalists for both fiction and poetry.

14 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next five weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Wonder by Hugo Claus. Translated from the Dutch by Michael Henry Heim. (Belgium, Archipelago)

I might be wrong about this, but it seems like Hugo Claus is one of those authors well-read Americans have heard of, but maybe never read. Or maybe they’ve read The Sorrows of Belgium, which is by far his most well-known work. (And the reason why he was always rumored for the Nobel Prize.) Wonder, in all its strangeness, may well bring a whole new group of readers to his work though.

Before getting to the book itself, it’s worth touching on Claus’s life for a moment. As Archipelago writes in its author bio: “Impossible to pin down, Claus was eclectic and in constant motion; his work is kaleidoscopic.” He was 18 when his first book of poems was published, and then he went on to write six novels and a number of plays.

He was also a painter and was affiliated with the CoBrA group (I love manifesto-driven groups with abbreviations resulting in quirky capitalization a la the OuLiPo . . .) a collection of artists that—at least according Wikipedia, the World’s Greatest Short Form Information Source—shared “a unifying doctrine of complete freedom of colour and form, as well as antipathy towards surrealism, the artists also shared an interest in Marxism as well as modernism.” Claus died of voluntary euthanasia in 2008.

I can’t do half the job Michael Orthofer did in describing Wonder so I’m think I’m just going to crib his review . . . The focal point of the novel is Victor Denijs de Rijckel, a schoolteacher who is a bit mental before the story even starts. And the novel progresses along two major tracks: a series of entries de Rijckel makes in a notebook he’s keeping at the institution where he currently resides, and a chronological description of earlier events.

The plot is set in motion when de Rijckel attends a masquerade ball, falls for a woman (isn’t it always the case?), and then meets a young student the next morning who knows the woman and where she lives. Michael can take it away:

The woman lives at Almout castle, in Hekegem, and they go there. Taking a room at a local inn the teacher passes the boy off as his nephew, but eventually they suspect him of being a paedophile; rather than turn him in, however, they want their silence to be bought — typical, it turns out, for this morally compromised nest. Reaching Almout de Rijckel is mistaken for someone else, the Dutch delegate to a meeting taking place there.

Wonder was first published in 1962, and the shadow of World War II is still a very strong presence. The meeting at Almout is of those sympathetic to the Nazi cause, the figure that looms over the meeting and town that of Jan-Willem Crabbe who distinguished himself during the war and about whose fate many theories swirl. De Rijckel is shown a picture of Crabbe: “being decorated with the Ritterkreuz by Hitler himself and you can see the admiration on Hitler’s face.”

Obviously, de Rijckel is in way over his head — led around by a boy barely in his teens (“my messenger and guide, who has led me from disgrace to scandal”), considered a paedophile by the townsfolk and a Nazi sympathiser by those at Almout. Things spiral somewhat out of control, but in a book where the central character has never been in much control it seems the obvious course.

And to get a sense of the prose, here’s a bit from de Rijckel’s notebook, which is more jumpy and linguistically playful that the descriptive sections of the book, but demonstrate Claus’s talents (and Michael Henry Heim’s):

Just now I nearly fell asleep as I wrote. And of course I was writing that the teacher fell asleep. There’s not a soul in this dump. Nobody can whisper the answers the way they did at teacher’s-college exams. The fastest years of our lives. Classes. Cheating, masturbation, pimples. Film. Over. So fast: a father, a mother, Elizabeth, the Principal.

She didn’t want a child. Mostly finger fumble. A wife who still belonged in school. Criss-cross spider webs. Crossword puzzles. One day she crossed out the word “marriage” in nearly all my books. In red ink. Every morning she combed and combed her hair. Then she left me. No big deal. The first thing I thought was, I’m going to wallpaper the apartment to my taste. But she kept the apartment: her mother saw to that. The pattern on the wallpaper came from a junk shop: crinolines and fiacres from French woodcuts—that sort of thing.

I felt more at home in my hotel room. Anonymous as a classroom. I wish I could get today’s paper. Or—I’ve asked that bastard twenty times by now—a dictionary. I want to dazzle Korneel (who will never read this notebook, may he die of cancer) with adjectives. I was good at composition. I once wrote a composition about spring.

Echoing another of Michael’s observations, the narrative is a bit disjointed, non-linear, and hazy. But it also has a very classic, very capital-l Literary feel. This is a book that’s going to be read for years, which is a testament to the great work Archipelago is doing.

I’m going to leave off here with an awesome quote from Claus himself that’s on the back of the book: “We cannot accept the world as it is. Each day we should wake up foaming at the mouth from the injustice of things.”

12 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next five weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker. Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer. (Netherlands, Archipelago)

Archipelago has done an amazing job of creating a brand for itself. The books are very high quality—inside and out—easily recognizable from across the store, and are well reviewed and received. It’s hard to imagine that Archipelago is less than ten years old . . .

As a result of this “branding,” I’m much more willing to take a chance on a book from Archipelago than I am from a number of other presses. The Twin is a perfect example of this. At first glance, this didn’t seem like my sort of book. Set on a farm. Quiet. Timeless, direct, realistic writing. Slow. Descriptive. Lots of talk about the milking of cows.

Here’s the opening of the review that Larissa Kyzer wrote for us some months back:

Penetrating, beautifully sparse, and eerie in its stillness, Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin tells the story of Helmer van Wonderen, an aging farmer whose life has been characterized by passivity, inaction, and a profound sense of isolation. Having begrudgingly taken over the family dairy farm after the accidental death of his twin brother Henk, Helmer finds himself, after 55 years, suddenly and unexpectedly the master of his own life—if only he knew what to do with it.

For years, Helmer has been “doing things by halves,” living the life that was intended for his brother, a monotonous existence at the beck and call of his tyrannical father. As the story opens, however, Helmer has moved his father, close to death, to a bedroom upstairs, an act of self-assertion that pushes him to reassess his past and the decisions—or lack thereof—that have left him stagnated and alone. “Why did I let it all happen like this?,” he wonders. “I could have said ‘no’ to Father and ‘do it yourself’ or just ‘sell up.’”

None of which immediately appeals to me, but being an Archipelago book, I gave it the benefit of the doubt, started reading one night and literally couldn’t put this down. There’s something mesmerizing in Bakker’s prose, in the way he slowly builds the sense of isolation and duty that rules Helmer’s life. Unveiling secrets small and large in very precise, stark language. Lyrical in an understated way.

I learned to skate without Henk and without Father. Father is scared of frozen water, although he’d never admit it. We did everything together, Henk and I, except skating. The farmhand taught me how to skate, Mother encouraged me. She skated on figure skates, turning elegant pirouettes, doing figure of eights and regularly shouting, “That’s right!” The farmhand didn’t pull me along, which I think is the usual way of teaching someone how to skate; he pushed me. His big hands enclosed my bottom like the seat of a chair, he bent his knees so much he was almost squatting. When I shouted stop, he braked and held me back by wrapping his hands around my hips. As I remember it, he skated around with me like that for hours. Long after Mother had finished her figure of eights. But it can’t have been like that. Father must have strode out into the field to remind him sharply that he had more important things to do than entertain himself on the ice. He would have glared at me—a six- or seven-year-old kid—because Henk was doing the yearlings. Or collecting eggs, perhaps tail docking. Mother would have been downcast in the kitchen, back at work, because even she would have had an earful. Skating with the farmhand, what was she thinking?

That might have been the day that Father—simply because I was having fun doing something else—decided for himself that Henk would be the farmer, even though I was the oldest, if just by a couple of minutes. Henk helped Father, I went skating and treated the farmhand as an equal. Maybe it was just one incident in a series of events that made Father conclude I wasn’t suited to succeed him. After Henk died Father had to make do with me, but in his eyes I always remained second choice.

We’re not the only ones to praise The Twin—Jessa Crispin included it on the list of “Top Foreign Fiction” books that she put together for NPR. In her summary she gets at another interesting aspect of this novel—it’s lost sense of time. It feels very turn-of-the-century, and is, but in a 20th becoming 21st sort of way . . . Or as Jessa puts it:

In its candor about the bitterness that can arise from family obligations and the responsibility of caretaking, The Twin is both touching and surprising. Bakker’s beautiful and uncluttered prose style is almost old-fashioned. A character’s remark about the farm — “It’s here on this road now, but it might just as well be 1967 or 1930” — could refer to the novel itself. Family drama, after all, is timeless.

This novel won the Golden Dog-Ear, a prize for the best-selling literary debut in the Netherlands when it came out in 2006, and I’m personally excited to see what Bakker does next.

19 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, and published earlier this year by Archipelago Books. Larissa Kyzer—who has reviewed a number of books for us—wrote this piece, which makes the book sound both quiet and compelling:

Penetrating, beautifully sparse, and eerie in its stillness, Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin tells the story of Helmer van Wonderen, an aging farmer whose life has been characterized by passivity, inaction, and a profound sense of isolation. Having begrudgingly taken over the family dairy farm after the accidental death of his twin brother Henk, Helmer finds himself, after 55 years, suddenly and unexpectedly the master of his own life—if only he knew what to do with it.

For years, Helmer has been “doing things by halves,” living the life that was intended for his brother, a monotonous existence at the beck and call of his tyrannical father. As the story opens, however, Helmer has moved his father, close to death, to a bedroom upstairs, an act of self-assertion that pushes him to reassess his past and the decisions—or lack thereof—that have left him stagnated and alone. “Why did I let it all happen like this?,” he wonders. “I could have said ‘no’ to Father and ‘do it yourself’ or just ‘sell up.’”

But while Helmer may not be satisfied with the life that he has accepted for himself, it is a routine that if not fulfilling, is at least familiar. “I’ve milked the cows, day after day,” he reflects.

Click here for the entire review.

15 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re into the home stretch now . . . Through next Friday we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik Hermans, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke. (Netherlands, Overlook)

Willem Frederik Hermans is a good example of a classic author who probably should’ve been translated years ago, but for some reason, was only recently picked up by Harvill and Overlook. Now, his two big books—Beyond Sleep and The Darkroom of Damocles—are available to English readers.

The Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature has a good deal of info about Hermans on their website, including this rather interesting bio:

Willem Frederik Hermans (1921-1995) is one of the greatest post-war Dutch authors. Before devoting his entire life to writing, Hermans had been teaching Physical Geography at the University of Groningen for many years. He had already started writing and publishing in magazines at a young age. His polemic and provocative style led to a court case as early as 1952. His caustic pieces were compiled in Mandarijnen op zwavelzuur (Mandarines in Sulphuric Acid, 1963), which was reprinted with additions a number of times. It is Hermans’s belief that in order to survive people have to create own reality. It is inevitable that all these experiences of reality will collide. Language is essential to create order out of chaos and plays an important role in this process. In his essays on Wittgenstein, Hermans studied this problem in depth. In his novels and stories Hermans places his characters in a world of certainty for themselves but equivocal for the reader. It is in this field of tension that the intrigue in De tranen der acacia’s (Acacia’s Tears, 1949) and in De donkere kamer van Damocles (The Darkroom of Damocles, 1958) develops. Although stories such as Moedwil en misverstand (Malice and Misunderstanding) and Paranoia have a surrealistic tendency, Hermans’ novels The Darkroom Of Damocles, Nooit meer slapen (Beyond Sleep), Uit talloos veel miljoenen (From Countless Millions) are more realistic or satirical and everything in his rich oeuvre is subordinate to the author’s pessimistic philosophy.

Darkroom of Damocles is about the tobacconist Henri Osewoudt, a man a bit too short to fight in the Dutch army during World War II, but who gets involved with Dorbeck, a mysterious figure supposedly involved with the Dutch resistance who looks exactly like Osewoudt. Osewoudt is very much a pawn, doing whatever Dorbeck tells him, such as helping British agents and murdering traitors.

The whole time, it’s clear that Osewoudt is in way over his head, and isn’t completely sure what’s going on. What’s worse—for him personally—is that he’s suspected by both the Germans and the Dutch, a situation that really comes to a head after the war ends, and Dorbeck is nowhere to be found.

The impossibility of deciding what’s “right” from what’s “wrong” in relation to the war, is what really drives this book. The NLPVF also has an interesting page about this novel, and its lasting importance:

The story of Osewoudt’s fateful wanderings through the ‘sadistic universe’ (the title of one of Hermans’ essay collections) is extraordinarily gripping. Is Osewoudt hero or villain? Or is he a psychopath, driven by delusions? The Darkroom of Damocles is composed of sharp, suggestive and relentless sentences, and its ambiguous ending is debated by critics to this day. It is the impossibility of ascertaining whether Osewoudt was on the ‘right’ side or the ‘wrong’ side – the moral issue of the Second World War in a nutshell – that makes Hermans’ novel as breathtaking now as when it was written a decade after the war.

Michael Orthofer of The Complete Review has a really nice review of this book that’s worth reading in its entirety. He’s a big fan:

Hermans’ isn’t so much anti-heroic novel as un-heroic. It offers a remarkable picture of the Dutch experience in World War II, and of the difficulty faced by the individual trying to contribute to society. Osewoudt is not even particularly incompetent — a girl sent over from England shows how spectacularly wrong things can be done — and he even makes some contributions (though, as murder, they’re of a decidedly ugly sort), but certainty and a type of competence, as manifested by Dorbeck, prove not to be much better.

Unsentimental and brutally honest, with both a sense for the absurd and a sharp wit, Hermans hasn’t written a sympathetic story, but it’s impressive, nevertheless — grandiose, even, especially in capturing some specific Dutch types. The characters — including Osewoudt, his German captor, his uncle, and the women in his life — are also very nicely realised, and the plotting is excellent. De donkere kamer van Damokles is both war-time thriller and metaphysical mystery. It leaves the reader with an uneasy feeling, but it’s a worthwhile ride.

22 October 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This post originally appeared on the Frankfurt Book Fair blog.

(Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the English-language version of this brochure—”* Great Translation by the Way”—is available for download from the NLPVF site. Here’s the Dutch version and if anyone can find the English, please let me know. And apologies for the redundancy of the opening paragraph of this post.)

Literature in translation–and all that goes into producing, publishing, and promoting literature in translation–is a huge interest of mine. (See my U.S. blog Three Percent and/or Open Letter, the publishing company I run.) So I was extremely excited to come across “* Great translation by the way” by Martin de Haan and Rokus Hofstede, a brochure on display at the the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature stand.

This is a fascinating booklet that builds off of some of the ideas in the “To Be Translated or Not to Be” report that was issued from PEN America and the Ramon Llull Institut at last year’s Fair, focusing on the current situation of transltion in the Netherlands, and proposing a set of directives that the European Union should implement to help preserve and cultivate a “flourishing translation culture.”

The title and the purpose are explained in the opening:

” ‘Great translation by the way.’ It is with off-hand comments like these that book reviewers typically dismiss the work of a translator–assuming, that is, that they mention the translator at all. Such cursory treatment makes painfully clear where translators stand in the literary pecking order: right at the bottom.

“This document is a pleas to set matters right and to give a central place to literary translation as a profession. This is a matter of some urgency, as the quality of translations from and into Dutch is under threat and a huge shortage of translators is looming.”

The “huge shortage of translators” problem exists throughout the world, with “meagre pay, low professional status and a lack of educational facilities” being the primary deterrents. Recently, Chinese publishers bought the rights to 60 Dutch works, which is fantastic on one hand, except for the fact that at the time there was only one living Dutch to Chinese translator . . .

Which, in my opinion, is a huge problem. Translated literature is a fantastic way to encounter other cultures and a way to exchange ideas, two concepts that are at the heart of what makes the Frankfurt Book Fair so special. (And at the heart of why Horace Engdahl said that America was too insular to participate in world literature. We publish a miniscule number of translations a year–approx. 330 new translations of adult fiction and poetry. Seriously.)

Maria Vlaar, the Deputy Director of the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature, talked to me about this booklet, explaining that they published this booklet to create a roadmap of sorts for how the E.U. could support translation culture and help it grow in a way that’s more effective and ambitious than simply providing a couple thousand euros in translation subsidies. (Which is what they do now.)

After setting the scene, the booklet details five general recommendations, some specific to the Netherlands, others that apply to all of Europe: 1) establish a degree program in translation to and from Dutch, 2) support lifelong learning and professional development for translators, 3) boost the position of the translator by helping protect their rights and increase their pay and visibility, 4) provide funds to publishers doing “difficult” works that would otherwise flounder in the marketplace, and 5) encourage intercultural dialogue about translation.

One of the specific programs Ms. Vlaar is really big on is the creation and funding of “Translator Houses” throughout Europe. These Houses serve as a place where translators can go and live for a month to work on the translation their doing in the book’s country of origin. (For instance, someone translating a Spanish book in to Dutch could spend a month in Spain to research, increase their knowledge of the area, etc.) One of these houses exists in Amsterdam, and almost 50 translators a year are flown in and put up in one of five apartments where they can work. And a number are even given a 1,000 euro stipend to help with daily expenses. Her vision is that these Houses would exist throughout Europe, thus increasing cultural exchanges and growing the European network of translators.

What’s most interesting to me about her recommendations and ideas about how the E.U. could support this culture is the similarity to current marketing ideas and the shift away from only funding a specific product to funding a group of people who would directly impact the translation scene for years and years to come. Don’t get me wrong, all us publishers would still get our translation subsidies (sigh of relief), but at the same time the E.U. would also be supporting the education and opportunities for a wide number of people who are constantly in contact with publishers and authors, and often serve as “cultural ambassadors,” helping increase the number of translations published.

Thanks to this booklet and last year’s “To Be Translated or Not to Be” report, there is a growing awareness of the need to support literature in translation, and it’s great to see some specific, doable (post-bank bailout, of course–there will always be an economic pecking order) ideas being presented.

Copies of “* Great translation by the way” are available in English and Dutch at stand 6.0 B969.

24 September 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Reading a translation when it first comes in is always a fascinating, exciting experience. Frequently we acquire books based on a sample translation, a reader’s report, and conversations/recommendations from trusted readers and translators. Although this system—for all its baroque qualities—works quite well, you never know exactly what it is you’re getting until the book actually arrives. Thankfully, in many cases, you receive wonderful surprises, like what we got when Michele Hutchison delivered her translation of Rupert, A Confession by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer.

A Dutch writer, Rupert is Pfeijffer’s first novel. It was published in 2002 and won the Anton Wachter prize for a debut novel. As noted on his website, Pfeijffer is the only Dutch author to have won major debut prizes for both poetry and prose.

As referred to in the title, this book is a confession by Rupert about a crime he’s committed. In explaining his crime and the surrounding circumstances, he rambles, he entertains, he cloaks his vileness in humor. It’s a strange and captivating book, one in which you’re pulled in by Rupert’s wit, yet occasionally get a glimpse of how fucked up his mind is, and it’s sections like this one that made us decide to publish this novel next June:

The most important thing really is that the true insult shows creativity and is not a random collection of the tried and tested excrement and sexual organs. And just as the best style is quotable, the best insult has an aphoristic quality that does not just insult the victim but also, as an ultimate humiliation, renders him superfluous, so that the brio of the formulation of the insult outlasts the name of the victim. The renowned critic, Woulter Parr, was a master in this. The last paragraph of his review of one of K. Horvath’s plays engraved itself in my memory after a single reading: “This is no play to be lightly shoved aside, but one that deserves to be thrown with great force. The stage set was lovely but the actors kept standing in front of it. It was a performance in which all of the actors clearly and intelligibly articulated their lines, alas. Kitty Becker, in the lead, exploited the whole range of emotions from A to B. One would have to have a heart of stone not to watch her suicide at the end of the play without bursting out laughing. I never forget a face but in the case of Kitty Becker I’m happy to make an exception. Giving Hands is the type of play that gives failure a bad name. The only original idea about art ever to come from Ms Horvath’s pen had to do with her superiority as a writer in relation to writers greater than she. First God created the idiots. That was just practice – afterward he created Ms Horvath. It was an act of mercy that God allowed Mr Habold Sicx and Ms Horvath to marry thus making two people unhappy instead of four.” You don’t need to see the explanatory hand gestures or Ms. Horvath to be fully convinced by this.

Everything is always easier on paper, that is true – and I realize that now with every gasp of my confession as I stand here before you without the aid of the written word – but the ad hoc insult without an audience, man to man in the street, ought to respect the same principles. One often assumes one should be able to get straight to the point for that, and that’s a talent you either have or you don’t. This is only partly true. To insult without any thinking time is an art, and up to a certain point, one can learn any art. It’s the same with the lethal martial arts I have become familiar with. A person who isn’t intimidated by one’s opponent’s display, and who regards every lunge as a weakening of the opponent’s defense, won’t have difficulty finding chinks in his armor. And as long as you operate with confidence in your refinement and superiority, the most creative counter attacks will occur to you just like that. He who, in an unguarded moment, finds himself in a risky situation and cannot come up with a reply, can rely on three simple heuristic principles. The first guideline is the principle of contamination. One can say: “Jazz is music for imbeciles.” One can also say: “Jazz is torture.” But it is better to say: “Jazz was invented as torture for imbeciles.” The second hold is the principle of inversion. Destroy your enemy by turning what he says around, or compliment him on his weaknesses and present your criticism as a compliment; the way Baudelaire said of Wagner: “I like Wagner, but I prefer the music that a cat makes when it is being hung by its tail from the window and is clinging to the sill with its claws.” Another fine example is the compliment Will Rogers gave to the German people: “I must say one thing in favor of the Germans: they are always willing to give other people’s land away.” The so-called better than-inversion is extremely fruitful. People tend to saying things like, “it tastes better than it looks” or “he is smarter than he appears,” even without malicious intent. The reversal of both poles of comparison can produce very pleasing insults, like Mark Twain’s about Wagner: “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” The third principle is usually defined as an aprosdoketon and relates to the unexpected shift, to the sting in the tail. “Wagner’s music has its beautiful moments,” Rossini said, “and its awful half hours.” An even subtler example is offered in Clifton Fadiman’s characterization of German nature: “The German spirit has the talent to make no mistakes except for the very largest.” These three principles should offer enough support that you’ll never be faced with a lack of inspiration and they’ll enable the production of an appropriate and civilized insult at any time.

15 April 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

From Amsterdam World Book Capital:

On 18 May, 2008, Amsterdam’s historic centre is the location of the world’s biggest book market. No fewer than 1,000 stalls with books will wind through the city centre. The World Book Market is being held in the context of Amsterdam World Book Capital, a title of great distinction that has been awarded to the Dutch capital by UNESCO. From 23 April, Amsterdam will be buzzing with activities around the importance and pleasure of books and reading for a whole year.

One of these days, a U.S. city will be boo—- oh nevermind.

UNESCO’s granting of the title of World Book Capital to Amsterdam presents the city with a unique opportunity to reaffirm its reputation as a refuge for free speech and the written word, and to highlight its international renown as a literary hub. Amsterdam World Book Capital wants to inspire and propagate dialogue about the freedom of expression and has chosen to do this by adopting the ‘Open Book’ theme as its guiding principle. This theme ties in with Amsterdam’s character as a city of books and publishing, linking the written word with the social realities of today in the Netherlands and abroad. The event also provides a platform for in-depth exploration of sector-specific topics such as copyright, self-censorship and digital media. The three icons of Amsterdam World Book Capital are Spinoza, Anne Frank and Annie M.G. Schmidt, authors who tell the tale of Amsterdam past and present.

27 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In today’s Signandsight.com, there’s a reprint of a Cees Nooteboom article on Ferdinand Bordewijk’s Character. Quite famous in the Netherlands—in fact, in 1988, the film based on this novel won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film—the novel is available in a new English translation from Ivan R. Dee.

I know of no other book whose characters keep each other in such a stranglehold of withheld information, until it seems as if the story itself is being played out in a cocoon of silence, a mute struggle between father and son, with the mother, who refused to marry the father, as the unspeaking third person. Appropriately the other two refer to this third person as “her” and “she” – the quotation marks are not mine, but the author’s. Father and son think of the mother as a woman in quotation marks. Even when they speak, the reader hears the quotation marks around those possessive and personal pronouns. The father is a monster from a Greek tragedy, the mother a saint of almost terrifying proportions, and the son must defeat the father who tries to destroy him, even if that last bit is cast in doubt by the novel’s conclusion.

....
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