As with years past, we’re going to spend the next week 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.
Kafka’s Leopards by Moacyr Scliar, translated by Thomas O. Beebee
Publisher: Texas Tech University Press
Why This Book Should Win: Texas Tech’s “The Americas” series has been quietly putting together a fantastic list of Latin American authors, and this would thrust them (deservedly) into the spotlight. Plus, Scliar died last year, and for some reason that makes me feel like he deserves some special recognition.
Kafka’s Leopards is a short (96 page) novella that happens to be one of the most entertaining books on this year’s longlist. It centers around the character of Mousy, who, when he was growing up near Odessa in the early part of the twentieth century, got involved with a group of Trotskyites, mainly through the influence of his radical friend Yossi. (As you do. I mean, seriously, who wouldn’t want to participate in a revolution?)
In fact, Yossi had met THE Leon Trotsky, and Trotsky had entrusted him carrying out a secret radical act. But when Yossi comes down with a terrible illness, he asks Mousy to stand in for him, and travel to Prague where he’s to meet a revolutionary writer who will give him a message that will explain what he’s supposed to do next.
Anyway, novella-length story short, Mousy loses all the necessary information on the train (revolutionaries are so disorganized) and tries to puzzle out what he’s supposed to do. Which leads him to calling up a one Franz Kafka and asking for the text.
Lots of mistaken identity mishaps ensue, but Mousy is eventually given Kafka’s “Leopards in the Temple” aphorism which he believes he’s supposed to interpret in order to fulfill his mission. In a slick move that draws attention to the situation of translation in an interesting way, Mousy can’t read this and takes it to a old Jewish man at a synagogue who interprets it for him:
He outlined the story in Yiddish. Mousy learned that the leopards broke into the temple and drank the contents of the sacrificial chalices to the last drop; that this was repeated so often that in the end everyone knew it would happen, and that finally the scene became part of the ritual.
Naturally, more mishaps occur, and the adventure-story aspect explodes as Mousy tries to makes sense of this aphorism in a way that connects the text with the city of Prague with the Russian Revolution. Told with a deftness that is both sincere and light with comedy, this part of the novella is extremely fun to read, and must’ve been fun to translate as well. (Goes without saying, seeing that this award focuses on the “best translations,” but Thomas Beebee’s translation is very admirable, mostly for the way in which he emphasizes the sort of joyful, playful tone that runs throughout this book of constant failures.)
To make this more interesting, it’s worth nothing that Mousy’s story is really only the subplot . . . The novella has a frame narrative involving one of Mousy’s relatives, and their revolutionary troubles in 1965.
For such a quick, enjoyable read, there are a lot of levels to this novella that make it a rich, rewarding work. I’ll let Thomas Beebee explain via this bit from his wonderful introduction:
In Kafka’s Leopards, Scliar has created a story that addresses themes of Brazilian and European history, Jewish writing, the travels of literature, and fundamental questions of reading, such as how the rightness or wrongness of a literary interpretation is to be judged. Scliar’s text becomes in this regard as self-referential and critifictional as a short story by J. L. Borges, a novel by Italo Calvino—or a Kafka text such as “The Silence of the Sirens” or “The Truth about Sancho Panza.” Mousy’s story is one of a series of textual and interpretive substitutions, as he moves from Torah to The Communist Manifesto to the Kafka aphorism. That aphorism becomes different things to different people in different contexts. Not only the meaning, but the very genre of the text changes. Mousy takes it to be a revolutionary message in code, but explains it to the shammes as a puzzle he must solve for a contest. Conversely, Mousy goes to Prague under another name, and is constantly take by others in the text, from the sinister desk clerk at the hotel to the sympathetic Bertha, for something other than what he is. Mousy’s brief stay in Prague becomes a giant, dialectical game of interpreting and being interpreted.
On top of all these serious reasons for why this book should win, it’s also a beautiful edition, and Irene Vilar—who edits the whole series—is a wonderful advocate for international literature: two more valid reasons why we could be crowning this book as the 2012 champion on May 4th.
Now that the 8th book in the Americas Series from Texas Tech has arrived, it seems like an opportune time to bring some attention to Irene Vilar’s exciting project.
Irene used to run this series out of the University of Wisconsin Press back in the early 2000s, but after leaving and writing a memoir (Impossible Motherhood, available from Other Press), she relaunched The Americas at Texas Tech with the publication of David Toscana’s The Last Reader, transated by Asa Zatz.
(Quick “let’s make fun of people who don’t understand the Internets” moment: I wanted to see which books ended up in the Wisconsin version of this series—I believe the Jorge Amado books were in this, but I can’t remember the others—so I visited this UWP page. Click on the link for “a list of the books in this series.” I dare you.)
The Last Reader sounds fantastic (see this earlier post), as do all of the other titles. Here’s a quick rundown of the ones I’m most interested in:
The Origin of Species and Other Poems by Ernesto Cardenal, translated from the Spanish by John Lyons.
Cardenal is considered by many to be one of Latin America’s greatest contemporary poets, and his work has been getting a lot of love of late. Pluriverse came out from New Directions a couple years back (see our review here), and did a great job encapsulating Cardenal’s 56-year career. This new book will likely get a ton of attention (more on that as it happens), and because of the new publication, Cardenal will be going on an extensive U.S. tour. (Check our translation events calendar for more specifics.)
The War in Bom Fim by Moacyr Scliar, translation from the Portuguese by David William Foster
Scliar—who passed away in February—is one of Brazil’s most beloved writers. A few of his books came out in the classic Avon series of Latin American authors, and a few others popped up here and there from a variety of presses, but I feel like his work has been underappreciated here in the States, and instead, he’s most known for thinking of suing Yann Martel for ripping his ass off for Life of Pi.
The War in Bom Fim sounds like a lot of fun (and will be the first of the series that I’m going to read and review):
What if, as David William Foster poses in his introduction to Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar’s novel, the Germans did choose to invade the Americas in the second World War? What if the Luftwaffe did plan to bomb American cities? [. . .]
With playful irony, homage to the Jewish folktale, a touch of magical realism, and keen insight into the customs and characters of this Yiddish-speaking melting pot, Scliar spins a fable of an imaginary war waged by the youngsters of Bom Fim. Brothers Nathan and Joel and their gang defend their quarter against a pretend German military invasion, while their parents deal with the quarrels and worries of the adult world. But which is more real? In Scliar’s richly layered fantasy Carnival and Pesach, Nazi and Jew, the consumer and the consumed, the grotesque and the quotidian intermingle unexpectedly amid the kitchens and alleys of Bom Fim.
The Fist Child by Lucia Puenzo, translated from the Spanish by David William Foster
Puenzo is a writer and filmmaker (she received a lot of praise of XXY as mentioned in our Granta post) and the movie adaptation of The Fish Child appeared at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival. Here’s the trailer:
Symphony in White by Adriana Lisboa, translated from the Portuguese by Sarah Green
Hut of Fallen Persimmons by Adriana Lisboa, translated from the Portuguese by Sarah Green
Both Lisboa books sound really interesting, and we have a forthcoming review of Symphony in White, which won the Jose Saramago Prize in 2003. Symphony in White focuses on two sisters, a “swirl of dark secrets,” and the “unspoken atrocities of the military dictatorship holding sway in their country.”
Hut of Fallen Persimmons just arrived the other week, and tells the story of Haruki and Celina’s trip to Japan. “Their trip to Kyoto provides a context for each to meditate on the past, their feelings for each other, and the questions of cultural difference. Through a counterpoint of narration and text, the pair’s losses and struggles gradually unfold.”
All with striking covers, these eight books make a fantastic collection. And I’m really looking forward to all the books Irene ends up including in the series. With a brilliant advisory board I have a lot of faith in the future of this series.
A few months ago we posted about the University of Texas Press’s decision to relaunch its Latin American literature in translation series. (And at some point soon we’ll have a full review of the first new title in the series, And Let the Earth Tremble at its Centers by Gonzalo Celorio.)
Well on Friday I found out that Texas Tech University Press is taking over The Americas series, which Irene Vilar launched at the University of Wisconsin some years ago. Irene is a successful author in her own right (The Ladies’ Gallery was translated by Gregory Rabassa to critical acclaim and her new memoir, Impossible Motherhood, will be out from Other Press later this year), and has put together a killer advisory board and is relaunching the series with a number of interesting titles.
Up first is David Toscana’s The Last Reader (translated from the Spanish by Asa Zatz), which releases in October and sounds interesting:
In tiny Icamole, an almost deserted village in Mexico’s desert north, the librarian, Lucio, is also the village’s only reader. Though it has not rained for a year in Icamole, when Lucio’s son Remigio draws the body of a thirteen-year-old girl from his well, floodgates open on dark possibility. Strangely enamored of the dead girl’s beauty and fearing implication, Remigio turns desperately to his father. Persuading his son to bury the body, Lucio baptizes the girl Babette, after the heroine of a favorite novel. Is Lucio the keeper of too many stories? As police begin to investigate, has he lost his footing? Or do revelation and resolution lie with other characters and plots from his library? Toscana displays brilliant mastery of the novel—in all its elements—as Lucio keeps every last reader guessing.
Other forthcoming novels in the series include Breathing, In Dust by Tim Z. Hernandez, Symphony in White by Brazilian author Adriana Lisboa (and translated by Sarah Green), and Chango, the Baddest Dude by Colombian author Manuel Zapata Olivella (and translated by Jonathan Tittler). All of these sound really interesting—especially the Lisboa. She was selected by the organizers of the Bogota World Book Capital as one of the thirty-nine highest-profile Latin American writers under the age of thirty-nine, and she also won the Jose Saramago Fiction Prize for Symphony in White.
More importantly, it’s great to see this series coming back to life, and to see Texas continue to be one of the hotspots for translation.
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