28 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

László Krasznahorkai becomes the first repeat winner, and Elisa Biagini and her three translators take home the poetry award in this year’s Best Translated Book Award.

After much deliberation, Seiobo There Below, Krasznahorkai’s follow-up to last year’s BTBA winner, Satantango, won the 2014 BTBA for Fiction. Translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet and published by New Directions, the jury praised this novel for its breadth, stating “out of a shortlist of ten contenders that did not lack for ambition, Seiobo There Below truly overwhelmed us with its range—this is a book that discusses in minute detail locations from all around the globe, including Japan, Spain, Italy, and Greece, as well as delving into the consciousnesses and practices of individuals from across 2,000 years of human history.”

The jury also named two runners-up: The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray and published by Yale University Press; and A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter, and published by Other Press.

On the poetry side of things, this year’s winner is The Guest in the Wood by Elisa Biagini, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky, and published by Chelsea Editions.

According to the jury, “from the first, these surreal, understated poems create an uncanny physical space that is equally domestic, disturbing, and luminous, their airy structure leaving room for the reader-guest to receive their hospitality and offer something in return (the Italian ospite meaning both ‘guest’ and ‘host’). The poet’s and translators’ forceful language presses us to ‘attend and rediscover’ the quotidian and overdetermined realities of, as Angelina Oberdan explains in her introduction, ‘the self, the other, the body, and the private rituals of our lives.’”

The two poetry runners-up are Claude Royet-Journoud’s Four Elemental Bodies, translated from the French by Keith Waldrop, published by Burning Deck, and Sohrab Sepehri’s The Oasis of Now translated from the Persian by Kazim Ali and Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, and published by BOA Editions.

As in recent years, thanks to Amazon.com’s giving program, $20,000 in cash prizes will be awarded to the winning authors and translators.

Krasznahorkai is the first author—or translator—to win the prize more than once. His novel Satantango, translated by Georges Szirtes and also published by New Directions, won last spring. Seiobo There Below is the sixth of his works to appear in English, the others being Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance, War and War, Animalinside, and The Bill.

The Guest in the Wood is the first collection of Elisa Biagini’s poetry to appear in English translation, despite her reputation in her home country of Italy. In addition to writing poetry in both Italian and English, Biagini is a translator herself, having translated Alicia Ostriker, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, and others into Italian. She also edited an anthology of contemporary American poetry.

This is the seventh iteration of the Best Translated Book Awards, which launched at the University of Rochester in the winter of 2007. Over the past seven years, the prize has brought attention to hundreds of stellar works of literature in translation published by dozens of presses. Earlier this month, at the London Book Fair, the BTBA received the “International Literary Translation Initiative Prize” as part of the inaugural International Book Industry Excellence Awards.

To celebrate this year’s winners and the award itself, all supporters of international literature are invited to The Brooklyneer (220 West Houston, NYC) from 6pm-9pm on Friday, May 2nd for drinks and appetizers. This event is open to the public.

The nine judges who made up this year’s fiction committee are: George Carroll, West Coast sales rep; Monica Carter, Salonica; Scott Esposito, Conversational Reading and Center for the Art of Translation; Sarah Gerard, Bomb Magazine; Elizabeth Harris, translator; Daniel Medin, American University of Paris, Cahiers Series, Quarterly Conversation, and the White Review; Michael Orthofer, Complete Review; Stephen Sparks, Green Apple Books; and, Jenn Witte, Skylight Books.

And the five poets and translators who made up the poetry committee are: Stefania Heim, Bill Martin, Rebecca McKay, Daniele Pantano, and Anna Rosenwong.

28 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As you already know, the winner of this year’s BTBA for fiction is Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, and translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet. Below is a short piece by the BTBA fiction jury explaining the reasons behind their selection and pointing out two runners-up.

We are very pleased to award the 2013 Best Translated Book Award for fiction to Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet. Fans of the award will no doubt note that this is the second year in a row that it has been given to Krazsnahorkai, with last year’s honors going to his first novel, Satantango, translated by George Szirtes. This fact was taken into account by the judges, as was our desire to honor writing from a wide range of geographies, cultures, and languages, and these are all things that we hope will be continued to be accounted for going forward. But in the end one thing was clear: out of a shortlist of ten contenders that did not lack for ambition, Seiobo There Below truly overwhelmed us with its range—this is a book that discusses in minute detail locations from all around the globe, including Japan, Spain, Italy, and Greece, as well as delving into the consciousnesses and practices of individuals from across 2,000 years of human history. The book also takes bold steps forward in terms of how we think of the form of the novel, and our expectation of how a novel works and what it can attempt to do. In its scope, its depth, and its amazing precision, we found Seiobo There Below to be a work of rare genius. We were likewise very enthusiastic about Mulzet’s translation, which is astonishing for its beauty and its technical skill. In this book of nearly 500 pages, filled with sentences that range on for pages at a time, as well as all sorts of specialized jargon and obscure details, Mulzet doesn’t hit a false note, a truly amazing accomplishment. We must give due congratulations to her great work, as well as register our appreciation to her editors at New Directions, who surely must share in the credit.

As much as we admire Seiobo There Below, it was not an easy decision to elevate this book above our two runners-up, and there was much in-depth discussion and passionate arguments in favor of all three finalists. Although there can only be one winner, it is important to us to honor the range of styles, geographies, languages, and cultures that made it so challenging to select the 2013 honoree. Thus we offer these words of praise for our two runners-up:

We found Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s short novel The African Shore, masterfully translated by Jeffrey Gray, to be almost the perfect counterpoint to Seiobo There Below. In its sonnet-like perfection, even a single out-of-place word would have marred this novel’s hypnotizing effect, so due praise must be given to Rey Rosa and Gray for presenting us with this seamless, engrossing story. We also admired the strange logic by which Rey Rosa’s book functions, telling two parallel narratives that are connected by that strange symbolic creature, the owl. The African Shore felt very much to us like a story that only Rey Rosa could have told, a small, perfectly cut jewel that we can stare into endlessly. It is emblematic of the very rich exchange between Rey Rosa’s native Guatemala and the Morocco in which he lived for a decade, and its minimalist aesthetic points us toward an interesting new direction for Latin American literature to follow in the new century.

We were equally enamored of Minae Mizumura’s work in adapting Emily Brontë’s Gothic classic Wuthering Heights to contemporary Japan, translated most spectacularly by Juliet Winters Carpenter. As the novel continues to evolve as an art form, it is essential that it take stock of its legacy and find ways to rejuvenate its classics. Mizumura does not only this but also interrogates the idea of the “true novel“—the Western novel in the tradition of Flaubert, Dickens, et al.—against the traditional Japanese novel. As have many great Japanese writers before her, she reaches into the rich intersection between East and West to create something distinctly Japanese yet global in scope, a satisfying investigation of individual characters, the landscape of her nation, and various novelistic traditions. This wonderful novel marks the entry of a major talent into the English language, and we are proud to honor Mizumura’s long overdue arrival.

28 April 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by P.T. Smith on Towards the One & Only Metaphor by Miklós Szentkuthy, translated by Tim Wilkinson, and out from Contra Mundum Press.

Patrick is a regular reviewer of ours by now, and a huge, massive, supportive fan of all literature in translation.

Here’s the beginning of his review:

It is an unusual thing to see a press specifically focus on a single author, but that is what Contra Mundum Press has done with Hungarian author Miklós Szentkuthy, and if Towards the One & Only Metaphor is any basis to judge the rest of his work, the decision is one to be celebrated. Though one of those novels (this term used here in its most all-encompassing definition) that is “not for everyone” and one that is unabashedly difficult, it is also inviting and at its highest points gorgeous, thrilling, and plainly new, even if it was originally published in 1935. Szentkuthy makes it clear throughout the work that he is aware of the challenge he is asking readers to undertake with him, and more than once expresses an attitude not of the confidence and bullying that authors like Nabokov or Joyce hold dear, but instead a reassurance that a reader doesn’t need understanding firmly embedded in concrete for every passage—at one point Szentkuthy admits he is “too lazy” to define a concept, moves on with the sense of a definition, letting implied understanding between writer and reader hold the course.

Called “nearly-unclassifiable” and “something of a manifesto” by the jacket copy, Towards the One & Only Metaphor is made up of 122 numbered sections. They run a wild gamut that includes philosophical musings, theological rumination, aesthetic riffs, historical fictions, seeming diary entries, contemporary vignettes, and, because why not, a few lists. Ideas, historical persons, phrases, and images reoccur and link sections, Szentkuthy becomes suddenly enamored with an idea or a strategy, holds it for a while, and then drops it, having exhausted its engine and come to the end of the path. All of this works for the reader willing to dive in deep, find their sources of joy or connection, and when lost in a section, patiently move forward with Szentkuthy to find their next bright spot.

That sense of moving with Szentkuthy runs throughout the work and is an essential bit of surrender that the reader needs to make. Rarely has a single word in a title, “towards,” seemed so apt to both the author’s aims and the reader’s path to grasping those aims, and enjoying the way. Towards the One & Only Metaphor is a paced novel, moving in and out of various rhythms, but always having one. Szentkuthy does not force you along, his are not waves that drown you if you are unable to float with them, but gentler waves that leave you behind if you don’t find the current, or send you down an offshoot tributary, lost. This control of movement is true from the numbered sections through to word-to-word connections. Often, it seems better to read a sentence, enjoy the sounds and pace, but not comprehend totally, and move on to the next, rather than hold up the ongoing towards. When you are fully in sync, in understanding, in rhythm, the book comes to life and that is when the most glorious moments are encountered. When lost, unclear, one can give up and float down the gentle river with him, or hit the shore and walk back not a sentence or two, but a paragraph or more, to get back in the water and find both clarity and the movement. For an author to bring diverse influences, tones, and styles into a single towards is a wonder, and we are fortunate that translator Tim Wilkinson has the same sense, and grateful to the wisdom of Contra Mundum to not only commit to Szentkuthy as an author, but to Wilkinson as his translator.

For the rest of his piece, head here

28 April 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

It is an unusual thing to see a press specifically focus on a single author, but that is what Contra Mundum Press has done with Hungarian author Miklós Szentkuthy, and if Towards the One & Only Metaphor is any basis to judge the rest of his work, the decision is one to be celebrated. Though one of those novels (this term used here in its most all-encompassing definition) that is “not for everyone” and one that is unabashedly difficult, it is also inviting and at its highest points gorgeous, thrilling, and plainly new, even if it was originally published in 1935. Szentkuthy makes it clear throughout the work that he is aware of the challenge he is asking readers to undertake with him, and more than once expresses an attitude not of the confidence and bullying that authors like Nabokov or Joyce hold dear, but instead a reassurance that a reader doesn’t need understanding firmly embedded in concrete for every passage—at one point Szentkuthy admits he is “too lazy” to define a concept, moves on with the sense of a definition, letting implied understanding between writer and reader hold the course.

Called “nearly-unclassifiable” and “something of a manifesto” by the jacket copy, Towards the One & Only Metaphor is made up of 122 numbered sections. They run a wild gamut that includes philosophical musings, theological rumination, aesthetic riffs, historical fictions, seeming diary entries, contemporary vignettes, and, because why not, a few lists. Ideas, historical persons, phrases, and images reoccur and link sections, Szentkuthy becomes suddenly enamored with an idea or a strategy, holds it for a while, and then drops it, having exhausted its engine and come to the end of the path. All of this works for the reader willing to dive in deep, find their sources of joy or connection, and when lost in a section, patiently move forward with Szentkuthy to find their next bright spot.

That sense of moving with Szentkuthy runs throughout the work and is an essential bit of surrender that the reader needs to make. Rarely has a single word in a title, “towards,” seemed so apt to both the author’s aims and the reader’s path to grasping those aims, and enjoying the way. Towards the One & Only Metaphor is a paced novel, moving in and out of various rhythms, but always having one. Szentkuthy does not force you along, his are not waves that drown you if you are unable to float with them, but gentler waves that leave you behind if you don’t find the current, or send you down an offshoot tributary, lost. This control of movement is true from the numbered sections through to word-to-word connections. Often, it seems better to read a sentence, enjoy the sounds and pace, but not comprehend totally, and move on to the next, rather than hold up the ongoing towards. When you are fully in sync, in understanding, in rhythm, the book comes to life and that is when the most glorious moments are encountered. When lost, unclear, one can give up and float down the gentle river with him, or hit the shore and walk back not a sentence or two, but a paragraph or more, to get back in the water and find both clarity and the movement. For an author to bring diverse influences, tones, and styles into a single towards is a wonder, and we are fortunate that translator Tim Wilkinson has the same sense, and grateful to the wisdom of Contra Mundum to not only commit to Szentkuthy as an author, but to Wilkinson as his translator.

As sentences weave their way through multiple clauses, filled with repeated dashes and colons, sound and visual aesthetic speed ahead of sense, and after you take a moment to catch your breath, sense and sudden clarity settle on you. Bizarre, seeming off-kilter descriptions blend senses of sight, sound, and feeling: “Drawings cool one: if I look up at the optical mosaic of trees, the sharpness of a million contours is cooling.” In the space after a colon, a drawing becomes like living trees, moving outlines of leaves and branches above you, and the visual cools you. Then, the whole image comes forth, the physical cool of a nap in the shade of a tree is handed off by the representation of trees.

Word combinations you can’t expect, like “tree boughs in grey moldy-patinated velvet,” come through without a hitch. He creates similes that require two insights, finding new visions of both X and Y instead of using X to understand Y. Szentkuthy has the power to describe a cliché such as love at first sight so wonderfully, and so casually, that it hardly registers as the something so familiar. In the lack of weight a cliché carries, space expands. It is in these new spaces he becomes ecstatic, and we along with him: “Every parallel, refrain, and repetition excites me: the rings of ripples on lakes, the escaped powers of ovals on branches, of acacias, fence laths, etc.”

Between and throughout the heights of his prose, Szentkuthy’s concerns, thinking, and style are complex, but he wants to open pathways for his writing to follow, and for those pathways to reach the reader too. One of the ways he opens the book to the reader is the same way a house opens to the world: lights on, windows with open blinds and cracked to the breeze. At times the windows are opened subtly, other times pointedly, as when he begins a section, “The perennial problems of any journal-like work:” and what follows the colon is a shared questioning of his project.

Through one of those windows, he shows us one of the oddest and utterly compelling definitions of and argument for experimental writing. Szentkuthy compares the idea of “rational, self-analytical” experiments with the experiment that is the natural world: “Biology is so explicitly an experimental domain that no distinction is made between a ‘final result’ and an undecided, exploratory trial.” In Towards the One & Only Metaphor, and the best experimental writing, there is no place for that distinction either—both are brought into the home.

These open windows are not only a stylistic habit or approach, Szentkuthy is keenly aware of their use, and attached to them. It isn’t a metafictional trick though, not an emphasis on self-awareness, not deconstructing the writing process. In a one-sentence section, he ends with the conclusion that “metaphors are the tadpole of reason.” At some point past metaphor, where reason is clearly outlined, something is lost, so the aim becomes to create a cloud of tadpoles, let some stay as the tiniest tadpoles but let others grow, sprout their little frog arms and become plump tadpoles, ready to drop their tails and hop on land, and abandon them before they become frogs. These glimpses inside the house let us see all of the tadpoles as they break from their eggs.

The tadpoles matter precisely because of their free movement in the current. Towards the One & Only Metaphor is also a book full of contradictions and shifts around them. Szentkuthy describes things using opposing terms, trots out two things he may believe but which must eliminate each other for one to become conviction, and vacillates between self-loathing and praise. By writing in that place before reason, opposites don’t eliminate each other; one does not need to override the other as the reasonable conclusion. The aim here is also not a yin-yang companionship, but to move back and forth between opposites, quickly, beautifully, consciously, and with each move from one to the other, to bring them closer to Szentkuthy’s repeated “one & only.” When those tadpoles are at their liveliest, full ideas that sound like nonsense but hold more sense than shear rationality could stand come forth: “What is destiny if it is not the mysteriously close impossibility of the mysteriously close possibility.”

As philosophically inclined, as high art as Szentkuthy reaches, it would be a mistake to not see how he regularly returns to the ground without ever losing his composure. Oftentimes passages are intensely personal, looking at his own life, his own ways of acting, but he also turns outward to the mundane world. That turning outward is best expressed by Szentkuthy himself, as “an enigmatic human synthesis of absolute gospel truth and absolutely bestial fury.” He questions what kind of just church allows certain funerals to be more important than others, and he rages against the “idealization of ‘work’” in a way that coherently, with passion and humor, expresses ideas and realities that led to Occupy Wall Street: money as “the thousand and one ethical masks of fraud” and the conviction that “businessmen are the most sentimental, puerile-spirited people in the world: ten-year-old girls display more cynicism and realism than these ‘leaders.’” His humor is darkly funny, but utterly serious, and it is worth remembering that the beliefs of Occupy Wall Street are not new, and shouldn’t weaken, in fact need to gain strength, and that fresh strength can be found in Hungarian writers from the 1930s only just now being translated into English.

Szentkuthy reaches little in the way of answers in Towards the One & Only Metaphor, but for him, it isn’t about finding them, because he is “not a person enquiring about the secret of the world but the fact of the world’s big, universal questions.” Just the fact that there are those questions, that there are movements against life, against addressing these questions, that is his concern. At one point he defines sainthood as “continual smashing, active taking notice” and while it’s unlikely he meant to call himself a saint, by his own definition he is, and even in the moments of beautiful stillness, his writing is a protest against the world, but a protest that allows him the yes he desires, allows him to be the flower he idealizes, and to, if only for a moment, be “the simplest blue being in the Sun.” With Towards the One & Only Metaphor, we too can face the reality of those questions, rage against the adversary, and be that simple blue being.

26 November 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a review by P.T. Smith on László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, from New Directions.

Here’s the beginning of Patrick’s review:

In Seiobo There Below, Lázló Krasznahorkai is able to succeed at a task at which many writers fail: to dedicate an entire novel to a single message, to express an idea over and over again without falling into repetition or didacticism. His novel is an insistence that the rapturous does exist, can be met, and that, although there are great risks in receiving or creating such an experience, it is something humans should not forget to strive for. For Krasznahorkai, that something is to help keep this focus on a single theme from drowning the reader; it is an endless theme, with infinite variations. This is seen even in the structure of the novel—a series of stories that are plot- and character-wise independent from each other—numbered by the Fibonacci sequence, suggesting that each builds off the one preceding it and that this building can continue endlessly, and is a naturally occurring beauty.

Reading a single chapter is a rewarding and complete experience in itself and tells the story of some encounter, or missed encounter in a few cases, with a work of art—whether it be a mask, dance, statue, painting, architecture—that surpasses the mundane and comprehensible experiences that make up the vast majority of our lives. None is dependent on the one before or the one after, but there is that sequence, and a pattern of reoccurrences—hand gestures, eyes opening and closing, mirrors helping someone try to comprehend a whole work—while each takes on an entirely different perspective from which to glimpse the spiritual. Time is no barrier: some encounters are set hundreds of years ago, some in an unnamed time, in the future; location is also not a barrier, as the encounters are set all over the world, with Kyoto as the beating heart that is returned to again and again. The fact that no place or time is less fully realized than another is a major accomplishment.

For the rest of the review, go “here:“http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=8742.

26 November 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In Seiobo There Below, Lázló Krasznahorkai is able to succeed at a task at which many writers fail: to dedicate an entire novel to a single message, to express an idea over and over again without falling into repetition or didacticism. His novel is an insistence that the rapturous does exist, can be met, and that, although there are great risks in receiving or creating such an experience, it is something humans should not forget to strive for. For Krasznahorkai, that something is to help keep this focus on a single theme from drowning the reader; it is an endless theme, with infinite variations. This is seen even in the structure of the novel—a series of stories that are plot- and character-wise independent from each other—numbered by the Fibonacci sequence, suggesting that each builds off the one preceding it and that this building can continue endlessly, and is a naturally occurring beauty.

Reading a single chapter is a rewarding and complete experience in itself and tells the story of some encounter, or missed encounter in a few cases, with a work of art—whether it be a mask, dance, statue, painting, architecture—that surpasses the mundane and comprehensible experiences that make up the vast majority of our lives. None is dependent on the one before or the one after, but there is that sequence, and a pattern of reoccurrences—hand gestures, eyes opening and closing, mirrors helping someone try to comprehend a whole work—while each takes on an entirely different perspective from which to glimpse the spiritual. Time is no barrier: some encounters are set hundreds of years ago, some in an unnamed time, in the future; location is also not a barrier, as the encounters are set all over the world, with Kyoto as the beating heart that is returned to again and again. The fact that no place or time is less fully realized than another is a major accomplishment.

The characters that each chapter centers on also vary wildly. While some are calm, passive, many are barely able to contain themselves, though it isn’t always clear if their agitated, anxious states are natural to them or comes from their approach to the immanent; some are creators, others are seekers, and not always intentionally. The differences aren’t simply for variety, to keep a reader from drifting into boredom. It instead expresses that there is no essential nature that someone can lack that will prevent them from the rapturous encounter. We meet a man who “could not even pronounce the word miracle,” yet who experiences one nevertheless; we have a Bernhardian madman, giving a “lecture” that becomes a rant that exhausts his audience, raging against everything that is not or has damaged his sublime, the Baroque. That the sublime is open to all does not mean, however, that all approaches to art will be successful.

Seiobo There Below is full of contradictions and the necessity of opposing forces. As Krasznahorkai presents it, two key pairs to both the creation of art and the experience of it are effort and surrender, and knowing and not knowing. Both sides are necessary in the creation of the true work of art, but finding balance is a constant adjustment, not a straight line to walk, but rather like canoeing to an island across the currents of a great lake. Creating the works of art in each chapter takes great effort and care, but too much and the balance is lost. Mistakes are allowed, even necessary because then grace can take over. A Buddhist abbot worries and stresses and relentlessly practices with his monks to prepare for a ceremony to return a restored Amida Buddha statue to its place, but in the end, admits:

Exalted Buddha, how fallible they were, how unworthy, how many mistakes, how many errors, how many times they faltered in the texts, how often the great drum beat at the wrong time, and above all how many wrong steps before the alter, how much uncertainty and how many were perplexed, and they could not free themselves, and all the same, they did it, they were capable of that much, they had not fallen short of their abilities . . .

If human effort were enough, then the accomplishment, the experience, would never surpass the mundane. And it is not only in the art that surrender is necessary, that its value is seen in an experience. A isolated carver of Noh masks goes on a bike ride, straining up hills, sweaty and tired, “but then comes the downward run, and the wondrous, the inexpressible tranquility of the forest, its refreshing beauty, its inconceivable monumentality.” This effort cannot be desirous, however: “. . . his own experience taught him that if there is within him the desire to create an exquisite mask, then he will unavoidably and unconditionally create the ugliest mask possible.” The protagonist who has the greatest desire for his personal sublime misses it entirely, is blinded by it because he did not approach it without desire, and ultimately meets a tragic end.

Throughout each chapter, the approach that matters most is one of great concentration, to put all of one’s focus into looking at a painting, the detail in the surfaces of the walls of the Alhambra, or into carving a mask, mixing a paint. There are always the distractions of the world, currents against an individual, and Krasznahorkai compels us to find a way of escaping it, of being within a moment, across from an object of grace and beauty.

Getting to that moment means approaching understanding, but only approaching; this understanding is separate from gathering knowledge in the pursuit of certainty. Many of the works of art in Seiobo There Below are surrounded by uncertainty or dispute about their creators. Scholars argue over the true painter, and more than once, when fact and evidence provide an answer, their disappointment in being wrong, or in the painter being a “nobody” instead of a famous talent, leaves them never coming close to truly experiencing the painting. The one who does experience the height of the power of the artwork never seeks such certainty, only recognition of the work itself. We as readers, however, are privileged, and are told the stories behind some of the paintings; we are allowed to understand more, to know more, without risking beauty, because we are not desirous for each work in themselves, but instead meeting the whole spiritual plane they are each breaching.

One of the wonderful contradictions of the novel is that as he is warning us against having too much faith in knowledge, Lázló Krasznahorkai’s knowledge is terrifying. To truly experience an artwork, someone shouldn’t be bothered by having no knowledge of who created it. To accomplish this, Krasznahorkai writes from a nearly omniscient perspective: the narrator explains in detail, naming each tool used in the original language (the specific terms and titles seem endless), how to prepare a painting in 1500, both the science and ritual of how a statue is renovated in 2050, how to carve a Noh mask, and so on. It creates the sense that the narrator couldn’t possibly be an earthly man; not only could no one know so much, but it’s been made obvious that such clear and complete knowledge would cut off the rapturous instead of expanding and sharing it. Trickily, however, there are still unknowns, not pieces held back, but things even this narrator does not know, and those moments are filled with even greater awe, as when we explore the Alhambra together.

This companionship is another contradiction of Seiobo There Below. Like the chapters of the book themselves, humans throughout the book are isolated, self-contained, but at the same time, most of the works described arise when those discrete people work together. The story of disciples splitting the work with a master, or being involved in a key part of the process, is told again and again, even as the disciples are also a source of risk and agitation for the master. In “Il Ritorno in Preguia,” a master who has lost commitment to his work only regains it after his “most faithful disciple” spends his nights thinking and dreaming of the secrets of the colors of his master’s paints, and later goes on to mix those paints, which contain a uniqueness that gives the master’s art its essence.

All of these ideas, convictions, and contradictions are expressed in Krasznahorkai’s famously long, comma- and semicolon-filled sentences. It is not style for the sake of style or distinctiveness, however. The breathlessness, the repetitions, the changes of tone, the move from clarity to confusion, all in the space of paragraph-long sentences, bring to life the very experiences described. Agitation and wonder in a character’s being is not something we are just told, but we something we are brought within. Translator Ottilie Mulzet does a remarkable job of abandoning the English sentence structure, but not its sense or beauty to render this book into English. She finds Krasznahorkai’s personal grammar and brings it into English.

Seiobo There Below, both beautiful and intensely focused on the experience of the beautiful, seeks a connection with a spiritual plane neither centered on religious disctinctions, nor disparaging of them. The chapter on a Buddhist statue begins with an epitaph praising Christ. Portrayals of Christ and Buddha are both brought to life with eyes that move, that are somewhere between the endless cycle of opening and closing. That back and forth movenment between the opposites of opened and closed, with a middle ground where, when frozen in a painting or statute, the direction is impossible to discern, again reminds us of contradictions forming a whole. Christ and Buddha may be brought to life, but so may a demon who will “do harm”; in another chapter, a man barely grasping his sanity buys a knife. So Seiobo There Below is not only in praise of the beautiful, but insists on the existence of the terrifying paired with it. Fulfillment and emptiness are both present in the experience of rapture and the return to the mundane, and this is both a warning and a calling. Even if we do not create a demon, we, like a man before a painting of Christ, are left trying to understand a beauty and a sorrow “for creating, for existence, for being, for time, for suffering and for passion, for birth and destruction.”

6 May 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If you use the Facebook or the Twitter, you probably already know this, but the 2013 Best Translated Book Awards were handed out on Friday as part of the PEN World Voices/CLMP “Literary Mews” series of events.1 And you probably know that Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stanescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter and published by Archipelago Books and Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes and published by New Directions were the two winners for poetry and fiction, respectively.

Thanks to underwriting from Amazon.com, George Szirtes, Sean Cotter, László Krasznahorkai, and Nichita Stanescu will each receive a $5,000 cash prize.

I want to personally thank Jill McCoy of the European Society of Authors for kicking off the event by talking about Finnegan’s List and to Esther Allen for adding some thoughtful and interesting comments (as is to be expected, I mean, duh, it’s Esther Allen). Also, a large Internet round of applause should go out to Bill Martin and Michael Orthofer for making the actual announcements—thanks guys!

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the two titles, here’s a bit more info:

Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes and published by New Directions

And from Bromance Will’s2 write-up of why this book should win:

Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango takes a look at evil in its everyday forms. Satantango is a diabolical novel, a bleak, haunting, hypnotic, philosophical, black comedic deconstruction of apocalyptic messianism. Translated flawlessly by George Szirtes, Hungarian poet and translator of renown, the story of Satantango‘s appearance in English is so miraculous, and the end result so perfect, from the gorgeous first edition hardcover that New Directions released, to the quality of the translation inside, that it is clear: Satantango deserves to win the BTBA. [. . .]

Though the film version is nearly seven hours long, Satantango is by far the shortest and easiest Krasznahorkai novel to digest of the three published in English by New Directions thus far. Though the sentences are long and there are no paragraph breaks in each chapter, as per Krasznahorkai’s unique style, the narrative pace is brisk, with a black comedy underlying the character’s thoughts and actions, or rather, lack of actions. Set up in a cycle of twelve chapters that progress from I-VI, then backwards from VI-I, with the eponymous Satan’s tango in the middle, the story tells of a wretched collective farm fallen into a hapless state of disrepair that suddenly perks up with life when word gets to the inhabitants that the mysterious and enigmatic Irimiás was coming back.

Irimiás had left the collective farm some years before, promising great change upon his return, but when we meet him and his sidekick, Petrina, the pair are plotting to return to the farm to wreak havoc under the direction of an unnamed, evil government bureaucracy. The inhabitants had been waiting for the day when their messiah, Irimiás, would return to deliver them from their squalor to a brighter future, unaware that Irimiás is a false prophet, who despises them and will bring them only to their doom.

If you haven’t read this, buy it NOW. There is a paperback version coming out soon, but god damn is the hardback gorgeous. Buy it because quality printed books are somewhat of a rarity and should be preserved and glorified.

*

Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stanescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter, and published by Archipelago Books.

And from judge Russell Valentino’s write-up:

A friend of mine once did commentary for a literary death match in the language of wine labels: a fruity blend of blackberry and barnyard; hints of oaky tangerines and smoked chestnuts; and so on. This worked well because no one forgets irony in literary death matches: everyone knows the contest cannot ever really be a contest. Unfortunately not the cast with the things called contests, and O, do we need some irony here!

This is one—though just one—of the reasons that Nichita Stanescu’s Wheel with a Single Spoke, in Sean Cotter’s English translations, should win this contest. It knows for irony, as when, in the love lyric, “Beauty-sick,” the lover enjoins, “Do your best not to die, my love / try to not die if you can”; or, in a nod to trans-sense, (“What is the Supreme Power that Drives the Universe and Creates Life?”), it turns out to be “A and E / and I and O / and U.” And once this tone, then everything takes on a tinge, or you at least have to wonder, when he writes words like “consciousness” and “cognition” and “being” and “ah” and most definitely “O.”

It should also win because through the irony the post-War, Cold War, otherwise all-too-depressive seriousness grows deeper, more meaningful, easier to understand and appreciate, brighter, as when he writes, “Because my father and because my mother, / because my older sister and because my younger sister, / because my father’s various brothers and because my mother’s various sisters, / because my sister’s various lovers, / imagined or real,” after which you can’t help but want to know more, read another line and another. And because Cotter has selected, pulled together, found coherent, compelling English form. And because the book itself is beautiful.

Speaking of things that are beautiful, this is the third Archipelago title to win. Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston won in 2012, and Tranquility by Attila Bartis, translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein won in 2009. Seeing that only 11 titles have received this honor, that’s incredibly impressive. Congrats to Jill Schoolman—the publisher of one of the greatest publishers of international literature there is!

And stay tuned. We’ll be announcing info about the 2014 BTBAs in approximately one month.

1 Which, especially for a test-run, was remarkably successful. I sold more than 15 books in the first hour and a half, and only brought back a handful of units.

2 Will Evans was an apprentice here last year, and as a result is launching Deep Vellum, an indie press based in Dallas dedicated to doing awesome literature from around the world. He has a few titles in the works that I know about, but the only think I should really mention here is that he’ll be publishing Sergio Pitol as one of his first authors. For more information, you should follow his Twitter account: @DeepVellum. And if you’re at BEA this year, you should meet with him. Will has the rare ability to make the most jaded professional excited about books and publishing once again. We need people like him in this field.

2 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes and published by New Directions

Bromance Will—who is probably still smarting from Duke’s AWFUL performance on Sunday—is back. Will Evans is in process of setting up Deep Vellum, a publishing house based in Dallas dedicated to international literature. More info on that in the near future.

What if you did dance with the devil in the pale moonlight? What if you did meet the devil at a crossroads and sold your soul for a special talent? What if your own Faustian bargain brought about the end of everything? What if you were at your wits end, and devoid of even the faintest glimmer of hope, but a mysterious stranger in any form could offer you some sort of reprieve, some sort of change? Would you take it? Of course you would. And you would become another loser in the history of the world, another sad character in a Krasznahorkai novel. But make no mistake, you are already that loser, history has already forgotten you, you are helpless, you are weak, you are inconsequential. This is what Satantango should make you feel. And it is why it should win the 2013 Best Translated Book Award.

Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango takes a look at evil in its everyday forms. Satantango is a diabolical novel, a bleak, haunting, hypnotic, philosophical, black comedic deconstruction of apocalyptic messianism. Translated flawlessly by George Szirtes, Hungarian poet and translator of renown, the story of Satantango‘s appearance in English is so miraculous, and the end result so perfect, from the gorgeous first edition hardcover that New Directions released, to the quality of the translation inside, that it is clear: Satantango deserves to win the BTBA.

Satantango was Krasznahorkai’s first novel to be published way back in 1985, and was turned into a legendary seven-hour film by the author’s friend and frequent working partner, the director Béla Tarr, in 1994. Despite the film’s renown, or perhaps because of it, the legend holds that the translation of Satantango took nearly 20 years to complete. And it’s not just that we had to wait 27 years for this masterpiece, Satantango could and should win the BTBA in and of itself because it is a harrowing and bleakly funny look at the frailty of the human condition and our divine aspirations.

Though the film version is nearly seven hours long, Satantango is by far the shortest and easiest Krasznahorkai novel to digest of the three published in English by New Directions thus far. Though the sentences are long and there are no paragraph breaks in each chapter, as per Krasznahorkai’s unique style, the narrative pace is brisk, with a black comedy underlying the character’s thoughts and actions, or rather, lack of actions. Set up in a cycle of twelve chapters that progress from I-VI, then backwards from VI-I, with the eponymous Satan’s tango in the middle, the story tells of a wretched collective farm fallen into a hapless state of disrepair that suddenly perks up with life when word gets to the inhabitants that the mysterious and enigmatic Irimiás was coming back.

Irimiás had left the collective farm some years before, promising great change upon his return, but when we meet him and his sidekick, Petrina, the pair are plotting to return to the farm to wreak havoc under the direction of an unnamed, evil government bureaucracy. The inhabitants had been waiting for the day when their messiah, Irimiás, would return to deliver them from their squalor to a brighter future, unaware that Irimiás is a false prophet, who despises them and will bring them only to their doom. Take this conversation between Irimiás and Petrina on the road back to the village, one of my favorite passages in the whole novel (all bolding mine):

“God is not made manifest in language, you dope. He’s not manifest in anything. He doesn’t exist.” “Well, I believe in God!” Petrina cut in, outraged. “Have some consideration for me at least, you damn atheist!” “God was a mistake, I’ve long understood there is zero difference between me and a bug, or a bug and a river, or a river and a voice shouting above it. There’s no sense or meaning in anything. It’s nothing but a network of dependency under enormous fluctuating pressures. It’s only our imaginations, not our sense, that continually confront us with failure and the false belief that we can raise ourselves by our own bootstraps from the miserable pulp of decay. There’s no escaping that, stupid.” “But how can you say this now, after what we’ve just seen?” Petrina protested. Irimiás made a wry face. “That’s precisely why we are trapped forever. We’re properly doomed. It’s best not to try either, best not believe your eyes. It’s a trap, Petrina. And we fall into it every time. We think we’re breaking free but all we’re doing is readjusting the locks. We’re trapped, end of story.”

The moral of Satantango is unclear, if there is one at all. You can draw your own conclusions, you can read into anything and everything, the questions that arise from the text are not immediately answerable. Is Irimiás himself the Devil? Or just another false prophet, like so many who came before him? Like the Communist leaders who promised utopia on Earth, and who were still firmly in charge of Hungary, though a barely-breathing corpse, when Krasznahorkai wrote the novel in ’85? Irimiás seems to take his instruction from the nameless and faceless bureaucrats in the capital who send him on the ill-fated mission that comprises the novel’s downfall (with the chapters numbered in ascending, then descending order). And what about the doctor, the unconscious narrator of the novel, daydreaming of ahistorical time in his chair while the world around him spins downward to ultimate ruin? What of the pitiful women in the story, the little girl/cat-killer, or the prostitutes hanging about in the ruins? Should we be depressed when the novel ends, realizing that we live in a different kind of shit (“Same shit, different toilet”, not a Krasznahorkai quote, but which applies here), or impressed with an author who is willing to confront the hopeless idiocy of humanity’s basest instinctual elements?

The vagueness and banality of evil is at the core of Satantango; reading Satantango is a much-needed antidote to the garbage you read in the techno-centric positivism online about everything these days. Though it seems like lot of time has passed since 1985, make no mistake, no time has passed at all in the primordial sense of time, you are still inconsequential; and vast droves of people seem to think that the leaps forward in technological advancement has meant grand changes to humanity, but they’re wrong: in the grand scheme of things we’re still the same awful, evil creatures we were 27 years ago, a thousand years ago, a million years ago, and the cult of the digital revolution or whatever the latest fad or technological advancement may be, none of them are any different than the false prophet of Irimiás’s empty promises to lead us all to some nonexistent exalted future.

Satantango should win the 2013 Best Translated Book Award because as a people, humanity needs to gain some awareness of our own rotten core, and if Satantango goes unrecognized as a work of the purest genius it is because we as a people are too afraid to look deep within ourselves, too scared of what we might find, or too scared to realize what was never there in the first place.

17 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Evans on László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, which is translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes and is available from New Directions.

Here’s part of his review:

Susan Sontag called László Krasznahorkai the “Hungarian master of the apocalypse,” which would make Satantango his magnum opus of the apocalypse. The end of the world is coming in a deluge of rain that is turning the world into a muddy wasteland that mirrors the spiritual condition of its inhabitants. Satantango is a novel about the end of the world that reflects on the everyday inner despair of humanity in the present day as much as in 1985 Hungary, when it was written.

It’s hard to fathom a novel as profound and globally-relevant as Satantango taking twenty-seven years to come out in an English translation. Not only was Satantango Krasznahorkai’s breakout debut novel, but it was turned into an infamous Belá Tarr movie in 1994—infamous because the film is seven and a half hours long, making Satantango officially the first novel I’ve ever read that took less time to read than to watch the movie—which gave Krasznahorkai a name in the realm of international literature. It’s a helluva movie, and I couldn’t help but think of the movie constantly the entire time I was reading the book, because Tarr and Krasznahorkai coexist in another artistic universe (Krasznahorkai has collaborated with Tarr on five movies, some adapted from his own novels, including “The Werckmeister Harmonies” adapted from The Melancholy of Resistance), and Tarr’s adaptation visually captures the mire and the human catastrophe that is at the heart of Satantango.

Click here to read his entire review.

17 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Susan Sontag called László Krasznahorkai the “Hungarian master of the apocalypse,” which would make Satantango his magnum opus of the apocalypse. The end of the world is coming in a deluge of rain that is turning the world into a muddy wasteland that mirrors the spiritual condition of its inhabitants. Satantango is a novel about the end of the world that reflects on the everyday inner despair of humanity in the present day as much as in 1985 Hungary, when it was written.

It’s hard to fathom a novel as profound and globally-relevant as Satantango taking twenty-seven years to come out in an English translation. Not only was Satantango Krasznahorkai’s breakout debut novel, but it was turned into an infamous Belá Tarr movie in 1994—infamous because the film is seven and a half hours long, making Satantango officially the first novel I’ve ever read that took less time to read than to watch the movie—which gave Krasznahorkai a name in the realm of international literature. It’s a helluva movie, and I couldn’t help but think of the movie constantly the entire time I was reading the book, because Tarr and Krasznahorkai coexist in another artistic universe (Krasznahorkai has collaborated with Tarr on five movies, some adapted from his own novels, including “The Werckmeister Harmonies” adapted from The Melancholy of Resistance), and Tarr’s adaptation visually captures the mire and the human catastrophe that is at the heart of Satantango.

The book is a much easier pill to swallow for the reader than the film; even casual readers can dive right in to the text and find themselves immersed in the world that Krasznahorkai creates, all thanks to George Szirtes’ superb translation (which supposedly took eight years to finish, one of the reasons for the twenty-seven year delay!!). Each chapter consists of one long unbroken paragraph, which gives a sense of breathless anxiety that propels itself along with a darkly funny narrative touch throughout, and makes the reading of the work seem much less frightening than a casual reader might think when they read the words “one-paragraph chapters.”

That’s not to say that the text is easy to digest, because if you truly think about what you’re reading, you are bound to feel some sense of disconsolate melancholy, which seems to be precisely the state of being that Krasznahorkai is the master of describing:

He gazed sadly at the threatening sky, at the burned-out remnants of a locust-plagued summer, and suddenly saw on the twig of an acacia, as in a vision, the progress of spring, summer, fall and winter, as if the whole of time were a frivolous interlude in the much greater spaces of eternity, a brilliant conjuring trick to produce something apparently orderly out of chaos, to establish a vantage point from which chance might begin to look like necessity . . . and he saw himself nailed to the cross of his own cradle and coffin, painfully trying to tear his body away, only, eventually, to deliver himself—utterly naked, without identifying mark, stripped down to essentials—into the care of the people whose duty it was to wash the corpses, people obeying an order snapped out in the dry air against a background loud with torturers and flayers of skin, where he was obliged to regard the human condition without a trace of pity, without a single possibility of any way back to life, because by then he would know for certain that all his life he had been playing with cheaters who had marked the cards and who would, in the end, strip him even of his last means of defense, of that hope of someday finding his way back home.

The plot is a classic “return” story: the remaining dozen inhabitants on a failed collective farm (or estate, as it is called in the text) in late-era Communist Hungary exist in a hopeless void of inaction after a mysterious character named Irimiás had come into their lives several years before with the promise of redemption and then subsequently disappeared and is presumed dead; but his return to the collective farm, along with his sidekick Petrina, is the narrative backbone of the novel. The first six chapters exist as six spokes along the same time/space axis: six different narrative points of view prepare the reader for Irimiás’ return by following different characters as they make their way to the bar on the estate, culminating in the drunken dance at the center of the novel that gives the novel its name. The next six chapters recede in number from VI to I as the characters process Irimiás’ return and make plans for the future. Krasznahorkai has said that he likes the idea of the tango as a dance that involves moving forward only to move backwards again, and so he structured the novel, at least in terms of the chapters, along a tango course—forward motion, then backwards again as everything is resolved/dissolved.

The dance of the tango, forward and then backward again, like the feeble steps of the estate as they slog their way through the fields towards a vague Promised Land, demonstrates how far outside of our human understanding of time this novel works. All sense of time is gone in Satantango; the action could have taken place in the 1980s, or yesterday, or 100 years ago; time is an immaterial and forgotten element of existence. None of the clocks seem to work, or if they do, they’re set to the wrong time. And on a cosmological scale, a book about Hungary’s geological history morphs into a work of prophecy, wherein billions of years of natural history culminates in a here and now devoid of historical resonance—time is nothing here, the end is coming:

. . .the book being written now in the present and now in the past tense—confused him, so he couldn’t be sure whether he was reading a work of prophecy regarding the earth’s condition after the demise of humanity or a proper work of geological history based on the planet on which he actually lived . . . he was lost in successive waves of time, coolly aware of the minimal speck of his own being, seeing himself as the defenseless, helpless victim of the earth’s crust, the brittle arc of his life between birth and death caught up in the dumb struggle between surging seas and rising hills, and it was as if he could already feel the gentle tremor beneath the chair supporting his bloated body, a tremor that might be the harbinger of seas about to break in on him, a pointless warning to flee before its all-encompassing power made escape impossible, and he could see himself running, part of a desperate, terrified stampede comprising stags, bears, rabbits, deer, rats, insects and reptiles, dogs and men, just so many futile, meaningless lives in the common, incomprehensible devastation, while above them flapped clouds of birds, dropping in exhaustion, offering only possible hope.

Irimiás, whose return offers the residents’ only hope of salvation, is the most important character in the novel; he is given three chapters through which his motives, intentions, and character traits become known, yet he remains the most mysterious and enigmatic character in the novel and in recent literary history. What drives Irimiás is a question that Krasznahorkai does not answer. Is he savior or antichrist, or just a conman, or all of the above, or none of the above? He is alternately described as “Lord of Misrule” and “a great magician,” and he is prone to bouts of philosophizing, denouncement, and moralizing, though he is also upbraided by the Communist authorities who dispatch him on a mysterious mission after he is released from prison. The vagueness in Krasznahorkai’s portrait of Irimiás is deliberate, and corresponds to similar treatment of the novel’s main questions throughout.

“God is not made manifest in language, you dope. He’s not manifest in anything. He doesn’t exist.” “Well, I believe in God!” Petrina cut in, outraged. “Have some consideration for me at least, you damn atheist!” “God was a mistake, I’ve long understood there is zero difference between me and a bug, or a bug and a river, or a river and a voice shouting above it. There’s no sense or meaning in anything. It’s nothing but a network of dependency under enormous fluctuating pressures. It’s only our imaginations, not our sense, that continually confront us with failure and the false belief that we can raise ourselves by our own bootstraps from the miserable pulp of decay. There’s no escaping that, stupid.” “But how can you say this now, after what we’ve just seen?” Petrina protested. Irimiás made a wry face. “That’s precisely why we are trapped forever. We’re properly doomed. It’s best not to try either, best not believe your eyes. It’s a trap, Petrina. And we fall into it every time. We think we’re breaking free but all we’re doing is readjusting the locks. We’re trapped, end of story.”

The core issues at the heart of Satantango are big-topic issues of existence and the lack of existence: the beginning and the end of humanness, humanity, history, politics, economics, progress, death, redemption, salvation loneliness, despair, the apocalypse. Krasznahorkai provides no answers to any of the questions he poses. The work could be read as a condemnation of the Soviet-Communist system of economic and social constructions; or it could be read as a biblical metaphor; it could be read as a satire of mankind’s susceptibility to fall victim to every conjurer, ruse, and Ponzi scheme; or it could be, and this is most likely, all of the above, none of the above, and a something else that exists just outside of our human understanding.

They were sober at a stroke but they simply couldn’t understand what had happened to them in the last few hours. What demonic power had taken possession of them, stifling every sane and rational impulse? What was it that had driven them to lose their heads and attack each other ‘like filthy pigs when the swill is late’? What made it possible for people like them—people who had finally managed to emerge from years of apparently terminal hopelessness to breathe the dizzying air of freedom—to rush around in senseless despair, like prisoners in a cage so that even their vision had clouded over? What explanation could there be for them to ‘have eyes’ only for the ruinous, stinking, desolate aspect of their future home, and completely lose track of the promise that ‘what had fallen would rise again’! It was like waking from a nightmare.

Out of all the insanely influential world writers and works to whom Krasznahorkai is compared (Saramago, Bolaño, Foster Wallace, Bulgakov, etc.), Satantango most closely resembles Gogol’s Dead Souls, another novel (or poem, as Gogol called it, a tag that I would not hesitate to apply to Satantango as well, especially with the accomplished poet George Szirtes at the helm of the translation) with a conman at the center, traveling across a ravaged countryside alternating between scenes of the darkest hilarity and the banality of the everyday, all the while painting a timeless portrait of humanity rotten at the core without any hope for change.

And for what it’s worth, in an era of digital ownership, the hardcover first edition of Satantango that New Directions put out is simply gorgeous; the black traced-line cover is striking, and the inside front and back covers feature black matted paper with silvery white text of reviews of Krasznahorkai and Satantango. The book feels damn good to hold in your hands and read, and in sum, Satantango is exactly the type of book worth buying because the value of the physical product contributes to the invaluable content of the text itself. Read it, buy it, hunker down with the endtimes.

22 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Kornél Esti by Dezsö Kosztolányi, translated by Bernard Adams

Language: Hungarian
Country: Hungary
Publisher: New Directions

Why This Book Should Win: Despite being one of Hungary’s greatest writers, Kosztolányi hasn’t gotten near the attend he deserves in this country. Winning the BTBA could help change that . . .

Today’s post is by Amy Henry. You should visit her website, The Black Sheep Dances.

An “honest town,” where people never lie, makes for some awkward truth-in-advertising:

“Unreadable rubbish . . . latest work of an old writer who has gone senile, not a single copy sold up to now . . . [his] most nauseating, most pretentious verse,” advertises a bookshop window. At the restaurant, “Inedible food, undrinkable drinks. Worse than at home.” This unique city is thriving, because as Kornél Esti informs the narrator, “at home you always have to subtract something from what people tell you, in fact a great deal, while here you always have to add something to it, a little.”

Kornél Esti and the unnamed narrator have formed an unlikely writing partnership, based on an unusual childhood friendship. As children, Esti was wild and impulsive, leading the narrator into constant trouble, especially in that the two of them were nearly indistinguishable in appearance and activities. Having lost touch in later years, they eventually reunite when both men are forty, deciding that Esti’s adventures in Hungary and Italy needed to be recorded. As the one man writes, he implores Esti, “all you need to do is talk.”

Initially, Esti talks about early travels away from home, seeing places he’d only imagined about. He’s so young in his experience that he imagines that the sea is playing hide and seek with him as his train proceeds. Every window, street, and person he meets appears to be created solely for his curious inspection. As the stories continue, Esti’s vision becomes more restrained but never cynical. Whereas at home, the more proper narrator lives a quieter and more placid existence, and the contrast between living by the rules and living outside of them becomes clear.

Herein lay the twist of the novel, written in 1933. How are the two men connected? Could they actually be alternate personalities of the same man? At first, I was convinced of it, as Esti seemed to constantly be in the background, urging his friend to disobey. Their likeness, right down to the same birth day and time, led me to think that Kosztolányi was trying to show the wildly disparate ways one man could behave. Yet deeper into the book, the nature of Esti becomes complete. He is not as wild as initially described, in many places he’s the more pragmatic of his friends. His adventures, while entertaining, are not outrageous.

One story, improbably entitled, “In which he comes into a huge inheritance and learns that it’s hard to get rid of money when a person wants to do only that,” Esti relates the difficulty of giving money away after a sudden windfall. In itself, it’s amusing, but it’s Esti’s reaction to the potential of the story that tells the most, as it seems to reflect on his life as a whole as well as the event:

“So it’s not dull? Interesting enough? Absurd, improbable, incredible enough? Will it be annoying enough to people who look for psychological motivation, understanding, even moral lessons in literature?”

Another story has Esti’s life saved by a stranger, who rescues him from almost certain death in the Danube. The humor of this incident is that Esti feels obligated to the oafish man, who knows how to push the obligation to particular ends, becoming a pest and burden to Esti. This leaves Esti with the only reasonable option: pushing that same man into the Danube on a dark night and running for his own life. That Esti did so at the precise moment his benefactor had recited a long and hideous poem is the irony that Kosztolányi uses to wrap it all up deliciously. Poetry, publishing, and writing factor in as frequent motifs during the novel, and given that the author was all of these as well as a translator, one could assume he based much of the humor and sarcasm on personal experience.

Additionally, Bernard Adams translation of this novel won the PEN Translation Fund Award.

21 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Fiasco by Imre Kertesz, translated by Tim Wilkinson

Language: Hungarian
Country: Hungary
Publisher: Melville House

Why This Book Should Win: Because I introduced Tim Wilkinson to Dennis and Valerie of Melville House outside of the London Review of Books bookstores years ago, and as a result, they published a number of his Kertesz translations. It would be sort of perfect if Wilkinson then won this award . . .

Today’s post is by Christopher Willard, who is the author of Sundre and Garbage Head. He lives in Calgary and teaches at the Alberta College of Art + Design.

A man who Kertesz calls the “old boy” muses on the writing and subsequent publisher’s rejection of his early novel as he tries to locate a subject for his next novel. Kertész is most likely recalling an attempt to publish his first novel Fatelessness, based upon his deportation to Auschwitz when he was fourteen years old. In allowing fiction to revive facts, Kertész sets up a dense and masterful analogy: a book detailing one’s experiences may arbitrarily be rejected as lifeless and a person may be rendered lifeless by the whims of a totalitarian authority. This raises the thematic questions Kertész’s old boy struggles with, if one cannot control one’s fate or death, if ultimately death is situated closer to absurdity than rationale, what justifies living, what justifies writing about living? The attempt to answer the questions satisfactorily meets with utter failure. This is the fiasco. Kertész writes, “There was one thing that, perhaps I did not think of: we are never capable of interpreting for ourselves.”

The first third of the book is written in sort of call and response structure reminiscent of Beckett as evidenced in Krapp’s Last Tape. Kertész reflects (and reflects upon) the present and past through series of parenthetical statements. This makes for enjoyably dense reading but one imagines the enormity of the translator’s task in capturing both the accuracy and flow of such writing. For example regarding the old boy’s age, Kertész writes:

In all probability it would be simplest just to say how old he was (if we were not averse to such exceedingly dubious specifics, changing as they do from year to year, day to day, even minute to minute) (and who knows how many years, days and minutes our story will arch) (or what twists and turns that span may span) (as a result of which we might suddenly find ourselves in a situation where we may no longer be able to vouch for our rash assertions).

This ageless old boy exists, and not particularly by his own choosing. His burden seems to be the entire package: life, living, history, remembering, writing, the old novel, the next novel, the novel that makes up the remaining two-thirds of the book. The old boy began writing not to be a writer but to understand an unalterable past, and consequentially he involuntarily became a writer who now feels obliged to continue writing even though the he is aware that the writing makes living no easier, the living makes writing no easier, and the past book makes the future book no easier. Kertész seems to suggest the old boy suffers a Sisyphean punishment imposed by arbitrary alignment of coincidences and the conscious decision to continue; we suspect that man is Kertész.

27 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After a bit of a hiatus, Read This Next is back, with a book of truly massive proportions. This week’s title is Parallel Stories by Hungarian author Peter Nadas, which is translated by Imre Goldstein and just out from FSG.

It’s impossible to mention this book without talking about its size and scope. The 1,133-page novel opens in 1989 with a university student in Berlin discovering a corpse during his morning run. From there, the novel stretches back to 1939 to relate a series of interconnected stories focusing on three “unusual” men: Hans von Wolkenstein, whose mother is linked to “secrets of fascist-Nazi collaboration,” Agost Lippay Lehr, whose father worked for Hungary’s political regimes, and Andras Rott, “who has his own dark record of mysterious activities abroad.”

Nadas spent 18 years writing this book (or series of books—I’ve always heard of this referred to as a trilogy), yet, according to editor Elizabeth Sifton, this is a very tight, very well-constructed novel.

And Tim Nassau, who reviewed this for us, claims it’s one of the best books he’s ever read, one that he would recommend indiscriminately. Here’s another bit of his review:

Most of the books I have reviewed for this site were only reviewed in one or two other places: small journals, literary blogs, a paragraph in Publishers Weekly, perhaps . . . This is, of course, the norm for literature in translation, and the discrepancy between the quality and coverage of these books has been bemoaned enough that I do not need to revisit it here. Every so often, however, a new book comes out that is big enough and important enough for its translation to be an event, and everyone takes notice. [. . .]

Which is why I do not intend to review Parallel Lives. Enough people will do so that several will surely do a better job than I could; Jonathan Lethem reviewed 2666 for the New York Times, and, to be honest, I find such a high level of competition intimidating. The case might be different if I hated the novel, if I believed that all the hype was just a ploy to move copies, but I do not believe these things. If you have come here to know, simply, if you should read this book, then the answer is yes. It is one of the best novels I have read, and I recommend it indiscriminately. Here is post-war Eastern Europe: an encyclopedia of people’s lives as exhaustive in detail as it is ambitious in scale, an unflinchingly honest depiction of political and personal perversions. Yes, the characters are the products of Nádas’s imagination, but the way he describes their emotions and motivations reveals such an uncommonly deep and sensitive understanding of what forces constitute any person that the reader cannot help but feel he is gazing at his own soul.

So instead of talking about the plot of the book, etc., Tim spends most of the review praising Imre Goldstein’s translation. You can read the full review by clicking here.

And after reading that, I’m sure you’ll want to read an excerpt from the book itself, which you can do by clicking here. (It’s fitting that this, the longest book we’ve featured in Read This Next also has the longest sample.)

In addition, you can also click here to hear Elizabeth Sifton’s comments on the book. It’s cool to hear her talk about this, and she manages to make this sound even more interesting.

Finally, FSG published this interview with Nadas, which is also worth checking out.

27 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Most of the books I have reviewed for this site were only reviewed in one or two other places: small journals, literary blogs, a paragraph in Publishers Weekly, perhaps . . . This is, of course, the norm for literature in translation, and the discrepancy between the quality and coverage of these books has been bemoaned enough that I do not need to revisit it here. Every so often, however, a new book comes out that is big enough and important enough for its translation to be an event, and everyone takes notice. On the back of my reader’s copy of Parallel Stories, Hungarian writer Péter Nádas’s magnum opus, it says, at the bottom, “Author Appearances • National Publicity • National Advertising.” I don’t know if these phrases were printed as a request or an order, but they certainly create a grand air of expectancy, and I can’t help imagining an exclamation point after each phrase (Author Appearances!), as if a literary carnival were coming to town. Perhaps they are, simply, a statement of how it will be, as if the naming of these things could call them into being.

Not that the publishers should be worried. Susan Sontag, perennial blurber though she was, called Nádas’s last novel, Book of Memories, “The greatest novel written in our time, and one of the great books of the century.” That one clocked in at upwards of 700 pages after 11 years of writing. Parallel Stories runs over 1,100 pages and took 15 years to produce. It is being sold (National Advertising!) as a modern day version of War and Peace or The Magic Mountain, and Nádas has been dubbed a new Proust, so why not throw In Search of Lost Time into the mix? We must pity those reviewers who come late to the party and find that all the good comparisons to other thousand page novels have already been taken (it’s a twenty-first century Hungarian Tale of Genji!). We seem to have on our hands a masterpiece, a ready-made Classic in the great modernist tradition of Europe, or at least that’s what someone wants us to believe.

Does any of this sound familiar? Does it not recall the excitement around another massive book published by FSG at almost exactly this time three years ago? Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is a tremendously different book than Parallel Stories (to neither one’s discredit), but it was met by a small media frenzy, winning the Triple Crown with write-ups in the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, and the New Yorker. I do not bring any of this up to criticize, but merely to observe that, as a reviewer of exclusively foreign literature, I find myself in the rare position of being one of the score of critics that will weigh in on this novel, rather than one of only two or three.

Which is why I do not intend to review Parallel Lives. Enough people will do so that several will surely do a better job than I could; Jonathan Lethem reviewed 2666 for the New York Times, and, to be honest, I find such a high level of competition intimidating. The case might be different if I hated the novel, if I believed that all the hype was just a ploy to move copies, but I do not believe these things. If you have come here to know, simply, if you should read this book, then the answer is yes. It is one of the best novels I have read, and I recommend it indiscriminately. Here is post-war Eastern Europe: an encyclopedia of people’s lives as exhaustive in detail as it is ambitious in scale, an unflinchingly honest depiction of political and personal perversions. Yes, the characters are the products of Nádas’s imagination, but the way he describes their emotions and motivations reveals such an uncommonly deep and sensitive understanding of what forces constitute any person that the reader cannot help but feel he is gazing at his own soul. The following is a description of Döhring, a fellow university student around my age:

He had lived in the city for two years but had neither friends nor acquaintances. How else could he explain this except that this was the way he wanted it to be.

He did not say that yes, I am a prematurely embittered, rather sad person and the reason I chose to study these sciences is to steel myself against constant suffering, to give my mind some means to battle my gaping doubts, and perhaps these studies will help me find out what makes me suffer.

Listen, people, he would have shouted, all day long I pretend that everything is all right, but that makes me suffer even more. Help me, somebody, anybody, come, knock on my door, break down my door, anytime. No, he did the exact opposite.

What I would like to do, very briefly, in lieu of reviewing Parallel Stories by Péter Nádas, is review its translation by Imre Goldstein, and to do so from the same position as the majority of its potential English-speaking readers: as someone who does not speak Hungarian. Goldstein has translated several authors (his translation of Tranquility by Attila Bartis won the Best Translated Book Award a few years back), but his focus is on Nádas; this is the sixth book by the author that Goldstein has translated, and it took him five years to do so. But what, now, is there to say about his work here? Very little, and this is perhaps the highest praise: the English does not feel stilted or encumbered (unless it is meant to), and so the book reads very well; if the translation drew undue attention to itself, then something would be amiss.

And yet, on every page, there are the marks of an elegant translation. Consider the second to last sentence in the passage above, the one that begins with “Help me.” Every sentence leading up to it is constructed out of long, drawn-out phrases, the results of a rational mind considering its own irrationality until, finally, emotion takes over, the pace picks up, and the thought ends on an “anytime” that sounds slightly off. It seems like it should be the “anytime” of a friendly neighbor (Stop by anytime!) and so here it makes the desperation that much more palpable, as if decorum were slightly out of reach. Consider this brief passage, from the description of the architect Samu Demén, as well:

Everything on him was finely wrought; everything was long, longoid, bony though not without some flesh, like his fingers; at the same time wild and unruly, like the fine strands of his shiny black hair that spilled out from under his headgear.

The use of “longoid” evokes, perhaps, the image of some strange scientific specimen, and its juxtaposition with “long” instantly tempers how we think about this person. So too with the word “headgear.” Why not just say hat? Demén is certainly not wearing any orthodontic appliances, but “headgear” gives a sense of the eccentricity and the awkwardness that characterize Démen, who appears charming and at ease until he opens his mouth.

Such gestures, be they the choice of adjective, the pacing of a sentence, or a certain image (such as the notedly not uncharacteristic “fat shit sausage”) are not always that subtle, and their accumulation over a thousand pages is the constitution of a style. I cannot tell you if these two passages are “accurate” translations, but they are written in English and they operate in English and if they operate as well as they do then we have Imre Goldstein to thank. Every word in this book was written by Nádas, certainly, but by Goldstein as well. Parallel stories indeed.

19 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of the fall books that I’m interested in checking out is Peter Nadas’s Parallel Stories, an extremely long trilogy (like 1200 pages long) that’s coming out from FSG this October.

This week, in FSG’s consistently interesting Works in Progress newsletter has an interview with Nadas about this new book. Here’s an excerpt:

This fall FSG will publish Parallel Stories by acclaimed Hungarian author Péter Nádas. Editor Elizabeth Sifton writes, “After his last novel, A Book of Memories, appeared in English in 1997, many critics and readers agreed with Susan Sontag’s assessment that it was the greatest novel written in postwar Europe. But Nádas was already moving past that signal achievement. And now we can see how Parallel Stories—which took eighteen years to write, Nádas has said, and appeared in Budapest in 2005—extends and deepens the scope of his fiction, both in historical terms and in the most intimate, hidden terms of body and soul. The multilevel narrative reaches back to the 1930s, thickens in the crisis seasons of 1944–45, 1956, and 1961, and thrusts forward to 1989; and at every point we experience the intense and daring ways that the men and women he so memorably creates live through or transcend, create or deny the brutalities of their strife-torn times. This is a great novel about the twentieth century and, with its dazzling formal innovations and daring candor, a postmodern novel for the twenty-first.” [. . .]

Csaba Károlyi: You wrote an article called “Structure and Plot Patterns in Parallel Stories,” in which you formulated the creative problem at the crux of the novel. You wrote: “I could no longer escape the thought that prose writing actually works as the maid-servant of causal thinking.” Your aim was “to write the stories of people who can’t ever have met, who have only a very superficial knowledge of each other, and yet interfere most profoundly with each other’s lives.” I can see that your characters are intertwined even more closely than that, though, and still, the whole thing does not fall to pieces or become chaotic. As if the plan had been more radical than its realization. And in any case the reader will insist on deciphering on a causal basis, no matter what.

Péter Nádas: And they will succeed, too. I try to leave open the points that offer clues for this deciphering. Not in all cases, though.

We constantly strive to control the effect of our words or actions. The question is what sort of qualities this effort produces in other people. I have no guarantees concerning the perceptions of others. I tried to take all of this into account when I created connections between the different people, plot lines, or historical periods.

And then some systems are identical, others are similar, and yet others are different. We can say that people act along similar or even identical lines because they had similar upbringings or are constitutionally alike. And there are also differences according to these criteria—when, for example, you do something or other not because that’s the way you were socialized, but because you’re going against your socialization, following your instincts, or acting upon
your convictions. People can have direct and strong interactions; there are cases of both direct and indirect impact: when A has influenced B but does not know C, who was influenced by B, then, although A doesn’t know it, he or she actually influenced C. A causal relationship always tries to stick to being unequivocal, but I tried not to lose sight of the multivalence of things. This naturally yielded structures that no longer fit into the structure of causal thinking. Naturally, causation isn’t entirely absent but it falls into a totally different context or exists in a different space from the start.

The whole interview can be found here.

11 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



The Ninth by Ferenc Barnás. Translated from the Hungarian by Paul Olchváry. (Hungary, Northwestern University Press)

Below is a guest post from Bill Marx, one of this year’s fiction judges and the man behind PRI’s World Books. We’ll run another guest post of his later this weekend.

A brilliantly unconventional look at life in a small village outside of Budapest in the late 1960s, Ferenc Barnás’s marvelous novel The Ninth comes off as an inventively dour, sardonically humorous version of Huckleberry Finn, except that the book’s nine-year-old narrator can’t light out for the territories once he begins to understand the duplicities of home, society and morality. His indigence is too overwhelming, his family situation too absurd (he has nine siblings) and the soft authoritarianism of the government too robustly restrictive.

What’s more, Barnás gives his observant child hero an additional handicap – a disability that makes it difficult for him to speak and to read. Thus book’s central metaphor works itself out with grim logic: in surroundings this resolutely repressive, everything of value—creativity, morality, truth, and humanity—is bottled up inside, pressurized. What sort of steam could escape the Communist stopper? The answer suggests why Barnás’s third novel, which he admits is autobiographical, takes the form it does—a child’s frank, fanciful, and anarchistic view of moral survival amid repression.



Yet Barnás doesn’t revel in the gloom, an admirable artistry of refusal that turns away from predictable opportunities for extremism to nurture an indirection and subtlety that only deepens the factual surrealism of the situation and the time. The ninth child lives in a poverty-stricken, secretive Catholic family that scrapes along by selling rosaries and religious gewgaws condemned by the Communist government. The boy’s domestic and school life is marked by starvation, overcrowding (the ten children sleep in three beds), overwork and abuse. His father is tyrannical and short-tempered; his mother is kind but passive. In the course of the book the family’s exhausting focus, under the father’s stern command, is to earn enough money to move into a larger house.

Barnás conveys the environment’s barbarism through ironic humor (“One afternoon, when for some reason I wasn’t in the mood to mutilate frogs out in the yard with the others . . .”) and memories of violence that are kept off-stage (“the other day our father gave us twenty lashes on our soles for being late, he used the iron’s chord but it was better than watching klaro get it . . .”). Catholicism serves as a rich satiric source of meager solace, wry hypocrisy, and amusingly secular observations, such as the peculiar but understandable satisfactions the inarticulate kid finds in serving as an altar boy: “It’s so good to see people shut their eyes while sticking their tongues above the tray! Nowhere else could I see so many different sorts of tongues; lots of them are quivering, and some are colored stranger than I ever would have thought.”

It is this agile emphasis on homey detail rather than trauma and despair that has led the book’s too few reviewers to dwell on Barnás’s admirable modesty and nuance. For me, The Ninth is all the more provocative because it depicts, through a nimble exploration of a child’s stream-of-consciousness, the vicissitudes of his imagination, and the tee-tottering state of his soul amid the village’s sickening perfidy, corruption, and stupidity. When the kid steals money from his teacher and spends his ill-gotten gains on cakes and candies for his classmates the idea is not to stage a pint-sized crime and punishment.

Barnás wants us watch his narrator shape the parameters of the self he will become, dramatizing whether the child will absorb the guilt and spiritual poverty around him or become an individual by embracing the possibility of change, by speaking the self-incriminating truth. Memorably, his confession seems to burst out of him, against his will: “Everything becomes even hotter inside me as something begins surging up into my chest, something sure to gush into my mouth in no time: the saliva is already sour in my throat, as at other times. ‘It was me,’ I say.” What looks like a modest tale of growing up becomes a far more ambitious examination of the formation of an ethical consciousness, almost out of thin air, in an authoritarian state built on lies and coercion.

Barnás’s nine-year-old narrator is a brave construct, an unconsciously sophisticated consciousness that filters life’s hardships and decisions through a startling innocence, an amoral earnestness. The character’s emotional life is weirdly attenuated, his thoughts often taking on a gnomic vagueness redolent of post-modern philosophy: “It must count a lot, what we assume on account of what, and what we imagine we hear in what; at least that’s what the last month taught me.” Translator Paul Olchváry skillfully captures the novel’s fascinating blend of arch artificiality, sharp-eyed realism, and antic fantasy, all at the service of depicting the inner life of the marginal among us.

17 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Today’s installment in The Guardian‘s series of short stories from Eastern Europe is ‘Something Is Burning Outside’ by Laszlo Krasznahorkai.

Krasznahorkai, whose Melancholy of Resistance and War & War are both amazing and both in print from New Directions (with Satan Tango forthcoming . . . sometime), is one of Hungary’s most important, and stylistically interesting, contemporary writers.

This story—which is set at an artists’ retreat—is different in tone than the two translated novels, but is compelling in the way that all of Krasznahorkai’s fiction is compelling. And Ottilie Mulzet’s translation reads well. Here’s the opening:

Saint Anna Lake is a dead lake formed inside a crater, lying at an elevation of around 950 metres, and of a nearly astonishingly regular circular form. It is filled with rainwater: the only fish to live in it is the catfish. The bears, if they come to drink, use different paths from the humans when they saunter down from the pine-clad forests. There is a section on the further side, less frequently visited, which consists of a flat, swampy marshland: today, a path of wooden planks meanders across the marsh. It is called the Moss Lake. As for the water, rumour has it that it never freezes over; in the middle, it is always warm. The crater has been dead for millennia, as have the waters of the lake. For the most part, a great silence weighs upon the land.

It is ideal, as one of the organizers remarked to the first-day arrivals as he showed them around – ideal for reflection, as well as for refreshing strolls, which no one forgot, taking good advantage of the proximity of the camp to the highest mountain, known as the Thousand-Metre Peak; thus in both directions – up to the top of the peak, down from the peak! – the foot traffic was fairly dense: dense, but in no way did that signify that even more feverish efforts were not taking place simultaneously in the camp below; time, as was its wont, wore on, and ever more feverishly, as the creative ideas, originally conceived for this site, took shape and in imagination reached their final form; everyone by then having already settled into their allotted space, subsequently furnished and fixed up by their own hands, most obtaining a private room in the main building, but there were also those who withdrew into a log hut, or a shed long since fallen into disuse; three moved up into the enormous attic of the house that served as the camp’s focal point, each one partitioning off separate spaces for themselves – and this, by the way, was the one great necessity for all: to be alone while working; everyone demanded tranquillity, undisturbed and untroubled, and that was how they set to their work, and that was just how the days passed, largely in work, with a smaller share allotted to walks, a pleasant dip in the lake, the meals and the evening sound of singing around the campfire, accompanied by home-made fruit brandy.

21 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As you may remember, Hungarian lit dominated last year’s Best Translated Book Award with three titles on the longlist, including Attila Bartis’s Tranquility, the eventual winner.

Not sure that’s ever going to happen again, but the literary buzz around Ferenc Barnas’s The Ninth proves that Hungarian lit really does have a wealth of riches.

Jeff Waxman — managing editor of The Front Table and bookseller at 57th St. — wrote a review of the novel:

Set in Communist Hungary, Barnás’s novel is the story of a nine-year-old child, the ninth child of Hungarian Catholics eking out a miserable living in the small northern town of Pomáz. Bordering on the stream-of-conscious, The Ninth deals with life under the soft Communist rule of the late 1960’s, but from the point of view of a child with no basis for comparison. The picture we gain from our young narrator is uncomplicated by subtlety, politics, morality, and without the self-conscious morbidity and sexuality found in so many adult narrators. He’s an observer.

A lack of morbidity hardly means a lack of misery. Here, it’s unconscious, but this child is also disturbingly, accurately, affectless—too often in literature, we attribute too much to the too young. Our pathetic unnamed protagonist observes the realities of his own family’s survival, of his father’s obsessive small-time industry, his mother’s fervent religiosity, the difficulties of his siblings, and the cruelties and indignities of life in poverty: His mother and oldest siblings go to factory jobs early in the morning and return late at night; his father wakes the “Little Ones” early to do their part in preparing rosaries and other knickknacks for sale to churches; several of them suffer from some inability to speak or read well and some combination of headaches and faintness; and, of course, he’s preoccupied with having that eternal symbol of well-being, the full belly.

Click here for the full piece.

21 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

English-language readers have been enthusiastic about the excellent, albeit sinister, works of fiction by Hungarian writers like Nobel-Winner Imre Kertész, Best Translated Book Award Winner Attila Bartis, and the wonderful Péter Esterházy. We’ve been enthusiastic about being disturbed and moved, subjected to nightmare scenes and violent sex, and, ultimately, awed by the mastery these writers—and others—have over language, such mastery that it transcends the language itself and becomes apparent even in translation. Though by most accounts Ferenc Barnás is of the same dark mold, his novel, The Ninth, translated by Paul Olchváry, is a testament to the still-unplumbed depths of contemporary Hungarian literature, and a departure from the alienated fever dreams and horrors to which we’ve grown so accustomed to reading.

Set in Communist Hungary, Barnás’s novel is the story of a nine-year-old child, the ninth child of Hungarian Catholics eking out a miserable living in the small northern town of Pomáz. Bordering on the stream-of-conscious, The Ninth deals with life under the soft Communist rule of the late 1960’s, but from the point of view of a child with no basis for comparison. The picture we gain from our young narrator is uncomplicated by subtlety, politics, morality, and without the self-conscious morbidity and sexuality found in so many adult narrators. He’s an observer.

A lack of morbidity hardly means a lack of misery. Here, it’s unconscious, but this child is also disturbingly, accurately, affectless—too often in literature, we attribute too much to the too young. Our pathetic unnamed protagonist observes the realities of his own family’s survival, of his father’s obsessive small-time industry, his mother’s fervent religiosity, the difficulties of his siblings, and the cruelties and indignities of life in poverty: His mother and oldest siblings go to factory jobs early in the morning and return late at night; his father wakes the “Little Ones” early to do their part in preparing rosaries and other knickknacks for sale to churches; several of them suffer from some inability to speak or read well and some combination of headaches and faintness; and, of course, he’s preoccupied with having that eternal symbol of well-being, the full belly:

During the first break of the day I go to the john out in the schoolyard . . . That’s where I inspect my belly, too, but only if I’m alone. I pull up my shirt, let loose my muscles, and check to see how much my belly sticks out. In the morning it sticks out a lot.

But his lack of affect! This boy has urges—sometimes he steals—and he observes, but he never experiences anger, only a cold acceptance of his lot in life, of the kicks and shoves of his classmates:

. . . Molnár was waiting by the movie theatre. At first I thought he wanted to do the same thing, but I was wrong: he only beat me up . . . I didn’t really feel the blows, maybe because the whole time I was thinking I’d been through this before . . .

At nine years of age, Barnas’s character already knows about survival and necessity. When he and some of his brothers begin working as altar boys during local funerals, he notes, “The more people who die in our village, the better for us.” Though he’s reasonably well cared for, he’s poor and well-informed about the realities of life. His father is instructive and poverty itself teaches lessons that children can learn quickly. This book is not one that will make waves. It doesn’t startle or shock, doesn’t attack the reader or soothe him. This book is notable for the stunning restraint shown, the artfulness with which Barnás and Olchváry approached such a delicate task, the translation of child’s voice. And it’s notable, too, for its quiet success.

16 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re into the home stretch now . . . Through next Friday we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



Detective Story by Imre Kertesz, translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson. (Hungary, Knopf)

This is one of two Kertesz titles that could’ve made this year’s Best Translated Book fiction longlist, the other being The Pathseeker, which was released by Melville House shortly after Detective Story came out from Knopf. (Ironically, these two books were originally published in one volume in Hungary.)

I have to say that it’s pretty heartening when a Nobel Prize-winning author leaves a big the biggest publisher for an indie press, and in a way it’s too bad that both books didn’t make our list.

Eurozine has a very informative essay by Tim Wilkinson about both of these books.

Detective Story is a novel set in Latin America and written by Anotonio Martens, a former member of the “Corps” (an organization like the KGB, SS, etc.) who has been jailed for his involvement in the murder of Federigo and Enrique Salinas. This novel is Martens’s chance to tell his side of the story and how this murder came about.

It’s a tight, interesting story that, as Michael Orthofer alludes to is greatly disturbing for its universality.

I don’t want to give away too much, but the real power of this book comes from the reader knowing that Federigo and Enrique are innocent, while reading a firsthand account of how the Corps formed their beliefs and what they decided to do about their suspicions.

Another disturbing aspect of this book is the casual way members of the Corps talked about torture devices. This section involves a statue on Marens’s colleague’s desk:

It consisted of a base on which stood two uprights ending in forks. Resting on the forks was a rod, which in turn supported a tiny human figure in such a way that it passed between the bent knees and the wrists handcuffed together behind the knees. A devastating contraption, no two ways about it. Diaz glowered at it.

“What on earth is that?” he asked.

“That? It’s a Boger swing,” Rodriguez responded with great affection.

“Boger?” Diaz fussed. “What do you mean, Boger?”

“That’s the name of the fellow who invented it,” Rodriguez explained. [. . .]

“This bit here”—Rodriguez traced a small circle over it with his finger—“is freed up. You can do with him what you will.” He looked up at Diaz and grinned. I might as well not have been there—which is just as well as I probably only would have stuttered. That reflects badly on a person. “Or else,” Rodriguez continued, “you can squat down here, by his mug, and ask him whatever you want to know.” [. . .]

“What in the blue blazes do you need it for?” [Diaz] inquired in a fatherly tone. “We’ve got every sort of plaything. All you have to do is press a button, and it switches on an electric current. That’s what they use the world over these days: clean and convenient. Isn’t that enough for you?”

Kertesz is one of three Nobel Prize winners on the longlist (Saramago and Laxness being the others), and his Nobel acceptance speech is available online and worth taking a look at. I’ll end here with an interesting, and somewhat relevant quote:

It is often said of me – some intend it as a compliment, others as a complaint – that I write about a single subject: the Holocaust. I have no quarrel with that. Why shouldn’t I accept, with certain qualifications, the place assigned to me on the shelves of libraries? Which writer today is not a writer of the Holocaust? One does not have to choose the Holocaust as one’s subject to detect the broken voice that has dominated modern European art for decades. I will go so far as to say that I know of no genuine work of art that does not reflect this break. It is as if, after a night of terrible dreams, one looked around the world, defeated, helpless.

14 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re into the home stretch now . . . Through next Friday we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



Tranquility by Attila Bartis, translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein. (Romania/Hungary1, Archipelago)

There’s something amazing going on in Hungarian literature. For such a “small” language to have three books on our long list (this one plus the Imre Kertesz book and Metropole) the is pretty remarkable, and in addition there have been a slew of recently published (or reissued) Hungarian books, including works by Gyorgy Konrad, Peter Nadas, Peter Esterhazy, and my personal favorite, Sunflower by Gyula Krudy.

And it’s not like these are a bunch of random books—all of the above titles are high quality, unique, well-crafted works of literary fiction. Especially Tranquility.

Plot summaries rarely do a book justice, but in short, this novel is about Andor Weer, a thirty-six-year-old writer who lives with his mother (a formerly gorgeous stage actress) who hasn’t left the house in fifteen years. She’s bitter, a bit deranged, and pretty aggressive, especially towards Andor’s girlfriends. The two of them are trapped in a incredibly wicked Oedipal mess. On top of this, Andor’s sister Judit defected from Hungary to pursue her music career (this defection brought about the downfall of Rebeka’s stage career), leading their mother to literally bury an casket with all of Judit’s things in the cemetery.

In short, this is a dark, twisted book, and one that’s incredibly gripping and very well written and well translated. (No surprise—Imre Goldstein’s one of the best.) Told is a looping, achronological fashion, the horrors of Andor’s life are revealed bit by bit with a hint of dark humor and a sense that the world (at least for Andor) is total shit.

There’s a sample down by Tim Wilkinson available here, but this paragraph should provide a pretty good sense of the tone and style:

When the woman suggested cremation, I did waver for a moment because I remembered my mother’s hysterical poses, “Look, that’s how they sit up, all of them,” she would say, holding on to the chair by her bedside and showing me how corpses sat up in the oven; a few months earlier she had seen a documentary on the subject and since then she would mention it almost every morning, and I’d say to her, don’t worry Mother, you won’t be cremated, and be careful you’ll spill your tea; but in a few days she’d start all over again, that cremation was ungodly, and I knew she was afraid there would be no resurrection for cremated people, and that was really something, considering she had never in her damned life had anything to do with God. Lately she had demanded I swear she wouldn’t wind up in a crematorium; she forbade me to burn her, to which I replied that I’d swear to nothing and since, luckily, she was still ambulatory, she should go to the notary’s office and get a paper saying it was forbidden to burn her; that shut her up, because for fifteen years she’d been too scared to leave the apartment.

I love reading the way reviews have described the outpouring of horrors in this book—here’s a short sample:

There are certainly other writers who employ nonstop misery (Elfriede Jelinek comes to mind), but I think there’s a particular brand of humorless brutality to Bartis’s that sets it apart. For one thing, its ceaseless ferocity gives it a power, even a certain beauty. It’s not written to shock, or merely for the sake of writing in this manner. To many people (and artists especially) the world is a filthy fucking shithole and there’s no reason to cover that up with devices commonly used to take the sting out of this sort of writing. It perhaps takes a certain type of reader to enjoy an endless stream of pessimism and sourness, but for that type of reader Bartis’s novel is very rewarding. [Scott Bryan Wilson in Quarterly Conversation

“Tranquility” is a moving, emotionally complex, subtle, shocking novel — and the inadequacy of these words of praise might be overcome by considering imagery, such as the narrator’s “remembering how I crawled, like a creeper, upon the back of that woman. Like a slug on the wound of a decaying fruit tree.” Or this: “You live only as long as you can lie into the mug of anybody, and without batting an eye. And when you can’t anymore, well, it’s time to get hold of that razor blade.” Or this: “[The narrator’s mother’s] nakedness was like that of the dead, in whom only the corpse washer and God take any delight.” [Tom McGonigle in the L.A. Times

And maybe Brian Evenson puts it best in his blurb:

Reading like the bastard child of Thomas Bernhard and Elfriede Jelinek, Tranquility is political and personal suffering distilled perfectly and transformed into dark, viscid beauty. It is among the most haunted, most honest, and most human novels I have ever read.

I know I’m making this sound really dark, but amid all of the horrific imagery and overall pessimism is a truly beautiful, accomplished book. One that I think will be read for years to come, and the promising start to Bartis’s career in English translation.

(If you read this and want more Bartis, his short story Engelhard, or the Story of Photography is available online.)

1 Again with the footnotes and the disputable country of origin. One of the things that can be frustrating as a fan of international fiction is the overall lack of info about foreign authors. For example, Attila Bartis doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. So I’m relying entirely on the Archipelago author bio here. (Which includes the word “maverick”!)

Anyway, Attila Bartis was born in Romania, but currently lives in Budapest. His first novel came out in 1995, and he’s published at least one other book—a collection of short stories. He’s also been awarded the Tibor Dery Prize and the Sandor Marai Prize (for Tranquility).

9 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes. (Hungary, Telegram)

This novel is the international traveler’s worst nightmare. It’s the story of Budai, a linguist on his way to a conference in Helsinki, but who gets off the plane to find himself in a country he doesn’t recognize, where he doesn’t understand the language and where no one can understand him.

Budai’s struggles to find his way home—or at least out of this incomprehensible country—are claustrophobic and unnerving. The concept of being helplessly stuck in a situation where you can’t even figure out how to read the simplest of signs, and where no one can help you seems to me to be the worst situation an intelligent adult could ever be stuck in. And for this situation to persist—and remain compelling to the reader—for over 200-pages, with Budai making small intellectual advances that are followed by new situations of complete bafflement is quite an accomplish. A sort of insane, Kafka-esque accomplishment that may well drive some readers crazy, but an accomplishment nonetheless.

G. O. Chateaureynaud claimed that “with time, Metropole will find its due place in the twentieth-century library, on the same shelf as The Trial and 1984.“ The Kafka connection is obvious and mentioned in every review of this book, including Monica Carter’s review of Metropole will go live later today, and which does a fantastic job of capturing the reader’s somewhat horrifying experience of being trapped with Budai:

And so it goes with Budai, a horrific stream of missed opportunities that lead to deeper isolation. And as readers, we are just as trapped as he is. The long, unsettling paragraphs of description we cannot turn away from because Karinthy leads us to believe that there might be hope just on the other side of the page. But there never is. We want so much to help Budai, help him find a way out, all the while being disconcerted that we know we would not fare any better in the same situation. We know that if he does not escape this city he will run out of money, which he does. We know that he will lose his hotel room because of this, which he does. We know that he will not get his passport back annihilation any chance of escape, which he doesn’t. We feel just as isolated and suffocated as Budai caught in an existential urban nightmare where we merely exist, but don’t matter.

Written in 1970 and considered a modern classic in Europe, it is difficult to avoid comparing Karinthy to Kafka. It is, in fact, inevitable. Budai suffers humiliation, isolation, homelessness, loss of motivation, intellectual atrophy, brief imprisonment, loneliness that leads to lapses in his own morality, yet we never get to the apex of horror. Instead we drudge along on his degrading journey of imminent failures waiting for a moment of absolute despair or absolute hope. Because we never get either and so we encounter, ourselves, a sense of failure.

This is the first of Ferenc Karinthy’s (or, more properly, Karinthy Ferenc’s) books to be translated into English. Some brief info about a few of his other works is available on the Hungarian Literature website. (Though to be honest, none of the other works sound nearly as ambitious or unique as Metropole.)

Ferenc—who was, in addition to being a writer, a water polo champion—was the son of famous Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy. Frigyes is very well-known and respected in Hungary, and was the first proponent of the “six degrees of separation” concept. Which I believe is why he’s mentioned in the “book club extra” on the Lost Season 3 DVD . . . (As a sidenote, Frigyes’s Journey Around My Skull was recently reprinted by New York Review Books.)

On another side note, searching for additional information about Ferenc lead me to translator George Szirtes’s blog, which I didn’t know existed. Based solely on the quality of Szirtes’s translations—not the mention the quality of the authors he translates—this is definitely worth checking out.

24 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As has been mentioned elsewhere, the new issue of the Hungarian Quarterly is now available. (Some pieces are available online, but in most instances, there’s just a sample.)

There are quite a few interesting pieces, including an interview with Magda Szabó (whose most famous novel—The Door appears to be out-of-print on Amazon . . . Can this possibly be right?), and a “Close-Up” featuring called Doom and Gloom that begins:

I’ve often wondered what would happen were Hungary to slip off the face of the Earth from one day to the next. Would anyone care? Who’d mourn, who’d rejoice? What would the world stand to lose or gain from such an odd cataclysm?

Although it’s not really made explicit, this issue seems to have a special focus on Gyula Krudy. There’s a piece called Gyula Krúdy’s Visions of Unexpected Death, a couple short stories by him (Last Cigar at the Gray Arabian and The Journalist and Death) and a review of Ladies Day that came out from Corvina Press last year.

Krudy’s Sunflower came out from NYRB last year and was one of my favorite translations of 2007. (It actually made our Top 10 list.) The book is very strange and captivating, and definitely worth reading. Krudy’s Adventures of Sindbad is available here in the States, but that seems to be it . . . which is really unfortunate, since Ladies Day sounds so interesting and unique:

Hungary’s conflicted history—its shifting frontiers, drastic amputations of territory and population—has produced, George Szirtes suggests, a particular reaction in Hungarian writing—“an interest in the grotesque, the black joke, the magical gone wrong [my italics]”. That last thought might have been written—perhaps was written—with Gyula Krúdy’s extraordinary fictions especially in mind. Even more than Sunflower, the novel which immediately preceded it, Ladies Day, now available in John Batki’s American-English translation, is shot through with a queer magic, a disturbed energy of language, character and situation for which it’s hard to think of a parallel, in the Anglo-Saxon literatures, at least.

14 May 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

There really should be a RSS feed, or weekly summary, or title list recap, or something for the comments section of this Guardian blog feature. Every month the Guardian and its readers discusses literature from a particular country. Last month it was Germany, this month Hungary.

And every month we post about this, make silent promises to check in on a weekly basis to see which titles are being praised, and yet, and yet . . .

Thankfully, this first post about Hungary includes a brief recap of which authors came up during the German discussion. Most of the typical names were referenced: Mann, Heine, Holderlin, Hesse, Rilke, and Timm. Sasa Stanisic also got some praise for How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, which is especially interesting, since he was born in Serbia, but has spent half his life in Germany. (This book is coming out from Grove in the very near future, and, if 2666 doesn’t arrive today—please US Postal Service gods, please—is the book that I’m going to start reading tonight.)

Anyway, the discussion on Hungary should prove interesting. Although the host has only read Kertesz’s Fatelessness, there are actually a number of interesting Hungarian writers whose books are available in English. There are many more Kertesz books available, including a few from Melville House, and George Konrad is a very interesting writer. Laszlo Krasznahorkai is fascinating, and his The Melancholy of Resistance pretty amazing, and Sunflower by Gyula Krudy was one of my favorite books of 2007.

Good to see Hungarian lit getting some attention . . . Maybe Sara Kramer from NYRB really is on to something when she claimed that this would be the year of the Hungarians . . .

13 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Lucerne Festival started over the weekend, and Hungarian author Peter Esterhazy gave the opening speech. (Warning—link is to a pdf document.)

Like Esterhazy’s books, the speech is playful and intelligent, and engaged with ideas of History. Here’s a sample of an interesting bit from the end:

Europe is the land of variety – of various people, various languages, various traditions. Today’s individual sees a lot of the world, and when he does, he sees that his domestic customs, habits, ideals and myths are not necessarily superior to the others. As Henry James said, a person turns into a citizen of the world when all manner of customs appear equally shallow in his eyes. On the other hand, a tourist – and most of us are tourists – is not suited for getting to know things; a tourist is a man wedded to superficiality; a tourist sees only clichés: the Italians are loud and eat cats, the French are arrogant and eat snails, the Germans are fat and eat cabbage, and the Hungarians… but let’s not go into that, plus they eat gulyás. As for the Swiss, they don’t even exist.

The one thing that definitely exists is fiction. Only the implausible is real. A novel, words. A world made up of words says more about ourselves and others than all the accurate information gathered by a conscientious tourist. The real accuracy is the novel’s accuracy; it is knowledge that can be put to good use, the knowledge of the Dutch horsts and the knowledge of the Swiss plains. Writing a Hungarian novel about these things this could be the so-called Lucerne Plan, to look at the world with this lack of constraint, this freedom, and with this constraint and boundary. – with this beautiful European complexity.

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