14 June 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Javier Calvo—the author of Wonderful World which was published by HarperCollins a couple years ago—is in the States for a few events, including this one with Edith Grossman that’s taking place on Saturday at McNally Jackson in New York.

To mark this, and to bring attention to an interesting young Spanish author, we got Jesse Barker from SUNY Albany to write up this piece about Javier’s works, mostly focusing on The Hanging Garden his latest novel. (Which has yet to be translated into English.)


Over the last decade a quiet boom has been occurring in Spanish narrative. In an age of conglomerated publishing houses and fascination with new media, the novel is alive and well in Spain, with a host of new authors pushing the boundaries of fictional form to describe the contours of the twenty-first century. One of the most prominent of these writers is Javier Calvo, whose latest work The Hanging Garden (2012) continues his intriguing evolution as a novelist.

Calvo’s first books—the short story collection Canned Laughter (2001) and the novel The Reflecting God (2003)—had a considerable impact in Spain and earned him a reputation as an ultramodern writer, both experimental and highly attuned to pop culture. While the influence of American authors like David Foster Wallace and Chuck Palahniuk (both of whom Calvo himself has translated into Spanish) was evident, it did not overshadow what was from the beginning a unique narrative voice.

The stories in Calvo’s fiction are developed through short and intricately constructed scenes. Brief moments in time are described with striking visual details and metaphors, which accentuate the particularities of his eccentric characters or the absurdity of situations. Take, for example, the following passage from The Hanging Garden, where he describes his protagonist Teo Barbosa at the meeting of a revolutionary left-wing group in a neighborhood church:

Everyone present has that slightly ridiculous look that adults always have when they sit at child-size desks, but in Barbosa’s case—since he’s two or three heads taller than the others—the impression is particularly dramatic. With his extra-long arms and legs protruding grotesquely from the desk, Barbosa looks like he’s gotten himself snared at waist-height in some sort of experimentally designed trap.

[Todos los presentes tienen ese aspecto vagamente ridículo que les queda siempre a los adultos cuando se sientan en pupitres infantiles, pero en el caso de Barbosa, que les saca dos o tres palmos de altura a los demás, la impresión es especialmente dramática. Con los brazos y las piernas larguísimos sobresaliendo grotescamente del pupitre, Barbosa tiene aspecto de haberse quedado atrapado a la altura de la cintura por alguna clase de cepo de diseño experimental] (21).

Just as the ridiculously tall Barbosa is here trapped in his ridiculously small desk, Calvo’s characters seem propelled by innate physical and psychological qualities towards playing certain social roles, carrying out certain extreme behaviors and fulfilling certain (often tragic) destinies. These personalities are revealed through a visual narrative reminiscent of films and comic books, but the narrator’s voice is constantly highlighted through elaborate and fanciful metaphors like the one seen in the quote above.

In contrast to this emphasis on surface images, Calvo’s fictions are also constructed around profound allegorical meanings, often intentionally shrouded in mystery and contradiction. This aspect became more evident in the short story collection The Lost Rivers of London (2005), which revealed a growing interest in myth and pagan magic. Characters are consumed by their obsessions with ancient deities or contemporary pop figures, which act as totems providing access to millennial energies, represented by the lost subterranean rivers of the book’s title. In metafictional asides, the narrators present the stories themselves as magical incantations unleashing powerful forces. The satirical surfaces of this author’s works are thus configured as components of a complex structure aimed at penetrating the depths of cultural and spiritual dynamics.

Calvo’s latest three novels—Wonderful World (2008), Crown of Flowers (2010) and finally The Hanging Garden—show a progressive mastery of these different levels. The stories take place, respectively, in a modern day hyper-consumerist Barcelona, a Dickensish nineteenth-century Barcelona and a 1970s Barcelona immersed in Spain’s transition from the Franco dictatorship to democracy. For a dedicated Calvo reader it is fascinating to see how his peculiar narrative lens shifts between such different time periods and yet retains his characteristic style and themes, which are increasingly integrated into a sublime vision of human psychology and society. If the long choral novel Wonderful World (thus far the only one of Calvo’s books available in English) seemed a culmination of his earlier literary exeriments, the others turn his lens onto two important historical periods in Barcelona: the arrival of industrial modernity and the arrival of consumer-driven postmodernity.

While initially surprising within Calvo’s trajectory, these historical focuses serve to dig deeper into the demons that have always fueled the author’s work. Crown of Flowers shows a repressive state and economic apparatus that tears down Barcelona’s medieval wall and, along with it, the ancient spirit of the place and its people. Residues of this spirit, however, persist underground in the obsessions of a mad scientist and a violent sect of orphaned children guided by a mysterious leader, both of which maintain ambiguous connections to the very power elites that seek to dominate the city.

The Hanging Garden represents a sharper departure from previous works. First of all, Spain’s conversion into a democratic state—known within the country as the Transition—invokes a more explicitly political subject matter, as this period of Spanish history is inevitably a source of controversy. Some hold up the process as a model political transition, with no bloodshed and a quickly achieved widespread consensus. Others criticize the amnesty and “pact of silence” about the dictatorship’s crimes. In a broader cultural sense, the Transition is an accelerated version of processes occurring throughout the Western world since the end of World War II: globalization, de-industrialization, the loss of ideological certainty and the ascendance of media-driven consumerism. Thus Spain’s celebration of new political and social freedoms was quickly tainted by the social fragmentation that characterizes contemporary society.

The Hanging Garden addresses both political and cultural aspects of the Transition. On one level it is a political thriller centered on the struggle between the government and a fictional revolutionary group, complete with terrorist acts, double agents and espionage romance. The novel portrays the transition between a security apparatus dominated by the dictatorship’s army to the more subtle and pervasive secret service working behind the scenes of modern democracies. It also exposes the gaps between the priority of maintaining power that guides democratic governments and their stated goal of serving the interests of the people.

On another level the novel represents the societal upheaval of Spain’s Transition and functions as a chilling allegory of the cultural order inaugurated in the era. A meteorite fallen in the Catalonian countryside shortly before the beginning of the story covers Barcelona in dust and causes extreme weather patterns. Teo Barbosa maintains ambivalent relationships with both the left wing extremists and the secret service, too skeptical and sarcastic to fit comfortably on either side. His only sincere passion seems to lie with Sara Arta, the fellow revolutionary with whom he shares long nights at the “Bar Texas” and her studio apartment, filled with sex, drugs, alcohol and the pre-punk wailings of Patty Smith. It is impossible to know where Barbosa’s true feelings lie, however, both for the reader and ultimately for himself. His intellectual and existential disorientation is indicative of a society where the real is disintegrating. Sara Arta’s aesthetic transformation from pale-faced, dark-eyeshadow art student to nihilist punk is also representative of the times. As the narrator declares more than once, in 1977 Spain the past is quickly fading and, consequently, so is the future.

On the other side of the equation is Arístedes Lao, the mathematical genius that works for the secret service and is apparently devoid of human feelings. Instantly repulsive to all who meet him, Lao has a gift for analyzing the human psyche and complex social dynamics. Like many of Calvo’s characters, Lao begins as a comic caricature but acquires a profound symbolic importance in the novel. His computer-like mind engineers the different pieces of the human jigsaw in the story, producing an apocalyptic ending that reduces the potentially subversive elements to impotence and desperation.

Words like allegory and representation fall short of describing The Hanging Garden_’s depiction of reality. While the specific subject of the novel may be the Spanish Transition, the reader is taken along a journey, both mythical and ironic, to the heart of a global cultural/political/economic order that appeared invincible until recent financial meltdowns and protest movements. _The Hanging Garden is a brilliant and captivating novel that confirms Javier Calvo’s enormous talent.



Although The Hanging Garden isn’t yet available in English, you can buy Wonderful World which is now available in paperback from HarperCollins and translated by Mara Lethem. And with a little luck, we’ll have a full review of this up by the end of next week.

13 May 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Jeff Waxman on Assaf Gavron’s Almost Dead, which was translated from the Hebrew by the author and James Lever and published by HarperCollins.

I’m really glad Jeff brought this book to my attention . . . It was one that I had missed in entering info into the Translation Database, but more importantly, it sounds really interesting.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Jeff is a bookseller at Seminary Co-op and runs The Front Table. He’s also a frequent contributor here and is on the Best Translated Book Award fiction committee.

And here’s the beginning of his review:

Big publishing houses have a lot going for them. They’ve got money and media access and the power to bring a book to the forefront of a very noisy culture, if only for a moment. And, like the small presses, they have some outstanding people working for them—publishers, editors, and publicists trying their damnedest to make something like art. What they don’t have very often is a coherent and cohesive vision, even for their individual imprints, and I hope it’s not too unkind to say that they don’t often have very interesting books. Instead, they seem to expend a lot of their energy—and money—in getting excited about the unexciting.

All of this is why I was so delighted to see Harper Perennial come out with Assaf Gavron’s Almost Dead. Harper Perennial is one of the best corners of that house, and a translation isn’t unheard of there, but a political satire that is artfully and ingeniously constructed is a hugely welcome surprise. Translated by the author with James Lever, Almost Dead is everything I always wanted and never expected from a big publisher.

Set in present-day Israel, these are intertwined stories of Croc—a secular, ambivalent Israeli—and Fahmi—a comatose and conflicted Palestinian suicide bomber. Around them, there’s a society in turmoil, a morass of Western-influenced post-industrial business people overlaying a subjugated population seething with enmity and regret.

Click here to read the full review.

13 May 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Big publishing houses have a lot going for them. They’ve got money and media access and the power to bring a book to the forefront of a very noisy culture, if only for a moment. And, like the small presses, they have some outstanding people working for them—publishers, editors, and publicists trying their damnedest to make something like art. What they don’t have very often is a coherent and cohesive vision, even for their individual imprints, and I hope it’s not too unkind to say that they don’t often have very interesting books. Instead, they seem to expend a lot of their energy—and money—in getting excited about the unexciting.

All of this is why I was so delighted to see Harper Perennial come out with Assaf Gavron’s Almost Dead. Harper Perennial is one of the best corners of that house, and a translation isn’t unheard of there, but a political satire that is artfully and ingeniously constructed is a hugely welcome surprise. Translated by the author with James Lever, Almost Dead is everything I always wanted and never expected from a big publisher.

Set in present-day Israel, these are intertwined stories of Croc—a secular, ambivalent Israeli—and Fahmi—a comatose and conflicted Palestinian suicide bomber. Around them, there’s a society in turmoil, a morass of Western-influenced post-industrial business people overlaying a subjugated population seething with enmity and regret.

The book opens with a bang as Croc’s usual bus to work explodes a few blocks after his stop. Before and for a short time after that near-miss, Croc’s life is dominated by his workplace and merely complicated by his girlfriend, Duchi. Life in an embattled and foreign country rendered familiar to most English-language readers through the wondrous universality of fuck:

My first thought was: fuck, how will I get to work from now on? Those fuckers hit every possible means of transportation. Am I going to have to take cabs now? Buy another car? Too expensive . . .

But when that first bombing is followed by a rifle attack that kills the hitchhiker in his car, and he survives a café bombing soon after, Croc becomes a minor celebrity and the target of one last, very personal, attack. This is satire and this is life; separating the two in any society is difficult, but separating them in a tragically hysterical culture in the persistent throes of PTSD is nearly impossible. Croc’s appearances on Israeli television are nightmarishly comic and serve only to alienate him further from his experiences.

But now I was also. . . CrocAttack! Magnet of attention, symbol of resistance, vessel for other people’s ideas. New forces were taking control of my life. . . every day I was approached by people I’d never talked to who knew what I needed, or who needed to know what I thought. . . It didn’t matter to them that, in most cases, I had no opinion.

If trauma can be drawn-out and painfully constant, Fahmi suffers more. Dispossessed of their homes, but not their heritage, Fahmi and his brother Bilahl are mired in the stories of their grandfather’s heroic struggle against the Israelis of two generations ago. Estranged from their families by their politics, the two brothers pursue their own violent agenda that leads them closer and closer to the events in Croc’s half of this book.

But what isn’t in Fahmi’s memory of the past is his tortured present; he spends this novel in a hospital bed, unresponsive but painfully aware, comatose and confused and lost in fractured memory:

“Good movement of the eyes . . . Dr. Hartom will be happy to hear . . .”

My brain must be stuck.

“And now it’s time for your wash . . . “

A never ending dream, and always the same.

Through alternating chapters of Croc’s mounting anxiety and Fahmi’s fever dreams and memories, the reader gains access to the strange duality of life in a country that lies at the margins of another state, a place where everything has two names and two histories. In a sense, this is as much a book of class and race as, say, To Kill a Mockingbird, and the geography is almost incidental to that story. Almost.

Instead, we have a wonderfully vivid book that builds something beautiful on the strange trajectories that bring two lives into such mortal proximity. And at the same time, we have a book that is very much of its time and of its place, a book without easy answers or any clear idea of morality. Gavron’s empathy, voice, and outstanding construction are appealing, and this book is really an exciting contribution to the literature and to the Levantine conversation.

23 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

From BoingBoing:

Microsoft is ready to pay Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. to remove its news content from Google, according to the Financial Times. Microsoft has also approached other “big online publishers” with similar deals.

“One website publisher approached by Microsoft said that the plan ‘puts enormous value on content if search engines are prepared to pay us to index with them”,’ wrote the FT’s Matthew Garrahan. “ . . . Microsoft’s interest is being interpreted as a direct assault on Google because it puts pressure on the search engine to start paying for content.”

This he calls a “ray of light to the newspaper industry.”

Now, every site in Google is currently there by choice. As it could conceivably change its mind and shank Balldock and Murmer with fair use, let’s assume that they’re planning on exclusivity. End-user license agreements, paywalls, spider-blocking, that sort of thing. Maybe even encryption and plugins and other delights. Sayonara, RSS!

All I know is that Fox + Microsoft = Very Bad Shit.

27 March 09 | N. J. Furl | Comments [1]

This is the way the publishing world ends
This is the way the publishing world ends
This is the way the publishing world ends
Not with a bang but a Twitter.

4 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [5]

When HarperCollins announced their latest innovation—“video books”—earlier this week, thousands of people around the country came up with the same joke: “yeah, video books . . . they’re called movies.”

But honestly, that’s just the tip of the stupidity iceberg. First off, here’s the idea in full from the article in the Washington Post, which is shockingly unironic (I think—the final sentence is really confusing):

For those who don’t have the time to listen to an audiobook, let alone read a hardback or e-Book, HarperCollins brings you: the video book. Perhaps fittingly, the first author to get the video treatment is BuzzMachine’s Jeff Jarvis, whose book, What Would Google Do?, will be available in all the other formats as well, WSJ notes. News Corp.‘s HarperCollins has been noted for its digital experiments the past few years, but it’s still being cautious about the prospects for video books. It expects to produce about six titles for video in house, which will be available for download on iPods and iPhones. [. . .]

Jarvis’ video book goes on sale Tuesday and retails for $9.99. The 23-minute video has Jarvis speaking into a single camera with a white background. Instead of reading directly from the book, which was published last month by the company’s Collins Business imprint, Jarvis runs through the basic concepts in the book, such as how Google has been able to compete so successfully on the web and what can be learned from its practices. If HarperCollins can make a go of v-books, perhaps Google will be the one to pick up a few tips for generating revenue from YouTube.

Yeah, really. HarperCollins wants you to pay $10 to watch a v-book that’s not actually a book but a video about a book shot with a single camera in a white room.

On second thought, maybe this is some mad genius idea of theirs . . . I mean think about it, people like TV right? I mean, they’re not too keen on reading, or attending readings, or watching Book TV, or whatever other book related activity one might think of, but hey they like TV, no? So why not just put the books on TV! I mean, don’t act them out or any of that period shit, don’t even let the author read the book, just put him in front of a camera to talk about the book. He won’t read from the book or anything mind-numbingly boring like that, just talk about the big concepts. The things you need to know for cocktail parties. Kind of like video CliffsNotes. You know, it’ll be like an infomercial. But one that people will pay for . . .

I can only imagine how many hundreds of thousands of dollars were pissed away on this, and how many meetings took place without anyone pointing out just what a bad idea this is. Did they run this by a single reader?

15 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following on my unabashed DailyLit love, this announcement from HarperCollins sounds so 2006:

HarperCollins Publishers is pleased to launch Browse Inside for the Apple iPhone. Browse Inside digitally replicates the experience of browsing the pages of a book prior to purchasing.

Granted, I’m not a fan of the iPhone (I’ve already got my spam filter ready for your hate mail, so bring it), but regardless, this sounds pretty lame. They’re providing 10-page excerpts? Wow. I never would’ve thought that publishers could use the Internets to provide excerpts of books to readers. So revolutionary!

Doesn’t help that the list of available books is filled with suck, including Winning by Jack Welch & Suzy Welch and When the Game is Over It All Goes Back in the Box
by John Ortberg.

Disagree if you will, but to me this is yet another example of a company trying to take advantage of a flashy new toy but simply doing the same old thing in a way that doesn’t really add anything to the reader/customer’s experience.

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