22 May 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

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

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

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

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

Here’s the beginning of Grant’s review:

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

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

For the rest of the review, go here.

22 May 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These women, however, live in modern times:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next landay gives the book its title:

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

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

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

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

Contrasted with:

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

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

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

9 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Antoon gives us a remarkable novel that in 184 pages captures the experience of an Iraqi everyman who has lived through the war with Iran in the first half of the 1980s, the 1991 Gulf War over the Kuwaiti invasion, and then the 2003 war.

Jawad is the youngest child from a Baghdad family. His father, like his father before him, is a traditional corpse washer—an honored and necessary role for their Shi’ite Moslem community that eschews embalming for immediate burial. The elder son was in training to be a doctor when drafted and killed during war.

The focus on Jawad tracks his relationships with his father, who starts the gradual training of his son at age eight (as he had with the older son) in the ritual of corpse washing; with his mother, widowed over the course of the novel; and with two different women with whom he is romantically involved. Both his father’s death and the crises of war limit Jawad’s practical future. He longs to be an artist, a sculptor, and completes a university degree to that end, with much tension between son and father. His father’s death, the economic realities of war, and finally his sense of duty, bring him back to the family business.

In Western literary terms the novel is a contemporary form of tragedy. At two different phases of his life Jawad becomes involved with a woman. Each relationship ends, not without love between Jawad and each woman, but without conditions that can lead to marriage. Jawad does not have hubris, but is instead contained by the situations so much out of his control. Like the statues of Giacometti that Jawad admires, he is stretched and distorted by the existential circumstances in which he finds himself, trapped in a way, but not without insight by the conclusion of the novel that gives him a some small sense of meaning and purpose in a profession centered around death.

Interestingly, Antoon brings in the reality of war, often in a matter-of-fact way, as background and context. He neither dwells on it, nor ignores it. This isn’t a novel centered on brutalities, battles, and direct conflicts between the occupied and their occupiers. The same approach applies to the corpses, with the exception of two toward the end of the book; one might expect graphic detail that would personalize all involved—the dead men, the relatives who brought them, the corpse washer, and by extension, the reader. Again, this is not a novel of outrage against the depredations and horrors of war in a visceral manner. Instead, the personal lives of Jawad, his family, his friends, and community members are warped by the unrelenting backdrop of conflict after conflict.

Antoon writes in two different, alternating styles. One is grounded in realistic portrayals in a time of distortion:

I was startled as I uncovered the face of one of the men I washed yesterday. He looked exactly like a dear friend of mine who’d died years ago. The same rectangular cheek bones, and long nose. The skin and eyes were coffee brown. His eyes were shut, of course. Their sockets were somewhat hollow. The thick eyebrows looked as if they were going to shake hands. But, I said to myself, I’ve already seen him dead in my arms once before. The name on the paper was Muhsin. The distinguishing mark that this person, who looked so much like my friend, had acquired was a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead. It looked like a period which had put an end to the sentence of his life. One of the men who brought him to me said he was a shop owner and was killed in a robbery. Thank God, I thought. It’s not a sectarian killing. But does it matter to the dead how and why they die? Theft, greed, hatred or sectarianism? We, who are waiting in line for our turn, keep mulling over death, but the dead person just dies and is indifferent.

The short declarative sentences even when describing the horrific have a certain flatness of tone. Note how Antoon brings by economy of detail into one paragraph the role of corpse washer, the personal (a dead friend), violence, art-making that is life (the period at the end of a sentence), the everyday—a shop owner with friends, sectarian divisions, the finality of death.

The other mode is poetic leading to the surreal. Jawad’s first love, Reem, has just written from Amman revealing that she and her family had left Baghdad because she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she has had a mastectomy:

I see Reem standing in an orchard full of blossoming pomegranate trees the wind moves the branches and the red blossoms appear to be waving from afar. Reem waves as well and her hands say Come close! I walk toward her and call out her name, but I can hear neither my own voice nor the sound of my footsteps. All I hear is the wind rustling Reem smiles without saying anything. I am closer and I see two pomegranates on her chest instead of her breasts. She notices that I am looking at them and smiles as she cups them with her hands from below. Her fingernails and lips are painted pomegranate red. I rush toward her, and when I reach her and hug her, the left pomegranate falls to the ground. When I bend down to pick it up I see red stains bathing my arm. I turn back and see Reem crying as she tries to stop the fountain of blood gushing from the wound.

Antoon does quite an interesting thing as the novel progresses, as he removes the boundaries between the surreal and real-world encounters. An example: when male relatives bring just the decapitated head of a loved one for burial. The routine of washing comes up against the ghastly. Conversely, what seems real becomes revealed as dream: a description of Jawad waiting in line to get his visa to travel to Amman—a plausible step in the progression of the plot—when a suicide bomber ahead in line detonates, and Jawad is covered in blood, and then awakens. Dream and reality, the mundane and the surreal, blur.

This merger of reality and dream comes together in the second love affair Jawad has, with his cousin who has come with her family to live with Jawad and his mother. Over a succession of nights the two insomniacs grow closer and eventually become lovers. When it is time for her family to leave and for Jawad to step forward in one last opportunity to ask for her in marriage, he balks. This is a night-time relationship and cannot be sustained in something like ordinary life, the light of day. Death and Jawad’s duties toward the dead have overtaken him.

Significant roles and symbols interweave to tie the novel tighter together: an uncle in self imposed exile because of Communist sympathies and the impotence of political parties; statues in many roles and anecdotes; normal human institutions such as universities contending with the not-normal.

Pomegranates, like those referenced in the Reem dream sequence already cited, are part of Islamic religious symbolism. One must eat all the small pieces, the arils, of the pomegranate because one will always be from a tree in paradise. Beside the building where the corpses are washed is a small garden watered by the run-off from the washing ceremony. At the center of this garden is a pomegranate tree, beloved by Jawad’s father and eventually by Jawad, who sometimes rests beside it and talks to it. Two twigs from the tree go into each coffin as a symbolic way of easing the journey of the dead.

At the end of the novel Jawad has accepted his place as a corpse washer. The crucial moment comes when he is turned away at the border with Jordan; single men are not allowed to cross. While waiting for his turn at the border he sees a TV showing yet another bombing and the scene of dead bodies. He wonders, with all the conflicted realities with which he struggles, who might tend the bodies. While his sense of vocational call in the moment might be muted, and is a call always caught up in the troubling reality of death, here, however, is a moment where Jawad sees his place in his world.

The novel concludes with Jawad sitting beneath the tree, listening to a nightingale sing, until it is scared away by the arrival of another corpse; Mahdi, his assistant, breaks this silence:

It started singing with a gentle sweetness—as if it knew I had complained that paradise was far away, so it had brought its sound right here . . .

The living die or depart, and the dead always come. I had thought that life and death were two separate worlds with clearly marked boundaries. But now I know they are conjoined, sculpting each other. My father knew that, and the pomegranate tree knows it as well.

Mahdi opened the door and said, “Jawad, they brought one.”

The nightingale fled. I sighed and said, “Okay, I’m coming. Just give me another minute.”

I am like the pomegranate tree, but all my branches have been cut, broken, and buried with the dead. My heart has become a shrunken pomegranate beating with death and falling every second into a bottomless pit.

But no one knows. No one. The pomegranate alone knows.

9 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is from Grant Barber on Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer, from Yale University Press.

Grant is not only a keen bibliophile, and an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston, but has reviewed for Three Percent for forever, basically, and sometimes also performs as Chad’s stunt double at conferences.

Here’s the beginning of his review:

Antoon gives us a remarkable novel that in 184 pages captures the experience of an Iraqi everyman who has lived through the war with Iran in the first half of the 1980s, the 1991 Gulf War over the Kuwaiti invasion, and then the 2003 war.

Jawad is the youngest child from a Baghdad family. His father, like his father before him, is a traditional corpse washer—an honored and necessary role for their Shi’ite Moslem community that eschews embalming for immediate burial. The elder son was in training to be a doctor when drafted and killed during war.

The focus on Jawad tracks his relationships with his father, who starts the gradual training of his son at age eight (as he had with the older son) in the ritual of corpse washing; with his mother, widowed over the course of the novel; and with two different women with whom he is romantically involved. Both his father’s death and the crises of war limit Jawad’s practical future. He longs to be an artist, a sculptor, and completes a university degree to that end, with much tension between son and father. His father’s death, the economic realities of war, and finally his sense of duty, bring him back to the family business.

In Western literary terms the novel is a contemporary form of tragedy. At two different phases of his life Jawad becomes involved with a woman. Each relationship ends, not without love between Jawad and each woman, but without conditions that can lead to marriage. Jawad does not have hubris, but is instead contained by the situations so much out of his control. Like the statues of Giacometti that Jawad admires, he is stretched and distorted by the existential circumstances in which he finds himself, trapped in a way, but not without insight by the conclusion of the novel that gives him a some small sense of meaning and purpose in a profession centered around death.

For the rest of the review, go here.

17 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Grant Barber on Selected Translations by W. S. Merwin, from Copper Canyon Press. Selected Translations is a collection of Merwin’s greatest translations, representing authors from all over the world and languages from almost every corner.

Grant Barber is a regular reviewer for Three Percent, a keen bibliophile, and an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston.

Collections like this are always fascinating to me—we get to see a wide range of the translator’s abilities and tastes, and are simultaneously introduced to more than one era, style, and form of poetry. So if you find it difficult to sit through an entire book of haikus, but would find more pleasure in reading a haiku here or there among a plethora of other poetic styles, this collection will be right up your alley.

Here’s a part of Grant’s review:

To enter Merwin’s larger poetic project, whether in his translations or his own poems, the reader weighs life’s experiences captured in language so that “these very things may be the poem.” This collection gathers poems spanning 2,500 years, from thirty-eight languages, seventy-eight different poets whose names are known, and twenty-six anonymous poets, the latter including songs from communal oral traditions. Two previously gathered selected translations (1948-1968 and 1968-1978), join those Merwin has selected from 1978 to 2011. Each of the three sections is preceded by Merwin’s explanation of his evolving project of translation.

“Since the eighteenth century, and especially since the beginning of modernism, more and more translations have been undertaken with the clear purpose of introducing readers (most of them, of course, unknown to the translators) to works they could not read in the original, by authors they might very well never have heard of, from cultures, traditions and forms with which they had no acquaintance . . . . (by) poet-translators who do not, themselves, know the languages from which they are making their versions, but must rely, for their grasp of the originals, on the knowledge and work of others.” (from “Forward, 1968-1978”)

Merwin honors his fellow poets who have helped him in his project of translations from not only languages more familiar to Western ears, and the haikus of classic Asian writers of the form, but also ancient Egyptian, Quechua, Kabylia, Dahomey, Caxinua, Vietnamese, Tartar, Urdu, and so forth. Beyond French and Spanish, Merwin explains that he is dependent on dictionaries and other translations; he might not work from the original but from, say, a French translation of the original.

Click here for the entire review, and some preview poems.

17 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“South”

To have watched from one of your patios
the ancient stars
from the bank of shadow to have watched
the scattered lights
my ignorance has learned no names for
nor their places in constellations
to have heard the ring of water in the secret pool
known the scent of jasmine and honeysuckle
the silence of the sleeping bird
the arch of the entrance the damp
—these very things may be the poem.

-Jorge Luis Borges, Spanish, 1899-1986

To enter Merwin’s larger poetic project, whether in his translations or his own poems, the reader weighs life’s experiences captured in language so that “these very things may be the poem.” This collection gathers poems spanning 2,500 years, from thirty-eight languages, seventy-eight different poets whose names are known, and twenty-six anonymous poets, the latter including songs from communal oral traditions. Two previously gathered selected translations (1948-1968 and 1968-1978), join those Merwin has selected from 1978 to 2011. Each of the three sections is preceded by Merwin’s explanation of his evolving project of translation.

“Since the eighteenth century, and especially since the beginning of modernism, more and more translations have been undertaken with the clear purpose of introducing readers (most of them, of course, unknown to the translators) to works they could not read in the original, by authors they might very well never have heard of, from cultures, traditions and forms with which they had no acquaintance . . . . (by) poet-translators who do not, themselves, know the languages from which they are making their versions, but must rely, for their grasp of the originals, on the knowledge and work of others.” (from “Forward, 1968-1978”)

Merwin honors his fellow poets who have helped him in his project of translations from not only languages more familiar to Western ears, and the haikus of classic Asian writers of the form, but also ancient Egyptian, Quechua, Kabylia, Dahomey, Caxinua, Vietnamese, Tartar, Urdu, and so forth. Beyond French and Spanish, Merwin explains that he is dependent on dictionaries and other translations; he might not work from the original but from, say, a French translation of the original.

“Yscolan”

Your horse is black your cloak is black
your face is black you are black
you are all black—is it you Yscolan?

I am Yscolan the seer
my thoughts fly they are covered with clouds.
Is there no reparation then for offending the Master?

I burned a church I killed the cows that belonged to a school
I threw the Book into the waves
my penance is heavy.

Creator of living things you
greatest of all my protectors forgive me.
He that betrayed you deceived me.

I was fastened for a whole year
at Bangor under the piles of the dam.
Try to think what I suffered from the sea worms.

If I had known then what I know now
the liberty of the wind in the moving treetops
the crime could not be laid to me.

-Myrddyn, Welch, ca 6th century

Merwin at age 19 visited Ezra Pound when Pound was incarcerated in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital; Pound told Merwin that the best apprenticeship is to translate the masters, to draw from the well from which poetry arose. In following this advice, Merwin grounded himself in ancient poets and even more so in medieval poetry from Romance languages. The medieval poetry shares with Merwin’s larger poetic project the crystallizing use of images; these images carry deeper into the psyche than mere words on the surface might discursively capture. One doesn’t need to know the legend story cycle from which “Yscolan” is taken to hear the experience suffered from sea worms while being imprisoned under a dam, and then contrasted to the freedom of winds in a tree.

Merwin does this in good company, during an important moment in time of world letters for English speakers. In the late 1960s into the 1980s, one larger poetic project/school was referred to as “deep imagists.” Along with Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, Mark Strand, Charles Wright, and Robert Hass (among others), Merwin shared a use of seeming surrealist images which bypassed rational thought to reach emotional/spiritual reality. These writers also translated poems of varying eras and geographies in what seems in retrospect to be a new blossoming of translations into English.

In the first “Forward,” Merwin points to this impulse for both deep image and translation: “Translation may be no more dangerous than any other to a growing recognition of the true original that, in del Vasto’s words, ‘tastes of the source.’ It is love, I imagine, more than learning, that may eventually make it possible to be aware of the living resonance before it has words . . .” The Borges poem cited previously evokes this ‘source’ with ancient stars and the silence of a sleeping bird; the poet does not know the names of stars and constellations imposed by people, but does enjoy direct apprehension of them, and the smell of jasmine, the sound of the “ring of water in the secret pool.” Poetry bypasses intervening mythological/scientific constructs to grasp reality itself.

from “Looking Across the Field”

A peony appears
in my mind
after the petals have fallen

The evening I cut
a peony stem
and felt my spirit whither

The summer night is short
dew gathers
on the hairy caterpillars

-Yosa Buson, Japanese, 1716-1783

Merwin’s own poetry continued to grow and change in subject matter. He has deep ecological concerns, so nature figures significantly in both his own poems and those he translates. Love and its challenges figure importantly. Liminal moments—twilight, an approaching horizon, seasons as they are changing (especially into fall and winter), and most recurrent—the inevitable reality of death—thread through Merwin’s larger poetic project. The Buson poem Merwin chose presents all this by content and form: the natural world suffuses the images—a peony both mentally conjured and in a garden and a summer night’s dew fall—lovely, yes?—but the third line of each stanza, not only finishing the brief thought/image each in lines longer than the two preceding, but also turns the building image into something troubling—all the petals fallen, a spirit withered and, most graphic, a wet hairy caterpillar.

Formally, Merwin’s own poetry omits punctuation (since his first four books); he explains that punctuation seems to nail down the words and poem to a page in a limiting manner. Perhaps this is one of many reasons why Merwin is drawn to the Asian haiku-like verse of Asian poets such as Buson in addition to more recent, European authors:

“Words”

They were talking about
pretend love
at the old table
riddled with worms
the fire warmed up the stove
the lentil darkened as it cooked
and in the open doorway
facing human words
composed in well-tried syntax
the beauty of the bitter foliage
and birds with red breasts
were shining.

-Jean Follain, French, 1903-1971

This photographic tableau captures conversation around this decaying table in a kitchen/dining room that is not comfy, but in a place of falseness and paucity. Over against the interior space is the exterior, which has beauty—albeit somewhat bitter—and is alive with the shining red quickness of the birds.

This former Poet Laureate of the US, Pulitzer Prize winner, author/translator of over 50 volumes of poetry and prose, is now in his mid-80s. Of interest is how the poet returns to the same sources of ancient languages and medieval poets in the third, most recent period of translating; this after a middle period more characterized by modern poets. His forward to this last section is also ruminative, recalling his life as a poet through personal detail; he is no longer as caught up in the issues of translation.

Next month his Collected Poems will come out from the Library of America to make him the second only living poet to be so honored (John Ashbery is the other). Other poets may join him in importance for American poetry of the 20th/21st centuries. None surpass him. This Selected Translations is amazing in scope, mastery, themes, artistry, imagination: a testimony to a life time of consequential work.

29 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Grant Barber on the mammoth Where Tigers Are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès, which is translated from the French by Mike Mitchell and published by Other Press.

Grant Barber is a regular reviewer for Three Percent, a keen bibliophile, and an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston.

I’ve been interested in this book literally for years, having first heard of it on a trip to France in 2009, and am very excited that this is finally available. (And hopefully I’ll have some time this summer to read it . . .)

Here’s a bit of Grant’s review:

French author—philosopher, poet, novelist—de Roblès writes something approaching the Great (Latin) American Novel, about Brazilian characters, one of whom is steeped in the life of the seventeenth century polymath (but almost always erroneous) Jesuit Athanasius Kircher. Eleazard von Wogau, a French journalist lives in a dilapidated mansion in a town being overtaken by the Amazon vegetation, with his housekeeper Soledad: all of this at first seeming like Garcia Marquez-like clichéd Latin American tropes, but subverted in short order. He is a character at the center of a fragmented family and the various narratives that radiate out into seven different directions, each a quest of varying and dubious goals, but all of it conveyed with seriousness, more often with dark humor.

Eleazard is translating the hagiography of Kircher written by his amanuensis and acolyte Fr. Caspar Scott; each chapter of this novel opens with an account from Schott’s biography, and most chapters end with Eleazard’s journal reflections which reflect his own feelings but also reach into Wittgenstein and other modern philosophers (in a style reminiscent of Markson actually).

His ex-wife Elaine is a university paleontologist who travels in the company of other scientists upriver through a jungle inhabited by smugglers and indigenous tribes. They want to find the origin site for fossils of which a few samples have been tantalizingly brought back by a previous scientist; he had been given them by a tribal shaman.

In a passage that describes all the quests of the novel, Elaine recalls one of Eleazard’s rants:

bq.” Sending a missionary to convert the Chinese or a cosmonaut to the moon is exactly the same thing: it derives from the desire to govern the world, to confine it within the limits of doctrinaire knowledge that each time presents itself as definitive. However improbable it might have appeared, Francis Xavier went to Asia and really did convert thousands of Chinese; the American, Armstrong—a soldier by the way, if you see what I’m getting at—trampled the old lunar myth underfoot, but what do these two actions give us, apart from themselves? They don’t teach us anything, since all the do is confirm something we already knew, namely that the Chinese are convertible and the moon tramplable.”

Click here to read the entire review.

29 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

French author—philosopher, poet, novelist—de Roblès writes something approaching the Great (Latin) American Novel, about Brazilian characters, one of whom is steeped in the life of the seventeenth century polymath (but almost always erroneous) Jesuit Athanasius Kircher. Eleazard von Wogau, a French journalist lives in a dilapidated mansion in a town being overtaken by the Amazon vegetation, with his housekeeper Soledad: all of this at first seeming like Garcia Marquez-like clichéd Latin American tropes, but subverted in short order. He is a character at the center of a fragmented family and the various narratives that radiate out into seven different directions, each a quest of varying and dubious goals, but all of it conveyed with seriousness, more often with dark humor.

Eleazard is translating the hagiography of Kircher written by his amanuensis and acolyte Fr. Caspar Scott; each chapter of this novel opens with an account from Schott’s biography, and most chapters end with Eleazard’s journal reflections which reflect his own feelings but also reach into Wittgenstein and other modern philosophers (in a style reminiscent of Markson actually).

His ex-wife Elaine is a university paleontologist who travels in the company of other scientists upriver through a jungle inhabited by smugglers and indigenous tribes. They want to find the origin site for fossils of which a few samples have been tantalizingly brought back by a previous scientist; he had been given them by a tribal shaman.

In a passage that describes all the quests of the novel, Elaine recalls one of Eleazard’s rants:

Sending a missionary to convert the Chinese or a cosmonaut to the moon is exactly the same thing: it derives from the desire to govern the world, to confine it within the limits of doctrinaire knowledge that each time presents itself as definitive. However improbable it might have appeared, Francis Xavier went to Asia and really did convert thousands of Chinese; the American, Armstrong—a soldier by the way, if you see what I’m getting at—trampled the old lunar myth underfoot, but what do these two actions give us, apart from themselves? They don’t teach us anything, since all the do is confirm something we already knew, namely that the Chinese are convertible and the moon tramplable.

The reader is not too optimistic about the outcomes for each story line, even when coming to care for the fate of the characters who de Roblès portrays in sympathetic terms, save for some unambiguously nasty people.

One of Elaine’s companions is a graduate student named Mauro, son of an overreaching, ambitious state governor and his alienated wife. Governor Moreira seeks a land deal to lure foreign investors, and he uses increasingly violent means to disposes from the land the poor who stand in his way. Eleazard meets and briefly socializes with the governor and wife. Eleazard is accompanied by Lordena, an Italian woman who is one of the few guests staying in the town inn, and who begins a relationship with him while hiding her bleak health prognosis. Her quest will lead eventually to a Santeria ceremony to seek healing.

Eleazard’s daughter Moema is a sometime college student who relies on dad’s money to fund drug binges for her and her lover Thais, and a young male professor whom the two women drag to an isolated fishing town for variations of sexual pairings and encounters with fishermen/smugglers. Moema will seek some real meaning through idealized human relationships and to herself; but she takes direction, for example, from a billboard she’s seen: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” The reader is not inspired to confidence about Moema’s new resolutions.

The elite, powerful, and educated—the governor, Eleazard and Elaine, Lordena, Kircher and Scott in their own day and time—are counterbalanced by ten-year-old Nathan, a crippled beggar who lives in a favella with his uncle Ze. All the characters have at most only two degrees of separation from one another by the end of the novel. Ze and Nathan are on a collision course with Moema and the governor.

Also offering contrast are a shaman and his tribe who have been isolated for centuries, but who possess the memory of a Jesuit missionary from the eighteenth century who brought with him one of Kircher’s many books. They are the erstwhile rescuers of Elaine and her party. The tribe is on a quest of its own, to return to some ur-existence, in part guided by the Jesuit’s teaching distorted and parroted through generations of shamans.

Still, the story of Kircher takes up what seems a full half of the novel over against all of the contemporary Brazilian stories of Eleazard, et al. Kircher is a real figure from European history. Varyingly regarded as a last scientific holdover from a medieval natural scientific approach and a quintessential Counter-Reformation thinker, Kircher has become a subject for contemporary rediscovery. A Man of Misconceptions by John Glassie (Riverhead, 2012) is one of the recent explorations of Kircher’s fascinatingly weird genius, captured by de Roblès, as Kircher gets almost everything wrong, from medical treatments, to his quest to identify the pre-Babel language of humanity, to natural phenomena. In one comical scene a dismayed Schott describes Kircher as he insists on drawing closer and closer to an erupting volcano’s opening:

The heat was almost unbearable and we were finding it difficult to breathe when dozens of crawling things suddenly started to pour through our refuge: all sorts of snakes, salamanders, scorpions and spiders scuttled between our legs for a few moments that seemed close to an eternity to me. Flabbergasted by this phenomenon, we did not think of using our equipment to collect some specimens. Kircher, who had observed the process with his usual concentration, immediately drew the most unusual of these creatures in his notebook. “As you see, Caspar,” he said when he had finished, “we have not wasted our time coming here. Now we know from the evidence of our own eyes that certain creatures are born of the fire itself, just as flies are engendered by manure & worms by putrefaction. Those there had been created practically before our very eyes . . .”

De Roblès makes this long novel readable by his control over pacing, with subject headings within each chapter linking to specific story lines. No one story goes on so long that the reader loses the thread of the others. Many of the quests lead to transcendent-seeming moments with de Roblès using effective, incantatory language to carry along the reader. The 32 shortish chapters, plus prologue and afterward, would seem to beg for one of those dramatis personae lists that authors of complex novels sometimes provide; not needed here.

Having said that, I’ll also admit that I bogged down about 1/3 of the way in. I’m the sort of reader who has finished some longer books after two or three attempts (Moby-Dick, Gravity’s Rainbow), never attempted any of those long Victorian novels, passed through the long-Russian novel phase in late high school years never looking back, and I still haven’t completed Ulysses (sorry Prof. Davis), nor Gaddis’ Recognitions or JR, no matter how many new copies with attractive new covers I’ve bought.

So I set this book aside for over a week. In order to write the promised review I returned to the novel when I decided I would try the last 100 pages just to find out how matters resolved. Clearly the plots had too many turns for this to work, so plan B was to skim the in-between parts. Be darned if it didn’t hook me instead. This novel is a quite satisfying read, one of best novels I suspect that will appear in English, in the original or translation, in 2013. The endings of the various quests draw in story lines closer and closer, characters previously separate eventually move into relationships with one another. If a new reader begins to doubt the worth of the effort, bogged down in some intellectual digression, this reassurance: the Prologue starts with a Eleazard distracted by a parrot named Heidegger (!): “‘Man’s swelling his pointed dick! Squaaak! Man’s swelling his pointed dick!’”

6 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our “Reviews Section”: is a piece by Grant Barber on The Poems of Octavio Paz, edited and mostly translated by Eliot Weinberger, and available from New Directions.

Grant’s review is really solid, so I’m just going to jump right to it and give you a sample:

One critical “orthodoxy” insists that the works solely themselves should be considered in critical reflection; this approach can provide some real satisfactions in reading Paz’s poetry. The reader’s knowledge about the artist’s public life deepens the engagement, especially given the scope of this volume’s collection.

Paz was born in Mexico City at the start of WWI to a Spanish mother and Mexican father. His very heritage, of new and old worlds, seems to set the pattern for his life, of bridging, incorporating. He embraced emergent communism while not officially signing on. He was in Spain for the Civil War on behalf of the resistance to Franco. Later he travelled to the US, where he also taught at Harvard, and in England, teaching at Cambridge. A diplomat for Mexico in Japan first, Paz later was Mexico’s ambassador to India. In 1968 he resigned that position in protest after a brutal police response to protests in Mexico, part of the larger cultural shifts of that era. Yet he sided with government later, on the other side of the divide from Carlos Fuentes over the Sandanista movement. Similarly he had earlier alienated other intellectual writers in his rejection of Castro, and then the later Zapatista movement in Chiapas.

In literary matters, he was warmly embraced by Neruda; had a falling out over Stalinism (Paz by then had rejected the communist realities), with reconciliation near the end of Neruda’s life. He was intrigued by the Surrealist movement in Europe and met Breton in France, and later was conversant with the existentialist thinking of Sartre and Camus. He incorporated haiku brevity along with Buddhist/Taoist thought from Asia and mythological imagery from India. He was a prolific essayist, both short form and book-length. Primarily though he regarded himself as a poet. For all of this Paz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990.

Throughout Paz’s various writings he was keenly interested in sorting out what it means to be Mexican, from the Mayan past which surrounded him, to the existential isolation of the self. Paz understands a particular Mexican dynamic captured most clearly in prose in The Labyrinth of Solitude. His poetry engages this theme repeatedly

Click here to read the full review.

6 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This collection of poems spanning Paz’s writerly life also spans the historical events of the twentieth century and a significant arc of modernism. The book presents the original Spanish on the left, with the English translation on the opposing page. Translations are principally by Eliot Weinberger, but include other poets’ translations, including Rukeyser, Levertov and Bishop.

One critical “orthodoxy” insists that the works solely themselves should be considered in critical reflection; this approach can provide some real satisfactions in reading Paz’s poetry. The reader’s knowledge about the artist’s public life deepens the engagement, especially given the scope of this volume’s collection.

Paz was born in Mexico City at the start of WWI to a Spanish mother and Mexican father. His very heritage, of new and old worlds, seems to set the pattern for his life, of bridging, incorporating. He embraced emergent communism while not officially signing on. He was in Spain for the Civil War on behalf of the resistance to Franco. Later he travelled to the US, where he also taught at Harvard, and in England, teaching at Cambridge. A diplomat for Mexico in Japan first, Paz later was Mexico’s ambassador to India. In 1968 he resigned that position in protest after a brutal police response to protests in Mexico, part of the larger cultural shifts of that era. Yet he sided with government later, on the other side of the divide from Carlos Fuentes over the Sandanista movement. Similarly he had earlier alienated other intellectual writers in his rejection of Castro, and then the later Zapatista movement in Chiapas.

In literary matters, he was warmly embraced by Neruda; had a falling out over Stalinism (Paz by then had rejected the communist realities), with reconciliation near the end of Neruda’s life. He was intrigued by the Surrealist movement in Europe and met Breton in France, and later was conversant with the existentialist thinking of Sartre and Camus. He incorporated haiku brevity along with Buddhist/Taoist thought from Asia and mythological imagery from India. He was a prolific essayist, both short form and book-length. Primarily though he regarded himself as a poet. For all of this Paz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990.

Throughout Paz’s various writings he was keenly interested in sorting out what it means to be Mexican, from the Mayan past which surrounded him, to the existential isolation of the self. Paz understands a particular Mexican dynamic captured most clearly in prose in The Labyrinth of Solitude. His poetry engages this theme repeatedly:

from San Ildefonso Nocturne: (trans. Eliot Weinberger)

I am at the entrance to a tunnel
These phrases drill through time.
Perhaps I am that which waits at the end of the tunnel.
I speak with eyes closed.
                         Someone
has planted
           a forest of magnetic needles
in my eyelids,
                  someone
guides the thread of these words.
                                    The page
has become an ants’ nest.
                           The void
has settled at the pit of my stomach.
                                       I fall
endlessly through that void.
                              I fall without falling.
My hands are cold,
                    my feet cold –
but the alphabets are burning, burning.
                                         Space
makes and unmakes itself.
                           The night insists,
the night touches my forehead,
                                touches my thoughts.
What does it want?

This excerpt from the much longer poem in the collection Vuelta/Return (1969-1975) begins with the tunnel drilled through time and inward, from the sense-experience—eyes disabled expressed by the surrealist image of ‘a forest of magnetic needles.’ The letters on the page disorganize themselves like ants tightly bunched together. The poet keeps in touch with his somatic self—stomach, hands, feet, forehead—yet the existential experience is one of estrangement as forces seemingly out the speaker’s control are at work, with a possible but open-ended destination at the end of the tunnel being the speaker . . . if only he could figure out what this “night” wants.

The geographic references of the poem claustrophobically create the same larger global experience for Paz of travel and the return of the collection’s title: Paz repeatedly had to leave Mexico, and return, to find the distance and intimacy he needed to understand himself and his Mexican culture.

The previously cited poem comes later, in the more mature poet’s writing. Yet these themes are clearly, discursively, present at the start of Paz’s poetry writing. This breadth of demonstrated developing themes is one of this book’s strengths.

“The Street” (from poems written 1941-1948), trans. Weinberger

It’s a long and silent street.
I walk in the dark and trip and fall
and get up and step blindly
on the mute stones and dry leaves
and someone behind me is also walking:
if I stop, he stops;
if I run,, he runs. I turn around: no one.
Everything is black, there is no exit,
and I turn and turn corners
that always lead to the street
where no one waits for me, no one follows,
where I follow a man who trips
and gets up and says when he sees me: no one.

Two poems later, at the end of the longer “Interrupted Elegy,” Paz concludes: “The world is circular desert,/heaven is closed and hell is empty.” Such a declarative resolution is characteristic of a younger poet, who nevertheless continues later in the modernist understanding that the spiritual/mythical rather than the religious grounded in dogma and tradition is the arena for locating the self.

I’ll cite one further poem, this a short one similar to “The Street,” but by now Paz has traveled, been introduced to new cultures and mythos. The form of this poem more closely resembles the telegraphic qualities found in the haiku-like form Paz appropriates from his Asian literary experience, but incorporates Hindu imagery:

“Humayun’s Tomb” (from Ladera Este/East Slope, 1962-1968):

To the debate of wasps
the dialectic of monkeys
the chirping of statistics
it offers
             (tall pink flame
made of stone and air and birds
time at rest on the water)

the architecture of silence

Here is the more mature poet, perhaps a bit more at peace with himself yet still looking. Poetically the omission of most punctuation, the succinctness of images, coherence of flow of ideas all show the life-reflection, control, and elegance of a poet with even greater mastery over his craft.

Eliot Weinberger may share credit with other poets for bringing Paz’s poetry to the English speaking world, but he has been the principal, dedicated translator and proponent. New Directions Press has several of the individual books, represented in this volume, in Weinberger’s translation. New Directions also brought out the Weinberger edited The Complete Poems, 1957-1987. The current volume under review omits some of the poems from the Complete collection, but includes poems that precede and follow the ’57-’87 period.

Special note in any review should probably mention the pivotal, book-length Piedra de Sol/Sunstone (1957) presented in its entirety; this specific work was a breakthrough for Paz, announcing his interest in and influence by his own ancestors’ Mayan tradition, now brought into conversation with Paz in his modern moment. In addition, the attentive reader can track throughout this present collection Paz’s erotically charged imagery as one recurrent way to the self struggling—and sometimes overcoming—the isolation of self.

I close with an appreciation for the strength of Paz’s poetry, and Weinberger’s translation. Specifically, in my personal experience of reading poetry, I greatly value immersion where I can hear the poet’s voice. Anthologies and journals which print one or two poems by a writer can sometimes hold my attention, but I can’t get the voices as they shift. The pleasure of this volume is the consistent, almost gentle, voice that lays out for the reader Paz’s convictions and questions. “Gentle” though should not indicate easy or peaceful or unquestioning. Paz raises his anxieties, doubts, and disruptions. Rather it is the artfulness with which he does so that carries the reader along.

13 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Dehiscent: in botany, the spontaneous rupture of a plant structure at maturity to release seeds; in medicine, the rupture of a wound with much discharge.

In this strong, propulsive collection of poems translator Forrest Gander uses dehiscent for the Spanish word diesminandose in one poem, and in the title of a second for ensimismada. López Colomé’s images draw on the dual meaning of the English word. The botanical one with the positive pitch of natural propagation of a species (picture a milk pod releasing its silk parachuted seeds) occurs for example in poems that reference the tibuchina flower and almonds, and with images of bees filled with pollen, silk flowers and blooming real ones (“My Life’s Portrait”). López Colomé though is not a “nature poet.” The substance of the poems are also wedded to the medical, colored by the idea that pain, pus, blood are pouring out of a wound. Thematically López Colomé touches on both, related concepts over and over again. The language also performs a verbal dehiscence, as is announced in the poem “Heart’s Core”:

. . . .
But
a certain sentence
perfectly measured,
a shard, black onyx dart,
keeps hitting the target inside me
with all its sinister, atomic
plunk.
How curious that it feels less like prickling than throbbing.
that between words
we find the heart’s core,
not merely an account of it.
there, where pain isn’t forgotten.
There, where memory
radiates,
candescent:
in signal strength enduring
with no need
to plead its case.
. . .

You know that you are in the hands of a master who has control over language. Echoes of the cultural past (“a shard, black onyx dart”), religious imagery allusively rendered (“the heart” in its iconographic Latin American role) are interwoven with the contemporary “atomic” and the technologically yoked reference to light, “candescent.” Thematically the poet is addressing the realities of pain at the heart’s core, but which can only be pointed to “between words . . . not merely an account of it.”

While this poem relies strongly on inner feelings that seem intimate, many of the other poems tell about states of emotion/being at a more distant remove. In this next poem the reader also encounters the use of images and language drawn from the poet’s reality. From the three part poem “My Life’s Portrait,” the second section, WATERWORM AGAINST A BLUE BACKGROUND:

A radiant
eight year old
on her way from the possible
to the shameful.

Reinvented
in the guise of a good girl
who learns to not be herself,
to sit still, all but immobile,
to adopt a pose
from this moment on
The expression on her face, fabulous.

A dress of purple velvet
with a lacy collar;
socks conscientiously folded down
to the top of the ankle
new patent leather shoes.
But her hands once again
escape the artist . . .

They reach into the future.
And they oblige
everything else to pose.
As she would pose and stare at that garden
with its interminable whirlwind
and the dizziness would intensify
until she tumbled into the grass
and discovered
that when her body wasn’t spinning around,
the stars themselves were circling;
then the telescopes in her eyes
would gradually funnel
away the delirium bit by bit . . .
Because I refused to be
a still life,
I lost the only grip I had.

The very cord that set me free
was twisted around my neck
a transparent slipknot
choking me
while fireflies
flickered
between the bars of my fingers
as I made
a fist.

The speaker ruminates on the ruptures in life; it starts with the promise of seemingly unlimited possibilities reduced on the one hand by societal expectations, and on the other hand the challenges of human existence. While the picture which emerges is dim—flickering fireflies seen through bars of fingers curving into a fist—it is not, from the adult speaker’s perspective, without humor or glimpses of happiness, the “fabulous” expression on the child’s face, the twirling of an eight year old in a garden.

This next poem continues with the child grown into adulthood. The “torment” emerges at the end, in the acorns grown into a choiring grove, a potentially poetic cliché that actually terrorizes. Gander interprets this in his introduction as an allusion to the cancer which López Colomé dealt while writing many of these poems.

“Tormented”

Enormous solids were falling
from who knows what heights,
who knows what places.
I trembled,
and in my mouth
an inky taste. Ready.

Hail, maybe
enormous kernels of ice;
coming down,
with a scandalous impact,
didn’t bury me, terrorized,
under the covers.
It didn’t happen, it wasn’t that.

A below-zero temperature
drove into the soft center of my bones.
A truly searing cold.

Nothing to do with monsters came to pass.
Nothing to do with endless distance.
Nothing to do with brutalities.
Only the agony of acorns.
Only a cycle that completes itself
every few years
and transforms into a tropical forest
a choiring oak grove.

Which is my terror.

In one of the longer poems “Dehiscent, Enraptured Invention” López Colomé brings another key concern of hers, the pull toward some spiritual reality, although not one tied to any traditional religious tradition.

To be able to speak

without punctuation

jubilant infinite moment
moment jubilant infinite
infinite moment jubilant
gibberish
and as if that weren’t enough
to burn and sing
a solipsist
heard
by no one
beyond
the weird world’s
distant core . . .

and what follows. There is an inner light here, with words as fuel, language in-itself pouring outward:

To be able to speak

without contrivance,
filigrees
underlinings or cursives

supreme instant
of unbounded
pleasure
at the center of an immensity
without any outside pressure
knowing that the vital forces
peel away from muscle easily
and drift off
and you drown
and it doesn’t matter
since you’re protected
enraptured
. . .

The first poem cited above, “Heart’s Core,” includes that image of a black onyx arrow piercing the heart, a contemporary version of ecstasy of St. Theresa captured once in Bernini’s sculpture. Here though the angel and long arrow are language itself. López Colomé makes it clear in her “Afterward” to this collection that her religious upbringing included exposure to religious poetry. She recalls that the words, the sound and movement and moving of the hearer, were her revelation, not that of a god’s visitation. As a child she confessed, “When I pray, I talk to God, but He doesn’t talk to me.” To which her confessor counseled, “Pray in your own words.” This directive she says gave her “a whole new imago mundi; a capacity to describe perceptions and emotions in a fresh way, with intimate verbs.” In adolescence she realized that “you could save the right words just to talk to yourself, without the Most Holy watching over your shoulder . . . a dialogue with my personal penumbra.” López Colomé is a religious skeptic, but definitely a fideist in the power of the Words.

Finally, the metaphor of dehiscence strikes me as a great way to understand the project of translation. The idea that a text, especially in the concentrated form of poetry, bursts out into multiple meanings in its original language, then in a translated text, and further in the two held in the tension of facing poems in Spanish and English. In López Colomé’s and Gander’s hands this bursting sometimes is propagative, at other times a lancing of wounds.

I have on my bookshelf at least five different approaches to that proto-text of vernacular poetry, Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which translators try to match the terza rima structure, others the plain meaning of the text, with all sorts of ground in between. Gander, an accomplished poet (essayist and novelist) in his own right and translator of many Spanish language writers, honors the voice and tone of López Colomé. If you pick up one of Gander’s several collections you would encounter a different voice, with his own unique concerns. Yet his approach is one of a poet with word choices that represent the meaning of the original, not the plain translation. Some of the changes are practical—both inventive and of a more mechanical, problem solving nature. The poem ‘Almendra’is in English titled ‘Almond.’ In the last stanza of the poem López Colomé draws attention to the actual word “almendra,”:

Consonantes trituridas        A vowel and two consonants
sin gastar savia en balde    worth the spit it takes
se repiten, se digieren         to chew them, repeat, and digest
se repiten sin cesar             them one after another
ene dé erre ene dé erre      ah el em ah el em
n d r  n d r                            alm alm

The translator has the challenge in a poem that uses in Spanish three consonants (consonantes trituridas) n, d, and r, which of course do not occur in the English translation, the word almond. So the first line quoted above keeps the intent but changes the literal wording, to a vowel and two consonants, which in “almond” are alm in Gander’s translation. Note here as well Gander’s mastery of Spanish colloquial speech in translating the second line to an English saying (not) “worth the spit it takes.”

Gander is able to take the project one step further, for example, in “Tormented,” when he translates “Un verdadero calor frio” not into “A truly/really hot cold,” but instead into the intended, equivalent meaning in English, “A truly searing cold.” Perhaps another English word could have been used in the place of searing, but I am hard-pressed to come up with any better.

Then there is a wholly different level of the translator’s engagement and interpretation. With true artistry Gander takes a series in Spanish “lagrimas, anhelos, nadieras” and turns it into “tears, longing, and ratty nothings.” Ratty: that’s a nice touch, as is the translation of “Aparacete tal cual, / resono” into (the Gander added italics and explanation mark) “Show yourself!

In a world where what is truly of value received attention, López Colomé and Gander would be soon going on tour to read from this collection in the same range of venues that a popular rock group might appear. As it is, I urge anyone who wants to read moving poetry that unfolds with multiple re-readings to buy this book, and then to buy a second and third copy to put into others’ hands.

15 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Fr. Grant Barber on Cain, the latest Jose Saramago novel, available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation.

Grant Barber is a regular reviewer for Three Percent, a keen bibliophile, and an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston. That last biographical fact is one of the reasons his review of Cain is so interesting. (That and the fact that Grant is a very good reader.)

Here’s the opening of the review:

I keep coming back to that basic question, “Why do people tell stories, and others pay attention?” Answers range from creating entertainment (Patterson or Siddons), to engaging in reflections of human nature by a writer such as Conrad or Greene, to intellectual play in novels by Barbary or Murdoch. Some novels can be polemical: Upton Sinclair, Dalton Trumbo; others tell stories to subvert the very nature of what it means to tell stories . . . Celine, Stein. In creating such an incomplete taxonomy I know I run the risk of reducing real literature to caricature; sustaining, elegant, yearning works do more than one thing well. Saramago’s last novel, published here in the English speaking world after his death, raises this fundamental question, “why does he tell this story?”

Cain is a Saramago novel that takes his oft-used “what if” set-up—what if people stopped dying within a geographic region (Death with Interruptions), or what if everyone in a town became blind (Blindness)—and asks, what if cain (Saramago doesn’t capitalize names in this book) were able to tell his story? This is cain of cain and abel, the first two children of adam and eve, the first murderer and victim. Clearly Saramago has a concern for mythos and storytelling; he invokes lilith, by legend adam’s first wife who didn’t work out so well, the breeder of demons. Saramago taps into the archetype of the man cursed to not die but wander eternally. And Saramago uses time travel. cain is unstuck from linear time and jumps from key incidences in ahistorical order, from mt. sinai to abraham just about to sacrifice his son, to noah . . . with stops in there to the story of job, the destruction of sodom and gomorrah. It is this last narrative device which seems both necessary for Saramago’s purposes and which leaves at least this reader with the opinion that Saramago has left behind story telling for a flat polemic.

Some familiar post-modern tricks are going on. In talking about cain—not Cain—or god rather than God could Saramago be signaling that he considers the characters in his book not worthy of being known as proper people, that they are drained of real identity, with their status as fictional characters thus underscored? Perhaps. This is one of several issues that make the role of storytelling wobble . . . does Saramago want to let his writing speak forcefully, or is he undercutting himself unintentionally, “but this is after all, just an artifice?” Then consider the vagaries of time travel literature. The novel ends with cain on board noah’s ark; cain systematically kills all the women by heaving them overboard: no women left who can repopulate the earth. So then, no abraham, moses, job and so forth? But wait, he has already encountered abraham, moses and job. This would leave cain as the only one with complete knowledge, of what could have been, a stand in for god or author.

Click here to read the entire review.

15 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I keep coming back to that basic question, “Why do people tell stories, and others pay attention?” Answers range from creating entertainment (Patterson or Siddons), to engaging in reflections of human nature by a writer such as Conrad or Greene, to intellectual play in novels by Barbary or Murdoch. Some novels can be polemical: Upton Sinclair, Dalton Trumbo; others tell stories to subvert the very nature of what it means to tell stories . . . Celine, Stein. In creating such an incomplete taxonomy I know I run the risk of reducing real literature to caricature; sustaining, elegant, yearning works do more than one thing well. Saramago’s last novel, published here in the English speaking world after his death, raises this fundamental question, “why does he tell this story?”

Cain is a Saramago novel that takes his oft-used “what if” set-up—what if people stopped dying within a geographic region (Death with Interruptions), or what if everyone in a town became blind (Blindness)—and asks, what if cain (Saramago doesn’t capitalize names in this book) were able to tell his story? This is cain of cain and abel, the first two children of adam and eve, the first murderer and victim. Clearly Saramago has a concern for mythos and storytelling; he invokes lilith, by legend adam’s first wife who didn’t work out so well, the breeder of demons. Saramago taps into the archetype of the man cursed to not die but wander eternally. And Saramago uses time travel. cain is unstuck from linear time and jumps from key incidences in ahistorical order, from mt. sinai to abraham just about to sacrifice his son, to noah . . . with stops in there to the story of job, the destruction of sodom and gomorrah. It is this last narrative device which seems both necessary for Saramago’s purposes and which leaves at least this reader with the opinion that Saramago has left behind story telling for a flat polemic.

Some familiar post-modern tricks are going on. In talking about cain—not Cain—or god rather than God could Saramago be signaling that he considers the characters in his book not worthy of being known as proper people, that they are drained of real identity, with their status as fictional characters thus underscored? Perhaps. This is one of several issues that make the role of storytelling wobble . . . does Saramago want to let his writing speak forcefully, or is he undercutting himself unintentionally, “but this is after all, just an artifice?” Then consider the vagaries of time travel literature. The novel ends with cain on board noah’s ark; cain systematically kills all the women by heaving them overboard: no women left who can repopulate the earth. So then, no abraham, moses, job and so forth? But wait, he has already encountered abraham, moses and job. This would leave cain as the only one with complete knowledge, of what could have been, a stand in for god or author.

I’ll grant that Cain has flashes of funny stuff in it. In Genesis after Adam and Eve are evicted from the Garden they have children who go off to marry people who live elsewhere; no getting around that. So Saramago casts that idea, in all its implications of “hunh?,” using his style of long run-on sentences held together by commas. In Cain adam and eve are speaking in a back and forth with the angel guarding the entrance to the garden:

They sat down on the ground and discovered that the angel azael wasn’t one to beat about the bush, You are not the only human beings on earth, he began, Not the only ones, exclaimed adam, astonished . . .

. . . Then eve asked, if other human beings already exist, why did the lord make us, As you know the ways of the lord are mysterious, but, as far as I can make out, you were an experiment, Us, an experiment, exclaimed adam, an experiment to prove what, Since I do not know for certain, I cannot tell you, but the lord must have his reasons for keeping silent on the matter . . .

Another amusing bit is when god changes appearance from the first congenial companion at the start of adam and eve’s existence to formal, three-tiered crowned fellow, described so clearly that Saramago must have this sort of image in mind:

Saramago was a communist and atheist. He was a harsh critic of the predominant Roman Catholic church of his day, place, and time. An earlier novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, was published not long before he was awarded the Nobel Literature Prize—much protested by the Vatican. That novel, with a somewhat lighter touch than Cain, casts “scandalous” aspersions on who Jesus was by imaginatively exploring his life outside of the scripturally accounted-for years. That such ground has been well trammeled already takes away from the sense of naughty audacity; see forays into such territory by Pullman and Frey, whose books landed with something of critical thud. Where other reviews of Cain have gone astray is in portraying Cain as also anti-Christian; it is not. Instead it is much more anti-Jewish-foundational-text.

Time travel allows cain to witness horrible events reported in the Hebrew scriptures teased out in all of the stories’ troubling implications. One example suffices: cain speaks with abraham after abraham had bargained with god not to destroy sodom and gomorrah if a few righteous men were found living there; apparently abraham failed. After the destruction is complete, cain points out to abraham that there must have been many, many innocent children who also died. abraham then puts his head in his hands in sickened despair.

cain and Saramago are correct: there would have been many innocent children who would have died. That is, assuming you take the story as historical reportage. Whatever the point of the story was in its original telling—by my best lights it is a condemnation of those who break the laws of hospitality (not a condemnation of homosexuality)—the key is the heroes, the protagonists. Think any action film: the hero goes about battling the villains, cars crash in chase scenes into other drivers and pedestrians who are maimed and killed, or warrior combatants with no name or back-story falling left and right around the antagonists. They are throw-away props for the story.

So I come back around to my initial question: what are stories for? Saramago repeatedly uses those of Hebrew scriptures to cast them as literally true in all of their gory, disturbing implications, to show god as evil. If you grant that these stories were not recorded as if by an on-site video camera would capture, then they are instead participating in myth making written by people over a thousand years after the ostensible events. This is storytelling to find identity and truth for a people. The Hebrews who were writing down these stories were doing so after having been repeatedly, brutally conquered by Babylonians, Assyrians, and Persians . . . as they would have themselves done if they had the economic and military power. Their reasoning goes as it does for all conquered people wishing to retain identity and self-respect, “we are a chosen, unique people.” Every tribe, religion and nation has such tales.

Religion gets used as a scapegoat for the evil things done in its name. Behind the parade of horrors performed in the name of the holy is an impulse common to human behavior. The Khmer Rouge did what they did in the name of right political thought; ditto Stalin. Humans are capable of doing things that are sublime—the arts, selfless sacrifice for others—as well as the most vile.

Literature used polemically to skewer religion, or anything for that matter, can sound brittle. Saramago’s writing here comes down to, in my evaluation, the same sort of strident tone as found in any other fundamentalist writings, religious, political or scientific (Dawkins, Harris et al.). Saramago might be aiming for the tradition of Rabelais; I find this book to be closer kin to LaHaye. I’ll take my religion, and my literature, with ample room for ambiguity, gray areas, room to explore and ponder, permission to find where I and the holy might find one another. I follow Jesus, and he mostly spoke in parables.

Now, if you really want some funny, satirical writing that takes on religious matters, try Stanley Elkin’s The Living End. The protagonist is condemned to hell because God hears his first thought on entering heaven: “it looks like a theme park.” My signed, first edition of this novella has pride of place wherever I move.

27 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Grant Barber on António Lobo Antunes’s The Land at the End of the World, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and available from W.W. Norton.

Antunes is a long-time favorite of mine. I really love his novel Act of the Damned. And Fado Alexandrino. And The Natural Order of Things. And this book. Also very much looking forward to reading The Splendor of Portugal, which Dalkey Archive is bringing out this fall, and which arrived in the mail earlier this week.

Grant Barber is a regular reviewer for Three Percent. He’s an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston and, in his own words, “a keen bibliophile.” He’s also very interested in Spanish and Latin American literature, and mentioned in the past that he’d like to someday improve his Spanish and try his hand at translation.

Here’s the opening of his review:

Judas’s Asshole. Now that title would have stood out at Barnes and Noble. Think of the cover art possibilities.

Margaret Jull Costa explains that this original title of this novel, Os Cus de Judas, comes from a Portuguese colloquialism. When I moved to a town in the Northeast earlier in my life people called it “the armpit of America,” so I get the expression. While in the novel the narrator does call his base in wartime Angola “the land at the end of the world,” I suspect Antunes is aiming for a harsher connotation than is captured here (or in New Haven’s nickname).

This is Antunes’ second novel, one we’re told has been critically regarded as one of his best works. Because Antunes has covered some of the territory—psychiatrist narrator, Africa, in extremis—in later novels already translated and in English readers’ hands and minds, maybe the power of this work seems somehow less. Then too Antunes himself served his citizenship-mandated two years in the Portuguese Army as a physician/psychiatrist while his country was defending its last gasp hold on their colony in Angola. I at least can have the assumption that a second novel, the most autobiographical one, is a working-through of raw material, so that later works can take the energy, themes, metaphors and so forth into a more nuanced, digested, recollected-in-tranquility (although not much “tranquility” indicated here) achievement. I think these assumptions would all be mistakes. This novel is a powerful work of a unique wordsmith with important things to say.

Click here to read the entire review.

27 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Judas’s Asshole. Now that title would have stood out at Barnes and Noble. Think of the cover art possibilities.

Margaret Jull Costa explains that this original title of this novel, Os Cus de Judas, comes from a Portuguese colloquialism. When I moved to a town in the Northeast earlier in my life people called it “the armpit of America,” so I get the expression. While in the novel the narrator does call his base in wartime Angola “the land at the end of the world,” I suspect Antunes is aiming for a harsher connotation than is captured here (or in New Haven’s nickname).

This is Antunes’ second novel, one we’re told has been critically regarded as one of his best works. Because Antunes has covered some of the territory—psychiatrist narrator, Africa, in extremis—in later novels already translated and in English readers’ hands and minds, maybe the power of this work seems somehow less. Then too Antunes himself served his citizenship-mandated two years in the Portuguese Army as a physician/psychiatrist while his country was defending its last gasp hold on their colony in Angola. I at least can have the assumption that a second novel, the most autobiographical one, is a working-through of raw material, so that later works can take the energy, themes, metaphors and so forth into a more nuanced, digested, recollected-in-tranquility (although not much “tranquility” indicated here) achievement. I think these assumptions would all be mistakes. This novel is a powerful work of a unique wordsmith with important things to say.

The novel is grounded in the present, as the narrator sits in a Lisbon bar late at night, talking to a woman he plans later to take back to his seedy apartment for early morning sex. His means of seduction: a graphic, unvarnished recollection of his service in a back-lands army base in Angola ten years or so earlier. Three-quarters of the actual novel consists of these recollections, although by the conclusion the action has moved more into the present. Each short chapter contains paragraphs of long associational sentences. At its heart the effect is of past and present, inner and outer not collapsing together as much as mutually relating, informing.

I woke in the morning to the thunderous sky over the River Cuando and the thought It’s Christmas Day today, and saw in those same weary gestures the usual eternal Monday morning, the heat was running down my back in large, sticky, sweaty drops, and I said to myself, This can’t be right, there’s something wrong about all this, my oversize pajamas appeared to contain neither bones nor flesh and I felt that I no longer existed, my trunk, my limbs, my feet didn’t exist apart from a pair of blinking eyes staring, in surprise, at the plain and then, beyond the plain, at the accumulation of trees to the north, the direction from which the airplane always came, bringing fresh food and mail, I was just those two astonished, staring eyes, which I rediscover today in the bathroom mirror, looking older and duller after the initial shudder of my first pee, and shouting a silent plea at their own reflection, a plea that goes unanswered.

The past—childhood waits for Christmas morning in oversized pajamas (we know that the narrator sleeps naked in the African heat)—tied to the future by the same disembodied eyes. The narrator ties the political to the personal, segueing by naming the idealists of the world—the Che Guevaras and Allendes—in the same sentence and train of thought to the sex that he will soon have with his listener, one without illusions: to commit oneself to even the shadow of love will be to give into the futility of the idealist who scares the world to the point of martyrdom. He draws repeated analogies to the waste of the doomed war to the masturbatory routine that he shares with the other officers each night in their compound huts. His one connection to a native woman ends when the secret security force takes her away to a prison after gang-raping her.

The African woman becomes the country devastated by the colonialists. The newly-arrived narrator reacts to his first fatality by taking the body into his own hut, his own couch, and claiming to the curious orderly that the man is not dead, just napping; soon that corpse metaphorically expands as it putrefies to overtake the whole country. The woman in the bar—sweet talked into bed by graphic memories of fatal wounds, blood, viscera—becomes the face of a society which had condoned this war, and now lives in an enervated state. The narrator fails in his first attempt at coitus, only to have a “successful” second outcome after begging to try again, with his partner faking it. She will now put on make-up and the same clothes and go to work, exhausted by no sleep, the constant flow of alcohol, and the words: an the ordeal she has kept through the night. The woman reflects the country, the society, and the night her history.

But I make it all sound so cookie-cutter, when it is not. Antunes the psychoanalyst understands how metaphors grounded in the inner psyche (mostly id here, certainly no super-ego), and in the particulars of life—a man, a woman, personal histories and the specifics of reality—also weave in the culture, history, and traumas of society.

I’m not sure I can hear the news of an African—or Latin American or Middle Eastern—country dealing with the paroxysms of colonialist histories without flashing on this novel. Antunes in engaging the personal also does so with the political, in effective language which must have been both a challenge and satisfaction for Costa to have translated.

*

Addendum: I’d like to hear from translators—Costa, Wimmer, Grossman, all women—how they cope with engaging so intensely with texts that have such graphic and violent images of violence against women. It seems to me one thing to pick up a novel I’m interested in, which I can set back down or not continue; it is another to engage so deeply with a work, to get not just the word’s meaning, but also tone, nuance. I suspect it causes nightmares.

6 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Grant Barber on Stigmata, a new graphic novel from Fantagraphics by Lorenzo Mattotti and Claudio Piersanti, translated from the Italian by Kim Thompson.

Unless I’m totally forgetting something, this is the first review of a translated graphic novel that we’ve put up on our site. There’s no reason that we haven’t posted more graphic novel reviews, except that we’re way too busy trying to understand the workings and philosophical implications of Facebook commenting.

But seriously, Edward Gauvin is a great translator of graphic novels from the French (and a great translator overall), and there’s no reason we shouldn’t be covering more of these.

Anyway, the first one to be reviewed is Stigmata, and it’s perfect that Grant Barber, Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston, keen bibliophile, and frequent Three Percent reviewer, wrote this up. Here’s the opening of his review and an image:

The novel opens with a wordless picture of an overweight guy sitting up on the edge of his bed in the underwear he has slept in. Unshaven, with an untrimmed goatee and a mohawk that seems more born from the necessity of hair loss than style, the protagonist who speaks in first person—relating his tale—is clearly a man living on the margins of his society . . . revealed to be a 41-year-old alcoholic who is occasionally employed, living in a boarding house.

The book moves quickly to the dream vision he has had: called into the presence of a looming, cosmic, God-Child who promises the man that his suffering will soon be over, and that he is now to receive a sign of this promise—bleeding from a single wound in each palm without pain or infection. He rejects this ‘gift,’ which propels the protagonist out of his boarding house, where people have taken to leaving votive gifts of candles and flowers and requests for miracles. He tries first for a medical cure, which brings imposed psychiatric attention, then life as an ordinary person hiding his wounds unsuccessfully. He joins a circus, falls in love with a woman who accepts him for who he is, loses her in a flood. Eventually finds some rest and acceptance of his condition working in a convent, tending the dead for burial and the keeping up the cemetery.

Click here to read the full piece.

6 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I am an ambivalent reader of graphic novels. I’m of a generation that remembers when Superman was less muscled, and hadn’t yet died or been cloned. “Adult graphic novel” designated the rumored underground works about Fritz the cat. The amazing boom of the last couple decades of literary versions has led me to works such as Persepolis and Maus. Still, I’m not sure I have the critical equipment to get the most out of these works wedding image and text. Actually, it’s been the wordless versions of narratives (from the recently reissued Lynd Ward woodcut novels to Shaun Tan), which intrigue me most. Most graphic novels just read so darn fast.

Yet is there any other place on earth where word meets art in the context of religion/spirituality with greater heritage and pedigree than Italy? This Italian graphic novel has art by Mattotti and words by Piersanti from Bologna, who is a novelist and screenwriter.

The novel opens with a wordless picture of an overweight guy sitting up on the edge of his bed in the underwear he has slept in. Unshaven, with an untrimmed goatee and a mohawk that seems more born from the necessity of hair loss than style, the protagonist who speaks in first person—relating his tale—is clearly a man living on the margins of his society . . . revealed to be a 41-year-old alcoholic who is occasionally employed, living in a boarding house.

The book moves quickly to the dream vision he has had: called into the presence of a looming, cosmic, God-Child who promises the man that his suffering will soon be over, and that he is now to receive a sign of this promise—bleeding from a single wound in each palm without pain or infection. He rejects this ‘gift,’ which propels the protagonist out of his boarding house, where people have taken to leaving votive gifts of candles and flowers and requests for miracles. He tries first for a medical cure, which brings imposed psychiatric attention, then life as an ordinary person hiding his wounds unsuccessfully. He joins a circus, falls in love with a woman who accepts him for who he is, loses her in a flood. Eventually finds some rest and acceptance of his condition working in a convent, tending the dead for burial and the keeping up the cemetery.

His journey to acceptance involves some reading of hard-core medieval writings from saints who themselves had known the curse/blessing of God’s attention. Yet the reader gets the sense that this book is being written not for the person well-steeped in Christian faith, but instead is a modern-day exploration of ‘what-if,’ a fresh introduction to what an encounter with the Holy might be in our own day and time. If you know Fangraphics, you know they are not a religious publishing house; they would not be bringing out a book of dogma or evangelism.

For someone in the biz, this book is like cat-nip. Ah, the story of the one who did not ask to be chosen (OT figures such as Jeremiah, Job, Jonah), yet who by divine coercion encounters the holy and is transformed. Never mind that within the church-defined and controlled the stigmata has been given not to just hands, but feet and wounded side, and only to those holy enough to deserve the sign. This fellow is chosen, but he is not the figure of the exceptional.

For a reader who knows little or nothing about religious tradition outside the caricatures created through self-promoters of the strident and extreme, by those who abuse their faith and others under the cloak of religion, or by the media this story may very well intrigue, horrify, and maybe even move. It is not a doctrinaire work; it is a human one.

30 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Ah, the storied Swiss Alps: snow capped mountains, fields of wild flowers, burbling streams of clean water, simple folks out doing what simple folks do in such settings. Take for example the flock of sheep accompanied by blond haired girl along a winding path. Especially of note is how she picks up a rock and wings it at errant sheep.

In this, his second novel, Frisch gives a modernist take on the heroic quest for meaning by the solitary man in nature. Balz Leuthold, 30 years old, is a sorely disappointed man. Seventeen years ago he had accompanied his older brother (himself 30, soon to be married) in these same mountains. He had vowed then not to settle for the ordinary, but instead achieve the extraordinary in . . . something.

You could still tell yourself: you’re only twenty, everything’s still possible. And how proud you are when everything was still possible! Later it was: twenty-five’s no age at all, and you like reading about people who had achieved nothing at twenty-five, which was something out of the ordinary, and those around them who did not believe that they had this or that achievement in them. True, you still didn’t know in what field your future achievements would lie, but in the meantime you wore ties and hats of a style that would never occur to a ordinary citizen, and even at times you were afraid you might be ridiculous . . . and worthless and worse than anyone else on earth, it was a painful thought but not without its comfort; at least it gave you the feeling that it made you a special person, perhaps a criminal, and it was only when you failed to achieve anything by way of misdeeds that others could not do equally well, that a new and more despairing fear set in that your extraordinary achievement might not happen.

Hipsters beware! As the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes, “nothing new under the sun.”

As the novel unfolds Balz is revealed as not such a total failure, except in his own eyes. He has a Ph.D., is ready to take on his new job of teaching (although in that system it sounds like he will teach school-aged children), and is engaged to a woman named Barbara.

After a trek he arrives at an inn at the base of some mountains, and the reader learns he intends to climb one by a route never achieved before, the North Ridge. (The helpful afterward by Peter von Mott explains that Frisch’s contemporary readers would have recognized this as the North Wall of the Eiger Mountain which many had failed to climb yet, with upcoming tries much in the news.) Balz spends a day or two at the inn during bad weather, strikes up a relationship with Irene, a woman who has come to the inn with a married couple. He makes a practice climb on another rock face, one which we hear has been only successfully climbed by a few; clearly he is fit and experienced, not as wholly delusional as the reader might have feared from earlier descriptions. When he reaches the top of this climb he stands in the silence in an anticlimactic moment, an achievement with no self-evident meaning.

Balz sets out to climb the North Ridge. Irene follows, and turns out to be no innocent lured by the dashing young man. His fiancé Barbara arrives at the inn after their departure, gets the picture, reveals that she actually doesn’t really love Balz (nor he her). Yet she goes to the camp where Irene has stayed, and they have an agreeable conversation; at nightfall Balz has not returned and a rescue party is sent out.

Balz does return, changed. It’s safe to say he won’t feel the need to achieve the spectacular anymore, and he does have an answer of sort for his living the rest of his life. No need to reveal what forms those developments take. To me the resolution seemed satisfying, “correct.”

This novel is 100 pages and a quick read in an evening. It’s an entertaining book to see in the context of modernism in general and Frisch’s overall works specifically. As the Afterward points out, the themes in this novel are ones Frisch returned to frequently. I had read Man in the Holocene in college, and lent it out never to be returned. It’s good to find a great writer who holds up.

11 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Grant Barber on Carmine Abate’s The Homecoming Party, translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar and published by Europa Editions.

In his own words, Grant Barber is “an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston and a keen bibliophile. Maybe by the time he retires his Spanish will be good enough to try his own translations of Latin American fiction.”

As Grant mentions in his review, Abate’s Between Two Seas is also available from Europa Editions, and was also translated by Antony Shugaar. (Antony is a member of the Europa Edition All Star Translator team. Along with Alison Anderson, I think he’s translated approximately 75 books for Europa this year. Crazy.)

Anyway, here’s the opening of Grant’s review:

This short novel (171 pages) continues Europa’s practice of bringing interesting contemporary fiction from writers of Europe. What commends this novel most is the author’s voice underlying the first person accounts of Marco, a 13 year old Albanian- Italian boy living in a small southern Italy town, and his father who is a migrant laborer in France. Tullio, the father, returns home for a succession of Christmas celebrations, which anchor the novel’s unfolding time. Carmine Abate must be well served by Antony Shugaar, the translator of this novel (and Abate’s novel Between Two Seas, also published by Europa): the story confidently unfolds at a steady, gentle pace, with some loops forwards and backwards as the reader pieces together all the events.

Click here to read the full review.

11 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

This short novel (171 pages) continues Europa’s practice of bringing interesting contemporary fiction from writers of Europe. What commends this novel most is the author’s voice underlying the first person accounts of Marco, a 13 year old Albanian- Italian boy living in a small southern Italy town, and his father who is a migrant laborer in France. Tullio, the father, returns home for a succession of Christmas celebrations, which anchor the novel’s unfolding time. Carmine Abate must be well served by Antony Shugaar, the translator of this novel (and Abate’s novel Between Two Seas, also published by Europa): the story confidently unfolds at a steady, gentle pace, with some loops forwards and backwards as the reader pieces together all the events.

Abate creates believable characters not just of Marco and Tullio, but also Marco’s teenaged half-sister Elisa (the daughter of Tullio and his first, deceased wife), Marco’s best friend and cousin Mario, as well as glimpses of Marco’s younger sister, mother, and grandmother. The remaining, significant character is a somewhat mysterious older man who becomes in separate encounters a love interest of Elisa, and an almost mythical male adult figure for Marco during a long absence of his father. In fact underneath the specific characters are recognizably archetypal people and events: the boy just coming into adolescence observing the young woman discovering her sexuality, a powerfully important but absent father, a faithful dog companion, descent into grave sickness and return to health with an altered awareness, passing time marked by religious/mythical annual events, the final crisis when the mysterious man transgresses too far into the lives of the family and Marco’s resultant action.

To Abate’s credit these motifs do not mean a too-predictable story. Rather, the narrative pace holds the reader’s attention and elicits an investment in what happens. Part of the appeal of the novel is the growing sense that we are in familiar territory, but with a fresh telling, a slice of life in all it particulars well drawn. This book is an easy night’s read, smooth, sophisticated, generous hearted.

28 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece on Dream of Reason by Rosa Chacel, translated from the Spanish by Carol Maier and recently published by the University of Nebraska Press as part of their European Women Writers Series.

I’ve written about this book on a few occasions, mainly because of the Javier Marias quote on the back, but there’s also a strong endorsement from Barbara Probst Solomon, who states, “Dream of Reason confirms Rosa Chacel as a major Modernist writer, the equivalent of a new-found Proust meditating on memory and selfhood, an image-driven Woolf with a profound philosophical bent. But reading Chacel is its own unforgettable experience.”

This review is written by Grant Barber, who, in his own words, is “an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston and a keen bibliophile. Maybe by the time he retires his Spanish will be good enough to try his own translations of Latin American fiction.”

Rosa Chacel (1898-1994) sculptor, novelist, poet, essayist, feminist was born and died in Spain, with Brazil as a second home. She was a contemporary with the Generation of ’27, which included Garcia Lorca and Ramon Jaminez, and she was familiar with the writings of Freud and James Joyce and the philosophies of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. She claimed La sinrazón (Dream of Reason) (1960) to be her masterpiece and culmination of her fiction writing. This and much more can be found in Carol Maier’s helpful, thorough introduction. Maier is not only the translator of this Chacel book, which is appearing in English translation for the first time; she is the translator of two other Chacel novels that appear in the University of Nebraska’s European Women Writers Series; she is a scholar of Chacel’s entire writings, and she had the chance to know and explore the writer’s thought with Chacel before the end of her life.

This business of introductions presents a possible dilemma to the reader. To read the introduction first? In works of translation, or in bringing back into print a novel that has dropped out of sight (as with the excellent New York Review of Books) this decision is common. Often the introduction gives away more of the plot than one might want, or it takes away some of the enjoyment of discovery of style and thought. Why not begin reading the novel, skip the introduction; after all, if it is a worthy work of art then it should stand on its own, right?

Dream of Reason places this dilemma front and center. The writer is still a relative unknown to English speakers. At the outset the reader realizes that this novel is not plot driven. In her introduction, Maier gives a cogent explanation of Chacel’s intellectual project, that the novel tries to represent will and thought intimately joined to a person’s circumstances, a philosophical perspective from Ortega y Gasset. The voice of the narrator Santiago Hernandez is agreeable, but at times the ruminations can tax patience, unless the reader enters the novel forearmed. Not until page 268 of the novel does Hernandez explain, “One of our contemporary philosophers has said that the intimate life of ideas should be novelized. That is definitely what’s needed: the creation of a genre, a series of biographies of ideas, a thing very different from a novel of ideas.”

Click here for the full review.

28 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Rosa Chacel (1898-1994) sculptor, novelist, poet, essayist, feminist was born and died in Spain, with Brazil as a second home. She was a contemporary with the Generation of ’27, which included Garcia Lorca and Ramon Jaminez, and she was familiar with the writings of Freud and James Joyce and the philosophies of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. She claimed La sinrazón (Dream of Reason) (1960) to be her masterpiece and culmination of her fiction writing. This and much more can be found in Carol Maier’s helpful, thorough introduction. Maier is not only the translator of this Chacel book, which is appearing in English translation for the first time; she is the translator of two other Chacel novels that appear in the University of Nebraska’s European Women Writers Series; she is a scholar of Chacel’s entire writings, and she had the chance to know and explore the writer’s thought with Chacel before the end of her life.

This business of introductions presents a possible dilemma to the reader. To read the introduction first? In works of translation, or in bringing back into print a novel that has dropped out of sight (as with the excellent New York Review of Books) this decision is common. Often the introduction gives away more of the plot than one might want, or it takes away some of the enjoyment of discovery of style and thought. Why not begin reading the novel, skip the introduction; after all, if it is a worthy work of art then it should stand on its own, right?

Dream of Reason places this dilemma front and center. The writer is still a relative unknown to English speakers. At the outset the reader realizes that this novel is not plot driven. In her introduction, Maier gives a cogent explanation of Chacel’s intellectual project, that the novel tries to represent will and thought intimately joined to a person’s circumstances, a philosophical perspective from Ortega y Gasset. The voice of the narrator Santiago Hernandez is agreeable, but at times the ruminations can tax patience, unless the reader enters the novel forearmed. Not until page 268 of the novel does Hernandez explain, “One of our contemporary philosophers has said that the intimate life of ideas should be novelized. That is definitely what’s needed: the creation of a genre, a series of biographies of ideas, a thing very different from a novel of ideas.”

The novel is divided into two parts of almost equal length. In the first Hernandez is orphaned, taken in by his uncle in Madrid, has a relationship with a German dancer Elfriede who will return twice again at decisive moments to move the plot along; he attends university in Buenos Aires, marries Quitina, daughter of a wealthy Cuban. Hernandez finds an opening in his field of chemical manufacturing, which leads to his majority ownership of the factory and outright ownership of the hacienda in the country. He and his wife have three sons. Their family/social circle is expanded by the arrival as refugees of a distant cousin from Spain, Herminia, her adolescent son Miguel, and later Herminia’s husband Damien, a man troubled from taking the Republican side of the Civil War as a soldier.

The novel progresses through a series of crises, grounded in the world of action, but given real meaning and explained in the ruminations of Hernandez. In the dynamic world of people interacting we read how Quitina’s mother opposed the budding relationship and has Quitina shipped off with relatives in Cuba. Yet the more important action happens inside Hernandez’s head: he has a vibrant moment in the midst of the resulting turmoil as he focuses on a bothersome fly:

I tried countless times to hit the fly with my hand, but I’d always failed. . . . As I formulated my desire to see the fly annihilated, I did not try to hit it with the heavy instrument of my hand: I focused my intention on the fly and, and without breaking the spiral of its flight, I lead it toward the glass. There the fly fell and my energy collided with it on the glass. I heard it fry, because that was neither a buzzing nor a vibrating. . . . The blow reverberated throughout that uncommon limb of my will, the echoes of former convulsions. . . . For a few minutes, or rather, for one of those spans of time that seems impossible to divide into minutes I thought about the power that was within me, which had lived off my own life, without my noticing it.

At the same moment, as if related, Quitina’s mother is killed in a car accident, and the impediment to their relationship vanishes. Later Hernandez will repeat something of the same encounter, with different results. While in his study he notices a mounted butterfly specimen, and he sets himself the challenge that, if he would will it, he could make it flap its wings—only to end the ruminations with deciding he would will the butterfly not to flap its wings.

A second crisis that illustrates the inwardness of “action” in the novel occurs on an evening when Hernandez is staying in town at his work office and decides to tell Quitina that he has to stay too late that night to make the drive back to the country. He knows it is a lie as he tells it. The crisis he experiences is his expectation that Quitina not believe the lie. Instead Hernandez believes his relationship to his wife to be so profound that she should, she must, know that he is lying and then confront him. Her failure to do so is her failing. In uncovering the reality that he has idealized a perfect union of will and emotion between two imperfect people he asks, “And what’s left of love if love loses its sense of the absolute?”

The next move Hernandez makes in his narration is to turn to a moment of spiritual enlightenment, a Kierkegaardian leap of faith. In the modernist tradition in which Chacel writes though this leap is not one Kierkegaard would recognize. Referring to a moment of transcendence, Hernandez makes a claim that humans are self-deifying. Later he talks with Miguel about the withdrawal of God which allows all of humans to become divinized in each person’s moment of crucifixion, and the desire for each of us to become a Superman—not Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, dismissed as tiresome—but rather the Superman of the movies, a metaphor in some ways for becoming angelic.

The second half of the novel picks up the memoir six years later. While the first half of the book shows a building up of life—sense of self, marriage, work, relationships, the second half chronicles dissolution through a series of internal crises similar to those in the first, albeit with more conversation reported and events occurring in the world of action, helping to pick up the narrative pace a bit.

A significant tension remains at the end of the book. Hernandez is an ambiguous figure, intentionally presented as a not entirely likeable character. His crises of mind and spirit pale next to the war experiences of others, yet his own self absorption reverses the hierarchy of importance. His expectations of others in his life are unreasonable. The purpose of growing poppies, to produce opium, goes unstated, but reverberates. He is no everyman, nor hero. Yet he is the vehicle by which Chacel chooses to explore Ortega y Gasset’s philosophy, one toward which she was drawn.

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