15 August 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To celebrate the official pub date for Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s Island of Point Nemo, you’ll find an interview below between the translator, Hannah Chute (who received a Banff Translation Fellowship to work on this book) and the author himself. You can get the book now either through our website, or from better bookstores everywhere.



A stolen diamond and three right feet, wearing shoes of a non-existent brand, that wash ashore in Scotland set into motion the first plot of Island of Point Nemo, a rollicking Jules Verne-like adventure narrative that crosses continents and oceans, involves multilingual codes, a world-famous villain, and three eccentrically loopy detectives.

Running parallel is the story of B@bil Books, an e-reader factory in France filled with its own set of colorful characters, including the impotent Dieumercie and his randy wife, who will stop at nothing—including a suspect ritual involving bees—to fix his “problem,” and their abusive boss Wang-li Wong, obsessed with carrier pigeons and spying on his employees.

With the humor of a Jasper Fforde novel, and the structure of a Haruki Murakami one, Island of Point Nemo is a literary puzzle and grand testament to the power of storytelling—even in our digital age.



Hannah Chute: I’d like to begin at the beginning. Island of Point Nemo has so many interweaving elements, so I have been wondering what the actual inception of the novel was. Did you begin with B@bil Books? With the Ananke diamond and the steampunk universe of Martial Canterel and Shylock Holmes?

Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès I generally spend a long time preparing a very detailed plan before starting to write, so the weaving of the stories was set well in advance. This book has a spiral structure where the chapters are connected vertically and linearly, like the chambers of a nautilus shell. In the same way, I spent several months doing a kind of preliminary “casting,” drawing many of my characters and some important settings, to develop a sort of graphic “story board” whose pages–hanging on lines stretched out in several rows–ended up covering almost all of the walls of the place where I live.

HC: And how did you write the book? Did you write the chapters in the order they’re in now, or did you jump around following the storylines or different characters?

JB: After this I started writing my chapters in the order in which they were published. As early as Chapter VII, though, I realized that I needed the story of the Ananke diamond in its entirety in order to work out the connections and capillary action that I wanted to set up with the world of B@bil Books. So from that point I wrote all the adventures of Martial Canterel and his crew before returning to Arnaud Méneste and the e-reader assembly plant.

HC: Several of the more far-fetched-sounding plot points in the Ananke storyline are actually drawn from real-life inspirations. I’m thinking, for example, of the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine disorder, the Skoptsy religious sect, Point Nemo itself, etc. Did you go out looking to incorporate elements like these that would perhaps sound made-up to readers who are not already familiar with them?

JB: Yes, this is the very game of fiction. Fantasy can only work using elements that are drawn, at least in part, from reality. It is the choosing and sticking-together of these elements that makes it possible to invent new stories. As in all my novels, every detail is “true”—even the most improbable depravities and the elephant catapults! It is the assembling of these details that is “fictitious” and which forms the universe of my novel.

HC: The interplay of technology and reading is strongly present in both the B@bil Books world and the Ananke world within the novel. Within the steampunk universe of Canterel and Holmes, it gradually becomes clear that physical, printed books are a thing of the past and that they have been entirely replaced by ebooks. And the factory in the “real” world is of course an e-reader factory. Its management doesn’t even seem to think that the books on these e-readers will ever be read. As Monsieur Wang believes, “The digital library was just a modern variation on the sin of pride, the sin of upstarts anxious to show of their prosperity, surrounding themselves with flashy books—even just empty bindings—that they had never read and never would read.”

Is this meant to be an omen of how a future like the one shown in the Ananke storyline could come to be? What effect do you think technology has on our desire to read and our reading itself?

JB: Island of Point Nemo is a double dystopia. One of the goals of this type of fiction is to warn the reader by pushing to their limits the dangerous aspects of a society devoted to monopolization and consumption. Same with religious and ideological dogmas. The question is how to renew our way of living in the world in such a way that man no longer sees himself as “master and possessor of nature.”

Technology, as we know, has no sign; it is neither good nor bad in and of itself. It all depends on the values that govern its use. Focusing on spectacle–the consumption of televised or digital images at the expense of reading time–creates a mental passivity in our method of accessing information. It is not impossible that this laziness gradually alienates us from the effort that reading requires, and eventually leads to a profound transformation of our relationship with writing.

As for books themselves, I agree with Jean-Claude Carrière and Umberto Eco: “The book is like the spoon, the hammer, the wheel, or scissors. Once invented, it cannot be improved.”

HC: Arnaud Méneste draws on newspaper clippings and the literature that he and his now-comatose wife have read, trying to put together a novel so great that it will wake her from her long slumber. How much does your writing philosophy resemble Méneste’s? Do you believe literature can save people?

JB: Literature–some books, in any case–has the power to change our view of the world, and thus to interact with reality. This is the power of imagination, of creative freedom. To say something is always to start to make it exist a little. It is in this sense also that “every name is an omen.”

As I recount in this novel, it was through reading Les Misérables and The Count of Monte Cristo that the cigar makers of Cuba were convinced of the merits of rising up against social injustice, to the point of engaging in revolution. I do not believe in any “salvation,” but rather in this shift in focus that allows our lives to move in a new direction at one point or another.

HC: And is reality, as Méneste says, “a subservient mirror of what has already happened in novels”? When he reads the chapters of his novel to the factory workers at B@bil Books, is he changing them, or are they changing him?

JB: I do not think there is a reality apart from the perception we have of it. That is to say, reality and fiction are inextricably intertwined in my mind, to the point that reality can sometimes be considered a lesser variant or bad copy of fiction. When Méneste calls on our memory as readers to construct his novel, he unconsciously creates an extremely powerful reaction, an alchemy capable of upsetting the world order, connecting parallel universes, inverting reality and fiction. It is this transmutation that is at work in both him and his wife, as well as in all those who attend his readings.

HC: I ran across a reader review of the book online in which the reader complained that the novel would have been great for children if it weren’t for all the sex and violence. In the U.S. in particular, I think there is a certain idea that adventure stories (such as those written by Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas, and Victor Hugo) are just “fun” stories for kids, and that they can’t be serious literature. Why do you think this trope exists? Is there a difference between “real” literature and “popular” literature?

JB: There are different literary genres—popular novels, detective fiction, science fiction, fantasy, etc.—and none of them is “inferior” to the others, but only those texts that do not leave the reader unscathed belong to literature. I make no distinction between these books, whatever their genre, and others. And these others can be captivating and successful, and give me great pleasure in reading them, but I know as I read them that they are “outside of literature.”

“The supreme effort of the writer as of the artist,” writes Marcel Proust, “is partially to lift the veil of ugliness and insignificance which leaves us without curiosity about the world. So he tells us [. . .] look! Learn to see! And at that moment he disappears.”

A book belongs to literature when it succeeds in this unveiling that makes visible, with reverence and the approximation of chiaroscuro, the complex beauty of things. Through an original perspective of reality (not its servile representation), the “literary” work leaves me by myself, free to measure my being against this unexpected opening. My view of the world is thus enlarged by the vision of another, and I am enriched, because the world is enriched by my reading.

The literary event, when it occurs, flows through novels, aphorisms, poems, essays, and any other form of writing. I have not gained more knowledge from reading On the Genealogy of Morality, De rerum natura, or A Short History of Decay than from Gargantua, Anabasis, Last Exit to Brooklyn, or The Magic Mountain: with each I learned to see better for myself; each of these readings changed my worldview, and so helped me become what I am.

HC: There are monsters of many kinds in Island of Point Nemo. The monsters in the Ananke storyline are more viscerally horrifying (for example, the deep-sea creatures that the crew of the ship Black Orpheus encounters as they near Point Nemo, or worse the foul murderer the Noh Straddler). But thinking of the sex-starved and desperate Carmen Bonacieux, the cold and cruel Monsieur Wang, or the pitiful but grotesque Marthe, some of the characters in the “real world” seem more monstrous still. What makes a real monster?

JB: According to its Latin etymology, monstrosity is a wonder, an aberration that one points at, unable to find the right words to name it. A departure from the norm that makes us aware of a border between “normal” and “abnormal.” This frontier has kept evolving over the centuries, and fortunately physical deformities are no longer exhibited at fairs or Barnum circuses. Moral deformities, however, continue to cause problems. What terrifies us today is less the disgrace of the body than that of the spirit. As Gerard Amiel points out, “man’s lack of spirit and his total plasticity open him to all possibilities, including the worst. Anyone, under these conditions, can become a tormentor. What fascinates us today is no longer the exceptional nature of monstrosity, but its banality. The humanization of monsters gradually forces us to recognize the monstrosity of man. We tried to drive the monstrous to the edges of humanity, then to eliminate it, but it found refuge in us.”

My interest in monsters is part of this questioning of human nature. The “real monsters” are individuals who for one reason or another—pathological disorder, extreme faith in a divinity or ideology, voluntary conditioning, etc.—no longer possess the minimum of empathy with others that would prevent them from being torturers, or just from deliberately harming others. “Winter is coming,” the refrain of Games of Thrones, refers to this internal monstrosity that constantly threatens us, more than an external danger that we should protect ourselves from.

HC: The characters of Island of Point Nemo range all across the globe, as you yourself have done during your life. Considering all the traveling you’ve done and the number of places you’ve lived, do you consider yourself a French writer? An international writer?

JB: By my native language, I am obviously a French writer, but this does not prevent me from feeling connected to the rest of the planet. Hence the importance, to me, of this American translation.

HC: What is next for you? You’ve mentioned that you are planning to write a series of novels to expand on themes from the stories in your collection La Mémoire de riz. Is your latest novel, Dans l’épaisseur de la chair, a part of this?

JB: The twenty-two short stories of La Mémoire de riz play with the symbolism of the major arcana of the Tarot of Marseilles. Each of my books since then has been, to some degree, part of this initial context. This is a way of considering and exploring the general coherence that I perceive in my work, without clearly distinguishing it. Dans l’épaisseur de la chair follows this constraint: it contains several characters already present in La Mémoire de riz. I am unlikely to succeed, but ideally—for aesthetic reasons—I would like to leave behind twenty-two volumes of a novelistic mosaic from which perhaps would emerge something like a single compendium of the world.

15 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Coming out in August, Island of Point Nemo, Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès latest book, is an incredible trip. It’s made up of two story lines: one about the crazy (and semi-evil) workers at a ebook manufacturing plant, the other a Sherlock Holmes-style globetrotting story built out of references and allusions to all sorts of famous adventure novels.

To give you a better sense of the wacky energy of this book, here’s the complete jacket copy:

A stolen diamond and three right feet, wearing shoes of a non-existent brand, that wash ashore in Scotland set into motion the first plot of Island of Point Nemo, a rollicking Jules Verne-like adventure narrative that crosses continents and oceans, involves multilingual codes, a world-famous villain, and three eccentrically loopy detectives.

Running parallel is the story of B@bil Books, an e-reader factory in France filled with its own set of colorful characters, including the impotent Dieumercie and his randy wife, who will stop at nothing—including a suspect ritual involving bees—to fix his “problem,” and their abusive boss Wang-li Wong, obsessed with carrier pigeons and spying on his employees.

With the humor of a Jasper Fforde novel, and the structure of a Haruki Murakami one, Island of Point Nemo is a literary puzzle and grand testament to the power of storytelling—even in our digital age.

Click below to enter to win a copy!


Goodreads Book Giveaway

Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès

Island of Point Nemo

by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès

Giveaway ends June 30, 2017.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

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13 June 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Hannah Chute, recent recipient of her MA in literary translation from the University of Rochester.

For more information on the Women’s World Cup of Literature, click here or here. Also, be sure to follow our Twitter account and like our Facebook page. And check back here daily!

Oryx & Crake vs. The Ministry of Pain winds up being one of the stranger match-ups in terms of national identities. On the one hand, we have a novel set in a dystopian, post-Canadian future, while on the other we have an ostensibly Dutch novel about exiles that is really more Yugoslavian than anything.

I’ll start with Dubravka Ugrešić’s strange and lovely tale of Tanja Lucić, a Croatian teacher of a “servo-kroatisch” course at a university in Amsterdam, and of her complex relationships with her students, her homeland, and her language.

One of the most memorable sections is when Tanja has her students—all of whom speak Serbo-Croatian perfectly well, and who have almost exclusively come to Amsterdam from the former Yugoslavia—bring in memories of that country. Until this point it can be difficult as a reader to keep track of which student is which, but here each character’s way of speaking and choice of subject matter emerge as so distinctive that their various personalities leap off the page. The most memorable presentation is Igor’s, which details his friend Mikac’s reaction to an anthology of Yugoslav poetry. Mikac appears to be channeling Holden Caulfield in his goofy but acerbic commentary: “They’re a bunch of sickos, our poets,” he says, and “‘I know not what thou art: art thou woman or hyena?’ Shit! Did that guy get my goat!”

The narration moves smoothly between moments of syrupy intimacy between Lucić and her students (when they meet they exchange “sweet verbal saliva” and engage in “aural fondling”) and biting, bitter anger over what has become of the former Yugoslavia (Lucić expresses her disdain for “the prepacked retrofuture of the newly minted states”). This constant shifting makes the characters’ shaky and ever-changing position as exiles and émigrés all the more poignant.

Ugrešić also inserts into her narrative moments of reflection on the role of language, especially in times of war and turmoil. As she describes the breaking up of Serbo-Croatian into various regional languages: “It was a divorce full of sound and fury . . . Croats would eat their kruh, while Serbs would eat their hleb, Bosnians their hljeb: the word for bread in the three languages was different. Smrt, the word for death, was the same.” Lucić has a love-hate relationship with her native tongue; she treasures it but wonders if it is real, she loses her grip on it even as she tries to cling tighter and tighter.

Overall, Ugrešić’s novel is everything it should be: funny, tragic, strange, and thought-provoking.

Oryx & Crake is remarkable in very different ways. It is a thrilling mystery, a work of speculative fiction set in the not-so-distant future, when humanity has been all but wiped out by terrible events that gradually come to light as Snowman, the novel’s protagonist, digs back through his dark past.

Breathtaking in its scope, frightening in its ever-more-looming feasibility, Oryx & Crake is, however, no mere cautionary fable. Atwood does not just show us a frightening future in which corporate greed and the heady lure of consequence-free living have brought humanity to the brink of extinction; I can think of any number of writers who could accomplish that much. But Atwood skillfully walks the fine line between making her point effectively and hammering it into her reader’s head so hard that she forgets to write a story. Luckily for her readers, she is far too talented to make such an error.

The plot is structured with sublime pacing that compels you to keep turning the pages. Atwood moves effortlessly between Snowman’s ruined, miserable present and the past that seemed so full of promise, even if cracks were starting to show around the edges. One thing I particularly appreciated was that Atwood has not felt the need to overexplain her world. Snowman’s past is set at some point in our near-ish future, when the world as we know it has been divided into small Compounds of the intellectual and economic elite surrounded by vast “pleeblands” where anything goes. How did humanity get here? Atwood leaves it to your imagination, which I think it quite refreshing.

The beauty of Oryx & Crake’s language is particularly striking because of its contrast with the bleak realities of the novel. “A breeze riffles the leaves overhead; insects rasp and trill; red light from the setting sun hits the tower blocks in the water, illuminating an unbroken pane here and there, as if a scattering of lamps has been turned on;” Snowman’s seaside lair would almost sound paradisiacal, were it not for the devastated shell of a city strewn with bodies that surrounds him. The beauty of language becomes crucial to Snowman; he has not had human contact for some time now, and holding onto obsolete words (“wheelwright, lodestone, saturnine, adamant”) becomes a way to keep himself whole, if not quite sane.

This is a challenging match to judge, simply because it seems to me that Atwood and Ugrešić are playing two different games. If Ugrešić is playing at something vaguely resembling soccer—down and dirty, though perhaps without enough flashiness to attract a large American audience—Atwood is more likely working through a round of chess: she is precise, prescient, and highly imaginative. Also, while the scope and inventiveness of Oryx & Crake are unparalleled, The Ministry of Pain decidedly takes home the award for humor. Both novels are, in a sense, about important current events, but Atwood is painting a picture of a looming and oft-discussed future while Ugrešić is shedding light on the lives of people who have already suffered, but who have generally been shoved out of sight.

Another point in Ugrešić’s favor is that Michael Henry Heim’s translation is just about flawless. Who else would have thought to describe a bathroom remodel as “transfiguring the looscape”? And have it sound perfectly natural in context? Though with nothing to compare it with on Atwood’s end, I’m once again left feeling a little unbalanced.

It’s a rough choice, but ultimately it comes down to this: one point each for gorgeous language. Ugrešić’s humor and delightful strangeness earn her another goal. But Oryx & Crake is so provocative, so downright thrilling, that it scores two final goals, bringing it a victory over The Ministry of Pain, 3-2.

*

Next up, Canada’s Oryx & Crake will face off against New Zealand’s The Luminaries on Monday, June 22nd in what promises to be a huge second-round match.

Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Rhea Lyons, and features England’s Life after Life by Kate Atkinson up against Colombia’s Delirium by Laura Restrepo.

25 July 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Hannah Chute on Amsterdam Stories by Nescio, from New York Review Books.

Hannah is one of two Hannahs interning at Open Letter this summer. We’re still working on a good nickname for her—for now, depending on the situation, we (read: I) have been referring to the Hannahs as “Hannah” and “Other Hannah.” (If yet another of our interns, Reagan, was also a Hannah, things would get messy. Other Other Hannah?)

Anyway, this relatively small volume of stories by Nescio sounds pretty cool, particularly the chronology of style behind it, and falls into the category of compact volumes from NYRB that I personally can’t wait to dive into—a fairly long list that (in no particular order) includes Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories.

Here’s the beginning of Hannah’s review:

Nescio, Koekebakker, J.H.F. Grönloh. Writing only in his spare time, he was known to most of the world as a respectable and prominent businessman, the director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company: exactly the kind of man whom his early protagonists would scorn, and at whom his later protagonists would smile grimly, knowing that “respectability” is society’s code-word for “half-stifled misery.” Producing only a few short stories, he went largely unnoticed during his lifetime, only posthumously gaining a place in the canon of Dutch literature. Now, his poignant and subtly humorous Amsterdam Stories have finally been brought to an English-speaking audience by Damion Searls, an award-winning translator who works with German, Norwegian, French, and Dutch texts.

The nine stories and novellas of this collection, arranged in chronological order of their writing, come together to form a composite portrait of a single life — quite transparently a version of Nescio’s own. In his early stories, such as “The Freeloader” and “Young Titans,” the narrator is Koekebakker, who is idealistic, poor, and (mostly) happy, confident as he is “going to do _something_” with his life. A vague, beautiful something that animates him and his group of four like-minded friends. The narrator looks back on this youth with jaded wistfulness: “We were kids — but good kids . . . We’re much smarter now, so smart it’s pathetic.” But in spite of this cynicism, it is surprisingly easy to get caught up in the half-baked ideas and humorous antics of Koekebakker & Co. . . .

For the rest of the review, go here.

25 July 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Nescio, Koekebakker, J.H.F. Grönloh. Writing only in his spare time, he was known to most of the world as a respectable and prominent businessman, the director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company: exactly the kind of man whom his early protagonists would scorn, and at whom his later protagonists would smile grimly, knowing that “respectability” is society’s code-word for “half-stifled misery.” Producing only a few short stories, he went largely unnoticed during his lifetime, only posthumously gaining a place in the canon of Dutch literature. Now, his poignant and subtly humorous Amsterdam Stories have finally been brought to an English-speaking audience by Damion Searls, an award-winning translator who works with German, Norwegian, French, and Dutch texts.

The nine stories and novellas of this collection, arranged in chronological order of their writing, come together to form a composite portrait of a single life — quite transparently a version of Nescio’s own. In his early stories, such as “The Freeloader” and “Young Titans,” the narrator is Koekebakker, who is idealistic, poor, and (mostly) happy, confident as he is “going to do something_” with his life. A vague, beautiful something that animates him and his group of four like-minded friends. The narrator looks back on this youth with jaded wistfulness: “We were kids — but good kids . . . We’re much smarter now, so smart it’s pathetic.” But in spite of this cynicism, it is surprisingly easy to get caught up in the half-baked ideas and humorous antics of Koekebakker & Co. They are a bit ridiculous, especially seen from the narrator’s half-bitter, half-indulgent viewpoint, but they are sincere, delightful, and recognizably _real. The exception of course is Japi, the exasperating but fascinating “freeloader” of the collection’s first story, who is more allegory than man. He observes, he sits, he walks. He borrows money, smokes other people’s cigars, and takes his friend’s cloak when they are walking in the rain. And, when the world catches up with him and tries to pin him down into a job, he quietly and almost cheerfully steps off a bridge. A simple (even silly) story, but Nescio pulls it off with grace and warmth.

By “Little Poet,” written when Nescio was thirty-five, the narrator begins to lose his wistful nature and takes a more openly mocking stance toward his protagonist, and possibly against poetry in general. He leaves Koekebakker and his group behind, moving on to a nameless, doomed young poet, whom he pokes fun at mercilessly. One of the conduits of this fun-poking is the God of the Netherlands, who can’t seem to understand why he bothers to keep creating poets, particularly the meek, boyish breed like the Little Poet in question:

Twice the God of the Netherlands shook his venerable head and twice his long venerable muttonchops slid back and forth across his vest.
bq. It didn’t add up. There must be a mistake somewhere. A poet with no hair, that was very strange. The God of the Netherlands hadn’t cared much for poets for thirty years. You could no longer tell what to make of them. Respectable or disrespectable? Impossible to say . . .

God sighed. He’d have to talk it over with a real poet tomorrow. Maybe Potgieter . . .

Look, there goes the little poet. A handsome young man, you have to admit: thin, with a nicely shaved boyish face except for a pair of flying buttresses in front of his years, and so suntanned. He greets someone, tilting his straw hat a fraction about his close-cut hair.

Bizarre—so little hair—but it definitely was a little poet because God couldn’t figure him out, or Potgieter either. And Professor Volmer wanted nothing to do with him.

At one point, the Little Poet is walking down the street when he sees a group of women sitting outside a cafe and prays silently, “Oh God . . . what if you performed a miracle now, what if all their clothes suddenly fell off?” The narrator hedges this oh-so-scandalous thought playfully, writing in an aside: “You and I, dear reader, never think such things. And my dear lady readers . . . Mercy me, perish the thought.”
In his later stories, his writing begins to take on a different character. By “Insula Dei,” written twenty-five years and two World Wars later, his tone is bitter, though not unsentimental: Nescio has become an old man who cannot understand how his life — the shining promise he saw in his youth — has blinked past him. His nostalgia is more morbid now, colored as it is by war, hunger, and age. Reminiscing with the narrator about their youth, his friend Flip laments: “Back then we died of consumption, not tuberculosis.” Nescio’s skill lies in his ability to make even this macabre thought a thing of beauty.

As the title suggests, this is, in a sense, also a “city book” after the fashion of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale (New York) and Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (St. Petersburg). These authors live and breathe their cities, and these works draw their readers onto the streets, into their cafes and parks and back alleys. Nescio accomplishes this with beautiful subtleness; Amsterdam is never the focus of his tales, but remains an unobtrusive but constant and compelling presence.

All in all, Nescio’s stories — often tragic but always beautiful — linger in the mind. They do not seem to have been composed; rather, they unfold with the grace of inevitability. Their melancholy weight means that they are best consumed slowly, leaving time between the stories to allow them to settle and be absorbed. At only 155 pages, this slim volume has a quiet power to match that of the most sweeping of Great Novels.

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