29 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jeremy Garber on Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, out from FSG.

Andrés Neuman has quickly become an in-house name here at Open Letter/Three Percent, and, as Jeremy hints at in his review, everyone either can’t wait to get started on reading him, or can’t wait to keep reading him. Andrés will also be at the University of Rochester at the end of April for our Reading the World Conversation Series event.

Jeremy has written for The Oregonian, the Oregon Historical Quarterly, and on Powells.com, and is a great source of reviews in general and reader of world lit. Here’s a bit from his review:

Talking to Ourselves (_Hablar solos), the second of Neuman’s books to be rendered into English, could not be more unlike its predecessor in translation—be it thematically or stylistically. Whereas Traveler of the Century was an epic novel of ideas, Talking to Ourselves is a far more intimate, personal work dealing with loss and mortality. There are no early-19th century self-rearranging german towns or cave-dwelling organ grinders to be found herein, but instead a small family forced to confront a reality teetering precariously upon the cusp of sorrow and uncertainty.

Set across an ambiguous landscape that appears to encompass both Spain and Latin America, Talking to Ourselves transcends geographical borders as easily as it does those of fidelity and compassion. Mario, afflicted with a cancer that brings him ever closer to death, sets out on (what he knows to be) a final road trip with his young son, Lito. staying behind is Mario’s wife, Elena, heartbroken over her family’s impending fate, yet able to find mild comfort within the pages of literature. With Mario’s illness looming, husband/father, wife/mother, and son are left to make sense of their inevitable realities however best they can—longing for intimacy and release, yet unable to overcome the emotional alienation imposed upon them by imminent dissolution.

Told, in turns, from the perspective of each of the three main characters, Talking to Ourselves is, narratively speaking, a most ambitious effort. Alternating between Lito, Elena, and Mario, Neuman captures the distinction and nuance of these individual voices—inhabiting their inner worlds (in one form or another) to reveal fears, hopes, misgivings, doubts, and longings. Not only is each respective chapter told from the viewpoint of one of the three—each is also conveyed in a different format altogether: Lito’s excitable, curious, and impatient stream-of-thought expression befitting a 10-year old, Elena’s ongoing and forthright diary compositions, and Mario’s series of tape recordings to be left behind for Lito after his passing. Neuman’s stylistic choice works to magnificent effect (however arduous a task it must have been to pull off), as he easily transitions between voices and forms to reveal the thoughts and feelings that seem to so overwhelm each character, despite their inability to share openly with one another.

For the rest of the review, go here.

29 January 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If you somehow managed to overlook the 2012 translation of Andrés Neuman’s breathtaking Traveler of the Century (and woe betide all whom continue to do so), you now have two exceptional works of fiction from the young Argentine virtuoso demanding your immediate attention.

Accolades aplenty have been piling up for Neuman since publishing his first novel (the as-yet untranslated Bariloche) at the age of 22: he was named to the illustrious Bogotá 39 list of outstanding young Latin American authors (sharing company with the likes of Daniel Alarcón, Junot Díaz, Eduardo Halfón, Santiago Roncagliolo, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, and Jorge Volpi, among others) and has been awarded both the Alfaguara and Spain’s National Critics prizes—and was twice a finalist for the Herralde Prize. Prestigious honors celebrating an already prodigious output—Neuman has authored some twenty works, including five novels, five books of short stories, nine collections of poetry (not including the volume that assembles a decade’s worth), a selection of aphorisms and literary essays, and a travel book about Latin America. Oh, and he translates poetry into Spanish. And writes a regular column. And maintains a very popular literary blog (which, unsurprisingly by now, was named one of the best in Spanish by an El cultural survey). All of this and yet he’s still a few years shy of his 40th birthday.

Roberto Bolaño, always the veritable critic, arbiter, and champion of literary prowess, in an essay entitled “Neuman, Touched by Grace” (collected in Between Parentheses), offered the following non-hyperbolic sentiment:

Among young writers who’ve already published a first book, Neuman may be the youngest of all, and his precocity, which comes studded with lightning bolts and proclamations, isn’t his greatest virtue. born in argentina in 1977, but raised in andalusia, andrés neuman is the author of a book of poems, Métodos de la noche Night Methods, published by Hiperión in 1998, and Bariloche, an excellent first novel that was a finalist for the most recent Herralde Prize.

The novel is about a trash collector in Buenos Aires who works jigsaw puzzles in his spare time. I happened to be on the prize committee and Neuman’s novel at once enthralled—to use an early twentieth-century term—and hypnotized me. In it, good readers will find something that can be found only in great literature, the kind written by real poets, a literature that dares to venture into the dark with open eyes and that keeps its eyes open no matter what. In principle, this is the most difficult test (also the most difficult exercise and stretch), and on no few occasions neuman pulls it off with frightening ease . . . When I come across these young writers it makes me want to cry. I don’t know whether a drunk driver will run them down some night or whether all of a sudden they’ll stop writing. If nothing like this happens, the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a few of his blood brothers.

Talking to Ourselves (_Hablar solos), the second of Neuman’s books to be rendered into English, could not be more unlike its predecessor in translation—be it thematically or stylistically. Whereas Traveler of the Century was an epic novel of ideas, Talking to Ourselves is a far more intimate, personal work dealing with loss and mortality. There are no early-19th century self-rearranging german towns or cave-dwelling organ grinders to be found herein, but instead a small family forced to confront a reality teetering precariously upon the cusp of sorrow and uncertainty.

I wonder whether, perhaps without realizing it, we seek out the books we need to read. Or whether books themselves, which are intelligent entities, detect their readers and catch their eye. In the end, every book is the I Ching. you pick it up, open it and there it is, there you are.

Set across an ambiguous landscape that appears to encompass both Spain and Latin America, Talking to Ourselves transcends geographical borders as easily as it does those of fidelity and compassion. Mario, afflicted with a cancer that brings him ever closer to death, sets out on (what he knows to be) a final road trip with his young son, Lito. staying behind is Mario’s wife, Elena, heartbroken over her family’s impending fate, yet able to find mild comfort within the pages of literature. With Mario’s illness looming, husband/father, wife/mother, and son are left to make sense of their inevitable realities however best they can—longing for intimacy and release, yet unable to overcome the emotional alienation imposed upon them by imminent dissolution.

“There’s a lot of horribleness [she] refuses to countenance,” I agree with what Helen Garner writes in one of her novels, “but it won’t just go away.” In fact the job of horror is to do the opposite: to resurface. “So somebody else has to sort of live it.” By avoiding the subject of death, Mario delegates it to me, he kills me a little. “Death will not be denied. To try is grandiose.” And feeds it. “It drives madness into the soul.” Like one truck driving into another. “It leaches out virtue.” Leaves it barren. “And makes a mockery of love.” And there are no more clean embraces. Here all of us fall ill.

Told, in turns, from the perspective of each of the three main characters, Talking to Ourselves is, narratively speaking, a most ambitious effort. Alternating between Lito, Elena, and Mario, Neuman captures the distinction and nuance of these individual voices—inhabiting their inner worlds (in one form or another) to reveal fears, hopes, misgivings, doubts, and longings. Not only is each respective chapter told from the viewpoint of one of the three—each is also conveyed in a different format altogether: Lito’s excitable, curious, and impatient stream-of-thought expression befitting a 10-year old, Elena’s ongoing and forthright diary compositions, and Mario’s series of tape recordings to be left behind for Lito after his passing. Neuman’s stylistic choice works to magnificent effect (however arduous a task it must have been to pull off), as he easily transitions between voices and forms to reveal the thoughts and feelings that seem to so overwhelm each character, despite their inability to share openly with one another.

We all live in an ellipsis.

While missing her husband and son terribly (and worrying incessantly about their well-being), Elena, per the fragility of her immediate existence, allows herself to be courted by Mario’s doctor—an affair that first excites, but later disgusts. As she records her daily interactions within her journal, she also discovers parallels within the books she reads (which include, it must be mentioned, the likes of César Aira, Margaret Atwood, John Banville, Roberto Bolaño, Anton Chekhov, Richard Ford, Javier Marías, Lorrie Moore, Flannery O’connor, Kenzaburō Ōe, Cynthia Ozick, Virginia Woolf, and others), excerpting them in her diary as if to corroborate her own interior state—or, at the least, to help make sense of its ceaseless tumult.

Work, work. That’s all I know how to do. You have to be very sad to hate vacations. You are so responsible, people tell me. They can go to hell. I look for things to be responsible for because I can’t be responsible for myself. Sometimes I think I don’t deserve to be a mother. Sometimes I think I had a child in order to stop myself from jumping out of the window. Sometimes I think I should have been the one who got ill. Sometimes I think about being fucked hard. Women who know what they want never want anything interesting.

Foolish it would be for the reader to look for answers pertaining to the existential dilemmas of life and love. Talking to Ourselves considers a host of subjects, not the least of which being death, sickness, caretaking, parenthood and filial responsibility, devotion and infidelity, sex, passion, the duality of pleasure and pain, mourning, dishonesty, individual experience, and the inherent differences between men and women. If Neuman’s novel seems rich with life, it’s not only because his characters and their situations are so well-conceived, but also on account of his story being the stuff that life is so often composed of. To be sure, there are moments of tenderness, joy, and humor to be found throughout the book (especially when narrated by young Lito)—but Neuman’s capacity for unyielding compassion in the face of unflinching circumstance speaks volumes about the depths of his empathy and ability to synthesize through fiction the often unsettling realities and conflicting motivations of mortal existence.

When I see a couple kissing, believing they love one another, believing they will endure, whispering into each other’s ear in the name of an instinct to which they give lofty names, when I see them caressing one another with that embarrassing avidness, that expectation of discovering something crucial in the other’s skin, when I see their mouths becoming entangled, the exchange of tongues, their freshly showered hair, their unruly hands, fabric rubbing and lifting up the like the most sordid of curtains, the anxious tic of knees bouncing like springs, cheap beds in one-night hotels they will later remember as palaces, when I see two fools expressing their desire with impunity in broad daylight, as though I weren’t watching them, it’s not merely envy I feel. I also pity them. I pity their rotten future. And I get up and ask for the bill and I smile at them askance, as though I had returned from a war which the two of them have no idea is about to commence.

With but a pair of works currently in translation, it is still rather evident that Andrés Neuman possesses a formidable talent. Talking to Ourselves, despite its solemnity (tempered though it may be by beauty and bittersweetness), is an exceptional work of considerable emotional breadth. While the story itself may well be dolorous, it radiates with an authenticity that can often be elusive in fiction. There’s a vibrancy and liveliness to Neuman’s writing (as well-evidenced, too, in Traveler of the Century) that is irresistible. Even if one were not captivated by his arresting tale, persuasive characters, or sonorous prose, the impassioned effects of his storytelling are inescapable.

Short of the inebriated automobiler who Bolaño feared might one day rob us of his wordsmithing savvy, the literature of our adolescent century may well indeed belong to Andrés Neuman (as well as Gonçalo Tavares, assuredly).

Enjoy life, do you hear?, It’s hard work enjoying life, and have patience, not too much, and look after yourself as if you knew you won’t always be young, even though you won’t know it and that’s okay, and have plenty of sex, son, do it for your sake and mine and even your mother’s, lots of sex, and if you have children, have them late, and go to the beach in winter, in winter it’s better, you’ll see, my head hurts yet I feel good, it’s hard to explain, and go traveling on your own once in a while, and try not to fall in love all the time, and care about your looks, do you hear me?, men who don’t care about their looks are afraid of being queer, and if you are queer, be a man, in short, advice isn’t much use, if you disagree with it you don’t listen, and if you already agree you don’t need it, never trust advice, son, travel agents advise you to go places they’ve never been, you’ll love more when you’re old, I thought of my father the moment we got down from that truck, our true love for our parents is posthumous, forgive me for that, I’m already proud of the things you’re going to do, I love the way you count the time on your fingers when you set the alarm clock, or do you think I don’t see?, you do it secretly, under the covers, so I won’t know you have difficulty working it out, I’m going to ask you a favor, whatever happens, whatever age you are, don’t stop counting the time on your fingers, promise me, octopus.

16 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Patrizia Cavalli’s My Poems Won’t Change the World, out from FSG.

Vincent is a regular contributor here, and I can guarantee that his review will give you some great poet-poetry insight and a few laughs for this chilly Monday morning (as well as a new recommendation for great international poetry). Here’s a part of his review:

bq The (incredibly exaggerated) dilemma of poetry in these United States, at least in the minds of poets, is that no one cares to read verse. The complaint is often made: readers have no appreciation for poetry here, not like they do in Russia and Latin America and Ireland and Poland. And, it turns out, in Italy. If the jacket of My Poems Won’t Change the World is to be believed, Patrizia Cavalli is a national treasure in Italy, much the way Wisława Szymborska was in Poland or Nicanor Parra is in Chile. Patrizia’s readings pack halls and her elegant, colloquial poems have enchanted European readers. At long last, her “music,” as Jorie Graham calls it, is available for American readers to ignore.

What brought this collection to life? The answer is the concerted effort of its editor and primary translator, Gini Alhadeff, who does a very good job rendering Italian into airy, digestible English. Alhadeff has had some help along the way; none other than Kenneth Koch, Mark Strand, and the before-mentioned Jorie Graham—all relatively famous American poets—have lent their skills to the translations, as have J, D. McClatchy, David Shapiro, Jonathan Galassi, Rosanna Warren, and Geoffrey Brock. With such a large group of translators focusing on one poet’s work the results can sometimes be intriguing, albeit unfocused. The reader sees something of the translators’ individual fingerprints in the English renditions, sometimes benefiting the poems, but the cumulative effect is not unlike current hip hop records made with an all-star lineup of heavy-hitting producers. Sometimes it is better to select one producer and let them work closely with the artist, creating a unified vision.

For the entire piece, go “here”:

16 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“The more bored you are, the more attached you get.
I’m so bored, I no longer want to die.”

So reads an entire poem by Patrizia Cavalli (translated by Gini Alhadeff) confirming for many critics of poetry what they’ve always believed: poets are gloomy, self-pitying bastards.

***

The (incredibly exaggerated) dilemma of poetry in these United States, at least in the minds of poets, is that no one cares to read verse. The complaint is often made: readers have no appreciation for poetry here, not like they do in Russia and Latin America and Ireland and Poland. And, it turns out, in Italy. If the jacket of My Poems Won’t Change the World is to be believed, Patrizia Cavalli is a national treasure in Italy, much the way Wisława Szymborska was in Poland or Nicanor Parra is in Chile. Patrizia’s readings pack halls and her elegant, colloquial poems have enchanted European readers. At long last, her “music,” as Jorie Graham calls it, is available for American readers to ignore.

What brought this collection to life? The answer is the concerted effort of its editor and primary translator, Gini Alhadeff, who does a very good job rendering Italian into airy, digestible English. Alhadeff has had some help along the way; none other than Kenneth Koch, Mark Strand, and the before-mentioned Jorie Graham—all relatively famous American poets—have lent their skills to the translations, as have J, D. McClatchy, David Shapiro, Jonathan Galassi, Rosanna Warren, and Geoffrey Brock. With such a large group of translators focusing on one poet’s work the results can sometimes be intriguing, albeit unfocused. The reader sees something of the translators’ individual fingerprints in the English renditions, sometimes benefiting the poems, but the cumulative effect is not unlike current hip hop records made with an all-star lineup of heavy-hitting producers. Sometimes it is better to select one producer and let them work closely with the artist, creating a unified vision.

I suppose the idea is to allow American readers to see the work of Cavalli through the eyes of poets they know and trust. But this American reader had not heard of Alhadeff, and her translations still seem the most competent, a few exceptions not withstanding. Geoffrey Brock did this with Cavalli’s Italian:

If you knocked now on my door
and if you took off your glasses
and I took off mine which are like yours
and then if you entered my mouth
unafraid of kisses that are not like yours
and said to me: “My love,
is everything alright?”— that would be quite
a piece of theater

Not possessing enough Italian to do more than get my face slapped, I’ll take it on faith that this is damn close to what Cavalli wrote, though reading later, equally pleasing translations by Brock lead me to the conclusion that his style suits my taste, which is to say that his reading of Cavalli suits my taste. And, apparently, Jorie Graham’s doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong; the book is by no means a mess. The many hands that produced it have not inadvertently created obvious seams in the fabric. No, the tone shifts occasionally but I was never taken out of the poems, many of which are short, subtle, and compelling. Like much good poetry, Cavalli’s work can be read quickly, resulting in superficial responses, but returning to them allows for deeper appreciation. Poetry demands patience, investment, reinvestment, consideration, patience, commitment, patience, and patience. It is helpful when the work is as smooth as Cavalli’s (in most of the translations) and when the poet offers enough of an emotional core to attract readers.

***

To return to the subject of American audiences and their supposed disinclination toward poetry . . . While this disinclincation may be fact, I can’t help but think that if we had more poets like Cavalli, whose work drew comedy, ethics, and passion from the stillness of the everyday, and who were less concerned with abstractions and convolutions, then perhaps we’d have more readers of poetry.

Consider these lines from longest poem in the collection, and one of the few with a title, “La Guardiana,” translated by Alhadeff as “The Keeper,” which come after a little girl has pried a door open:

No mystery lay beyond that door,
it was a door a door like any other
and in the drawer was whatever was there,
everyone knew. And as to praises,
the only reward for my feats, many
at first, then fewer and fewer
—my prowess, with time, was taken for granted—
I cared little or nothing at all.
My pleasure lay only in the challenge
of unravelling that obstinate
inaccessible resistance to which
I was only the chosen instrument
of surrender: forces withdrawn
entering without forcing, only listening,
indifferent to the prize and to the profit,
the sound that rises form every sealed
thing, wanting just
to open and give itself away
but only to one ready for that sound.
With those bent wires, then words,
I practiced poetry.

Portrait of the artist as a young girl or easy metaphor, you decide, but to me this is the sort of clear, compelling work that is easy to dismiss and rich upon return.

This collection may not sway more Americans to poetry, but it certainly won’t alienate any, either. Cavalli will likely not become a household name, at least not in this country, but I, along with the other fools who write and read poems, and who sometimes (wrongly) bemoan the lack of attention poetry receives, now have one more writer of verse to recommend.

Fight on, brothers and sisters.

6 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Vincent Francone on The Art of Joy by Goliarda Sapienza, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

This book is by definition and appearances a tome. At just over 700 pages (and hardcover) it’s a doorstop for a doorstop. But I will be one of the first people in line to champion lengthy books, and argue that insane length ≠ poor quality. Just because a book takes you a few hours to read and sits at 85 pages does not make it fantastic. Same can be said for 500+ page books (massive books like Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything can read just as quickly as the majority’s go-to 150 page novels). Just because it might take you a week or two to work through it, it doesn’t make it a crap book . . . And based on the jacket copy and what Vincent discusses in his review, Sapienza’s The Art of Joy sounds like a truly fascinating read, in great part because of the author’s own life (Goliarda was a Bad. Ass.). I’ve got a copy of this at home and am dying to read it myself . . .

Enough rave-ranting from me! Here’s the beginning of Vincent’s review:

Readers love a good story. But they really love a good author bio. If an author’s life story is interesting, readers get excited. They share a book with friends by first telling them about the writer. Oh, this Bolaño guy—he was a heroin addict and was in a Chilean jail and should’ve been killed but some high school chums saved him. This Burroughs dude—he shot his wife at a party! A writer with an interesting life is bound to attract readers because we love a good tale, especially if it is (supposedly) true. Hopefully we can get past the myths and legends of the bio page and actually read the works these writers produce.

I wonder if that will be the case with Goliarda Sapienza. Her back story is pretty great (here I go sharing her bio): she was an actress who worked with Visconti; she was a writer of some renown whose biggest project, which she spent years composing, was rejected by every publisher and dismissed by Italy’s top critic as “a pile of iniquity”; she was broke often and once jailed for the theft of a friend’s jewelry; she died penniless; her friend and lover self-published her masterpiece, which was, of course, recognized as a book of genius well after her death. This is a familiar story to readers of Dickinson or John Kennedy Toole, as endearing as her poems of solitude and his comic novel: the legendary writer not recognized in their lifetime.

In the case of Sapienza, the bulk of her novel The Art of Joy may intimidate readers who would be happy to share her story of poverty and literary struggle at a cocktail party, but might not venture further and actually read the thing. But if they do they’ll discover a compelling novel that sweeps through Italian history, bounces through philosophical ponderings, and tries damn hard to shatter as many taboos as it can.

For the rest of the review, go here

6 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Readers love a good story. But they really love a good author bio. If an author’s life story is interesting, readers get excited. They share a book with friends by first telling them about the writer. Oh, this Bolaño guy—he was a heroin addict and was in a Chilean jail and should’ve been killed but some high school chums saved him. This Burroughs dude—he shot his wife at a party! A writer with an interesting life is bound to attract readers because we love a good tale, especially if it is (supposedly) true. Hopefully we can get past the myths and legends of the bio page and actually read the works these writers produce.

I wonder if that will be the case with Goliarda Sapienza. Her back story is pretty great (here I go sharing her bio): she was an actress who worked with Visconti; she was a writer of some renown whose biggest project, which she spent years composing, was rejected by every publisher and dismissed by Italy’s top critic as “a pile of iniquity”; she was broke often and once jailed for the theft of a friend’s jewelry; she died penniless; her friend and lover self-published her masterpiece, which was, of course, recognized as a book of genius well after her death. This is a familiar story to readers of Dickinson or John Kennedy Toole, as endearing as her poems of solitude and his comic novel: the legendary writer not recognized in their lifetime.

In the case of Sapienza, the bulk of her novel The Art of Joy may intimidate readers who would be happy to share her story of poverty and literary struggle at a cocktail party, but might not venture further and actually read the thing. But if they do they’ll discover a compelling novel that sweeps through Italian history, bounces through philosophical ponderings, and tries damn hard to shatter as many taboos as it can.

The theme of a woman exploring her sexuality is nothing new to American readers who devour Fifty Shades of Sex in the City and The Real Desperate Housewives of Wherever. But The Art of Joy is bound to challenge readers of this sort, less because of the subject matter and more for the tone. Though not short of description one might find in the average bodice-ripper (“his hands close around my waist and lift me up, making me soar, light as a feather. It was like looking into a ravine. The greater the terror, the greater my desire to plunge in”), the book digresses and meanders through 20th century Italian history and political and philosophical tangents along with the odd murder plot and musings on the true dominant theme of the book: rebellion and freedom. The readers witness the book’s hero, Modesta, age and transform from an innocent girl raped by her father to a lover of men and women, wife to a man-child, aristocrat, rebel, libertine, mother, and anti-fascist imprisoned for her politics. And as Modesta grows into an independent woman, Sapienza becomes a liberated writer, shifting from first to third person willy-nilly, letting her muse have full reign over self-editorial impulses. The book slowly makes room (lots of it) for politics along with the perils of male-female relationships and whatever else entered Sapienza’s head during the time she held the pen.

And yes there’s some sex. But, despite the outrage from Sapienza’s critics, it’s a pretty tame story. Those looking for a dirty book will be disappointed. The Art of Joy is less about sexual exploits and the price they demand and more about defiance of all social constraints, sexual, political, and domestic. Sapienza introduces us to her ideal heroine, who is bold, transgressive, intelligent, and willing to suffer for her convictions. And she laughingly names her Modesta! In one chapter, Modesta tells her son that the reason people call her a whore has less to do with her sexuality and more to do with their manipulation of his feelings for her. People want to dominate unchained femininity, she suggests, and how better to achieve this aim than by condemning sexual expression. In this moment, among any like it, Sapienza conveys her theme perhaps a bit too demonstrably, but this is what makes the book so gripping. The sexual exploits and melodramatic plot too often feel trite. Absent the digressions and socio-political discussions, the book would suffer, becoming little more than the literary equivalent of Seinfeld’s Euro-trash flick, Rochelle, Rochelle. But compressed chapters and engaging (though at times overwrought) prose make the 670 pages seem like something unique.

I anticipate split opinions on this one; no one is going to feel indifferent about Sapienza’s book. And this is a good thing. I appreciate art that is this divisive and elicits strong feelings, positive and negative. But I still don’t know if I love it or hate The Art of Joy. I admire it. I respect the author. I love her story, maybe more than I love her book. And I get the feeling that immediate recognition and success might have offered Sapienza the chance to write better books. Instead, we have her life and her tome, both of which will have to do.

8 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Vincent Francone on The Whispering Muse by Sjón, from Farrar Straus and Giroux.

The first time I saw The Whispering Muse was in a bookstore in Riga, Latvia, misplaced somewhere on the D-F shelf. Taking this as a sign of meant-to-be, I bought it, and promptly placed it on my to-read shelf. This was two years ago. But I’ve been itching to get to it since! And the new editions from FSG have some pretty awesome looking covers…

Here’s a bit of Vincent’s review:

The Whispering Muse, one of three books by Icelandic writer Sjón just published in North America, is nothing if not inventive. Stories within stories, shifting narration, leaps in time, and characters who transform from men to birds and back again—you’ve seen this sort of thing before in Ovid, Bulgakov, Kafka, and Rushdie to name a few. But the slim novel’s metaphysics are less striking than its blending of myths, serving the reader an exciting book that touches on the cannibalistic nature of story telling; any tale, regardless of time and place, is ripe for postmodern plucking and consumption.

To read the rest of the review, go here

8 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The Whispering Muse, one of three books by Icelandic writer Sjón just published in North America, is nothing if not inventive. Stories within stories, shifting narration, leaps in time, and characters who transform from men to birds and back again—you’ve seen this sort of thing before in Ovid, Bulgakov, Kafka, and Rushdie to name a few. But the slim novel’s metaphysics are less striking than its blending of myths, serving the reader an exciting book that touches on the cannibalistic nature of story telling; any tale, regardless of time and place, is ripe for postmodern plucking and consumption.

The year is 1949, a fact quickly established by the primary narrator, Valdimar Haraldsson, Icelandic fish enthusiast and quasi-eugenicist. Haraldsson boards the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen, a merchant ship bound for the Black Sea, and encounters Caeneus, first mate and former Argonaut who, yes, sailed under Jason during his infamous quest for the Golden Fleece. This, regardless of the fact that the year is, again, 1949. This is the kind of book where none of those pesky rules of time and space carry any weight. Caeneus entertains the guests of the ship with after-dinner stories of his adventures with the Argonauts while stalled on the island of Lemnos amid comely enchantresses.

Caeneus’s inspiration comes from a splinter of wood he carries in his pocket—the titular whispering muse— a remnant of the long gone Argo. The mighty ship reduced to a mere splinter seems a good metaphor for the ethereal, the history lingering in our memories, the tiny specter that inspires and haunts all of us, but I suspect such readings are perhaps too heady for such a playful novel. Not to diminish any interpretive reading of The Whispering Muse, but I’m far happier savoring the goofy jumps from Caeneus’s story to Haraldsson’s absurd lecture on the superiority of the Nordic people, which he attributes to their fish consumption, than in picking it apart for deeper meaning. Perhaps this is because the novel’s breezy tone and brevity prevent me from looking at it as anything more than entertaining fabulism. The seafaring novel is constantly moving, sailing across narratives and landing nowhere near where I expected, instead stopping abruptly. A longer novel might have meandered, but Sjón keeps it slim and quick, a short effective burst of whimsy and surprise.

Despite the fun The Whispering Muse provides while reading—and it is a lot of fun—it was difficult to completely immerse myself in the book. Lyrical at times and certainly engaging, I was nevertheless detached from the events of the novel, witnessing them from afar. Critics of framed narratives sometimes complain of the frustration that can accompany distancing stories inside stories. Typically I do not agree, but here I sense that Sjón doesn’t necessarily care about his characters, which makes me wonder why I would invest anything in them. There are passages that amuse and delight, but the joy comes from the idea of what is happening rather than what is actually happening. This is not to say that the book is unsuccessful, but those who are looking for rich characterization need not crack open The Whispering Muse. Thankfully, I am less concerned with characters are more interested in the possibilities of the novel, which Sjón presents in 141 taut pages, beautifully translated by Victoria Cribb.

26 June 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Tim Nassau on Tomas Tranströmer’s The Deleted World, which is available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

This book promises to be an interesting read. Take a look at Tim’s review to see why:

Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer’s winning the Nobel Prize brought to light a rare bit of translation gossip: that there’s bad blood between a few of his translators. And as there should be—a lot of people suddenly want to buy Tranströmer’s poetry; of the five plus out there, which book are you going to get? The Deleted World, Scottish poet Robin Robertson’s “versions” of Tranströmer’s poems (Robertson doesn’t like to call them “translations”), is the controversial one. Its first American publication at the end of last year, half a decade after it originally appeared from Enitharmon Press in Britain, drew new attention to the paper war abroad. In the introduction to the slim volume of fifteen poems from across Tranströmer’s career, Robertson makes it clear, “The free versions in The Deleted World were never intended as literal translations.” Not free enough for some. As David Orr chronicled in March in the New York Times Book Review, Robin Fulton, also a Scottish poet-translator of Tranströmer, and who does speak Swedish, “accused Robertson (who doesn’t speak Swedish) of borrowing from his more faithful versions while inserting superfluous bits of Robertson’s own creation — in essence, creating poems that are neither accurate translations nor interesting departures.” Robertson has barbs of his own: in reference to other Tranströmer collections, he dubs Samuel Charter’s Baltics a “good reading” and Robert Bly’s The Half-Finished Heaven “a strong American selection,” while Fulton’s Collected Poems is a delightfully back-handed “useful.” Good for a gloss, but get your poetry elsewhere.

Click here to read the entire review.

26 June 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer’s winning the Nobel Prize brought to light a rare bit of translation gossip: that there’s bad blood between a few of his translators. And as there should be—a lot of people suddenly want to buy Tranströmer’s poetry; of the five plus out there, which book are you going to get? The Deleted World, Scottish poet Robin Robertson’s “versions” of Tranströmer’s poems (Robertson doesn’t like to call them “translations”), is the controversial one. Its first American publication at the end of last year, half a decade after it originally appeared from Enitharmon Press in Britain, drew new attention to the paper war abroad. In the introduction to the slim volume of fifteen poems from across Tranströmer’s career, Robertson makes it clear, “The free versions in The Deleted World were never intended as literal translations.” Not free enough for some. As David Orr chronicled in March in the New York Times Book Review, Robin Fulton, also a Scottish poet-translator of Tranströmer, and who does speak Swedish, “accused Robertson (who doesn’t speak Swedish) of borrowing from his more faithful versions while inserting superfluous bits of Robertson’s own creation — in essence, creating poems that are neither accurate translations nor interesting departures.” Robertson has barbs of his own: in reference to other Tranströmer collections, he dubs Samuel Charter’s Baltics a “good reading” and Robert Bly’s The Half-Finished Heaven “a strong American selection,” while Fulton’s Collected Poems is a delightfully back-handed “useful.” Good for a gloss, but get your poetry elsewhere.

Whenever a translator feels compelled to present their work as something just a little bit different, as not quite a translation, but as an imitation, or a version, or whatever else they can come up with (“Englished” for “translated” is a favorite), my instinct is to cry bullshit. There is rarely something original enough to justify setting oneself apart from other translators and, intended or not, it smacks of apologetics: a way of excusing any potential infidelities as part of the game. When you actually read the poems, it’s clear why debating the merits of the different translations in terms of relative faithfulness is pointless. Compare these two versions of “The Couple,” originally published in 1962. The first is by Robin Fulton, which we know to be the sober, literal rendition:

They switch off the light and its white shade
glimmers for a moment before dissolving
like a tablet in a glass of darkness. Then up.
The hotel walls rise into the black sky.

The movements of love have settled, and they sleep
but their most secret thoughts meet as when
two colors meet and flow into each other
on the wet paper of a schoolboy’s painting.

It is dark and silent. But the town has pulled closer
tonight. With quenched windows. The houses have approached.
They stand close up in a throng, waiting,
a crowd whose faces have no expressions.

The second, from Robin Robertson, we expect to run roughshod over those lines:

They turn out the lamplight, and its white globe
glimmers for a moment: an aspirin rising and falling
then dissolving in a glass of darkness. Around them,
the hotel walls slide like a back-drop up into the night sky.

Love’s drama has died down, and they’re sleeping now,
but their dreams will meet as colours meet
and bleed into each other
in the dampened pages of a child’s painting-book.

All around is dark, and silent. The city has drawn in,
extinguishing its windows. The houses have approached.
They crowed in close, attentive:
this audience of cancelled faces.

Robertson adds “like a back-drop” in the fourth line, and there is certainly a good case for its not being there, but everything else can be unambiguously found in the Fulton. Robertson isn’t offering anything more new than re-configurations and re-thinkings of what’s already there — which is to say he’s translating. “The town has pulled closer together,” “The city has drawn in.” Word-for-word, one of those might be more accurate to the Swedish, but they nonetheless say the same thing. The question is which says it better.

I would make the case for Robertson here. His translation propels the reader through, where the Fulton in some parts seems to need a breath after every word (“glimmers for a moment before dissolving / like a tablet in a glass of water”). Where Robertson would seem to violate the syntax and exact words of the original, we find justification in the Fulton, such as the problems of “a crowd whose faces have no expressions” (is “whose” the word to use here? does the crowd have faces or is it a crowd of faces? does each face have no expression or no expressions?) which “this audience of cancelled faces” circumvents, though we do wonder what was wrong with “expressionless faces.” Robertson is certainly not blameless, but past reviews have focused on his occasional admittedly superfluous additions (Orr cites his simile “like the mess of a knife-fight” as the most egregious example, since it is absolutely without basis in the Swedish), without giving equal weight to the majority of the time when his changes are perfectly permissible and frequently elegant, adding rhythm to the jerks and offering up Tranströmer’s images in language that flows like water rather than dripping like ice. In a later poem, “The sun scorches. The plane flies low / throwing a shadow in the form of a large cross rushing forward on the ground” becomes “The sun is scorching. The plane comes in low, / throwing a shadow in the shape of a giant cross, rushing over the ground.”

Others cite this as precisely what’s wrong with Robertson’s Tranströmer, that the poems are too poetic, not strange enough. Such an effect may precisely be the hardest to produce: “Sick of those who come with words,” writes Tranströmer through Robertson, “words but no language.”

6 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which Sam Taylor translated from the French and is available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Laurent Binet was born in Paris, France, in 1972. He is the author of La Vie professionnelle de Laurent B., a memoir of his experience teaching in secondary schools in Paris. In March 2010, his debut novel, HHhH, won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman. Laurent Binet is a professor at the University of Paris III, where he lectures on French literature.

Here is part of his review:

There is no such thing as nonfiction. Without a doubt, someone will disagree with that statement, though they would be hard pressed to compile sufficient evidence to support their position. Even the most skilled biographer or historian must confront the reality that it is never possible to accurately recreate an event without exercising the rights of artistic license.

Laurent Binet not only realizes this—he embraces it. HHhH, his first novel (if it can be called such) spends a considerable amount if its 327 pages dwelling on Binet’s inability to truthfully tell the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the “butcher of Prague,” Nazi extraordinaire. In this sense, HHhH is not a traditional work of historical fiction, as it meanders, strays, and focuses more than slightly on Binet’s life in conjunction with his Heydrich obsession. I write that he has an obsession with Heydrich himself—his early life, his rise to power, and his death—as the book deals more with him than with Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, the assassins who (barely) complete their mission. These figures, though they play an important part of the book, are introduced mostly as they are a fact of Heydrich’s life. As such, they are a bit ancillary, though their mission is treated with the same importance as the slaughters of Babi Yar. All of these events circle around Heydrich, the subject of HHhH, though, again, Binet’s struggle in writing the book is as much a part of it as anything else.

Click here to read the entire review.

6 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

There is no such thing as nonfiction. Without a doubt, someone will disagree with that statement, though they would be hard pressed to compile sufficient evidence to support their position. Even the most skilled biographer or historian must confront the reality that it is never possible to accurately recreate an event without exercising the rights of artistic license.

Laurent Binet not only realizes this—he embraces it. HHhH, his first novel (if it can be called such) spends a considerable amount if its 327 pages dwelling on Binet’s inability to truthfully tell the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the “butcher of Prague,” Nazi extraordinaire. In this sense, HHhH is not a traditional work of historical fiction, as it meanders, strays, and focuses more than slightly on Binet’s life in conjunction with his Heydrich obsession. I write that he has an obsession with Heydrich himself—his early life, his rise to power, and his death—as the book deals more with him than with Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, the assassins who (barely) complete their mission. These figures, though they play an important part of the book, are introduced mostly as they are a fact of Heydrich’s life. As such, they are a bit ancillary, though their mission is treated with the same importance as the slaughters of Babi Yar. All of these events circle around Heydrich, the subject of HHhH, though, again, Binet’s struggle in writing the book is as much a part of it as anything else.

That said, I do not wish to criticize the book for a lack of focus. HHhH is hardly a book about Heydrich or Nazism or Gabčík and Kubiš. HHhH is about the limits of recreation. Much has already been made over the meta structure of the book and Binet’s interjections. Early in the story, Binet discovers an expensive volume that would aid in his research, though he is conflicted about whether or not to spend the money. The book in question, written by Heydrich’s wife, would surely pay an important role in the retelling of Heydrich’s wedding, but Binet justifies not buying the book by writing:

It’s not a bad story. I just don’t feel like doing a ballroom scene, and even less the romantic walk in the park. So it’s better for me not to know more of the details; that way I won’t be tempted to share them […] so in the end, maybe I can do without this overpriced book.

Such statements, which may suggest a lack of commitment to some readers, can also be seen as a confession, one that must ring true to even seasoned historians. There are limits to research, sure, but how often have writers imposed them on themselves? Is this laziness or the admission that not everything needs to be included? If we accept this, we must also accept that even the most exhaustively researched material is subject to the whims, tastes, and interpretation of the writer. Binet’s confessions do not shake my confidence in his ability to tell a story; they merely remind me that all nonfiction is filtered through a net of subjectivity.

What Binet decides is that he is writing an “infranovel”—this after reading Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. He wonders how Littell “knows that [Paul] Blobel had an Opel.” Binet’s contention is that “if it’s a bluff, that weakens the whole book.” He goes on to discuss the plausibility of Bobel having an Opel, but decides that, “plausible is not known.” This is the sort of quandary that torments him, the sort of small detail the average reader would accept without question. Such is Binet’s true concern in writing HHhH: to show the reader how much of their cherished historical works—be they billed as historical novels or nonfiction—are peppered with bullshit.

The savvy reader will not care. Many of us are aware that even the most detailed and researched work will fall short of the truth (whatever that is). And we will scratch our heads and wonder why the reading public privileges experience over invention. We will wonder, again, why memoirs are so damn important to people who would never pick up a novel. We will be reminded of the debacle over James Fray’s A Million Little Pieces and ask ourselves how so many people could be so easily duped and, more importantly, why they were so hurt to learn that this absurd book was really fiction.

If Binet succeeds in reminding readers that historical fiction, as HHhH could be labeled, is riddled with bits of speculation, that’s great. He has picked up and added to an interesting conversation. This is why HHhH should be read and discussed. Also, it’s quite fun. The story is good and, at times, riveting. Binet’s prose, translated by Sam Taylor, is enjoyable in a way that reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut, more so for the often amusing injections than the brief chapters, some of which total a sentence or two. There are definitely worse ways to introduce such a conversation to a wide reading public. To that end, the publicity onslaught of HHhH is justified. Here’s hoping that readers normally averse to works in translation will pick up a copy of this book and reconsider long held beliefs in the superiority of factual literature.

16 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

For the next several weeks 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.



2666 by Roberto Bolano, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer. (Chile, FSG)

What more is there to say about 2666? Earlier this year I claimed it was the “big book at BEA,” I also have told various people that it is one of the greatest books to be published during my reading lifetime. It’s gotten a ton of review attention, and was the only non-Knopf book to make the New York Times Top 10 Books of 2008 list. It’s big, it’s available as a three-volume paperback and in hardcover, it’s ambitious, it’s five novels in one, and it’s on our longlist.

A simple Google search will bring you more reviews and descriptions of the book than you care to read, despite the fact that this isn’t an easy book to talk about or review. (In terms of Best Translated Book panelists, both Michael Orthofer and Scott Esposito have reviewed this.) Each of the five sections is very distinct, although they link together in a sort of mind-blowing fashion. And at the center of the novel are the disturbing Ciudad Juarez murders. From the “Note to the First Edition”:

In one of his many notes for 2666, Bolano indicates the existence in the work of a “hidden center,” concealed beneath what might be considered the novel’s “physical center.” There is reason to think that this physical center is the city of Santa Teresa, faithful reflection of Ciudad Juarez, on the Mexican-U.S. border. There the five parts of the novel ultimately converge; there the crimes are committed that comprise its spectacular backdrop (and that are said by one of the novel’s characters to contain “the secret of the world”). As for the “hidden center” . . . , might it not represent 2666 itself, the date upon which the whole novel rests? [. . .]

A final observation is perhaps in order here. Among Bolano’s notes for 2666 there appears the single line: “The narrator of 2666 is Arturo Bolano.” And elsewhere Bolano adds, with the indication “for the end of _2666_“: “And that’s it, friends. I’ve done it all, I’ve lived it all. If I had the strength, I’d cry. Farewell to you all, Arturo Bolano.”

Earlier this month, Words Without Borders hosted a special event at Idlewild books with Natasha Wimmer (the translator of 2666) and novelist Francisco Goldman (who, I believe, was the first person to turn Barbara Epler of New Directions onto Bolano). Sounds like the event was spectacular, at least according to these two write-ups:

I think I could have listened to Francisco Goldman tell stories all night long, despite the heat raditating from over a hundred of us standing, eager Bolaño fans at Idlewild Bookstore Thursday night. While Goldman and Bolaño had never met – indeed, Goldman had not read Bolaño until shortly after his death – he effused passion for the subject of the night’s talk and channeled their many mutual friends and admirers for a surprisingly intimate look an author who is taking on the near mythical status he’s had for some time now outside of the U.S. [From Bud Parr’s report for Words Without Borders

And, one of the most important details from Scott Bryan Wilson’s write up at Conversational Reading

Goldman pronounced the title “Two-six-six-six,” perhaps emphasizing the Number of the Beast association, while Wimmer opted for the lengthier but seemingly more correct “Twenty-six-sixty-six.

What’s even better is that both Natasha Wimmer and Francisco Goldman wrote essays for this event (click above names for both) that are quite interesting. Here’s a nice section from Francisco’s piece that’s also a good note to end on:

Bolaño drew from reality in his fiction, and from his own life, yet his fiction is not really realist. His fiction pointed away from reality, and certainly away from mundane political or moral interpretations of reality, towards something else—poetry, open-endedness, a kind of philosophical and tragicomic shock; his fiction always opens “new paths,” as Bolaño said of Borges’s writing. And it is partly this mysterious, radical quality, sometimes even a quality of epic parable (someone in 2666, Amalfitano maybe, says something along the lines of “if you could solve the mystery of the murders of women in Santa Teresa, you’d decipher the meaning of evil in our time”) that makes his writing seem more kin to the spirit of Borges and even Kafka than to other Latin American writers he also admired, such as Lezama, Onetti, Cortazar, or Bioy.

....
My Brilliant Friend
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Reviewed by Acacia O'Connor

It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .

Read More >

Stealth
Stealth by Sonallah Ibrahim
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .

Read More >

Miruna, a Tale
Miruna, a Tale by Bogdan Suceavă
Reviewed by Alta Ifland

Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .

Read More >

Kamal Jann
Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .

Read More >

I Called Him Necktie
I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.

Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see. . .

Read More >

Return to Killybegs
Return to Killybegs by Sorj Chalandon
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .

Read More >

The Last Days
The Last Days by Laurent Seksik
Reviewed by Peter Biellp

Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.

It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then. . .

Read More >