23 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Only seems appropriate that just before Christmas we should announce our summer list of titles . . . You can click here to download a pdf version of the new catalog (which contains excerpts from all the books), or, for those of you who are anti-pdf, the list below has the basic information for the next five Open Letter titles.

All of these titles will be available through better bookstores everywhere and through the Open Letter website. Additionally, you can subscribe and receive a year’s worth of books (10 in total) for $100 (free shipping!). Or get a six-month subscription (5 books) for only $60 (again, with free shipping).

Here are the titles from one of our best lists yet:

Gasoline by Quim Monzó (excerpt)
translated from the Catalan by Mary Ann Newman

For the first time in his life, Heribert Juliá is unable to paint. On the eve of an important gallery exhibition, for which he’s created nothing, he’s bored with life: he falls asleep while making love with his mistress, wanders from bar to bar, drinking whatever comes to his attention first, and meets the evidence of his wife Helena’s infidelity with complete indifference. Humbert Herrera, an up-and-coming artist who can’t stop creating, picks up the threads of Heribert’s life, taking his wife, replacing him at the gallery, and pursuing his former mistress. Heribert is finally undone by a massive sculpture, while Humbert is planning the sculpture to end sculpture, the poem to end poetry, and the film to end film, all while mounting three simultaneous shows.

A fun-house mirror through which he examines the creative process, the life and loves of artists, and the New York art scene, Gasoline confirms Quim Monzó as the foremost Catalan writer of his generation.

A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch (excerpt)
translated from the Polish by David Frick

A comic gem, Jerzy Pilch’s A Thousand Peaceful Cities takes place in 1963, in the latter days of the Polish post-Stalinist “thaw.” The narrator, Jerzyk (“little Jerzy”), is a teenager who is keenly interested in his father, a retired postal administrator, and his father’s closest friend, Mr. Traba, a failed Lutheran clergyman, alcoholic, would-be Polish insurrectionist, and one of the wildest literary characters since Laurence Sterne’s Uncle Toby. One drunken afternoon, Mr. Traba and the narrator’s nameless father decide to take charge of their lives and do one final good turn for humanity: travel to distant Warsaw and assassinate the de facto Polish head of state, First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, Władysław Gomułka—assassinating Mao Tse-tung, after all, would be impractical. And they decide to involve Jerzyk in their scheme . . .

The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra (excerpt)
translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

The Private Lives of Trees tells the story of a single night: a young professor of literature named Julián is reading to his step-daughter Daniela and nervously waiting for his wife Verónica to return from her art class. Each night, Julián has been improvising a story about trees to tell Daniela before she goes to sleep—and each Sunday he works on a novel about a man tending to his bonsai—but something about this night is different. As Julián becomes increasing concerned that Verónica won’t return, he reflects on their life together in minute detail, and imagines what Daniela—at twenty, at twenty-five, at thirty years old, without a mother—will think of his novel.

Perhaps even more daring and dizzying than Zambra’s magical Bonsai, The Private Lives of Trees demands to be read in a single sitting, and it casts a spell that will bring you back to it again and again.

Klausen by Andreas Maier (excerpt)
translated from the German by Kenneth Northcott

Nobody knows exactly what happened in the small town of Klausen, or rather, everyone knows: a bomb went off on the autobahn, or at a shack near the autobahn, or someone was shooting at the town from a bridge; it all stems from a fight over measuring noise pollution on the town square, or it was the work of eco-terrorists, or Italians. And while nobody knows who or what to blame—although they’re certainly uneasy about the Moroccan and Albanian immigrants who are squatting in an abandoned castle—they all suspect that Josef Gasser, who spent several years away from Klausen, in Berlin, is behind it all. Only one thing is clear: Klausen was now a crime scene.

In Klausen, Andreas Maier has taken Thomas Bernhard’s method—the nested indirect speech, the repetition, the endless paragraph—and pointed it at an entire town. A town where one confusion leads to the next, where everyone is living in a fog of rumor, but where everyone claims to know exactly what’s going on, even if they’ve changed their story several times.

To Hell with Cronjé by Ingrid Winterbach (excerpt)
translated from the Afrikaans by Elsa Silke

Two scientists, Reitz Steyn and Ben Maritz, find themselves in a “transit camp for those temporarily and permanently unfit for battle” during the Boer War. Captured on suspicion of desertion and treason—during a trek across an unchanging desert of bushes, rocks, and ant hills to help transport a fellow-soldier, who has suffered debilitating shell-shock, to his mother—they are forced to await the judgment of a General Bergh, unsure whether they are to be conscripted into Bergh’s commando, allowed to continue their mission, or executed for treason. As the weeks pass, and the men’s despair at ever returning to their families reaches its peak, they are sent on a bizarre mission . . .

A South African Heart of Darkness, Ingrid Winterbach’s To Hell with Cronjé is a poetic exploration of friendship and camaraderie, an eerie reflection on the futility of war, and a thought-provoking re-examination of the founding moments of the South African nation.

As a special preview, coming up in the fall 2010 are: Mathias Énard’s Zone, Juan José Saer’s Glosa, Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassadors, and a couple more titles we’re still working on. More information as soon as we have it . . .

26 March 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

At the outset, I didn’t particularly care for this book. Yet, as a work of fiction, The Have-Nots bears no great deficiencies and has, in fact, a certain charm to it. In spite of this, or, perhaps, because of it, I can’t love this book. Perhaps my heart is too small to embrace the multitude of characters, or perhaps my distaste for post-9/11 literature is too great. This is such a novel of our time. The Have-Nots is a not a book about people who are lacking, but people who have too much—too much pain, too many memories, too much angst and ambiguity. They feel too much and dwell too much in each other. What they have not is any real awareness of the poverty of their respective existences. My distaste for this book is an entirely personal reaction to a fairly good, maybe even great, novel.

It is a very German work. The Holocaust plays a sort of bizarre Jiminy Cricket role in post World War II German consciousness. It’s ever-present now, framing and informing German literature. In this novel, Hacker plays with a narrative clockwork that I first encountered in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. In the four—really many more than that—simultaneous stories, dozens of lives perform work on the others; each story acts as a cog, turning the others in a gloriously complex movement that anyone could appreciate. Like Anderson’s characters, Hacker’s characters are grotesque, spiritually and emotionally deformed and, for all of that, beautiful. Hacker hasn’t Anderson’s or Joyce’s ability to define individual characters, but her grasp of this intricate form is extraordinary. Perhaps I’m reaching too much into my own recent activities, but this book is like the television show Lost.

Seriously, I think it is. Bear with me.

The Have-Nots follows the interwoven stories of dozens of characters in two countries: Jakob and Isabelle, Jim and Mae, Dave and Sara, and Andras and Magda. The beauty of these stories is that each exists and continues without the reader’s attention. To begin to describe the interconnectedness of it all would either be futile or take an incredibly long time. In either case, I won’t. Central to the novel are Jakob and Isabelle, a German couple who move to England where Jakob is to take a position made vacant by the death of a colleague in the attack on the World Trade Center. Isabelle, his new wife, is an illustrator. These bourgeoisie are the most significant characters, yet the haziest—they’re constantly lost in the world around them, swallowed by a book that attempts to encapsulate so many different lives that those at the center are lost in the drama of those at the edges and their hopeless stories full of violence, crime, abuse, drugs, and just about every other misfortune these characters could quietly experience. Sound like any award-winning television show in particular? Yessir, it sounds like Lost.

The world—even just the Western World—has always seemed enormous, with nations separated by geography, but especially by language. Hacker collapses this too-large world and brings Germany and England and New York within painful millimeters of each other. Perhaps in literature in translation, in books like Ms. Hacker’s, we all have the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with cousins lost since Babel, with writers telling our stories in other languages. We were lost, but we’re now found through the shared emotion and shared events of novels like this one. In all of its beauty and complexity, Hacker’s book, which I still cannot love, has brought me to the realization that we’re all closer than I thought; uncomfortably close. Just like Lost.

This is also novel about class, but also about motion and interconnectedness and simultaneity and contrast. Nothing remains in stasis. Our characters occupy very different worlds and yet they exist side-by-side, largely anonymously, but in perfect symphony. This book’s triumph and its failure is in its unwavering pursuit of truth.

Unlike Lost.

The Have-Nots
by Katharina Hacker
Translated from the German by Helen Atkins
Europa Editions
341 pages, $14.95
978-1-933372-41-9

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