26 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Brendan Riley on Yan Lianke’s Lenin’s Kisses, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas and published by Grove Press.

This is Yan Lianke’s third book to come out in English translation, the first two being Serve the People! and Dream of Ding Village. (Interestingly, this is his third translator, with Julia Lovell having done Serve the People! and Cindy Carter having translated Ding Village.)

In terms of Brendan Riley, he was born in Dunkirk, New York in the Year of the Fire Horse. He holds degrees in English literature from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. He has worked for many years as a teacher, translator, editor, and writer. An ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, he also holds certificates in translation studies from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His translations include works by Juan Velasco, Álvaro Enrigue, Juan Filloy, and Carlos Fuentes.

Here’s the opening of his very positive review:

A rich, beautifully written, consistently surprising satire, Yan Lianke’s Lenin’s Kisses boasts an elaborate, engrossing plot with disarming twists and compelling characters both challenged and challenging. It leads the reader on a strange pilgrimage—often melancholy but certainly rewarding—through a China by turns traditional, modern, and fantastical.

The novel centers on the history and destiny of Liven, a remote village in northern China populated by invalids. To be a citizen of Liven, one must be disabled in some way great or small. But so sweetly harmonious is the bucolic life there, some even maim themselves to be allowed to take up residency. Liven’s origins lie in a mythical past of heavenly days before the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the convulsions of the twentieth century, including the Communist Revolution and Mao Tse Tung’s Great Leap Forward. Despite being a village of cripples, Liven is not a crippled village: symbiotic hard work ensures its people a life of plenty. As the shadow of modern times falls on China, Liven finds itself at odds with the world at large, populated by able-bodied “wholers.” From the first page, its fortunes take an especially strange turn with the onset of some paradoxical weather: “Look, in the middle of a sweltering summer, when people couldn’t liven, it suddenly started snowing. This was hot snow.”

High praise for translator Carlos Rojas’s discovery of the ideal English name for Lianke’s mythical Chinese village. In his concise, enlivening preface Professor Rojas explains that the Chinese verb shouhuo, which he translates as “to liven . . . is composed of two Chinese characters that literally mean ‘to receive life’, but in the novel’s regional dialect are used to refer to enjoyment, pleasure, or even sexual intercourse.” This pitch-perfect target-language key at the heart of Rojas’s translation—an impressive feat of lucid, flowing prose—provides an effective comic touchstone; the novel’s exegesis begins and ends with the village’s axiomatic name. It also raises the possibility for Liven, and its unforgettable story, to assume a permanent place in the popular literary imagination.

26 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A rich, beautifully written, consistently surprising satire, Yan Lianke’s Lenin’s Kisses boasts an elaborate, engrossing plot with disarming twists and compelling characters both challenged and challenging. It leads the reader on a strange pilgrimage—often melancholy but certainly rewarding—through a China by turns traditional, modern, and fantastical.

The novel centers on the history and destiny of Liven, a remote village in northern China populated by invalids. To be a citizen of Liven, one must be disabled in some way great or small. But so sweetly harmonious is the bucolic life there, some even maim themselves to be allowed to take up residency. Liven’s origins lie in a mythical past of heavenly days before the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the convulsions of the twentieth century, including the Communist Revolution and Mao Tse Tung’s Great Leap Forward. Despite being a village of cripples, Liven is not a crippled village: symbiotic hard work ensures its people a life of plenty. As the shadow of modern times falls on China, Liven finds itself at odds with the world at large, populated by able-bodied “wholers.” From the first page, its fortunes take an especially strange turn with the onset of some paradoxical weather: “Look, in the middle of a sweltering summer, when people couldn’t liven, it suddenly started snowing. This was hot snow.”

High praise for translator Carlos Rojas’s discovery of the ideal English name for Lianke’s mythical Chinese village. In his concise, enlivening preface Professor Rojas explains that the Chinese verb shouhuo, which he translates as “to liven . . . is composed of two Chinese characters that literally mean ‘to receive life’, but in the novel’s regional dialect are used to refer to enjoyment, pleasure, or even sexual intercourse.” This pitch-perfect target-language key at the heart of Rojas’s translation—an impressive feat of lucid, flowing prose—provides an effective comic touchstone; the novel’s exegesis begins and ends with the village’s axiomatic name. It also raises the possibility for Liven, and its unforgettable story, to assume a permanent place in the popular literary imagination.

Lenin’s Kisses divides its narrative into three essential areas of focus. The two main protagonists are Grandma Mao Zhi, matriarch of Liven, and County Chief Liu, a government functionary who presides like a minor deity over his district of Shuanghuai. Between them they represent the dangerous, unrelenting tension between traditional ways and modern bureaucracy. Caught within their powerful yin-yang vortex is the wonderful, absurd, and utterly hapless Liven Special Skills Performance Troupe.

A devoted revolutionary who sees her dreams turn to nightmares, Mao Zhi symbolizes the sufferings and endurance of twentieth century China. When communism arrives she discovers that her village is neither recognized by the government nor shown on any map; she petitions that it be allowed to join the world and, after grueling pilgrimages to various seats of government, Liven is welcomed into the new China.

But when Mao Zhi tries to govern Liven through common sense and traditional wisdom, especially when it comes to helping the village endure China’s cataclysmic famine which followed Mao Tse Tung’s Great Leap Forward, all of Liven is denounced for counterrevolutionary activity, simply because they sensibly stored up their harvest against impending starvation. Nevertheless, the villagers are accused of greed, and the rest of the country comes calling to appropriate all their grain, tools, and livestock. Ironies abound: to save her people, Mao Zhi, ardent daughter of the revolution, must accept the charges of her accusers in the new Maoist cadres.

As I write this I’m examining a grim black and white photograph from the Cultural Revolution: two suspected counter-revolutionaries are pinioned atop a farm truck packed with loyal Maoists; placards hanging round their necks declare their anti-revolutionary crimes; the truck is surrounded by a teeming crowd, all “struggling against” the offensive criminals. This picture is nearly identical to one of the more harrowing scenes of tribulation which Lianke describes, when Mao Zhi is forced to answer for the crimes of Liven. Summoned to the district capital, Mao Zhi prudently confesses to being a counter-revolutionary, and is spared, while the other “criminal” by her side has his brains blown out. Thus, despite the multiple positive implications of its name, Liven becomes a fallen Shangri-La, and Mao Zhi will spend the rest of her life trying to redeem it and restore its happy past.

Grandma Mao Zhi’s counterpart is County Chief Liu, who concocts an improbable scheme to purchase Vladimir Lenin’s embalmed corpse from a cash-strapped Moscow. His chuckleheaded assumption is that, once installed in a gleaming new mausoleum atop Spirit Mountain, the corpse will attract endless hordes of paying tourists, thus ensuring the district a livening mountain of money, more than it can ever spend.

This feckless communist-cum-capitalist party cog who, despite delusions of grandeur, is doomed to failure, provides the satirical alloy to the sombre tale of Grandma Mao and Liven. When Liu visits Liven during its annual livening festival, some of the disabled villagers honor him with a performance of their many unusual skills. Paraplegic Woman can embroider a butterfly on a poplar leaf with astonishing dexterity. Blind Tonghua can hear a feather land anywhere on the stage. One-Legged Monkey can outrun an able-bodied man and perform an amazing long jump. In their quaint freak show Chief Liu spies his golden goose: a special skills performance troupe to tour China and raise the millions needed to purchase Lenin’s corpse. Granda Mao Zhi bitterly agrees to his mad scheme with an equally quixotic proposal; in exchange for granting the troupe permission to tour China, she secures Chief Liu’s promise to allow Liven to once more withdraw from society in order to rediscover its heavenly days of livening.

The novel’s structure offers only odd numbered chapters which are meant, according to Professor Rojas, to signify Liven’s (and China’s) off-kilter progress through modernity. Most are followed by a variety of endnotes for “Further Reading”: some, with blunt-toothed sarcasm, constitute a simple, obvious gloss, while others go much further field, flowering out into complex, full-fledged chapters.

Liven’s saga is both moving and gut-wrenching as well as mordantly, brutally, bitterly funny; it spares neither its characters nor its readers the multitudinous disasters of human folly. The novel is a veritable Chinese Box of absurd tribulations, each one containing its own Russian matryoshka doll. But the figurine’s faces are painted in outrage, mirroring the reader’s disbelief at Liven’s seemingly endless misfortunes.

Sometimes the plot’s style reads like a modern fable of the kind found in Hesse’s Siddhartha or Flaubert’s Legend of St. Julian Hospitaler with its flat recounting of grief and endurance in the face of impossible suffering. During one particularly grueling episode, the special skills performance troupe finds itself held prisoner inside the splendid new Lenin Mausoleum, built with the profits from its hundreds of high-priced, sold-out shows. Their jailers are none other than the band of “wholer” roadies who’ve shepherded them around China for the past year. Jealous of the cripples’s vast earnings, they hold them ransom against themselves, extracting their every last yuan by selling them food and water at outrageous prices. And when the suffering cripples of Liven have, once again, given their all, the demands only become more outrageous.

Betrayed by every other social arrangement–feudalism, Marxism, communism, Maoism, bureaucracy, capitalism, show business, and the tenuous honor among thieves–Liven finally has nothing but itself, alone among the remote mountains of Balou with the blossoms floating on the spring breeze as in the famous 5th century poem “Peach Blossom Land” by Tao Yuan Ming. For a moment, the message seems to be that compassionate solidarity with our lowest common denominator might be the true path, but in the end Liven is no staging ground for revolution, simply a threshing floor, a harsh oasis, a lonely last resort. Lenin’s Kisses, however, offers an irresistible attraction for readers of powerful, uncompromising satire. So pucker up, buttercup.

3 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sarah Young, aka Sarah Two, on Sayed Kashua’s Second Person Singular, which is translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg and is available from Grove Press.

This is Sarah Two’s first review for threepercent. Her introduction can be found here. Later this week, both Sarahs (Sarah Two and Quantum Sarah) will be featured in a review that they co-wrote.

Here is some of Sarah Two’s first independent review:

Like the two protagonists of his most recent novel, Second Person Singular (translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg), Sayed Kashua is a Jerusalem-educated Arab Israeli. He is a columnist for Haaretz, a liberal newspaper, and the creator of the hit sitcom, Arab Labor. Kashua’s work is often controversial, especially among the Palestinian population of Israel, both for his humorous use of cultural stereotypes and presentations of Muslims engaging in drinking and pre-marital sex. His writing for Arab Labor was described by The New York Times as irreverent toward Jewish and Arab Israelis alike – a style that is subtly present in Second Person Singular.

Contrary to what the title might lead us to expect, half of the book is written in the third person and half is written in the first person singular, but none of it is written in the second person singular. The third person thread chronicles the story of a nameless man identified only as “the lawyer”; the other thread is told from the perspective of a social worker whose name is eventually revealed, but withheld for much of the novel. The lawyer’s drama hinges on his discovery of a note in his wife’s handwriting and the consequent paranoia that she might be cheating on him, while the social worker’s conflict centers on his experience as a caretaker for a paralyzed, vegetative Jewish young man. The two plot lines, if not exactly intertwined, are related, yet the stronger connection between the narratives lies in the two characters’ painstaking efforts to blend in with their Jewish colleagues.

Click here to read the entire review.

3 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Like the two protagonists of his most recent novel, Second Person Singular (translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg), Sayed Kashua is a Jerusalem-educated Arab Israeli. He is a columnist for Haaretz, a liberal newspaper, and the creator of the hit sitcom, Arab Labor. Kashua’s work is often controversial, especially among the Palestinian population of Israel, both for his humorous use of cultural stereotypes and presentations of Muslims engaging in drinking and pre-marital sex. His writing for Arab Labor was described by The New York Times as irreverent toward Jewish and Arab Israelis alike – a style that is subtly present in Second Person Singular.

Contrary to what the title might lead us to expect, half of the book is written in the third person and half is written in the first person singular, but none of it is written in the second person singular. The third person thread chronicles the story of a nameless man identified only as “the lawyer”; the other thread is told from the perspective of a social worker whose name is eventually revealed, but withheld for much of the novel. The lawyer’s drama hinges on his discovery of a note in his wife’s handwriting and the consequent paranoia that she might be cheating on him, while the social worker’s conflict centers on his experience as a caretaker for a paralyzed, vegetative Jewish young man. The two plot lines, if not exactly intertwined, are related, yet the stronger connection between the narratives lies in the two characters’ painstaking efforts to blend in with their Jewish colleagues.

In the passages following the lawyer, the narrator strikes an almost satirical tone. The lawyer’s every action seems calculated to raise his esteem in the eyes of his family, peers, and even perfect strangers. Whenever a friendly rival upgrades his sports car, the lawyer must buy a new one that is even better; he keeps an office in an expensive Jewish neighborhood despite the fact that all his clients are Arab Israelis; when he goes to buy a book that embarrasses him, he asks the cashier to giftwrap it. Once a month he and his wife take part in a couples’ night, complete with overpriced sushi and post-dinner discussions of predetermined topics.

Yet just when you think the book could be a mockery of the lawyer for trying too hard to conform to Western culture, it careens off in another direction. When the lawyer irrationally concludes that his wife is unfaithful, he assumes a more convenient ideology to suit his rage:

Experience had taught him that he was a conservative. Yes, a conservative, and from now on he would not be apologetic about it. What an idiot an idiot he had been when he spoke out, time and again, against the treatment of women in the Arab World, saying that it was widespread misogyny that held these societies back.

His outbursts, while disturbing, seem less like genuine expressions of feeling and more like attempts to react the way that he thinks people in his situation should react. I appreciated the dark comedy in this half-instinctive/half-intellectual neurosis, particularly in small moments, such as the time the lawyer googles “why women cheat.”

There is less comedy present in the sections detailing the life of the social worker, in part because his first person narration provides fewer opportunities for satire. Unlike the lawyer, he does everything he can to fade away from notice, positive or negative. His ethnically ambiguous name and physical appearance, as well as his fluency in both Arabic and Hebrew, allow him to slip between cultures and witness more of the ugly prejudices present in Israeli society. Van drivers rant to him about Zionist “collaborators”; Jewish university students joke to him about the “token Arabs” in their programs; modern Muslim Jerusalemites scorn conventional women that wear hijabs. It is no wonder that he feels embarrassed wherever he goes. In a crowded Jewish nightclub he expounds:

I want to be like them. Free, loose, full of dreams, able to think about love. . . the who felt no need to apologize for their existence, no need to hide their identity. Like them… To feel like I belong, without feeling guilty or disloyal. And what exactly was I being disloyal to?

The last question of the passage comes across both as a genuine inquiry and an attempt by the narrator to justify his behavior. This ambivalence runs through the entire novel as the two men take great measures to feel comfortable within Jewish circles of the Jerusalem community, yet feel uncomfortable about having taken those measures. The implication seems to be that they lose something un-nameable – maybe even unrecognizable – in the process of assimilation. Still, it is unclear whether or not this ineffable sacrifice is worth grieving.

30 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sharon Rhodes on Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village, which is translated from the Chinese by Cindy Carter, and available from Grove Press.

Sharon Rhodes is a Ph.D. candidate here at the University of Rochester who wrote this as part of an assignment so far back that I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that she not only had her degree, but that she’s already tenured somewhere. But seriously, I’m a bit behind in posting reviews . . .

Here’s the opening:

Dream of Ding Village tells the story of a village destroyed by unregulated blood selling. Gloomily enough, the novel is narrated by a 12 year-old-boy who died without ever having sold his blood; instead, the narrator, Ding Quiang, was murdered by villagers with a grudge against his father, Ding Hui, the local blood head. Quiang goes back in time to the beginning of the blood boom in Wei County of Henan province, detailing how government officials first set up blood banks and then, how his father found a niche in the market. Ding Hui bought blood from the inhabitants of Ding Village as well as those of other nearby villages, and sold it for profit. At first this brought great prosperity, although those who sold blood frequently were weakened by the practice, but then, roughly ten years later, people started coming down with what Quiang and the villagers called “the fever.”

Nearly everyone who sold blood to Ding Hui or his subsidiary blood heads, about one person in each household of Ding Village, got “the fever”: AIDS was passed from person to person through re-used needles. This puts an end to the blood boom in Ding Village, though not before Ding Hui’s financial success enabled him to build a three story tile house in a village of one room mud huts. A few villagers who worked for Ding Hui were also able to build tile houses; but after the blood boom most of the villagers were no better off than before, and many had contracted HIV.

Despite the tragedy that resulted from his actions, Ding Hui refuses to apologize to the inhabitants of Ding Village. Instead, taking advantage of government subsidies for those infected with AIDS Ding Hui continues to turn a profit at the expense of those already injured by his actions. First he sells the government-provided food for profit, then coffins (a commodity in high demand), then he begins to profit from matchmaking—helping families find dead husbands and wives for their dead daughters and sons.

Click here to read the entire review.

30 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Dream of Ding Village tells the story of a village destroyed by unregulated blood selling. Gloomily enough, the novel is narrated by a 12 year-old-boy who died without ever having sold his blood; instead, the narrator, Ding Quiang, was murdered by villagers with a grudge against his father, Ding Hui, the local blood head. Quiang goes back in time to the beginning of the blood boom in Wei County of Henan province, detailing how government officials first set up blood banks and then, how his father found a niche in the market. Ding Hui bought blood from the inhabitants of Ding Village as well as those of other nearby villages, and sold it for profit. At first this brought great prosperity, although those who sold blood frequently were weakened by the practice, but then, roughly ten years later, people started coming down with what Quiang and the villagers called “the fever.”

Nearly everyone who sold blood to Ding Hui or his subsidiary blood heads, about one person in each household of Ding Village, got “the fever”: AIDS was passed from person to person through re-used needles. This puts an end to the blood boom in Ding Village, though not before Ding Hui’s financial success enabled him to build a three story tile house in a village of one room mud huts. A few villagers who worked for Ding Hui were also able to build tile houses; but after the blood boom most of the villagers were no better off than before, and many had contracted HIV.

Despite the tragedy that resulted from his actions, Ding Hui refuses to apologize to the inhabitants of Ding Village. Instead, taking advantage of government subsidies for those infected with AIDS Ding Hui continues to turn a profit at the expense of those already injured by his actions. First he sells the government-provided food for profit, then coffins (a commodity in high demand), then he begins to profit from matchmaking—helping families find dead husbands and wives for their dead daughters and sons.

Unfortunately, like most stories of corruption and tragedy, Ding Hui cannot be blamed for all of the problems of Ding Village. As Quiang’s story unravels, it reveals the superficiality and selfishness of the villagers who—faced with death after death, whether their own or that of loved ones—come to value coffins and funeral preparations and even the wedding of two dead children over living. Because Ding Hui has sold the government subsidized coffins elsewhere, and straw mats are no longer fashionable containers with which to bury the dead, the villagers strip the local school of desks, doors and window frames and then, needing still more material for coffins, begin cutting down the village’s venerable trees. When they’ve finished, Ding Village has no school and no shade. Having no future themselves, those infected with AIDS cease to think of the future at all.

Despite the pettiness of many of those faced with an early death, two characters, both infected with AIDS, find solace in each other’s love. Of course, they, like all of the other infected villagers, eventually die painful deaths.

Although the author, Yan Lianke, does not end the tale with much if any hope, he does write the story well, weaving poetry throughout and using repetition in a way I’d not previously seen in a novel. The beauty of the poetry somewhat relieves, though in no way diminishes, the horror of the story.

In addition to being well-written and engaging, this book illustrates the real and continuing problem of disease spread via blood-selling in China. And, as the novel shows, the repercussions of HIV continue for decades after an initial outbreak because the virus takes so long to make itself known. Even were blood-selling eradicated today, families, especially poorer ones, would suffer for generations. Indeed, one man interviewed by the BBC in 2001 was in a very unfortunate predicament: his son sold blood to make ends meet and contracted AIDS, in response, the man spent all of his money on medicine leaving nothing with which to send his soon-to-be-fatherless grandchildren to school.

Further, according to a ChinaDaily article from September of last year, the Chinese government banned blood selling in 1998, but the practice continues in the guise of compensated “donation.” Rather than being paid for their blood, the poor and desperate receive a “nutrition fee” and “traffic fare.” The government could crack down harder on blood “donations,” but the real problem is oppressive poverty; for the fictional characters of Ding Village as well as many real people in China—as well as the United States—selling blood is a last ditch effort, something one does out of need. While clean blood for transfusions is an important aspect of modern medicine, taking advantage of the poor is morally questionable and, without strict regulations, dangerous for everyone. However, until the poor are less desperate, those that stand to profit will easily take advantage of them.

Secondly, this novel illustrates important aspects of human nature: Ding Hui becomes single-minded in his pursuit of money, not only is he largely to blame for the spread of AIDS in his county and, as he sold blood wherever it was wanted, in his country, he then profits from the government’s feeble efforts to help those infected with AIDS. Faced with their own deaths, the villagers stop caring for each other and the future of the uninfected, instead, they care only for coffins and “face.” Indeed, one of the only instances of solidarity exhibited by the villagers once the AIDS epidemic is in full force, occurs when a young man, infected but not yet fully sick, is able to marry an uninfected woman because the inhabitants of Ding Village assured her and her mother that the man in question was not sick.

Although literature often examines the short comings of humanity, it is only by constantly reevaluating ourselves and exploring the possible repercussions of our actions that we can avoid becoming monsters. Dream of Ding Village is an excellently executed reminder of the negative consequences of putting financial gain first as well as the long-lasting results of selfishness: when we put ourselves first—whether because we stand to profit or because we have no chance of ever profiting again—we risk robbing not only our neighbors, but our posterity.

6 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Lian Law on Marcelo Figueras’s Kamchatka that came out from Black Cat/Grove Press back last year.

Lian Law was an intern and in my “Intro to Literary Publishing” class last semester, which is when she wrote this review. (And yes, we are that far behind in running all of these.)

Marcelo was actually in Rochester for an event last spring in connection with PEN World Voices. You can watch the full event below, or skip forward to see the reading and interview with Marcelo:

And here’s the opening of Lian’s review:

Kamchatka: a remote peninsula in the Russian Far East. However, to the ten-year-old narrator in Marcelo Figueras’s novel Kamchatka, it represents much more. It is a territory to be conquered in his favorite game of Risk, it is “a paradox, a kingdom of extremes, a contradiction in terms,” and it is the last thing his father ever says to him.

Kamchatka is Marcelo Figueras’s English novel debut, translated by Frank Wynne. A novelist and screenwriter, Figueras has published several other books including El espía del tiempo, La batalla del calentamiento, and Aquarium. He was born in Argentina in 1962 and similar to the narrator of Kamchatka, he was a young child at the start of the Argentina’s Dirty War in 1976.

Kamchatka chronicles the life of a young boy during this time of political instability and its suffocating climate of fear and violence. When he, his brother, and his parents, are suddenly forced to flee to a safe house, they must assume new identities. The boy renames himself “Harry,” after his hero and famous escape artist Harry Houdini while his five-year-old brother rechristens himself “Simón,” after Simon Templar in the TV show The Saint (although Harry continues to refer to him by his nickname, the “Midget.” Despite all the disruptions, fear and sudden disappearances of friends and family members, Figueras’s main goal is not to write another somber novel about the Dirty War.

Click here to read the entire review.

6 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Kamchatka: a remote peninsula in the Russian Far East. However, to the ten-year-old narrator in Marcelo Figueras’s novel Kamchatka, it represents much more. It is a territory to be conquered in his favorite game of Risk, it is “a paradox, a kingdom of extremes, a contradiction in terms,” and it is the last thing his father ever says to him.

Kamchatka is Marcelo Figueras’s English novel debut, translated by Frank Wynne. A novelist and screenwriter, Figueras has published several other books including El espía del tiempo, La batalla del calentamiento, and Aquarium. He was born in Argentina in 1962 and similar to the narrator of Kamchatka, he was a young child at the start of the Argentina’s Dirty War in 1976.

Kamchatka chronicles the life of a young boy during this time of political instability and its suffocating climate of fear and violence. When he, his brother, and his parents, are suddenly forced to flee to a safe house, they must assume new identities. The boy renames himself “Harry,” after his hero and famous escape artist Harry Houdini while his five-year-old brother rechristens himself “Simón,” after Simon Templar in the TV show The Saint (although Harry continues to refer to him by his nickname, the “Midget.” Despite all the disruptions, fear and sudden disappearances of friends and family members, Figueras’s main goal is not to write another somber novel about the Dirty War. By retelling the events through a child’s perspective, Figueras explores the impact this situation had on personal and family dynamics. In the face of this situation, Harry remains a typical young boy, reluctantly attending school, obsessed with TV shows, comic books, and superheroes. He spends his time playing Risk with his father and aspiring to learn the secrets of Houdini.

In addition to Harry’s ten-year-old perspective, the adult Harry is often a companion voice, reflecting upon and filling in information that his younger self was incapable of comprehending at that time. Harry reflects on the information he gathers about the political situation.

For a long time I thought that my parents told me these little things because they believed I wouldn’t understand the bigger picture—whatever it was they were not saying, whatever they were hiding from me. Now I think that they did it deliberately, knowing that by the time I put the pieces together and could finally see the picture in the jigsaw puzzle, I would be safe, far from the danger that, right now, threatened us all.

The novel is uniquely bookended by the same moment in time as Harry and his father see each other for the last time. The interior brings the reader back to the beginning and up until this specific moment. While the end scene contains much of the same wording as the opening, the father and son’s encounter and the parting words of “Kamchatka” are full of new meaning and significance. While the opening was distinctly told in a ten-year-old voice, the final retelling is much more reflective, informed by the adult Harry’s brief interjections throughout.

Harry’s voice is most impressive, creatively and perfectly interweaving the ten-year-old and his older self. The novel is structured in five main parts, all around school subjects. In doing so, Figueras brings attention to how children, Harry and his little brother included, learn and decode meaning from their own experiences. Figueras favors short chapters, each paint their own small portrait of Harry’s life. The 81 chapters reflect how a ten-year-old breaks down his life into small episodes, much like the way his favorite television show The Invaders does. These short chapters provide vivid and beautifully colored portraits of his family and the children’s humorous exploits and adventures. The novel is filled with small touches of childhood reminiscence; Harry practicing holding his breath in the bath tub, Harry learning to slip out of knots, Harry and his brother’s attempt to save toads from drowning in the safe house swimming pool by creating a “reverse diving board” and arguments over who is better: Superman or Batman.

In telling the story from Harry’s point of view, Figueras is able to highlight the importance of family, courage and sacrifice within the context of fear, separation and ultimately loss. In the end, Harry realizes that in order to survive you need to “love each other madly.” In retelling his story, he has brought the characters to life once more. Through this act of storytelling, he realizes that “I don’t need Kamchatka any more, I no longer need the security I once felt being far from everything, unreachable, amid the eternal snows. The time has come for me to be where I am again, to be truly here, all of me, to stop surviving and start living.”

23 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Barney Rosset, one of the most important publishers of the twentieth century, passed away yesterday. What he did for literature, for free speech, for Grove Press, for any number of young literati that he inspired, can not be summed up in any single post or obituary. I did have the honor (thanks to Margarita Shalina) to meet him once, and it’s an afternoon that I’ll never forget . . . In my mind, he ranks right up there with John Calder as one of the most interesting and influential book people I’ve ever come in contact with.

From the L.A. Times:

Barney Rosset, the renegade founder of Grove Press who fought groundbreaking legal battles against censorship and introduced American readers to such provocative writers as Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet, died Tuesday in New York City. He was 89. [. . .]]

In 1951 Rosset bought tiny Grove Press, named after the Greenwich Village street where it was located, and turned it into one of the most influential publishing companies of its time. It championed the writings of a political and literary vanguard that included Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Tom Stoppard, Octavio Paz, Marguerite Duras, Che Guevara and Malcolm X.

Rosset was best known for taking on American censorship laws in the late 1950s and 1960s, when he successfully battled to print unexpurgated versions of D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” both of which were considered far outside the mainstream of American taste but went on to become classics.

In 1959, he published “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” which had been banned by the postmaster general for promoting “indecent and lascivious thoughts,” but in 1960 a federal appeals court found that its frank descriptions of sexual intercourse did not violate anti-pornography laws.

In 1961, Rosset published “Tropic of Cancer,” which was blocked by more than 60 court cases in 21 states. In a landmark 1964 ruling, however, the U.S. Supreme Court held that it had “redeeming social value” and was thus not obscene. [. . .]

Rosset’s autobiography, which may be published later this year, is titled “The Subject Was Left-Handed,” a line from a report he found in his FBI file.

10 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Carley Parsons on Niccolo Ammaniti’s Me and You, which is translated from the Italian by Kylee Doust and available from Black Cat.

Carley Parsons was one of my interns last semester, and has previously interned at Syracuse University Press and Random House. She’s graduating this spring and hoping to find a job in publishing. (HINT.)

Black Cat has published three of Ammaniti’s novels, including I’ll Steal You Away, which was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Here’s the opening of Carley’s review:

Outcast for his seemingly baseless anger issues, fourteen-year-old Lorenzo Cumi lies to his worried mother about being invited on a ski trip with the ‘in-crowd’ in order to ease her concerns about him. After seeing how happy and relieved it makes her, Lorenzo can’t bring himself to tell her the truth—“I retreated in defeat, feeling like I had committed a murder.” Beginning with a twenty-four-year old Lorenzo unfolding a letter from his half-sister Olivia in a coffee-shop, the rest of the novella, gives a flashback account of how, ten years earlier, he took the opportunity provided by the lie to hide out in a neglected cellar attached to his family’s apartment building, where he is temporarily freed from the paranoid judgments of the adult world.

The teen-angst, adolescent narrative is not unchartered territory for Italian author Niccolò Ammaniti, whose past novels include I’m Not Scared, a coming-of-age and suspense hybrid narrative, translated into thirty-five languages, and As God Commands, which received Italy’s most prestigious literary award, the Premio Strega. Born in Rome in 1966 to a professor of developmental psychopathology, Ammaniti is often praised for his psychological lucidity and is known for exploring relationships between generation-gapped characters.

Click here to read the full review.

10 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Outcast for his seemingly baseless anger issues, fourteen-year-old Lorenzo Cumi lies to his worried mother about being invited on a ski trip with the ‘in-crowd’ in order to ease her concerns about him. After seeing how happy and relieved it makes her, Lorenzo can’t bring himself to tell her the truth—“I retreated in defeat, feeling like I had committed a murder.” Beginning with a twenty-four-year old Lorenzo unfolding a letter from his half-sister Olivia in a coffee-shop, the rest of the novella, gives a flashback account of how, ten years earlier, he took the opportunity provided by the lie to hide out in a neglected cellar attached to his family’s apartment building, where he is temporarily freed from the paranoid judgments of the adult world.

The teen-angst, adolescent narrative is not unchartered territory for Italian author Niccolò Ammaniti, whose past novels include I’m Not Scared, a coming-of-age and suspense hybrid narrative, translated into thirty-five languages, and As God Commands, which received Italy’s most prestigious literary award, the Premio Strega. Born in Rome in 1966 to a professor of developmental psychopathology, Ammaniti is often praised for his psychological lucidity and is known for exploring relationships between generation-gapped characters.

Me and You explores these themes surrounding the struggles of adolescence. The novel’s narrator, Lorenzo, must interact with misunderstanding parents and teachers, a dying grandmother, and his druggie, twenty-three-year old half sister Olivia, who unwelcomingly becomes his fellow cellar-dweller in her attempt to get clean. While the fast-paced narrative is compelling, the driving voice of the novel, in its often awkward and nonsensical structure, becomes a frustrating obstacle.

Lorenzo’s thoughts are often clunky and nonsensical, with verbose phrases like “The Dalmatian had begun barking at its owner because it wanted her to throw it a stick,” “In a trance I felt my legs as stiff as tree trunks walk me into class,” or “I yawned and in my pants and T-shirt went into the bathroom to brush my teeth.” These are particular stylistic problems that are most likely due to the quality of the translation. This leads to an overall failure of an effective narrative voice, as it ultimately creates a portrait that lacks surprise and nuance, where Lorenzo slips through the pages like a ghost – a virtually faceless figure easily interchanged with any “normal kid with problems,” a description of himself that he explicitly rejects. There is so much potential that lies within the setting itself, (the abandoned cellar), but even that fails to form a concrete image in the readerly imagination as it is denied the kind of attention it deserves, the description lasting for only a page of an unfocused catalog of objects, the most interesting being a blonde wig without a back story.

Unfortunately, I also fail to see where Ammaniti adds anything new to the all-too familiar teen-boy coming of age narrative. We see the testosterone when Lorenzo “pushed Giampolo Tinari off the wall,” and we watch him contend with his heterosexuality: “With one hand she covered her boob. And her legs looked like they were never ending. I shouldn’t even think about her. Olivia was fifty per cent my sister.” We are then shown the bonding of two unlikely outcasts as Lorenzo is given a crash course with reality when he discovers Olivia’s ugly addiction, a relationship that, alas, feels unnatural. While the narration aligns the reader with Lorenzo’s thoughts, we somehow escape from feeling in any way close to him, or even close to caring about him, for that matter. His self-reflective thoughts on his hyperbolic end-of-the-world problems work ironically to make him – the outcast – just like everyone else who has ever been fourteen. While it may be Ammaniti’s point about the mind of adolescence versus reality, I remained unaffected. By the time I was finally moved by the direction the narrative takes, around a page or so from the very end when the flashback comes back around to the present time, it was “too little, too late.”

7 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Francisco Goldman was the MC at the very first Best Translated Book Award ceremony, which took place at the fantastic Melville House offices. He gave a great speech about the importance of translation, and included an anecdote about translating a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story for Playboy . . . As many of you probably know, Goldman’s wife, Aura Estrada, was a translator who was tragically killed in an accident in Mexico back in 2007. Since that time, Frank established the Aura Estrada Prize, which is given out every other year to a woman writer under the age of 35 and who writes in Spanish.

The story of Aura’s death and its impact on Frank’s life is heavy and emotional and touching, and is the basis for his latest book, Say Her Name. This got a lot of good critical attention when it came out earlier this year, and it was announced over the weekend that it also won the Prix Femina Estranger award in France:

Francisco Goldman has won the Prix Femina Étranger for his novel Say Her Name. Created in 1904 by a group of writers for the magazine formerly known as La Vie heureuse, and known today as Femina, the The Prix Femina is a French literary prize that is comprised of three categories. The Prix Femina Étranger is awarded to the best foreign novel. Francisco Goldman is the first American to win this award since Joyce Carol Oates in 2005.

Since being published in April, Say Her Name has been no stranger to high praises. It was featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review where it was described as, “Passionate and moving . . . beautifully written . . . the truth that emerges in this book has less to do with the mystery of [Aura’s] death . . . than with the miracle of the astonishing, spirited, deeply original young woman Goldman so adored . . . So remarkable is this resurrection that at times I felt the book itself had a pulse.” Vanity Fair raved, “Say Her Name is exhilarating, a testament to love that questions our suppositions about luck, fate, good fortune, and tragedy, and demands our agency in interpreting the narrative arc of an altered life.” And Entertainment Weekly captured it beautifully calling it, “Extraordinary . . .The more deeply you have loved in your life, the more this book will wrench you

(The press release cuts off at that point . . . )

Congrats, to Frank! This couldn’t happen to a nicer, more giving person.

15 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a review by Jennifer Marquart of Witold Gombrowicz’s Pornografia in Danuta Borchardt’s new translation, which is available from Grove Press.

Jennifer Marquart has contributed to Three Percent in the past and is an aspiring German translator and recent University of Rochester graduate.

Witold Gombrowicz is one of the best writers of the twentieth century, and is most well known for Ferdydurke. One of my favorite (apocryphal) anecdotes about Gombrowicz is about how one day in Buenos Aires he was ranting about Borges to his friends (the two authors didn’t really get along), and one of them interrupted to ask if he had ever even read Borges. “Pfft. Why would I waste my time reading that crap?”

On a more serious note, a number of Gombrowicz books have been either retranslated or reissued over the past few years, including: Ferdydurke, Cosmos (hardcover from Yale is OP, paperback from Grove due out in September), Polish Memories, Bacacay, and A Kind of Testament. All are worth reading . . .

Here’s the opening of Jennifer’s review:

Darkly humorous, witty and terrifying, Witold Gombrowicz’s Pornographia translated for the first time into English out of the original Polish by Danuta Borchardt, captures the tense and surreal lives of two men looking for an escape from city life in 1943 Warsaw. The narrator, Witold Gombrowicz, and his companion, Fryderyk, leave the city and stay with Hipolit, his wife Maria and their daughter Henia and the farmhand Karol. It doesn’t take long for the men to grow bored of the quiet country life, causing them to devise intricate plans to get Karol and Henia to sleep together. They set up meetings and prod the teenagers with questions of sexual attraction to one another. These simple games escalate to a masterfully choreographed play, aimed at breaking-up Henia and her fiancé. Part joke and part perverse desire, Gombrowicz and Fryderyk’s plans take a bizarre turn following the murder of Henia’s future mother-in-law. Hidden notes, hostages, murder-conspiracies and the ultimate manipulation of youth, love and a detached thirst for power are now in play.

The immediate reaction to the title of this novel conjures images of sex, however the book deals with sexual desire in a round about way. It isn’t the actual act of sex that is pornographic, but its entanglement with power, domination, desire and obsession. Fryderyk and Gombrowicz believe themselves to be in control, but there are a few moments where the reader catches a glimpse of shifts in power, such as the scene where Karol, Henia and the two men are conversing outside.

Click here to read the full review.

15 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Darkly humorous, witty and terrifying, Witold Gombrowicz’s Pornographia translated for the first time into English out of the original Polish by Danuta Borchardt, captures the tense and surreal lives of two men looking for an escape from city life in 1943 Warsaw. The narrator, Witold Gombrowicz, and his companion, Fryderyk, leave the city and stay with Hipolit, his wife Maria and their daughter Henia and the farmhand Karol. It doesn’t take long for the men to grow bored of the quiet country life, causing them to devise intricate plans to get Karol and Henia to sleep together. They set up meetings and prod the teenagers with questions of sexual attraction to one another. These simple games escalate to a masterfully choreographed play, aimed at breaking-up Henia and her fiancé. Part joke and part perverse desire, Gombrowicz and Fryderyk’s plans take a bizarre turn following the murder of Henia’s future mother-in-law. Hidden notes, hostages, murder-conspiracies and the ultimate manipulation of youth, love and a detached thirst for power are now in play.

The immediate reaction to the title of this novel conjures images of sex, however the book deals with sexual desire in a round about way. It isn’t the actual act of sex that is pornographic, but its entanglement with power, domination, desire and obsession. Fryderyk and Gombrowicz believe themselves to be in control, but there are a few moments where the reader catches a glimpse of shifts in power, such as the scene where Karol, Henia and the two men are conversing outside:

Karol kept rocking, his legs spread apart, she raised her leg to scratch her calf—but his shoe, resting just on the heel, rose, made a half-turn, and squashed the earthworm…just at one end, just as much as the reach of his foot allowed, because he didn’t feel like lifting his heel from the ground, the rest of the worm’s thorax began to stiffen and squirm, which he watched with interest. This would not have been any more important than a fly’s throes of death on a flytrap or a moth’s within the glass of a lamp—if Fryderyk’s gaze, glassy, had not sucked itself onto that earthworm, extracting its suffering to the full. One could imagine that he would be indignant, but in truth there was nothing within him but penetration into torture, draining the chalice to the last drop. He hunted it, sucked it, caught it, took it in and—numb and mute, caught in the claws of pain—he was unable to move. Karol looked at him out of the corner of his eye but did not finish off the earthworm, he saw Fryderyk’s horror as sheer hysterics . . .

Henia’s shoe moved forward and she crushed the worm.
But only from the opposite end, with great precision, saving the central part so that it could continue to squirm and twist.

All of it—was insignificant . . . as far as the crushing of a worm can be trivial and insignificant.

The memory of the worm-crushing resurfaces later in the narrative as Fryderyk’s obsession with his own perverse games intensifies. This excerpt exemplifies the delicate balance between controllers and controlled, through the narrative and Gombrowicz’s language constructions. Just as mundane events can represent something greater, so can the linguistic construction of the text. In trying to preserve the dream-like and often stilted world Gombrowicz narrates, Borchardt makes very liberal use of ellipses. In this scene, Gombrowicz has grown anxious over the trip he is going to take with Fryderyk:

Travel there? The two of us? I was beset by misgivings, difficult to express, about the two of us traveling . . . because to take him there with me, to the countryside, so that he could continue his game, well . . . And his body, that body so…”peculiar”? . . . To travel with him and ignore his untiring “silently-shouting impropriety”? . . . To burden myself with someone so ” compromised and, as a result, so compromising”? . . .

In the previous English translation (from the French) the ellipses are present, but the word choice in Borchardt’s translation accentuates the text’s repetitiveness bringing the sense of anxiety to a new level of confusion and internal anguish. In the Alastair Hamilton translation this excerpt reads:

Should we go? Both of us? I had fearful doubts about the journey . . . What take him so that he could continue his game don there, in the country? . . . And his body which was so…so specific? Travel with him regardless of his “obvious but hidden indecency?” . . . Look after somebody so “compromised” and therefore so “compromising” . . .

Borchardt’s disturbances in the flow of the work may seem off-setting in the context of this review, but coupled with the rhythmic repetition of words and phrases throughout the text she brings forward the nuances of Gombrowicz’s masterful prose. In this isolated psycho-thriller, where anxiety runs high within a small group of people cut off from the terrors around them, obsession and terror still rule.

14 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles._

Click here for all past and future posts.

The Black Minutes by Martin Solares, translated by translated by Aura Estrada and John Pluecker

Language: Spanish
Country: Mexico
Publisher: Grove
Pages: 434

Why This Book Should Win: The judges gave the first Best Translated Book Award to an awesome book called Tranquility by Attila Bartis, despite the fact that it was up against that behemoth 2666, and everyone knows that 2666 is the greatest book published ever, to say nothing of the year 2008. (Really, it is. I should know. I wrote it.)

As may be surmised from the above paragraph, this is the second entry in the WTBSW series from beyond the grave. This time it’s from The Late Roberto Bolano.

Needless to say, a lot of people were disappointed that the judges opted for the Bartis, so here’s their chance to give the award to a hyper-noirish, dark, convoluted, paranoid, freaky book about the Mexican drug war, in many ways similar to 2666 (and in many ways nothing like my master opus at all).

The Black Minutes tells a pretty gripping story about murder in 1970s, northern Mexico providing a kind of pre-war look at a land that is now dominated by huge narco-cartels. Like many good noirs are, it’s framed around the one cop who wants to do an honest job, named Cabrera. As as English-language translator Natasha Wimmer wrote in The Nation:

It’s crime fiction, but it’s also a meditation on corruption, and it captures the kind of nightmarish helplessness that many feel in the face of the tide of narco-violence sweeping the north of Mexico. In Tamaulipas alone, assassinations since June include the front-runner candidate for governor of the state and two mayors of a single small town over the course of two weeks. On September 19, after the killing of a photography intern, the Ciudad Juárez paper El Diario ran an extraordinary editorial asking the drug gangs for instruction: “We want you to explain to us what . . . we are supposed to publish or not publish. . . . You are at this time the de facto authorities in this city.” Scraping away some of the cool remove of the traditional noir, The Black Minutes gives a gorgeous, suffocating sense of life in Mexico’s sweltering northeast and an equally smothering sense of a justice system in which the concept of justice has been leached of meaning.

We soon find that the story of the honest cop is just the beginning, as about 1/3 of the way in Solares abruptly shifts to a story-within-a-story about Cabrera’s predecessor on the case, which makes the plot-line even more convoluted, the characters even more numerous, and everything that much more freakily connected.

So in sum, The Black Minutes is a big, wooly, meaty neo-noir with plenty of sex, guns, violence, death, and of course lots and lots of politics. It’s a chance to give the award to a Mexican drug war book in light of the fact that the judges dissed my book 2666, even as the Bartis was pretty freakin awesome.

18 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Some time in the past 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.

Purge by Sofi Oksanen. Translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers. (Finland-Estonia, Grove/Black Cat)

In terms of the book itself, I don’t have a lot to add to Larissa’s perceptive review. But to tie this particular post back into the actual WPR “Here On Earth” conversation that sparked this sporadic series of posts, I have to post a picture of Sofi, aka, the “woman with the most amazing hair.” (I feel like I must’ve mentioned this a half-dozen times during that interview . . . it was like my verbal crutch of the moment . . .):

I finally met Sofi at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, and really enjoyed talking with her. I say “finally” because I was supposed to meet her at the Reykjavik International Literary Festival last fall, but she wasn’t able to make it due to a bout of the swine flu. And continuing with a bit of cursed luck, prior to PEN World Voices, she was supposed to read in California, but, well, the volcano nixed that trip . . . As a friend said, she could write a book on being impacted by the not-so-insignificant global disasters of recent times.

Anyway, Purge is a really interesting book, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else Oksanen ends up writing. She’s really at the top of her game right now, having recently won the Nordic Prize for Purge, and was named Estonia’s “Person of the Year” in 2009.

Although this may not be the most uplifting of the books in our summer roundup, it’s definitely worth checking out.

18 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Sofi Oksanen’s Purge, which was translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers and published earlier this year by Grove/Black Cat.

Since this was one of the books I recommended on “Here on Earth,” I’ll save my comments for another post (which will be up in just a minute).

Larissa is one of our regular contributors and tends to focus on Scandinavian literature, which is one of her big interests. (That said, she’s also working on a review of Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango.)

Here’s the beginning of her review:

Although still much an unknown in the English-speaking world, Finnish-Estonian playwright, novelist, and activist Sofi Oksanen has become something of a household name in northern and central Europe. Declared Estonia’s “Person of the Year” in 2009, Oksanen is the first to win both of Finland’s prestigious literary prizes—the Finlandia and the Runeberg—as well as winning this year’s Nordic Council Literature Prize for her virtuosic novel Purge. At once a daring exploration of the Soviet occupation of Estonia, as well as a wrenching consideration of the irrevocable effects of trauma on an individual, Purge navigates the tragedies, petty betrayals, and reverberating guilt of three generations of Estonian women, all struggling to survive their own violent circumstances, no matter the cost.

The novel opens in 1991—the year after Estonia reclaimed its independence from Russia—with the elderly and isolated Aliide Truu stoically weathering childish torments (rocks thrown at her window) and more aggressive harassment (her dog poisoned) at the hands of her neighbors. One rainy morning, Aliide notices an injured young girl huddling in her front yard, and despite her misgivings, allows the girl to take shelter in her home. Zara is a young woman from Russia—a sex trafficking victim on the run from her captors. Having withstood a year of degradation and repeated assaults, Zara has lost everything. Everything, that is, except a yellowed photograph of her grandmother and her grandmother’s sister, with both young women and standing in front of the very Estonian house in which Zara has taken refuge.

Oksanen originally staged Purge as a play, an origin that can still be recognized in its episodic scenes and deliberately moderated tension. In its current form, however, the novel’s fluid and unadorned prose (in a musical and nuanced translation by Lola Rogers) shares a closer kinship with a psychological thriller.

Click here to read the entire review.

18 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Although still much an unknown in the English-speaking world, Finnish-Estonian playwright, novelist, and activist Sofi Oksanen has become something of a household name in northern and central Europe. Declared Estonia’s “Person of the Year” in 2009, Oksanen is the first to win both of Finland’s prestigious literary prizes—the Finlandia and the Runeberg—as well as winning this year’s Nordic Council Literature Prize for her virtuosic novel Purge. At once a daring exploration of the Soviet occupation of Estonia, as well as a wrenching consideration of the irrevocable effects of trauma on an individual, Purge navigates the tragedies, petty betrayals, and reverberating guilt of three generations of Estonian women, all struggling to survive their own violent circumstances, no matter the cost.

The novel opens in 1991—the year after Estonia reclaimed its independence from Russia—with the elderly and isolated Aliide Truu stoically weathering childish torments (rocks thrown at her window) and more aggressive harassment (her dog poisoned) at the hands of her neighbors. One rainy morning, Aliide notices an injured young girl huddling in her front yard, and despite her misgivings, allows the girl to take shelter in her home. Zara is a young woman from Russia—a sex trafficking victim on the run from her captors. Having withstood a year of degradation and repeated assaults, Zara has lost everything. Everything, that is, except a yellowed photograph of her grandmother and her grandmother’s sister, with both young women and standing in front of the very Estonian house in which Zara has taken refuge.

Oksanen originally staged Purge as a play, an origin that can still be recognized in its episodic scenes and deliberately moderated tension. In its current form, however, the novel’s fluid and unadorned prose (in a musical and nuanced translation by Lola Rogers) shares a closer kinship with a psychological thriller. Both Aliide and Zara are survivors in the truest sense of the word—their suffering purposefully repressed by sheer force of will, their sole motivation to protect themselves from further harm. And they are both connected by a dense and untold family history that has festered for over four decades.

As the novel delves into Aliide’s past and the thirty-odd years that Estonia spent under Soviet occupation, it becomes apparent that the events of the present have all spun out from the same traumatic incident—a brutal “interrogation” that Aliide endured at the hands of several soldiers. Rape and assault were frighteningly common experiences for young Estonian women during this time, although not ones which were ever acknowledged—even by others who had gone through similar attacks. Rather, these women became isolated within their own communities and families, silent and ashamed. Aliide not only goes to great lengths to secret her experience, but also to distance herself from other victims. “She recognized the smell of women on the street, the smell that said something similar happened to them,” we’re told.

From every trembling hand, she could tell—there’s another one. From every flinch at the sound of a Russian soldier’s shout and every lurch at the tramp of boots. Her, too? Every one who couldn’t keep herself from crossing the street when militiamen or soldiers approached. Every one with a waistband on her dress that showed she was wearing several pairs of underwear. Every one who couldn’t look you in the eye . . .

When she found herself in proximity with one of those women, she tried to stay as far away from her as she could. So no one would notice similarities in their behavior . . . because you never knew when one of those men might happen by, a man she would remember for all eternity. And maybe it would be the same man as the other woman’s . . . And they wouldn’t be able to keep themselves from flinching at the same time, if they heard a familiar voice. They wouldn’t be able to raise their glass without spilling. They would be discovered. Someone would know.

Even as Aliide’s attempts at self-preservation become increasingly damaging to those around her—even as she allows herself to become complicit in the violations, abuses, and deportations that take place in her own home—the novel still treats her with a great depth of empathy. This is not to say that she is absolved of her actions—much to the contrary. But she is understood to be a casualty of her time and circumstances, and utterly alone with her memories and her guilt. As she realizes late in the novel, her whole life was spent “[w]aiting for someone . . . Someone who would do something to help or at least take away part of what had happened in that cellar.”

Stroke her hair and say that it wasn’t her fault. And say that it would never happen again, no matter what. And when she realized what she had been waiting for, she understood that that person would never come. No one would ever come to her and say those words, and mean them, and see that it never happened again.

There can be no real absolution for Aliide. This fact may be difficult for American readers, who have perhaps become accustomed to narratives of trauma and emotional distress which end in redemption—in the characters achieving some sort of closure, if not an out and out resolution to their suffering. In reality, however, true healing is extraordinarily difficult to achieve, and impossible, the novel reminds us, if the victims involved are not able to discuss their experiences.

Where Purge does take hope, however, is in Zara, a young woman who has broken free of the cycle of victimization. Through her, Aliide’s experiences—as well as those of her grandmother and mother—will finally come to light. It is a painful history to be sure, as is that of the Estonian nation. But in order to move forward—in order to truly reconcile with the past—such stories must finally be heard and examined.

13 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece on Dubravka Ugresic’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg. This was published by Grove as part of the “Myths” series, and was translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Celia Hawkesworth, and Mark Thompson. (Each of the three translators did a different section, which sort of makes sense, since this book is really a triptych written in three wildly different styles.)

Admittedly, I’m a huge fan of Dubrakva’s, but I think this is one of her best works of fiction. (My all-time favorite remains The Museum of Unconditional Surrender.)

Here’s the opening of the review:

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?”

Click here to read the full review.

13 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

9 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The “latest addition” to our Reviews Section is a piece on Nobel Prize winning author Kenzaburo Oe’s The Changeling, which was translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm and comes out from Grove Press in March.

Will Eells—who is a former Open Letter intern and did a fantastic job reviewing The Housekeeper and the Professor for us some time back—wrote this review, giving the book a very measured and thoughtful response.

Which is all great, but holy crap! Grove got a new website! One that works. One that has individual book pages, is easy to search, and, although maybe a bit cluttered, presents some damn good information about their titles. Well done! (Hey—is anyone at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt reading this? See—it’s possible for a website to make sense!)

Anyway, all that aside, here’s the opening of Will’s review:

Kenzaburo Oe, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, has always been a novelist concerned with big, important ideas and big, important problems, and yet his works are always written on a much smaller scale, focusing on that one individual character and how he is affected by the world around him. One may never read a narrative so intimate and personal as Oe’s, which leads to some pretty dark places. It’s like reading someone’s private diary—inherently compelling, but afterwards you’re left with a sick, guilty feeling with the realization that you learned some things that probably should have been well left alone.

Oe has a profoundly honest view of what it is to be human, especially the parts we don’t always like to acknowledge: the selfish, self-destructing, contradictory parts. And Oe seems to achieve this power because his works really are very personal—events from his own life are often the main events of his novels, often with little dress up. Obviously writers draw from personal experience, but Oe’s seem to be the most transparent and forthcoming about the events in his life, for instance the well of novels, including A Personal Matter, that have sprung up because of his handicapped son Hikari.

The Changeling, Oe’s most recently translated novel published by Grove Press, is a work that directly addresses the relationship between fact and fiction in literature. The protagonist of the story is an established sixty-odd year old Japanese author who is sent a case of cassette tapes from his brother-in-law, a friend since their teenage years and now a famous movie director. The tapes are a series of monologues by the brother-in-law, in which he reminisces about their relationship over the years along with ruminations about their mutual artistic endeavors. On the last tape, the brother-in-law cryptically announces that he is now “going to the Other Side”, and then, nothing but a loud thump. And as soon as the protagonist hears this, his wife comes in to tell him that his brother-in-law was found dead—he had committed suicide by jumping off the roof of his office building.

Click here for the full review.

9 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Kenzaburo Oe, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, has always been a novelist concerned with big, important ideas and big, important problems, and yet his works are always written on a much smaller scale, focusing on that one individual character and how he is affected by the world around him. One may never read a narrative so intimate and personal as Oe’s, which leads to some pretty dark places. It’s like reading someone’s private diary—inherently compelling, but afterwards you’re left with a sick, guilty feeling with the realization that you learned some things that probably should have been well left alone.

Oe has a profoundly honest view of what it is to be human, especially the parts we don’t always like to acknowledge: the selfish, self-destructing, contradictory parts. And Oe seems to achieve this power because his works really are very personal—events from his own life are often the main events of his novels, often with little dress up. Obviously writers draw from personal experience, but Oe’s seem to be the most transparent and forthcoming about the events in his life, for instance the well of novels, including A Personal Matter, that have sprung up because of his handicapped son Hikari.

The Changeling, Oe’s most recently translated novel published by Grove Press, is a work that directly addresses the relationship between fact and fiction in literature. The protagonist of the story is an established sixty-odd year old Japanese author who is sent a case of cassette tapes from his brother-in-law, a friend since their teenage years and now a famous movie director. The tapes are a series of monologues by the brother-in-law, in which he reminisces about their relationship over the years along with ruminations about their mutual artistic endeavors. On the last tape, the brother-in-law cryptically announces that he is now “going to the Other Side”, and then, nothing but a loud thump. And as soon as the protagonist hears this, his wife comes in to tell him that his brother-in-law was found dead—he had committed suicide by jumping off the roof of his office building.

The rest of the novel follows the protagonist as he tries to piece together why his brother-in-law committed suicide. He obsesses over the contents of the tapes by starting a nightly ritual of “talking” to his dead friend, an addiction so compelling he takes a year-long guest professorship at a university in Berlin to leave the tapes behind and free himself. However, the majority of the novel is set in periodic flashbacks, highlighting important events in their lives that led them down the paths they take today.

The Changeling is thus a long meditation on the power of real life events and how they shape a person and their fiction. It’s both a love letter to the creative process, as well as a philosophical treatise on the power of art and the way it reflects an inescapable past. In a way, The Changeling feels like it might be a work more personal to Oe than even a novel like A Personal Matter. It’s a direct view into the soul of Oe the writer, as opposed to Oe the father or Japanese citizen, and in a way, that’s more powerful:

Perhaps the feeling of loss—even downfall—that accompanied his sense of relief was due to the constant awareness that he was growing old and irrelevant, and that he would live out the remainder of his days without ever being able to liberate the heart inside his skull from this vast collection of beloved, familiar books, which were an anchor but also, at times, an albatross.

The Changeling reads very well; the sentences, though often long, flow with ease and with a powerful narrative sweep. However, because the novel is in its essence more interested in certain philosophical ideas than the physical happenings of the plot, the characters, who are otherwise characterized and behave like human beings, often end up as mouthpieces for Oe, and talk almost exclusively in monologues instead of really talking to each other. The translation by Deborah Boliver Boehm is solid, although there are places where cultural explanations are awkwardly shoehorned into parentheses as opposed to being more integrated into the text. Finally, there is a seventy page long epilogue that suddenly switches perspectives to the protagonist’s wife, which seems almost jarring after what seemed like a perfect conclusion by the protagonist; however, in the end it does tie the work together nicely and is the section from which the work gets its title.

The line between fact and fiction is blurred in The Changeling, and how the reader sees the novel can change depending on how much the reader knows about Kenzaburo Oe’s personal life. It’s amazing that the novel can work on these two completely different levels: as a total fabrication and as a work of fiction that can be traced along the lines of real life events. In any other novel, it would be irrelevant as to what personal experiences go into what, in the end, is supposed to be a piece of fiction. But in The Changeling, it’s the novel’s raison d’etre. The question of what is real and what is fiction, while interesting to ponder, are overshadowed by the real question: which one, in the end, is more important to not just the reader, but to the author.

25 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next three weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto. Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen. (Cuba, Grove Press)

I’m about to give away the game in relation to this novel . . . So if you’re an anti-spoiler sort of person, I recommend skipping this post and simply buying the book and enjoying all the literary games packed within.

Trying to summarize this book is a bit tricky. It’s like a mafia thriller filtered through Nabokov. It’s a dense book with a narrator who is both unreliable and maybe a bit confused, and who is obsessed with Proust. It was also the subject of an incredible conversation Erica Mena and I had with Esther Allen for a forthcoming Reading the World podcast. (That’s a subtle enough plug, right?)

Anyway, the basic set-up of this book is that the narrator has been hired by a Russian couple living in Marabella, Spain to tutor their son. The narrator decides that all the kid needs to do is read Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, which is the book that contains everything from psychology to quantum physics. The world is in there.

It startled, even frightening him when I spoke that way about the Book, this being without fixed age—at first I’d thought that was me, that the Writer might be referring to me, but on an instant’s further reflection I realized the phrase applied rather to the man who had greeted me, Batyk. A man bearing a perfect resemblance to a peon, someone fetched from the depths of the darkest, sootiest oil painting.

I am concerned, he announced, with the infinite cunning and unction of Norpois (in the Writer); I am concerned, I fear that your manner of teaching, an education such as the one you propose, based on a single book, may not be the correct or appropriate one. So distorted an education, its vortex resting upon a single book, cannot, by all rights, amount to much. Didn’t you list the classes you were to give him on my behalf? Spanish, mathematics, geography in Spanish? Hadn’t you also mentioned physics? Didn’t you assure me you were well grounded in physics, extremely (sarcastic here) well grounded in physics, didn’t you agree to cover the entire sixth-grade curriculum and the seventh, as well?

And yet all I did in the first class was talk about the Book, and in the second I talked only about the Book, and in the third read aloud selected passages from the Book. That drew him closer.

Rex is constructed out of a series of “Commentaries” from the narrator to the young boy. Most of these sections focus on telling the story of the boy’s parents and of the narrator’s attempt to figure out what the hell is really going on. (More on that in a second.) Littered throughout these commentaries are references to other books—sometimes Proust, sometimes others. Sometimes these phrases are bolded, sometimes they’re not. In translating the book, Esther Allen created a list of references that she worked from, and Jose Manuel Prieto did the same, resulting in an invaluable “author’s note” at the end that provides an amazing set of references.

It’s through this intricate set of references that the reader has to figure out what’s “going on” with the family that has employed our narrator. Initially he thinks they’re one of the wealthiest families he’s ever met. Although how they got their money is a bit suspicious and unnerving . . . Because they are Russian and living in a mob-heavy community—and because of the enormous diamonds that are just around—he’s initially convinced that he’s working for a couple major players in the mafia . . . But that’s not actually right. It’s actually a bit more complicated and involves fake diamonds (like in Proust’s The Lemoine Affair, which may be more of an ur-text for the novel than In Search of Lost Time), a dangerous scam, and some members of the mob that have recently been released from prison . . .

Rex is one of those novels that benefits from multiple readings. And it really doesn’t matter if you know the “plot” or not. The joy is in all the literary games . . .

5 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Thanks to Lauren Wein for sending me a galley of Dubravka Ugresic’s latest book, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg. (Which is translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Celia Hawkesworth, and Mark Thompson.) This was released in the UK not too long ago (and has been receiving some great reviews) and will be available here in the States in, well, um, February. (Publishing time can be so whack . . .)

This is part of the Canongate/Grove “The Myths Series” and is working with the Slavic myth of Baba Yaga, a “witch who lives in a house built on chicken legs and kidnaps small children.” According to the jacket copy, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is about four women: “a writer who grants her dying mother’s final wish by traveling to her hometown in Bulgaria, an elderly woman who wakes up every day hoping to die, a buxom blonde hospital worker who’s given up on love, and a serial widow who harbors a secret talent for writing.”

Expect a full review in the not-too-distant future, but in the meantime, here’s the opening:

You don’t see them at first. Then suddenly a random detail snags your attention like a stray mouse: an old lady’s handbag, a stocking slipping down a leg, bunching up on a bulging ankle, crocheted gloves on the hands, a little old-fashioned hat perched on the head, sparse grey hair with a blue sheen. The owner of the blued hair moves her head like a mechanical dog and smiles wanly . . .

Yes, at first they are invisible. They move past you, shadow-like, they peck at the air in front of them, tap, shuffle along the asphalt, mince in small mouse-like steps, pull a cart behind them, clutch at a walker, stand surrounded by a cluster of pointless sacks and bags, like a deserter from the army still decked out in full war gear. A few of them are still ‘in shape,’ wearing a low-cut summer dress with a flirtatious feather boa flung across the shoulders, in an old half-motheaten Astrakhan, her make-up all smeary (who, after all, can apply make-up properly while peering through spectacles?!).

They roll by you like heaps of dried apples. They mumble something into their chins, conversing with invisible collo-cutors the way American Indians speak with the spirits. They ride buses, trams and the subway like abandoned luggage; they sleep with their heads drooping onto their chests; or they gawk around, wondering which stop to get off at, or whether they should get off at all. Sometimes you linger for a moment (for only a moment!) in front of an old people’s home and watch them through the glass walls: they sit at tables, move their fingers over leftover crumbs as if moving across a page of Braille, sending someone unintelligible messages.

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?!

Dubravka really is one of the best . . .

24 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The past few years has seen a bit of a Witold Gombrowicz renaissance. Yale University Press has published Danuta Borchardt’s retranslations1 of Cosmos and Ferdydurke, Archipelago published Bill Johnston’s translation of Bacacay, and Dalkey Archive reissued A Kind of Testament. And coming in November from Grove is Danuta Borchardt’s new translation of Pornografia, a Gombrowicz novel I haven’t read, but that sounds pretty damn good:

In the midst of the German occupation, two aging intellectuals travel to a farm in the countryside, looking for a respite from the claustrophobic scene in Warsaw. They quickly grow bored of their bucolic surroundings—that is, until they become hypnotized by a pair of country youths who have grown up alongside each other. The older men are determined to orchestrate a tryst between the two teenagers, but they are soon distracted by a string of violent developments, culminating in an order from the Polish underground movement: the men at the farm must assassinate a rogue resistance captain who has sought refuge there. The erotic games are put on hold—until the two dissolute intellectuals find a way to involve their pawns in the murderous plot.

Gombrowicz was one of the best (Ferdydurke is an absolute must read), and it’s great to see so many of his books available again, especially now that they’re translated from the original Polish . . . Here’s the opening paragraph of Pornografia to get a taste of his style:

I’ll tell you about yet another adventure of mine, probably one of the most disastrous. At the time—the year was 1943—I was living in what was once Poland and what was once Warsaw, at the rock-bottom of an accomplished fact. Silence. The thinned-out bunch of companions and friends from the former cafes—the Zodiac, the Ziemianska, the Ipsu—would gather in an apartment on Krucza Street and there, drinking, we tried hard to go on as artists, writers, and thinkers . . . picking up our old, earlier conversations and disputes about art. . . . Hey, hey, hey, to this day I see us sitting or lying around in thick cigarette smoke, this one somewhat skeleton-like, that one scarred, and all shouting, screaming. So this one was shouting: God, another: art, a third: the nation, a fourth: the proletariat, and so we debated furiously, and it went on and on—God, art, nation, proletariat—but one day a middle-aged guy turned up, dark and lean, with an aquiline nose and, observing all due formality, he introduced himself to everyone individually. After which he hardly spoke.

If you’re intrigued, you can preorder the book from Booksmith by clicking here.

And now I’ll sit back and watch people searching for “polish porno” flock to our site for some serious disappointment . . .

1 Actually, Danuta Borchardt’s translations are the first from the original Polish edition—earlier editions were translated from the French versions.

12 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As announced yesterday, Michael Thomas has won this year’s International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his novel Man Gone Down (Grove).

Here’s the description from the Grove website:

A beautifully written, insightful, and devastating first novel, Man Gone Down is about a young black father of three in a biracial marriage trying to claim a piece of the American Dream he has bargained on since youth.

On the eve of the unnamed narrator’s thirty-fifth birthday, he finds himself broke, estranged from his white Boston Brahmin wife and three children, and living in the bedroom of a friend’s six-year-old child. He has four days to come up with the money to keep his family afloat, four days to try to make some sense of his life. He’s been getting by working
construction jobs though he’s known on the streets as “the professor,” as he was expected to make something out of his life.

Alternating between his past—as a child in inner-city Boston, he was bussed to the suburbs as part of the doomed attempts at integration in the 1970s—and the present in New York City where he is trying mightily to keep his children in private schools, we learn of his mother’s abuses, his father’s abandonment, raging alcoholism, and the best and worst intentions of a supposedly integrated America.

This is an extraordinary debut. It is a story of the American Dream gone awry, about what it’s like to feel preprogrammed to fail in life—and the urge to escape that sentence.

And from the jury:

“We never know his name. But the African-American protagonist of Michael Thomas’ masterful debut, Man Gone Down, will stay with readers for a long time. He lingers because this extraordinary novel comes to us from a writer of enthralling voice and startling insight. Tuned urgently to the way we live now, the winner of the International Dublin IMPAC Prize 2009 is a novel brilliant in its scope and energy, and deeply moving in its human warmth.”

The IMPAC is one of the richest literary awards in the world—Thomas will receive €100,000—and has brought a good deal of success and attention to recent winners, which include Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game, and Colm Tóibín’s The Master.

20 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen and published this month by Grove. This is the second book of Prieto’s that Grove has published—Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire came out a few years ago—and hopefully isn’t the last.

As you can probably tell from my review, this is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

It a more perfect world, I would have enough time to read this book at least one more time before even attempting to write this review. Rex is a novel that’s filthy with references to other novels, plays, essays, TV shows, works of art, etc. Even from the opening line—“I’ve been reading it for years, the one Book”—the reader is forced to start paying attention and deciphering the web of references that make up this novel. (Which is why it’s great that Grove decided to include an “Author’s Note” at the back of the finished edition detailing some of the allusions made in the work—more on that in a bit.)

As mentioned above, the novel opens with a somewhat obsessed opening paragraph all about Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past:

“I’ve been reading it for year, 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.”

Click here for the full review.

Rex
20 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It a more perfect world, I would have enough time to read this book at least one more time before even attempting to write this review. Rex is a novel that’s filthy with references to other novels, plays, essays, TV shows, works of art, etc. Even from the opening line—“I’ve been reading it for years, the one Book”—the reader is forced to start paying attention and deciphering the web of references that make up this novel. (Which is why it’s great that Grove decided to include an “Author’s Note” at the back of the finished edition detailing some of the allusions made in the work—more on that in a bit.)

As mentioned above, the novel opens with a somewhat obsessed opening paragraph all about Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past:

I’ve been reading it for year, 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.

Proust’s masterpiece is more than just a book (or even “Book”) to J., the young Cuban narrator of this novel. He’s recently been hired by a somewhat mysterious Russian couple living in southern Spain to tutor their son, Petya, and to teach him Spanish. Having bluffed his way into the cushy position (which is desirable if for no other reason than to be close to the boy’s seductive mother), J.‘s plan is to use the Book as the sole teaching instrument, for what isn’t contained in this book?

I am concerned, he announced, with the infinite cunning and unction of Norpois (in the Writer); I am concerned, I fear that your manner of teaching, an education such as the one you propose, based on a single book, may not be the correct or appropriate one. So distorted an education, its vortex resting upon a single book, cannot, by all rights, amount to much. [. . .]

And yet all I did in the first class was talk about the Book, and in the second I talked only about the Book, and in the third read aloud selected passages from the Book. That drew him closer.

And if nothing else, J. does seem to draw the young boy closer. Rex is a series of twelve “commentaries,” in which J. is speaking to Petya, telling the story of what’s happened to his parents, what’s really been going on. Not that J. explains what’s really been going on in a straightforward fashion, instead this thoroughly unreliable narrator who is always going on and on about the Book and the Commentator (Jorge Luis Borges), the Writer (who is different people throughout the novel) in a way that can be both pedantic and naive all at once. Or, as Prieto explains in his “Author’s Note”:

It is not by chance, either, that Petya is the listener and sole recipient of the story; the whole tone of the book derives from that fact. Rex returns to the free fabulations of childhood, and the tales of Psellus, the tutor, are an amalgamation of all the books he read as a youth or a child, out of which he improvises for Petya a highly adorned story of his parents’ life, a story that otherwise, told in some other way, might have been sordid and terrible.

Plot-wise, things get interesting in this book when J. comes home from a night of dancing and finds a couple blue diamonds in the front lawn. He pockets and hides these for the time being, later finding out that these are a couple of the fake diamonds manufactured by the young boy’s father Vasily, who supposedly ripped off the Russian mafia with these fakes.

At first glance this might seem a bit far-fetched, but translator Esther Allen—who did a marvelous job with this novel, which must’ve presented innumerable difficulties—directed me to an article entitled The New Diamond Age that appeared in Wired magazine a half-dozen years ago and is all about a couple diamond producers who were perfecting a technique to create diamonds and preparing to chip away at De Beers’s stranglehold on the diamond market.

And if this sounds a bit familiar, it might be thanks to The Lemoine Affair by Marcel Proust, a pastiche about Lemoine, a real Frenchman who, in the early 1900s, conned De Beers out of a lot of money by convincing them he had discovered a cheap and easy way to create diamonds from coal.

In Rex, this diamond con leads to a paranoid existence, in which Vasily and his gorgeous wife struggle to figure out a way to be safe—to escape permanently from the threat of the Russian mafia, many of whom vacation in this same Spanish town.

Due to his attraction to Nelly—which presents one of the odder aspects of this book, since J. has no issue with telling her son about how sexually appealing she is to him, how he wants to run away with her, etc., all of which adds to J.‘s peculiar voice and instability—J. gets involved in a grand scheme to pull one big scam and link Vasily to the Russian czars.

Returning to the original point, this wild plot is embedded within a heap of literary references and touchpoints, at times obfuscating what’s going on, but also elevating this work into a sort of game, which, to be honest, left me feeling like I had missed something, a special clue that would eliminate some of the uncertainties in J.‘s story (is he crazy? dangerous? a pawn?), that would make this all make sense.

Not that this is a criticism—far from it. Rex is one of the more stunning achievements from a contemporary author that I’ve read in the past couple years. The novel revels in its literary web of references, in a way that brings to mind the work of Vladimir Nabokov. Prieto isn’t quite as smooth or cocksure as Nabokov was (at least not yet—Prieto has a lot of books ahead of him), but he is working within that same vein, which is rather unusual in today’s commercially obsessed world.

What’s also interesting is that this novel is the last volume in a trilogy that includes Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia (not translated into English) and Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire (published by Grove in 2000). In his author’s note Prieto sets forth a bit of what he’s up to with these books:

With all three novels, I’ve tried to go beyond the realism commonly associated with the autobiographical novel (which all three are), yet not toward magic or magical realism, but rather toward science and a kind of magico-scientific realism, if such a thing is possible.

Prieto is successful in this regard, and hopefully his first book will make it into English in the near future—this trilogy looks like a great start to a long career.

31 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For whatever reason, April is a huge month for literature in translation. According to the translation database there are 39 works of fiction and poetry coming out in translation this month. We will be running full-length reviews of a number of these titles, but over the course of the month, I thought I’d highlight the April titles that catch my eye.

Also, more on this later, but since Shaman Drum is our featured indie bookstore for April, all of the “buy” links below go to their online catalog.

Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (Grove, $24.00, buy)

This is one of the best 2009 books I’ve read so far this year. A very Nabokovian book, the novel is made up of a series of “commentaries” by a young Cuban tutor about his pupil’s mysterious family (possibly on the run from the Russian mafia) and about In Search of Lost Time, which J. refers to as The Book, claiming that it contains everything you need to know. (Proust hovers over this novel, especially in relation to the story of the fake diamonds . . .)


News from the Empire by Fernando del Paso, translated from the Spanish by Alfonso Gonzalez and Stella T. Clark (Dalkey Archive, $18.95, buy)

Del Paso’s Palinuro of Mexico is one of my favorite Dalkey books, so I was very excited to find out that they were bringing out another of his books. Epically long (704 dense pages), News from the Empire centers on Maximilian and his wife Carlota, the Emperor and Empress of Mexico from 1863 to 1867. This book was nicely reviewed in Publishers Weekly, where it was referred to as “a Mexican War and Peace.


The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer (Archipelago, $25, buy)

Last year Archipelago had more titles on the Best Translated Book Fiction Longlist than any other press—a testament to Jill Schoolman’s taste. I wouldn’t be surprised if this year’s list was much the same. The Twin is one of the first big titles Archipelago is bringing out this year, the story of Helmer, a young man who has to return home to take over the family farm after his twin brother dies in a car accident. The story sounds fine, but it’s the laconic writing style that the critics have been praising. Susan Salter Reynolds called Bakker’s writing “fabulously clear, so clear that each sentence leaves a rippling wake,” and Michael Orthofer ended his review with this: “Yet in Bakker’s telling — those simple descriptions and the terse dialogue, with all its lack of true communication — it is an absolutely fascinating read. Well worthwhile.”


A Thousand Deaths Plus One by Sergio Ramirez, translated from the Spanish by Leland Chambers (McPherson & Co., $25.00, not avail. via Shaman Drum)

I haven’t received a review copy yet, but this novel (which also received an “A-” from the Complete Review) sounds pretty intriguing. It’s a novel about Juan Castellon, a Nicaraguan photographer the author discovers during a visit to Warsaw. The novel is told alternating chapters of Ramierz’s quest to reveal the artist’s identity and Castellon’s own side of the story, and according to Michael Orthofer, “It all has the feel of an elaborate literary game of the sort that Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Marías are fond of playing.”

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Writers
Writers by Antoine Volodine
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

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. . .

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My Brilliant Friend
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Reviewed by Acacia O'Connor

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?),. . .

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Stealth
Stealth by Sonallah Ibrahim
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .

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Miruna, a Tale
Miruna, a Tale by Bogdan Suceavă
Reviewed by Alta Ifland

Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .

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Kamal Jann
Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .

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I Called Him Necktie
I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.

Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see. . .

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Return to Killybegs
Return to Killybegs by Sorj Chalandon
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .

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