Earlier this week I was on the Wisconsin Public Radio show Here On Earth to make some international literature summer reading recommendations. We weren’t able to cover the full list of books I came up with, so I thought I’d post about them one-by-one over the next couple weeks with additional info, why these titles sound appealing to me, etc., etc. Click here for the complete list of posts.
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic. Translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Celia Hawkesworth, and Mark Thompson. (Croatia/Europe, Canongate)
OK, today is much busier than expected (it started with a fairly surreal interview with the Bay City Times at 8am this morning and will end with Atwood’s presentation tonight at 7pm), but I really don’t want to fall off my summer recommendation plan, so I’m going to cheat a bit . . . Rather than try and write a whole new set of reasons as to why you should check this out (and you should—it’s one of Dubravka’s best books), I’m just going to re-run the review I wrote of this a few months back.
Promise that all future write ups will be new material . . . Most of the other books I want to recommend haven’t been reviewed on the site anyway. But regardless, here goes:
This is an admittedly biased statement (disclaimer: the first book Open Letter published was Ugresic’s Nobody’s Home, and I was responsible for Dalkey’s publishing Thank You for Not Reading a few years back), but I honestly believe that Dubravka Ugresic is one of the most interesting writers working today. Her books are consistently good, even across genres. The two aforementioned essay collections are spot-on, and her fiction — from The Museum of Unconditional Surrender to Lend Me Your Character to The Ministry of Pain — is always enjoyable, surprising, captivating, and envelope-pushing.
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is a perfect example of Ugresic’s fertile imagination. The latest entry in Canongate’s “Myths Series,” this novel is presumably a retelling of the Slavic myth of Baba Yaga — an old witch who lives in a house with chicken legs and kidnaps children. Which is why it’s surprising that the novel begins with the rather mundane situation of the writer returning home to visit her elderly mother and her mother’s hometown.
Actually, the novel technically opens with a preface about old women, entitled “At First You Don’t See Them . . .”:
Sweet little old ladies. At first you don’t see them. And then, there they are, on the tram, at the post office, in the shop, at the doctor’s surgery, on the street, there is one, there is another, there is a fourth over there, a fifth, a sixth, how could there be so many of them all at once?
The presence and machinations of old women is the thread that runs throughout this triptych. The second part — my personal favorite — is much more fairy-tale-like than the first, with tragic deaths and reunions with lost children. It takes place over a week at a resort hotel and centers on three women:
In a wheelchair sat an old lady with both feet tucked into a large fur boot. It would have been hard to describe the old lady as a human being; she was the remains of a human being, a piece of humanoid crackling. [. . .] The other one, the one pushing the wheelchair, was exceptionally tall, slender and of astonishingly erect bearing for her advanced years. [. . .] The third was a short breathless blonde, her hair ruined by excessive use of peroxide, with big gold rings in her ears and large breasts whose weight dragged her forward.
In its exacting descriptions and twisted plot machinations, this section is vintage Ugresic. (Of her previous work, this section is closest in tone and playfulness to the pieces in Lend Me Your Character.) It’s also the most vulgar of the three sections of Baba Yaga — which is kind of fun. Take this scene, where one of the elderly ladies is getting a massage at the hands of the marvelous Mevlo, who is the flipside of Hemingway’s Jake Barnes:
Beba didn’t know what to say. As far as she could judge, the young man was fine in every way. More than fine.
“This thing of mine stands up like a flagpole, but what’s the use, love, when I’m cold as an icicle? It’s as much use to me as a cripple’s withered leg. You can do what you like with it, tap it as much as you like, it just echoes as though it was hollow.”
“Hang on, what are you talking about?”
“My willy, love, you must have noticed.”
“No,” lied Beba.
“It happened after the explosion. A Serbian shell exploded right beside me, fuck them all, and ever since then, it’s been standing up like this. My mates all teased me, why, Mevlo, they said, you’ve profited from the war. Not only did you get away with your life, but you got a tool taut as a gun. Me, a war profiteer? A war cripple, that’s what I am!”
If the second part is where Ugresic lets her comedic charms fly, the third is where she gets her postmodern on.
This section takes the form of a letter from a Dr. Aba Bagay (who appeared in part one) to the book’s editor, who is a bit confused as to how the first two sections of the book relate to the myth of Baba Yaga. So Bagay creates a “Baba Yaga for Beginners,” exploring the myth from a number of angles in a very scholarly way:
The elusive and capricious Baba Yaga sometimes appears as a helper, a donor, sometimes as an avenger, a villain, sometimes as a sentry between two worlds, sometimes as an intermediary between worlds, but also as a mediator between the heroes in a story. Most interpreters locate Baba Yaga in the ample mythological family of old and ugly women with specific kinds of power, in a taxonomy that is common to mythologies the world over.
Bagay’s scholarly apparatus is loaded with contradictions about the Baba Yaga myth and how it’s been interpreted and told. The one constant is the “old woman” bit, which is also the thread which runs throughout Ugresic’s novel, a novel that defies most novelistic conventions, that doesn’t so much retell the story of Baba Yaga as explode it into several very enjoyable fragments.
While I was at the AWP conference, a ton of interesting books arrived in our offices, all worth writing about. I’ll try and cover more of these over the next few weeks, but for now, I thought I’d look at the three titles translated from Spanish that caught my eye.
Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto is one of the spring books that I’m most excited about. Prieto’s first book — Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire — earned him comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov, and it sounds like Rex is working in that same vein, as a “sexy and zany literary game rife with allusions to Proust, Homer, Pushkin, and even Star Wars, set in a world of wealthy Russian expats and Mafiosos who have settled in Western Europe.” I talked to Esther Allen at some point when she was working on this translation, and I remember her recommending it highly. Even from the first paragraph it’s evident Prieto has a special command:
I’ve been reading it for years, the one Book. Over and over without stopping. Beginning again whenever I reach the final description of the vast party, the inaugural ball, returning immediately to the first words, when he’s dozing off in the house in Combray and dreams of stopping time in its tracks, solidifying it. I’ve opened it at random in ship terminals (Helsinki), English pubs, Istanbul cafes. Each and every time, without fail, I’ve been stunned by the intelligence, the penetration, the unique capacity to perceive things that escape every other writer. Always the right words, flowing out miraculously, as if he never had to stop and think about them, as easily and naturally as someone randomly humming syllables, nonsense noises, tra-la-la-ing a tune.
It’s thanks to Monica Carter that I recently found out about Scarletta Press. (That and the fact that the director came to the panel I was on at AWP.) A relatively young press, Scarletta is doing a couple of translations this season, including Ignacio Solares‘s Yankee Invasion, a historical novel about life in Mexico under U.S. rule. The novel is written as a memoir-in-process by an old Mexican man haunted by his experiences during the “Yankee Invasion.” Carlos Fuentes wrote an introduction for this novel, and Solares is one of Mexico’s most respected — and prolific — contemporary writers, so this should be worth checking out.
And speaking of contemporary Mexican writers, I also received a finished copy of the Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction anthology that Dalkey Archive is putting out thanks to a National Endowment for the Arts cultural exchange project. Edited by Alvaro Uribe (with the translations edited by Olivia Sears), this volume collects stories from sixteen Mexican writers born after 1945, including Cristina Rivera-Garza, Rosa Beltran, Juan Villoro, Daniel Sada, Guillermo Samperio, and Hector Manjarrez. I’ve heard elsewhere that a lot of these stories are Bonsai-esque, and I’ve been waiting to read a number of these authors for years, so I have big hopes for this book. The only thing that sucks (aside from the fact that Open Letter couldn’t apply for this project) is the interior design: I’m all for bilingual poetry collections, but printing prose on bilingual facing pages—especially when the text on the two pages in no way matches up—is sort of bizarre and hard to read. Probably would’ve been cooler to have the English in the front and Spanish in the back, and vice-versa for the Mexican edition.
One of the legends of publishing, Richard Seaver died from a heart attack on Tuesday. The New York Times has a very nice obituary that highlights his stint at Grove Press, and a bit about what he did at Arcade over the past twenty years.
For the past 20 years, Mr. Seaver and his wife ran Arcade Publishing, which has endured to become one of the most prominent independent publishers left in the United States, specializing in works by far-flung and underexposed authors from all over the world. But the mission of Arcade, to publish new voices that seemingly flout the wisdom of the marketplace, was one that Mr. Seaver began pursuing decades earlier. [. . .]
During Mr. Seaver’s dozen years at Grove — he eventually became its editor in chief — it mounted many similar challenges to decency statutes, publishing literary but taboo-challenging works like Henry Miller’s autobiographical sex odysseys, Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn; Burroughs’s semi-surreal travelogue of a homosexual junkie, Naked Lunch; and Hubert Selby’s novel Last Exit to Brooklyn, which dealt unflinchingly with drugs, homosexuality and rape. In 1965 Grove published a translation of The Story of O, a 1954 French novel about a woman who gives away her body in slavery to a man.
He also translated more than 50 books from the French, including works by Marguerite Duras.
The Times also included this nice bit from Seaver’s recently complete memoir:
In a recently completed memoir, Mr. Seaver recalled the great literary moment of his youth. It was 1952, he was 25 and he had just finished reading two novels, Molloy and Malone Dies, which he deemed to be masterpieces. He wanted to say so.
“How do you write a meaningful comment on such rich, complex, still undiscovered work, without making a critical fool of yourself?” he wrote. “So make a fool of yourself.”
“Out, damned modesty,” he added. “If conviction means anything, then write from the heart. Slightly less tentatively, I wrote: ‘Samuel Beckett, an Irish writer long established in France, has recently published two novels which, although they defy all commentary, merit the attention of anyone interested in this century’s literature.’ ”
This is the seventeenth Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website. There’s also a podcast discussing RTW available from World Books.
One of the best selling points for Yan Lianke’s Serve the People! is the quote on the back from the Chinese Central Propaganda Bureau:
This novel slanders Mao Zedong, the Army, and is overflowing with sex. . . . Do not distribute, pass around, comment on, excerpt from it, or report on it.
This kind of negative attention is a publisher’s dream . . . As explained in the flap copy, when this book was written in 2005, it was deemed “unpublishable by China’s state-run publishing houses.” Thanks to the interview, this quickly became a cult classic.
Sexual insinuations in the jacket copy doesn’t hurt either:
Serve the People! is a beautifully told, wickedly daring story about the forbidden love affair between Liu Lian, the young, pretty wife of a powerful division commander in Communist China, and her household’s lowly servant, Wu Dawang. Left to idle at home while her husband furthers the revolution, Liu Lian establishes a rule for her orderly: whenever the household’s wooden “Serve the People!” sign is removed from its usual place on the dinner talbe and placed elsewhere, Wu Dawang is to stop what he is doing to attend to her needs upstairs.
E. J. wrote a long review of this back some time ago, ending with:
And much of that first two-thirds feels pretty familiar, which left me wanting Lianke to just get Wu Dawang and Liu Lian together, so he could get on with the rest of his story. Anyone who has seen a romantic comedy and gets to the part when misunderstandings-or-outside-forces-are-temporarily-driving-
satisfying knows what I’m talking about, but in this case with a lot more sex once they get together.
Once he gets them together however, Lianke’s story does take on a more elegiac and, to me at least, far more interesting tone. And the book does have a few powerful moments toward the end, when the current of criticism that runs through the plot—how constricting these communist slogans, once internalized, have become, and how they are used and twisted by all and sundry just to get by—affects the plot and the characters most directly and more deeply.
For me, Kate Foster’s review in the San Francisco Chronicle of Lieve Joris’s The Rebels’ Hour perfectly illustrates some of the ridiculous hangups Americans have when it comes to nonfiction and the representation of “truth.”
The Rebels’ Hour is in an interesting postion—it’s a work of “literary reportage” that is “based on real characters, situations, and places, without ever coinciding with them completely.” The publisher—Grove/Atlantic—categorized this as history, and included the following note on the copyright page:
The Rebels’ Hour falls into a category—literary reportage—that has a long history worldwide, but does not have an established tradition in the United States. As Joris clarifies in her preface, “the facts in this book have all been researched in minute detail, but in order to paint a realistic picture of my characters I’ve had to fill in some parts of their lives from my own imagination. It was the only way to make the story both particular and general.” The end result, as one French review noted, is a book that is “even truer than truth” (Afrique-Asia). Having had to choose between fiction and nonfiction, we felt The Rebels’ Hour belonged on the shelf marked nonfiction.
All of this is why I didn’t include the book on our translation database. I even brought this up with Lauren Wein (the book’s super-cool editor) and she agreed that it shouldn’t be counted in the translation list, since it’s clearly not fiction.
Not so, according to the Chronicle. Instead, they label Foster’s piece a “fiction review” and she explains her own viewpoint right away:
This setup, which includes changing the protagonist’s name, will make some readers uncomfortable. After all, in a war-torn country with the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world, there is more than a story to tell; there is a record to set straight.
(To be honest, American readers need to be made uncomfortable. In fact, I would argue that making people uncomfortable is a mark of a great work of literature.)
Grove went out of their way to explain the book’s situation (written in a style that really is pervasive throughout the rest of the world) and Foster foregrounded that “questionable” position at the beginning of her piece—but did she then need to criticize the book based on its shortcomings as a novel?
Despite Joris’ vivid details – the putrid smells of sweaty young soldiers and death, generals constantly gabbing on cell phones, a protagonist partial to milk and Fanta – the story doesn’t read like a novel, and Assani never comes into clear focus.
And it’s not as lyrical as a book of poems either! I don’t know when this hang-up started—maybe with James Frey? (At Dalkey we encountered a bit of this in regards to Voices from Chernobyl, a collection of interviews with Chernobyl survivors that have been recast as (gasp!) monologues. Are the responses exactly the same as the actual people gave? How much did Alexievich pretty it all up? It’s worth noting that this won the NBCC Award for Nonfiction, so I think it’s clear that some people can understand and appreciate this type of “reportage.”)
Regardless, every month there’s a new scandal re: someone making shit up about their lives. Most of the time it’s an American writer elaborating on their past in order to profit and sell more books. And get on Oprah. And intentionally deceive the American public for personal gain. I completely agree—this isn’t cool and is more than shitty. But is that situation analogous to The Rebels’ Hour? Not by a long shot. But Americans, in their typical Puritanical way, are too uptight to understand that there are gray areas, that nonfiction is never objectively “true,” and that the memoirs everyone gets all bent out of shape about—when they find out they’re chocked full of lies—aren’t worth worrying about in the first place.
OK, I’m done for today . . . It’s just so discouraging that Americans seem to have a hard time enjoying/learning from other cultures because they can’t write books according to our prescriptive standards and rules . . .
DailyLit, an online service that delivers installments of books via email or RSS feeds, announced on Wednesday a deal with publisher Grove/Atlantic to serialize House Rules, a thriller by Mike Lawson, ahead of the book’s June 10 publication date.
The deal marks Mamaroneck, N.Y.-based DailyLit’s first new-title deal. The company, which works with publishers that include Chronicle Books, Oxford University Press and Harlequin, as well as a library of open source publications, has in the past distributed books only after their print release date. House Rules—to be released in 139 installments, for $9.95—marks its first title to be released pre-publication, an option DailyLit says can help publishers create hype before a book is released.
For whatever, I love serialized novels, and plan on trying out DailyLit at some point. (Though probably with one of the free offerings.) I know E.J. is skeptical of this format, figuring he (and by extension, most people) would fall behind, and the rss/e-mail bits would pile up and up until reaching the point when it was like reading the full book, but in e-mails. Which I can see happening—especially with Moby Dick or something like that—but I think I’d personally keep on top of it for a new book that I’m getting a chance to read weeks before it’s released. (For instance, I would pay $10 for a serialized version of the 1000+ page 2666 if the sections started appearing in June . . .)
At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin. . .
Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships.. . .
Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .
The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this,. . .
Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .
It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .