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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