22 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.



Talking to Ourselves – Andrés Neuman, Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, Argentina
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Perhaps the question shouldn’t be why Andrés Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves deserves to win this year’s Best Translated Book Award – but why it doesn’t. That would be a silly query, however, as Neuman’s novel is an outstanding accomplishment in every regard. Despite being a mere 150 pages, Talking to Ourselves offers a rich and rewarding reading experience the likes of which are difficult to discover in a book two or three times its length.

Neuman, born in 1977 in Buenos Aires, has already garnered international acclaim and a number of prestigious awards (including the Alfaguara Prize and Spain’s National Critics Prize). When he was merely 22, Neuman’s debut novel, Bariloche (as yet untranslated into English), was the only finalist for the Herralde Prize – losing out to Marcos Giralt Torrente’s Paris (coincidentally, a fellow longlist title for this year’s BTBA). Neuman likely first garnered the attention of English readers via the effusive praise of the late Roberto Bolaño.

The Chilean’s claims rang more than true when Neuman’s spectacular Traveler of the Century was published in English translation in 2012. Traveler of the Century, a nearly 600-page epic of beauty, wonder, politics, poetry, love, and translation, could not be more dissimilar from Talking to Ourselves. In fact, it’s marvelous to think that these two exceptional books were even written by the same hand (or imagination, for that matter). Whereas Traveler of the Century was a weighty novel of ideas, Talking to Ourselves is a succinct look at illness, loss, literature, and familial bonds.

Writing in the voices of three disparate, but unifying characters (a wife/mother, husband/father, and their 10-year old son), Neuman captures the individual personalities and nuances of the trio with impressive dexterity. As father and son embark on what may well be their last journey together (on account of the elder’s terminal cancer), each of three characters strives to share their innermost thoughts – at least with themselves, if unable to do so with one another.

While Talking to Ourselves is a doleful work of fiction, it radiates a warmth and authenticity that is entirely compelling. Both Neuman’s lustrous prose and his keen insights into the inner world of the individual (and, ultimately, the questions of life, love, and death itself) meld with his natural gift for storytelling – resulting in a novel that is so beautiful, so sad, so brilliant, that one cannot imagine a single sentence out of place. It’s simply that good.

Talking to Ourselves was the very first book I read in 2014 and 51 weeks later, there wasn’t another title that had moved or captivated me so entirely. Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia’s translation reads fluidly and their efforts in rendering three distinct voices is in and of itself a merited accomplishment. Andrés Neuman writes gracefully and his compassion, intellect, and sheer love of storytelling are evident on every page. Talking to Ourselves deserves to win this year’s Best Translated Book Award, perhaps most of all because it does everything masterful fiction ought to: it dazzles with prose, affects our minds, touches our hearts, and, not least, reminds as that the stories we may think are ours alone are, in fact, the same the world over.

…a question only kids ask themselves for real, and then we sick people ask it again: is it okay to lie?, is it okay to be lied to?, a healthy grown-up won’t even give it a thought, the answer seems obvious, right?, we learn to tell lies the same way we learn to talk, they teach us how to talk and then how to be quiet, I don’t know, like when you play football, for example, first you kick the ball and then, unless you’re stupid, you learn not to kick it, to move around tricking the other players, kids lie too, of course, I lied all the time when I was a kid, but, what I’m saying is, until you get to a certain age, you think it’s wrong, that is the difference, I don’t think we grown-ups are any worse, you know?, every kid contains the beginnings of a possible son of a bitch, this much I know, it’s just that kids, and perhaps we adults are to blame for this, start by dividing the world into good and evil, truth and lies, the only time it’s okay for them to lie is when they’re playing, then it’s allowed, so kids become grown-ups when they play, sort of the opposite of us parents, we play so we can be kids again, well, and then you grow up, and you lie and are lied to, and it isn’t wrong, until one day, when you’re sick, you begin to worry again about lies, you worry about them every time you talk to the doctors, your wife, your family, it’s not a moral question, it’s, I don’t know, something physical, deep down you’re scared stiff of the truth, but the idea of dying with a lie scares you even more, lies help us to carry on living, don’t they?, and when you know you aren’t going to carry on, you feel they’re no use anymore, do you know what I mean?

22 May 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Grant Barber on I am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan translated by Eliza Griswold, and out last month from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Because I don’t know much about the tradition of Afghan landays, though I do find it both fascinating and in some ways haunting, I’ll let the jacket copy speak for itself before we get to Grant’s piece:

Afghans revere poetry, particularly the high literary forms that derive from Persian or Arabic. But the poem above is a folk couplet—a landay, an ancient oral and anonymous form created by and for mostly illiterate people: the more than 20 million Pashtun women who span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. War, separation, homeland, love—these are the subjects of landays, which are brutal and spare, can be remixed like rap, and are powerful in that they make no attempts to be literary. From Facebook to drone strikes to the songs of the ancient caravans that first brought these poems to Afghanistan thousands of years ago, landays reflect contemporary Pashtun life and the impact of three decades of war. With the U.S. withdrawal in 2014 looming, these are the voices of protest most at risk of being lost when the Americans leave.

The Poetry Foundation also has a more in-depth article on the topic, and the landays themselves, also written by Eliza Griswold (and also supplemented by photos from Seamus Murphy).

Here’s the beginning of Grant’s review:

On that September 11th I had a conversation with a professor friend who was teaching a creative writing class that evening. He questioned, “What can I possibly teach when all of this has happened?” While the dismay and grief were his reference, the question touches on a matter much deeper: what is art’s purpose? Either it is an indulgence, lacking gravitas—the wasted calories of dessert after a nutritious meal, good tasting but not essential—or art is a vital part of the human experience in good and hard times. This collection of landays—an oral tradition of women’s poetry in Afghanistan, with prescribed form but subtlety of subject matter—brings full-circle that conversation 13 years ago. This collection testifies in deep and important ways how art is inextricably part of life. These poems, historical and culturally central to Afghanis, can address timeless matters such as love, composed centuries ago or in the present as a woman grieves the death of loved ones killed in a drone strike.

Griswold is an editor and translator, a poet, and she is a non-fiction writer who has been addressing the contemporary intersection of Islamic and Christian worlds (The 10th Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault-line Between Christianity and Islam, 2011) through first-hand accounts. She negotiates the tense geographical intersections, giving her unique access. Here she draws from first hand interviews with women from the Pashto region, generally rural, isolated and conservative. She brings together the landays topically, followed by a brief narrative of the poets’ lives and circumstances for the poems. Interspersed throughout are candid black and white photographs taken by Seamus Murphy of the people and their surroundings.

For the rest of the review, go here.

22 May 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

On that September 11th I had a conversation with a professor friend who was teaching a creative writing class that evening. He questioned, “What can I possibly teach when all of this has happened?” While the dismay and grief were his reference, the question touches on a matter much deeper: what is art’s purpose? Either it is an indulgence, lacking gravitas—the wasted calories of dessert after a nutritious meal, good tasting but not essential—or art is a vital part of the human experience in good and hard times. This collection of landays—an oral tradition of women’s poetry in Afghanistan, with prescribed form but subtlety of subject matter—brings full-circle that conversation 13 years ago. This collection testifies in deep and important ways how art is inextricably part of life. These poems, historical and culturally central to Afghanis, can address timeless matters such as love, composed centuries ago or in the present as a woman grieves the death of loved ones killed in a drone strike.

Griswold is an editor and translator, a poet, and she is a non-fiction writer who has been addressing the contemporary intersection of Islamic and Christian worlds (The 10th Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault-line Between Christianity and Islam, 2011) through first-hand accounts. She negotiates the tense geographical intersections, giving her unique access. Here she draws from first hand interviews with women from the Pashto region, generally rural, isolated and conservative. She brings together the landays topically, followed by a brief narrative of the poets’ lives and circumstances for the poems. Interspersed throughout are candid black and white photographs taken by Seamus Murphy of the people and their surroundings.

A landay is a prescribed formal short poem. As Griswold explains, “[E]ach has twenty-two syllables: nine in the first line, thirteen in the second. The poem ends with the sound ma or na. Sometimes landays rhyme, but more often they do not.” Landays are primarily oral, and often sung, accompanied by a hand-held drum when religious authorities have not outlawed their use. Improvisations can happen in the moment as the poets keep the form, content remembered from previous versions, but with creative riffs to meet current circumstances. The landays, and the changes made can be biting, satirical, bawdy, or heartrending. The poems are recited/sung in groups of women, in privacy away from men. This collection is organized by the traditional subjects of landays.

The first section is “Love.” One can imagine these first landays being sung hundreds of years ago:

Your eyes aren’t eyes. They’re bees.
I can find no cure for their stinging.

Climb to the brow of the hill and sight
Where my darling’s caravan will tent this night.

In a note following the second landay, Griswold explains that landays are traced back to Bronze Age immigrants from Indo-Aryan people, from around 1700 B.C.E. The nomadic way of life is as alive now as then.

These women, however, live in modern times:

Daughter, in America the river isn’t wet.
Young girls learn to fill their jugs on the internet.

How much simpler can love be?
Let’s get engaged. Text me.

Griswold explains that when women went to the river in the past to gather water, the men might hide so that they and the women might have some sort of glimpse, a covert courtship at a distance. With wells now rather than rivers for water, women do not have water gathering as a reason for leaving their house. Although Griswold gathered most of the poems quoted, here she cites a civic leader from the district of Rodar, in the village of Chinar, “who transcribed these texts [poems] by local girls who were trading tongue-in-cheek landays that comment on how their lives are moving beyond the river bank traditions.” A photograph follows of a woman walking away from the camera with a water basket on her head, in desolate, rocky terrain.

Griswold concludes this section by recounting meeting Salma, a professional woman in her twenties, still single, with a radio show in Kandahar that features poetry, at least for now; women in her circumstance might not continue after American forces fully withdraw and Taliban rule returns. This anxiety repeats throughout the collection.

Salma has a younger sister, Sanga, who just got engaged to a cousin. Griswold recounts an exchange that the girl and her cousin had, one of the few citations of a male using the form:

One recent morning, the cousin approached her on the way to school and recited a landay to declare his love for the first time: “My mother loves me and God loves my mother, so God will reward you with being my mother’s daughter (his wife).” She responded with another landay: he’d better hurry up and send his family to ask for her hand in marriage, since others were already coming to her home.

While the exchange seems playful and perhaps surprising in the boldness which Sanga claims, the next section, “Grief and Separation,” strikes a counterbalancing tone in the first landay quoted:

When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.
When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.

The next landay gives the book its title:

In my dream I am the President.
When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.

In the follow-up explanation Griswold recounts a conversation with a refugee in a camp, an older woman whose husband is dying; the woman’s prospects when he dies are bleak.

“War and Homeland” is the final section of landays. The complexity of attitudes and conflicting deep feelings are striking:

May God destroy your tank and your drone
you who’ve destroyed my village, my home.

Contrasted with:

May God destroy the Taliban and end their wars.
They’ve made Afghan women into widows and whores.

The explanations for both landays given by Griswold, and the other poems within their contexts, make for important, powerful reading. America is not a liberating presence, but one more destructive force faced by Afghani women through history, albeit with some temporary benefit, a reprieve for now from women’s exclusion from receiving education, and some freedoms in the public sphere of cultural life.

These poems were not composed and recited for the Western readers’ benefit; instead they are part of the cultural reality and centuries old vitality of Afghani culture. This is not a literary act of appropriation, but of introduction. Griswold brings them to us so that we might listen in a bit to others’ realities, one to which we in the Western world, and especially the U.S., are now yoked.

....
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