June started a few days ago, which means that my rambling monthly overview of forthcoming translations is overdue. It also means that World Cup 2014 is about to start, which means that for the next month my brain will be as filled with soccer tactics and outcomes as literary ideas . . .
But sticking with the now: For the past two weeks, I’ve been on editorial trips to Estonia and Latvia. So rather than write up a post about forthcoming translations and a separate one about all the interesting stuff I’ve learned about in the Baltics, I thought I would “skin two bears with one trap” (from what I understand, this is the Estonian equivalent of “kill two birds with one stone,” but a bit larger and darker . . . ) and merge my monthly overview with a bunch of observations and comments.
Since Estonia’s HeadRead Literary Festival and the Estonian Literature Centre were the main impetus behind this trip—they arranged for my flight over and back, all the accommodations, tons of great meetings with authors and other literary figures, etc.—I want to take a paragraph and just give some random shout-outs.
First off, Ilvi Liive and Kerti Tergem are two of the best people you could hire as representatives for your country’s literature. Always professional, super smart, incredibly helpful . . . Estonian literature wouldn’t be where it is today without those two. (And don’t laugh—I can name a half-dozen books that would win a couple rounds in the World Cup of Literature . . . if only Estonia’s actual football team wasn’t such shit.)
Also, the two translators who joined us—Matthew Hyde and Adam Cullen—are bloody brilliant and another reason I think we’re going to have access to more Estonian lit over the next few years. Adam recently translated Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Radio for Dalkey Archive, and is currently working on a mammoth book by Mihkel Mutt that should be out in late 2015.
Adam deserves another special shout-out for hanging out so much. He’s a great guy, with fantastic stories, and I really appreciated all the time he took showing me around, explaining things, drinking maybe too much with me at the amazing NoKu . . .
Same goes for Kaisa Kaer, who is probably best well known as the Estonian translator of the Harry Potter books. (See this entry in the Estonian Wikipedia.) She was there for the late nights at NoKu, but also showed me the part of Tallinn where Stalker was filmed. (Which is especially surreal during this white night period when it gets light way, way too early in the morning.)
Finally: All the other publishers on the trip—Gesche from Pushkin Press, Philip Gwyn Jones from Scribe, Frédéric Martin from Tripode, Artur from Piper, and Job from Prometheus—were all fantastic. I could write paragraphs about all the great things about each editors and his/her respective press . . .
I’ll get into some actual Estonian literature below, but for now, I just wanted to thank everyone who made this possible. OK, onto the books and the random shit.
La Grande by Juan José Saer, translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph (Open Letter Books)
This is the third Saer book that we’re bringing out—we already have two more signed on though, so don’t worry—and it may well be the best. It is “grande,” yet a perfect introduction to Saer’s world, with characters from other books making an appearance, all the normal Saer themes being explored, and a shitload of wine being sold and consumed. It also was his final novel and feels a bit like a summing up. Great summer beach read!
For it’s size, Tallinn surely is a grand city. (See what I did there? Sorry, but after hearing foreign, unintelligible—to me at least—languages for the past couple weeks, my brain is responding with terrible puns [the other day I got into an elevator made by “Schindler” which quickly became “Schindler’s Lift”] and cheesy segues.) The Old City is such an interesting collection of very old buildings that are pretty well preserved . . . If ever there’s a city that deserves to be referred to as looking like a “fairy tale,” this one is it.
And while we were there, it was bustling with activity—the aforementioned HeadRead festival with its dozens of authors, a mini-festival of jazz music (which played very loudly over the opening ceremony of the HeadRead), and Olde Towne Days (I assume the “e“s are all supposed to be there), which was mostly people dressing up in Olde-Timey garb and doing crazy shit at the Town Hall, like playing horns out the windows and yelling “VIVA! VIVA!”
Leg over Leg, Volume 3 & 4 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (NYU Library of Arabic Literature)
One of the funniest parts of the Tallinn trip had to be our meals at Pegasus. Pegasus is a huge, beautiful restaurant that’s part of the Estonian Writers’ Union building. It’s a really great place, and one that was always completely empty when our group arrived for lunch. Without fail, the waitress would come up to the table and explain that due to “how busy the kitchen was” they had a limited menu today, and instead of the twenty or so delicious-sounding things on their menu, we’d have to choose between two starters, two entrees, and one dessert, and we must order everything right away, up front. None of this made any sense, but it made for a fun guessing game . . . “Do you think we’ll be able to get the chicken soup today?” “Nope, just the raw salad and the cheese plate.” “OH, ESTONIA!!!!!!”
The Iceland by Sakutaro Hagiwara, translated from the Japanese by Hiroaki Sato (New Directions)
This was my first experience with the “White Nights” that impact most of Northern Europe. (And places like Iceland, which this book has fuck-all to do with.) That, mixed with the jet lag I’ve started to suffer in my oldering age, is really messing me up. It’s just disorienting to have the sun “set” at 10:30-11:00 at night, after which it will be “dark” for approximately two hours before the pre-dawn and official 4 am sunrise. Instead of curing my seasonal affective disorder (fuck you, winter!), it’s sort of driving me insane. I’ve been waking up most nights at 4:30 and having a hell of a time falling back asleep. But beyond that, my internal evening clock—where you can tell that you’ve been drinking long enough, it’s probably right around midnight given that the sun set a couple hours ago—is totally useless. I love these countries, but I don’t think I could live here . . . Not only would I never sleep in the summer, but the winters of no light would wreck my soul. You are all a strong people, which brings me to my next random observation . . .
Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki, translated from the Portuguese by Stephen Henighan (Biblioasis)
Here in Riga, Latvia (which, contrary to Upstate New York beliefs is pronounced “Ree-ga,” not “RYE-ga”), we’re staying at a place on Lāčplēša iela (street). “Lāčplēsis” is the name of the most famous Latvian hero, a “bear-slayer” who “kills a bear by ripping its jaws apart with his hands.” According to Kaija—our resident Latvian and expert on bear slaying—a better translation of “Lāčplēsis” is “bear-ripper,” “the one who rips bears.” Although that didn’t work out so well against the Big Bear of Mother Russia, it’s best not to fuck with Latvians . . .
Plus, the bags Biblioasis gave out at BEA say “Ten Years of Fucking Amazing Books.” For that reason alone you should buy and read this.
Thirst by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, translated from the Persian by Martin E. Weir (Melville House Books)
This entry is a three-parter: First off, I really loved Dowlatabadi’s Missing Soluch. And although I was less into The Colonel, which got a ton of critical acclaim, I can’t wait to get my hands on this novel about the Iran-Iraq conflict and a journalist asked to fabricate a story to demoralize Iranian soldiers. One interesting note: Dowlatabadi has also written a 10-volume, 3,000-page saga about a Kurdish family. Melville should do this and bill him as the Iranian Knausgaard.
Speaking of thirst (again, apologize for my awful segues), the topic of alcoholism came up a number of times in our meetings with Estonian writers. It was most bluntly—and bleakly—presented in the talk with Peeter Sauter. He was reluctant to talk directly about the novel his was “pitching,” so instead he told us a bunch of stories about his life, other writers, Estonia in general. But then things took a turn . . . “When I got divorced, I got mad. I went around town attacking women . . . drunk. I knew this was a bad thing.” Amid the boozing and depression, he met a woman, and they started a relationship. Around that time, Peeter’s twenty-something son came to live with him. Then, suddenly, soul-crushingly, died of a heart attack. Peeter’s new book is about that.
And speaking of alcoholism, if you haven’t been watching Legit, the Jim Jeffries vehicle on FXX, you must. Not only is it a very funny show—a lot of it is laugh till you hurt funny in that way that mixes situational comedy with the sharp perceptions of a stand-up comedian at the top of his game—but over the course of its two seasons, it’s gotten real. It always had an undercurrent of emotional intensity—one of the main characters has MD and is paralyzed—but the second season is a heart-wrenching (to the point I can barely watch) depiction of alcoholism and how much it can ruin your life. Calling something “dark” is totally cliched, but that’s the best word for Legit. It’s a show that hurts in all of the best ways and way more people should be watching it.
Conversations by Cesar Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions)
Although I’m only halfway through it, I’m pretty sure I’ve talked more about Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Radio with people than any other book I’ve read in the past couple years. Part of it is due to the fact that I’m reading it at the exact perfect time—it’s all about Estonia and Livonian history and culture, and I keep running into things referenced in the book—but there’s something to the narrator’s voice that makes this an incredibly easy book to get into and inhabit. Basically, it’s one man’s recounting of his relationship with a famous Estonian singer. Not necessarily a sexual relationship—he’s gay, she’s married—but there is a sort of sorting out on his behalf of how a woman like this, one from humble Estonian origins but converted into an East European diva, is wedded to his own self-perceptions, especially as an Estonian who’s been living in the great metropolis of Paris. It’s a brilliant book and a great entryway to Baltic literature.
The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker, translated from the French by Sam Taylor (Penguin)
Given the fact that this novel has received some truly mixed reviews, and sounds to me like a pop book constructed of well-worn elements of a different age, this seems like the perfect place to talk about music in Eastern Europe. One of my long-running jokes is that Bon Jovi (and Guns ‘n’ Roses) exist only for Eastern European radio stations. This is a harsh truth: traditionally, the pop stations in this part of the world play some really trashy American crap. The 80s never left the Soviet Bloc!
I’ve been pleasantly surprised in our visits to the local cafes here in Riga. For the most part they all have been playing indie rock circa 2012—Foster the People, Grimes, Dirty Projectors—which is both a relief and a disappointment. (We’ve heard some Latvian rock, but mostly stuff that’s more classic.) That said, on the drive home from Open Letter author Inga Ābele’s gorgeous estate we heard “Two Princes” by the Spin Doctors. That’s more like it, Latvija!
(Of course, the Spin Doctors played the largest festival in Rochester last year . . . Because Rochester, NY is basically Eastern Europe—always twenty years behind the time. BOOM.)
Tonight we are going to Ala, a great bar with amazing live culture beer, to listen to folk songs and karaoke. I already know how this ends.
Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Random House)
Inga Ābele lives in one of the most relaxing, amazing estates I’ve ever been privileged to visit. I say “estate,” because there’s a very gorgeous modern house surrounded by three other barns and guest houses, including one that was built like a thousand years ago or something. Plus, they have a sauna next to a little pond and are only a short walk through the woods to a spring with pure, cool water. There are ostriches nearby. And peacocks. And a billion mosquitos.
While walking to the springs I stopped to read a bunch of the little signposts printed in English. Most all of them were about local flora and fauna—including some very rare ants that creeped me out—and were written in janky almost-English. “It is for the sprouting times!” Also, every single one ended with the phrase “PLANT IS SOMEWHAT POISONOUS!” in ALL-CAPS and bold.
I have so many questions about this . . . First off, the pictures on these signs made exactly none of these plant recognizable, and based on where the signs were posted, you may well have been trekking through the “SOMEWHAT POISONOUS” plant just to read about how it may poison you. Also, “somewhat”? The hell does that indicate? Like rashy poisonous or eat-it-and-die poisonous? And poisonous to what and/or whom? Birds? People? SO MANY QUESTIONS, LATVIAN SIGN WRITER!
The Antiquarian by Gustavo Faveron Patriau, translated from the Spanish by Joseph Mulligan (Black Cat)
I talked about this book on an upcoming podcast and it really might be the summer title that I’m most looking forward to. It’s also an appropriate title under which to include the story of the Riga Cat House.
The real story of this cat can be found on Wikipedia with a simple search, but I want to relay Kaija’s slightly embellished version (further embellished by me).
Way back in the middle ages of Latvia—aka the early 1900s—two businessmen got in a huge fight. One lied to the other, the other corrupted the first one’s daughter, there were more lawsuits more complicated than those found in Bleak House, both businessmen wanted the other totally destroyed—it was like a cold war of the merchant class. As a final effort to irritate Businessman A, the other businessman, knowing how much Businessman A hated the “filthy” cats that populate the Old Town of Riga, put a statue of a pissed off, about to poop cat on top of one of his turrets and aimed the cat’s asshole right at the other businessman’s window. This was like nails scratching on a chalkboard. Businessman A went totally insane, petitioning the city council to make Businessman B turn the asshole away from his window . . . “It’s just a cat!” “It’s a cat that wants to poop on me and suck out my soul! Filthy cats!” Eventually, Businessman A’s house burnt down, he died, and, out of a crippling karmic fear, Businessman B turned the cat around so it could shit on his own house, then he went and hid in the countryside and was never heard from again.
Now they sell shirts and coffee mugs and reproductions of the pooping cat. And as legend has it, if you drink Black Balsam (a regional herbal liquor that’s both kind of gross and kind of amazing, and which loosely translates as “Witches Brew”) under a full moon out of a pooping cat shot glass, you can control the mind of the Russian nearest to you. So, that. Rock on, Livonia!
That’s it for now. Enjoy June with all its sun, soccer, and books!
The new issue of The White Review is incredibly stacked. There’s an interview with Vladimir Sorokin. A piece by Enrique Vila-Matas. Poems by Gerður Kristný. Art by Mark Mulroney (we used to drink together and go to Rochester Red Wings games!).
But if that’s not enough, or, if you’re too cheap to spend the £14.99 (UK) / £18.99 (Rest of World) (which, to be honest, is pretty steep given the awful exchange rate . . . I could buy a hundred sandwiches for the cost of a subscription), you should definitely check out all the free online content.
Here are a few highlights:
I don’t need Bookish’s algorithm to state that if you check out all of those samples, you’ll find at least one book that you’ll want to read.
As mentioned last month, I decided to start this monthly round-up for two reasons—to highlight a few interesting books in translation that other venues likely won’t, and because I think there’s more to literature that the monthly Flavorwire listicles. (One more Flavorwire thing: It’s totally fine that we’re not on the 25 Best Indie Presses list, but did you have to title it “Fuck You, Open Letter”?)
I’m writing this in haste, putting to use the four hours of “found time” that US Airways granted me by canceling my flight. Not that I really mind—I think I’m one of the few people who, aside from the remarkably uncomfortable seating options, doesn’t mind airports. If I could concentrate as well at work as I can in airports, we’d be golden. (And by “golden,” I mean, probably on that Flavorwire list.) The only thing that ever really gets to me are all of the asinine “businessmen” talking nonsense into their Nextel phones. What are these people even on about? I swear, I’ve eavesdropped on so many conversations that the NSA should hire me, but the only conclusion I’ve come to is that our entire economy runs on Excel pivot tables for mysterious “services,” about which the client is always a) unsatisfied, and b) a total prick. I wouldn’t be surprised if half these “businessmen” were just playing dress up to try and convince everyone that the U.S. economy wasn’t totally fucked. “Look! My cell phone’s not even on! What, did you really think Nextel phones worked? All I know about Excel is Minesweeper.” Business is stupid.
OK, this month’s books.
Wigrum by Daniel Canty. Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioael. (Talonbooks, $14.95)
We ran a review of this book a week or so ago, and Patrick Smith captured all the things about this that first grabbed my attention when I saw it at BEA:
Known also as a graphic designer in Quebec, Canty takes those skills and puts them towards this “novel of inventory” and creates a framework from which to hang the inventories. We get a table of contents, where oddly, the preface follows the only chapter, we are given a set of “Instructions to the Reader” and the whole work ends with an index. The bulk of the book is the collection, the objects ostensibly found by the collector Wigrum, the man behind these collections (though the book throws this into doubt; there are other collectors, other writers). They are arranged alphabetically, all with an illustration in the margin, a touch that gives them more weight, rather than letting the story dominate the scale. It is a nice graphic touch, and eventually becomes part of how the book complicates itself.
That’s all great, but undersells the fun of yelling out “WIGRUM!” every once in a while. Such a great word that sounds both threatening and goofy all at once.
Milk and Other Stories by Simon Fruelund. Translated from the Danish by K. E. Semmel. (Santa Fe Writers Project, $12.00)
Kyle and Simon were in Rochester just last week to talk about Milk, an early book of Simon’s, and Civil Twilight, a more recent, and stylistically very different, novella, and I think you should really read both of these books.
Also, we’ll have a recording of the event up on Three Percent in the near future along with the one we did with Jean-Marie Blas de Robles. Watch both of these—they turned out to be two of our best ever Reading the World Conversation Series events.
Kyle Semmel is, like me, a die-hard Cardinals fan. How we grew up in Rochester, NY and Bay City, MI and became St. Louis fans is a bit strange, but Vince Coleman, Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, and Whitey Herzog should explain most of that. My baseball imagination was totally captured by those mid-80s teams who stole more than 240 bases a year (over 300 in 1985!)—a number that’s insane by today’s standards. (Jacoby Ellsbury lead the majors with 52 stolen bases this year; Vince Coleman stole 110 in 1985.) I loved the idea that you could succeed not by being all jacked up and huge, but by bunting and stealing every base even when the world knew you were going to be running. That’s baseball to me.
And for that reason, I’ve been through the emotional wringer the past few years, with Game 6 against Texas being the high point, and hating the shit out of San Francisco last year. After falling into a deep depression about last night’s loss, I’m fairly certain that the Cardinals will go down 5-1 today before staging a miraculous ninth inning comeback that will end with my heart exploding. Baseball.
Final sports note: Fuck Boston. Not only are their fans the worst—a sickening combination of faux-put upon (“But we didn’t win for years! We’re long-suffering!”) and entitlement (“We spent the most money and didn’t win last year—we deserve it!”)—but their franchise decided to carve “BOSTON STRONG” into the outfield. That’s tasteless to me, although I did predict that Boston would (grossly) capitalize on the Marathon Bombings as another reason why they “deserve” to win this year. “We’ve got to heal the city, ya’ know?” Shut up and please get swept by the Tigers. And screw Bill Simmons.
Private Pleasures by Hamdy el-Gazzar.& Translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies. ($18.95, American University at Cairo Press)
I’m currently reading another book that Humphrey Davies translated—Leg over Leg or The Turtle in the Tree concerning The Fāriyāq, What Manner of Creature Might He Be by Fāris al-Shidyāq. I mentioned this a while back as a sort of Arabic Laurence Sterne, and now that I’m more than halfway through the first (of four?) volume, I can affirm that this is a pretty apt comparison. I’ll write a full-length review later on, but I just want to say that this is nothing what I had expected a book written in Arabic in 1855 to be like. It’s filthy—I particularly like the bit where the people in the pub argue about what type of person is the happiest and decide that the whore must be, since she gets both money and pleasure and the devotion of her clients—and funny and obsessed with language. The language bits seem like the most difficult for Davies to translate, which is why there are hundreds of footnotes, but also make it clear that Fāris al-Shidyāq was a super-intelligent, strange man.
In a way, this reminds me of Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel) for all of its delays and sections addressed to future critics and readers and religious men and the like. Definitely worth reading.
Misfortunates by Dimitri Verhulst. Translated from the Flemish by David Colmer. ($23.99, St. Martin’s Press)
I haven’t read this Verhulst book yet—I really like Problemski Hotel when I read that years ago—but I do have a DVD of the movie version in my office:
Leapfrog and Other Stories by Guillermo Rosales. Translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner. ($14.95, New Directions)
New Directions brought out Rosales’s The Halfway House a few years back to great acclaim, so I’m sure this collection will also do pretty well.
It’s hard to write about Rosales without mentioning his personal history, which is really bleak and awful. He was born in Cuba in the 1940s, but was forced to leave for Miami because of his “morose, pornographic, and irreverent” works. The rest of his life was spent going in and out of psychiatric hospitals, and he finally took his own life at the age of 47 after destroying most of his unpublished manuscripts.
The Elixir of Immortality by Gabi Gleichmann. Translated from the Norwegian by Michael Meigs. ($18.95, Other Press)
Other Press sure doesn’t shy away from publishing gigantic books. Where Tigers Are at Home, which I HIGHLY recommend, and I guarantee you’ll want to rush out and buy after watching the RTWCS interview with Blas de Robles, came out in March and clocks in at 832 pages. A True Novel by Minae Mizamura, which comes out next month, is 880 pages and comes in two volumes with a slipcase. This novel, The Elixir of Immortality is 768 pages long.
God bless Other Press for publishing such huge tomes at a time when the conventional wisdom is that readers have an attention span of approximately 140 characters. I love big-ass huge books, which brings me to—
Blinding: The Left Wing by Mircea Cartarescu. Translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter. ($22.00, Archipelago Books)
Along with Leg over Leg and the new Pynchon (which I’m really enjoying so far), this is the third book that I brought with me for this trip to Frankfurt. It’s the first book in a trilogy, and, to tell a whingey publishing story, Open Letter tried to get the rights to this book but we were rejected. (Cartarescu wasn’t impressed with us. But to be fair, this was back in 2006 before we had any books.)
Let me just quote you a part of Archipelago’s press release:
Blinding takes us on a mystical trip into the protagonist’s childhood, his memories of hospitalization as a teenager, the prehistory of his family, a traveling circus, secret police, zombie armies, American fighter pilots, the jazz underworld of New Orleans, and the installation of the Communist regime.
I won’t be surprised if this wins the 2014 BTBA for Fiction.
The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa. Translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray. ($13.00, Yale University Press)
Rodrigo Rey Rosa is an author I know I should read—some of his works were translated into English by Paul Bowles—but haven’t gotten to yet. I love the idea that The African Shore is a work of “dystopic travel fiction,” and I especially love what Roberto Bolaño said about Rey Rosa:
Miguel Ángel Asturias, Augusto Monterroso, and now Rodrigo Rey Rosa, three giant writers from a small, unhappy country.
Also, that owl is eating a frog. I am both disgusted and intrigued. Intriguingly disgusted.
The Dark by Sergio Chejfec. Translated from Spanish by Heather Cleary. ($14.95, Open Letter)
Moment of Open Letter self-promotion: Chejfec is one of the best Argentine writers working today. If you like Javier Marias, if you like W.G. Sebald, you will like all of Chejfec’s books. And of the three we’ve published—My Two Worlds, The Planets—I think this is my favorite. It has the concise style of My Two Worlds with the plotted aspects of The Planets. Both of his other books have been finalists for the BTBA, and with another stunning translation by Heather Cleary, I suspect this one will also make the shortlist.
Speaking of Heather Cleary, you need to check out the Buenos Aires Review. This is a fantastic new online journal that Heather is involved with, and which is spectacularly designed. It’s loaded with great writers and translators—from Russell Valentino to Tyrno Maldonado to Pola Oloixarac and more—and has recently been recommended to me by multiple people who just wanted to make sure I was aware of this “amazing new website.” Check it out!
The End of Love by Marcos Giralt Torrente. Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver. ($22.00, McSweeney’s Books)
As part of Middlebury’s Clifford Symposium, I had the opportunity to meet Yumiko Yanagisawa, a Swedish-Japanese and English-Japanese translator who, over the course of her career, has worked on almost 80 different titles. Not only is she one of the most prolific translators of our time, but throughout Japan there are reading groups dedicated to her translations. This is something that an American translator can only dream of.
That said, I know that I’ll pay serious consideration to anything Bill Johnston, Margaret Jull Costa, Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, Susan Bernofsky, or Katherine Silver translates. And more. (Then again, I am weird, and not a typical reader.)
I know nothing about The End of Love, but I would totally join a Katherine Silver book club and read this.
Thanks to a Three Percent fan who sends me periodic updates on titles I’ve left out of the translation database, I just found out about Humphrey Davies’s first-ever English translation on of Leg over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq.
Originally published in 1855, this sounds like the sort of crazy, language-centric, unconventional type of book that I would love:
Leg over Leg is the semi-autobiographical account of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, a pivotal figure in the intellectual and literary history of the modern Arab world. His adventures and misadventures provided him with opportunities for wide-ranging digressions on the intellectual and social issues of his time, including the ignorance and corruption of the Lebanese religious and secular establishments, women’s rights, the manners and customs of Europeans and Middle Easterners, and the differences between European and Arabic literature. In Leg over Leg, al-Shidyaq also celebrates the beauty of the Arabic language.
Akin to Sterne and Rabelais in his satirical outlook and technical inventiveness, al-Shidyaq produced in Leg Over Leg an unprecedented sui generis work. It was initially widely condemned for its attacks on authority, its skepticism, and its “obscenity,” and later editions were often abridged. This is the very first English transaltion of the work and reproduces the original edition, published under the author’s supervision in 1855.
It’s quite possible that this jacket copy is pure exaggeration and that the book totally sucks, but my god does this sound like the sort of thing a bunch of my readerly friends (Scott Esposito, Stephen Sparks, M.A. Orthofer, etc., etc.) would know about and have reviewed. Unfortunately, all a quick Google turned up was this listing for an event that took place in 2011.
That’s a pretty sad commentary on something.
One big stumbling block is that the publisher, the Library of Arabic Literature, which I just found out about approximately 3 minutes before starting to write this post, is selling Leg over Leg in two volumes for $40 EACH. I’m no scholar, but $80 for an obscure Arabic work of literature from the nineteeth century is probably pricing yourself out of the market. (That said, the sales rank on Amazon is #624,733, which is better than some books I’ve seen.)
Also, this cover:
Why such a shitty marketing/pricing job? Well, all it takes is a click on the “About” tab to get all the answers:
Supported by a grant from the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute, and established in partnership with NYU Press, the Library of Arabic Literature aims to publish key works of classical and premodern Arabic literature in parallel-text format with the original Arabic and English translation on facing pages, edited and translated by distinguished scholars of Arabic and Islamic studies. The Library of Arabic Literature includes texts from the pre-Islamic era to the cusp of the modern period, and will encompass a wide range of genres, including poetry, poetics, fiction, religion, philosophy, law, science, history and historiography.
In other words, no one who cares about reaching a general reading public. Awesome.
Maybe this book is as unique and interesting as it sounds. Maybe one day a reader-oriented press will publish a classy trade paperback version. Or maybe years will go by and English readers will still never have heard about this and will assume all Arabic literature is 1001 Nights and Aladdin.
When I was in New York last week for sales calls and publicity meetings (which is why the blog has been so slow . . . But I’m back! And excited about life, the BTBAs, books, and everything, so expect an onslaught of material for the next few days . . . ), everyone was all abuzz about the fact that the New Yorker ran an enormous article on Arabic literature in translation. (Of course, they also used the ages-old “Found/Lost in Translation” title for which there NEEDS TO BE A MORATORIUM, but so be it.)
Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote this piece, which is basically a run down of recently published works of Arab literature. She doesn’t mention The Zafarani Files, which is a personal favorite and is on the BTBA longlist, but the titles she cites all sound rather interesting. I highly recommend reading the whole article, but in shorthand, blog-world fashion, here’s a rundown of the titles covered, with short quotes and links to buy the books at Idlewild:
For all the horror it details, this is a startlingly warm and humane book. Saeed, despite the incitements of his subject, does not aspire to the Kafkaesque—Kafka, it must be admitted, is among the most impossible of authors to emulate, along with García Márquez—but maintains a specificity of place and history (this happened in Basra, that happened in Mosul) and of the individuals who inhabit them. Set mostly in the run-up to the Iran-Iraq War, in the late nineteen-seventies, this slender novel tells of a mild-mannered Basra schoolteacher who, although cautiously apolitical, is whisked off one day for “a simple interrogation.” His subsequent experience in six levels of hell—six prisons in all—is exactingly described, but the long ordeal is mitigated, both for him and for the reader, by a dose of bitter humor, a share of personal good will, and the mutual trust that he discovers among the prisoners, a trust long since forfeited in the larger prison of the informer-ridden society outside.
The title refers to the practice of adding dots—diacritical marks—to various letters of the Arabic alphabet, some of which are indistinguishable without these marks in place. An undotted sequence of letters may signify a number of different words; the correct translation can be determined only by context. The story’s intriguing premise is that a handwritten, undotted manuscript has been found in a file in Baghdad’s Interior Ministry, and a functionary assigned to add the necessary dots and make a transcription: the resulting manuscript forms the body of the book. The text turns out to be the work of a university student whose gift for political mockery got him sent to prison, where he wrote the manuscript—leaving out the dots to avoid further incrimination. Its uncertain readings cause the scribe to offer footnotes to such perplexing references as “the Ministry of Rupture and Inflammation” (“Could this be the Ministry of Culture and Information?”) and to such obvious errors as occur in the well-known song lyric that details how the nation’s leader moves from house to house and “fucks us into bed.” (“Note: the original lyrics read ‘tucks.’ ”)
“Men in the Sun” is, on the simplest level, a gripping tale that unfolds with Hitchcockian suspense as the reader is reduced to fearfully counting the minutes on the smuggler’s wristwatch. The prose is lean, swift, and—in Hilary Kilpatrick’s translation—filled with phrases of startling rightness: “The lorry, a small world, black as night, made its way across the desert like a heavy drop of oil on a burning sheet of tin”; or, even better, “The speedometer leapt forward like a white dog tied to a tent peg.” The realistic intensity of Kanafani’s world tends to conceal his stylistic ambitions: the intricacy with which he weaves together past and present, fact and delusion, and the alternating voices of his characters, each of whom is drawn with the rapid assurance of a charcoal sketch. But on a deeper level Kanafani’s work is about the desperation that drove these men to such lengths to regain work and dignity; it is about the longing—just emerging in the Palestinian public voice—for the moist earth and the olive trees of the villages left behind in 1948. Most painfully, it is about the awakening of self-recrimination for acquiescence in the loss, as in the thoughts of an old man who has been living “like a beggar” and decides to risk the journey.
A tremendously ambitious work, covering half a century of Palestinian history, it begins with maps of the region dotted with the names of old Palestinian villages, the way big Russian novels begin with family trees: here, through all the narrative advance and obliteration, is what you must keep steady in your mind. Set in a dilapidated hospital in the Shatila refugee camp, in Beirut, in the mid-nineties, the book’s many winding stories are told by a male Scheherazade, a fortyish Palestinian medic whose unceasing talk is intended to rouse a comatose old man, a resistance hero who spent decades sneaking over the Lebanese border into Israel, to carry out attacks that earned him the title the Wolf of Galilee. We do not see much of the attacks; instead, we see the warrior as a lover—not as the Wolf but simply as a man—paying secret visits to his wife, left behind on what has become Israeli land. As a result of these conjugal visits, the hero plants his children in Galilee, before going away again to fight to liberate them.
So great to see a piece like this. Getting info about any international lit in translation can be hard, but finding out about Arabic literature tends to be especially tricky. Hopefully I can write a lot more about the Arab publishing scene—and interesting untranslated titles—next month during the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair . . .
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