This match was judged by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, blog editor at Asymptote. You can follow her on Twitter at @kojensen.
This match between Tatiana Lobo’s Assault on Paradise (translated by Asa Zatz) and Elvira Navarro’s The Happy City (translated by Rosalind Harvey) is really a battle between the epic and the subtle. Representing Costa Rica we have a novel depicting the Conquistadores and the Church invading Central America in the early 1700s, and may I just say that I’ve rarely encountered such a larger-than-life opening (entitled “Pa-brú Presbere dreams of Surá, Lord of the Nether World”!!)
Here’s a random sentence from the very first page, which is almost written as if God herself were the narrator:
The fire slowly expired and the shadows fell, the darkness good for thinking and meditation but not about the external things that anguish us in the officious light of day, rather about the secrets of the womb.
In contrast to this opening from “above,” The Happy City—a novel in two separate yet connected sections, representing Spain—begins very much from below, with the first pre-adolescent main character, Chi-Huei, spying on his father and his aunt from a garden (yes, this boy is witnessing something in a garden; need I say more about where the story is going?):
From the bushes, a chorus of crickets rose up, monotonous and precise, drowning out the hum of the traffic and the neighbors’ voices issuing from open windows. The sultry summer atmosphere oozed with the sweet, acidic scent of the loquats, and Chi-Huei liked to stand beneath the tree, breathing in the strangeness of the night, although he was not aware of its mute vibration just now.
As mentioned, The Happy City consists of two sections, and both of them follow a pre-teen (in the first section it’s Chi-Huei, while the second section is dedicated to his friend Sara) discovering the disturbing complexities of the adult world. This novel is written with a sharp clarity, which Assault on Paradise at times fails to achieve. The “epic” nature of the latter almost forced me to keep a notebook in order to remember certain characters and events—which some readers like, I just happen to not like it—and that earns Spain a goal during the first half of this match.
In the second half, however, Costa Rica takes revenge. Although The Happy City covers some steps towards sexuality, it doesn’t stand a chance against the intriguing misadventures of main character and admirer of women Pedro Albarán from Assault on Paradise. Just take a look at this opening sentence for chapter two, which pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the book:
Bárbare Lorenzana and Pedro Albarán arrived at the city of Cartago at the same time, slept under the same roof, made love to the same woman, and had not spoken to one another for the past ten long years.
Pedro’s encounters include—but are not limited to—La Chamberga the innkeeper; a local prostitute called The Mother of Travelers; Agueda, wife of an officer in the army; and finally, a mute native woman who embodies the culture that Pedro Albarán’s compatriots seek to terminate. Well done, Pedro. You’ve scored a goal for Costa Rica.
With a score of 1-1, here comes the divine FIFA-like corruption scandal: I’ve decided to leak an out-of-context quote from an email sent to me by fellow judge Meredith Miller, who scandalously allowed Costa Rica to win over Brazil last week. Here’s what she wrote about Assault on Paradise:
Don’t get bogged down by all of the names or disoriented with the mythology in the opening pages.
Well said, Miller. The truth is, Assault on Paradise is epically ambitious in many ways, but it also manages to enthrall the reader with its clever use of low-brow humor combined with an elevated language when the story calls for it. Costa Rica scores the final goal of this match, because reading Assault on Paradise is an utterly entertaining and unique experience.
Costa Rica 2, Spain 1
With only one match left to come, we can speculate a bit on what the quarterfinals will look like. Germany’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine has clinched a bye, and unless Texas wins by 5, or Delirium by 4, Canada’s Oryx & Crake will automatically advance to the semi-finals as well. The rest of the seedings are still a bit in flux, with the current standings being Australia (+3), Costa Rica (+2), and Cameroon (+1). Tomorrow’s winner could finish anywhere in there . . .
Speaking of tomorrow, the last match of the second round will be judged by Hilary Plum and feature Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa (Mexico) against Delirium by Laura Restrepo (Colombia). And following that, we’ll be able to specify who faces who in the quarter- and semi-finals.
This match was judged by Mythili Rao, producer for The Takeaway at WNYC.
What a brutal match. These two novels hold nothing back. Read in succession, it’s hard to take in their fight for narrative supremacy without flinching. These are books about the hard truths of life we don’t wish to discover—but are nonetheless powerless to shield ourselves from.
First: South Korea’s effort. It’s easy to underestimate Bae Suah’s Nowhere to Be Found. It’s a slight volume—roughly as tall and wide as my outstretched hand and only 103 pages long. But the anguish and desperation of those pages lingered in my mind long after I finished reading. The novel follows an unnamed young woman who, when the story opens in 1988, is employed as a temp worker in a dead-end clerical position at the university. Despite her college credentials, it’s the best job she can get. It’s better than her second job, serving food, mopping floors, and washing dishes at a restaurant behind the Plaza Hotel; and it’s much better than the factory job she works screwing caps of dye onto tubes during the university’s summer break. In any case, father has been imprisoned and her mother drinks too much to hold a job, so the important thing is simply that she work. And work.
While her serious older brother scrimps and saves to make the journey to Japan (where he plans to work for a janitorial service cleaning sewers) and her bright little sister daydreams of completely reinventing herself as a lesbian, Nowhere’s narrator drifts from job to job in a state of exhaustion. Between shifts, she goes to see her boyfriend Cheolsu. His flat aspect perfectly complements her own numbness:
He just looked blank sometimes. While everyone else was tormented by a restless anxiety, like the dizziness you feel on a spring day, which made them question what they were doing with their lives, Cheolsu was yawning and working on a crossword puzzle. He knew how to accept the tedium without the ennui.
The dramatic heart of this book is built around an unforgivably frigid winter day when the narrator goes to visit Cheolsu on the army base where he’s completing service. After riding bus to the subway and then another subway to another bus, she’s told Cheolsu has left the base for training exercise. So she heads back out into the cold on another bus, carrying a bag of chicken Cheolsu’s nosy mother has entrusted her to deliver to her son. He’s not there. When she at last finds Cheolsu—back in at the headquarters she first visited—he can’t understand why she’s so delayed. The visit ends disastrously.
The narration fast-forwards a decade from there. There’s a parade of other jobs, and a smattering of new coworkers, acquaintances, and would-be lovers—but it’s as though everything began and ended in 1988. The narrator’s feeling of dislocation and hopelessness persists and softly, steadily, deepens through the book’s haunting close. In Sora Kim-Russell’s translation, Suah’s prose is cold and acrid. “Time pushes away that which is intended, rejects that which is rejected, forgets that which is sung about, and is filled with that which it turns its eyes from, such as the white hairs of a loved one,” the narrator concludes. When I emerged from the subway after reading Nowhere’s final page, it was a 70 degree June day but an icy chill ran through my heart.
Enter Spain. The Happy City takes a no less deadly but measurably more complex approach. Elvira Navarro’s novel, set in Madrid, is divided into two parts. The first opens, similarly, with a young man trapped by economic circumstances beyond his control. Chi-Huei spends his early days with his aunt in China; when as an elementary-schooler he’s finally reunited with his immediate family in Spain, he’s suspicious of these strangers. As he grows, his feelings toward his family only become complicated. His mother and grandfather run a restaurant that’s supposed to ensure their future; broken by his time in a Chinese prison, Chi-Huei’s father does his best to simply comply with his headstrong wife and father’s wishes. For his part, Chi-Huei is trapped by the weight of familial duty. After Navarro describes the intimate contours of a recurring argument between Chi-Heui and his mother, she leaves the young protagonist with a bleak discovery:
Every day of his life since had arrived had been a hymn to work, to money, to efficiency—a hymn he had to sing through his excellent grades at school and his help in the kitchen and the aspirations he was required to have for the future. And all as thanks for what they earned him in good faith and with all their love, believing that this and this alone was their duty, the restaurant-rotisserie in which they all worked for aspirations that were not his own and that, to his utter disgust, were quite the opposite, though he wasn’t able to specify what this opposite was.
The second part of The Happy City follows one of Chi-Huei’s neighborhood friends, a precocious, secretive girl named Sara who becomes fascinated by a homeless man she encounters on the street. They have something powerful in common: Her imagination, like his, rejects boundaries. Sara’s parents grow alarmed when the learn of her fascination with this vagrant, but when they ground her, she only grows more obsessed. Nothing in her world is more interesting than this man who lives on the edges of society. Sara and the homeless man begin wordlessly stalking each other; eventually, they strike up a friendship.
It’s a chaste relationship, but a thoroughly corrupting one, all the same. Sara’s interest in the homeless man leaves her no time for girlish pursuits. She ignores art classes and is bored by her friends. In The Happy City’s final scene—a confrontation between Sara’s parents and the homeless man in the bar where she has been sneaking afternoon visits over potato chips with him—Navarro again demonstrates an uncanny talent for depicting the layers of tension that build up in family life. As Sara’s parents enter the bar, “They walk with the full weight of duty upon them, staring hard at the ground, and I suppose they know that I look at them, and that I am terrified.” As Sara’s father addresses the object of his daughter’s fascination, she becomes the conversation’s translator—and in doing so, learns something about her own limits.
In the end, The Happy City is the winner of this match, 3-2: Nowhere to Be Found’s best efforts simply couldn’t match the combined power of Chi-Huei and Sara’s forceful and sharply aimed narratives. After two beautiful, hard-earned goals per team, in stoppage time, Spain comes through with one more taste of net to win the game.
Next up, Spain’s The Happy City will face off against Costa Rica’s Assault on Paradise on Friday, June 26th.
Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Emily Ballaine, and features Germany’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky up against Thailand’s The Happiness of Kati by Ngarmpun (Jane) Vejjajiva.
As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 8 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.
Today post is an interview by Emily Davis of Spanish author Elvira Navarro, whose “Gerardo’s Letters” was translated by Natasha Wimmer for this special issue.
Born in Huelva, Spain in 1978, Elvira Navarro has published two novels: La ciudad en invierno (Caballo de Troya, 2007) and La ciudad feliz (Mondadori, 2009). La ciudad feliz won the Jaén Prize for best novel and the Tormenta prize for best new author. She currently teaches writing workshops in Madrid and has an ongoing project called ‘Madrid es periferia’ (Madrid is Periphery) in which she explores the various undefined and marginal spaces of Madrid. Those writings can be found online here. Today we get to hear from the author about the draw of these kinds of spaces, how they relate to her writing, and what inspires her.
Emily Davis: How did you become a writer? Where did the initial desire come from?
Elvira Navarro: I don’t believe that a book can be written from any other place than from the need to express something of yourself that demands the construction of a narrative territory in order to betray oneself as little as possible. It is there where the desire to be a writer resides, and what lights the way to becoming one. When that impulse is transferred to the work it becomes authenticity, a virtue that for me is absolutely necessary, to the point where I abandon books that are well written if I do not find them authentic, that is to say, necessary for those who write them. If a book is dispensable for the author, it will be even more so for the reader.
ED: Where do you get the inspiration for your novels?
EV: From my life, from the dirty corners, and from what I have said in answering the previous question.
ED: What writers have influenced you?
EV: Among recent Spanish narrative, Belén Gopegui is, along with Juan Marsé, the writer who has influenced me the most. I have discovered that certain parts of my writing are close to Cristina Fernández Cubas, but that is a discovery that I made a posteriori. I am pretty devoted to Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Tomeo. If you had asked me what writer I would have liked to be, I would have chosen Dostoyevsky. And Marguerite Duras seems to me an example of a radical writer and writing: she is always on the verge of being ridiculous, but it ends up being brilliant. I would also cite Ana Blandiana, Julio Cortázar, David Foster Wallace and Coetzee.
ED: Do you believe that it is possible to speak of a national Spanish literature?
EV: Spain, just like any other country, has a tradition (although here it would be better to speak of many traditions), even if in a globalized world it is making less and less sense to attach a [literary] tradition to a geographic or linguistic border.
ED: In addition to your novels you are working on a project called ‘Madrid es periferia’ which is an exploration of the less visible areas of the capital. What is it that attracts you to peripheral spaces in general, and in particular with regards to writing?
EV: It occurs to me something that the painter Antonio López said in an interview, that what inspired him was not the center, but rather the outskirts. When I see a picture of, for example, Paris’s Rive Gauche, Manhattan, or Madrid’s Gran Vía, I can’t help but see a postcard. These are places that are profusely talked about, that embody our current myths, that is to say, they support the narratives that identify us. In that measure, they are overinterpreted, and their legend is set in the realm of History, not of mystery. Overinterpretation can be fruitful for many writers, after all literature does nothing but tell the same story over and over again. However, I can’t put myself into this type of setting; their signifying weight is too heavy for me, and I prefer to go to places that are undefined, with an open plan, peripheral. Sometimes I get the impression that my writing is synonymous with flaneûr, and that the storylines that I cast are an excuse for justifying that my characters travel across certain spaces that tend to go from one urban periphery to another where the city dissolves. I am exaggerating, yes, but not much. Honestly, I don’t know what it is that brings me to explore inhospitable territories; that said, I guess it has to do with the unknown and with possibility and, with relation to the latter, at times I believe that the periphery, that decomposition of the habitable, represents us better, since we are failed city dwellers. Also I think that putting my characters to prowl through godforsaken places or in places that people don’t go is a way of making that territory habitable, converting it into a polis.
And finally, here is the opening to what appears in the Granta issue as “Gerardo’s Letters,” translated by Natasha Wimmer and a part of Navarro’s novel in progress. From the first sentence it is clear that we are dealing with the kind of in-between, uninhabitable space that Navarro describes above, and this setting becomes the frame for what turns out to be an emotionally tumultuous portrait of the relationship between the narrator and Gerardo.
Two roads, separated by half a mile of wasteland, flank the hostel, and I suggest that we cross over to see whether we can find some patch of countryside, but Gerardo says it’s late, we’d better explore the fields.We walk straight ahead until it’s completely dark, and we return guided by the lights of the hostel and the cars. We can’t even see our sneakers, and looking down produces a kind of dread, as if we were about to plunge into the void or step on a nest of scorpions. When we reach the basketball courts I instruct Gerardo to hold my ankles while I do sit-ups. The ground is cold and it’s hard to bend; having Gerardo crouching in front of me, with his head brushing against my knees, begins to seem unpleasant, and I stop at what seems a reasonable limit for a beginner. I feel absurd and it occurs to me that this is the nature of couplehood: the abjection of observing and participating in the other person’s obsessions. Like my sit-ups at ten at night on the dark basketball court of a hostel a mile from Talavera. Maybe there’s something positive about this that I’ve lost sight of, or maybe this foolishness applies only to defunct couples, like me and Gerardo, who claim that everybody else in the world takes such things for granted. ‘You’re crazy,’ he tells me when I try to explain what I mean, and then I feel this craziness of mine as a searing loneliness, even real madness. When I’m with him I lose my sense of judgement, and since Gerardo is the keeper of reason, I suddenly fear that without him I won’t be able to function in the world.
We get to the dining room just as they’re about to put the trays away. It’s not even eleven; we ask an old woman in a net cap why they’re closing so early. The old woman says that if we wanted to eat late we should’ve stayed at a hotel. The menu: shrivelled peas with something that looks like York ham but turns out to be chopped cold cuts, and breaded cutlets in perfect ovals whose greasy coating hides some kind of processed chicken. All I eat are the peas. The chopped meat and the processed chicken are the same pale pink colour. ‘The cutlets are raw,’ says Gerardo. At a big table the girl from last night is talking to three boys of about the same age, who must be the other high-school students. They’ve finished eating, and they’re smoking, flicking their ash on the tray; then they put out their cigarettes in what’s left of the peas. The girl doesn’t look at us.
‘I’m going to shower,’ I tell Gerardo as we enter the room. I takemy robe, toiletry bag and flip-flops out of my duffel bag, and whenI’m about to open the door Gerardo says:
‘You can get undressed here. I won’t touch you.’
I undress with my back to him. I’m conscious of his efforts to communicate his lust; it registers as a disagreeable weight on the back of my neck that makes me get tangled up in my trousers and fall down. I stand up and leave wearing my robe over my bra and T-shirt. Fortunately the hot water works and I stand under the shower head, which spits out water in fits and starts, until my fingers are wrinkled and the bathroom mirror is steamy. I don’t want to go back to the room; I pace back and forth, opening the doors of the shower stalls, where those little black bugs that seem to inhabit every dank place collect. I make a racket with the doors and stir up the bugs; a whole swarm ends up flying around the mirror, which is dripping with water. My feet are cold and I decide to get in the shower again, but the sides of the stalls are covered with insects now and I don’t have the strength to shoo them away. I go back to the room. Gerardo is lying in bed masturbating, with his pants around his ankles. He doesn’t look at me. I gather up my clothes as fast as I can and, trailing the cord of the hairdryer, I leave the room before he comes.
I return to the bathroom; the insects have retreated to the nooks and crannies of the showers and are now undetectable. I’m afraid there won’t be any outlets; if there aren’t, I can go to the TV room and dry my hair there. I imagine the four high-school students sprawled on the vinyl sofas, watching a celebrity survival show.
Asking the high-school students for permission to make a noise with my hairdryer while they watch their show doesn’t seem very appealing; and yet I’m determined not to go back to the room, even if Gerardo thinks the creepy gnome of a hostel manager has chopped me into bits and stuffed me in the pool-bar freezer. This is a good moment for us to break up once and for all: at six in the morning, while he’s asleep, I’ll go up for my duffel bag and call a taxi. A break-up plan like this might be out of the question for another couple without involving the police and having the hostel searched for the vanished loved one; but Gerardo and I have become accustomed to bad behaviour and extravagant gestures. If I decide to spend the day hanging upside down from a tree, he’ll leave me there, though he might tell me twenty times that I’m a nut. This is another one of the things that, until a year ago, made leaving him unthinkable, because I hate normal life, and in some sense and despite the awfulness, with Gerardo I seem to be safe from a certain kind of normality. With him, through the process of taking everything to the limit – rage, contemplation, disgust – I attain a kind of exasperated life and I’m convinced that this exasperation must violently propel me somewhere.
You can read this complete short story—and 21 more—in the new issue of Granta, which you can receive for free by subscribing now.
Today Granta announced the twenty-two young Spanish Novelists that will be in the ‘Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists issue, which is coming in November. The list (which you can see in full below) has two exciting surprises for us. First, our own Alejandro Zambra was named to the list! The issue will feature an excerpt from his forthcoming novel Formas de volver a casa, which I can’t wait to read.
The other surprise was that Samanta Schweblin, Santiago Roncagliolo, Oliverio Coelho, Federico Falco, and Antonio Ortuño are also on the list. Next year (I hope it’s ready by next year, that is), we’re publishing an anthology of short fiction by young Latin American writers called The Future is Not Ours, which was edited and collected by Diego Trelles Paz (here’s a piece he had in n+1 recently). Schweblin, Roncagliolo, Coehlo, Falco, and Ortuño are all in the anthology.
(Excuse us for a moment while we feel fancy for being the publisher of six of the twenty-two Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists.)
To celebrate, we’re knocking 30% off the cover price of Alejandro Zambra’s The Private Lives of Trees. For a limited time (saying that makes me feel so marketing-y), you can get it for $8.99 from our online shop.
Here’s Granta’s blog post that announces the list (followed by the whole list):
Granta’s Best Young Novelists issues have been some of the magazine’s most important – ever since the first ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ in 1983, which featured stories by Salman Rushdie, A. N. Wilson, Adam Mars-Jones and Martin Amis. There have since been two more Best of Young British Novelists lists, in 1993 and 2003, and lists for American novelists in 1996 and 2007. The titles have become milestones on the literary landscape, predicting talent as much as spotting it.
Today, Granta takes a new step in this tradition: our first-ever Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists issue. It will be published first in Spanish as Los mejores narradores jovenes en español and the English edition will follow, coming out on 25 November. The twenty-two writers on the list have been chosen by a distinguished panel of six judges: Valerie Miles and Aurelio Major, editors of Granta en español; Guatemalan-American novelist Francisco Goldman; Catalan critic, editor and author Mercedes Monmany; British journalist and ex-Latin American correspondent Isabel Hilton; and Argentinian writer and film-maker Edgardo Cozarinsky. To be eligible, the writers had to be born on or after January 1, 1975.
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