6 January 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of The White Review is incredibly stacked. There’s an interview with Vladimir Sorokin. A piece by Enrique Vila-Matas. Poems by Gerður Kristný. Art by Mark Mulroney (we used to drink together and go to Rochester Red Wings games!).

But if that’s not enough, or, if you’re too cheap to spend the £14.99 (UK) / £18.99 (Rest of World) (which, to be honest, is pretty steep given the awful exchange rate . . . I could buy a hundred sandwiches for the cost of a subscription), you should definitely check out all the free online content.

Here are a few highlights:

  • Vertical Motion by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping (You can buy the entire collection here.);
  • To Kill a Dog by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Brendan Lanctot;
  • The Dispossessed by Szilárd Borbély, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet;
  • The Black Lake by Hella S. Haasse, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke;
  • Textile by Orly Castel-Bloom, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu;
  • Leg over Leg by Ahmad Fāris al-Shidyāq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies.

I don’t need Bookish’s algorithm to state that if you check out all of those samples, you’ll find at least one book that you’ll want to read.

2 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes and published by New Directions

Bromance Will—who is probably still smarting from Duke’s AWFUL performance on Sunday—is back. Will Evans is in process of setting up Deep Vellum, a publishing house based in Dallas dedicated to international literature. More info on that in the near future.

What if you did dance with the devil in the pale moonlight? What if you did meet the devil at a crossroads and sold your soul for a special talent? What if your own Faustian bargain brought about the end of everything? What if you were at your wits end, and devoid of even the faintest glimmer of hope, but a mysterious stranger in any form could offer you some sort of reprieve, some sort of change? Would you take it? Of course you would. And you would become another loser in the history of the world, another sad character in a Krasznahorkai novel. But make no mistake, you are already that loser, history has already forgotten you, you are helpless, you are weak, you are inconsequential. This is what Satantango should make you feel. And it is why it should win the 2013 Best Translated Book Award.

Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango takes a look at evil in its everyday forms. Satantango is a diabolical novel, a bleak, haunting, hypnotic, philosophical, black comedic deconstruction of apocalyptic messianism. Translated flawlessly by George Szirtes, Hungarian poet and translator of renown, the story of Satantango‘s appearance in English is so miraculous, and the end result so perfect, from the gorgeous first edition hardcover that New Directions released, to the quality of the translation inside, that it is clear: Satantango deserves to win the BTBA.

Satantango was Krasznahorkai’s first novel to be published way back in 1985, and was turned into a legendary seven-hour film by the author’s friend and frequent working partner, the director Béla Tarr, in 1994. Despite the film’s renown, or perhaps because of it, the legend holds that the translation of Satantango took nearly 20 years to complete. And it’s not just that we had to wait 27 years for this masterpiece, Satantango could and should win the BTBA in and of itself because it is a harrowing and bleakly funny look at the frailty of the human condition and our divine aspirations.

Though the film version is nearly seven hours long, Satantango is by far the shortest and easiest Krasznahorkai novel to digest of the three published in English by New Directions thus far. Though the sentences are long and there are no paragraph breaks in each chapter, as per Krasznahorkai’s unique style, the narrative pace is brisk, with a black comedy underlying the character’s thoughts and actions, or rather, lack of actions. Set up in a cycle of twelve chapters that progress from I-VI, then backwards from VI-I, with the eponymous Satan’s tango in the middle, the story tells of a wretched collective farm fallen into a hapless state of disrepair that suddenly perks up with life when word gets to the inhabitants that the mysterious and enigmatic Irimiás was coming back.

Irimiás had left the collective farm some years before, promising great change upon his return, but when we meet him and his sidekick, Petrina, the pair are plotting to return to the farm to wreak havoc under the direction of an unnamed, evil government bureaucracy. The inhabitants had been waiting for the day when their messiah, Irimiás, would return to deliver them from their squalor to a brighter future, unaware that Irimiás is a false prophet, who despises them and will bring them only to their doom. Take this conversation between Irimiás and Petrina on the road back to the village, one of my favorite passages in the whole novel (all bolding mine):

“God is not made manifest in language, you dope. He’s not manifest in anything. He doesn’t exist.” “Well, I believe in God!” Petrina cut in, outraged. “Have some consideration for me at least, you damn atheist!” “God was a mistake, I’ve long understood there is zero difference between me and a bug, or a bug and a river, or a river and a voice shouting above it. There’s no sense or meaning in anything. It’s nothing but a network of dependency under enormous fluctuating pressures. It’s only our imaginations, not our sense, that continually confront us with failure and the false belief that we can raise ourselves by our own bootstraps from the miserable pulp of decay. There’s no escaping that, stupid.” “But how can you say this now, after what we’ve just seen?” Petrina protested. Irimiás made a wry face. “That’s precisely why we are trapped forever. We’re properly doomed. It’s best not to try either, best not believe your eyes. It’s a trap, Petrina. And we fall into it every time. We think we’re breaking free but all we’re doing is readjusting the locks. We’re trapped, end of story.”

The moral of Satantango is unclear, if there is one at all. You can draw your own conclusions, you can read into anything and everything, the questions that arise from the text are not immediately answerable. Is Irimiás himself the Devil? Or just another false prophet, like so many who came before him? Like the Communist leaders who promised utopia on Earth, and who were still firmly in charge of Hungary, though a barely-breathing corpse, when Krasznahorkai wrote the novel in ’85? Irimiás seems to take his instruction from the nameless and faceless bureaucrats in the capital who send him on the ill-fated mission that comprises the novel’s downfall (with the chapters numbered in ascending, then descending order). And what about the doctor, the unconscious narrator of the novel, daydreaming of ahistorical time in his chair while the world around him spins downward to ultimate ruin? What of the pitiful women in the story, the little girl/cat-killer, or the prostitutes hanging about in the ruins? Should we be depressed when the novel ends, realizing that we live in a different kind of shit (“Same shit, different toilet”, not a Krasznahorkai quote, but which applies here), or impressed with an author who is willing to confront the hopeless idiocy of humanity’s basest instinctual elements?

The vagueness and banality of evil is at the core of Satantango; reading Satantango is a much-needed antidote to the garbage you read in the techno-centric positivism online about everything these days. Though it seems like lot of time has passed since 1985, make no mistake, no time has passed at all in the primordial sense of time, you are still inconsequential; and vast droves of people seem to think that the leaps forward in technological advancement has meant grand changes to humanity, but they’re wrong: in the grand scheme of things we’re still the same awful, evil creatures we were 27 years ago, a thousand years ago, a million years ago, and the cult of the digital revolution or whatever the latest fad or technological advancement may be, none of them are any different than the false prophet of Irimiás’s empty promises to lead us all to some nonexistent exalted future.

Satantango should win the 2013 Best Translated Book Award because as a people, humanity needs to gain some awareness of our own rotten core, and if Satantango goes unrecognized as a work of the purest genius it is because we as a people are too afraid to look deep within ourselves, too scared of what we might find, or too scared to realize what was never there in the first place.

4 December 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following on the earlier post about Quarterly Conversation, here are excerpts from two interviews with translators that appear in the new issue, starting with Heather Cleary, the translator of two Open Letter books—The Planets and The Dark by Sergio Chejfec. This interview was conducted by Stephen Sparks, one of the members of this year’s BTBA Fiction Panel.

SS: You’ve written elsewhere that Chejfec’s prose “both deflects and draws the reader in,” which I’ve found to be a very apt characterization of his work. That indeterminacy or wavering—as if Chejfec is inviting the reader in while keeping his foot against the door—is one of the more compelling (if occasionally frustrating) aspects of his writing. How, then, do you as a translator find your way into the text?

HC: Yes, and I think this is particularly true of The Planets. Sergio wrote a beautiful essay a few years ago called “Simple Language, Name,” in which he talks about his development as a writer and the way his father’s difficulty learning Spanish late in life affected his own use of the language, driving him toward a certain stylistic opacity that he was only able to move away from over time. Then there’s the fact that so much of what’s going on in The Planets has to do with navigating the space between oneself and another, particularly when that other person exists in an entirely internalized form, that is, only as a memory. This is explored in the prose itself, which often gives the language an air of being borrowed, somehow unnatural. That said, The Planets is a beautiful book, as thorny as it can occasionally be, and an important one in that it approaches the themes of friendship, loss, and memory in an innovative, even startling way.

So, it was never really a question of whether I would try to make my way in . . . the how of it, I suppose, was through certain passages I found particularly moving, and which offered insight into the more abstract sections. For example, during one of the disjointed conversations M and the narrator have as boys, the narrator repeats something M has said as though it were his own thought, though he doesn’t even fully believe it. It’s such a simple moment, but that detail seemed so true and really crystallized the dynamic between the two boys for me; it also anticipates what comes later, as the narrator struggles to preserve M’s memory by keeping his voice alive, in some very surprising ways. There are many moments like this—the image of the narrator running around an entire city block so that he can have a second chance to acknowledge M’s mother when their paths unexpectedly cross; the guilt he feels at not having fully invoked M’s memory in conversation with a mutual friend. Those anchored the story for me, and lent depth and immediacy to the more abstract passages. [. . .]

SS: What is your translation process like? Do you have a particular passage that proved tricky, etc. that you’d like to discuss? I’m interested in some of the nitty-gritty of the act of translation here. How many dictionaries do you consult? How many drafts do you go through?

HC: It’s a little different with each project. I usually start with a period of pre-reading—going through the text to be translated once or twice, as well as other works by the writer, interviews when possible, sometimes criticism. Whatever might help me find my way into the narrative voice. Then there’s the actual translation part. I use the RAE (dictionary of the Real Academia Española) and the OED, and often ask search engines or kindly friends about how a word is used colloquially. This has been key with Sergio’s work, since he tends to slip in phrases that are just a shade off from typical constructions. I end up with a chaotic draft full of notes, and then revise. And revise, and revise. There’s generally a lot of snacking involved at this stage.

I can’t recall any one passage that proved particularly tricky (they all were, each in its own way), but I had to pay very close attention throughout to the tension between the narrator’s philosophical reflections and his reminiscences about his lost friend. It felt to me that there was something underneath that first kind of rumination; while obviously thematically relevant, they also felt like a means of withdrawing from the experience of remembering M and feeling that memory fade. The challenge was to get this across, balancing the concrete and the abstract within a single narrative voice in a way that suggested a deeper connection between the two, without letting them bleed together or pull the narrative apart at the seams (any more or less than they do in the Spanish, that is). It was a similar process with the other voices at work in the novel—in addition to the first-person narrative, M and his father intervene to tell a series of elliptical, grotesque stories about nomads and eyeballs and a wedding gone awry, and then there’s the meta-commentary that appears in italics, contesting the first-person narrative at times, corroborating it at others—though these were more clearly delineated.

Finally, there’s also an interview with Georges Szirtes conducted by Bethany Pope:

Bethany W. Pope: Which is more important to you, the literal word-for-word translation of the text or reconstructing the atmosphere of the piece?

George Szirtes: There is no such thing as a literal word-for-word translation, at least not one that will sound anything like literature. There is however a difference between that impossibility and the other, the full rendering of meaning in terms of atmosphere or anything else. In translating you are entering a world with rules and manners that have meanings (plural) for the native reader. You are trying to understand some aspect of those meanings and to transplant it into the receiving language using any means possible, which will include a degree of lexicographical fidelity as long as it works.

B.W.P: In your translation of Gyula Krúdy’s The Adventures of Sindbad I noticed that the atmosphere of the piece—that slightly humorous melancholy—had a lot in common with the tone and atmosphere of your own work, most recently found in your tweets about the ageless crustacean doctor and his lobsteresque paramour. How much influence does translation have on your own work?

G.S: Sindbad was a pleasure to translate because I felt I understood Krudy’s world as soon as I entered it. There may be a difference between the person who is primarily a translator and the one who is primarily a writer who translates. The two may overlap, and there are translators who become writers in the act of translating. For me it was a writerly recognition. Krudy’s Hungary was not my Hungary, not by a long chalk, but it was a real world, particularly in the minds of close friends. The humorous melancholy in Krudy is, as I discovered, an aspect of my own imagination, one that working on Sindbad brought to light. It is possible to hope that any engagement in translation will bring out some latent possibility in the writer-translator.

The Adventures of Sindbad was the second work of fiction I translated (the first was Anna Édes by Kosztolanyi) but by that time I had translated a good many poems and the verse-tragedy. Sindbad came along at the right time. I think my imagination was ready for it, ready, that is, to render it into English but also to feel it as a voice that might be adapted to my own. Most of my translations have been a kind of enrichment of voice. I have learned a great deal from them.

I should add that the longer poems I wrote as a result of my first 1984 visit, that constituted the backbone of the resulting book, The Photographer in Winter (1986) are not at all Sindbad like. They are darker, heavier, more cavernous things.

Remember, you can read the whole issue of Quarterly Conversation by clicking here.

17 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Evans on László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, which is translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes and is available from New Directions.

Here’s part of his review:

Susan Sontag called László Krasznahorkai the “Hungarian master of the apocalypse,” which would make Satantango his magnum opus of the apocalypse. The end of the world is coming in a deluge of rain that is turning the world into a muddy wasteland that mirrors the spiritual condition of its inhabitants. Satantango is a novel about the end of the world that reflects on the everyday inner despair of humanity in the present day as much as in 1985 Hungary, when it was written.

It’s hard to fathom a novel as profound and globally-relevant as Satantango taking twenty-seven years to come out in an English translation. Not only was Satantango Krasznahorkai’s breakout debut novel, but it was turned into an infamous Belá Tarr movie in 1994—infamous because the film is seven and a half hours long, making Satantango officially the first novel I’ve ever read that took less time to read than to watch the movie—which gave Krasznahorkai a name in the realm of international literature. It’s a helluva movie, and I couldn’t help but think of the movie constantly the entire time I was reading the book, because Tarr and Krasznahorkai coexist in another artistic universe (Krasznahorkai has collaborated with Tarr on five movies, some adapted from his own novels, including “The Werckmeister Harmonies” adapted from The Melancholy of Resistance), and Tarr’s adaptation visually captures the mire and the human catastrophe that is at the heart of Satantango.

Click here to read his entire review.

17 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Susan Sontag called László Krasznahorkai the “Hungarian master of the apocalypse,” which would make Satantango his magnum opus of the apocalypse. The end of the world is coming in a deluge of rain that is turning the world into a muddy wasteland that mirrors the spiritual condition of its inhabitants. Satantango is a novel about the end of the world that reflects on the everyday inner despair of humanity in the present day as much as in 1985 Hungary, when it was written.

It’s hard to fathom a novel as profound and globally-relevant as Satantango taking twenty-seven years to come out in an English translation. Not only was Satantango Krasznahorkai’s breakout debut novel, but it was turned into an infamous Belá Tarr movie in 1994—infamous because the film is seven and a half hours long, making Satantango officially the first novel I’ve ever read that took less time to read than to watch the movie—which gave Krasznahorkai a name in the realm of international literature. It’s a helluva movie, and I couldn’t help but think of the movie constantly the entire time I was reading the book, because Tarr and Krasznahorkai coexist in another artistic universe (Krasznahorkai has collaborated with Tarr on five movies, some adapted from his own novels, including “The Werckmeister Harmonies” adapted from The Melancholy of Resistance), and Tarr’s adaptation visually captures the mire and the human catastrophe that is at the heart of Satantango.

The book is a much easier pill to swallow for the reader than the film; even casual readers can dive right in to the text and find themselves immersed in the world that Krasznahorkai creates, all thanks to George Szirtes’ superb translation (which supposedly took eight years to finish, one of the reasons for the twenty-seven year delay!!). Each chapter consists of one long unbroken paragraph, which gives a sense of breathless anxiety that propels itself along with a darkly funny narrative touch throughout, and makes the reading of the work seem much less frightening than a casual reader might think when they read the words “one-paragraph chapters.”

That’s not to say that the text is easy to digest, because if you truly think about what you’re reading, you are bound to feel some sense of disconsolate melancholy, which seems to be precisely the state of being that Krasznahorkai is the master of describing:

He gazed sadly at the threatening sky, at the burned-out remnants of a locust-plagued summer, and suddenly saw on the twig of an acacia, as in a vision, the progress of spring, summer, fall and winter, as if the whole of time were a frivolous interlude in the much greater spaces of eternity, a brilliant conjuring trick to produce something apparently orderly out of chaos, to establish a vantage point from which chance might begin to look like necessity . . . and he saw himself nailed to the cross of his own cradle and coffin, painfully trying to tear his body away, only, eventually, to deliver himself—utterly naked, without identifying mark, stripped down to essentials—into the care of the people whose duty it was to wash the corpses, people obeying an order snapped out in the dry air against a background loud with torturers and flayers of skin, where he was obliged to regard the human condition without a trace of pity, without a single possibility of any way back to life, because by then he would know for certain that all his life he had been playing with cheaters who had marked the cards and who would, in the end, strip him even of his last means of defense, of that hope of someday finding his way back home.

The plot is a classic “return” story: the remaining dozen inhabitants on a failed collective farm (or estate, as it is called in the text) in late-era Communist Hungary exist in a hopeless void of inaction after a mysterious character named Irimiás had come into their lives several years before with the promise of redemption and then subsequently disappeared and is presumed dead; but his return to the collective farm, along with his sidekick Petrina, is the narrative backbone of the novel. The first six chapters exist as six spokes along the same time/space axis: six different narrative points of view prepare the reader for Irimiás’ return by following different characters as they make their way to the bar on the estate, culminating in the drunken dance at the center of the novel that gives the novel its name. The next six chapters recede in number from VI to I as the characters process Irimiás’ return and make plans for the future. Krasznahorkai has said that he likes the idea of the tango as a dance that involves moving forward only to move backwards again, and so he structured the novel, at least in terms of the chapters, along a tango course—forward motion, then backwards again as everything is resolved/dissolved.

The dance of the tango, forward and then backward again, like the feeble steps of the estate as they slog their way through the fields towards a vague Promised Land, demonstrates how far outside of our human understanding of time this novel works. All sense of time is gone in Satantango; the action could have taken place in the 1980s, or yesterday, or 100 years ago; time is an immaterial and forgotten element of existence. None of the clocks seem to work, or if they do, they’re set to the wrong time. And on a cosmological scale, a book about Hungary’s geological history morphs into a work of prophecy, wherein billions of years of natural history culminates in a here and now devoid of historical resonance—time is nothing here, the end is coming:

. . .the book being written now in the present and now in the past tense—confused him, so he couldn’t be sure whether he was reading a work of prophecy regarding the earth’s condition after the demise of humanity or a proper work of geological history based on the planet on which he actually lived . . . he was lost in successive waves of time, coolly aware of the minimal speck of his own being, seeing himself as the defenseless, helpless victim of the earth’s crust, the brittle arc of his life between birth and death caught up in the dumb struggle between surging seas and rising hills, and it was as if he could already feel the gentle tremor beneath the chair supporting his bloated body, a tremor that might be the harbinger of seas about to break in on him, a pointless warning to flee before its all-encompassing power made escape impossible, and he could see himself running, part of a desperate, terrified stampede comprising stags, bears, rabbits, deer, rats, insects and reptiles, dogs and men, just so many futile, meaningless lives in the common, incomprehensible devastation, while above them flapped clouds of birds, dropping in exhaustion, offering only possible hope.

Irimiás, whose return offers the residents’ only hope of salvation, is the most important character in the novel; he is given three chapters through which his motives, intentions, and character traits become known, yet he remains the most mysterious and enigmatic character in the novel and in recent literary history. What drives Irimiás is a question that Krasznahorkai does not answer. Is he savior or antichrist, or just a conman, or all of the above, or none of the above? He is alternately described as “Lord of Misrule” and “a great magician,” and he is prone to bouts of philosophizing, denouncement, and moralizing, though he is also upbraided by the Communist authorities who dispatch him on a mysterious mission after he is released from prison. The vagueness in Krasznahorkai’s portrait of Irimiás is deliberate, and corresponds to similar treatment of the novel’s main questions throughout.

“God is not made manifest in language, you dope. He’s not manifest in anything. He doesn’t exist.” “Well, I believe in God!” Petrina cut in, outraged. “Have some consideration for me at least, you damn atheist!” “God was a mistake, I’ve long understood there is zero difference between me and a bug, or a bug and a river, or a river and a voice shouting above it. There’s no sense or meaning in anything. It’s nothing but a network of dependency under enormous fluctuating pressures. It’s only our imaginations, not our sense, that continually confront us with failure and the false belief that we can raise ourselves by our own bootstraps from the miserable pulp of decay. There’s no escaping that, stupid.” “But how can you say this now, after what we’ve just seen?” Petrina protested. Irimiás made a wry face. “That’s precisely why we are trapped forever. We’re properly doomed. It’s best not to try either, best not believe your eyes. It’s a trap, Petrina. And we fall into it every time. We think we’re breaking free but all we’re doing is readjusting the locks. We’re trapped, end of story.”

The core issues at the heart of Satantango are big-topic issues of existence and the lack of existence: the beginning and the end of humanness, humanity, history, politics, economics, progress, death, redemption, salvation loneliness, despair, the apocalypse. Krasznahorkai provides no answers to any of the questions he poses. The work could be read as a condemnation of the Soviet-Communist system of economic and social constructions; or it could be read as a biblical metaphor; it could be read as a satire of mankind’s susceptibility to fall victim to every conjurer, ruse, and Ponzi scheme; or it could be, and this is most likely, all of the above, none of the above, and a something else that exists just outside of our human understanding.

They were sober at a stroke but they simply couldn’t understand what had happened to them in the last few hours. What demonic power had taken possession of them, stifling every sane and rational impulse? What was it that had driven them to lose their heads and attack each other ‘like filthy pigs when the swill is late’? What made it possible for people like them—people who had finally managed to emerge from years of apparently terminal hopelessness to breathe the dizzying air of freedom—to rush around in senseless despair, like prisoners in a cage so that even their vision had clouded over? What explanation could there be for them to ‘have eyes’ only for the ruinous, stinking, desolate aspect of their future home, and completely lose track of the promise that ‘what had fallen would rise again’! It was like waking from a nightmare.

Out of all the insanely influential world writers and works to whom Krasznahorkai is compared (Saramago, Bolaño, Foster Wallace, Bulgakov, etc.), Satantango most closely resembles Gogol’s Dead Souls, another novel (or poem, as Gogol called it, a tag that I would not hesitate to apply to Satantango as well, especially with the accomplished poet George Szirtes at the helm of the translation) with a conman at the center, traveling across a ravaged countryside alternating between scenes of the darkest hilarity and the banality of the everyday, all the while painting a timeless portrait of humanity rotten at the core without any hope for change.

And for what it’s worth, in an era of digital ownership, the hardcover first edition of Satantango that New Directions put out is simply gorgeous; the black traced-line cover is striking, and the inside front and back covers feature black matted paper with silvery white text of reviews of Krasznahorkai and Satantango. The book feels damn good to hold in your hands and read, and in sum, Satantango is exactly the type of book worth buying because the value of the physical product contributes to the invaluable content of the text itself. Read it, buy it, hunker down with the endtimes.

9 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Reading Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole is like being lost in someone else’s nightmare where there are no exits. Karinthy creates an existential version of hell, stunning the reader not by blatant displays of horrifying circumstances, but by a gradual series of small failures that defeat and degrade the narrator and the reader. . .

Read More...

9 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.



Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes. (Hungary, Telegram)

This novel is the international traveler’s worst nightmare. It’s the story of Budai, a linguist on his way to a conference in Helsinki, but who gets off the plane to find himself in a country he doesn’t recognize, where he doesn’t understand the language and where no one can understand him.

Budai’s struggles to find his way home—or at least out of this incomprehensible country—are claustrophobic and unnerving. The concept of being helplessly stuck in a situation where you can’t even figure out how to read the simplest of signs, and where no one can help you seems to me to be the worst situation an intelligent adult could ever be stuck in. And for this situation to persist—and remain compelling to the reader—for over 200-pages, with Budai making small intellectual advances that are followed by new situations of complete bafflement is quite an accomplish. A sort of insane, Kafka-esque accomplishment that may well drive some readers crazy, but an accomplishment nonetheless.

G. O. Chateaureynaud claimed that “with time, Metropole will find its due place in the twentieth-century library, on the same shelf as The Trial and 1984.“ The Kafka connection is obvious and mentioned in every review of this book, including Monica Carter’s review of Metropole will go live later today, and which does a fantastic job of capturing the reader’s somewhat horrifying experience of being trapped with Budai:

And so it goes with Budai, a horrific stream of missed opportunities that lead to deeper isolation. And as readers, we are just as trapped as he is. The long, unsettling paragraphs of description we cannot turn away from because Karinthy leads us to believe that there might be hope just on the other side of the page. But there never is. We want so much to help Budai, help him find a way out, all the while being disconcerted that we know we would not fare any better in the same situation. We know that if he does not escape this city he will run out of money, which he does. We know that he will lose his hotel room because of this, which he does. We know that he will not get his passport back annihilation any chance of escape, which he doesn’t. We feel just as isolated and suffocated as Budai caught in an existential urban nightmare where we merely exist, but don’t matter.

Written in 1970 and considered a modern classic in Europe, it is difficult to avoid comparing Karinthy to Kafka. It is, in fact, inevitable. Budai suffers humiliation, isolation, homelessness, loss of motivation, intellectual atrophy, brief imprisonment, loneliness that leads to lapses in his own morality, yet we never get to the apex of horror. Instead we drudge along on his degrading journey of imminent failures waiting for a moment of absolute despair or absolute hope. Because we never get either and so we encounter, ourselves, a sense of failure.

This is the first of Ferenc Karinthy’s (or, more properly, Karinthy Ferenc’s) books to be translated into English. Some brief info about a few of his other works is available on the Hungarian Literature website. (Though to be honest, none of the other works sound nearly as ambitious or unique as Metropole.)

Ferenc—who was, in addition to being a writer, a water polo champion—was the son of famous Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy. Frigyes is very well-known and respected in Hungary, and was the first proponent of the “six degrees of separation” concept. Which I believe is why he’s mentioned in the “book club extra” on the Lost Season 3 DVD . . . (As a sidenote, Frigyes’s Journey Around My Skull was recently reprinted by New York Review Books.)

On another side note, searching for additional information about Ferenc lead me to translator George Szirtes’s blog, which I didn’t know existed. Based solely on the quality of Szirtes’s translations—not the mention the quality of the authors he translates—this is definitely worth checking out.

14 January 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

In the face of unbridled lust for power, withdrawal from the world will fail, whether to the bourgeois’ fortified home, the philosopher’s intellectual retreat, or the dreamer’s imaginative world. Krasznahorkai doesn’t offer this as a political or moral lesson, however, but rather explores the consequences for individuals, whose depths are remorselessly revealed to us.

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