Sure, the start of a new year is a good time to look to the future, make resolutions you’ll definitely break, and all of that, but it’s also a nice moment to reflect on the past twelve months. Rather than include all the things that happened with Open Letter last year—from the success of our 2nd Annual Celebration to our $40,000 NEA grant to the ninth Best Translated Book Awards to the continued growth of the Translation Database—I’m just going to recap our 2016 publications, in no particular order.
One of Us Is Sleeping by Josefine Klougart, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
Klougart’s novel was the first to be included in Writers & Books’ “Read Local” program, featuring great books from local (re: Rochester, NY) publishing houses. She was able to come here as part of a tour that included stops in Chicago, NY, Dallas, Houston, Portland, and San Francisco.
Here’s what Jeremy Garber from Powells had to say about her book:
The uncertainty, instability, doubt, regret, and longing that so often follow a failed relationship are richly and realistically conveyed. Klougart’s narrator’s emotional turmoil (punctuated, staccato) are quite nearly palpable and viscerally received. One of Us Is Sleeping, as much a series of thematically linked poetic offerings as a novel proper, is graceful and unforgettable. As Klougart’s narrator strives for clarity, understanding, and consolation, she’s left, as the rest of us undoubtedly are, to make sense of her own perceptions and boldly reassemble for herself the pieces of her shattered, shattering heart.
Josefine has another work in translation coming out later this year, and just released this amazing object in her home country of Denmark:
Justine by Iben Mondrup, translated from the Danish by Kerri Pierce
Sticking to Denmark, the recently release Justine is the third book in our Danish Women Writers Series. It’s been getting a lot of good attention, and was even selected by The Rumpus for their Book Club. As part of that, they ran an interview with Iben Mondrup and Kerri Pierce:
Brian Spears: Iben, I’ve never read de Sade’s Justine, but am I correct in thinking there are some parallels between that and your novel? Or is that coincidence?
Iben Mondrup: If there’s any comparison, it’s all about opposites, the polar opposites of De Sade’s Justine and mine. My Justine is sexual subject, she’s the one who desires, whereas De Sade’s Justine is an object of desire. She (my Justine), is aggressive, she’s going for what she wants as opposed to De Sade’s Justine, who is the target—and eventually the victim—of the desires of the world. She possesses no will.
Kerri Pierce: There’s a funny story, actually, about the graphic on the cover. One of my favorite parts of the book, and one of the editor, Kaija’s, favorite parts as well—which I also think speaks to Justine’s character—is when a one-night stand asks Justine if she’s a lesbian (and his tone is rather dismissive/incredulous) and she responds: “Wolf.”
Brian S: Kerri—I loved that moment in the book. That was brilliant.
Iben Mondrup: Exactly, she sees herself as a predator. A wolf, a lone she-wolf.
Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson
Chronologically, the second “modern classic” that we brought out this year, this is the one that’s getting the most buzz right now. An epic novel detailing the downfall of a Brazilian family through a series of confessions, letters, diary entries, and the like. Recently, The Onion’s A.V. Club reviewed it, stating:
The social commentary might have been lost on audiences when it debuted, but not his genre bending. Cardoso’s approach is as expansive as the lands on which his charmless bourgeoisie have lived for generations; he was a voracious reader with a preference for Gothic fiction and Russian lit, and those influences are on full display in Chronicle’s framework and themes. From its mysterious opening—which is actually the end of one character’s story—to the exploration of morality, the novel is a near-total manifestation of his talents.
Abahn Sabana David by Marguerite Duras, translated from the French by Kazim Ali
The other “modern classic” I was alluding to, Abahn Sabana David was one of the few Open Letter titles to make it into the New York Times this year:
In this slim, raw political novel, Abahn the Jew and his double (also Abahn) spend a long night with Sabana and David, who have been sent to guard them by the Communist party boss Gringo. Fragmentary dialogue occurs about gas chambers, “Jew-dogs” and the fact that Gringo is coming by to kill Abahn(s) as a traitor. Gunshots and howling hounds are heard. By the last page, Sabana and David have allied themselves with their captive(s) and claimed the identities of Jews, the “laughter of joy . . . covering their faces.”
How to understand this text, available for the first time in English, in Kazim Ali’s translation?
A Greater Music by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
At the start of 2016, I predicted this would be our huge breakout hit of the year. I was obviously wrong about that—at least according to sales, sheer number of reviews, random mentions on Internet lists—but I still stand by this novel as one of the best we’ve published. And after her next two translations come out—including The Owls’ Absence, which we’re doing next fall—I think readers will start to cotton on.
Of the reviews this did receive (so far), there are a number of really thoughtful, intelligent piece, such as this one from Tony’s Reading List:
With Bae Suah living in Germany, it’s tempting to see parallels with her own life here, but A Greater Music is much more than a simple confessional piece. The shorter pieces that have appeared in English have been marked by beautiful writing, punctuated by spiky, aggressive outbursts against the strictures of modern society. Here, these themes and styles are extended over a much larger canvas; it’s a fairly slow tale, at least initially, and the story is given space to breathe before coming to life in the second half.
Gesell Dome by Guillermo Saccomanno, translated from the Spanish by Andrea Labinger
The first novel to be translated into English from the two-time winner of the Dashiell Hammett Prize, it just got a glowing review in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Gesell Dome is a bizarro Robert Altman film in book form: hundreds of characters and storylines that paint a portrait of a community, but with events far stranger than anything Altman created.
If the novel has a central character, it’s the Villa, which, like other cities in Argentina, accepted Nazi war criminals as residents after World War II. Now it is home to more than 50,000 people, many of whom drive around in 4×4s and harbor prejudices against “half-breeds” and other foreigners.
These residents give Dante [local journalist] many stories to cover, including the scandal that opens the novel: Eleven kindergartners referred to as los abusaditos are abused at Nuestra Señoradel Mar, a religious school “where the snobs send their progeny.” Parents are rightfully horrified, but other residents don’t want the media to cover the story for fear of the effect the news will have on tourism.
Party Headquarters by Georgi Tenev, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
Party Headquarters is the sixth book we’ve published from Bulgaria. To put this in context, all other publishers did a combined total of seven over the past nine years. Here’s what “The Literary Review”: had to say about it:
Clocking in at only 121 pages, Georgi Tenev’s taut novel Party Headquarters is at once a tragedy, a comedy, a love story and thriller, with echoes of A Clockwork Orange and Apocalypse Now. Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel, it tells the story of a man tasked with visiting his father-in-law, a former Communist party boss. The father-in-law then sends him on a mission to bring back a suitcase containing a million Euros suspected to be pilfered from the coffers of the Bulgarian Communist Party. The whole story is set against the backdrop of the meltdown of Chernobyl, and if the basic plot seems like the kind of high-octane premise that Hollywood would deliver, that makes sense: Tenev also writes for film and TV.
The Brother by Rein Raud, translated from the Estonian by Adam Cullen
Sticking with our shorter books from 2016, I’ll turn to Estonia and Rein Raud, whose Brother got an “A-” from Michael Orthofer:
The Brother doesn’t exactly ride into town on a white horse, and he isn’t simply all swagger, but the resemblance to the Sergio Leone-spaghetti Westerns (especially the ones with Clint Eastwood) that author Raud admits inspired him is striking. The story is almost all atmosphere and style (showing also Raud’s other big inspiration, the writing of Mr. Gwyn (etc.)-author Alessandro Baricco), and one can almost hear the (Western movie score) background music.
The relatively short chapters — each at most a few pages — are rich but stark, the essentials — of mood and incident — sketched but not belabored. Much is masterfully understated, but the full ramifications easily expand off the page for the reader. The book is short, and quite event-filled, but there’s an agreeable languor to it all too; nothing is rushed.
Bardo or Not Bardo by Antoine Volodine, translated from the French by J. T. Mahany
Volodine has been gaining steam over the past few months, and the combination of this piece from The Nation with the forthcoming release of Radiant Terminus may finally push him over the edge. (I just received a wonderful email from Unabridged Books in Chicago about Volodine that really cheered my bitter soul.) As evident his New Inquiry piece (currently unavailable?), Volodine’s world is complex and greatly rewarding. It can also be a bit daunting to enter, but of the three titles Open Letter has done/will do, I think Bardo is the best place to start. From Ben Ehrenreich:
This year, Open Letter published Bardo or Not Bardo (2004) in a translation by J.T. Mahany, who also translated Post-Exoticism in 10 Lessons, Lesson 11. It goes without saying that it is a very odd book. [. . .] But Bardo or Not Bardo has its rewards. For all its darkness, it is extremely and blessedly silly. [. . .] Yes, it’s all very strange, but in Volodine’s world, that hardly counts as a complaint.
The Clouds by Juan José Saer, translated from the Spanish by Hilary Vaughn Dobel
This is our fifth Saer book—with more in the works—and was included on NPR’s list of Five of the Year’s Best Books in Translation:
This imaginative novel traces the journey of Dr. Real and his mentor as they work treating patients at an insane asylum in Argentina. Saer’s prose, while often likened to Proust, carries a beautiful quality that is also uniquely his. Page after page, The Clouds is a poem to be savored.
Overall, that’s a solid list. I hope you found a few books from us that you read and enjoyed last year. And stay tuned—2017 includes some insanely good titles, starting with books from Antoine Volodine, Can Xue, Rodrigo Fresan, Iceland’s James Joyce, and more . . .
It would be hard to overstate all the amazing things the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation for Creative Writing (and Elizabeth herself) has done for contemporary Bulgarian writers. Sure, there’s the Sozopol Fiction Seminars, but they also organized a special day of panels on Literary Diplomacy to take place in Sofia, helped bring publishers and Bulgarian writers & translators together, sponsor the Dyankov Translation Award for the most outstanding translation from English into Bulgarian, and now have helped launch the Contemporary Bulgarian Writers website to help promote Bulgarian writers abroad.
For publishers, these sorts of sites are invaluable. Aside from random meetings at the Frankfurt Book Fair, or personal connections developed slowly and one-by-one over the years, it can be extremely hard for editors to find out about contemporary literature from countries such as Bulgaria. (And by “countries such as Bulgaria” I mean ones that don’t have an active governmental organization like the Finnish Literature Exchange, German Book Office, French Cultural Services, Japanese Literature Publishing Project, etc., promoting their contemporary writers to the rest of the world.) Beyond identifying new writers to check out, a site like this helps provide a bit of context for any submissions that an editor does happen to receive. I mean, there are only a handful of Bulgarian novels that have ever been published in English, so it’s hard to understand the tradition and evolution of Bulgarian literature.
Seriously—anyone interested in Bulgarian (or simply international) literature should check this out. I’m sure that it’ll expand greatly over the next year, but the site already features maybe two dozen writers (and a handful of Bulgarian-to-English translators), and has biographical info, excerpts, critical reviews, contact information for all of them.
One author worth looking at is Zachary Karabashliev, whose first novel won the Book of the Year Award from the Vick Foundation and was chosen as one of the 100 Most Loved Books of All Time by Bulgarians, and his first collection of short stories won the Book of the Year Award from Helikon. He’s a very funny guy, and his stories are quite sharp.
In terms of translators, Angela Rodel deserves some special attention. She translated all of the pieces by the Bulgarian writers at the Sozopol Seminars AND she just was awarded a PEN Translation Fund Award for Georgi Tenev’s Holy Light, which sounds pretty interesting:
Alloying political sci-fi with striking eroticism, the stories in Holy Light depict a world of endless, wearying revolution and apocalypse, where bodies have succumbed to a sinister bio-politics of relentless cruelty and perversion. “In first class they offered easy emancipation, perhaps even electrocution, but he was traveling economy class where they wouldn’t even serve him food.” (No publisher)
(I was actually on a panel with both Georgi and Angela—both very smart, very interesting people.)
By the way, if I haven’t said this in a while, all fiction writers should apply to the Sozopol Fiction Seminars . . .
As mentioned on the Absinthe blog, the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and VAGABOND (an English-language magazine from Bulgaria) are teaming up to publish works from twelve “young and sometimes not-so-young Bulgarian writers that the EKF considers original, refreshing and valuable.”
The first one available is Georgi Tenev, who won the 2007 Vick Prize for the novel Party Headquarters. In addition to the translation of “Christo and All Those Bad Things,” the article also includes an brief interview with Tenev that primarily focuses on winning the Vick Prize.
How did you feel when you received the prize?
I was nervous and blinking constantly because I’m not used to my new glasses yet. After they handed me the award, everybody stepped back and for three whole minutes – it seemed like much longer to me! – I was alone amidst the photographers. I just stood there counting the flashes and regretting that since the advent of digital cameras nobody bothers limiting their shots. I also realised what celebrity defendants must feel like when surrounded by journalists, while they just sit there helplessly in handcuffs! I was happy, but couldn’t bring myself to grin and wave.
Silvia Choleva does a great job making Party Headquarters sound intriguing:
What do Chernobyl and S & M have in common? Not much, you may think, until you read Georgi Tenev’s Vick Prize-winning novel Partien dom, or Party Headquarters. But combining Communism, sex and nuclear disaster is all in a day’s work for the Sfumato dramatist.
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .